Perspective

In Search of Healing

America is facing one of the deepest divides in our history — and, no matter who wins the election, a difficult path forward
(Tara Hardy for The Washington Post; Trump reference photo by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

Rob O’Neill is pink: rosy complexion, baby face, apricot hair, ginger toilet-brush goatee that comes and goes. He is deceptively mild, with a knavish, twinkly Bugs Bunny smile that says, “Ain’t I a stinker?” He looks outdoorsy but businesslike, like the guy at the marina who rents you a Jet Ski. He does not look like an assassin, which is what he is. Until his retirement, he wasted bad guys on assignments for the United States government.

On May 2, 2011, Rob O’Neill was the second Navy SEAL up the staircase at a fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The first man up, the point man, was in front of him. Behind them, by the end of the ascent, was no one. The phalanx of backups, three or four other men, had peeled off at the lower floors to neutralize ancillary threats. As they climbed, O’Neill and the first guy warily awaited defenders in suicide vests flying at them from the shadows. None came. When the two men burst into the top-floor suite — pay dirt — there were two women standing there, screaming. The point man hugged them to the ground, bracing for the blast, ready to die to give O’Neill a clear shot once the smoke and blood-mist cleared. There was no blast. The women were unarmed.

Target No. 1 was in an adjoining room, tall and lean, his beard gone mostly to white, arms resting on the shoulders of his much younger wife. He was not using her as a shield, as was initially reported; he just stood there, a surprisingly calm man watching an unsurprisingly calm man — that pink Jet Ski salesman, hands steady as always, aiming his assault weapon above the short woman’s right shoulder at the tall man’s right eyebrow. Osama bin Laden’s head exploded. O’Neill walked up to the body and put another bullet in that ruined head, just to be sure.

If you do not consider Rob O’Neill an American hero, you will find no ally here. I don’t have that sort of physical courage, nor the required sang-froid, and neither do you, and it was a task that had to be done. If you have trouble calling his actions patriotic, I’m not with you, either. You don’t do that just for the big of it. You do it at least in part because of a belief in a larger truth. It is impossible for me not to admire Rob O’Neill, which is why it is triply hard for me to reconcile all this with the fact that he is one of the country’s most prominent and influential and outspoken and devilish and wickedly effective supporters of Donald Trump.

A 2014 portrait of retired Navy SEAL Rob O’Neill, who shot and killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Just days before one of the most consequential elections in American history, we’re in hell. There are myriad reasons — a global plague, racial injustice leading to unrest in the streets, deadly wildfires attributable to an international environmental crisis that has become exasperatingly susceptible to political ping-pong, a worldwide rise in authoritarian regimes — but we are in hell mostly because our very way of life seems imperiled by the politics of the times, whichever side you are on. That’s the thing: There are two sides, and nothing safely in between. The current political climate has riven families, destroyed ancient friendships, tested marriages.

The stakes are so elevated, the alternatives so stark, the consequences so potentially dire, that the principal emotion generated — inflamed by highly partisan media, and social media, on the left and the right — is something that very much resembles hatred.

Rob O’Neill has written an autobiography and made himself available for motivational speeches. On Twitter alone he has nearly 400,000 followers, more than twice as many as, say, Bob Woodward. O’Neill uses this platform jubilantly and with abandon. He deploys his celebrity without apology. His Twitter handle is @McHooyah, a play on the Navy SEAL battle cry. He has bragged about his kill numbers. His political allegiance is not ever in doubt. What he says, at times, races upstairs past merely disturbing and approaches shocking.

From July 20: “People ask me the best way to start a fire. Elect liberals. Fires everywhere.”

From July 14, accompanying a photo of a 21-year-old man with a freakish milk-white eyeball, blinded by a police gas canister while protesting for racial justice on the streets of Fort Wayne, Ind.: “Sounds like [he] is great at playing stupid games. Hope you changed the world!”

From July 30: “I’m not in charge. But if I were: Pull the feds out. Let the cities burn.”

Also from July 30: “I’m asking my liberal friends in Springfield, OR. Ever heard how you can vote your way into socialism but you’ll need to shoot your way out?”

