We lost our sense of normalcy in recent years, didn’t we? Nearly every morning of his presidency, Donald J. Trump treated us to one outlandish tweet after another, one more extreme, more incendiary, than the next, until finally that routine became our new normal.
We were conditioned, as if in a Pavlovian experiment, to jeer or cheer, depending on party affiliation, when his tweets appeared in big, bold letters on the TV news, usually first thing in the morning. So we began each day feeling angry and despondent, or elated and victorious, depending on whether we disagreed or agreed with the president’s rhetoric.
I, like so many others, felt fear in my heart when the U.S. appeared on the brink of nuclear war with North Korea. I felt helpless rage when babies, many the children of narco-violence refugees, were ripped from their parents’ arms and separated and caged in sterile detention facilities. I felt numb last summer when the president sent federal forces to disperse peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters near the White House with tear gas and rubber bullets so he could stage a photo op, holding up a Bible, then simply walking away.
And I felt mournful and depressed — and, again, helpless — as I watched him mock basic hygiene measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and convene mass rallies to boost his already hyper-inflated ego, while hundreds of thousands of Americans died and the economy tanked.
Since he first announced his candidacy for president in June 2015, it has been all Trump all the time.
The circus should have ended Nov. 3, the day Joe Biden was elected our 46th president with the largest popular vote in the nation’s history — more than 81 million ballots cast for him. It didn’t, however. Trump sought, by any means necessary, to overturn an election that, by all official accounts except his, was an efficient and lawful exercise in democracy.
Many had predicted that violence would erupt. When you condition a dog to maul, it will when called on to do so. On Jan. 6, the mob of Trump supporters, conditioned by the president’s continual tweeting and provoked by his now infamous “fight like hell” speech, attacked, unleashing collective fury on a Congress that had gathered to count the Electoral College votes and once and for all certify the results of the election.
And so, last week, when we should have been focused on Covid-19 vaccine distribution and economic stimulus, Trump was once again front and center in the national consciousness. None of us were happy about it. His detractors felt deep loathing. His supporters, I imagine, were riled up, angrier than ever to see him tried in the Senate for the second time.
For those who oppose Trump, the impeachment trial was a necessary exercise in futility, knowing there likely wouldn’t be 17 Republican senators courageous enough to vote to convict him, but believing he should at least be shamed publicly for his role in the Capitol insurrection. For those who love Trump, meanwhile, the trial was yet another occasion to revel in his seeming invulnerability, no matter what he might have done.
The question is, how do we recover from the past five years of uninterrupted political turmoil, and now very real death and destruction? How do we find peace again?
I, for one, desperately want to feel normal again. I hate feeling angry and depressed. I need to start enjoying my life once more, without a sense of impending doom. I want to wake up feeling free — free of Trump and the angry mob of Jan. 6. We must end the coronavirus pandemic for any of us to feel entirely free again, but resolving our political differences would go a long way toward restoring our sense of normalcy.
Personally, I want what we had in America long ago, before House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Fox News declared war on our political establishment in the 1990s, leading us down a slippery slope that, over time, sent us hurtling into the Trump presidency, which ended, predictably, with Capitol rioting.
I want what I had as a teenager and young 20-something back in the 1980s and early ’90s — the ability to debate critical issues — abortion, environmental regulation, monetary policy — with friends and acquaintances, of all political stripes, and then hang out over pizza and a game of basketball.
Politics played an important role in people’s lives back then, but it wasn’t the center of our universe. Trump, as the nation’s first shock-jock president, forced his firebrand politics into the very core of our being. His presidency became our national psychosis.
Setting politics aside, what I love about Biden thus far is this: He doesn’t need to be the center of our collective attention at all times. Day by day, he is quietly leading, offering straight talk, and perhaps — perhaps — that is how we recover from the recent years of fear and rage: four years of honesty and compassion.
Let the healing begin.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.