The shock of Tuesday night’s awfully chaotic and chaotically awful presidential debate has been replaced by news that President Trump and his wife have both tested positive for the coronavirus. Obviously, no one should be pleased that the man whose mishandling of the virus helped enable the death of more than 200,000 Americans has joined the ranks of the infected.
While we hope for the Trumps’ return to health, the choice Americans now face in deciding between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden has not changed. Neither has he.
As last week’s debate showed, the candidates differed over how to respond to COVID-19, racial tensions, the economic crisis and the composition of the Supreme Court. But such policy disputes are not what truly divides these men. What separates them is character. The choice Americans are already making in states where early voting has begun will reflect not merely their endorsement of a candidate; it will determine whom Americans aspire to be. In other words, the presidential election of 2020 is not simply a referendum on alternative candidates, but about us.
Trump’s reelection would signal a profound shift in our national character or ethos, with far-reaching implications for both policy and governance writ large. For the nation’s mood and character both reflect and drive policy, not vice versa.
While stereotypes of national character — Germans as disciplined, the French as cynical and disputatious, the English as stiff-lipped and persevering — have become unfashionable, there are obviously cultural differences in how people see themselves and their nations, views that shift subtly and sometimes dramatically over time.
For all its flaws, Tuesday’s debate repeatedly highlighted the vast gulf between the candidates’ values, and how they perceive those of the American people.
Trump’s view of himself — and of us — is the opposite of that of World War II’s “greatest generation.” While ruggedly individualistic, an enduring American cultural trait, Americans who came of age in the Great Depression and fought alongside our allies in World War II, believed it was essential, indeed, noble, to postpone their own goals and dreams, and if necessary, sacrifice their lives for the greater good. They did so with humility and a sense that such sacrifice was the “service” true patriots owed to their families, communities and country. After the war, they worked hard, and took pride in doing so. They struggled not for fame or recognition, as Tom Brokaw wrote in his 1998 book about them, but because they thought it was “the right thing to do.”
While a successor generation in the 1960s fought fiercely and divided sharply over the folly of Vietnam, it also embraced the civil rights movement and the optimism of Martin Luther King Jr. — echoing his belief that while the arc of history is long, “it bends toward justice.” Americans would experience hardship and setbacks, but their children would be freer and more prosperous, they firmly believed.
Trump, by contrast, sees this ethos as hopelessly naive. In words, deed and frenzied tweets, he has tried repeatedly to shift the nation’s value structure to one that prizes greed over generosity, selfishness over concern for community, disrespect for science over trust in experience and expertise, and contempt for truth, honor and the inclusiveness and diversity at the heart of “E Pluribus Unum” — out of the many, one.
Dying in war is the province of “suckers” and “losers,” he is reported to have said of the World War I fallen. So, too, apparently is paying one’s fair share of taxes. Unfettered individualism, defined as not wearing a mask in a pandemic or social distancing at political rallies, is preferable to government directives to protect public health.
Denouncing climate change, immigrants and defending overt racism — telling a group like the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” — is his prescription for Making America Great Again.
The pillars of democracy — peaceful protest, a free press, an independent judiciary, a Congress that challenges executive power — are the purview of the “radical left.”
If we abandon a society that was attempting, albeit imperfectly, to ensure the rights of the disenfranchised and oppressed, to expand and protect voting rights, to provide all people with clean air to breathe, pure water to drink and the medical care they need, Trump will have altered American national character and hence, the nation’s policies for years to come.
Some argue that such a shift has already occurred — that Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton would not have been possible were Americans not already profoundly dissatisfied with existing norms and values, the quality of their lives, their economic prospects and its traditional political leadership.
But one four-year fit of political pique is not a sea change. Trump’s reelection would be.
This piece originally appeared at New York Daily News
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images