From July 31: “They can’t make you wear masks. They can’t make you take your temperature. They can’t make you quarantine. Wise up.”

In late August he was banned from flying on Delta Air Lines for taking his mask off to defiantly photograph himself barefaced, on a plane, and posting it on social media with the caption: “I’m not a p---y.”

From Oct. 5, as Trump was released from the hospital while still battling covid-19: “Your president is 74 years old. He just crushed this ‘pandemic’. Get back to work.”

O’Neill has called me from an undisclosed location. The cellphone gives away that location, but he asks me not to use it. “I like to throw al-Qaeda off,” he says, requesting that I reveal only that he is somewhere between Maine and the Rio Grande. Done. He is laughing but serious. That, it turns out, is Rob O’Neill. Laughing but serious.

In this initial conversation, the first of several, we talked for 45 minutes. In the end, I asked him the key question I had for him, the key question I am going to try (... and fail! Spoiler alert!) to answer today: Regardless of who wins, will we come out of this in any way united? Can we heal, and how long will it take? Is there room for people of goodwill to come together despite these bitter political differences? Do we even want that? If so, what will it take to get there?

O’Neill says he thinks we will be fine, that we are a great nation, capable of reconciliation, that even if they lose, conservatives will be able to move on in peace, that all the talk of potential civil war is nonsense. “If we can’t do it,” he says, “the beers are on me.” Then, a long pause. “I mean, if we can find a place that’s not on fire.” Laughing, but serious.

I like him, dammit. And that’s a problem for me. I think people who support the policies and approach to governing of the current administration are a threat to everything I believe in. I have no doubt that O’Neill feels the policies and approach to governing that I prefer are a threat to everything he believes in. In short, hell.

President Trump throws masks to supporters during a campaign stop in Orlando in October. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

I am not pretending to be an honest broker here, the classic middleman role that good journalists try to adopt. I believe we are suffering through the worst presidency in American history. I believe Donald Trump is a dark malevolence, a puffed-up, jut-jawed Mussolini, a man who has no respect for — worse, no fundamental understanding of — what this grand experiment, the dream of the Founding Fathers, the deathbed legacy of Abraham Lincoln, has been all about.

I think Trump is amoral. I think he is a sociopath. I think he is a boor and a vulgarian. I think he is comically thin-skinned and vindictive. I think he is adolescently petty. Because I usually write humor columns, which confer a license to exaggerate, I have called him “America’s Chief Petty Officer.” I have noted that his supporters often argue that “Hey, at least he is not a politician,” which, I wrote, is like “putting your money on a chicken in the Kentucky Derby because at least he’s not a horse.”

I think he has no empathy for anyone’s suffering, something proven time and again: For example, he said that he didn’t worry about catching the coronavirus at a mass indoor rally because he was safely physically removed from the masses of his fans sitting out there, cheek by jowl, in chairs placed side by side, as his campaign staff had placed them, for great visuals. Then, of course, he caught the virus and imperiled others by not revealing his exposure, even telling the country, with its more than 212,000 dead, that the virus was nothing to fear.

I think he is a reflexive, congenital liar. I think his recent attempts at so-called populism — suggesting, for example, that we teach “pro-American” history — are a prehensile tactic, grabbing for a toehold from a shrinking and increasingly insipid political base.

I find myself profoundly disliking and disrespecting almost half of my countrymen and women — the group of Americans that support Trump, and it feels absolutely terrible.

I think he is emotionally wounded, a man pathetically in need not just of validation but sycophantic adoration. I think he tries to hide who he is, literally, under a preposterous comb-over and a grotesque spray-painted Kabuki tan — two absurd vanities that God exposes with the occasional gusts of wind, as though He is urging us, imploring us, to look at front and side mug shots. I think he is a tax chiseler. I find it galling that the man cannot spell or put together a coherent sentence and ebulliently flaunts that disability, as though it were some idiot sign of authenticity. I feel he is reprehensibly ignorant of the basic facts a president should have. He is so unapologetically and patently racist that some news organizations have come to simply state this as fact, unintentionally numbing the dreadful truth of it, so it comes off as one more unremarkable biographical detail, as though they were noting that he was born in 1946. I feel he embarrassed the nation by publicly mourning the death of Herman Cain, the hard-right buffoonish pizza magnate ... but not the great John Lewis.

