Now that the November election is behind us, and we peer into another four years of political deadlock, and the realities of an ongoing global pandemic, I feel it’s worthwhile to explore some of the lessons of the Trump Era, whether or not it’s really over.
Alaskans are no strangers to division and polarization, having seen the issues of land use and public policy play out in our small and often isolated communities over generations: We’ve seen many of the harsh realities of racism, police brutality, poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence, mental and physical illness and disability, and the difficulties of finding adequate treatment; just as we know the value of industry, hard work, police protection and public service, faith and its role in community, and of our connection to each other.
We know that wherever we go, we go there together, as a community.
Many, myself included, find the president’s divisive and contentious style to be a hard pill to swallow. Watching Trump’s ascendancy has been a little like watching a zombie apocalypse, seeing characters like Sens. Lindsay Graham and Dan Sullivan go from running away in terror to a sudden unquestioning obedience, even applauding as he devoured the brains of others.
I’ve watched in fascination and alarm as the Republican Party transformed itself into the Party of Trump, as the Democrats struggled to pick up the pieces of a shattered normalcy, and every news cycle became dominated by the personality and inflammatory rhetoric of one man, as he leaned into authoritarian tropes of “us” vs “them,” and successfully divided everything, even public health approaches to COVID-19, along political fault lines.
What’s really stumped me has been the credibility factor: Trump’s wild and inconsistent relationship with facts, and even his own statements, has turned presidential politics into a game of “Say Anything”. Unfettered by truth, he’s been able to trammel the media into an endless stream of free publicity, centered on himself.
But look beyond the outsized personality, and there are important lessons for us to consider as we go forward.
One is that over 74 million Americans just told us that they’re tired of being lied to by reasonable sounding people using science-based approaches which always seem to wind up with working Americans getting shafted. That’s more people than have ever voted for any politician in this country — except for those who just voted for Joe Biden, and a return to “normalcy.”
There is a sharp urban-rural divide in how we see ourselves as Americans: “Normalcy” isn’t working for a lot of people — so much so that they’re willing to cast their lot with a preening egotist like Trump, who is at least blatant and transparent in his lies, than the more educated elites, whose lies are harder to detect. They’re done being used, and are willing to color outside of the lines to escape the trap that’s been carefully constructed around their lives and livelihoods.
Joe Biden is playing with fire, to put it mildly, by trying to put these feelings to bed with a return to business-as-usual.
There’s an opportunity here to have a real discussion about issues important to both sides of the political divide, beyond their use as wedges to distinguish two outdated parties from each other—-I think many will be surprised by how much we have in common.
The sanctity of life, and how that intersects with reproductive freedom; border security, and America’s role as the world’s policeman; freedom of religion, and the role of faith in our society; real equality, of race, gender, creed, and identity; and perhaps most importantly our rights as enumerated in the Constitution, which both parties have allowed to erode in the name of security, fear, or political connivance: Our freedom to speak, to assemble, to be secure in our persons and effects, to bear arms in our own defense, to have equal protection under the law — these things are more important than any one person or party; they are vital questions about the way we govern ourselves that we can only work out together, regardless of our differences.
Our existence as a nation of laws depends on it.
• Jamison Paul is a parent and Juneau resident.