In our darkest crises, there are moments of leadership that illuminate our humanity and light the path forward. Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural proclaiming “malice towards none, with charity for all.” Franklin Roosevelt gave his “nothing to fear” address lifting us from the trauma of the Great Depression. John Kennedy had his Sputnik moment inspiring us to land on the moon by the end of the decade. Ronald Reagan consoled the nation after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
In the unrest today, there is Aliyah Steinberg of Long Island, who turned her despair into a teachable moment on social media. If a president is not able to do the job, someone else must. Aliyah is a teenager who grew up in a quiet suburban neighborhood of mostly police officers, firefighters, teachers, lawyers, and accountants who gather with their children on Little League diamonds, soccer fields, and school plays.
I used to represent her district in Congress and know the residents. They are moderate voters near the center of the political spectrum. As Aliyah watched the grotesque footage of a cop kneeling on George Floyd, she was triggered to speak out. She told me that it brought up a trauma she had experienced this year with a group of friends. “One of my friends told me to go to Auschwitz, and not one of my other friends spoke up. I was more hurt by the silence than the actual words.”
The images from Minnesota made her feel broken. Her voice quivering, she told me, “I am Jewish and can blend in anywhere. But you cannot hide the skin color of your skin. I realize that my black friends go through this every day.” As she grappled with how to respond, she remembered how it felt when her friends were silent. “I could not do that.”
Aliyah texted her friends and family and asked them to record a video raising their fists and declaring “black lives matter.” She combined the responses on a movie making app on her smartphone. “I wanted to use kids only. Obviously many of the protests out there are getting violent, and it is unsafe for kids to go to the front lines as much as we would like to. I wanted to find a way for my friends to take a stand.”
Her original plan was to post the video on Instagram and attract “three comments and a maybe hundred likes.” Almost immediately the count soared past 500 views. Not exactly Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown Laura Ingraham 'not saying' if she'd support Trump in 2024 The Hill's 12:30 Report: Djokovic may not compete in French Open over vaccine requirement MORE numbers, but it was exponentially higher than anything she had ever done. She wisely notes, “It should not even be about the number of followers or likes that you have. That is just a trend. We need a real movement.”
There is geographic irony in her project. Three years ago, a few miles from her home, Trump gave a speech mocking police officers for protecting the heads of suspects as they placed them in cruisers. To a jeering crowd he said, “You can take your hand away.” I doubt he was referring to the list of his own associates who have been arrested and sentenced. Those white collar guys always get the white glove treatment.
In contrast to his predecessors, this president has a dark compulsion to exacerbate rather than ameliorate. He does not pour salt in our wounds. He douses them with acidic tweets. Pundits argue that it is all part of a calculated political strategy to keep his base energized. But that lets him off the hook. It is not just a calculated political strategy. It is who he is, a man who seems to get a high out of boots on necks, whether it is police misconduct against African Americans, mocking disabled people, degrading women, or separating families at the border.
In his book published earlier this year, Republican political operative Rick Wilson warns, “Do not, as my party did, underestimate the evil, desperate nature of evil, desperate people. There is no bottom. There is no shame. There are no limits.” This means we are on our own in how we respond to national injustice. We have seen glimmers of real Americans in the past few days, such as the white police officer who embraced a young black protester and the cops who knelt in solidarity.
Whether these flickers of hope are extinguished remains a question. For the moment, they were welcome and heartening, marking a respite from an otherwise dispiriting view of the nation. But we must contend with a president who acts like a depraved bully and high school students who act like decent leaders. At least the future is bright.
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and was the chairman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.