Of all the numbers bombarding us in 2020 — and 2020 has been nothing if not one ceaseless bombardment of sad statistics — we should remember, more than any of them, 72+ million. In years ahead, when we finally have a chance to breathe freely, to eat out with no fear, to hug and shake hands and stand shoulder-to-shoulder in impossibly crowded social settings like we used to, in a few years when we’re doing our best to stuff the absolute worst of 2020 into that part of our brains where miserable first dates and embarrassing haircuts go to die, we’ll still have to account for 72+ million. And it won’t be easy.
A week ago, Joe Biden was elected president. (Well, it took a few days to call the race, and there’s still some doubt, but it seems clear to almost everyone who doesn’t see a conspiracy in every pizza parlor that he’s going to be the next president.) More than 65 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the election, and a majority picked Uncle Joe, a smiling but increasingly frail looking 77-year-old Democrat who ran a campaign — he actually kind of shuffled his campaign along, slowly and methodically; it was a campaign on a walker, if you will — whose main message seemed to be, “At least I’m not that idiot.”
That’s really not giving Joe enough credit for his win. He’s a good, good man — in everyone’s minds but the pizza conspiracists — who’s given his whole life to serving his country, a man with empathy and a near half-century of governing know-how, a man who doesn’t automatically and fully hate the other side and who is willing to work for everyone. Unlike, you know, that idiot.
Joe is, in a broad majority of minds (or at least as broad as it gets in America these days) the right guy for the job at the exact right time. He is the calming elixir for what ails us as a nation, or (if you prefer), the laxative we so desperately, so painfully need.
That said … more than 72 million people voted for his opponent, the incumbent, Donald Trump.
I don’t know what to think.
Or, maybe, I don’t want to think. I don’t want to think that 72+ million people — that’s a lot of people — approve of the way that Trump went about his job in the past four years. How could they? How could they approve of the name-calling, the immorality, the blatant disregard for the law, the barely disguised racism, the nepotism, the wild and baseless conspiracy fairy tales, the callousness, the unseriousness, the contemptible divisiveness, the clinically sad narcissism?
How could they accept how he’s gutted environmental regulations while we’re fighting a climate crisis, or how he hid the seriousness of a pandemic that’s killed five Vietnams worth of Americans? How could they vote for someone who, for the past several months, is simply ignoring the biggest public health crisis in a century?
How could those 72 million people — more, by a good bit, than voted for him in 2016 — want to subject themselves, subject all of us, to another four years of daily assaults on truth and good sense?
It’s hard to fathom. I believe that there are probably good people out there who voted for Trump. Maybe because they think he kept us out of new wars, and he built a great economy, and he appointed conservative judges to the Supreme Court and the federal benches, and he stood up to China and the world, and he staved off a socialist wave.
Not all of that is true, of course. Some of those claims are kind of laughable. But I can see why some would see it that way.
Still, 72 million of them? Plus? How could they?
Something much more sinister is going on here.
Racism? Xenophobia? A fear of the future and a yearning for a return to some long-gone, probably never-been past? Certainly, all those notions exist in modern America, and they’re all stoked by this populist pinhead who has taken over the country. Trump tells “suburban housewives” that crime will be coming to their neighborhoods if affordable housing is built down the street. He bans Muslims. He warns about “rapists” streaming over the border. He vows to send troops into big cities to restore “law and order” among mostly peaceful protestors with legitimate gripes. He screams that the Democrats are going to take your guns and destroy the Second Amendment. He tells scary stories of socialism and a bleak American future. And then he and Republicans do everything they can to suppress minority votes and to refute the consensus of a fairly held democratic election.
What might explain the 72 million people who voted for Trump, I hope, is more than racism and xenophobia and fear. (I hope, and I think, that those 72 million aren’t all racists … though I can see where others might see it that way.) The simplest explanation, I think, the biggest flaw in America today — and, god, I hope it’s not a fatal one — is selfishness.
Too many people care more these days about their 401ks than the half of the population that is too poor to even think about saving for retirement. Too many are more concerned about immigrants and minorities taking their jobs (and their places in society) than the wealthiest top 1% of the population — almost all white guys — who already have taken over.
Too many are so worked up about big government encroaching on their precious freedoms that they conveniently ignore those who don’t have the same freedoms and advantages. They miss the fact that it’s big business — controlled by that same 1% — that’s the more pressing danger, not big government.
Too many hard-working Americans are so worried about the taxes they pay, and that some scam their way into unemployment checks and food stamps, that they miss the millionaires and billionaires who don’t pay their fair share of taxes and are robbing the whole society.
Too many talk self-righteously about the moral decay of the country even as they turn a blind eye to Trump’s immorality and turn their backs, selfishly, on people in need.
In many ways, it’s that simple: Too many people just don’t care about others any more. In their thinking, it’s every man, woman, and child for themselves. It’s red states vs. blue states. Republicans vs. Democrats. Conservatives vs. liberals. The coastal elites vs. the heartland. It’s us vs. them.
Even though they are us. And we are them.
Catastrophes and wars and disasters used to light our patriotic fervor, used to give us a common ground on which we could meet as a single country. But if we can’t come together as a nation now in the face of a deadly pandemic, one that is attacking the heartland in November as thoroughly as it swarmed the coasts and big cities months ago — one that doesn’t know or care about us vs. them — how are we ever going to?
Joe’s a start. He’s a good, decent, honest, even-keeled start. All he has to do is convince a sizable chunk of those 72 million people who voted for Trump — angry people, scared people — that the American dream is not a selfish one, but a collective one. It’s not going to be easy.