Long one today…sorry. I’m nervous.
Time Magazine recently published an article exploring recent research on political polarization. It will surprise practically no one to find that the gulf between Republican and Democratic Americans is wide and our mutual animosities bitter, or that we harbor feelings of “distrust, dislike and disdain” for people who belong to the opposing political party.
Researchers point out that at least some of the animosity is based on factual errors: Democrats believe that Republicans are much richer than they really are; Republicans in one study thought that a full third of Democrats were LGBTQ.
The article ended with the usual concerns about the need to dispel the hostility, which the study attributed primarily to three things: the rise of partisan and social media allowing people to live in information and opinion bubbles (making those with opposing views seem more abnormal); the tendency of political operatives and elites to emphasize “cudgel” social issues, such as abortion or LGBTQ rights, to make members of the other party seem inhumane; and the rise of the political “mega-identity,” where–rather than “big tents”– the parties have become philosophically distinct and internally aligned.
I get all this. We all do. We’ve all seen similar studies, opinion pieces and polls. They all engage in textual hand-wringing: this is an untenable situation, we need to listen to people outside our bubbles, and we need to be less judgmental of those with whom we disagree.
Well and good. But what if there’s another aspect of those current “mega-identities”? One that defies–or at least complicates– those pat admonitions?
Frank Bruni recently wrote a column that summed up my feelings perfectly. It was titled, “After Trump, How Will I Ever Look at America the Same Way?” You really need to read it in its entirety. Here’s his lede:
It’s always assumed that those of us who felt certain of Hillary Clinton’s victory in 2016 were putting too much trust in polls.
I was putting too much trust in Americans.
I’d seen us err. I’d watched us stray. Still I didn’t think that enough of us would indulge a would-be leader as proudly hateful, patently fraudulent and flamboyantly dishonest as Donald Trump.
We had episodes of ugliness, but this? No way. We were better than Trump.
Except, it turned out, we weren’t.
Bruni is struggling with the question that has animated far too many of my posts and your comments over these last four years: how could large numbers of Americans, people I’d always considered open-hearted and possessed of decency and common sense, support this ignorant, hateful, utterly pathetic excuse for a man? Bruni says it was a populace he didn’t recognize, or at least didn’t want to recognize, and I had the same reaction.
In a sane and civil country, of the kind I long thought I lived in, his favorability ratings would have fallen to negative integers, a mathematical impossibility but a moral imperative. In this one, they never changed all that much.
Bruni reminds us that Trump didn’t create the people who support him–instead, he tapped into more pre-existing cynicism and nihilism and conspiratorialism “than this land of boundless tomorrows was supposed to contain.” It was already there, burbling beneath the surface.
He didn’t sire white supremacists. He didn’t script the dark fantasies of QAnon. He didn’t create all the Americans who rebelled against protective masks and mocked those who wore them, a selfish mind-set that helps explain our tragic lot. It just flourished under him.
A number of pundits have attributed continued support of Trump to a burning desire by a segment of the country to “own the libs” no matter how damaging to the country. According to National Review’s Rich Lowry, for many on the Right, Trump is “the only middle finger available.”
In a recent column, David Brooks considered the consequences of Trump’s norm-shattering indecencies:
Today, many Trump opponents look at the moral degradation Trump supporters tolerate, the bigotry they endorse or tolerate, and they conclude that such people are beyond the pale. Simultaneously, many Trump supporters conclude that Trump opponents have such viciously anti-American ideas, that they too lack legitimacy. We’ve long had polarization, but we now have in America a crisis of legitimacy, which is a different creature.
The political chasm, the mutual antagonism, and the threat this situation poses to a democratic system are all too real. But “healing” and mutual respect are hard to come by when the gulf really is moral as well as political.
Americans aren’t arguing about differing tax or trade policies. We are arguing about truly fundamental moral and ethical questions: should skin color or religion or gender privilege one’s civic status? Are poor people entitled to medical care? Is America part of a global community, and if so, what does that membership require? Do we have an obligation to leave our children and grandchildren a livable planet?
As one Republican defector put it, just after voting for Biden,
I did not vote in this election based on policy. Neither should you. The election of 2020 is about the moral future of the American nation, and so I voted for a good man with whom I have some political disagreements over an evil man with whom I share not a single value as a human being. Trump is the most morally defective human being ever to hold the office of the presidency, worse by every measure than any of the rascals, satyrs or racists who have sat in the Oval Office. This is vastly more important than marginal tax rates or federal judges.
Yes. So–I’m torn.
I do want a country where people respect each other, are kind to each other, give opponents the benefit of the doubt. But I also want a country where most people deserve that respect. Try as I might, I am unable to summon respect for Americans who have lived through the last four years–who have read the tweets, heard the lies, seen the racism, the bizarre behavior, the corruption and ugliness– and still fervently support Donald Trump.
I’ll be worried about how many of those people there are while the votes are being counted.