A Noisy Place

Published November 4, 2020

City Journal

I drifted off to sleep, leaving the television on to keep track of things. I woke an hour later and listened to results from Pennsylvania and Arizona. I blinked at the map and checked the Electoral College count—indeterminate; Biden slightly ahead. Then I drifted off again. Sometime between two and three in the morning, I came up out of a complicated dream, awakened by the voice of Donald Trump. “A fraud on the American public!” he was saying. “Going to the Supreme Court!”

I closed my eyes—and, unbidden, a different voice floated up out of memory from a long time ago. It was my late, beloved Aunt Jeanette speaking—loudly, as she sometimes did for emphasis. She said, “Oy Gevalt!

Literally, the Yiddish phrase Oy gevalt means “oh, violence.” That doesn’t nearly do it justice. Oy gevalt registers a thousand of the liveliest nuances of surprise, alarm, disgust, comedy, tragedy, calamity, resignation. The year 2020 is a masterpiece of oy gevalt.

Rising a few hours later, I found that Mark Halperin—frustrated by the stubborn incomprehension of his colleagues in the media class (the medical term for their problem would be “scotoma”)—had posted this item on his Wide World of News:

“I listened to about 30 minutes of anti-Trump cable news in the post-midnight, pre-dawn hours and it was horrifying. Still no apparent awareness of the role the on-air folks at these networks played in helping the president politically, still no appreciation for their failure to try to actually try to understand all of America, still the same repetitive, smug, acidic, childish speeches masquerading as news coverage. Like Donald Trump himself: shocking but not surprising.”

That was the eloquent truth of it—one of two or three master-truths of the Age of Covid and Trump. Another master-truth is this: Newton’s Third Law of Motion applies to politics as well as physics. Every vote cast for Donald Trump in November was an equal and opposite reaction to a rock or a frozen water bottle thrown at a cop in July or August.

The transaction is not complicated: Many factors are at work, but the basic pattern may be understood if you focus on America’s Newtonian politics. Punch and counterpunch. The elites of the woke Left—like colonialists in East Africa or India in the days of Empire—have an erroneous impression that those unlike themselves are their servants but otherwise do not exist in any important way.

American “elites” do not take in the full meaning of John Dos Passos’s line, written in the 1930s but referring to the great national schism over the Sacco-Vanzetti case a decade earlier: “All right, we are two nations.” America has always been two nations—at least two—even as it has insisted, officially, on the sentimental self-image of “one nation, indivisible.” It’s generally April 1861 somewhere in America, except at such moments as 1917-1918 and 1941-1945, when the country was united to fight external wars. Otherwise, America has unfolded as a saga of hostile binaries—loyalists v. revolutionaries; Hamiltonians v. Jeffersonians; Eastern Federalists v. Jacksonians from beyond the mountains; white settlers v. native tribes; North v. South, East v. West; black v. white; abolitionists v. slaveowners; industry v. agriculture; silver v. gold; city v. country; Ellis Island v. the frontier; labor v. management; wet v. dry; New Dealers v. FDR’s “economic royalists”; hawks v. doves.

Now it’s the Left v. the Trumpists.

This country is a noisy place, and it’s exceptionally noisy in the Trump years.

Wake me when we have a winner.

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