The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion 2020 has been rough. But most of the year’s misfortunes were self-inflicted.

The Senate votes to acquit President Trump on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, as seen on a television in the briefing room at the White House on Feb. 5. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A popular meme shows Dr. Emmett Brown and Marty McFly from “Back to the Future” sitting in their time machine, with Doc Brown warning, “Whatever you do, don’t set it to 2020!” Indeed, 2020 may be only at its midpoint, but for many it is already “the worst year ever.” When the dust finally settles, history should record how most of the misfortunes were self-inflicted.

As a reminder, it started late last year with the impeachment of a president, a political hit job masquerading as a constitutional crisis. It is telling that President Trump’s impeachment was the top story of 2019, according to the Associated Press, but his 2020 trial and acquittal will likely rank no higher than fourth this year, behind covid-19, racial justice protests and the presidential election.

The investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Trump-Russia collusion was a dud, but Democrats quickly pivoted to a phone call between Trump and the president of Ukraine. “Quid pro quo” became a phrase repeated ad nauseam and the basis for an abuse-of-power charge. For good measure, Trump was also charged with obstruction, but it soon ended with Senate Republicans voting for acquittal as hurriedly as House Democrats had rushed to impeach him.

Then came the novel coronavirus, its only upside being that it mercifully quelled endless post-impeachment analysis. The virus was real enough, of course, but government-ordered lockdowns and economy-killing business closures were major overreactions outside a handful of obviously deadly hot spots.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Studies are predictably emerging now to convince everyone how many lives were saved by following the extreme measures recommended by health professionals. But then, 1,200 so-called health experts joined forces to sign a letter advising everyone not to use covid-19 as a reason to shut down racial justice protests. To underscore the point, the letter stated, “This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders.”

In other words, the need to protest for racial justice outweighs the risk of spreading the virus, but gatherings protesting lockdowns are too risky. Got it. The letter is a gift to conservatives, another illustration why multitudes of scientists trotted out in support of draconian action on everything from social distancing to climate change are often viewed as politically driven.

Contrary to some assertions, Americans are not pretending the virus has disappeared. They know it’s here, it’s serious and it’s sometimes deadly, killing more than 100,000 Americans so far. But they also know that even with a vaccine, the flu is estimated to kill tens of thousands in the United States year after year — as many as 80,000 just three years ago. We don’t shut down our world, despite the risks.

Millions of Americans can be forgiven for believing the virus should have been confronted not by soul-killing across-the-board lockdowns and unemployment, but instead by treating us like adults, with frequent health advisories while in many places we could continue attending our places of worship, cheering our favorite teams, watching our proud seniors celebrate their graduations, and enjoying all the other unifying activities that uplift us when we gather together.

Finally, another entirely avoidable atrocity was the killing of George Floyd, which sparked civil unrest nationwide. As was the case in many small towns, a Black Lives Matter protest was held last weekend here in Hillsboro, a mostly white, Trump-supporting community. Nearly 300 protesters, white (mostly) and black, marched peacefully, stopping at the county courthouse in the town square to air their grievances. Members of the local VFW post stationed themselves nearby at a veterans’ memorial plaza, some with firearms displayed — the Bill of Rights was in action all around — but no one was looking for trouble. Marchers voiced anger and impatience, but they did so peacefully.

Full coverage of the George Floyd protests

A half-century since the civil rights movement, we don’t need more hearings or conversations about race. We almost all agree on the most critical part of what needs to be done. Good, dedicated police officers already know the bad apples among them — the racists, or the ones who enjoy the power and authority of the badge more than they care about protecting and serving. They need to be weeded out now — not tomorrow, not next week, not after going through fact-finding hearings or three-step disciplinary procedures. There should never be another viral video of unlawful police violence, whether targeting blacks or whites. Racism, wherever it rears its ugly head to harm lives and livelihoods anywhere in America, must be condemned and eliminated.

More often than we sometimes think, we have the ability to control our fate if we refuse to let petty political grievances guide us, or allow fear to overwhelm us, or if we choose to address necessary reforms rather than waiting on upheaval and violence to force them upon us. The year 2020 may so far seem like the worst year ever, but it could be remembered as one of the best, if we learn from it what we should.

Read more:

Henry Olsen: We can’t keep the economy closed forever

The Post’s View: A devastating second wave is possible. But there are ways to avert it.

Danielle Allen: We seek reforms to policing. But something even deeper needs repair.

Eugene Robinson: Trump might go down in history as the last president of the Confederacy

David Von Drehle: ‘Defund the police’ isn’t a winning campaign slogan. But it has a point.