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OPINION

The better angels had better show up in November

I trusted our best instincts four years ago and they let me down.

Demonstrators hold an upside-down American flag against a fence at Lafayette Park, opposite the White House, on Tuesday. Flying the flag upside down indicates an emergency.
Demonstrators hold an upside-down American flag against a fence at Lafayette Park, opposite the White House, on Tuesday. Flying the flag upside down indicates an emergency.Drew Angerer/Getty

Mistakes? I’ve made a few, but none perhaps so grandiose as when I wrote in this space four years ago: “Donald Trump won’t be the next president of the United States and here is why.”

America, I argued, was a “better angels country,” invoking Abraham Lincoln’s famous plea at his first inauguration that Americans “must not be enemies,” and that the Union would be touched by “the better angels of our nature.”

Lincoln spoke those words in 1861, mere weeks before the outbreak of the Civil War. He proved to be spectacularly wrong — more than 700,000 Confederate and Union soldiers’ dead wrong — and I was wrong, too. I proved to be spectacularly wrong about Trump, who won the 2016 election just a few months after I wrote that column.

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The presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden talks the better angels talk. In a speech addressing the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, he urged us to seek “a more perfect union . . . a union worth fighting for,” evoking Lincoln’s great struggle to defend the union in 1860.

“At our best,” Biden said, “the American ideal wins out.”

Or does it?

I trusted our best instincts four years ago, and they let me down. During the 2016 campaign, Trump never hid his true nature, ridiculing people with handicaps, trashing immigrants, and airing extralegal solutions to thwart his opponents, e.g., vowing to “lock up” Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Those tactics succeeded once. Who is to say that they won’t succeed again?

Better angels be damned. Trump homes in on your worst instincts like a heat-seeking missile where they implode on you again and again. People who are better educated than you? Don’t admire them, resent them. People who are less fortunate than you? Forget that badinage about “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” The Sermon on the Mount is for losers!

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Government regulations? They’re abridgments of freedom drafted by unelected members of the “deep state.” Immigrants? True, your own ancestors were immigrants, but not spongers looking for a handout like these south-of-the-border layabouts.

If there is a devil on your shoulder, Trump the ventriloquist will whisper — no, shout — in its ear. You have doubts about Biden, don’t you? Trump will be reinforcing those every day between now and the election. The idea of economic justice appeals to your altruistic nature, but Trump will be the first to remind you: It’s your life savings the Democrats plan to redistribute to someone else. How does that make you feel?

Trump doesn’t need you to like him. A festering abscess of insecurity, he just wants to welcome you into his Magic Kingdom of Grievances and Resentment. He is the upside-down Army recruiter. He wants you to be the worst you can be.

It worked four years ago, when he luxuriated in an ocean of free media, because he seemed like an amusingly repellent freak-show entertainer whose season would be canceled come November 2016. But it wasn’t.

Now Trump has the awesome messaging power of the presidency behind him, a complicit Senate, and virtually unchecked powers for mischief. There are rays of hope, of course. Republican and Democratic governors who aren’t intimidated by his clown show. Religious leaders who are finally calling Trump out on his hideous, uncaring behavior of recent months.

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For the moment, some polls show support for Biden. But with Trump, you can be sure there will be some new lie, some new conjured enemy, some new chicane just around the bend. The Democrats are coming after your guns/your daughter/your new car/your chewing tobacco/your ESPN cable package supported by 5G technology — really, it could be anything.

These tactics have already worked. They may work again.

I would love to be wrong a second time.


Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.