America — a nation out of joint

The award-winning writer on the legacy of four years of Trump and confronting the US’s historic divisions

Marilynne Robinson 

© Ed Ruscha’s ‘Our Flag’ (2017), courtesy of the artist and Gagosian, and currently on show at the Brooklyn Museum, New York

All the world knows that America is involved in an election, gigantic but so far orderly. 

Like the demonstrations against police brutality that filled the streets for days this summer, the scale of the turnout proves that the public are watching. However engrossed in their own lives, they do rise up from time to time to intervene in the course of public life.

The sheer massiveness of particip­ation in this election will make it cathartic and clarifying. The people are doing what must be done to put their authority beyond doubt, overwhelming by sheer numbers the possibility of fraud that could affect the outcome. 

Even if this great act of civic engagement ends in endless legal disputes, and even ultimately in the disaster of Donald Trump’s re-election, at least we have been assured now that the fundamentals of democracy are in place. Our national life can go on.

I think about this election by trying to think beyond it, by trying to imagine America as it might be after the ballots are counted, and after the long weeks have passed until Joe Biden’s inaugur­ation, should he have won. This is, as they say, the best-case scenario, an orderly transfer of power in response to the results of a presidential election. 

At the time of writing, Biden appeared to be inching towards victory, although it was still possible that Trump had won and would stay in the White House legitimately. But we all know that Trump is immune to embarrassment and shame, and seems to have little respect for law.

In his address on Wednesday, he refused to commit himself to abide by the election results, introducing the possibility that he would create a crisis utterly without precedent in our history. He appeared ready to justify this act, should he need to, by discrediting as “fraud” the process of election.

Trump supporters heckling vote-counters at TCF Center in Detroit this week © AFP/Getty Images

Anyone who follows the news is aware that voting rights continue to be a fraught issue, vulnerable locally to the kinds of manipulation that Trump’s own party has engaged in for years. Still, the basic integrity of the system has been assumed, its results treated as the people’s verdict, as they must be if the country is to function as a democracy. 

Thus I have named two crucial aspects of our government that have been shown to be vulnerable to disabling, and are already in some degree disabled because our system has not anticipated a politics that proceeds from contempt for history, precedent and law.


Trump is a novel problem and an opportunist, but he plays on and has exacerbated longstanding problems. The United States has been making a decision about itself as grave as any it has faced since 1860, the year Abraham Lincoln was elected. This is true in part because the conflicts of that time were never really resolved and have been stirred back to vivid life by Trump and his party.

One great difference between the crisis of 1860 and this one is that back then the issue was clear, at least to the South, which responded to Lincoln’s plurality — he did not win a majority, the popular vote being split between three major candidates — by seceding. There is one irreconcilable question dividing the South from the North that has retained its essential character as it has spread beyond its regional bases. 

It is: which is more pious, more virtuous? This is an evasion, of course. The argument against slavery, led by northern churches, was a moral argument, inevitably. The South defended itself against the charge of flagrant wickedness by claiming that it, as a culture, was moral and pious in a degree that put the North to shame.

This self-characterisation has stuck. If the demographics of these states are tested against the biblical standard that the righteous will be known by their works, there appear, to a northern eye, to be important discrepancies to do with poverty, life expectancy and so on.

A Trump supporter holds aloft a Bible at a campaign rally in Gastonia, North Carolina in October © AP

But the point here is that this matter of relative piety does not yield itself to political discussion. It is really one more form of religious prejudice. The other side is seen by the “religious right” as deficient metaphysically, perverse, not finally to be trusted or embraced. 

Trump hates the people he should hate: the progressives, the critics, the reformers, journalists, those who bring moral standards to bear on public affairs. He has answered a wave of revulsion at the death of George Floyd by wordlessly flourishing a Bible. This is proof enough to one version of piety that he is on the side of the angels. 

For them there are no rules but consensus among themselves. Trump and his loyal Evangelicals have proved this.

