I think most people would agree that the unremitting train wreck that is American politics has become utterly exhausting, and the chaos that is COVID-19 just took another step forward (backward?) with the announcement that both Donald and Melania Trump have now contracted the disease (I don’t believe in God, but if one exists she certainly has a fine sense of irony).
Anyone who wasn’t already in a state of despair by the time the recent presidential debate rolled around was probably most of the way there ten minutes into it. It resembled a brawl more than a debate, and more than one commentator correctly labeled it a disgrace. The sight of an American president bullying both his opponent and the hapless moderator, constantly making up unsupported claims, encouraging white supremacists, and generally showing no respect for either the event or the process, reinforced how completely we have let this abomination of a human being debase our national discourse.
But of course, it’s not just Trump. There has been much talk about the extremists on either side of the deepening political divide. The white racists on the right, uneducated and ignorant, who glorify violence, worship the gun culture, and who blame immigrants, Black people, or anyone else who doesn’t look like them for their often self-inflicted failure to succeed. And on the left, the anarchists and other zealots who stupidly believe that violence is a legitimate form of protest, and who seek the absurdly unrealistic goal of destroying the capitalist system.
Yes, these people exist — and much of the time these days they dominate the press coverage. Given this, you certainly could be forgiven for believing that the extremists who are so dividing our country number in the millions. But I don’t believe that’s true. They just happen to be (as zealots often are) the loudest voices in the room – harsh, grating voices that are greatly amplified by the talking heads on the media networks that constantly promote right- or left-wing agendas masquerading as news (yes, Fox News and CNN both — I’m talking to you). In reality, the true extremists are a minority.
The vast majority of folks in this country are not like that. We’re moderates who are sick to death of the constant strife, the deepening hatred, and the paralyzing dysfunction in Washington. Most of us just want to go about our work and live our lives in peace, raise our kids, enjoy football on Sundays, and have barbeques with our neighbors. We want to see our leaders work together to pursue policies that help the average American, not the billionaires or the politicians’ well-connected cronies. We want a return to civilized, respectful political discourse – not the insult-laden tantrums and dogmatic intransigence that these days pass for debate. And we want a President who is kind, respectful and empathetic. One who listens and learns, and works to make life a little easier for everyone. We don’t want to undo capitalism; we just want it to be fairer than it currently is.
Will we ever get back to a calmer, mutually respectful world? I don’t know. But the next time you despair at what you see on TV or the internet, take the broader view and take comfort in the fact that you’re the majority, albeit one that is largely silent and long-suffering. Decency still exists everywhere, though its innumerable small, daily manifestations usually pass quietly and unrecorded. Kindness doesn’t make it onto Fox News.
So do your part: smile more at strangers, be helpful and kind whenever you can… and don’t let the extremists and the talking heads set the tone.
Phil Clapham is a retired whale biologist who lives on Maury Island.