Democracy & Government

America Is a Lot Sicker Than We Wanted to Believe

America Is a Lot Sicker Than We Wanted to Believe

The Liberal Tradition in America by Louis Hartz

This article originally appeared on The King’s Necktie.

Joe Biden is president winning the popular vote by an even larger margin than Hillary did in 2016. He will also receive more votes for president than any candidate in American history (though that is partially a simple function of growing population.) Kamala Harris will be the first woman Vice President, the first person of color in that office, as well as the first Black and South Asian one.

But numbers dont really capture it. Consider this: Prior to this cycle, a challenger has unseated an incumbent president only four times in the past hundred years (FDR over Hoover in 1932, Carter over Ford in 76, Reagan over Carter in 80, and Clinton over Bush in 92).

On a practical level, Bidens win is a major step forward in our efforts to stanch the bleeding of the last four years. To name just one consequence: given that we are still in the midst of a pandemic, it might be measured in hundreds of thousands of American lives saved in the coming months. Its repercussions are equally vast for economic equality, for racial justice, for a sane foreign policy, for the United Statesstanding in the world.

Therefore, let us not underestimate for even a moment the impact of Joe Bidens victory. This, we were told, has been the most important American election since 1864, and that was no hyperbole.

So why did this still feel like a loss for so many, at least initially?

That sense is abating a bit as the reality of Bidens win sinks in, and the disappointment over the misplaced hope of a landslide fades. But the reason for that queasy feeling comes from the most profound takeaway of this election: The astonishing number of our fellow Americans who, even at this late date, are still willing to stick by Donald J. Trump.

The AtlanticTom Nichol, a professor at the US Naval War College, summed it up well:

Nearly half of the voters have seen Trump in all of his splendor—his infantile tirades, his disastrous and lethal policies, his contempt for democracy in all its forms—and they decided that they wanted more of it.

That is it in a nutshell. Four years ago, one could forgive a Trump voter for a naïve willingness to give him a chance. This time around a vote for Trump is, at the very least, an admission of complicity, and in many cases, a proud and thunderous affirmation of approval. And there were almost enough of them to return him for a second term.

The New York Times’ Matt Flegenheimer writes:

From the start of his 2020 campaign, Joseph R. Biden Jr. insisted that President Trump was an aberration, his norm-breaking, race-baiting tenure anathema to the national character. Its not who we are,” Mr. Biden often said, not what America is.”

And at the end of the 2020 campaign, an anxious, quarrelsome country seemed to be turning a question back at him:

Are you sure?

There can be no more pretending Trump was an anomaly. Fully a third of our country continues to be totally onboard with his vicious and vile racism, misogyny, and right wing authoritarianism, even to the point of negligent homicide on a mass scale, quisling subservience to a foreign power, and wanton corruption that doesnt even bother to camouflage itself.

This isnt who we are? What if it is?

The New YorkerSusan Glasser:

His base has followed him through impeachment and family separation, his love” letters with North Koreas brutal dictator and even his coronavirus denialism. If he leads them over the cliff of a constitutional confrontation between now and January 20th, we have to assume that they will follow him there, as well.

Masha Gessen, who has firsthand experience of fake democracy and Potemkin elections, quoted the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, from his 1933 poem Stalins Epigram”: We live without sensing the country beneath us.” (As a result of having written that, Mandelstam was arrested the following year and died in the gulag four years later. Thats real, Grade-A autocracy.)

Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale and author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, told SalonChauncey Devega that many Americans really like authoritarianism. Sure, the conventional wisdom says that Americans like freedom. Some of them do. Some of them do not. The Americans who do not like freedom are not going to be reached or otherwise have their minds changed. It is as simple as that.”

The election results make it hard to argue with that. Russian interference in our elections, real as it is, is not the true problem. We are doing this to ourselves.

The Washington PostMonica Hesse wrote that for the past two years, the demographics in my inbox who most fervently believed in a 2020 blue landslide were White liberal men and occasionally White liberal women.”

