Former U.S. Sen. John Danforth: Let’s fix our toxic politics

When Eric Greitens posted his April 25 tweet, I thought, “This is the craziest thing I have ever seen.”

He was on a shooting range with Donald Trump, Jr., first firing what appeared to be an AR-15, next a handgun with the audio messages, “Striking fear in the hearts of liberals,” and, “Liberals beware.”

May 25 was even crazier, when he emailed the same tweet to his supporters, this time on the day after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

But June 20, Greitens outdid himself. He posted a video showing him with a camouflage-clad combat team breaking down the door of a home and firing heavy weapons before saying: “Join the MAGA crew. Get a RINO hunting permit.”

His short video was a scene out of a horror movie, and his message was unmistakable. In the wake of Uvalde and Buffalo and so much more, Greitens encouraged his supporters to take guns in hand and go hunting for fellow humans, his political opponents.

Perhaps the Greitens message shouldn’t surprise us as it comes from a man who, according to both his ex-wife and ex-lover, is personally given to violence. What should surprise us is that it appeals to Republicans who have put Greitens at or near the lead in the race for our Senate nomination.

But maybe not.

While Greitens’ ads are the most extreme in the Senate contest, his theme isn’t unusual at all. Even short of descending into violence as on Jan. 6, the current trend in politics is to treat adversaries as enemies we should attack, not as opponents we should respect.

Notice how often the words “fight” and “fighter” are used by candidates these days. In a recent campaign solicitation I received, “fight” or its derivative appeared three times in a single sentence. It’s as though there is no room for reasonable disagreement and certainly no room for compromise.

This is the state of affairs today, and it has made politics as we have previously understood it — a place to address and hopefully resolve our disagreements — unworkable.

It has rendered the U.S. Senate, where I had the privilege of serving for 18 years, dysfunctional. Here’s a question you might consider: What are senators actually doing these days besides issuing statements saying how angry they are?

It would be bad enough if this state of rage were contained within the world of professional politics. Unfortunately it is not. It has metastasized into our interpersonal relations.

Most of us know families and friendships that have broken up because of politics. I know a young woman whose father ended a phone call over politics and hasn’t spoken to her in two years. I know another whose mother disinvited her to a family Christmas gathering for the same reason. Then there is the 35-40% of partisans who don't want their children to marry someone in the other party and the 33% of college students who “unfriended” those who voted for the wrong candidate.

For the health of our personal lives and certainly for the good of America, we must end this constant fighting. It won’t be enough to think as I did that the Greitens tweets were crazy. We will have to do something. To this purpose, we can find inspiration in the illustrious history of our nation.

Former close friends John Adams and Thomas Jefferson became so angry about the election of 1800 that they didn’t speak for 12 years. Then they were reconciled and ended their lives in a warm and respectful friendship.

In 1861, after seven southern states had seceded from the Union, Abraham Lincoln pleaded for national unity: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”

James Madison not only understood political disagreements, he welcomed them, believing that offsetting one another they would protect us against tyranny.

From our beginning, a great project of America has been to hold ourselves together, with all our differences, as one united country. We honor this with our motto, e pluribus unum; we are many different people, and we are one. We pledge allegiance to one indivisible nation.

Today, the standard tactic of politics is to cast aside our great project of national unity and drive us apart. That tactic is pursued by “fighters” who on the left put our different identities above our common identity, and on the right claim that we shouldn’t trust that our leaders were legitimately elected.

The work of holding ourselves together as one people must be both political and personal. Politically we must elect candidates who reject the politics of division, and will commit themselves to work across our differences and hold America together.

Personally, we must commit ourselves to the reality that family and friendships are more important than politics.

John C. Danforth, a Republican, served three terms as Missouri's U.S. senator from 1976 to 1995 and as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush.

This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Former U.S. Sen. John Danforth: Let’s fix our toxic politics