Mostly, I cannot forgive him for what he has taken from me, personally. It’s not money — with his mismanagement of the virus, eliminating my travel and restaurants, and with his tax policies that favor the economically comfortable at the expense of the poor, he probably has actually made me money. What he has taken from me are two things: First, my genuine lifelong feeling that the United States, for all its weaknesses and failures, deserves, and has always deserved, the benefit of the doubt. Second: I find myself profoundly disliking and disrespecting almost half of my countrymen and women — that is, the group of Americans that support Trump. I have never felt such antipathy before, even in other sharply polarizing times, and it feels absolutely terrible.

Possibly history can provide some solace.

Democrat Hubert Humphrey during his 1968 presidential campaign. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Delegates supporting Eugene McCarthy at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which was marked by riots. (Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
LEFT: Democrat Hubert Humphrey during his 1968 presidential campaign. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images) RIGHT: Delegates supporting Eugene McCarthy at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which was marked by riots. (Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Republican Richard Nixon and his family celebrate his victory in the 1968 election. (Bettmann Archive)
Republican president Warren Harding, right, with Calvin Coolidge, his vice president and successor. (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
LEFT: Republican Richard Nixon and his family celebrate his victory in the 1968 election. (Bettmann Archive) RIGHT: Republican president Warren Harding, right, with Calvin Coolidge, his vice president and successor. (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

We have been here before, sort of. This country has endured shattering public divides, often coinciding with an upcoming presidential election. Which year you cite will depend on which historian you speak to. Kevin Kruse, a professor at Princeton, specializes in 20th-century history. He sees two precedents. The most recent, he says, was in 1968, when Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey in a historically close election campaign during which heads were bloodied in the streets. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago was a public riot followed by a police riot, and the divide was less blatantly political than heartbreakingly societal: hard hats vs. hippies — blue collar, idealistic decent people vs. young, idealistic decent people, each seeing in the other a threat to democracy. The earlier example, Kruse says, was in 1920, when the Republican ticket of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge defeated the Democratic ticket of James M. Cox and a young, hale, callow Franklin Roosevelt. Both presidential candidates were former newspaper executives, which now feels like a quaint bit of history.

That year was significant because of its echoes of the present. “We were in the middle of the devastation of the Spanish flu,” Kruse says, “and the aftershocks of World War I, and there were the Palmer Raids of immigrants and leftists, where feds were pulling people off the streets.” The election was essentially a rejection of the incumbent administration, Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s, and a referendum on change. Wilson was a racist; Harding was not, at least by the standards of the time. Republicans argued that we didn’t need a world beater, but “the best of the second-raters.” Which is, as it happens, what we got.

In each of these cases, Kruse says, there was a similar aftermath: The new president sought to bring people together. Both Nixon and Harding — a man bracingly aware of his own incompetence but with a fundamentally benevolent heart — sought to bind the nation’s wounds.

That. Just. Might. Not. Be what happens here. Whatever the results. We might be that shattered.

Daniel Walker Howe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, an expert on early America. Other than the pre-Civil War period, where division was so intense it seems to trivialize anything before or beyond, Howe finds his best precedent for today in the election of 1828, one of the most significant in the nation’s history. Four years before, Democrat Andrew Jackson had captured a plurality of both the popular vote and the electoral vote over John Quincy Adams — scion of the country’s second president — but, because of electoral machinations, was denied the presidency by the House of Representatives in what was largely regarded as a corrupt political coup. In 1828, the rematch was essentially a national referendum on whether the country was to be led by the political aristocracy of the Founding Fathers or by the will of the common man. For better or worse, the common man won.

What about now?

