The traditional refrain on New Year’s Eve is “ring out the old, ring in the new.” It is intended as an expression of our hope that no matter what hardships we have endured, the New Year will be better. To be quite honest, I’m having some difficulty feeling that way this year.
I clearly have some personal reasons that account for my somber mood. The loss of Eileen, my beloved wife of 52 years, has cast a pall over everything. But I don’t want to focus here on the personal as much as on the larger picture – the impact of two distinct but related crises that have taken a toll on our nation in 2020. I believe they will continue to have an impact in 2021. These two crises are the Trump presidency and Coronavirus pandemic.
In my 75 years, I can’t remember any events that have been more traumatic and life-altering than these two combined. My generation experienced multiple wars, political and social movements, assassinations, and terrorist attacks. Each of them, in their time, had a profound impact on us. But none have been as potentially transformative as Trump and the pandemic.
In confronting most of these past crises, we came together as a nation, addressed the challenges they presented, and healed. That has not been the case this time since Trump and the pandemic have left us more deeply divided than before.
To be clear, the ascent of Donald Trump and Trumpism did not occur in a vacuum. There were antecedents that led to his election in 2016. A significant part of the American electorate felt ignored by elites whom they believed had no understanding of their grievances. They had lost their moorings to rapid social, political, economic, and cultural change. And they looked for a champion who would speak to their resentments and feelings of dislocation.
As incongruous as it might have appeared, Trump, the high-living controversial billionaire entertainer, became their champion. He not only spoke to their fears, but he also exacerbated and preyed on them using appeals to racism and xenophobia. And he not only identified with their resentments, but he also added to them a mix of his own grievances, calling into question the legitimacy of some of our foundational institutions. Ever the entertainer, Donald Trump won them over, not only defeating some of his more establishment GOP opponents but in the end transforming the Republican party into the party of Trump.
Though he will not be president after January 20, 2021, the impact of Donald Trump will be with us for years to come. We’re seeing it play out today.
Despite losing this election, he has continued to make false claims about winning “by a landslide,” and making outrageous and evidence-free charges of fraud that have been repeatedly rejected by state and federal courts. Fearing the wrath of the president, 126 Republican Members of Congress signed up to endorse his failed court cases.
Most recent polls show that 77% of Trump voters believe that he won the election and that victory was stolen from him. As unseemly as it may be, he is encouraging Members of Congress to vote against certifying the election’s outcome when Congress meets on January 6th and his faithful are planning disruptive mobilizations on both that date and January 14th.
With over 50 million voters viewing a Biden presidency as illegitimate and Republican Members of Congress lining up behind this claim, it will be difficult for the incoming president to govern effectively.
Let’s be clear, Donald Trump didn’t create the hyper-partisanship that has paralyzed Washington for decades. He has, however, taken it to new levels. He didn’t introduce the poisons of racism and xenophobia into our political discourse. But what he has done is give license to his supporters to freely use such vile speech. He also didn’t create lack of confidence in media, but his constant claims of “fake news,” his 30,000 untruths in tweets and speeches, and his projection of what an aide once referred to as “alternative facts” have resulted in a divided polity that not only disagrees on policy but on reality. We have unfolding before us the emergence not so much a political movement, but a messianic cult of true believers.
Will the GOP remain in Trump’s thrall or will Trumpism morph into something more destructive – a more potent form of the QAnon cult or the dangerous Proud Boys, white nationalist movement? Whatever the answers to these questions, what is clear is that the damage done to our politics and our shared sense of common purpose is real and will be with us for the foreseeable future.
An indication of how this divisiveness can affect our civic life can be seen from reactions to the pandemic.
When we first became aware of the magnitude of the novel Coronavirus in March of this year, health experts issued warnings and called for dramatic steps to be taken. The President, however, downplayed the seriousness of the disease and has continued to do so since then. While several Democratic governors imposed various degrees of lockdowns and mandated the wearing of masks, Republican governors, taking their cues from the White House, resisted. At one point, Trump called on his faithful to storm the state capitols governed by Democrats demanding an end to the lockdown – and they did, many armed with weapons of war.
What should have been a crisis that brought the nation together, has become a partisan battle – with those leaders who call for restrictions on gatherings called “traitors,” and those who wear masks derided as weak liberals. Despite the nation’s death toll from the virus reaching 330,000, we remain a divided country with a substantial minority refusing to obey health warnings, insisting that they are an infringement of their personal freedoms. And even more disturbing, many among Trump’s loyalists, echoing the president’s charges, are claiming that the entire pandemic is overblown and was used by Democrats to scare voters into casting absentee ballots which the president believes enabled the fraudulent counts that resulted in his defeat.
The lasting impact of the pandemic, however, will not only be the exacerbation of our political divide, it will also produce other changes. At the beginning of the crisis, we were warned that the longer it lasted, the greater the economic and social consequences of this pandemic will be. We foresaw businesses closing, neighborhoods impacted by the closures, a drain on city and state governments as they saw revenues declining while demand for essential services continued to grow, and a devastating impact on educational institutions and the children they serve. We also envisioned the disparate impact that this would have on the poor and those with special needs and the increase in stress-related problems including depression, agoraphobia, addiction, and suicide. Nine months later, our worst fears have been borne out.
Even with the vaccine, the disease will continue to take its toll for months to come. And even, God willing, when it is brought under control, we will be living in a different country. Our cities and daily life will have changed. Many office workers who’ve learned to work remotely, will not return to their offices. And downtown businesses that once served them and have since closed, will not reopen. With fully one-half of all Americans having developed a fear of disease, many social gatherings will continue to be curtailed. Children, especially the poor and those with special needs, will have a difficult time recovering from a lost year of learning and social development and interaction. And beyond all this, are the accumulated impacts of prolonged unemployment, depleted savings, and debt resulting from the dislocation brought on by a changed economy.
Facing down these two plagues that have so dramatically impacted our lives, many had the naïve hope that the defeat of Donald Trump and a vaccine would act as silver bullets that would return us to normal. It will not be so simple. Despite Biden’s victory and the availability of a vaccine, what we see before us is a country that is deeply divided and a changed economy and society.
And so in the face of all this, it feels somewhat naïve to just say “ring out the old, ring in the new.” Hope must be coupled with resolve and hard work. Because I have an incurable faith in our resilience and in the fundamental goodness of most people, I do believe that we will find a way forward. It won’t be easy, to be sure, and even with our best efforts, there won’t be a return to the “normal” that was.
But if we can address the fears and resentments that have led so many to be so alienated that they became so easily preyed upon; if we can address the social, economic, and political inequities that have left so many vulnerable; and if we can, as Abraham Lincoln once advised, listen to “the better angels of our nature,” we may be able to create a “new normal.” This is the challenge that Joe Biden will need to meet head-on in the New Year. There will be scars, but if we can come together as a nation, we will heal as we have after other searing national crises we’ve been forced to confront in years past.