The Elections That Trashed America

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

What’s your picture of America, that great expanse between Canada and Mexico? A bastion of freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness? Hmmm … Nope! The American dream? Not so much! An idea, an ideal, a world leader? Not no more.

As one of those WASP-y folks with Mayflower and Revolutionary ancestors, I come from the people who have long believed in the American idea, the ideal, and the responsibilities of leadership. But our time is long gone, and it is long gone because America is no longer one country.

America the Schizophrenic

From the very beginning, the 17th-century “errand into the wilderness” that turned Europeans into Americans had schizophrenia. Established with slaughter and supported by slavery on the one hand, but lifted up as “a city on a hill,” a beacon of freedom and “a special kind of courage,” as Reagan put it, on the other hand, America – WASP America – thought it would be a model society built by the pure and chosen. Not surprising that America has suffered schizophrenic breaks time and time again.

At this moment, the two “personalities” of America are roughly equated with the Republicans and the Democrats, and each of those parties has its own schizophrenia. The Republican party has almost entirely been remade by Donald Trump into an extremely conservative, personal adoration machine – moderate Republicans are few and far between. The Democrats have had to contend with conflict between centrists like President-elect Joe Biden and a progressive movement revitalized by the two presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont.

The two sides are badly split on many issues, with Republicans taking individualist positions on gun rights, immigration, race, assistance for the poor, etc., etc. The Democrats offer community-oriented policies on all those issues and more. The Republicans call the Democrats socialists, and the Democrats think Republicans are fearful of demographic change – i.e., the loss of white-dominated America.

It’s been a long time coming – the presidency of Donald Trump just laid it out in the open. Any number of U.S. elections, combined with demographic and socioeconomic change, have trashed the idea and ideals of America; the Trump elections, however, have raised the possibility that the trash can’t be cleaned up.

The split between individual and community

In 1800, President John Adams was challenged by Thomas Jefferson. Adams believed in strong central government, Thomas Jefferson in state’s rights and individual liberty. The difference in ideas led to Jefferson supporters saying Adams had a “hideous hermaphroditical character,” and Adams supporters calling Jefferson “a mean-spirited low-lived fellow.” Having been great and respectful friends (Adams had asked Jefferson to be his Vice-President, in a bipartisan gesture, but Jefferson turned him down), the two did not speak for twelve years. Adams left town before Jefferson’s inauguration.

Here we have not only deplorable rhetoric and bad behavior, but the beginning of the American conflict between the community and individual. Alexis de Tocqueville, a 19th-century French observer, noted in his two-volume Democracy in America (1835-40) that Americans had “habits of the heart” that supported family life, religious conviction, and local participation in community politics – the bedrock institutions of a free society. On the other hand, he saw that the American tendency towards individualism could divide Americans from one another, prevent positive collective action, and threaten the institutions of freedom.

In 1985, sociologist Robert Bellah and four colleagues published Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Their conclusion? “We are concerned that this individualism may have grown cancerous – that it may be destroying those social integuments that de Tocqueville saw as moderating its more destructive potentialities, that it may be threatening the survival of freedom itself.”

While the gun rights vs. gun control conflict is a good example of individualism vs. community, the anti-mask movement is a more current example, and comes closer to showing individualism attacking community. The beginnings of the anti-mask movement appeared on that ever-reliable indicator of popular sentiment, Facebook, and featured flocks of sheep with quotes about how people who wore masks lived in fear. By May 6, 2020, when Psychology Today asked why the mask issued triggered such rage, retail employees had been assaulted for asking a customer to wear a mask, and an 80-year-old man in a New York City bar was shot and killed for asking why another patron wasn’t wearing a mask. Three months later, Forbes reported continued physical violence and property damage, and a quick Google of news coverage found at least another three people had been murdered over the issue.

