IT’S THE FOURTH OF JULY WEEKEND IN MAINE. Thanks to vaccines, something like normal life is reemerging across the state. Small towns are holding their traditional parades. Families and friends are gathering again in small and large numbers. Lakes and beaches and parks are full of people. It’s almost the summer we remembered.
The tourist economy has come roaring back, too. Hotel rooms are scarce in Bar Harbor. Business is brisk at Big Al’s Fireworks Outlet in Wiscasset. In Portland, lines are long outside the Portland Lobster Company, and at the Harbor Fish Market prime lobster meat is selling for more than $50 per pound. Almost everywhere, bars and restaurants that survived the pandemic are full of locals and people from away.
It’s fitting, and perhaps auspicious, that the easing of the pandemic’s constraints and fear coincides with the Fourth of July holiday. We are becoming reacquainted with the small liberties of everyday life as we celebrate the political liberty the country has enjoyed for nearly 250 years. It’s hard to recall an occasion when the various meanings of freedom — large and small, sublime and mundane — were so conspicuously joined.
For some, this alignment is cause for optimism. In a recent piece in The New York Times, columnist David Brooks buoyantly declared that “The American Renaissance Has Begun.” Brooks is especially optimistic about the economy. Stalled during the pandemic, American innovation and productivity have come roaring back to life in the post-COVID reopening. The manufacturing sector is expanding, jobs are abundant, and wages are rising.
Brooks also sees a social renaissance. The traumatic isolation of the pandemic is causing people to reorder their values. Domestic and community life are reemerging as priorities. There is a hunger for balance between work and the rest of life. Cosmopolitans are fleeing the cities, bringing more diverse and open sensibilities to less cosmopolitan places. Combined with the growth in manufacturing, this demographic shift might portend an ex-urban and rural renaissance. “American made.”
Given all the pent-up energy and demand, Brooks’ optimism is reasonable. And perhaps necessary. Hopefulness might be the civic virtue most required of us on this Fourth of July. The last few years have been brutal. Trump’s election and regime; the deaths of black men and women at the hands of police; way too many mass shootings; a global pandemic that killed more than 600,000 Americans and pounded the economy. It’s hard to recall a stormier, more rancorous period in our national life. The Vietnam War era, perhaps. Nothing since has been so wrenching, so full of anger and division and doom. Expecting something different and better may be part of the way out.
But the social wariness and reserve we’ve had to observe since COVID arrived are hard to shake. Walking into crowded indoor spaces still brings a jolt of anxiety. And then there’s the awkwardness of greeting friends and family members one hasn’t seen in many months. What’s appropriate? Hugs? Handshakes? Fist bumps? We hunger for connectivity even as we reflexively fear it. The pandemic scrambled our settled habits of social interaction, leaving us to wonder if the old ways will ever reassert themselves.
Some of the initial hopefulness of the vaccines has been watered down by the rise of viral variants, including the potent Delta variant that was first detected in India and is now present in 85 countries. So far, the vaccines appear to provide protection against this latest and most dangerous expression of SARS CoV-2. But Delta reminds us of an irrepressible and inescapable biological fact. The virus is a mobile, shape-shifting, evolving being. It keeps moving relentlessly forward, altering its form and the manner in which it takes up residence in human bodies and moves from one body to the next. The new viral forms are like past forms, therefore recognizable and continuous. But they are also, and worrisomely, different. Vaccines will evolve too, of course, hopefully keeping us one or two steps ahead of the viral curve. But this evolutionary two-step is now a more or less permanent feature of our landscape.
Like the pandemic, the much-longed-for return to normal has a profound political aspect. Joe Biden was elected president in part because a sufficiently large number of people believed he might restore a political normal — normal differences and disagreements among parties and lawmakers; normal behavior on the part of the president and cabinet officials; normal differences and disagreements among citizens. Biden’s campaign theme— unity — was essentially a call to restoration. The premise of any restoration is that there is something solid and foundational to return to, a norm of democratic life around which all differences and animosities can be organized, understood, negotiated. The democratic normal.
For the most part, Biden has been on pitch. His presidential behavior and demeanor have been predictably, and reassuringly, dignified, fitting, normal. He has pursued legislation and compromise. During his recent trip to Europe, the message was pure restoration. America is back! We’re the same country! You can count on us! His message on ending the pandemic was also essentially restorative. If we do our duty, he told us, if we act together like responsible citizens, this Fourth of July we will be like the ones we remember, with family and friends gathered around the barbecue.
