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Reflections on a Historic National Election

As I write, CNN, NPR and the Associated Press have just declared that former Vice President Joseph Biden has won a historic victory, having gained more popular votes than any presidential candidate in American history, and will be our nation’s 46th President. He will win the Electoral College by a significant margin with support across the country and will win the popular vote, too, by more than 4 million votes, a margin expected only to increase as final tallies are completed. Meanwhile, and true to form, President Donald Trump has been railing against the methodical counting of votes that has led to this outcome and lied about vote stealing and conspiracies without any evidence to support his primal scream for power and privilege. He has also refused to concede, a stance long predicted for an individual who is a self-declared “winner” and “genius” and master of all subjects. 

I was especially struck to see this President seek to declare victory when vote tallying was still occurring across the country. He also demanded that all counting end at midnight Wednesday, suggesting that any votes counted later than 24-hours after Election day, despite being legally cast, must somehow be considered illegitimate because they might not support his victory, which, in his view, could be the only outcome. The display, while long telegraphed, and therefore unsurprising, was nonetheless deeply dispiriting, as it represented a wholesale attack on the bedrock principle that each American has a right to vote as they choose and to have that vote counted.[1] Instead, Trump fulminated, as many tinpot dictators and would-be strong men have argued across time, that such should not occur and that only votes for him should be considered legitimate. Counting should therefore end while his prospects for victory seemed bright. This astonishingly illiberal and antidemocratic claim was more than his typical politics of lies, savagery and what has lately rightly been dubbed “grudgery.”[2] It was an open acknowledgment that he has no interest in democratic governance, in the rule of law or, for that matter, in serving those who have risked their lives to follow his every dictate by attending his mass rallies unmasked in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

So, I find myself musing and I offer several takeaways from this election and the Trump presidency as I do so. All I now share assumes that Joseph Biden will indeed serve as our next President and that Trump will ultimately step aside peacefully. The latter, unfortunately, cannot simply be assumed. Nonetheless, I do here hopefully assume it will occur.

First, I continue to believe that the central question confronting our polity is how we will live with our innately diverse population and ensure the civil and human rights of all of our citizens. Trump has spent his tenure working to divide Americans and to convince many that pluralism and difference are their enemy and the answer to each is minority tyranny. He has done so in close partnership with a small group of libertarian billionaires and a wealthy and deeply ensconced right-wing media that sells its wares with conspiracy mongering, hate, cruelty and fear. That he has not succeeded in gaining complete public affirmation for that course is deeply gratifying. That he has succeeded with so many citizens, for whatever their array of reasons, is terrifying. The United States cannot be fully free unless and until it ensures that all of its residents enjoy the civil and human rights accorded by their humanity and our Constitutional principles. That has ever been our challenge and remains this country’s greatest lodestone, hope and aspiration going forward. Tyranny cannot and has never served as the answer to the challenge of diversity. Only freedom, reasoned and prudential dialogue, patience and empathy, however difficult to realize and maintain, can do so.

This reality raises a second point. Millions of Americans now live in media bubbles rife with absolutist conspiracy claims and extreme partisan rancor built, more often than not, on outright fabrications in order to be able to blame someone or something for their anxieties and fears, or their failure to realize their most fervent hopes. Many have chosen to accept this unreality, which Trump has strongly encouraged, and they have shown a willingness to adopt morally abhorrent policies and to embrace scurrilous actions and figures while alleging all the while that doing so somehow gets the “other” undeserving folks who are “out to undermine our way of life.” This is utter nonsense, but with his base’s support and that of elected officials who have consistently kowtowed to him, this attitude has encouraged and supported Trump’s persistent racism, corruption and dark anti-democratic rants. It also has led to former presidential advisor Steve Bannon calling for the beheading of the Director of the FBI and Dr. Anthony Fauci. The latter has been trying desperately to get the public to take the critical steps necessary to address the COIVD-19 pandemic now running amok in its midst.[3]

The current divisive climate has also given us media outlets and political leaders that countenance individuals embracing the Q Anon conspiracy madness and worse.[4] The way forward out of this morass is not altogether clear, but the nation and the leaders of both parties must soon address its corrosive effects and implications while not impairing freedom of the press and of speech in doing so. We must have a politics of comity and reality, even amidst disagreement, and not one predicated on fantasy and hate pressed for the purpose of ensuring the continued power, advantage and position of a few.

Finally, if we are to draw this nation back from the brink toward some semblance of unity amidst our many differences, our leaders, from both major political parties, must remind Americans that their world is foremost grounded in community, beginning with family and ascending from there to neighborhood, town or city, state and nation. Such communion, however uneven and fractured it may be, cannot stand if it is dismissed as unreality or assumed away on the basis of an imaginary that preaches scarcity, an atomistic individualism and a view of the world in which all are persistently afraid that another person’s status or success must come at the expense of their own. In contradistinction, as John Donne famously wrote in an unforgettable poem in 1624:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man's death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore, never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.[5]

We are one people, one indivisible nation, and we owe our individual freedom to that reality and not to the market or our talents and acumen alone. We must not and cannot allow our politics to continue to proceed on the basis of imagining otherwise. We must instead roll up our collective sleeves as one metaphoric family, amidst our diversity and conflict, and work together to pursue our most precious values and aspirations, which we can only realize and preserve jointly. There really can be no other course if we would continue to be a free self-governing people. This election has underscored that central point, perhaps, above all others. I look to the future now with hope that our nation can once again set a course that will serve that end, even as I harbor no illusions that gaining or traversing such a path will be easy or without pitfalls. Freedom has never been easily gained or preserved. The nation has surely taken a vital step in its preservation in this election.

Notes

[1] Colbert, Stephen. “Stephen Rips up the Monologue and Starts over After Trump’s Hearbreaking Thursday Night Lie Fest,” The Late Show, November 5, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeSiJmLoJd0&feature=emb_logo, Accessed November 6, 2020. 

[2] Jackson, Erin. “Grudgery,” 800 Pound Gorilla Records, September 12, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0H1LEGAvzY,. Accessed November 5, 2020. 

[3] Weiser, Benjamin. Michael S. Schmidt and William K. Rashbaum, “Steve Bannon Loses Lawyer after Suggesting Beheading of Fauci,” The New York Times, November 6, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/06/nyregion/bannon-lawyer-beheading.html, Accessed November 6, 2020. 

[4] Rosenberg, Matthew. “Republican Voters Take a Radical Conspiracy Theory Mainstream,” The New York Times, October 20, 2020, Accessed November 5, 2020.

[5] Donne, John. “No Man is An Island,” https://web.cs.dal.ca/~johnston/poetry/island.html, Accessed November 7, 2020. 

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