Granted that the anti-mask movement got underway before we knew how much protection masks offered, but it doesn’t seem to have lost any steam. Why not? Psychology Today suggested the conflict and rage are triggered because masks are “visible markers of a political divide.” Being anti-mask is firmly allied with the much bigger, basic political idea that the individual comes first, and any attempt to make an individual do something for the benefit of others is an assault on freedom. From that ever-reliable source of information, Facebook in GIANT ALL CAPS: “The urge to save humanity is always just a method for politicians to grab power. Government has overreached so far, now they are coming into your home. This is training you to comply for total takeover.” Another theme is that the science is wrong, also in BIG letters: “Check the math and the science. Mask mandates do not work on slowing or stopping COVID. The only effect that masks have is spreading unreal fear.”

Pro-mask postings on Facebook are much less colorful, and usually involve scientific information presented as fact, and geared to guiding group behavior – e.g., asserting herd immunity doesn’t work unless 67-70% of the population has been vaccinated, reprinting of New York Times analysis on why states that locked down in the summer are doing better this fall, listings of the federal government’s failure to contain the virus, and love songs to Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The geographical mismatch

In 1860, the year before America’s Civil War broke out, moderate Republican Abraham Lincoln campaigned not on eliminating slavery, but on preserving the Union by prohibiting the expansion of slavery in new territories. The Democratic platform, represented by candidate Stephen Douglas, ignored the issue of expanding slavery. The question of slavery vs. abolition was tied to the issues of states’ rights, including the right to secede. Lincoln won the election largely because there were two splinter parties that took more extreme positions pro and con slavery and states’ rights/secession.

The upshot of the November 6 election was secession (South Carolina on December 20, six more states by February 1, 1861, 4 more in April and May); Lincoln tried hard to reverse the secessions, but finally on August 16, he declared those states to be in “a state of insurrection” against the Union, and America’s Civil War began. Like all civil wars, it was an unspeakable horror; it also marked geography – the South vs. the North – as representing fundamental social and cultural differences.

In 1981, four years before Habits of the Heart laid out the split between individualism and collective interests, journalist-scholar Joel Garreau published The Nine Nations of North America, which argued that the economic and cultural characteristics of America divided it into nine different geographic regions; within each region, largely driven by the area’s economy, people shared cultural values that conflicted with those of other regions. According to Garreau, “The layers of unifying flavor and substance that define [each of] these nations still explain the major storms through which our public affairs pass. And ‘Nine Nations’ is also a map of power, money and influence, the patterns of which have only deepened.” More recently, journalist Colin Woodard has published two books that, read together, integrate the issues of incompatible regions and individual vs. community: American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (2011) and American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good (2016). Needless to say, Woodard’s position is that we need to balance protection of individual liberty and nurturing community.

Woodard, the state and national affairs writer for my hometown papers (Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram), recently used his 11 regions to show that politics, too, are regional, with the strongest support for Republicans in “Greater Appalachia” and for Democrats in New York City and the surrounding area, plus the upper West Coast. Working on a county-by-county basis (which can look quite different from a state-level tabulation), Woodard finds little change in regional voting behavior – except some increase in urban vs. rural outcomes – since 2000.

This is surprising, since all 21st-century elections have been marked by tension and some outright controversy. In 2000, the Supreme Court ended vote recounts in Florida, effectively handing the election to Republican George W. Bush, who was re-elected in 2004 because America was embroiled in a war Bush started under intelligence that proved to be false. In 2008, we elected our first black president, which according to Democrat Barack Obama’s just-released memoir, set America’s racism simmering, if not seething. The whole point of the 2010 midterm elections, according to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, was to see that Obama was a “one-term president.” It didn’t work out that way, but there was no way the 2016 election was going to follow a president of color with a female president, even without her considerable baggage.

These elections laid the groundwork for where we are when this was written: the incumbent president, even though he lost both the popular vote by over 6 million votes and counting, and the electoral college by 74 votes, is still claiming, that if Biden won, it was because the election was fraudulent. Trump said he will leave the White House if the Electoral College certifies Biden as the winner.

Alternative facts

On January 22, 2017, two days after Donald Trump’s inauguration and in the midst of a photographic brouhaha about whether or not Trump’s inaugural audience was the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe,” Kellyanne Conway, special assistant to the President, described the difference between the audience claimed by Trump and the observed attendance to be “alternative facts.”

