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Why Does America Feel So Sick Right Now?
We are not the same country we were in 2015.
I had a plan to write about the prime-time January 6th hearing last night and to summarize Tim Miller’s fun event here in Denver that I got to attend, but I have had this lingering question in my brain for a while. I was driving through downtown Denver the other day, saw the old-school brick buildings covered in ivy (or some other green plant thing; I am bad with plants) and just thought about how much I loved this city. But downtown - which is pretty alive and bustling - still doesn’t feel the same as it did when we first moved here. Nothing really does.
Things just feel different now, almost incomplete. It’s like we just watched the penultimate episode of a TV show, but the finale hasn’t even been shot yet, let alone aired. We’re waiting for things to get back to “normal,” but we can’t explain what normal is or was.
A lot of conservatives will read this headline and simply say, “Well, it’s Biden, duh.” In fact, I’ll put money on that being a comment I get on social media somewhere. But this feeling comes from before Biden’s Presidency. It’s obviously true that the economy just straight up feels weird right now, and it’s easy to put that blame on the President. We have had a rapidly fast recovery from a major recession, with millions of new jobs being created, but we still have supply chain issues and - worst of all - inflation that is just not going away on its own. Everything costs more, from childcare to groceries to lattes, and it’s enough to make you think we are in a malaise even if every single one of your friends has a job.
Any honest conservative knows that economic issues like inflation (and gas prices) are almost always beyond the reach of any president. The average price of gas right now is about $4.467 a gallon, and the inflation rate was 9.1% last month. If Donald Trump had won in 2020, it is a safe bet that the average price of gas would be $4.467 today, and that the inflation rate would be about 9.1%. In a globalized economy, there are just certain things we can’t escape.
But it’s not just the economy that feels strange. In fact, I don’t think it’s the economy at all; I sort of had this feeling of incompleteness in the Summer of 2021, when things were pretty hunky dory and Biden’s approval rating was 55%. At that time, things were actually on the upswing: We had just gotten a great vaccine and COVID-19 was in our rear view mirror. But it still felt like there was a tiny piece of a splinter that we didn’t bother to remove, or that we’re hoping our skin will push out on its own.
Something is wrong with America.
This just flat-out is not the same country that I lived in during Barack Obama’s Presidency. Everyone just seems angrier, and you are seeing that play out not only in things like mass shootings, but also crime in general. Last night, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in New York, Lee Zeldin, was attacked at a campaign event. Attacks on politicians have happened throughout American history, but the recency of this (and the target) is just so disturbing.
This isn’t to say things haven’t been bad before (1968 was pretty bad), but a deterioration has settled in that feels hard to shake. I want to be clear: I have a good life, a beautiful family, a wonderful home, a good job, a strong community, and a sort of well-behaved dog. Nevertheless, there is an angling feeling of dread that I feel behind my enjoyment of life in Denver.
I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think I have whittled it down to two things that we thought we were done with but are really not: Trump and COVID-19.
If the January 6th hearings are a reminder of anything, it’s that the monumental, country-breaking problem we faced from 2017-2021 is still lingering in the background like the Eye of Sauron. It is hard to feel a sense of calm about where America is going when Donald Trump is - according to polls - the favorite to be the Republican nominee in 2024. But the Trump Effect™ is more than just January 6th, or a single response to one of his policies. It goes deeper than that, because he fundamentally changed the way we interact with each other over politics. Trump was such a moral monster that he separated families over one member’s support or one member’s opposition to his Presidency. I personally watched so many people who held themselves up as shining examples of integrity twist themselves in knots to defend Trump, and it was jarring.
I think a lot of that (or iterations of the same experience) broke people. And because Trump never officially conceded the election, he robbed a lot of Americans of the closure needed to shut the door on his time in power. Trump supporters still feel like the country was stolen from them, and in many ways, view Biden voters/supporters as accomplices in a minor destruction of democracy. So, if you are thinking it’s been hard for you to mend your relationship with your aunt who called you twice on November 2nd to try and get you to vote for Trump, think about how she’s feeling about you right now.
I am trying to think of things that will get that fever to break, and not a lot stands out to me. I think on a personal level, it is important to tell your relatives and friends who vote/think differently from you that you don’t actually hate them, and you might catch them expressing a sigh of relief. But two things could happen that will help us get past this dreadfully distinct moment:
Trump could lose the Republican primary in 2024.
This is a real possibility. It is hard for me to remember what happened last week, let alone 6 years ago, but in the 2016 primaries a majority of Republicans voted against Donald Trump and supported other candidates. Based on current polling data, it’s easy to see the same thing happening, and it is pretty unlikely that you will see Ron DeSantis, Marco Rubio, Larry Hogan, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Elon Musk, and many others all decide to run for the nomination at once. Smarter candidates like Rubio and (gulp) Cruz will likely forego a run and let someone like DeSantis fight Trump on his own. If he loses to a Republican, a lot of Trump supporters and regular GOP voters will tell themselves the Party has moved on from Trump. That will take the fever down a notch.
