Once upon a time, Americans prided ourselves on our tolerance of difference. According to the story we told ourselves, we forged “one” people out of “many.” E pluribus unum. Unlike European nations with traditions of a single established religion, the United States separated church and state at the outset. As a result, we (eventually) became more willing to welcome different religious groups and tolerate a wider range of religions. Unlike European nations that rooted citizenship in blood or soil, we (eventually) became more willing to accept birthright citizenship, which means that anyone born in the United States is a citizen.
In recent years, however, that familiar story has come under sustained, even violent pressure. Now it is in danger of unraveling. Since the mid-1990s, Evangelical Christians and many conservative Catholics have mobilized over a variety of issues, including opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Some have insisted vociferously that the United States was founded to be a “Christian nation.” They aim to restore school prayer, and they want their version of biology and American history taught in schools. Many white Americans, and many men, have begun to challenge the wisdom of allowing nonwhites and women equal access to the privileges they once enjoyed exclusively. Opposition to affirmative action and support for forms of white nationalism, patriarchalism, and immigration restriction have become increasingly popular. These conflicts simmered after the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), the Immigration and Naturalization Act (1965), and Loving v. Virginia (1967) opened the door for desegregation, increased immigration, and interracial marriage. Since the decisions in Roe v. Wade (1973) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, the conflicts have threatened to boil over.
President Donald Trump has become the symbol of the latest battles in these culture wars. He first rose to national prominence by spearheading the stupefying “birtherism” movement, yet another reminder of the continuing vitality of American racism. On the basis of exactly no evidence, and in spite of the readily available birth certificate confirming that Obama was born in Honolulu’s Kapiolani Maternity and Gynecological Hospital on August 4, 1961, Trump denied that the president was born in the United States. Evidently invigorated by the realization that bluster now provides a serviceable substitute for proof, candidate Trump launched an unlikely campaign for president premised on exaggerated claims and outright lies. He insisted that illegal immigration from Mexico constituted a crisis, even though it was declining. He insisted that The Wall was the solution, even though the stretches of the border with a wall have proven no less permeable than those without one. He branded Mexican immigrants murderers and rapists, even though the percentage of crimes committed by illegal immigrants is lower than that of native-born citizens. He conjured up an epidemic of late-term abortions, a problem to be solved by new legislation and new judges, even though, again, there was no evidence to sustain the claim. He trumpeted a familiar Republican charge that millions of people were voting illegally in U.S. elections, even though neither he nor anyone else could find examples.
Although it was well known that Trump’s own businesses had employed illegal immigrants and that he had supported abortion rights for decades, his hypocrisy seemed not to matter to the adoring crowds who flocked to his rallies to chant “build the wall” and “lock her up.” Those two vacuous mantras not only expressed his supporters’ fury but they also, and conveniently, sidestepped substantive issues of domestic and foreign policy about which Trump knew little and appeared to care less. His election to the presidency in 2016 was made possible by the mobilization of traditional Republican voters and the fact that many of those who had twice voted for Obama chose not to vote at all. Through his speeches and his tweets denigrating nonwhites, women, the press, and the ominous “elites” he held responsible for the nation’s ills, Trump signaled to many culturally and politically conservative Americans, both during the campaign and since, that they now had a friend in the White House. Neither Trump’s proud vulgarity, his notorious record as a swindler, his boasts that he had cheated on all three of his wives, nor his obvious disregard for the longstanding norms of political behavior mattered as much to those who voted for him as his empty promise to “make America great again.” Somehow.
A flurry of books has appeared since the 2016 election to demonstrate what the campaign had already made self-evident: the United States is more divided than ever. First off the mark were E. J. Dionne Jr., Norman J. Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann. Their One Nation After Trump captured the outrage of many liberals and moderate conservatives in its subtitle, A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported (2017). Greg Sargent of the Washington Post followed fast with An Uncivil War: Taking Back Our Democracy in an Age of Trumpian Disinformation and Thunderdome Politics (2018), which detailed the strategies by which Republicans seized control of state legislatures, gerrymandered Congressional voting districts, and deployed various counter-majoritarian strategies that enabled them to seize control even when they lost the popular vote—as George W. Bush did in 2000 and Trump did in 2016. Michael Tomasky, editor of the journal Democracy, contributed If You Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How It Might Be Saved (2019), which provides a wealth of evidence to explain the puzzling decline of comity and the rise, since the mid-1990s, of unprecedentedly bitter partisan rancor—unprecedented even in a nation in which partisan rancor has been the rule rather than the exception. That list could be expanded considerably, especially if one were to add the dozens of books that have poured from the presses of conservative publishers ever since the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and of Obama in 2008 and 2012.
In short, it is well established that Americans are more divided over political and cultural issues today than they have been since the 1850s, the decade that culminated in the Civil War. Those of us unwilling to consider even the possibility that we might be replaying that script were taken aback when Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney turned chief accuser, predicted before the Congressional oversight committee on February 27, 2019, that the president would never accede to a peaceful transition of power were he to lose the 2020 election. Coming near the end of an eight-hour-long denunciation of his former boss as a racist, misogynist, lying conman who behaves more like a Mafia boss than a corporate executive, let alone President of the United States, that observation nevertheless provoked shudders. Have we, at long last, reached the point at which our divisions are so deep that one of the most crucial of all qualities in a democracy, the respect for the results of an election, can no longer be considered sacrosanct?