America’s moment of decision and likely unanswered questions

Allendale Township Planning Commissioner Ryan Kelley speaking at the American Patriot Council rally.
Photo: John Rothwell

After nearly two years, countless ads, the expenditure of billions of dollars and dozens of candidates, the moment of decision has arrived.

It is a tired and timeworn cliche that each presidential campaign is the most important of our lives.

But this year it really seems to be true.

Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden has said often throughout the campaign that character is on the ballot.

That’s true, and I’d suggest respectfully that the issue is more fundamental than that.

The fabric of a democracy is like a pair of lungs that need clean air to thrive.  In our case, that means the free flow of accurate information and a respect for truth, a commitment to federal oversight and the functioning of government being driven by adherence to core tenets, the most basic of which is the idea that we are a nation of laws, not people who place themselves above it.

The events of the last four years have filled the lungs of our democracy with the equivalent of four packs a day of unfiltered cigarettes.

I’ve written before about how I attended President Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 and came away with the conclusion that everything was on the table.

That has indeed turned out to be the case.

In July I wrote about the eerie echoes of my family’s history in Nazi-era Germany in federal law enforcement officers’ using unmarked vehicles to drive around downtown Portland and detain protesters.

The antidemocratic actions have only continued since then.

The thousands of avoidable deaths from the coronavirus that the president concealed, denied and then said would magically disappear.

The contempt for science and the failure to acknowledge the reality of climate change.

The endless efforts to discredit our election and to preemptively and falsely claim that any result other than a Trump victory must be fraudulent.

The ceaseless flow of lies and misinformation and the refusal to disavow white supremacy and bizarre, baseless conspiracy theories.

Yet at the same time that the president rightly if is the focus of much of critics’ ire, it’s vital to note and remember that his success is a reflection not just of him as an individual, but of the veins within our society he has been to mine.

In a very real way, the president’s activities are not just about him, but about all of us.

This means that even if Biden and Harris win the presidential election and the Democrats have the majority in both houses, our nation faces a very rough road ahead in which it will take years, if not decades, to dig out from the damage.

This is not to say that we are without hope.

Close to 100 million Americans have already made their choice, standing in line for as many as 10 hours to cast and braving all kinds of logistical and bureaucratic obstacles to exercise the franchise for which so many of our countrymen have fought and died.

The past four years have seen record numbers of women running for Congress and the Senate.

Still, the result and the aftermath are uncertain.

There may have been a sign of restraint here in Michigan two Saturdays ago.  Allendale, home to the university where I teach, saw dueling rallies at a public park.

On one side, near a confederate monument, were attendees at the pro-Trump American Patriot Council rally.  Carrying Trump flags, the largely maskless crowd gathered to hear Allendale Township Planning Commissioner Ryan Kelley, a co-founder of the American Patriot Council, address them.

Wearing blue jeans, sunglasses and a button down shirt, his brown hair slicked back, his wife and their four children at his side, Kelley extolled the interrelated virtues of country, family, guns, law and order and the constitution.

Heavily armed militia men stood in front and on either side of the commissioner, wearing camouflage gear and toting rifles.

So, too, were a number of the attendees at a Justice for Black Lives rally that took place at the same time on the other side of the park, just a few hundred yards and a baseball field away from their opponents.

Holding signs portraying Kelley as a Fuhrer, they mingled chants and calls for the commissioner’s resignation with broader calls for justice.  (Kelley been accused of inviting one of the 13 militia members arrested recently in connection with a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — as well as others to a June counter-protest at Allendale Community Park, according to local media.)

An ominous feeling rose within me as I watched the American Patriot Council group begin a slow march past the confederate statue, and toward Lake Michigan Drive, where the other rally occurred.

Some of the Justice for Black Lives supporters started to walk toward the marchers.

American Patriot Council members chanted, “USA! USA! USA!”

Local police intervened to make sure that there was no violence between the two groups.

The marchers walked about another quarter mile before retracing their steps.  The Justice for Black Lives group started to gradually disperse.

An uneasy truce hung in the air.

Both sides had exercised the constitutionally-guaranteed and protected rights of freedom of assembly and speech as well as the right to bear arms.    Many others, like me, were there documenting the moment and giving life to freedom of the press.

In many ways, this was a positive embodiment of our nation’s messy and imperfect democracy.

The storm that looked like it was about to break drifted out to sea.

And yet.

It seemed almost impossible to believe that two sides with such radically different views of reality could find a way to maintain that fragile peace after the election, let alone come together as one across our beautiful, wounded and blood-soaked land.

The voting will conclude Tuesday evening.

The identity of our new president and the answer to the haunting question of our national unity will take longer, perhaps much longer, to determine.

By Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

Jeff is the founder and executive director of the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) and the Padnos/Sarosik Endowed Professor of Civil Discourse at Grand Valley State University.

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