Americans have voted and with overwhelming numbers declared they have had enough of Donald Trump and his political circus. One feels a sense of relief, but victories are rarely complete and total. Millions of Americans believe Biden’s election represents the end of the country as we know it. They brace themselves for a socialist takeover and an assault on their liberties. The ugliness of the defeated, and that ugliness was never theirs alone, remains. We have to navigate what has been left behind, walk among the dry bones, and muster the courage to respond to it all.
Joe Biden will be our next president and his administration will face an extraordinary array of problems. Alongside the details of policy and the particulars of governing a deeply divided country, he will have to confront what Donald Trump refused to face: that our way of life is broken. Americans are disaffected, distrustful, and full of disdain. This state of affairs, in part, is the result of generations of toxic political waste dumped into the Republic by politicians and political parties who sought to exploit our fears and grievances for their own political gain. But what we face today, in the aftermath of the Trump presidency, cuts much deeper than hyperpartisanship.
From the beginning, Americans have imagined a way of being together as a country that takes for granted a kind of selfishness that masquerades as liberty and freedom. We have been willing to allow the belief in widespread prosperity to compromise our commitments to democracy, and we have allowed white supremacy to wrap itself around the basic tenets of our way of life. Each has grown and flourished as we have sought comfort in material possessions and illusions that allow us to take flight from the empty aspects of our lives. Even in those moments of crises that called for national sacrifice and, sometimes, a reimagining of who we are as a nation, we responded with courage and commitment, but we also cleaved to these ideas that warp how we live together. It was only a matter of time – and time can be a fickle thing—that we would end up right where we are now: in a place where it seems that too many have given up their stake in American life for their own selfish ends.
Beyond the hard politics and the public health crisis surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, Joe Biden and his team will have to grapple with the reality of death, loneliness, and selfishness, which have so shaped the last years of the Trump administration. By the time Biden takes the oath of office some project that over 400,000 Americans will have died of COVID-19. Many would have died alone. Loved ones would have had to say goodbye via smartphone and figure out how to grieve without the collective rituals of mourning and loss.
Trump wanted to banish our dead from view. Many Americans followed his lead. No lessons were learned for them. Death remained hidden like modern cemeteries cast out of sight to the distant corners of where we live. In The Republic of Suffering, Drew Faust wrote about the Civil War and that “death created the modern American union—not just by ensuring national survival, but by shaping enduring national structures and commitments.” Death “inspired self-scrutiny and self-definition.” Think of the thousands of Civil War photographs of the dead and what those images forced the nation to remember. This is anathema to Trumpism. We have more images and videos of police killing Black people than we do of the carnage of COVID-19. Today the dead from coronavirus is principally a private affair—where a sense of “shared suffering” is fleeting at best. With the virus, death has shown us our disunion.
The new Biden administration must understand that we have to figure out how to be together differently after the horror of COVID-19 and the madness of Trumpism. Biden will have to make amends with our dead or they will haunt this nation. He will have to make, as we all will have to, something meaningful of this scale of loss or it will run this nation into the ground.
This will not be easy, because we also suffer from a kind of loneliness that can get in the way of shared suffering. We are stuck in our homes and our pains and joys are hidden behind masks. Basic social gatherings are shadowed by the specter of the virus. Before the pandemic, public health experts were already concerned about the epidemic of loneliness in the United States. Social scientists wrote about us “bowling alone” and about how our eyes were glued to smart devices instead of focused on the human beings right in front of us. The fabric of community—the associational life of the country so important to Alexis de Tocqueville’s description of American democracy—had already worn thin. COVID-19 only made matters worse.
This loneliness stands alongside selfishness. For close to forty years we have witnessed those committed to a certain political ideology insist that we are simply self-interested persons in pursuit of our own aims and ends. Our connection to our fellows was a matter of charity or choice. The idea of deep care of others lost in a rhetoric that, like Ayn Rand, made selfishness a virtue. So much so that some Americans amid the horrors of COVID-19 refused to wear masks in the name of liberty and decried national public health efforts as an example of the tyranny of government. For some, selfishness has overrun sacrifice and negative liberty has become license to do whatever the hell one wants to do—even act on one’s hatreds.
This is the America Biden inherits—a country where the background conditions for a vibrant democratic life have collapsed. This election should be seen as a source of hope. But I pray that we do not trade one fantasy for another: that Trump’s defeat somehow affirms our inherent goodness and puts a grateful Republic back to sleep. We can’t keep lying to ourselves. We have too much work to do, and it begins with our dead, and us.
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