Howe is unsure. He seems to see history not incrementally but in grand sweeps of public sentiment, not movements of individuals but in the rising and falling fortunes of political parties. The most dramatic result of the elections of 1824 and 1828, he says, was the splintering of the Democratic-Republicans (John Quincy Adams’s original party) into Jackson’s Democrats and Adams’s short-lived National Republicans. And out of that hot mess eventually emerged the antislavery, anti-Jacksonian Whig Party. The Whigs lasted less than a quarter century; the last Whig president was a nonentity named Millard Fillmore, who later aligned himself with the xenophobic, nativist Know-Nothing Party. But the Whigs did gain some principled adherents. From the chaos of 1824 and 1828 came something noteworthy. By the mid-1800s the Whigs were in effect succeeded by a new party of similar but enriched philosophy — the Republicans — led by a young genius from Illinois.

So, uh ... can a new Lincoln come out of this mess? Howe laughs. “If we can create a new Whig Party, led by a new Lincoln, that would be an ideal long-term outcome! You can embrace that, and certainly you will have my blessing.”

Translation: Yeah, good luck with that.

Though Trump adherents, and Trump himself, have ludicrously compared the 45th president to the 16th, we can just stipulate that neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden will be able to fill Lincoln’s size 14 wingtips. Maybe a more realistic hope is that as the societal costs of such extreme division increase and the passions of an election cool, the more moderate partisans on both sides will begin to find a way to accommodate each other’s concerns. It won’t be easy.

A series of psychological studies of undergraduates at Stanford University in the 1970s examined people’s willingness to change their minds. Brief summary: We aren’t. We stubbornly hold on to our convictions even in the face of overpowering evidence we are wrong. “Once formed,” wrote a Stanford researcher, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.” Later, psychologists suggested this is actually a Darwinian trait, that our impulse to be logical is no match for our societal need to work together with others, which militates against pure logic. We are more interested in joining like-minded people, forming an intellectual bond, than in being technically, rationally correct.

Which takes me back to Rob O’Neill. The guy is very smart. A military man, he flat-out does not believe Donald Trump thinks soldiers killed in war are pathetic “losers” and “suckers” and rejects stories that say he does because they do not name their sources. Yes, he knows that Trump said something similarly cold about John McCain, and it is concerning to him. But he has met Trump, he says, and glimpsed his soul. “I know he respects the military.”

He thinks the media is poisonously biased, “trying to take Trump down.” He acknowledges that the commander in tweet writes things “that make people cringe,” but postulates that it is all tongue-in-cheek, that he is “trolling us to get a rise out of us, and it’s working.” He sees Trump’s tweets as elaborate jokes, like his own tweets, designed to raise hackles. He says, Yes, Trump is a braggart, but billionaires tend to be braggarts — for good reason. Does he blame Trump for his handling of the virus?

“I blame China,” O’Neill says.

On Trump’s apparent tax evasion? “Mostly, I’d like to ask him which CPA and tax attorney he is using so I can use them.”

O’Neill’s willingness to ascribe to humor some of Trump’s more controversial actions is almost boundless, and often comes off as good-natured, even gracious. He even dismissed it with a laugh in mid-October, when Trump retweeted a whackadoodle conspiracy theory that bin Laden still lives — that the man O’Neill shot was a decoy and a body double. “S---,” O’Neill tweeted in response, “I just found out that I killed Osama bin Johnson.” On a TV interview, he pilloried the conspiracy nuts, but not Trump, who he thinks was just, y’know, being Trump.

In combat, O’Neill says, “you want to limit emotion and emphasize logic.” Logic tells him Trump is a good man, trying to do his best, period. These are O’Neill’s feelings, and you cannot pierce them, like heavy-duty body armor. He flat-out believes.

Similarly, I flat-out believe the worst about Donald Trump, the guy who walked across Lafayette Square as protesters were tear-gassed out of the way so he could have a photo op in which he held a holy Bible upside down. I repeated that last part many times because it was so metaphorically perfect and because of a psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias, which means you tend to accept versions of facts if they seem to confirm what you already held to be true. Trump did make that walk, and protesters were tear-gassed, but the deliciously ironic Bible thing was incorrect — and unfair. That Bible was right-side up. The bare, humble, all-too-human, bipartisan fact is that we believe what we want to believe.