But beyond the rhetoric and hopefulness, hard evidence of a return to a democratic normal is hard to come by. Beginning almost immediately after the presidential election, Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country began considering ways of reigning in electoral participation, one of the bright spots of the 2020 election. To date, 17 states have enacted 21 laws making it more difficult to vote, with still more bills in the offing. At the federal level, efforts to develop national standards and guidelines for vote-by-mail and early in-person voting have been blocked by Republicans in the Senate expressing concerns about states’ rights. The particular resonance of that term — states’ rights — in this time of racial tension is unmistakable.
The efforts to constrain voting are closely tied to the stubborn persistence of the myth of the stolen election. A recent Monmouth University poll found that one-third third of American voters still harbor the belief that Joe Biden’s victory was the result of electoral fraud. That number includes over 60 percent of all Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters. The Monmouth poll also found that roughly one-third of all voters are supportive of the 2020 election audits occurring or contemplated in several Republican-controlled states, including the embarrassing process unfolding in Arizona.
Many of the same senators who voted against federal guidelines for voting by mail and early in-person voting also voted to block legislation that would have created a bipartisan commission to review the events of January 6 at the U.S. Capitol. In the House of Representatives, it was encouraging that 35 Republicans broke ranks to support a commission. But that still left 175 Republicans in opposition. Some of them went much further, denying that anything out of the ordinary had occurred on January 6. Representative Andrew Clyde, a first-term Republican from Georgia, described the assault on the Capitol as akin to a tourist visit. Arizona Republican Paul Gosar decried the FBI’s investigation and pursuit of the assailants, labeling it a form of harassment of peaceful patriots.
A more sweeping effort to alter the way we understand the country’s history is emerging in the efforts of a dozen or so state legislatures and boards of education to purge primary and secondary school curricula of existing or contemplated attempts to offer deeper and more critical approaches to the study of slavery and its long-term consequences. In the wake of the racial turmoil of the past four years, now informed by the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of Georgy Floyd, nothing seemed more logical or necessary than strengthening the teaching of the history of racism and racial discrimination and their structural forms and legacies. Now, some states are moving hard in the opposite direction, forbidding public schools from teaching anything pertaining to institutionally embedded racism. Bizarrely, this reactionary movement has rallied around opposition to Critical Race Theory, a previously obscure academic movement that emerged from law school faculties in the 1970s. But the implications of the anti-CRT movement are not obscure: critical perspectives on the American past will not be permitted. Yale historian Timothy Snyder very recently reminded us of the connection between these kinds of “memory laws” and the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe.
The common thread in all these developments, of course, is Trump. Not Trump the person, sculking about at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, but Trump as Trumpism, that volatile mixture of nationalism, xenophobia, racism, protectionism, neoliberalism, and populist and autocratic impulses lodged in the minds and voting intentions of the 40 or so million Americans who constituted the core of President Trump’s electoral base. Needless to say, these voters are not looking back nostalgically to a more sedate democratic order and time. They are looking ahead to the next opportunity to join their grievances to political power.
The elusiveness of the democratic normal is evident in personal as well as institutional life. Sometime in May, I was returning to Portland after a long bicycle ride when I encountered several dozen demonstrators carrying Trump-Pence signs and anti-gun control posters on a prominent corner near the city’s center. I was genuinely surprised. In the run-up to the election, I never saw a pro-Trump rally in Portland, which voted overwhelmingly for Biden, apart from the stray pickup blasting through the downtown with American flags and Trump banners snapping in the breeze. I was also surprised by my emotions. Everything I’d felt about Trump and Trumpism during the past four years — anger, fear, astonishment, shame, despair — came rushing suddenly and uncontrollably to the surface. More recently, I’ve been reminded that among certain acquaintances and friends, the subject of national politics is still off-limits. The divide is just too great, the feelings too powerful and raw.
At one level, the persistence and strength of these political emotions are regrettable. They are signs of the degree to which democratic norms and processes have been undermined in recent years. Democracy would seem to require our collective capacity to transcend our most intensely divisive political emotions long enough to express, examine, and understand our differences. On the other hand, it’s not clear how one arrives at a dispassionate meeting ground when the topics of our disagreements — racial equity and justice, for instance, or access to voting, or truth-telling in history— are so fundamental, and when one party to the conversation is so utterly detached from a world of relevant facts.
What seems in any case undeniable is that Trumpism is now deeply lodged in the body politic, irrespective of what happens to its namesake, and that it will be an element in the evolution of our politics for a long time to come. Trumpism is not a fever that suddenly appeared in our midst and that will just as suddenly break, giving way to something more familiar, negotiable, normal. It was born in the deep processes and structures of our national history, and it will continue to find expression there. And like SARS CoV-2, it will continue to evolve, finding more or less favorable conditions for reproduction depending on how vigorously and smartly we are able to fight it. That is why the struggles over history, voting, discrimination, and social and economic equality are so consequential and urgent. And why we should not be lulled into imagining that this is the Fourth of July we remembered.
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