The American civil war truly is the past that is not past. Lately, questions have arisen about all the revanchist statuary and insurrectionary battle flags. Monuments have fallen, old villains slain in effigy. This is a liberal victory. 

On the other side, groups of men with bad hair and enormous weapons identify with the Confederacy and taunt the civic order with their rebel swagger. They shore up Trump, seconding him in his contempt for the elites and the “deep state”. These latter-day Rebs have not made much disturbance at the polling places, as it was feared they might do. This is much to their credit.

Still, the times are out of joint. I have only recently understood the power of this metaphor. There is a kind of connective tissue that joins cause to consequence — a king dies and his son succeeds him. 

But a joint can be wrenched. Connections that seem firm can turn out to be surprisingly fragile. It is crucial to American government that the president does not criminalise his opposition. Trump does this obsessively. 

The president is supposed to speak candidly to the American people about the issues facing the country; Trump lies and distracts, exciting his loyalists with pernicious nonsense taken from the web or Fox News. He fractures alliances and declares his love for dictators. 

All these inversions have created in effect a parody government presided over by a Lord of Misrule. There is a kind of genius in it all. Who else would have recognised that the postal system was a great contributor to the coherency and effect­iveness of any number of important social programmes, and the vote as well? Why skirmish over social security and Medicare? Just fire the mailman.


Hard as it is to imagine, a little portrait bust of Trump will appear on those calendars that commemorate US presidents, and others coming after him. He will have given them a terrible lesson in the amount of harm that can be done. 

There is a little comfort to be found in all this, in the fact that until now we have been able to trust our presidents well enough not to have felt the need to protect our defining institutions against them. 

Our vaunted separation of powers worked pretty well for as long as respect for the project of constitutional government restrained ambition, opportunism, egoism, nepotism, fact­ionalism and personal animosity.

Protesters attempting to pull down the statue of Andrew Jackson near the White House in June © Getty Images

We have learnt that when a president epitomises these disruptive energies and more, the Constitution begins to seem fragile indeed. Another president could restore in practice the norms on which the system has depended. 

There are many people who know the conventions of American democratic behaviour from recent experience. It is easy to forget that Trump has been in power not yet four years.

Nevertheless, these years have shown us an America we have not reckoned on, a Trumpism that will be a problem for any better president. Societies can be overrun by pathological excitements, as we all know. Thugs and authoritarians find each other. 

They bond over a shared sense of grievance and they stoke their resentments by means of conspiracy theories. There is a notion abroad these days that Christianity is under attack in America, which brings to mind the disgrace the religion has suffered so often in the past from the excesses of its self-proclaimed defenders.

Other tales in circulation now bear a disturbing resemblance to the blood libel that inflamed hostility to the Jews of Europe before the second world war. The internet entity called QAnon presents hideous accounts of the victimisation of children that seem to overwhelm the expectation of normality and predictability that we ordinarily bring to our thoughts about other people. 

The McMartin pre-school panic of the 1980s was a non-political demonstration of the power of the remotest possibility that children might be suffering intolerable abuse. As a corollary, there must be adults demonic enough to engage in the abuse and stealthy or powerful enough to conceal it.

Among persons so debased, any apparent virtue is in fact a ruse. Reconciliation or compromise would amount to sanctioning their corruption. Only contempt and outrage could be appropriate in the circumstances. Speaking of people as conspiratorial groups or classes — Democrats, Hollywood — protects these accusations from rebuttal. 

If one celebrity should somehow manage to prove a negative and exonerate himself, he can be seen as an exception. If one celebrity is effectively slandered, he is proof of pervasive corruption. Religion that creates a stark line between us and them, saved and other, readily accommodates this kind of thinking.

A Trump supporter wears a QAnon sweatshirt at a rally in Staten Island, New York, on October 3 © Getty Images

It is said that Americans now hate each other. This is an important source of animosity. 

An assumption of basic decency in others makes it possible to sustain an open society. 