I have decried “whataboutism,” the rhetorical reflex in response to charges against your side, alleging the other has done even worse. I have long argued that whataboutism is the knee-jerk province of conservatives. And yet, I realize I have done it, too. When conservatives have railed against the occasional violence at anti-Trump rallies, I have responded by pointing out that white supremacists are far more violent.

We believe what we want to believe, even at the cost of our credibility, or our souls.

“I want to forgive him,” Rev. Janet Vincent says of Trump. “To some extent I can see a hurt, desperate human being behind all that bluster.”

Possibly it is time to consult a theologian.

Janet Vincent is an Episcopal priest from suburban New York City — and previously the rector at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington. I emailed her to ask for an interview and told her the topic; she agreed but asked for a day to think about it. She appears to have spent a full day thinking about it.

“My emotions are much more engaged in this than anything before. I woke up today thinking about my father. He was born in 1912 and served in the Pacific theater in World War II. He had a great hatred for the Japanese people. The thought of going to a Japanese restaurant was abhorrent to him.”

I didn’t know where this was going, but I was taking notes furiously.

“When I was about 9 years old, a Japanese family moved into the neighborhood two houses down from us, in Yonkers. I could see my father bristling, but over months, just in the activity of going out, getting into his car, this and that, he would pass the man. They began to talk, just a little. My father was a plumber. One day this man asked for some advice from my father, about plumbing in his house. My mouth dropped when I saw my father go into the man’s house, to help him.

“It was the beginning of a transformation. ... He stopped considering all Japanese people monolithically. He stopped saying ‘Japs.’ And the day he came home with a Toyota Corolla the transformation was over.”

The point, Vincent said, is that the human heart can humanize, evolving with increased familiarity. Then I asked her about her own heart. “Could you forgive Trump himself?”

“That’s a hard one,” she said. It turned out she has met Trump. Had dinner with him once, in the early 2000s.

She was the rector of a congregation in White Plains, N.Y. He was licensing his name to a tower there, and Vincent’s church ran a nearby shelter for women in crisis: victims of domestic abuse, substance abuse, women recently out of prison, homeless women desperately needing a place to stay. Trump wanted the shelter moved so that it was nowhere near his building. Vincent refused. There was a dinner meeting, arranged by a sympathetic real estate developer, to show her that Trump wasn’t such a bad guy. And there was a phone call afterward. At one point, she recalls, Trump was apparently unaware he was on speakerphone and told someone else on the call that he didn’t want “those p-----s anywhere near my building.” He discovered he’d been overheard when Vincent chimed in indignantly.

When I contacted the White House for comment, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The source was obviously reputable. She was on the record, and reporting a first-hand experience. Trump’s objection to the women’s shelter became public at the time; it had gotten into the newspapers. I thought I’d probably get a terse “no comment.”

I should have known better. Politically, this is wartime. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany referred my question to Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign. His emailed response, in its entirety: “This is a totally made up, fake story that never happened.”

My final question to the Rev. Vincent: Given everything, is forgiveness really possible?

“My faith orients me toward faith in the future. The future is God, drawing us to a more hopeful world where reconciliation and justice prevail. But it’s just a Pollyanna pie in the sky unless you do the hard work of transformation, our ability to see the other as fully human. I’m not denying difference, or promoting melting-pot theory. Assimilation is not what we want to see. We want to see a celebration of our individual uniqueness.”

“I want to forgive him. To some extent I can see a hurt, desperate human being behind all that bluster. So, yes.”

I asked her about the comment from Michael Caputo, a Trump aide, saying that if Trump loses the election, “the shooting will begin. ... If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get.”

“We will need heroes and heroines,” Vincent said. “People who rise up and say, ‘No, we can’t do this.’ ... That’s what would give us a hope of salvation.”

