The oh-too-rare case of loving political foes

In a surprise essay, a former FBI official hounded by the president explains why he loves both Trump and his supporters.

Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shake hands after a speech before Congress by the NATO Secretary General on April 3.

Many Republicans wonder why President Donald Trump has not tweeted a personal attack against Nancy Pelosi and even meets with her frequently. Does he actually like the House speaker?

Among Democrats, former Vice President Joe Biden is similarly singled out for his tributes to the character or likability of prominent Republicans, from Dick Cheney to William Barr. At the funeral for Sen. John McCain, he said, “I loved John McCain.” He took particular flak earlier this year for calling Vice President Mike Pence “a decent guy.” Some pundits predict Mr. Biden’s aisle-crossing good nature will doom him in the primaries for failing a purity test among party stalwarts.

In today’s call-out culture – when four out of 10 people view those in the other party as “downright evil” – it is becoming news when leaders show a love for others despite a sharp divide over policies, personal traits, rules of engagement, or even basic facts. Their actions often go beyond civility or mere tolerance. They listen with a warm heart to the deeper worries of opponents and, without Machiavellian pretense, admire the good in them. They separate people from their actions and motives to really care for their future or express gratitude for their existence, even for possibly teaching something worthwhile.

The latest example of this rare species in Washington is Jim Baker, who recently resigned as the FBI general counsel. He experienced strong disagreements with the Trump White House and took abuse from the president for simply doing nonpartisan work in the agency. Last week Mr. Baker posted an essay on the Lawfare blog despite objections from friends and colleagues. It is titled “Why I Do Not Hate Donald Trump.”

He wrote, “I will try to love him as a human being. I will try to love his family. And most importantly, I will try to love his supporters – all of them. Loving Donald Trump and loving his supporters is the best way for me to love America and to honor those who sacrificed so much for my freedom.” Mr. Baker does not even want to define Mr. Trump as an enemy in order to then love him in a Christian-style response.

Similar words can often be heard from presidential candidate Cory Booker. When goaded recently by Mr. Trump in a tweet, the Democratic senator responded with sincerity, “I love you Donald Trump,” while promising to defeat the president in the 2020 election.

Such people like to quote Martin Luther King Jr.’s advice that “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” But what can that love really look like when the norm in today’s tribal politics is contempt and dehumanization?

In a new book, “Love Your Enemies,” scholar Arthur C. Brooks says the best “contempt killer” is gratitude toward those with whom you disagree. It offers them dignity and makes them feel heard, which can diminish the fears and sadness driving bile emotions. While you may not like a person or their views, gratitude shows you empathize and respect them. It reduces a desire for social distance from those who offend one’s morality.

“Your opportunity when treated with contempt is to change at least one heart – yours,” Mr. Brooks writes. “You may not be able to control the actions of others, but you can absolutely control your reaction.”

Might Mr. Baker’s essay on loving Mr. Trump mark a turning point away from America’s descent into the politics of personal contempt? As the presidential race heats up, voters can choose to gravitate toward candidates who honor rather than hound opponents with howls of derision. In politics, love isn’t blind. It can melt hate.

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