Deliverance — for now — barely

My 2008 Rational Optimism book saw a powerful trend of human progress. With America in its vanguard. But progress never runs in a straight line, and democracy in particular has since suffered notable setbacks. Then America itself went off the rails.

Re-raising our flag

I watched Trump go from triumph to triumph. I understood all too well the evil, and its global import. This election feels like the world finally put right. Reprising my elation three decades past when Communism fell.

But this is better. I’d grown up accepting Communism as a given, its fall unanticipated. And while that happened far away, this time it’s my own country. Still further, here I personally played a part.

Biden has won the needed 270 electoral votes. In states where he now leads narrowly, his margin can only grow.

Trump will try to stop the counting and to overturn the election. He will fail. And his place in history as a our worst-ever president will be further secured by his post-election behavior, starting with last night’s 2 AM “Victory Speech.” Who ever imagined a leading newscaster justifiably calling a presidential address “obscene?”

He can still do much other damage too, before January 20, trashing the place before leaving. Repair will be an enormous challenge for President-elect Biden.

My drawing dated 1960

Expectations will be huge, while handicapped by a still-Republican Senate. I am prepared for disappointment, as the normal condition. Of course, mere disappointment is nothing as against the Trumpian nightmare.

When he became president, I actually said to myself, “how many people will die?” Ultimately, the vast human suffering he caused is literally beyond comprehension. It’s also a sobering thought that but for the pandemic horror, Trump would have won re-election. As if those deaths were the terrible price for saving America.

That so many people still voted for Trump — in spite of everything —  is shocking. They’re in two basic categories.

One comprises the real cult devotees, hyped up on conspiracy theories and the other garbage spewed by Trump, Fox News, OANN, and disgraceful right-wing websites and talk radio, stuffing them full of talking points to defend the indefensible. Feeling sure that investigations will soon explosively expose vast crimes by Obama, Biden, and other Democrats. It’s hard to forgive these people who so perversely misuse the brains God gave them.

The other category is ordinary voters not so obsessed with politics. Believing Trump and Fox because they didn’t know better. Oblivious to how cynically they were manipulated. This shows a big part of America is still off the rails.

The word “anger” comes up a lot in discussing Trump voters. I think the word disaffection fits better. A lot of Americans have become alienated from their society. It’s actually strange that it isn’t non-whites, they believe in the American idea; it’s many whites losing that sense of connection to a larger civic enterprise. For all the flag-waving professions of patriotism, the America they love is not one embodying its core values — it’s not the country that actually exists today. Nobody with any true feel for its ideals, principles, and values could have so cavalierly voted for a man who so traduced them. This was civic nihilism.

Yet these are not “deplorable” people. The rational optimist in me still considers most people good. Trump voters made a mistake. Well, okay, two. Nobody’s perfect. Studies of people brainwashed by cults show most return to normal after the episode ends. Hard as it is for me, I forgive them. For the sake of repairing our badly damaged society, we must seek for ways to reconcile, and heal our divisions. In Lincoln’s words, with malice toward none, with charity for all. That’s why I’d supported Biden from the start.

Trump’s defeat helps lance the boil. The question is how many will realize they’ve been conned, versus believing the election a massive fraud. Fueling their already rich sense of grievance, further poisoning our political life, intensifying the deranged hatred for Biden and Democrats. So it may be an impossible challenge, but again, we must do everything we can to somehow enfold these people back into our common American enterprise.

Democrats should eschew the anti-democratic tactics of Republicans, and refrain from exerting power in ways that opponents will see as illegitimate, escalating partisan warfare. No “court packing,” for example. Such restraint is one of the things that sustained our system, and its lack among today’s Republicans is a huge problem. They have been pulling our democracy apart, from one end; Democrats must not be seen pulling from the other end.

Trump’s astounding degree of vileness, his literal insanity, was actually lucky for us. One could easily imagine a smoother more seductive version, without his psychological black holes, who’d have been much slicker at putting across his con. Like, trying to expand his base of support, even a little; and being serious about covid. It’s frightening that Trump, in spite of everything, might actually have won if he’d merely acted sane. But of course he isn’t, so he couldn’t.

Thus he leaves a clear playbook for a future demagogue. Like a virus evolving and adapting. We’ve managed to overcome this particular affliction, this time, barely. But it has weakened us. I’m not sure we have the civic antibodies to defeat the next one.

Trump shredded norms of civic decency that will be hard to restore. Biden behaving impeccably won’t erase what is now a precedent for atrocious conduct. We quickly became inured to it with Trump, enabling a future president to push the envelope even further (if that can be imagined).

The Trump years might be seen as aberrational, a discontinuity in our social fabric. But actually it’s been flying apart for some time. Technology changes our world faster than we can adapt (as Thomas Friedman has argued). Coronavirus aggravates a sense of insecurity that propels sociopolitical disaffection. All discombobulating American minds. Thus the next Trumplike demagogue will be plowing in fertile soil. (And not necessarily from the right. There’s plenty of craziness on the left too.)

But maybe, just maybe, we’ve now had peak crazy. Maybe this election will prove to be the turning of the tide, globally.

For most of human history, tomorrows looked much like yesterdays. Not so now. In another decade or two, 2020 may look as distant as the Stone Age. Perhaps rendering moot much of this essay. As Yogi Berra said, making predictions is hard, especially about the future.

But for now, we have stared into the abyss, and come out. Let us rejoice at our deliverance with dancing in the streets.

3 Responses to “Deliverance — for now — barely”

  1. Steven Strahan Says:

    This election isn’t over yet, Frank. Trump may yet prevail. It’s best to allows matters to take their course before talking about what happens next.

  2. Lee Says:

    There are Trump supporters who are in the game to exploit government, but the majority of them care deeply about specific issues; they are pro-life, pro-gun, anti-taxes, and/or anti-immigration.

    Biden isn’t going to do anything to stop abortions. Biden might support gun control in some circumstances. Biden probably thinks that the tax shift from the rich to the poor is a bad idea. Biden hasn’t proposed a solution to our large-scale illegal immigration.

    Even though you disagree with Trump’s solution to illegal immigration, at least he acknowledges that there is a problem. Trump’s tax cuts for the rich hardly cut taxes for the poor, thus keeping the poor yearning for more tax cuts.

    If we want to avoid the razor-edge victory margins in 4 years, the Democrats are going to have to come up with a comprehensive immigration plan (that doesn’t screw over the immigrants of color nor the poor rural whites). The Democrats are going to have to make the tax code work for the poor; such as a Yang dividend. The Democrats are going to have to sponsor public discourse about gun rights and abortion rights, so that there can be some amount of understanding there instead of constant shouting over each other’s heads.

    To the extent that the centrist Democrats recognize that these are issues that people care about, they have been shy about discussing them. Republicans win votes by openly acknowledging that these issues exist.

  3. Roger Says:

    There’s an article in Vanity Fair in which COVID patients insist to their health care providers that they don’t have COVID. We are so screwed as a nation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s