Now too significant a faction in our population are instead drawn in by the same primitive excitements of fear and outrage that once burnt heretics and witches. I can find no way to assure myself that a truly reasonable debate over real issues can be had in this country at this time, while the president continues to give legitimacy to crank theories that impute vile motives to critics of his government.

Looking at the matter from the other side, I am haunted by these libels, by the fear that their potency will increase until they overwhelm politics. Americans are always very ready to react with cynicism to the word “politics” — but these are the channels through which our differences have been negotiated in the past, the gist and genius of our founding documents. 

How can anyone, once convinced of the truth of these lurid stories, be dissuaded? To allude to them in any detail is to give them a larger life. They involve paedophilia, a crime especially suited to being made the burning coal that inflames the credulous imagination. 

Perhaps this species of indignation allows people careful of their virtue to entertain thoughts they would otherwise forbid themselves. Perhaps the libels arouse something like panic, a focus on the emergency, the purported crime, to the exclusion of other kinds of awareness that might dismiss it.

And maybe this anxiety of mine, that dangerous irrationality has gained a purchase on the thinking of an import­ant fraction of the American people, gives any evidence of this trend an importance that it does not have. 

To the extent that I see this mentality emerging in any group, I lose respect for them and I lose hope of having a meaningful conversation with them. So I also am a part of the divisiveness that plagues our democracy.

There is an old habit of fear in this country, ancient in the South because it is hard to trust anyone to whom you have done and are doing grievous harm. After the civil war, the defeated side triumphed. 

The hopes of Reconstruction were not only defeated but forgotten and the American memory was seduced by juleps, hoop skirts, Uncle Remus and fear. If Lincoln had not been assassinated, we might have lost him too. 

Grievous harm continued in various forms and the same fear flourished and spread and blurred the distinction between North and South that the war might seem to have hardened.

Demonstrators on the march in New York this week, urging election officials to ‘count every vote’ © Zuma Press/eyevine

There were alarms about immigrants and anarchists, then the great fear of communism and its sponsor, the Soviet Union, a fear ingrained in the public for decades as a matter of government policy. Interestingly, the fear has outlived its rationale. Now tales of the sort that Senator Joseph McCarthy told the nation about communists having infiltrated the government are told about decadent elitists.

Russia may well be doing what it can to discredit and subvert our elections today, but the alarm that would have been aroused by these intrusions in earlier decades is focused now on a supposed conspiracy of paedophiles, embedded in our government as were the old Reds, though with less obvious motives. Presumably no special credentials are required to run a child sex ring from the basement of a pizza parlour, as certain distinguished members of the Democratic party were accused of doing.

The larger point is that Russia, whose misfortune it is always to appear as a looming threat, and often to be one, is now behaving aggressively, making a shrewd assault on our democracy and at the same time canoodling with our president, whose intentions where elections are concerned seem broadly the same. Meanwhile, our flag-bedecked super-patriots are in a froth about a sinister cabal made up of the president’s critics. None of this makes any sense at all.

These strange trends in our public life are too influential, too like dangerous movements in other times and places, to be ignored. But in all fairness, the electorate were offered two hard choices — to try to restart the economy, or to concentrate fully on controlling the Covid-19 pandemic. These options are not so much at odds as they are sometimes made to seem. 

Actually controlling the virus would make possible a normalisation of the economy once and for all. On the other hand, most voters have dependants or dread the thought of becoming dependants. They know that nothing is more essential to their health and the health of their families than paying the rent. 

Opening the economy prematurely might well prove disastrous, but keeping it shut down will present immediate problems with difficult solutions, like crowding or eviction. If Congress had passed a relief bill, as it certainly should have done, this might have been a very different election. Certainly voters took into account the fact that no support was coming.

Despite all, my compatriots in their scores of millions waited hours in patient lines, masked and distanced, to perform the political act that makes the profoundest sense. God bless America.

Marilynne Robinson’s most recent novel ‘Jack’ is published by Virago

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