In his first inaugural address in 1861, with a fractured nation rushing toward civil war, Abraham Lincoln expressed hope that “the better angels of our nature” would save us from a terrible conflagration. It is a plea just as relevant today. A cold civil war has, over the past four years, led to a virtual secession. Americans now live in two separate realities. In one, Donald Trump is a blatantly corrupt and cruel liar who has smashed norms and decency, purged the federal government of ethical public servants, pandered to racists, and cost tens of thousands of Americans their lives by horribly mismanaging the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic. In the other, the president is an authentic if bombastic patriot who championed the working class and goosed the economy, and can’t be blamed for an overhyped pandemic. Whatever the “fake news” media says can be ignored. The truth can be found on Fox News and Facebook.
Divided we stand . ..for now. But the schism is deep and serious. The two Americas no longer can even agree on the basic facts, and not even obvious truths go undisputed. This divisive election, Ron Brownstein said at The Atlantic, “may be just the opening bell for a decade that tests the nation’s cohesion like few others ever have.” An optimist might hope that a divided government will force Democrats and Republicans to compromise to address our many pressing problems. But that would require both parties to be motivated by the common good — to listen to their “better angels.” In Washington, the party out of power has learned to use obstruction and dysfunction to damage the incumbent, and pave the road to regaining the White House. For Fox, meanwhile, fear, anger, and conspiracy theories will continue to be ratings gold. “We must not be enemies,” Lincoln implored in 1861, as dark clouds gathered. Americans were too bitterly divided to hear him then. We may still be.