Police separate anti-Trump and pro-Trump supporters in Denver, July 1, 2016. PHOTO:MICHAEL REAVES/THE DENVER POST VIA GETTY IMAGES)
Sometimes you write about the most obvious thing in the world because it is the most important thing. Reaction to the outcome of Robert Mueller’s investigation shows Americans again how divided we are. If you are more or less of the left, you experienced the probe as a search for truth that would restore the previous world of politics. Instead the traitor got away with it and you feel destabilized, deflated. If you are of the Trumpian right, it was from the beginning an attempted coup, the establishment using everything it had to remove a force it could not defeat at the polls. You are energized, elated.
Now both sides will settle down, with the left as forthcoming in its defeat as the right is forbearing in its victory. I just wanted to show you my fantasy life. The Trump forces will strike with a great pent-up anger, and the left will never let go.
Both sides will be intensely human. And inhuman. Because the past few years the character of our political divisions has changed, and this must be noted again. People are proud of their bitterness now. Old America used to accept our splits as part of the price of being us—numerous, varied, ornery. Current America, with its moderating institutions (churches) going down and its dividing institutions (the internet) rising, sees our polarization not as something to be healed but a reason for being, something to get up for. There’s a finality to it, a war-to-the-death quality.
It is, actually, shocking, and I say this as a person always generally unshocked by American political division, because I came of age in it. When I was a kid we came together as a nation when John F. Kennedy died and manned rockets went up, but after that it was pretty much turmoil—Vietnam, demonstrations, Watergate. You were on one side or the other. The terms left and right started replacing the boring old Democratic and Republican.
I will never forget seeing, on the cover of Time magazine, in October 1972, an essay by Lance Morrow that was ostensibly about the last days of the race between Richard Nixon and George McGovern but really about something bigger. I was in college, and it struck me hard. It was called “The Two Americas,” and was elegantly written and prescient. The candidates were so unlike each other that they seemed to represent different “instincts” about America. “They suggested almost two different countries, two different cultures, two different Americas,” Mr. Morrow wrote. “The McGovern campaign marches to the rhythms of the long, Wagnerian ’60s”—racial upheaval, the war, feminism, the sexual revolution. McGovernites had a more romantic conception of what leadership could be, should be.
In Nixon’s America, on the other hand, there was “the sense of ‘system.’ The free enterprise system, the law and order system, even the ‘family unit’ system.” They were protective of it, grateful to it. And the antonym to their idea of system wasn’t utopia, it was chaos. “They are apprehensive of the disorders that the late ’60s adumbrated to them, the turmoils that they suspect a McGovern accession might bring.” They wanted evolution, not revolution.
While Nixon supporters tended to be more “comfortable,” McGovern backers had their own kind of detachment. Harvard sociologist David Riesman was quoted on part of McGovern’s constituency, professional elites: “They have very little sense of that other day-by-day America.”
Mr. Morrow noted a dynamic still with us, only more so. On both sides, “voters repeat their candidate’s themes and even rhetoric with a precision that is sometimes eerie.” He concluded with the observation that within the two Americas he saw “one common denominator,” the sophistication of the people, their earnest desire, left, right and center, to find and support the best thing for America.
It was written with a respect and warmth toward the American people that is not so common now.
The notion of a country divided reinforced what I thought at the time I’d been seeing. The facts and feel of the divisions change, but division isn’t bad, it’s inevitable and human.
In my lifetime I have seen two things that have helped us reorder ourselves as a nation into some rough if temporary unity. Tragedy, such as 9/11, is one. Sheer political popularity is another. Ronald Reagan had two authentic landslides, the second time, in 1984, winning 49 states. Today’s America doesn’t yield outcomes like that. But there was something we did then that could never happen now.
Writing is never pleasurable, at least for anyone sane, but the most pleasurable and satisfying speeches I worked on with Reagan were those in which you get to bring your love for the other side. A Rose Garden speech praising the excellence of Scoop Jackson or JFK, a speech never given on the excellence of Eleanor Roosevelt. We quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman more than Dwight Eisenhower. The boss had been a Democrat. He’d stumped for Truman in ’48 with Truman. Reagan was not sentimental about our divisions—he knew exactly why he was not a Democrat anymore—but he took every chance he could to reach across the lines and hold on.
But that kind of popularity is probably not possible in this environment. That’s for many reasons, and one is that policy demands have become maximalist. It’s not enough that contraceptives be covered in the government-mandated plan; the nuns must conform. It’s not enough you be sensitive to the effect of your words and language; you must be punished for saying or thinking the wrong thing. It’s not enough that gay marriage is legal; you must be forced to bake the cake. It won’t do that attention be paid to scientific arguments on the environment; America must upend itself with green new deals or be judged not to care about children.
Nothing can be moderate or incremental, everything must be sweeping and definitive. It is all so maximalist, and bullying.
In that environment people start to think that giving an inch is giving a yard. And so they won’t budge.
You don’t even get credit for being extreme in your views but mild in your manner, in the way that people called Barry Goldwater both extreme and mild. Now you must be extreme in your manner or it doesn’t count, you’re not one of us.
It is just such an air of extremeness on the field now, and it reflects a larger sense of societal alienation. We have the fierce teamism of the lonely, who find fellowship in their online fighting group and will say anything for its approval. There are the angry who find relief in politics because they can funnel their rage there, into that external thing, instead of examining closer and more uncomfortable causes. There are the people who cannot consider God and religion and have to put that energy somewhere.
America isn’t making fewer of the lonely, angry and unaffiliated, it’s making more every day.
So I am worried, which is the point of this piece. The war between Trump and not-Trump will continue, will not be resolved, will get meaner. One side will win and one side will lose and the nation will go on, changed.
Is it self-indulgent to note that this grieves me? I suppose it is. But it grieves me.