Civil Discourse had been on life support in the United States since approximately 2008, when a charismatic black politician invigorated both progressive America and, inadvertently, racist, reactionary America. Its precarious position was confirmed in 2010, when the newly selected Senate Majority Leader proclaimed that his legislative goal was to make the sitting President a one-term President. (He failed.) Another Senator’s temper tantrum led to a government shut-down in 2013. Finally, in 2016, that same Senate Majority Leader refused to consider the President’s nominee for a vacant Supreme Court seat for ten months on the grounds that there was a Presidential election coming, and maybe the eventual winner would want someone else on the Court instead.
During the 2016 Presidential election, evidence emerged that Russia, inheritor of the mantle of the USA’s cold war adversary, was meddling in our election campaigns. The buffoonish TV show host running for President was oddly sympathetic towards Russia and its despotic leader. One of his campaign managers (he went through campaign managers like Spinal Tap went through drummers!) had literally worked as a political consultant in the Ukraine, aligned with pro-Moscow politicians. Weirdest of all, social media was flooded with blatantly false news reports and memes, mostly villainizing the TV host’s opponent. Well, no, weirdest of all was when, in a televised debate, the former TV show host yelled at his opponent, “No puppet! No puppet! You’re the puppet!” Amazingly, this buffoon won the Presidential election despite an endless flood of gaffes and blatant lies on top of lowering the level of campaign discourse to the lowest levels ever imagined, let alone seen.
It wasn’t until 2018, though, that the US Justice Department announced that a special prosecutor had indicted 13 Russians and three Russian companies for fraudulently meddling in the US elections of 2016. The new Buffoon-in-Chief had finally to concede that maybe Russia, indeed, had meddled in the 2016 campaign, not China or “some 400-pound man on his bed in his mother’s house.”
Perhaps worse than that fact being verified, though, was the well-detailed proof that many of the people with whom we verbally jousted in 2016, on both sides of any debate, were professional trolls, paid provocateurs set loose by Moscow to provoke America to self-destruct from internal strife. Jokes once made about some Twitter user being a Russian troll suddenly undeniably plausible. Sure, progressive Americans and many conservatives vexed by their party’s nominee had firmly believed the reports from all sixteen of America’s government intelligence agencies about the meddling, but some politicians who had the buffoon’s ear held out the last shred of plausible deniability about the impact or scope of the meddling.
Twitter writers who before had been prone to “block and report” other Twitter users whose writings were deemed troll-like became more adamant that any poorly worded or poorly reasoned arguments were the product of Russian trolls. Whether they were paid Russians or earnest American racists no longer mattered; they were smeared as possible paid Russians and dismissed.
Here’s the thing: the buffoon got 63,000,000 votes from Americans in 2016’s general election. There was no voter fraud; that had been proven, because racist reactionaries were always trying to steal the votes of minorities by making it harder to vote in the guise of protecting against voter fraud. There was no fraud. 63,000,000 of our fellow countrymen were either racist enough to agree with the buffoon, misogynistic enough to vote for whomever opposed the buffoon’s opponent, or somehow tolerant enough of both the racism and misogyny to choose him over her.
We all know people like that. We all know someone with a red MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hat. We all had that uncle or cousin we avoided at family gatherings after the TV host announced his candidacy, because that candidacy emboldened the racists to say things that for the prior fifty years no decent person had said in America publicly. The trolls didn’t create attitudes; they merely emboldened and amplified them.
Those people have not suddenly renounced their views just because they were emboldened by a campaign by America’s enemy to polarize us and tear us apart. They still believe the Democratic candidate is an unrepentant crook. They still believe a DC pizza parlor with no basement has a basement where children are sex trafficking victims. They still believe, regardless of how much they supported and repeated has been proven to be the work of provocateurs. And America will remain divided until we can find a way to establish civil discourse and establish a common set of values again.
This means, we have to accept that the racist grandma from Helena, Laramie, or Mobile might actually be American, not some professional troll who badly needs English lessons to be better at her or his job. Someone will have to engage these racists and reactionaries, because many of them are younger than you and me; we can’t just wait for them to die off and trust their children to learn the same lessons we learned, that racism and misogyny, among other social sins, are wrong. It wasn’t an AARP march in Charlottesville that carried Tiki torches; it was the far-right wing of the Young Republicans, and they’re still there.