The Memo: Toxic divide grew deeper in 2020

Getty Images/Greg Nash

The fissures that erupted in American life during 2020 keep growing wider.

On Wednesday, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) announced that he would object during Congress’s counting of Electoral College votes on Jan. 6. In doing so, he became the first senator to back President Trump’s latest efforts to overturn the result of an election that he lost.

Also on Wednesday, Trump repeated his implicit call for protests in Washington on Jan. 6 — calls that have fueled fears of violence in the nation’s capital. In mid-December, four people were stabbed and almost three dozen arrested amid violent clashes following a pro-Trump rally.

President-elect Joe Biden won in November with his pledge to restore a sense of political normalcy after the tumult of the Trump years.

It will be easier said than done — partly because the process of polarization has been going on in American life for decades but also because of Trump’s refusal to admit electoral defeat. 

Trump’s claims, amplified by social media, talk radio and cable TV outlets trying to carve out a niche to the right of Fox News, have done real damage to Biden’s legitimacy.

An Economist-YouGov poll conducted just before Christmas asked Americans how much confidence they had in the 2020 election. 

Seventy-eight percent of Republican voters responded that they had either “none at all” or “only a little.” Just 5 percent of Republicans said they had “a great deal” of confidence that the election had been conducted fairly.

A few elected Republicans, and some conservative-leaning media outlets, have talked about the importance of recognizing Biden’s election victory. 

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, has been one of the most prominent voices in his party in this regard. 

Trump’s leading hometown tabloid, the New York Post, ran a Monday front-page editorial calling on the president to “stop the insanity.” The newspaper, which had endorsed Trump in the run-up to the election, accused him of “cheering for an undemocratic coup.”

But Hawley’s move on Wednesday ensures there will at least be another airing of Trump’s claims of fraud — claims which have been thrown out of the courts repeatedly, including by  Republican-appointed judges.

There is no realistic possibility of Hawley’s gambit resulting in the overturning of the election result. Such a dramatic twist would only be possible if majorities in both the House and Senate voted accordingly, and the chances of the Democratic-led House doing so are effectively zero.

The effort by the Missouri senator was seen by critics as motivated by presidential politics — specifically, an effort on Hawley’s part to ingratiate himself with Trump voters. Hawley has said he would support Trump if the president runs again in 2024. If he does not, Hawley is regarded as a likely contender.

“This is how you run for President on the Republican side in 2024. You join a coup attempt,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) tweeted in response to Hawley’s announcement.

“Let’s be clear — those contesting the Electoral College are trying to overthrow democracy,” tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “They want to turn America into a state akin to Russia or China, where elections are for show and one party rules.”

He added: “They won’t succeed but the wound to democracy is severe.”

This year has already inflicted other wounds to civic life as the nation grappled with the catastrophic pandemic.

Mask-wearing has become a politically divisive act — in part because Trump at times has mocked the wearing of masks and has refused to make calls for Americans to abide by the guideline of his own coronavirus task force, even after his own infection with COVID-19. 

Divergences in opinion about appropriate restrictions, or about how to balance public health with economic activity, track dispiritingly along party lines.

In the Economist poll, 34 percent of Republicans opined that it was safe to reopen businesses and end social distancing measures “right now.” Just six percent of Democrats agreed.

Asked whether a federal mask-wearing mandate would amount to a violation of civil liberties, 60 percent of Republican voters said that it would. Just 15 percent of Democrats held the same view.

The capacity of political polarization to warp perceptions was lamented by Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading specialist in infectious diseases. 

“Political divisiveness doesn’t lend itself to having a coordinated, cooperative, collaborative response against a common enemy,” he told The New Yorker in a newly published story. “There is also this pushback in society against anything authoritative, and scientists are perceived as being authority, so that’s the reason I believe we have an anti-science trend, which leads to an anti-vaccine trend.”

The development of vaccines gives some light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. And Biden will take office on Jan. 20, reflecting the election’s legitimate result. Trump, once out of office, will have less of a platform for incitement.

But none of that is likely to neutralize the toxins that have been running through American public life in recent years.

At times during 2020, those toxins seemed to be growing stronger all the time.

In October, 13 men were charged in an alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). In the aftermath of the election, armed protesters gathered outside the home of Michigan Secretary of State Joelyn Benson (D). Georgia’s secretary of state, Republican Brad Raffensperger, was also threatened. 

“You have people who are really emotionally spun up — and what is sad is that people have been spinning them up with a lot of misinformation, disinformation and outright lies,” Raffensperger told The Hill in early December.

But that pattern — of fear, fractiousness and outright intimidation — continued right into year’s end.

Christmas Day saw a bombing in Nashville, Tenn., the motivations for which remain unclear.

On Wednesday, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, announced that he was canceling his outdoor inauguration ceremony, set for January.

“For weeks, armed protesters have increasingly become more aggressive, targeting my family, protesting outside my private residence, and trespassing on my property,” Sununu said in a statement. “An outdoor public ceremony simply brings too much risk.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags 2020 election Amy Klobuchar Anthony Fauci Chris Murphy Chris Sununu Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Gretchen Whitmer Joe Biden Josh Hawley Mitt Romney

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