Will the climax of the 2020 elections amount to a collective shrug?
Published on: Oct 24, 2020  |  

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I blame Damir Marusic. Damir is the one who planted the idea in my apparently naive and impressionistic head. He said it as a passing notion—and it has lingered there since. I think he's right. The most likely scenario come November, after the voting and tallying concludes, is both the most surprising and the least: that this will be a big, anti-climactic "whatever" moment for America and Americans, with the Trump era ending on a collective, exhausted whimper. It's worth thinking about what this will look like, so we can prepare ourselves for it. Also, it's nice to not feel like you're living on life's edge—because we very likely aren't.

One of the reasons these four years of Trump have been so overwhelming isn't because of his policies, his rhetoric, or his norm-busting, although all of that factors in. It's because Trump distorts our threat perception, and being able to perceive threats in a proportional manner is key to both success and survival for nations and individuals alike. Trump has attacked this basic, vital faculty in an unusual manner, so as if arising from an unpleasant reverie, we might think to ourselves: "Oh, that's it?" And what sweet relief that will be.  


You're right, Shadi, it would be good if the last four years drift away in the rear-view mirror. And on certain days I am optimistic.

But maybe we collectively won't be able to get over the last four years. Consider this tweet as a stand-in for a bigger mindset:

Packed in here is all the righteousness and moral unctuousness that has shaped the political landscape for the last four years. Arguably it has shaped our reality as much as Trumpism itself, even if it only exists as a reaction to Trumpism. Reich's tweet encapsulates the Resistance mindset—a certainty that Trump is illegitimate because America, a democracy, the City on the Hill, simply couldn't produce such an outcome. The Russians installed him because he was their patsy. Social media consultancies manipulated voters into irrational choices. Now add greedy executives and media moguls to the mix. Someone did this to us!

My optimism about the "whatever" outcome is tied to the fact that I suspect most Americans don't care that much about national politics, nor about the various  subthemes ("woke" overreach, QAnon) that the media, both on the left and the right, tends to fixate on at times.

Average voters feel the country is worse off largely because of the ravages of the pandemic and how it was handled, but also because Trump has been so divisive. They feel terrible about police killing unarmed Black people, and while they don't love rioting and property destruction, they see that Trump is pouring gasoline on the fire rather than trying to get things under control. They'll vote Biden not because they abhor Trump as much as Resistance folks do, but rather because they broadly judge his presidency to have been a colossal failure.

But those demanding a broad reckoning and a purge are hardly a fringe view...

— Damir

The Resistance mindset is fascinating to me, in part because it helps shine a light on certain pathologies that speak to something deeper. As you, Damir, wrote in a recent essay, this is us. Trump is us. He wasn't thrust upon us, a mere aberration that history, in the name of its own progress, shall subsequently consign to the recesses of memory. And I think this is where the odd, if understandable, bursts of revenge fantasy from Robert Reich and others come from. Every day that he wakes up, he is reminded that his country failed him. (I've felt this at times: wait, this man is our president? Really?). This is idealism's inverse. If you believe your country is a city on a hill, and that its very identity as a nation is intertwined with Progress, then Trump represents a unique problem.

The novelist Marilynne Robinson, writing in the New York Times, recently likened America to a family, which is troubling for any number of reasons. This family has its values, and so we end up with this Whiggish rendering of the American idea, overwrought and portentous:

We are asked to see one another in the light of a singular inalienable worth that would make a family of us if we let it. The ethic in these words should be the standard by which we judge ourselves, our social arrangements, our dealings with the vast family of humankind. It will always find us wanting. The idea is a progressive force, constantly and necessarily exposing our failures and showing us new paths forward.

That quote is almost perfectly designed to trigger you, Damir.

I highlight this because shame and disgust are emotions that are not contrary to love; they are adjacent or even intertwined with it. However, they love America differently than we do.

Then there's the practical question: Do the views of Robert Reich and his like represent a fringe or the future? You say that theirs is "hardly a fringe view," and I think you're right if Twitter is anything to go by. The Catholic conservative writer Adrian Vermeule responded to me, saying that if any view was fringe, it was mine rather than theirs. Perhaps, but that only means that the disconnect between the online left and a President Biden is likely to be quite large. It's difficult for me to imagine the Biden administration—populated by aides who are anything but radical and temperamentally not prone to anything particularly bold (which is both bad and good!)—thinking seriously about instituting a Truth and Reconciliation Commission or drawing a moral equivalency between the United States and Apartheid South Africa.

So let's be honest—the social media center-left commentariat will bloviate about this endlessly, but perhaps it's better that they release this negative energy in Times opeds and on Twitter than in real life. This is what they do. They complain about the lack of systemic change, but their entire style of politics suggests that they have little interest in seeing it actually happen, consumed as they are by the politics of gesture and performance. I'm happy that their rhetorical flourishes exceed their substantive policy commitments when it comes to proposals like Truth and Reconciliation. It's more worrying when it relates to the things our country actually needs, like police reform, sentencing guideline reform, and ending, or drastically reducing, mass incarceration.


I don't think we disagree about how a certain love of higher ideals is expressing itself as profound revulsion at Trumpism. But there's normal love and there's irrational, destructive love. There's the love of a parent that is unconditional and yet still cognizant and accepting of flaws, and then there's Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction or Peter Sellers in Lolita. Not all love is good and healthy. And I'd argue that most Resistance love has veered into deranged, obsessive territory.

The more I think about it, though, the more I'm leaning towards the case for “whatever” optimism. As you say, politically it's likely to play out that way, despite the protestations of the deranged. If Trump's defeat is as resounding as I suspect it will be, there will be incentives to consolidate as large and lasting a political repudiation of the last four years as is possible. There may be those like Reich still baying for blood of the legions of so-called "enablers," but I can't imagine there being much oxygen for this approach among Democrats actually in power.

And even Reich himself may calm down. Once Trump is defeated, the proximate cause for outrage should dissipate. More broadly speaking, insofar as Trump is us, Trump’s defeat will also be us. That’s powerful moral logic, and those most offended by the very idea that our system could barf up a Trump will find solace in the idea that we have dispatched him as well. The system will have worked as designed; our democracy will have proven itself to be resilient enough.

That said, the echoes of this righteous moralizing are sure to color our politics going forward. Even if there are no actual witch-hunts, politics-as-usual is probably going to feature the f-bomb (fascist) being thrown around with wild abandon. We're likely to see things like Mitch McConnell's procedural hardball for appointing conservative justices described witheringly as "Trumpian" (after a man who has likely had more than a few fetuses aborted in his time). Expect Republicans to reciprocate by gesturing at the rise of a Marxist-inflected "successor ideologies" driving Democrats to other un-American extremes. So it goes.

Perhaps with time, this too shall pass. It was all the rage to drop the f-bomb in European postwar politics, until it eventually became just a term of abuse. Indeed, that moment came more quickly than you might imagine. "The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’," wrote George Orwell—in 1946.

— Damir