I was staggered as most people were, the night of the 2016 election, to see that Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States of America. Unlike some, I had believed early on that Trump had a real chance of winning. But I thought that chance had finally been squandered with the emergence of the infamous Access Hollywood video, wild debate performances against Hillary Clinton, and national polls indicating that Trump was running well behind. With half the nation vindicated, the other half distraught, and the very legitimacy of the election thrown into doubt by talk of Russian interference (and grumbling over the claimed unfairness of the electoral college) the country looked with anxious curiosity to see what political society would look like in the wake of the polarizing election in memory. Two years into the new administration we have an answer. But the value of taking inventory of this new normal is not to complain about it. It is to highlight for ourselves what the source of progress and stability actually is in a civil society, and to reveal to ourselves how it is we might turn these trends towards the rebirth of our democratic culture.
The immediate aftermath of the Trump election was an outpouring of activism that saw not only people taking to the streets but people taking to the freeways, halting traffic in dangerous if impassioned displays of social fury. With most Americans and official Washington experiencing feelings ranging from nervous to apoplectic over his rise, President’s Trump inaugural address seemed less focused on inspiring the unity of the American people and more determined to highlight the “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across our nation” and the “American carnage” wrought by the crime and corruption he pledged to undo. If there was to be a healing, one could hardly find a significant voice or movement on either side of the divide volunteering to be the first to extend the olive branch. The Russia investigation commenced, as did the president’s war on the media (or was it the media’s war on the president)? But in 2017, one might still have hoped for some stability to have settled in. Time, as they say, heals all wounds.
Some wounds leave terrible scars however, and some are continually reopened. 2018 saw the scar tissue formed after the election (not to mention more than two decades of social wars and rising polarization behind it) callous into both a new way of doing politics in Washington as well as a new way of interacting across political lines in American life in general. Democratic members of congress declined to attend the President’s State of the Union while coverage of the Trump administration on CNN, 93% negative in 2017 according to a Harvard study, could scarce have been any lower the following year, with White House correspondent Jim Acosta famously thrown out and temporarily banned from White House press briefings for continually interrupting the president.
There is much more that could be said about the ongoing stream of insults pouring forth from the president’s Twitter feed, the American flag re-risen early above the White House while the flags at Capitol Hill remained at half-mast for the late John McCain (one of Trump’s fiercest Republican critics), the demeaning of not just political opponents but of members and former members of the president’s own administration on various occasions, etc. One can hardly remember all the different episodes of contention surrounding the president.
But it is at least as important to recall the voluntary acts of social hostility committed by the American people during this time: the expelling of White House press secretary Sarah Sanders from the Red Hen Inn in Lexington, VA., the shouting out of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson of a Mexican restaurant in Washington D.C. (events which congresswoman Maxine Waters was vocally approving of), and the rancorous public cursing of Nancy Pelosi as she was huddled in through the back door of a popular restaurant in Miami.
Such events would have seemed unimaginable during the presidency of Ronald Reagan or even during the tumultuous tenure of Bill Clinton (even the bitterness of the Clarence Thomas nomination fight paled in comparison to what the nation experienced with Bret Kavanaugh). In 2018 however, such incidents not only became less exceptional—they appeared trivial in comparison to the deadly and potentially deadly expressions of political outrage that also emerged over the course of last year. An anti-semitic gunmen who some suggested was an indication of a resurgent white nationalism tacitly encouraged by the president (though the gunmen viewed Trump as having being on the side of the ‘globalists’ and perhaps the Jews) murdered 11 people in the biggest mass shooting of Jews in American history (two African-Americans were also killed around the same period of time by a racist gunman in Kentucky). In the days before, a disturbed Trump supporter mailed multiple bombs that failed to detonate to prominent Democrats in politics and media, including Hillary Clinton and the Obamas. These events led some in the media to suggest that such incidents demonstrated that Trump’s rhetoric was uniquely responsible for inspiring unstable individuals on the right to violence. Opponents of this view were quick to remind the President’s critics that that an anti-Trump individual had attempted to mail a ricin like substance to President Trump and Vice-President Pence in the weeks prior to the attempting bombings, and that a left-wing extremist had shot and very nearly killed Republican congressman Steve Scalise on a baseball field in Washington D.C. the year before.
2018 ended in the midst of a government shutdown, a paralyzing impasse over whether or not to confront undocumented/illegal immigration by building a wall on our southern border, and a Democratic take back of the House of Representatives with one incoming member promising “to impeach this motherf—er.” Yet what might be most surprising to people observing our politics from another time, is that for us none of these things are surprising.
We do not have to sacrifice our political convictions to disenthrall ourselves from the name-calling and demagoguery that has produced American democracy circa 2018. We do not have to tilt into the ‘bothsidesism’ that suggests that both sides of an argument are always equally right or equally wrong. That is not always the case. Yet, however right one might be in an argument, progress in a civil relationship depends upon us listening to and understanding one another.
Though argument may be important, societies are built upon cooperative relationships between people who respect each other enough to engage over differences with humility, and do not presume to be enemies because of differences of opinion.
Some differences are hard to swallow. But if we wish to avert social violence (both metaphorical and literal) then it is even more important to seek understanding when the differences between us are large than when they are small. We can nurture a political society in which the sincere pursuit of reasoned understanding reasserts itself as what is normal in our social discourse. We can choose to be or reward media personalities and political leaders who call upon our willingness to advance our causes with dignity and reason rather than lambast and discord. We can support institutions who lay the groundwork for these sorts of values to assert themselves. We can refresh the culture of our civil society upon the foundation of the better aspects of each other’s nature. But as we wait for others to ‘go first’ in setting these examples, we find that it is the forces of division and despair that seize the initiative in setting the tone of our politics.
Though it seems inevitable that vicious division will rend the fabric of American democracy further still in the year ahead, 2019 can also be the beginning of a resurgent decency. A new new normal among thoughtfully courageous Americans left and right can fill the void of civic virtue that has swelled to a chasm in this past year. Let us commit to this challenge within ourselves, that the low to which our politics has sunk might one day look like an aberration as we look back on this time from the light of a brighter future.
John Wood, Jr. is a former nominee for congress, former Vice-Chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, a contributing writer to Quillette and Areo Magazine, host of Transcending Politics and Director of Media Development at Better Angels. Follow John on Twitter @JohnRWoodJr.