Surely, they insisted, what had happened in 2016 was a blip.

The Black women who wrote to me, meanwhile, were exhausted and often worried. To them, 2016 didnt feel like a blip. It felt like the America theyd already been living in for decades was finally made visible to the rest of the country. Yes, it had always been racist. Yes, it had always been sexist. Yes, yes, yes.

If you, like Biden, have had the recurring privilege of sadly shaking your head and saying, This isnt who we are,” what you really meant was, This isnt who Ive ever had to see us be.” What you really meant was, This isnt my America. . . . Crap, is it yours?”

Fair enough.

But it is completely possible to understand how deeply racist, repressive, and retrograde and at the same time be startled at how so many of our countrymen continue to stand by a man who criminally oversaw the unnecessary deaths of more than 200,000 Americans, who is a demonstrable vassal of a foreign power, who has treated the presidency as license to rob the country blind, to name just a few of his sins which are too numerous to list in full here.

Now we have to face it. Like a person with mental illness, the problem for America is that one of our ills is the lack of the very introspection we need to address those ills.

And it might have been a lot worse. As the Never Trump conservative Tim Miller pointed out, the pandemic offered Trump a golden opportunity. He famously declared himself a wartime president”; sadly, it was Johnson in Vietnam. Miller sagely notes that had Trump even pretended to care about the well-being of the American people—not even really cared, just pretended to care—he likely would have cruised to re-election.

We got very lucky that a comfort food moderate like Biden was our nominee. As Tom Nichol writes, Trump would surely have beaten anyone to Joes left. Much as I like them, can you imagine the vitriol he would have whipped up toward a Sanders or a Warren?

It ought to be proof positive that, if we are interested in winning elections, such politics need to be presented to the American public in a way that takes into account the deeply entrenched reactionary strain in this country—not to mollify or try to appease it, but to find a way to outsmart, outflank, and outmuscle it.

Already in Michigan weve seen an attempt to reprise the so-called Brooks Brothers riot of Florida 2000 as Republicans tried to storm a vote-counting location. (Fortunately, they were quickly and peaceably repelled by local law enforcement. Well done, fellas.) Even scarier, in Arizona—an open carry state—an angry MAGA mob has created a situation where poll workers require police escorts to leave the building at the end of their shifts. Most of these protestors were maskless, some were in body armor, and some were carrying long guns. (I lived there, and have a great fondness for Arizona, but even its residents will tell you its a crazy place.)

That mob, by the by, was chanting Stop the count!” and Fox News sucks!” When they turn on Fox, you know the end times are upon us. The Trump campaign, natch, expressed its support of the actions in both Michigan and Arizona, and Trump himself tweeted STOP THE COUNT!

(Elsewhere, of course, Trump supporters were chanting Count every vote!” In some places, where Trump trailed they were chanting the former when they should have been chanting the latter.)

These spectacles, of course, were to be expected after the armed Liberate!” mobs in Michigan, Virginia and Minnesota; White vigilantism from the likes of Kyle Rittenhouse; the plot to kidnap and execute MI Governor Gretchen Whitmer; and the Trump caravans last weekend that menaced the Biden/Harris bus in Texas and blocked highways in New York and New Jersey. And it may yet get worse.

At a minimum, as The New York Times Editorial Board wrote, Mr. Trumps ugly rhetoric is a direct attack on American democracy. It could leave a poisonous legacy of bitterness among his supporters and erode the legitimacy of the US political system.”

The question hangs there: Who are we?

Robert Edwards

Robert Edwards was formerly an infantry and intelligence officer in the US Army and a captain in the 82nd Airborne in Iraq during the first Gulf War. A graduate of Stanford’s masters program in documentary, his films include Land of the Blind starring Ralph Fiennes and Donald Sutherland, One More Timestarring Christopher Walken, and the feature documentary The Last Laugh for PBS. He won a Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has written for directors including Bennett Miller, Mark Romanek, and Mike Newell. He blogs at  The King’s Necktie.