Trump's inauguration was a masterwork in demagogic division, where token appeals for unity were couched in combative terms that drew clear battle lines. This was ideological as it was strategic, concretizing an irreparable break with the past while stoking the enmity that propelled the "people's movement" to power.
Seeing those divisions in purely political or cultural terms, however, only tells part of the story. More alarmingly, those cleavages reveal an America distressingly intellectually dishonest, the fault lines of which are growing only further apart.
Trump's theoretical framework is absolutist: black or white, right or wrong. It's steeped in a zero-sum philosophy where what benefits one group must directly disadvantage another. The gains of the scapegoat "establishment" invariably came at the expense of "the forgotten people". Corrective measures must create a set of losers out of Trump's newly vanquished opponents in order to make winners of all those who had been previously ignored. Abandoned factories will return to their glory days if immigrants are held at bay. Crime will be reduced if civil rights are kept in check. The pie is finite, rather than a common good. What emerges are two starkly polarized Americas at two antagonistic extremes, and Trump is clear which extreme he's fighting for.
The flagrant disregard for "facts" and the new superlative order only further underscore this point. Knowledge and truth are the sole preserve of the new administration. Proof that doesn't confirm Trump's narrative is not only immaterial, it's subversive. No matter what evidence is peddled to the contrary, if Trump didn't say it, or see it, or tweet it, it didn't happen. And if it did, it happened the way he says it did. Challenge the administration's monopoly on truth and the consequences will be dire, as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has made clear.
The threats to the constitutional protections that underpin American democracy are apparent enough, to say nothing of objectivity and reason. But this is something we've come to expect from a man more preoccupied with settling scores than governing in the national interest. What is most upsetting is that a sizeable swath of Americans are gleefully embracing this absurd apocrypha.
Admittedly, this is hardly new. Hearing what we want to hear, being intransigent in our convictions and denouncing the other side for their confounding ignorance are some of the few remaining truths in politics these days.
But it hurts just the same. It hurts because no matter how much we diagnose the problem or understand the issues that divide us, we have few, if any tools to overcome the division of intellectual dishonesty.
It hurts because we had hope that America was more than red states and blue states, liberal commies or jingoistic nationalists, hippies or bigots. We had hope that we were more than a reductivist binary where one American's progress was inevitably another's pain.
It hurts because no matter how well intentioned we are, no matter how much we protest and fight and resist for the greater good, Trump has reappropriated change to mean a zero-sum game of winners and losers pitting Americans against one another. And that hurts because we had hoped for better.
Hope has effectively been hijacked. And yet, no amount of self-righteous indignation can ignore the core of Trump's appeal - that the hope of the last eight years wasn't shared by all. It's easy to shudder with contempt at the images of Trump supporters flaunting their triumph. It's easy to see this as their callous retribution for the progressive victories, from equal marriage to affordable healthcare, that supposedly left them disenfranchised and voiceless. And it's easy to count down until it's our turn to exact revenge.
But in order to win hope back we must reject the internecine culture wars and bleak cynicism that say competing worldviews are automatically diametrically opposed. We have to accept that what is categorically self-evident to liberals may not be to others, and recognize that objectionable opinions do not disqualify the concerns that gave rise to them.
Rather, we can overcome mutual distrust by making the strong case that different political visions are not inherently antithetical, that one need not be achieved to the exclusion of the other. We must show that the fight for equality is not inimical to "family values", and that tolerance and humanity do not erode American ideals. We must show that when millions of women march for hope, their cause is not partisan, but preserves and strengthens democracy, of which we are all beneficiaries.
Call it naïve. Certainly, on some issues this may be impossible. And undoubtedly, Trump's atavistic policies will tempt us back to comfortingly familiar battle lines. But if we continue to succumb to the intellectual dishonesty that divides us, come January 20, 2021 "alternative facts" will be the least of our worries.Suggest a correction