It is tempting to blame all the chaos and conflict we're living through on President Trump — and to hope that if Trump is defeated, things will snap back to the old normal. But Trump is a mere symptom, not the disease itself.
As he campaigns for Joe Biden, former president Barack Obama has riffed on a memorable line from his wife, former first lady Michelle Obama: "Being president doesn't change who you are, it reveals who you are." More than that, the Trump presidency has revealed who we are as a nation.
If Biden's superpower as a politician is empathy, Trump's is shamelessness. He has zero respect for the guardrails that long proscribed our political life.
Not so long ago, a public official caught in a lie had some explaining to do and some contrition to display; Trump simply repeats the lie, confident that many of his followers will believe it. He claims that he can lose only if the election is somehow riddled with fraud. And when a caravan of Trump supporters dangerously surrounded a Biden campaign bus on a Texas highway Friday — an incident now being investigated by the FBI — it was no surprise that Trump reacted by calling those reckless drivers "patriots" and saying they "did nothing wrong."
What continues to be surprising and disturbing is the wider Trump effect: the way he gives both his supporters and his opponents permission to say and do things they might once have considered beyond the pale. At rallies, that means encouraging ritual chants of "Lock her up!" or "Lock him up!" about Trump's political opponents. This week, the Trump effect looked like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) endorsing road rage as a political tactic, saying "Did you see it? All the cars on the road? We love what they did."
But if Trump revealed this ugliness, he didn't invent it. A segment of the White population, especially in rural areas and small towns, was already alienated from political and cultural "elites" in the big, globalized urban centers — and increasingly anxious about lost status and power in a nation rapidly becoming more diverse. Unjustified police violence and unaddressed systemic racism had already brought many Black Americans to the boil-over point — and Trump devoted himself to turning up the temperature.
Our politics had already become more tribal, with too many Americans looking to politicians to provide them with a sense of affirmation and superiority rather than with carefully considered policy proposals that might benefit the entire nation.
Take Trump's opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which he bitterly attacked even as he seemed to support nearly all the major elements of the legislation, especially its protections for those with preexisting conditions. Unlike the case with some other Republicans, the point of this opposition wasn't anything the law actually did. Rather, Trump's animus about "Obamacare" was personal: Destroying it wasn't about changing health-care policy but about dismantling a hated opponent's legacy.
Even if Trump gets the electoral drubbing he deserves, the cleavages he has so successfully and destructively exploited will still endanger us. Covid-19 will still plague the land. No election can erase the fact that we have more cases and deaths than any other nation. Whether or not Trump is defeated, his influence can linger: Too much of the country is refusing to regularly wear masks because the hated "other tribe" insists that everyone should, making a bare face the 2020 equivalent of a "Make America Great Again" hat.
Still, however, I remain a congenital optimist. One thing that gives me hope is the fact that so many of us — nearly 100 million, as of Monday — defied both the raging pandemic and widespread attempts at voter suppression to cast ballots before Election Day.
We can't begin to solve our problems unless we talk to one another, and elections are the venue for that conversation. We may be yelling and screaming across the divide, but it's a beginning — and you have a part to play. Vote.