Conway kicked off what is probably the most divisive aspect of electing Donald John Trump to be President of the United States. Alternative facts establish a different reality, and one Trump has exploited. As of July 9, 2020, he ticked past 20,055 confirmed “false or misleading statements,” firmly believed by his base. Add to that uncounted statements designed to provoke that base to action – statements supporting white supremacist and racist positions, statements encouraging violence, conspiracy theories. On Wednesday, August 11 and Thursday, August 12, 2017 (Trump had been in office seven months), far right groups staged a march in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of Confederate monuments and “unite the White nationalist movement.” On Thursday morning, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe declared an emergency, and the Virginia State Police declared the march an unlawful assembly.

At about quarter of two, in broad daylight, self-declared white supremacist James Alex Fields, Jr., drove his 2010 Dodge Challenger into the counter-protestors. He was going about 25 miles an hour, and killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer. He was charged with first-degree murder, malicious and aggravated malicious wounding (6 counts), felonious assault (2 counts), and federal hate crimes (30 counts). He is serving two life sentences plus 419 years in the federal penitentiary in Allenwood, Pennsylvania.

Nonetheless, since that incident, “vehicle ramming attacks” are on the rise. Worldwide, terrorists executed 17 vehicle ramming attacks between 2014 and 2017; between May 26 and September 5, 2020, there were at least 104 vehicle ramming attacks carried out on groups protesting the death of George Floyd under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Most (but not all) were executed by members of what the Department of Homeland Security calls WRM (white racially motivated) groups. Democrats put the blame for this squarely on Trump’s statement that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the Charlottesville incident.

Beyond generating the anti-mask movement and eliminating strong federal leadership on the coronavirus pandemic, “alternative facts” have embraced conspiracy theories of every stripe – former Congressman and current MSNBC host Joe Scarborough killed Lori Klausutis, one of his Congressional aides? Phony science makes climate change a “total, and very expensive hoax” perpetrated by China? Joe Biden is out sniffing kids’ panties? The election was rigged and Trump really won?

The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School puts out the Mis/Information Review; this past June, it published a pair of articles investigating how conspiracy theories about the coronavirus shape how people behave about the pandemic. Conspiracy theories have ranged from accusing China, Democrats, the Deep State, big pharma, Bill Gates and George Soros of unleashing the pandemic to promoting the medicinal properties of disinfectants, ultraviolet light, and hydroxychloroquine.

Guess what? People are more prone to believing conspiracy theories “promoted by visible partisan figures” than they are to believing medical information that was wrong. In other words, people are more ready to believe that bad actors are harming them, than they are to believe health-related misinformation. The conspiracy theories were more readily believed by people with conservative ideology who supported Trump; those who did not believe the health information expressed a general mistrust of science and scientists; a general mistrust of science and scientists; about two weeks before the election, Trump said “Fauci is a disaster” and that “People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots.”

This is a mess. Can it be cleaned up? At the moment, 73,799,431 Americans like things the way they are – but there are 79,853,547 Americans who may never forgive them. A good percentage of them don’t believe they should expend the effort to meet Trumpers halfway. Go halfway to make nice with Nazis? People who don’t respect women? People who think kids in cages are a good idea? People who don’t respect science and fact? Doesn’t look good.

And by the way, the role of Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in handling the pandemic shows similarities to Trump’s approach – downplaying the seriousness, dissing preventive behaviors, etc. AMLO’s approval ratings are dropping across the board – not for his personal handling of the pandemic, but an August poll showed 66% of Mexicans surveyed thought the “government” did not have the pandemic “under control”; by November, 75% thought the country’s coronavirus strategy should be modified or completely changes. In the midst of all this, 63% thought the country’s problems (poverty, public safety, organized crime, violence) “had overtaken” AMLO’s ability to control them. Another one-term president?

Deborah Sampson Van Hoewyk is named for her great, great, great, great, etc., grandmother or aunt, whatever, from Sharon, Massachusetts, who got dressed up as a boy named Robert Shurtliff and fought in the Revolutionary War.