I just finished watching the two part Frontline documentary Divided States of America (Part One is here), which recapitulates the history of the Obama administration and the rise of populist rage in this country. It’s enlightening and difficult at the same time, especially as it is unsparing in its recounting of Obama’s naivete and missteps during his two terms. On the whole it is balanced and sober. It is also sobering– it ends on the note that Obama came into office with the idea of bridging divides, and he leaves office with the country more divided than ever.
In the documentary there are talking heads from both sides of the political spectrum, and some of those on the right are quick to blame the president for the divisions. That is both unfair and typical of the right. The divisions were there before Obama became president; his presidency, however, laid them bare in ways we did not anticipate when he took office in 2009.
The documentary is very good about outlining the rise of populist anger in this country in the last eight years. What exploded at first as the Tea Party and then the candidacy of Donald Trump has deep roots. The documentary ties the current populism to that which emerged during the 2008 Republican campaign and which found its focus in Sarah Palin, but of course it goes back decades, to the civil rights era and the culture wars of the Eighties and Nineties and the drastic changes in our society and the technology it employs for work and communication. The absolute (and to progressives, irrational) rage of conservatives who think their country is being stolen by blacks and immigrants, and that Obama was a Muslim socialist bent on destroying white America, is outlined in detail. The documentary describes the divide in the country as being so profound that it almost amounts to there being two antithetically opposed Americas at war with each other.
That observation resonated with me. Over the last three decades I have watched this country grow more and more polarized, to the point that we hardly consider those on the other side of the divide from us to be true Americans. That polarization is what really frightens me, far more than even Trump, because I don’t know how to heal it, and because it is absolutely destructive to our political unity. I fear this country has gone past some limit without realizing it. Once this sort of rhetoric gets past a certain point, and people begin to accept it as normal, then there comes a time when your opponents don’t just disagree with you, they are evils that have to fought, in the streets and house-by-house. In other words, the logical end of this sort of rhetoric is civil war and social dissolution.
And when Trump inevitably spins out of control and crashes, the rage of Trump supporters will not go away. He did not create it; it created him. When he’s gone– and I will be surprised if he lasts as much as two years– his supporters will have to find another figurehead to encapsulate their anger. And what new monstrosity will they create the next time?
I am tired of it all. I wish I could turn it all off. But I can’t. I am not optimistic about America’s chances, but I can’t join a rush to the lifeboats. Weary and weak as I am, I have to stay and try to do what I can. I hope you do, too.
But we don’t have to watch the inauguration. That much, at least, is a relief.
I recommend the Frontline documentary to anyone who wants a good summary of how we got here.