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Politics & Government

Writer Liel Leibovitz Calls Trump's Victory 'A Moral Crisis'

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Liel Leibovitz's grandfather Siegfried moved from a village in Romania to the city of Vienna in the 1930s to go to music conservatory. He spent time in the city's famous coffee shops with people like Sigmund Freud. And then one day, he left.

LIEL LEIBOVITZ: At some point in the very early on in the Nazi uprising, he just turned to his friends and said I'm leaving. I'm taking my two young sisters and I'm going to Palestine. And they sort of looked at him like he was mad. They said, you know, you're going to give up these, you know, cosmopolitan dreams and success in Vienna. And he said, you know, I'm a simple Jew. People tell me they hate me, I believe them. And he left.

MCEVERS: And eventually, the relatives he left behind were killed. Liebovitz has been thinking about his grandfather Siegfried a lot this week, and he's written about him in Tablet Magazine in a piece called "What To Do About Trump." While the U.S. today is not the same as Europe in the '30s, he said there are some things he has learned from his grandfather's experience. Siegfried died when Liel was young, but I asked him to tell me what he remembers.

LEIBOVITZ: He was a sort of very old-world person, you know, a loving, warm man with very strong moral principles that he - you know, he left me very little except for a very peculiar turn-of-the-century taste in music and these clear moral convictions for which at this moment in time, I am deeply grateful.

MCEVERS: I guess I want to understand a little bit of, like, what it was like in Vienna at the time. Like, what is it that he saw that other people didn't see?

LEIBOVITZ: You know, I believe that other people were sophisticated. I believe that other people thought that they were better understanding the situation, that they were reading the tea leaves more clearly, that they were seeing nuance that once these thugs were in power, things would change. Siegfried was, for better or worse, a simple honest man. And I really don't think there was any deep insight. I really just think that he believed them.

MCEVERS: It was just his gut reaction.

LEIBOVITZ: It was his gut reaction. Someone says, you know, dirty Jew get out, and he says, OK, well, I will.

MCEVERS: So what about the election of Donald Trump made you think of Siegfried?

LEIBOVITZ: You know, I have to place a caveat here. I think historical analogies under the best circumstances are flawed.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

LEIBOVITZ: And I think any comparison between us and Vienna in the '30s and Trump and Hitler is both ridiculous and odious. But I think that in Siegfried's life lessons, I kind of glean three principles that really resonated with me.

MCEVERS: Well, let's run through those.

LEIBOVITZ: So the first is, you know, treat every poisoned word as a promise. Don't try to analyze, overthink it, kind of really try to get down to the bottom of things. If someone says hateful, horrible things, if someone threatens hateful, horrible actions, believe them.

The second principle is treat people like adults. Treat people with respect. Do not condescend to them, which means hold them accountable for the consequences of their actions and demand that they behave like citizens.

MCEVERS: And you mean in particular people who voted for Donald Trump, you treat them as adults to, you know, take them at their word. They did this, you know, don't think, oh, they just didn't know what they were doing. Is that what you mean?

LEIBOVITZ: That's right. They are adults who made a choice.

MCEVERS: The third piece of advice that you take from your grandfather is refuse to accept what's going on as the new normal. What do you mean?

LEIBOVITZ: I mean that people may evoke nuance, they may argue quite reasonably that some of the things that this administration does - it may not be so terrible, that some of the appointments that they make may be quite good. All that is possible, but I don't believe that this is a political challenge. This is a moral crisis.

MCEVERS: But, like, millions of people - millions of people made this choice, and to say that their choice is a moral crisis is going to be alienating.

LEIBOVITZ: I understand that. And yet I think at the same time, saying that this sort of decision, the decision to look at a political candidate and decide that talk of registering people based on their faith or disqualifying judges based on their ethnicity is not a deal-breaker, that is something that if we treat those Trump voters like adults, like responsible adults, we need to hold them accountable for.

Now I am all hope, and in fact I firmly believe because I believe that the people of this country are truly very good, I believe that many people, including many people who voted for Donald Trump, would join this great awakening that we've been having this past week and a half and begin to mend all that has been torn.

MCEVERS: Has it crossed your mind to do like your grandfather did and leave?

LEIBOVITZ: I did that already (laughter). I was born in Israel...

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

LEIBOVITZ: ...And I left to come here. I left to come here because I believed this was the single-greatest country in the world where I could fashion a future for my children that would make my grandfather's vision and my own proud. And I am not leaving again. I'm staying and fighting.

MCEVERS: Liel Leibovitz, thank you so much.

LEIBOVITZ: My pleasure.

MCEVERS: Liel Liebovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and co-host of its podcast Unorthodox. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.