Trump could get indicted.
I’m sure a lot of people are thinking this will make things worse, but look at what happened to Andrew Cuomo in New York: Just before Cuomo resigned, his approval rating dropped to 38%, which is low but somehow still higher than Trump’s when he left office in early 2021. The kicker here is that even though Cuomo’s approval rating plummeted, he still had support from a majority of Democrats (57%). But then Cuomo resigned and New Yorkers really haven’t thought about him much since.
Obviously, Trump has a different effect on GOP voters than Cuomo has on Democrats; there isn’t really a pro-Cuomo cult that exists anywhere (and if there is they need help). But most people would be surprised by how fast voters are ready to move on. Even Fox News is trying to nudge their viewers in DeSantis’s direction and away from Trump.
There was a time when Kamala Harris was seen as being the next rising star in Democratic politics, and that she was a shoe-in for the presidency. Right now, she has the lowest approval rating of any vice-president in history. In other words, voters are fickle, and can be convinced to shift their gaze to the next shiny new toy.
COVID-19 is still real.
I’m sure most readers know that we’ve seen a surge in COVID cases recently, but no one seems to care. You might have even had a conversation about this with a friend recently and heard them say, “People are just over it.” Convenient, given that the disease seemingly has an ability to kill whomever it wants.
But it’s not just COVID’s current danger that has me thinking about why America got sick. We basically shut down our country for over a year and it fundamentally altered the way interacted with each other as a society. Sure, we see people in person now, but we routinely think of it as “seeing them in person” rather than just “seeing them” like we did in 2019. Some of that is changing as we get back to normal, but I think a lot of us also know that “normal” isn’t ever coming back.
Relationships with people feel very different now, because we’ve all had friends who were isolated and alone for a year, and being robbed of social interaction changed them. It was easy for me to say I will stay at home and isolate with Elisabeth, because she is an automatic companion. It’s much less fun to watch Chopped™ on your own than with someone who will, in fact, share their bowl of popcorn with you.
But for friends who are single or who lived alone, COVID turned that “aloneness” into normality, and it pulled them into that for a year and now they are (naturally) having trouble finding their way out. It was simultaneously necessary and unfair, but single people took it remarkably well. Schooling is also the big elephant in the room, and the data that are piling in on letting kids stay home aren’t great.
COVID-19 fundamentally changed the way we communicate with one another, and that’s even before you get into the politics surrounding the vaccine. We shut down the world for a year, and then tried to act like things were OK in 2021 because Joe Biden was an adult in the room (which helped!) and we had a vaccine. But we didn’t address any of the damaging effects caused by our isolation, and instead just expected everything to return to normal by sheer will alone. It’s like you got into a fight with your spouse one night, went to bed angry, and then woke up assuming things would be normal without the need for an apology.
What is the cure for our sickness?
I honestly don’t know the answer for COVID-19, but it definitely feels like we need some sort of apology to ourselves. After all, the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one. It is OK to admit that we are more distant than we were in 2019, and that messaging your fellow employees over Slack isn’t the same as grabbing a drink with them at a happy hour after work.
I think more than anything, there has to be a new commitment to better communication, and a more complete compassion for one another.
At the aforementioned event last night, Tim Miller said something that I thought was important: He wants to extend grace to the regular people who got wrapped up into January 6th and to Trump voters, and the doesn’t harbor any grudges or anger towards them (he reserves all of that for Trump himself and the politicos who helped him get into power). I couldn’t agree more. A significant factor behind January 6th is obviously Trumpism itself, but COVID-19 played a part too. As I go through QAnon Telegram channels, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the same thing:
"I got into QAnon after we were locked down because of COVID-19 and had nothing else to do but watch videos online.”
If you are feeling impatient with a friend or relative who believes in (what you deem to be) nonsense, it might help to interact with them more, and let them know that just because you are a psycho liberal doesn’t mean you can’t have a beer together or share a meal.
OK, but seriously: Tim Miller’s book, Why We Did It, is truly fantastic. If you buy one book this summer to read, make it this one.
The New York Times has a great series on their op-ed writers admitting what they got wrong. I might go over some old Jackal posts and do this myself. The star for me was Paul Krugman admitting he was wrong about inflation. Really powerful.
A great piece on the likely GOP candidate in Arizona, Blake Masters.
Axios gets a big scoop on Trump’s plans for 2024.
I owe you guys a cocktail. During the summer I sort of get obsessed with Aperol because its bitterness goes so well with so many cocktails (I’ve shared the High Five with you before). The Division Bell is Mezcal based, but it’s also perfectly balanced:
1 oz Mezcal
3/4 oz Aperol
1/2 oz Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
3/4 oz Lime juice
I’ll be back next week, but the Jackal might be touch and go for the rest of August. We are closing on our new house, so will be in the middle of a move, and we are also going on vacation in about 10 days. I’ll be sure to give an update. Enjoy the weekend!