The night before election day, I drove through downtown Washington, D.C. The city had been tense for several days, not just because of the election but because of protests following the death of a young African-American Washingtonian who was pursued by police. He had been using a ride share electric motor scooter. He crashed and died. He was 20. There had been some boarding up. Now it’s everywhere.
When I drove past, National Geographic’s headquarters was boarded up. Defenders of Wildlife was defending itself with plywood. Any number of unions and pharmacies were, too.
A week ago, just a few stores had been closed. Loro Piana, the fashion staple of the casual rich, had taken all of its inventory and stashed it someplace. The $2,250 Fillmore Cashmere men’s sweater was safe. Now, many more are.
This is America. A middle-aged man in a mask driving on empty streets wondering what would happen next, listening to electric drills and hammers.
Even if Joe Biden wins, no one expects the Trump years' mendaciousness or vulgarity to simply disappear. Leave aside the question of whether Trump would accept defeat after an almost certain attempt to reverse a loss through litigation. The QAnon cult will still be here. So will the pandemic. Fox News and Facebook disinformation aren’t turning down the volume. Everyone will remain siloed in their information and geographic bubbles. Priuses and Whole Foods on one side, Monster pickups and Dollar Generals on the other.
I had hoped that when Trump left, the fever would break. That’s what happened with Joseph McCarthy. When the Republican Senator was training his fulminations and lies on the U.S Army, he had gone too far. The anticommunist who had done so much to help communism quickly collapsed along with his cause. Soon he was censured by the Republican and Democratic cowards who had abided him. A few years later he was dead.
Salem's witch-hunters had a brief run in the 17th century, too, but their mania faded. In The Plot Against America, Phillip Roth’s book and not the HBO movie, the Nazi-appeasement and polite anti-Semitism of President Charles Lindbergh ends when Lucky Lindy’s plane goes missing. There are a few gasps of Lindberghism without Lindbergh, but they fade quickly, within hours. It’s over.
We’re in for a longer season of madness, I fear. The ties of public schools and doctor’s house calls that kept this dynamic, polyglot society together in my youth were famously frayed before Donald Trump and it won’t end with him. That is true in my Washington. As corrupt as they are, the political parties were once a moderating influence, far more than the whack-job special interest groups that dominate primaries and enjoy unlimited Citizens United money.
In Congress, the old Schoolhouse Rock process of regular order tended to keep the crazies on the backbench instead of in control. The slow, normal process gave everyone an incentive to at least fight things out in a controlled fashion. Now, the House and Senate are cage matches of brute power: ramming through Amy Coney Barrett or the insane brinksmanship of shutting down the government.
We shouldn’t complain, I suppose. Compared to the Civil War, thugs cosplaying as soldiers aren’t an existential threat. The Black Lives Matter uprising is like a TED talk compared to the Draft Riots of 1863 when Irish mobs protesting conscription in New York City lynched blacks and burned down Brooks Brothers. We usually get through our darkest periods. For every Selma, there’s a John Lewis and for every Father Coughlin an FDR. At least we hope.
Still, I’m not sure the bad feeling will be easy to put behind us. As a nine-year-old in New Jersey, I knew which neighbors were for Nixon. My parents must have planted the scorecard in my head. We thought it was weird anyone would back Nixon, but my friend’s parents did, and the elderly couple next door, and the people three houses down. It felt high stakes in my house, as I recall. My parents worried about the Vietnam War going on ad nauseum. But it didn’t feel as weird as this.
Driving in my Washington, I try to take comfort in other things. This is still an enormously free and dynamic society without the sclerotic malaise of European economies or the klepto-authoritarianism of Russia. Immigrants want to be here for a reason. We’re still an assimilation machine, a world away from the bleak segregated suburbs of Paris or the shootings in Nice. Go to Dearborn, Michigan and Patterson, New Jersey, and see the thriving Arab communities, and you’ll have hope. As James and Deborah Fallows recently wrote, the politics of many of America’s small towns and cities are often normal, productive, and kind, just as Washington politics are toxic.
I don’t know what will happen on Nov. 4, the day after the election or Jan 21, the day after the inauguration. If Trump wins, his worst tendencies will be unleashed without the constraints of reelection. Goodbye, Fauci. Maybe, goodbye NATO as we knew it. Trump’s pathologies will only be exacerbated by age and, quite possibly, the still mysterious lingering effects of COVID. I can’t say things won’t get worse.
Driving down K street , the famed lobbyist row, where restaurants and law firms alike were hidden behind wooden boards, I remember the times I’ve tried to explain to a 22-year-old what politics used to be like. I try to explain the Clinton-Dole race in 1996 or the Carter-Ford race in 1976, where the choice did not feel existential. You didn’t think the other team winning was good, but it wasn’t the apocalypse. And you didn’t know the results could be stolen by the Supreme Court or Moscow or the Postmaster General. Remember, even Nixon showed gallantry when he refused to contest the ultra-close 1960 presidential election.
I think in a few years we’ll come out of this, sooner if Biden wins, much longer if Trump does. Maybe in 2022 or 23, we’ll stop wearing masks. Billions of refrigerated vaccines will have been distributed, and the anti-science post-rationalists of the left and right who refuse to take them will be few enough that we can go back to funerals and football.
A more normal politics might emerge by then, driven by wily but sane politicians who understand the market for not crazy. This plague won’t be a year, to cite Daniel Defoe’s book or this publication. It will be the Plague years, but I think, like the sounds of plywood going up and the dank smell of a cloth mask worn all day, it will end.
Matt Cooper was senior editor at Newsweek, managing editor for White House coverage at National Journal, and is a former reporter for Time, where he made national news when he was held in contempt of court, along with New York Times reporter Judith Miller, for refusing to name his sources on the story of Valerie Plame, the CIA agent whose assets were put at risk when Bush administration officials leaked her identity.
Season of the Witch ::: Donovan
Everybody Wants To Rule The World ::: Tears For Fears
Volunteers ::: Jefferson Airplane
He’s Misstra Know It All ::: Stevie Wonder
Trials Troubles Tribulations ::: Estil C Ball
Hard Times ::: Kate & Anna McGarrigle (w/ Rufus Wainwright, Emmylou Harris & Mary Black)
Judgement ::: Rev Sister Mary Nelson
Everybody Wants To Rule The World ::: Pomplamoose