The Election Monsters Next Door
Politics in 2020 is all about hating the other side, yet that isn't compatible with how most people live, among the near and the familiar.
Northampton County in Pennsylvania was a bellwether in the 2016 election, lurching from Barack Obama four years earlier to Donald Trump. Located in the east of the state, bordering New Jersey and the Delaware River, it has a little of everything: tony suburbs, rolling farms, preserved downtowns, the deindustrialized hulks of Bethlehem and Allentown that Billy Joel so lamented, sprawling warehouses, busy highways to New York, quieter roads north into the Poconos.
This year, Northampton is once again a swing county, and when I visited family there last week, it wasn’t hard to tell. Walking through a neighborhood in Bethlehem, I saw about equal parts Trump and Biden gear, but louder and more in-your-face than anything in deep-blue Northern Virginia where I live. Pick-up trucks roared down state routes with both American and Trump 2016 flags billowing off their beds. Fake tombstones and crashed witches mingled with Biden lawn signs. The commercial breaks in between NFL games were pileups of negative campaign ads, anti-Trump then anti-Biden then anti-Trump then anti-Biden. One man had a “Trump for President” banner in his yard so large that someone joked you could see it from space.
In another country, this might have seemed strange, even alarming, evidence of an election that had lost all sense of proportion. Yet what struck me was how utterly normal it felt. Americans have always had a rowdy tradition of democratic engagement, have always been quick to slap bumper stickers on their cars—the signs in Bethlehem wouldn’t have been out of place four or even 30 years ago. What’s different now is the sense of dread that’s come to color such a quotidian scene. From off the news come warnings that the national mood is unusually tense. Typically sober commentators wonder whether political violence is in our future, even another civil war. You listen to this, you stare at those lawn signs, you hear the chilly October breeze rustling through the leaves, and you start to wonder whether something darker lurks beneath, whether the people in those quiet homes might be willing to fight in the streets should their candidates lose.
The data are grim. An Axios poll from two years ago found that 23 percent of Republicans think Democrats are evil, while 21 percent of Democrats think the same of Republicans. About one in three on both sides now say violence might be justified to advance their parties’ goals, up significantly in recent years. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Frank Luntz, a respected GOP political consultant, told the Washington Post. “Even the most balanced, mainstream people are talking about this election in language that is more caffeinated and cataclysmic than anything I’ve ever heard.” On the right, Trump voters see the president as a shield of last resort against a radical left that wants to abolish gender, take their guns, and tear down statues of their civic heroes. On the left, Trump is seen as a Franco from Flushing, a braying fascist whose very presence threatens to undo decades of hard-won progress.
There isn’t much wiggle room in between those perceptions, much space to weigh your opinions against those of the other side. If the face of your political opponents is a black-masked rioter or a reincarnated Falange, then the choice is either win or die. And if that’s the choice, you start to wonder how anyone could possibly oppose you, why they would ever align themselves with what you see as the forces of hell. Who are these monsters who side with Antifa? How ghoulish do you have to be to vote for a Nazi nectarine? The film critic Pauline Kael once said of the 1972 election (the quote is often butchered), “I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken.” Now the other side can seem not just outside our ken but outside our species.
Why this sudden openness to political violence? There are many reasons, but surely one is that it’s much easier to entertain thuggery against those you regard as less than human. The internet doesn’t help here, flattening us all into names and avatars on social media sites, obscuring our common personhood. But another source of this dehumanization is that, whether we want to admit it or not, voting for either side in this election is a fairly radical act. Trump is unique in American history, trampling on norms while blowtorching his opponents with unprecedented rhetorical heat. Biden seems more familiar, but then to many the status quo from which he emerged was itself deeply disruptive, as are some of his newer ideas like halting fracking permits and rolling back the Obamacare contraception exemption for nuns. Such radicalism can rule out any common ground that might have been found, making the other side difficult to comprehend, even to relate to.
Of course, bitterly contested campaigns are nothing new—I don’t think there’s been a presidential election in my adult life where at least one candidate hasn’t seemed to loathe the other. But this one feels different, like if the wrong side wins, the monsters are going to swarm out into the streets and run wild. We’ve talked a lot about the widening class divide in America, how wealthy and educated coastal elites are shifting towards the Democrats, while poorer high school graduates in flyover states back Trump. But as with any abstract explainer of politics, that’s much too simple. In places like Northampton County, the vampires live next door. Those you’re supposed to fear are your neighbors. Whatever realignment has taken place isn’t so thorough as to preclude conservatives and liberals from having to live with each other.
And maybe that’s consolation amid all this chaos. It’s one thing to say you would consider violence against those who think differently; it’s quite another to actually carry it out against those who are close to you.
Of course, you could, if you’re furious enough. But outside of cable news and Twitter, the sentiment I’ve heard expressed most often this campaign season isn’t fury. It’s exhaustion. People have grown sick of the omnipresence of politics, the endless debates, the apocalyptic premonitions. The stakes in this election are high, but for God’s sake, they can’t be that high. For months now, analysts have surmised about an “exhausted majority,” a cohort of relatively non-ideological voters who are fed up with the entire spectacle. They’re said to be backing Biden, since Trump is the more tiring personality, though I know many on the right who feel the same way. The demands of 2020 engagement, with its 24-hour outrage spin cycle and shots of contempt right into the vein, simply aren’t compatible with how most people live their lives, which is to say among the real and near and human.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s imperishable horror story Young Goodman Brown, the titular character loses faith in everything—his church, his wife—after supposedly witnessing a satanic ritual in the woods. In the last line, Hawthorne says of Brown, “they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom.” It’s because those next door aren’t sinister devil worshippers that we may not yet go that way. And if we don’t, it will be because we knew the neighbors weren’t monsters all along; the real freaks were those who did nothing but salivate over a depressing and wretched election.