Almost 50 years ago, I learned my first lesson of the great divide in the United States and got my first taste of how racist our American neighbours could be. It was an ugly first-hand introduction.
It was the early 1970s and I was a summer student staying in residence at Carleton University. In those years, the Ottawa Rough Riders held their training camp at Carleton. The football players stayed in residence and the evening gathering spot was a basement pub.
I can remember the night I found myself talking to two giant players from Texas and Louisiana who commented on their African-American teammates sitting with a white woman. The things they said shocked me to my core. It wasn’t that as a young man I didn’t know about racism. What shocked me was that people could be so “out there” with their hateful racist comments to a total stranger in a foreign country.
While racism is still very much part of American society, it is only part of the divide. It is one crack among so many – and the ongoing political reality television fiasco exasperates the divisions in American society day after day.
As the midterm elections pass, two years into this most unusual U.S. presidency, there is one constant. Every time we think rock bottom has been hit in terms of human decency and respect, it is necessary to reset the dials as rock bottom sinks even lower.
While the great divide, historically rooted in the U.S. Civil War, has always been there, back then, on the surface at least, the issues were not, and could not have been, as multifaceted as today. Today there is hardly anything about American society that draws unanimity.
It is so hard to come to grips with the reality that a president of the United States would come to power and deliberately stoke the fires of distrust, division and hatred for political gain. What shouldn’t be surprising is that there is an audience for it. That is far scarier and it is hard to imagine that the genie can be put back in the bottle anytime soon, if ever.
During the run-up to the midterm elections, I did something I don’t usually do. I watched both CNN and Fox News, giving each equal time. If anyone wants to prove to themselves that there are two distinct Americas, just give equal time to those two networks. It is not about left and right, or blue and red, or politics. It is about everything.
An interesting facet to exposing yourself to Fox is to see how the “friends” of the president can earnestly build a case for his beliefs just as CNN can tear them down. After a while, I found myself thinking that what I was watching on Fox actually made sense on some subjects. I didn’t think it was fake news. I actually thought it was news presented from a different perspective based on chosen facts that fit their narrative.
The fact that so many more Americans watch Fox than CNN is one of those facts so worth noting – and so worth not forgetting. From a Canadian perspective, there is much about the U.S. that may scare and worry us, but to so many Americans, it is becoming the life they’ve chosen, the society they seem to want to earnestly pursue and perpetuate.
On the anti-Trump side of the great divide, there are Americans who decry the state of affairs that rocks the boat of what they cherish as progressive thinking. They worry about a conservative Supreme Court that will undo a woman’s right to choose. They worry about a Supreme Court that will not guarantee minorities and the underprivileged something as basic as voting rights.
For those same people who cringe at machine guns in the hands of troubled teenagers and known hate-mongers, it is a battle they know they have already lost. They fear losing so much more. To them, ultimately, decency lies in the balance. On the other side, it seems there is religion, the constitution and common sense which motivates them.
The United States is in a space where, if Donald Trump didn’t exist, someone would have to invent him.