Fred Rogers would’ve turned 95 on Monday. It has been 20 years since he died, but the man who took decades of children through the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, teaching them to respect and love others, remains almost a synonym for kindness.
He once said, “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”
But the America the creator and namesake of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” inhabited is not the America of today. Had he lived to see this moment in our history, I fear his reputation, at least in Republican circles, would’ve been less beloved and more “woke.”
Is there a place for Mister-Rogers-style kindness in Trump’s Republican Party?
Consider the way Rogers would close each episode of his long-running children’s program: “There’s only one person in this whole world like you. And people can like you exactly as you are.”
In an era of snarling Republican politicians like former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a sentiment like that might be seen as weak. Or woke. It sounds in line with the “radical leftist ideology” the two men are incessantly going on about.
In a video statement released Thursday, Trump, vying for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, described a swath of his fellow Americans, namely liberals, as “Marxists who would have us become a godless nation worshiping at the altar of race and gender and environment.”
Trickle-down cruelty is anathema to Mister Rogers’ legacy
Earlier this month he even slammed mainstream conservatives, saying that before he became president, the Republican Party “was ruled by freaks, neocons, globalists, open-border zealots and fools.”
From Trump has come trickle-down cruelty, and the party’s voices of decency are drowned out daily by the likes of Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz, to name a few. It seems there’s little room in today’s Republican Party to, as Mister Rogers suggested, like people exactly as they are.
Republicans are silencing differences, not celebrating them
Across the country, Republican lawmakers have introduced about 150 bills targeting transgender rights, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Republican legislatures continue to push bills that restrict voting rights in ways that primarily impact minority communities.
And according to researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law, since September 2020, more than 200 local, state and federal entities have introduced more than 600 “anti-Critical Race Theory bills, resolutions, executive orders, opinion letters, statements, and other measures.”
Those who are “different” – transgender people, immigrants, people of color who want history classes to reflect their experiences as well – are treated as others. Republicans write laws to make them outliers, build walls to keep them out and chastise teachers – teachers, of all people – who try to help children understand ideas like diversity and equity and inclusion.
Those three words, now treated as one swear word – DEI! — by people like DeSantis, encapsulate much of what Mister Rogers believed and encouraged.
“We want to raise our children so that they can take a sense of pleasure in both their own heritage and the diversity of others,” he said.
Would DeSantis want to be Mister Rogers’ neighbor?
In Florida, Republican lawmakers, at the behest of DeSantis, are pushing a bill that would ban state colleges and universities from using state or federal funds to “promote, support, or maintain any programs or campus activities” that “advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
That’s quite a few steps removed from, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
Rogers once told Education World: “When children learn more about one another, and when they know their teachers recognize and celebrate their differences, they are more likely to feel a sense of community in the classroom.”
Inclusion was his brand. In 1969, when Black people were still unwelcome in some public pools in America, Rogers deftly sent a message, inviting one of his recurring characters, Officer Clemmons, who is African American, to dip his feet in a kiddie pool with him, even offering to share his towel.
Mister Rogers was, in fact, a Florida man
Now Florida, like many red states, is trying to limit how the history of racism in America is taught, forgetting this bit of Rogers’ wisdom: “Who we are in the present includes who we were in the past.”
Rogers loved Florida. He went to Rollins College in Winter Park, where he met his wife. They returned regularly to escape the winter cold of their home in Pittsburgh.
He was also a Republican, albeit a quiet one. Rogers never wanted politics seeping into his work.
But I wonder: Would his message of kindness resonate with as broad an audience today? What would Fox News do with a man who spoke softly and said things like, “There is no person in this whole world who is a mistake, no matter how different that person may seem”?
Fred Rogers never called anyone ‘a groomer’
When DeSantis was pushing a bill that prohibits teachers from discussing “gender identity or sexual orientation” to children up to third grade or, more vaguely, when it’s “not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate,” a spokesperson labeled anyone opposing the bill “a groomer.”
Rogers once said: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.” How quickly would today’s right-wing label him a groomer?
‘Our ultimate responsibility’
In a vile political stunt last year, DeSantis filled a plane with migrants, including children, flew them from Texas and dumped them in Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
How does that line up with Rogers saying: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ “
Or this: “All we’re ever asked to do in this life is to treat our neighbor – especially our neighbor who is in need – exactly as we would hope to be treated ourselves. That’s our ultimate responsibility.”
Or this: “I think those who try to make you feel less than you are – that’s the greatest evil.”
Perhaps we can honor Mister Rogers by helping kindness win out
I miss Mister Rogers. I miss his quiet kindness, his humility and the clarity with which he helped us see right from wrong.
But if he were still with us, I’d hate to see what the right-wing media and the DeSantises and Trumps of the world might do to him. I’d hate to see a man preaching decency ridiculed.
Though I can posit how he would respond, because he once said: “The only thing evil can’t stand is forgiveness.”
Happy birthday, Mister Rogers. We’ll keep trying to do better.
More from Rex Huppke: