The Strained Bonds of Affection: What Now for a Divided Nation?

As I write, at seven in the morning on November 5, we still have no declared winner in the race for president.  While Biden’s margin in Arizona narrows, the trends look very good in Pennsylvania and possibly Georgia as well.  The former vice-president has more paths to victory than Donald Trump, which is why the latter’s team is filing frantic and even contradictory lawsuits in an effort to forestall the increasingly – nearly – inevitable.  (The absurdity of the Trump position was encapsulated in side-by-side images circulated on Twitter yesterday: nearly identical mobs of pro-Trump supporters outside vote counting centers in Phoenix and Detroit; the group in Arizona demanding that counting continue, because Trump is behind there – and the crowd in Michigan, demanding that the counting cease, so that the president’ fragile lead might be preserved.)

The real story, second barely in importance to the final outcome, is the widespread dismay on the left at how well Donald Trump has done in his reelection campaign.  For months if not years, the left and the center had worked hard to convince themselves that tens of millions of Americans who voted for the Orange Monster in 2016 would come to see the error of their ways this time around.  The family separation policy, the bungling of the COVID response, the accommodation of white nationalists, the graft and incompetence?  Even as polling experts mostly cautioned against expectations of a landslide, the left desperately wished for one, akin to the massively one-sided outcomes in 1964, 1972, and 1984. 

We didn’t want to merely win.  We wanted a Cleansing Blue Wave.  We wanted to take the cities and suburbs, the exurbs and farms, leaving only a handful of die-hard Trumpies confined to the hills, the hollers, and the trailer parks of urban liberal nightmares.  The wave didn’t come.  Indeed, while Joe Biden has already received more votes than any other candidate in American history, Donald Trump is sure to end up with the second-highest total ever – more than in 2016, and more than Barack Obama ever won.  (Cook Report has a helpful updated popular vote tracker; as of this morning, Biden has 50.4%, Trump, 47.9%.  A very poor showing for third parties.)   At best, only four or five states will have switched to Biden, enough perhaps to give him the White House, but far from sufficient to give him a mandate.

Faced with the truth that some 70 million Americans looked at the last four years and asked for more, the left has reacted with sorrow, anger, and bewilderment – rather like an idealistic history teacher who spent a whole semester tutoring struggling students, only to find that they deliberately and gleefully flunked the final exam for which he thought he had so carefully prepared them.  Writing in the Atlantic, George Packer declares Trump voters’ “readiness to throw away their republican institutions along with their dignity and grasp of facts suggests that they have lost the basic qualities that the Founders believed essential to self-government.”  The shattered history teacher has spent the last day writing ever fatter and more anguished Fs on the front page of his students’ blue books.

If we on the left hadn’t been so busy cutting Trump voters out of our lives and ensuring that their perspectives are not heard in the media we consume, we might have been better prepared for this result.  Instead, too many of us curate our private and professional relationships to surround ourselves chiefly with the likeminded – a habit that may be comforting and even psychologically necessary, but one that leaves us with no possibility of understanding how half of our fellow citizens see the world.

When one points out that liberal disgust at Trump voters only galvanizes the right, one is met with indignation.  How can we be expected to engage with deliberate ignorance and racism?  There’s no changing these people! We shun for our sanity, and we shun in the vain hope that our shunning will be so painful that it will lead to some sort of moral epiphany that never comes.  Indeed, the opposite happens; Trump not only got more votes than he did in 2016, he increased his margins with Black and Latino voters.  Forget whether or not Trump voters deserve your contempt, consider the very real likelihood that that your all-too-obvious disgust and opprobrium is attempting to put out a fire with gasoline. 

Our moral indignation fuels rather than chastens, but we’d rather be right than win.

There is nowhere to run from the other side.  Not every state is as closely divided as Pennsylvania or Arizona, but even in deep blue California, Trump has received nearly 4 million votes – his third highest total behind Texas and Florida.  He won 25% of the vote in Los Angeles County, and ran ahead of 2016 in heavily Black and Latino South L.A.  (I live in the overwhelmingly non-white, deeply urban district of the redoubtable Maxine Waters; her opponent, a Black former Navy officer who wrapped himself in the Trump flag, pulled in 28% against her -- the best result a Republican has had against Maxine in decades.)    You can block all the people you like on Facebook, but you can’t cut off Trump’s people any more than you can cut out your own lung.

Packer writes, “There’s no escaping who we Americans have become: This is the election’s meaning. We are stuck with one another, seeing no way out and no apparent way through, sinking deeper into a state of mutual incomprehension and loathing. The possible exits—gradual de-escalation, majority breakthrough, clean separation, civil war—are either unlikely or unthinkable. We have to live and govern ourselves together, but we still don’t know how.”

Joe Biden, on the other hand, knows how.  Yesterday afternoon, he tweeted “To make progress we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies.  We are not enemies.” 

Joe – or whoever is running his Twitter – is surely paraphrasing the final soaring paragraph of Lincoln’s first inaugural.  Lincoln’s larger passage reads, “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

What Joe understands that Packer and the left do not is that reconciliation isn’t only what happens after victory.  Unlike in Lincoln’s time, there will be no secession, no bloody and prolonged civil war between clearly delineated geographic regions, no surrender at the Appomattox courthouse.  There is no coming definitive resolution. Right-wing Christians can sing all the praise hymns they like about Christ returning in glory to make every tongue tell and every knee bow and every liberal repent; cosmopolitan urban lefties can daydream about a sudden moral and intellectual awakening sweeping through Trumpland, perhaps with AOC replacing Tucker Carlson on Fox News.  These are equally fantastical and absurd. None of that is going to happen.  We cannot decide that we will only live together in peace after the other side adopts our most basic and treasured values; we cannot make reconciliation dependent on a repentance that is never going to come.

Lincoln spoke of the “bonds of affection” – not the bonds of faith, or of reason, or of science.  The only way forward, and I suspect that Biden knows this, is by taking tentative steps to let affection flourish even despite mutual incomprehension.  Anyone who has ever deeply loved a grandparent who believes appalling things knows how this works.  That willingness to love someone who believes wrong things isn’t a weakness to be eradicated, it’s a strength to be cultivated.

This isn’t about denying our differences on profound moral and epistemological questions.  It’s about choosing affection anyway, choosing tolerance anyway, if only because there is, as Packer points out in his despairing essay, no alternative. 

If you’re of a certain age, you may have grown up with the extraordinary PBS series, “The Ascent of Man,” by the Polish-born historian and mathematician, Jacob Bronowski.  His final episode famously concludes in Auschwitz, with Bronowski wading in the mud outside the crematoriums.  Bronowski summarizes what led to the Holocaust, which was carried out more by men of science than by religious fanatics.  Moral and intellectual certainty without compassion, even affection is deadly, he says, and reaches down into the muck, raising it in his fists.  “We must learn to touch people,” he declares.

It’s 2 minutes of your time, and I urge you to watch it.

We must learn to touch people.  Not to teach, nor to rebuke, but to survive.