Like Sula, Trump Unites Old Opponents


One of the many surprises during Donald Trump’s first year has been the way that the left and the non-Trump right have learned to talk to each other. People with whom I have disagreed strenuously in the past I now take seriously, figures like Jennifer Rubin, David Frum, Max Boot, Michael Steele, Nicolle Wallace, Rick Wilson, and others. Trump has brought us together in ways that, during the Obama years, would have seemed impossible.

These figures have moved to the left and I have moved to the right. They are calling out Trump Republicans for their racism and sexism and I am seeing the need for a strong FBI and patriotic rituals to preserve democracy. In the past, we focused on our differences, but those differences seem self-indulgent in light of Trump’s authoritarian threat. We are like Toni Morrison’s black community when confronted with Sula.

Sula is the mean girl in Morrison’s novel by that name. She casually watches her mother burn, kicks her grandmother out of the house she built, sleeps with her best friend’s husband, and manages to alienate virtually everyone she encounters. Yet in an unexpected reversal, she has a beneficial effect. Because of Sula, the town focuses on what is most important:

Their conviction of Sula’s evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another. They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in general band together against the devil in their midst. 

To cite one instance, an abusive mother who believes Sula has attacked her child suddenly changes her ways:

She became the most devoted mother: sober, clean and industrious. No more nickels for Teapot to go to Dick’s for a breakfast of Mr. Goodbars and soda pop: no more long hours of him alone or wandering the roads while she was otherwise engaged. Her change was a distinct improvement…

The improvement lasts only as long as Sula is alive, however. Once she dies, the situation reverts to normal:

Hard on the heels of the general relief that Sula’s death brought a restless irritability took hold. Teapot, for example, went into the kitchen and asked his mother for some sugar-butter-bread. She got up to fix it and found that she had no butter, only oleomargarine. Too tired to mix the saffron-colored powder into the hard cake of oleo, she simply smeared the white stuff on the bread and sprinkled the sugar over it. Teapot tasted the difference and refused to eat it. This keenest of insults that a mother can feel, the rejection by a child of her food, bent her into fury and she beat him as she had not done since Sula knocked him down the steps. She was not alone. Other mothers who had defended their children from Sula’s malevolence (or who had defended their positions as mothers from Sula’s scorn for the role) now had nothing to rub up against. The tension was gone and so was the reason for the effort they had made. Without her mockery, affection for others sank into flaccid disrepair. Daughters who had complained bitterly about the responsibilities of taking care of their aged mothers-in-law had altered when Sula locked Eva away, and they began cleaning those old women’s spittoons without a murmur. Now that Sula was dead and done with, they returned to a steeping resentment of the burdens of old people. Wives uncoddled their husbands; there seemed no further need to reinforce their vanity. And even those Negroes who had moved down from Canada to Medallion, who remarked every chance they got that they had never been slaves, felt a loosening of the reactionary compassion for Southern-born blacks Sula had inspired in them. They returned to their original claims of superiority.

I’ve heard more than one pair of left-right commentators long for a post-Trump future when they can return to their old debates, which would be a sign that both parties are operating as they should. In that event, will we forget, as the Medallion townsfolk do, the mutual love and respect that is possible? Perhaps. I like to think, however, that Morrison’s community never entirely forgets the love they discovered when Sula was commanding center stage.

To riff off of Queen Elizabeth I’s observation about Catholics, Protestants, and “one Christ, Jesus, one faith,” perhaps Democrats and Republican moderates can embrace the idea that there is only one United States of America and that “all else is a dispute over trifles.”

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