Although Democrats could still lose the 2020 U.S. presidential vote — votes are still being tabulated as I write this — all Americans have already lost something even more dear in the election: our moral center.
Tragically, the center did not hold in this historically important and consequential election.
What people of conscience and who value integrity had longed for in the vote was a massive repudiation of the kind of Nazi-esque politics and heartlessness of the Trump administration’s seemingly endless assaults on the time-honored and essential ethics, values and norms of American life.
There’s a hint of repudiation in the election results, but it’s far from massive. The turnout for both parties was huge, if somewhat huge-er for the Dems.
That supposedly conservative Republicans were at the vanguard of this crude befouling of what has long made American great and exceptional was particularly demoralizing. The party of Lincoln and Reagan was believed to be the party of institutional and personal integrity, with an almost sacred connection to our national traditions.
That all went down the toilet with Donald Trump, leaving the only value being his personal self-interest above the nation’s. Most of a quarter million Americans are now dead in a virulent pandemic because of his self-serving political ambition, his denial that the viral scourge was happening because he worried it might subvert his re-election odds.
He might still lose the election (as he should) — and the odds seem good — but those of us who repudiate the moral sludge smeared over the Trumpian landscape are still left with a death stench in our nostrils, a rancid taste in our mouths, a sense of dispiriting malaise.
Two items I read today eloquently underline this. First recall this well-known passage from early in the second chapter of late iconic American scientist Carl Sagan’s wonderful book The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark (2008):
“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”
This is the Trump presidency and his under-educated, over-credulous, grievance-driven minions writ small. Also, today was a perceptive New York Times newsletter piece by columnist Frank Bruni (available only to subscribers) — “Nail-biter? Try soul-shredder.” While writing the article late on election night yesterday, he darkly lamented the unwelcome photo-finish outcome:
“The dream of a landslide for Joe Biden was just that. A repudiation of President Trump as emphatic as he deserved didn’t come to pass. And I can’t get my head around that last part. Just how badly must a leader behave — just how rotten must his character be — for him to be rejected unequivocally in America circa 2020?”
The truly dispiriting part is that the sins of our leader are not close calls; everything Trump does, good or bad (by far, mostly bad) he does publicly and in technicolor, gleefully daring everyone to disagree, to denounce him. Those who don’t are the ones who would not stop loving him even if he “shot someone on 5th Avenue,” as he is wont to say. Since when does the vengeful, mean-spirited and raucous joy of a Trump rally make noble the immorality and betrayal of core American, even Christian, principles, like fair play, honesty, compassion and kindness?
“Trump’s supporters reinvented or decided to ignore his coronavirus denialism, which made America a world leader in reported infections and recorded deaths, and has had catastrophic economic consequences,” Bruni wrote. “They disbelieved or forgave all of his cheating: on his taxes, in his philanthropy, when he tried to extort the president of Ukraine, when he grabbed another Supreme Court seat in defiance of the Merrick Garland precedent.
“They accepted or outright embraced his racism and nativism. They shrugged off his lying, which is obvious even through the pore-minimizing filters of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. They endorsed his cruelty and made peace with his tantrums and erratic behavior, which only intensified over the past month. They accepted or outright embraced his racism and nativism. They shrugged off his lying, which is obvious even through the pore-minimizing filters of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.”
And now, as GOP congressional leaders show their lack of integrity as they furtively whisper among themselves, trying to avoid reporters’ valid questions on why they aren’t condemning the president’s orchestrated attempted to stop counting of ballots in states where he lags.
They know this is awful. Un-American. Shameful. But they fear losing power more than losing face.
If Biden ultimately wins the White House, as it appears he very likely will when final votes are tallied and certified, we will still need to fumigate the hanging stench in the air and relocate our American honor.
I hope we are still up to it.