The Mercury News
Give Joe Biden the chance to break our national fever
Folks, we just survived something really crazy awful: four years of a president without shame, backed by a party without spine, amplified by a network without integrity, each pumping out conspiracy theories without truth, brought directly to our brains by social networks without ethics — all heated up by a pandemic without mercy.
It’s amazing that our whole system didn’t blow. What we saw in the Capitol last week were the bolts and hinges starting to come loose. The departure of Donald Trump from the White House and the depletion of his enablers’ power in the Senate couldn’t happen soon enough.
Nor could Joe Biden’s inauguration, but he has his work cut out for him. Because we haven’t even begun to fully comprehend how much damage Trump has done to our nation’s public life, institutions and cognitive immunity.
This was a terrible, terrible experiment.
It’s not that Trump never did anything good. It’s that it was nowhere near worth the price of leaving our nation more divided, more sick — and with more people marinated in conspiracy theories — than at any time in modern history. We need to be simultaneously reunited, deprogrammed, refocused and reassured. The whole country needs to go on a weekend retreat to rediscover who we are and the bonds that unite us — or at least once did.
I honestly think we can again be our best selves, but it’s on all of us to make it happen. How so?
To me, the most striking feature of Trump’s presidency was that year after year he kept surprising us on the downside. Year after year he plumbed new depths of norm-busting, lying and soiling the reputations of everyone who entered his orbit. But he never once — not once — surprised us on the upside with an act of kindness, self-criticism or reaching out to opponents.
His character was his destiny, and it became ours, too. Well, I’ve got good news. We can recover, provided that we all — politicians, media, activists — focus on doing what Trump never could: surprising each other on the upside.
Upside surprises are a hugely underrated force in politics and diplomacy. They are what break bonds of pessimism and push out the boundaries of what we think possible.
I actually surprised Trump once. I have never been reluctant to agree with him when he did something that I thought was right. So, after he and Jared Kushner forged a deal normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, I wrote a column praising the accord. A few days later my cellphone rang. It was President Trump. His first words were: “I couldn’t believe The New York Times let you write something so nice.”
It made him rethink, if only for a moment, who I was and what my newspaper was. Surprise does that. Had Trump once stepped out of character on something big and hard that challenged his base and surprised us on the upside, like on climate or immigration, I’d have praised that, too. He just wouldn’t.
Too bad, because as journalists and as citizens, we live for surprises on the upside from our leaders.
So, I have two asks of every American: Give Joe Biden a chance to surprise you on the upside and challenge yourself to surprise him.
Maybe if we all do that, maybe if we all give Joe a chance to surprise each of us on the upside, we can break the terrible political fever that has gripped our land alongside COVID-19.
Now wouldn’t that be a pleasant surprise.
To me, the most striking feature of Trump’s presidency was that year after year he kept surprising us on the downside. Year after year he plumbed new depths of normbusting, lying and soiling the reputations of everyone who entered his orbit.