John W. Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel, during his key testimony against Nixon in the Watergate hearings in 1973. Now Dean is a vocal critic of Trump. (Bettmann Archive)

There has been a barrage of books critical of the Trump presidency, most notably “Rage,” by Bob Woodward, which discloses the president withheld from the American people the true lethality of the coronavirus. One of the more unconventional of the books, and possibly the hardest to parse, is “Authoritarian Nightmare,” released in August, by John W. Dean and Bob Altemeyer. It is at times dryly academic, filled with lines like “In this chapter we examine ... .” It is also one of the most intriguing of the Trump books.

Dean is the man who did much, more than almost anyone, to bring down Richard Nixon. He was Nixon’s White House counsel, a former Goldwater conservative, and for a time protected his boss by helping to cover up the Watergate scandal. Eventually he turned on Nixon and testified before the Senate committee investigating White House corruption. He was the ultimate insider, with unassailable information. His testimony was devastating.

Dean countenanced and abetted corruption, then had a change of heart and mind, partially for self-protection — he was potentially criminally liable — but not entirely. There may be no one on the planet in quite as good a position to examine the politics of the moment. What Dean’s book alleges is, to put it bluntly, that many Trump supporters are bigots, tools and idiots. It’s incendiary.

At 82, Dean still looks pretty much like the clean-cut bureaucrat who captivated the country in days of testimony in the summer of 1973. He has ideologically evolved, though. He was a vocal critic of George W. Bush and absolutely despises Donald Trump. I asked him about whether he is comfortable taking on a person who, for better or worse, has become a conservative icon. “I thought when you grew old you became conservative,” Dean says. “I have moved in the opposite direction.” In his book he judges Trump in terms of 4th-century Christian theology and the seven cardinal sins. “Trump might get a pass on sloth if you count watching cable news as working,” Dean writes. “Otherwise, he had plainly reveled in sin for most of his life and delighted in it like a pig rolling in muck.”

The book essentially examines the nature of Trump supporters and divides them into groups, based on studies of social science and the authors’ own surveys. The groups are of troubling description. “Social dominators” believe in inherent inequality between types of people — by racial or economic or class or educational standards — and believe that their group should dominate. They tend to agree in surveys that “some groups of people must be kept in their place,” and “it’s probably a good thing that certain groups are at the top and other groups are at the bottom.” The second group basically latches on to the first like remora on a shark. “Authoritarian followers” want to hitch onto a strong leader who will protect their group. “Double Highs” combine the first two groups into a particularly toxic mix of prejudice and submission to authoritarian rule. Dean counts Trump among these. All three, Dean writes, constitute the major part of his base.

I asked Dean what he thinks Nixon would have thought of Trump. He laughed. Nixon had actually corresponded with Trump, cordially, sending him plays for the New Jersey Generals, a football team Trump owned. But Nixon would have disliked him as president, Dean says, because Nixon “had a respect for the office he held, and the rule of law. He looked at the system, said, ‘Well, they caught me, I’m out of here.’ Trump wouldn’t do that. He doesn’t understand the office he holds. If Nixon had done what Trump is doing, he would have survived Watergate. If you have no respect for the rule of law, you don’t resign.”

What does Dean think will happen after the election?

It depends, he says. If Biden wins “in a tsunami” the situation might be okay if the reality TV guy is good and gone. “If the mood of the country has a chance to catch its breath. Politics is not theater. We may stop wrapping government up in 30-minute episodes.” If it is closer, Dean says, Republicans might look next time for another Trump, one without the rough edges but the same authoritarian bent.

If it’s very close, he says, Trump may well create a constitutional crisis.

And if Trump wins?

Dean pauses a minute to consider.

“I don’t think democracy, as we know it, survives.”

Dean’s existential angst — WE WON’T SURVIVE! — has an interesting echo in a statement made by another historical figure, Mike Pence. “The hard truth,” the vice president said at the Republican National Convention, “is you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” We have become mirror images, looking darkly at one another, terrified of what we see.

Trump speaks to supporters from the Blue Room balcony at the White House in October. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

What is hard to understand — almost impossible to understand — is the way the Trump presidency has divided seemingly like-minded people of goodwill: friends, relatives, neighbors, professional colleagues — people of similar backgrounds and who theoretically should align politically, but don’t. And who have a hard time feeling anything but contempt for the other.

