Look up from the battlefield. What do you see?
You see an America exhausted and at war with itself.
You see a substantial portion of the electorate living in a fearful, paranoid fantasy world.
You see a country flinching from waves of anger pouring out of their televisions, computers, and cellphones.
People, we have to talk.
No, not on social media. The hell with social media. With Facebook, Twitter, the lot of it. And not via representative talking heads banging away at each other on TV. To hell with them, too. If there’s one thing this most virulent of elections has taught us, it’s that opinion shorn of physical presence results in the opposite of civility. That digital anonymity only divorces speech from responsibility and encourages hate. That it’s not only easy to dehumanize someone you’re not standing in front of, it’s also permissible and necessary. It’s even entertainment.
To hell with all that.
The two houses of American culture are poisoned against each other. One house is predicated largely (but not entirely) on provable facts and observable behavior, as well as a sense of cultural superiority that can be read as smug entitlement to those on the outside. The other house is built mostly (but not completely) around class resentments and angry fears that the country is no longer recognizable, tempted by paranoia and conspiracy theories, with a large assist from underfunded educational systems and religious dogma.
In the 25 years since the Internet became a mass communications medium, it has connected different kinds of people around the world as no other medium before it. It has broadened our understanding of the human experience in infinite ways. It has also, it is clear, encouraged our worst tendencies. Whether fed by trolls in this country or working out of Putin’s kitchen, the social-media stridency of Election 2016 has allowed voices normally marginalized to take center stage, has permitted the underside of America — the naked hate, the overt racism and misogyny, the virulent anti-Semitism, the know-nothing rage toward anyone different — to fully show itself for the first time in a long, long while.
That online hate has spilled over to ugly real-world displays of violence at Donald Trump rallies, calls for assassinations and lynchings, bullying and beatings of anyone deemed to disagree. The beast has been loosed.
Perhaps you thought such things had been banished to the dustbin of history, as our social studies textbooks and Hollywood movies insist? Sorry. Rampant, often murderous self-interest has been a part of America since the founding. It’s in our national DNA. It’s what helped conquer the frontier. And it’s what the part of us that Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” has struggled against since the very beginning.
Many times those angels have lost. More often, I think, they have won. It’s an aspect of the American legacy to run roughshod over the weak. It’s a larger aspect to open our arms to welcome people who are new and who are different rather than retreat to embrace those only like us. That ideal is not dead.
On the other hand, that’s been the not-so-secret referendum all along: Who gets to participate in America? In this formulation, Trump is more symptom than cause — he’s the Punchinello spokesman for the angers and fears of those who’ve voted for him andsee themselves as lacking a voice. Who believe they’re disappearing from a changing country and who are convinced that a mere election can turn back the clock and make them safe again. A lot of things can be turned back: the Supreme Court, our civil liberties, racial progress. But not time.
But demonizing those who follow Trump — some of them, anyway — takes us further down a dark road. Besides, there are other factors at play. I blame social media for the hideously divisive tenor of this election, for the way people have treated one another in the digital commons. I blame the television news networks and, to a lesser extent, the newspapers (even this one) for stringing the contest out as long and as “fairly” as possible, for striving for false equivalency until far too late in the game, and mostly for being unable to resist the ratings and readership that nonstop coverage of the Trump clown parade has offered.
I blame myself for being unable to resist my daily — no, hourly! — dose of Trump outrage. I blame my peers in the media for underestimating the resentment felt toward us by people who believed themselves to be voiceless. Those people are heard now and their anger will not be easily slaked.
What now? How about we separate the people who have promulgated hate and violence from the voters who are simply scared and misinformed. We send the former back under their rocks. We work to marginalize the misinformers — the “news” outlets and commentators and bloggers who are the loudest, most intemperate voices in the echo chamber. We protect those who willbecome targets.
It has become fashionable for some people to parade their intolerance for others like a flag of cruel honesty. The rest of us understand a rule that sounds like a logical paradox but actually works out pretty well in real life: Reserve your intolerance for the intolerant.
It will be an uphill battle, and it will not be pretty. Intolerance has now become the rule of America, the way we do business. “Fear is winning out,” the talking heads on TV said Tuesday night. Maybe you remember what Franklin Roosevelt said about fear.
What we may need to do, first, is turn off our machines and sit down together to dinner. It sounds ridiculous, and maybe it is, but I have heard so many stories this year about friends and friends of friends in small towns, chatting amiably with their fellow citizens at the supermarket and then going home to read the nasty things those fellow citizens are saying on Facebook.
Again: To hell with Facebook. What we need now is face time. That and maybe an endless series of community potlucks to bring everyone back to the idea that Americans are far more than their worst, most reactive online selves. That they’re living, breathing people with a lot more in common than they think.
Only then can we forget about making America great and get back to making it good. Or at least hope it holds together for the next four years.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.