The glimmer of leadership has begun to emerge in America, like the sun poking up from the horizon. We did it. We excised the tumor that is Donald Trump, but there’s a lot of scar tissue.
That scar tissue unfortunately still pervades the body politic. Many Biden voters are surprised and horrified that 70 million of their fellow citizens wanted to rehire Trump. Many Trump voters are speechless that any of us would have voted for Biden. After all, there weren’t any Biden boat parades.
Incumbents normally have a re-election advantage, but nothing is normal now. Trump lost, in the middle of this pandemic, where his incompetence and indifference were there for all to see. This all took place in a sheltered environment that made it unusually difficult to vote. Yet voters for both candidates were very motivated, as is apparent from overall turnout. Or mail-in voting and extended (and safe) early voting simply made it easier to cast a ballot.
Very little changed in voting patterns from 2016. Trump lost support in a few demographic groups and gained support in others, but nothing spectacular. Joe Biden recovered several midwestern states lost by Clinton in 2016, but that might simply have been the absence of a strong third party candidate. Georgia’s win might have come down to successful registration efforts that finally aligned the voter rolls with the state’s true demographics.
Democrats need to adjust to the reality that 70 million voters, virtually half of America, chose to retain Donald Trump for president. Just like last time.
Joe Biden’s electoral college win came down to 70,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin and the Omaha area of Nebraska, not very much different than the 2016 vote difference that put Trump in office. We Biden voters think Trump voters are misinformed. The Trump voters think we’re misinformed. We have Stockholm syndrome, because there isn’t enough outrage on Earth to cover the last four years of misdeeds, and we have let many abominations slide. And some in America are still sure that Trump is about to pivot. Any moment now.
Sure, a large part of our broken culture is that we’ve self-selected our sources for information and we suck at making these choices. Those who monetize information know this better than we do. The implications of social media’s role in weaponizing our politics, and whether these activities will be punished is under discussion. But we need to heal now. And “we” means all of us.
Let’s face it, many of the Trump supporters appear to be in a cult. In a cult, only the leader matters. Only whatever the leader says can be considered the truth. Not only can Trump shoot someone on Fifth Avenue with impunity, he can inspire his supporters to plan or actually commit murder on his behalf, whether it’s against protesters, or against a governor. Or they might recruit for a call to war from a state GOP or in the swan song of a radio personality.
It’s hard to show empathy right now, but we have to, for the country that we love. America isn’t just an idea, and it isn’t just a nation; we’re a family. Families try to reconcile for the good of the future. And temperatures will cool by January, literally and figuratively. The silly performance art of frivolous lawsuits and political grandstanding will go nowhere. Joe Biden will lay his hand on a Bible he’s actually read, and we will have our new President.
There’s reason to be hopeful that our sharp division isn’t permanent.
Without the presidential podium, Trump is less newsworthy. Trump is planning rallies and a possible 2024 run. But he’ll have to pay for the venues with funds he has to raise, get to them without Air Force One, and maybe he’ll have to convince people to pay for tickets that won’t include a red hat. He runs the risk that the gatherings are poorly attended, and he’d have to hold them in places like Erie, Pennsylvania, a place he doesn’t want to visit, in a state that he lost Supremely. His rallies would draw people he doesn’t really like, when temperatures are literally and figuratively cooler. Every potential rally would be in a town without a Trump Hotel in which to stay, and likely without TV coverage. This is Trump’s nightmare.
Trump is already burning bridges with some familiar media supporters that don’t show enough fealty to him. Fox News has already inspired Trump to recommend other outlets for an environment of more fantasy, less news, and added comfort. A brief Newsmax win in evening viewership simply demonstrates that these close contests between small viewer numbers (each around 200k watching) don’t represent an important part of television viewership, even during the pandemic, when nobody has anything else to do.
After Joe Biden is inaugurated, especially if the Senate is tied, actual news outlets will have a cornucopia of grievances to air without even acknowledging the private citizen Trump will be. There will be real and manufactured grievances against the White House, attributed (even if inherited) responsibility for economic stumbles, and a whole lot of hypocrisy, such as not confirming a Cabinet nominee because of a history of “mean tweets”. That sounds like a new rule. Prepare yourself for a lot of those.
Trump himself might not look as invincible after he is unable to reverse the election results. Some portion of his voters will always believe that the election was rigged. Some will realize that the surprisingly good Republican performance means that the election was not rigged, or they might figure out that voters just didn’t like Trump. Whatever rationale wins out, Trump’s brand as a winner is taking a beating.
It’s official. Trump is a loser, in public opinion, in the media, and in many courtrooms. And we don’t know what more we will learn after Trump leaves office, either from those who have honored meaningless non-disclosure agreements until now, or those who have feared the power of the presidency.
Furthermore, without the protection of DOJ guidance, it’s possible that federal, state or local charges might distract Trump from playing offense to playing defense. And he just might lose all over again.
It’s hard to imagine, but days will go by without hearing from Donald Trump. There’s a lot to look forward to in 2021.
So what should we do now?
Yes, the Trump cult is engaging in fantasy right now, and some of it is dangerous. But even the worst of this type of person has always been with us, and they are often caught before they do actual damage. And as long as they burrow back into the bushes, we can generally ignore them, because career government employees have our backs. When the darkest of us are invisible and inactive, they’re hardly more threatening than the moon-landing deniers or those that believe that the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover was really a funeral procession.
Sure, some conspiracy theories are more dangerous than others. Conspiracy theories are tantalizing, not only to the fringes, and not limited to one side of the aisle. Admit it; at some point in your life, you probably believed something with all your heart, only to learn that it wasn’t true (Santa excluded, of course). It’s hard to give up a false belief.
You probably don’t worry about Holocaust deniers and 9/11 “truthers” every day, and it’s likely that you won’t need to worry daily about election truthers for all that long. The term “truther” isn’t an accident; it’s a framing technique for a lie. It’s wise to notice that sort of thing in the news you’re reading today. Framing is the way conspiracy theories gain traction.
You probably have friends and family pull you aside to whisper about aliens, about pharma, about an ethnic group that’s pulling our strings. You smile and move on. It’s good advice, even among voter groups. Try to find common ground when someone you meet is disappointed, but sane. Ignore the insane, with compassion.
For ourselves, it’s not enough to be a little better than what we see around us. We have to be principled, and criticize our own side when they don’t meet the standards we hold for the other side — in character, not policy. Let’s all keep disagreeing about policy. It makes for a better country.
The cult groupthink that has undermined the GOP could happen to any of us, or all of us. We were lucky this time. Trump wasn’t disciplined or informed enough to take us all with him, only half of us. We’re too diverse to buy his bigotry.
We dodged the bullet this time. Let’s learn from that.
Albert Brooks plays a journalist in the movie Broadcast News. He makes a haunting speech comparing a charming colleague (played by the engaging William Hurt) to the devil. Brooks’ character predicts that when the devil shows up, he will sneak in without the long, red, pointy tail that would give his identity away. Funny thing, in this movie’s prophecy, even the actual devil is much kinder than Donald Trump:
He will be attractive! He'll be nice and helpful. He'll get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation. He'll never do an evil thing! He'll never deliberately hurt a living thing... he will just bit by little bit lower our standards where they are important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny little bit. And he'll talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he'll get all the great women.
Someday that person will show up. We’d better be ready.