Hartford Courant on 17 March 2017

Our Differences Don't Define Us:

by Jeff Benedict

Family, Friends Transcend Politics

Our Differences Don't Define Us:
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“Dad, I want to go to the Women’s March to protest against Donald Trump.” It was Inauguration Day, and my 14-year-old daughter, Maggie May, wearing a “nasty women make history” T-shirt, was determined.

“Can we go, Dad?” my 10-year-old daughter, Clara Belle, chimed in.

They were armed with poster board and Sharpies. “I can’t wait,” I said.

Little did I know that our act of civic involvement and political protest would expose the frayed, even hostile sensibilities that pull at the ties of family and friends and cause strangers to hurl invectives. I was about to see how hard we must work to make sure our differences don’t define us.

The next day, my entire family marched through Manhattan with 400,000 protesters — women in pink hats, soldiers in uniform, activists, clergy, millennials, families with kids. When we reached the police barricades outside President Donald Trump’s $100 million penthouse suite atop Trump Tower, our voices pulsed off the buildings and echoed down Fifth Avenue.

When my wife and I posted a couple video clips and pictures on social media, many friends expressed support. But not all of our friends and family approved. One questioned our fitness as parents for exposing our children to “rioting and vandalism.” A relative called and chastised us for not getting behind the president. I even got an instant message from an acquaintance who said it was “sad” that we had “sent our daughters” to a march that undermined our democracy.

Hmm. Rioting and vandalism? I spoke to more than a dozen police officers at different points along the parade route. Despite the overwhelming crowd size, there were zero reported arrests and no evidence of property destruction. One cop told me: “I see more action at a Yankee-Red Sox game.”

The push-back from some friends and family was not pleasant. But this was one of my best days as a parent. For my children, it was an unforgettable civics lesson in participatory democracy. There was freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and nonviolent resistance. Journalists photographed my daughter with her sign: “Rosa, Eleanor, Amelia, Me.” She beamed, and so did I.

At one point, I spotted a middle-aged white man wearing a red “Make America Great Again” cap. Leaning against a barricade, all alone in a sea of protesters, he looked the way I felt on the morning after the election — sad and bewildered, like a stranger in a strange land.

I approached him and extended my hand over the barricade. “I really admire you for being out here today,” I said.

“Thank you for saying that,” he responded, shaking my hand. “Thank you.”

“Well, I’m glad you came.”

I said nothing profound. But at a time when the country is so divided, I simply wanted to extend a hand rather than point a finger.

My kids asked me why I did that. I explained that when I see a guy in a Trump cap I don’t see an enemy. I see a fellow American. Actually, I see my brother, my cousin, my uncle, one of my mentors, a best friend and a guy who is doing some work on my house. I know a lot of people — people I love and respect — who don’t see Trump the way I do.

My perspective on Trump comes from personal experience. I helped lead a bare-knuckle political and legal battle against Trump when he tried to build a casino in Connecticut. I even testified against him before a congressional committee investigating the gambling industry’s use of money to influence Washington. Separately, I later wrote about his efforts to use eminent domain to force an elderly widow from her Atlantic City home to make way for a limousine parking lot.

But I don’t think my view is the only view. As a journalist, I have a simple self-imposed rule: listen, don’t judge. It has served me well as a writer. When conducting an interview, I learn and understand more when I say less. It’s hard to listen while preaching.

When it comes to my friends and colleagues who support Trump, I’ve taken my journalism rule and applied it to politics. In other words, rather than trying to get Trump supporters to see it my way, I’ve been listening to dozens of them in an attempt to see it their way. Neither side is changing, but I prefer dialogue over insults.

If the first month of Trump’s administration is a preview of things to come, it’s going to be a very long, destructive four years. An un-American travel ban that targets a religious minority. Declaring the press “an enemy of the American people.” Going after judges. Undercutting American intelligence officials after they exposed Russian hacking intended to influence the outcome of the election.

Even those who voted for Trump because they wanted change — the “drain the swamp” crowd — do not want what is happening now. “It has become impossible to defend his incendiary actions,” one Connecticut business executive who voted for him told me. “Honest people, even his most ardent supporters, can see we are teetering.”

But the behavior that concerns me most is how quickly Trump’s methods are ruining diplomatic relations with our neighbors and allies — Mexico, Australia, Sweden to name a few. America can’t afford to make enemies with its friends. Similarly, it’s not worth severing longstanding relations over political differences. Family and friends will be around a lot longer than Donald Trump.