The traditional refrain on New Year’s Eve is “ring out the old, ring in the new.” It is intended as an expression of our hope that no matter what hardships we have endured, the New Year will be better. To be quite honest, I’m having some difficulty feeling that way this year.
I clearly have some personal reasons that account for my sombre mood. The loss of Eileen, my beloved wife of 52 years, has cast a pall over everything. But I don’t want to focus here on the personal as much as on the larger picture — the impact of two distinct but related crises that have taken a toll our nation in 2020 and will, I believe, continue to have an impact in 2021: the Trump presidency and Coronavirus pandemic.
In my 75 years, I can’t remember any events that have been more traumatic and life-altering than these two combined. My generation experienced multiple wars, political and social movements, assassinations, and terrorist attacks. Each of them, in their time, had a profound impact on us. But none have been as potentially transformative as Trump and the pandemic.
In confronting most of these past crises, we came together as a nation, addressed the challenges they presented, and healed. That has not been the case this time since Trump and the pandemic have left us more deeply divided than before.
To be clear, the assent of Donald Trump and Trumpism did not occur in a vacuum. There were antecedents that led to his election in 2016. A significant part of the American electorate felt ignored by elites whom they believed had no understanding of their grievances. They had lost their moorings to rapid social, political, economic, and cultural change. And they looked for a champion who would speak to their resentments and feelings of dislocation.
As incongruous as it might have appeared, Trump, the high-living controversial billionaire entertainer, became their champion. Though he will not be president after January 20, 2021, the impact of Donald Trump will be with us for years to come. We’re seeing it play out today.
Hyper-partisanship in the US
Despite losing this election, he has continued to make claims about winning “by a landslide,” and making outrageous and evidence-free charges of fraud that have been repeatedly rejected by state and federal courts. Fearing the wrath of the president, 126 Republican Members of Congress signed up to endorse his failed court cases.
Let’s be clear, Donald Trump didn’t create the hyper-partisanship that has paralysed Washington for decades. He has, however, taken it to new levels. He also didn’t create American’s lack of confidence in media, but his constant claims of “fake news,” and his projection of what an aide once referred to as “alternative facts” have resulted in a divided polity that not only disagrees on policy, but on reality.
When we first became aware of the magnitude of the novel Coronavirus in March of this year, health experts’ issued warnings and called for dramatic steps to be taken. What should have been a crisis that brought the US together, has become a partisan battle — with those who leaders who call for restrictions on gatherings called “traitors,” and those who wear masks derided as weak liberals.
Despite the nation’s death toll from the virus reaching 330,000, we remain a divided country with a substantial minority refusing to obey health warnings, insisting that they are an infringement of their personal freedoms. And even more disturbing, many among Trump’s loyalists, echoing the president’s charges, are claiming that the entire pandemic is overblown and was used by Democrats to scare voters into casting absentee ballots which the president believes enabled the fraudulent counts that resulted in his defeat.
The lasting impact of the pandemic, however, will not only be the exacerbation of our political divide. It will also produce other changes. In the beginning the crisis, we warned that the longer it lasted, the greater the economic and social consequences to this pandemic. We foresaw businesses closing, neighbourhoods impacted by the closures, a drain on city and state governments as they saw revenues declining while demand for essential services continued to grow, and a devastating impact on educational institutions and the children they serve.
Our worst fears have come true
We also envisioned the disparate impact that this would have on the poor and those with special needs and the increase in stress-related problems including depression, agoraphobia, addiction, and suicide. Nine months later, our worst fears have been borne out.
Even with the vaccine, the disease will continue to take its toll for months to come. And even, God willing, when it is brought under control, we will be living in a different country. Our cities and daily life will have changed. Many office workers who’ve learnt to work remotely, will not return to their offices.
With fully one-half of all Americans having developed a fear of disease, many social gatherings will continue to be curtailed. Children, especially the poor and those with special needs, will have a difficult time recovering from a lost year of learning and social development and interaction. And beyond all this, are the accumulated impacts of prolonged unemployment, depleted savings, and debt resulting from the dislocation brought on by a changed economy.
And so in the face of all this, it feels somewhat naive to just say “ring out the old, ring in the new.” Hope must be coupled with resolve and hard work. Because I have an incurable faith in our resilience and in fundamental goodness of most people, I do believe that we will find a way forward. It won’t be easy, to be sure, and even with our best efforts, there won’t be a return to the “normal” that was.
Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of the Arab American Institute