It was dusk on Saturday, hours after the networks called the election for Joe Biden. I was on the phone with someone in the White House. The news had sucked the air out of the building, I gathered. Soon enough, elsewhere in the executive mansion, there would be rage and defiance and a convergence of dark-blue suits.
But the man with whom I spoke found that his mind had already departed the building. He was thinking about different challenges—about his future, his children, his plan to go and live somewhere far away from Washington. I’m not sure if he was actually clearing out his desk, but that was the idea. He was clearing his mind. He meant to start over and try to rethink the country and understand what it has become.
Outside the White House, beyond the newly installed unscalable fence, across Pennsylvania Avenue in Lafayette Park, the crowds were noisy and giddy and relieved and triumphal and a little vengeful, with a touch of the Jacobin: jubilation spiked with malice, not unlike the day in 1944 when Paris was liberated from German occupation. They held up signs that said “YOU’RE FIRED.” That was the mildest sentiment. Elsewhere, in the republic of screens, cries rose to shave the heads of the collaborators, so to speak—to make lists of Trumpists who must be exposed and proscribed: canceled.
My man inside the White House took it for granted that all was over. We talked for more than an hour. There was wonder and melancholy in the tone of what he said. He spoke of how his own family hated Donald Trump —hated him with a visceral loathing that shocked and saddened the man. His job in the Trump White House had estranged him from some of them; they had tried to talk the matter through, but with only partial success. The man seemed to understand the Trump-revulsion (it is as common as the common cold) and yet was disgusted by the antipathy of the left toward Mr. Trump’s supporters—“fellow citizens who have clearly benefited from many of the policy changes that he promised and delivered.” History will sort out its verdict on Mr. Trump. There used to be an informal rule among historians that a president could not be accurately judged until 30 years after he left the White House.
The chief subject of our conversation—what bothered both of us the most, I think—was the incomprehension of one side of America for the other side: the irreconcilable differences, the lack of empathy. Not even in the bitterest, most furious days of the late ’60s, I said—days that I lived through, up close, and remember with perfect clarity—were Americans as alienated from one another as they are now. Back then the angers and hatreds proceeded from a premise that Vietnam (chief cause of the anger) was an anomaly, a deviation from the norms of a country that had, until a moment ago, seemed morally coherent, even virtuous. The fathers had won the Good War. Only lately, Lyndon Johnson had been a hero, author of the Great Society and the civil-rights laws of 1964 and ’65. In 1968, America still remembered the days when it was a hero. A memory of the country’s better self chastened the fury.
But by 2020, it seemed to me, the country believed its old virtue had been exposed for a fraud and a hoax a thousand times (”racist,” “sexist” and much worse), and reupholstered just as often (MAGA, MAGA, MAGA), so that by now the country had come to resemble a bitter marriage in a Strindberg play—scorpions in a jar. It was startling to me and to the man in the White House to realize that Americans could hate one another so intensely.
I said that I put it down, in part, to the vivid inhumanity of the screens, of social media (lethal, instantaneous, polarizing, cartooning, inflammatory and ubiquitous). I put it down to the mischief of identity politics. I put it down to fatuous, overprivileged white elites—to the woke and the politically correct and the universities (the archipelago of poisonous ideas). I also put it down, bigly, to the egregious Mr. Trump.
We agreed, I think, on the destructive effects of so much fanatical certainty. I thought of the famous letter that the poet John Keats wrote to his brothers in 1817, in which he coined the term “negative capability”—“that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” He meant that genius had the instinct sometimes to wait, and wait, and wait a little more, and allow dust to settle and thoughts to mature and truths to emerge. Hasty certainty tends to be a fool.
But sometimes hasty certainty makes for stare decisis. Error may establish a beachhead and reinforce itself and, in time, become a settled fact, even though the original decision—whether in law or in the counting of ballots and assignment of electoral votes—may have been wrong. I have come to think of American society in 2020 as a nightmare of such stare decisis.
We ended our phone call with a promise to stay in touch. Out of the blue, one of Thomas E. Dewey’s sonorous pomposities occurred to me—a favorite of mine. He would tell his campaign audiences in 1948, “The future lies before us.” That much was true. But of course the future Dewey got was not the one he expected.
Mr. Morrow is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His latest book is “God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money.”