And now, we have to pick up the pieces, to find our way back, feeling quite naive at the start.
Despite all of our failures as a nation, we have always been sure that we have something good going on. We thought that there was a level of fair play, of respect for the rules of our governing institutions, to which we all subscribe, even in disagreement. We thought it was a given.
Now we’re not so sure no matter who wins this presidential election. The past four years don’t sound like an aberration, like something ugly that started and will end with Donald Trump. They feel like something bubbling up that has always been there. Trump just stepped in, exploiting the resentments of victimization.
Character is everything
Our nation will pick up and move forward. We still believe in it. We will find a way to bridge our differences, more or less. The basic institutions – the separation of powers, the power to vote, a free press – will prevail, and we will find our way back to the same Thanksgiving table, even if we never look at each other the same again.
At the most basic level, however, we will know and worry more than ever that our government and our politics are worth what we are. It’s an obvious truth, but the past four years have given it new urgency:
Character doesn’t just matter. That’s all.
It is not the storybook version of our American system. As children in civic education, we are taught that a small group of brilliant men, the Founding Fathers, devised an ingenious system of checks and balances in government precisely to guard against lower-level leaders. character and passions of the crowd.
The Senate would be a drag on the House. The legislative branch would be a control over the executive branch. The judiciary would be a neutral arbiter. The Electoral College would protect small states from large states. And free access to an unfettered press – the Fourth Estate – would ensure that the most unassailable facts and the best ideas prevail.
This often turned out to be more speech than reality, as any black American who grew up in the Jim Crow South might attest. But the ideals made sense and we congratulated ourselves: the system works! – whenever those checks and balances brought down someone like Senator Joe McCarthy or President Richard Nixon.
Now we know
But maybe we were lucky. McCarthy didn’t have a Twitter account, thank goodness. Nixon, for all his faults, was not beyond shame. And there was no Fox News to amplify a thousand lies to a disturbing number of people who will believe anything that fuels their resentment.
Now we know. When a president and his party rule without integrity, with no other goal than to win, our country is in trouble.
Environmental regulations are ransacked to please the managers of coal companies. Undocumented immigrants are deported when shot and are scapegoats. Racial justice protesters – the vast majority of whom are truly peaceful – are ridiculed as violent thugs. White supremacists receive an invitation to the party. A bounty is put on the heads of American soldiers by Russia, and the president and his admirers say nothing.
This election, which remained too close to be called from 12:30 am Wednesday morning, has always focused on the personal, first and last. Trump never had it, and the Republican Party that backs him threw it out. Joe Biden has a lot, whatever else you might say.
COVID-19 is on the rise because Trump lacks character. He feared the political fallout from the pandemic – that he might look like a loser – so he denied it and ignored it and hoped it would go away.
The economy is a mess because Trump lacks character. God forbid, he should lift a finger for the Democratic governors and the big cities who will never vote for him.
More than 500 immigrant children have lost their parents because Trump lacks character. Being a tyrant is his mark.
Values that take a hit
We, as a nation, can undo much of the measurable damage Trump and his administration have caused. We can reimpose rules to protect our air and our water. We can repair relations with the allies. We can get concrete in the fight against COVID-19.
But whether Biden or Trump wins this election, what worries us most is the loss of personal character as a defining American virtue.
For four long years, the values we strive to instill in our children – trust, respect for others, taking responsibility, fairness and caring – have taken a hit in our politics and our culture.
What do we do to get back from it?
Send letters to [email protected].