After the Celebration, Bridging the Deep Divide

There are the died-in-the-wool Republicans who will vote for the party no matter who is atop the ticket.

Now that the sighs of relief have been expelled and spontaneous celebrations begun.

Now that the tears have been shed at the first black woman of South Asian descent ascending to our nation’s second-highest elected office.

Now that our president-elect has honored all of those who helped him reach a pinnacle he first sought more than three decades ago and has declared this a time to heal, the temptation exists to simply look forward.

To analyze the reasons for Biden’s victory, to congratulate him on his basement campaign’s discipline and strategy, to revel in the record levels of voter turnout-all the more remarkable because of the pandemic-and to hear and honor the stories of people who waited up to 11 hours to cast their precious vote.

While the impulse is understandable, especially given how difficult 2020 has been, to do so would be short-sighted.  Rather, we need also to consider the anguished question family and friends living in Massachusetts and California have asked me in the election’s aftermath: how could more than 70 million people have voted for Donald Trump?

On one level, the question makes total sense. 

Trump’s daily lies, continual assault on our country’s democratic fabric, denigration and demonization of the media and all who oppose him, cozying up to brutal dictators, and self-dealing as president have all been on display for nearly four years.  

Indeed, I would argue that they were the driving force for millions of the Biden/Harris voters.

At the same time, we need to face a few hard realities.

The first is that no matter how effective his campaign was, for many Biden was flawed, hold- your-nose-and-vote candidate, rather than someone they could enthusiastically back. Many progressives throughout the country voted for Biden more as a check on Trump’s further erosion of our democracy than as a strong endorsement of the Democratic standard-bearer   While we’ll never know, I would suggest that Trump would likely have romped to a second term had the coronavirus not occurred.

Beyond that, it’s worth noting that Trump supporters are not a monolithic group.  Rather they are a collection of people with distinct, occasionally overlapping, interests and motivations.

There are the died-in-the-wool Republicans who will vote for the party no matter who is atop the ticket.

There are the equivalent of many of the Biden voters, those whose didn’t like Trump’s tweeting and posturing, but supported his policies nonetheless.

There are those who enjoy his showmanship and brazenness, who gain pleasure from his message that he will determine reality and his refusal to ever acknowledge or admit wrongdoing.  Who are enamored of his large lifestyle, the longtime celebrity, and the billions of dollars, even though it’s been shown by The New York Times to largely be a house of cards.

There are those who reveled in Trump’s racism, in his bringing bigotry and xenophobia and hatred of those who are different from the margins to the mainstream. 

These are not exclusive categories, and perhaps the bigger challenge for our nation going forward is the group who comprise a significant swath of his backers.

They swim in the information ecosystem of Fox News, regularly, if not religiously, watching Hannity and Carlson and listening to Rush Limbaugh.  Many traffic in QAnon’s  baseless conspiracy theories.  Among other things, they believe in the “deep state,” that this week’s election was a sham, that the coronavirus is not very important, that mask mandates are tyranny, that Trump was the victim of years of investigation that proved no wrongdoing,  and that his impeachment was a purely politically motivated hoax.

In short, Trump Senior Advisor Kelly Anne Conway was just telling part of the story when she spoke about former press secretary Sean Spicer giving “alternative facts” when he lied about the crowd size of Trump’s inauguration.   

These people are not looking at a similar set of facts as many Democrats and arriving at different conclusions, philosophies, and policy descriptions.

Rather, many of Trump’s supporters are living in an entirely different world than the people who supported Biden.  They have a deep attachment to their worldview, their leader, and the sense of community. 

You don’t have to look hard to see it.

It’s there in their following the president’s refusal to concede Biden’s projected victory and supporting his lies of massive voting fraud.

You can see it in the rallies across the country to “Stop the Steal.”

These people are not going to surrender easily or, all but certainly, respond positively to Biden’s words and outreach.   No matter how noble the intentions and how sincere the gestures, these deeply entrenched divisions may well prove hard, if not impossible, to bridge.

So while we applaud President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris for their historic victory and their generous tone, we should not look away from the magnitude of what lies in front of us.

We must take up that necessary and hopeful work with a full heart and a clear-eyed view of the nature and enormity of the task ahead.

Our democracy was on the ballot.

The worst scenario has been averted.

But the challenge for all of us to help our nation be true to its lofty promises for everyone remains.

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein is the founder and executive director of the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) and the Padnos/Sarosik Endowed Professor or Civil Discourse at Grand Valley State University.