I recently had a series of conversations with a man I know very well. His name is Daniel. He is 36, a mathematician, working on a book in which he plans to explain calculus to novices by starting with basic arithmetic. When I told him what I wanted to talk about, he said he was sending me something to help me understand the issue: It was a graph showing two head-butting parabolic curves that do not intersect. I had no idea what to make of it. Was he nuts? I called him.

“It’s an asymptotic hyperbola,” he said, “representing the formula y=1/x. They are inversely proportional.” In his example, he said, they represent logic and emotion, which are similarly inversely related and which leads to the problem he has with narrative-based political arguments. They are based on emotional presumptions that peremptorily exclude other views. One such exclusionary narrative, he said, is mine: “Orange Man Bad.” Daniel doesn’t share that. Did I see his point?

I did. My point is, this is one very smart guy. And, at least recently, a Trump aficionado. He is politically disillusioned in general and told me, initially, that he would vote for Trump “if I vote at all.” He is remarkably funny and is a student of stand-up comedy, and he sees Trump as a stand-up comic, deftly tweaking and baiting his detractors, and admires that. Daniel subscribes to a theory, initially framed by journalist Salena Zito, that liberals and the mainstream media take Trump literally but not seriously and conservatives take him seriously but not literally — and Daniel sees this latter take as more valid. He believes in a venal “deep state.” He acknowledges Trump “has not fully applied himself to the job” and “is not as learned as he should be.” But he thinks a far more important issue is that Joe Biden is mentally enfeebled and that running him in this condition is practically “elder abuse.” He thinks the election is about “the 25th Amendment,” meaning that if Biden is elected, Kamala Harris will fairly soon take power, and he mistrusts her.

What is hard to understand is the way the Trump presidency has divided seemingly like-minded people of goodwill, people of similar backgrounds.

His sources of news are different from mine. He refers me to statements from Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent turned hard-right podcaster. Most recently Bongino tweeted of the vice-presidential debate, which was generally considered a significant win for Harris, “That wasn’t a win for Pence, it was an annihilation. A complete evisceration of Kamala Harris. There’s no spinning this, she got REKT.” Daniel follows Millennial Millie, an online personality who is aligned with Alex Jones’s conspiracy website Infowars. She is entertaining but bizarre. She speaks in exaggerated sneers, mimicking opponents the way the Wicked Witch of the West did to Dorothy, and blatantly misuses information to mislead.

Just as I do, Daniel believes what he believes. What he believes is largely influenced by right-wing media, but to be honest, what I believe is largely influenced by left-wing media. On Twitter, I follow Jeff Tiedrich, whose anti-Trump rants are vicious and hilarious. Tiedrich contends Trump perpetually has a diaper load. So.

Daniel and I spoke several times. He is not a lifelong Republican or conservative. He is not a sexist. He’s not a racist. He supported Bernie Sanders last time around, until he felt Sanders “wimped out” against Hillary Clinton, and he wound up voting for Jill Stein. By our fourth conversation, he had begun losing some enthusiasm for Trump and had decided he will probably vote for JoJo — Jo Jorgensen, the Libertarian candidate who is a perfectly respectable person with interesting ideas and who also has zero chance of picking up even a single electoral vote. Daniel favors her in large measure because she is opposed to pandemic-imposed lockdowns, which he believes are “devastating.”

I believe Daniel is throwing away his vote. He believes he is being ethical. I contend that it is not entirely ethical to refuse to make a meaningful choice in an election this fraught.

This is just something on which we disagree. But you have to wonder: How does someone like Daniel — smart, decent, engaged, analytical, kind — develop the politics he has? He probably feels the same about me. It’s the question dividing so many people and families in the country. Is it a matter of basic values? Of upbringing?

I can answer that last one. His upbringing was pretty good. He is my son, and I love and respect him. And that’s the existential conundrum of where we all are.

Gene Weingarten is a columnist for the magazine.

Design by Christian Font and Suzette Moyer. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.

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