If there was ever a year that richly deserved the "annus horribilis" label, it’s 2020. Worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic waged war not only on our health and our health care systems but also on our economic structures and even our familial and social bonds. Meanwhile, in America, the presidential election resulted in a win for normalcy — you don’t get much more normal than Joe Biden — but quickly turned into a surreal assault on our democracy by Donald Trump, the loser who won’t accept defeat.
The transition to the new year is only an arbitrary milestone. But it has certainly been a morale boost to hope that 2021 would not only be better but would amount to a fresh start.
How’s it going so far? One could certainly make the case for pessimism.
The COVID-19 rollout in the United States is proceeding slowly and chaotically. Meanwhile, a new and apparently more contagious variant of the coronavirus is wreaking havoc in England and has already showed up on American soil.
The attack on our election has also escalated, with several Senate Republicans joining an attempt to block the certification of election results on Wednesday based on spurious claims of "unprecedented" irregularities in voting — that is, on Trumpist conspiracy theories. While this is almost certainly a performative mutiny and the certification will proceed, rhetoric threatening a coup is still poisonous. The latest twist in this surreal story is the revelation of Trump’s Saturday phone call to Georgia official urging them to "find" more votes for him — just enough to flip the state’s tally in his favor.
We have the president of the United States, on tape, urging state election officials to tamper with the results of the vote. The usual Trump apologists on the right have been doing their usual spin.
It’s almost enough to make you give up on 2021.
But look at it this way. The coup will fail. (It’s almost certainly a simulated coup intended to pander to Trump’s base.) On Jan. 20, Biden will be inaugurated as president. American democracy will have worked. When Trump is no longer president, his ability to suck all the air out of political discourse will be greatly reduced; it already has been. Most of us are so sick of seeing his face everywhere that maybe the media will resist the temptation to give him free airtime.
Despite the toxic rhetoric, some 60% of Republicans, and slightly more than half of Trump voters, say they are willing to give Biden a chance. Overall, only a quarter of Americans say they will not support him under any circumstances. These are numbers the new administration can work with. It will be up to Biden to fulfill his promise to reach out to all Americans and to avoid progressive orthodoxy on divisive cultural issues (such as diversity training for federal employees that critics say devolves into bashing white males).
Post-Trump, some conservatives who have drunk the Trumpist Kool-Aid may start to wean themselves from it — and some progressives stuck in knee-jerk opposition to whatever Trump is for may be more willing to denounce lunacy on the left. We already have seen Portland’s ultra-progressive Mayor Ted Wheeler condemn "antifa anarchists" and demand tougher penalties for rioting and property destruction in the wake of a New Year’s Eve rampage.
As for COVID-19, the vaccine is here (and apparently works with the new variant of the virus). Our fight against the disease may have gotten off to a tragically bad start, but we will beat the virus. With luck, we can also start beating toxic politics.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.