He is finally gone. The Fool departs, the Reign of Error closes. The feeling in our household, as in millions of others, is one of relief. Big, big relief, HUUUUUGE relief, as the man himself might say. On January 20, I kept imagining I could hear a collective sigh of 200 million people—a veritable roar of relief, echoing from coast to coast.
The day had stray notes of absurdity mixed in. Like Trump exiting, in the ceremony of adulation he had choreographed for himself, to the raucous strains of “Y.M.C.A.” (“Young man, there’s no need to feel down / I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground”). Or his valedictory message to cheering supporters: “Have a good life.” Have a good life? Normally that would seem a truculent and sarcastic thing to say. And maybe it was—Trump’s contempt for everyone, even for his supporters, leaking through holes torn in the man by his own ever-thrusting self-pity.
The wear and tear on our country, meanwhile, has been almost beyond measure. It’s not easy to know what the worst of it has been. But I’d begin with the way in which our civic discourse has been degraded. We humans have a fantastic capacity for adjusting ourselves to circumstances. The upside of this ability is endurance: our ability to survive, no matter what. We have seen this on display, spectacularly, during the ten months of this pandemic. The downside is what you might call accustomization. We get used to things; the expression “the new normal” suggests how readily this happens.
What Trump demanded we get used to was a level of insult, bullying, nastiness, crassness, insinuation, duplicity, and brazen selfishness that truly boggles the mind. There was—of course—no secret about any of this; the one thing Trump was honest about was how awful he was going to be. This was a man who mocked people with disabilities to their faces; who urged police to go hard on those they arrest; who egged crowds on with chants of “lock her up!”; who boasted of sexual assault; who turned debates into pure travesty, bragging about his penis size. And all of this was fully evident before we elected him. The four years of his presidency, as far as I can see, did nothing—not one thing—to balance the ledger on the side of decency, kindness, forgiveness, diplomacy, or joy.
“The new normal,” then, is a scary phrase to apply to what happened these past four years. In this sense, the hope for Biden is a hope for the old normal, some old normal, almost any old normal. That could be his nickname: Old Normal. And that would be a good thing. We need to get back.
But how? To my mind, one of the most discouraging features of Trump’s presidency is one of the most abstract: the epistemological hall of mirrors he led us into; the destruction of the very idea of factuality, objectivity, provability, and truth. Trump did not create the epistemological hall of mirrors; it’s been in the works for some time. During the Bush administration, Karl Rove infamously derided a journalist for being part of what Rove called “the reality-based community.” What he meant was that the journalist was clinging to an obsolete idea—namely, that some things are demonstrably true and others demonstrably false, and further that this distinction is and should be the basis of our political understandings, conversations, and ultimately our agreements. Well, Rove said, you can forget about that! Here were his contemptuous words to the journalist: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”
I find it fascinating to think that this idea—namely, that the truth claims people make are not valid on their own, but rather exist only as assertions of power—is traceable to postmodern theory, and that a Donald Trump is essentially a fulfillment of Foucault, via the likes of such cynical operatives as Karl Rove. Whatever the intellectual pedigree of this worldview, its effect on our political life and discourse has been calamitous. Even as my household exhales in relief, other millions of American households fester in anger and even despair, believing that their hero has been cheated out of office. It is, in my view, a provably false belief. But...so what? They believe it, and their refusal to accept any other version of reality is fortified by an extensive network of (dis)information sources. And so tens of millions of Americans are going to continue to believe that this election was fraudulent. They will remain an indigestible particle in the political metabolism of the nation.