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To many Americans, the future looks dark if the other side wins the election

A person wearing a mask sits while plexiglass is installed around the seat where Vice President Mike Pence will sit during the 2020 vice-presidential debate. Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

A psychiatrist examining what’s happened to America’s soul chooses for his book cover the iconic image from “Planet of the Apes” - a charred, half-buried wreck of the Statue of Liberty.

A minister who believes America is God’s chosen nation decides that a Joe Biden victory would mean doom, a crushing of the nation’s essence.

And a filmmaker whose work has celebrated the raucous mess of American politics concludes that the re-election of President Donald Trump would be “the end of democracy.”

One week before Americans choose their path forward, the quadrennial crossroads reeks of despair. In almost every generation, politicians pose certain elections as the most important of their time. But the 2020 vote takes place with the country in a historically dark mood - low on hope, running on spiritual empty, convinced that the wrong outcome will bring disaster.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican political consultant who has been convening focus groups of undecided voters for seven presidential cycles. "Even the most balanced, mainstream people are talking about this election in language that is more caffeinated and cataclysmic than anything I’ve ever heard.

“If you are a believer in climate change, re-electing Trump is literally the end of the world. If taxes are your issue, you think a Biden victory will bankrupt you. If your top concern is health care, you think a Biden loss will kill you.”

There’s a long history of lurid foreboding in American politics. Among the nation’s founders were pamphleteers who made their names decrying the dire future the colonists faced if their revolution failed. But the current language is so apocalyptic that even those who are steeped in the country’s episodes of extreme rhetoric are alarmed.

“I didn’t take it seriously for a long time, but in the last six weeks, it’s become very concerning,” said Michael Barkun, a political scientist at Syracuse University who studies political extremism. “This idea that the other side winning the election will produce a precipitous decline and the disintegration of institutions is completely at variance with American history.”

Historians say that in past bouts of insecurity and self-doubt, Americans often focused on foreign threats - the ideological battle with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the worry over unrest in the Middle East after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But now, the worry on the right that a Democratic win will plunge the nation into catastrophic socialism and the fear on the left that a Trump victory will produce a turn toward totalitarianism has created “a perilous moment - the idea that if the other side wins, we’re in for it,” said Peter Stearns, a historian of emotions at George Mason University.

“The two sides have come to view each other not as opponents, but as deeply evil,” he said. “And that’s happening when trust in institutions has collapsed and each group is choosing not to live near each other. It seems there’s no middle ground.”

Women dressed as characters from ’The Handmaid's Tale ’ gather at Freedom Plaza near the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 17. Washington Post photo by Astrid Riecken
Supporters of President Donald Trump fire cannons mounted to a barge during a boat parade in Sandusky Bay in Ohio on Sept. 5. Photo for The Washington Post by Dustin Franz

The rejection of the other side is so thoroughgoing that 31 percent of Biden supporters in Virginia say they would not accept a Trump victory as legitimate and 26 percent of Trump supporters are similarly unwilling to accept a Biden victory, according to a new Washington Post-Schar School poll.

From rumors of civil war to threats of voter intimidation, Americans' concerns about the election and its aftermath have arisen as once-fringe ideas have leached into the mainstream. One-third of Republican voters said in a Daily Kos/Civiqs poll in the fall that they believe there’s truth to the QAnon fantasy of a deep state elite that secretly controls the government. The FBI concluded in May that QAnon and similar “political conspiracy theories very likely will (foster) increasing political tensions and ... criminal or violent acts.”

Americans are especially susceptible to a dark, pessimistic view of the country right now because several powerful forces are undermining institutions that people have trusted for centuries, according to scholars who have studied the shift in popular attitudes:

• A populist president with a showman’s predilection for apocalyptic language. A flowering of unfounded beliefs: QAnon, “fake news,” fear of rampaging immigrants. A revolution in technology and media that has dramatically altered how Americans consume news and learn about politics.

• Add a frightening pandemic, a burst of protest and anger over racial inequalities, and a sudden economic collapse and the result is pervasive mistrust, a sense that the world’s most powerful nation can no longer come together in common cause.

“We’re facing a difficult time,” Barkun said. “The threat - the virus - is invisible and that makes it more frightening. There’s an increasingly widespread belief that authority - scientific, political, informational - is suspect. It can be more comforting to believe in an unpleasant outcome than to embrace uncertainty.”

In sharp contrast with other presidents, Trump has positioned himself not as a unifying ambassador of hope, but as a fellow victim. He tweets conspiracy theories, laments “hoaxes” aimed at him, devotes his inaugural address to a dystopian vision of “American carnage,” and campaigns for re-election as a breakwater against anarchy in the streets and a nefarious plot against the suburbs.

For many years, a rule of thumb in American politics was that the candidate with the sunnier outlook was likely to win. The other presidents elected in the past three decades appealed to American optimism and aspirations. Bill Clinton ran as “the man from Hope.” George W. Bush presented himself as a “compassionate conservative.” Barack Obama centered his campaign on “hope and change.”

Biden this month warned that “the country is in a dangerous place. Our trust in each other is ebbing. Hope seems elusive. Too many Americans see our public life ... as an occasion for total, unrelenting partisan warfare.”

After Trump repeatedly suggested that he might refuse to accept the results of the election, Biden last month expressed concern about “whether (Trump) generates some kind of response in a way that unsettles the society or causes some kind of violence.”

For his part, Trump is arguing that the country will collapse into “mob rule” if Biden wins. “No one will be safe,” the president said.

• • •

Frank Amedia’s America is on the edge of the abyss, a place where people of faith expect Armageddon and people on the other side conspire to scrap freedoms.

TV evangelist Pat Robertson announced on his show last week that “there’s going to be a war” after the election. Robertson prophesied that America will experience “civil unrest of great proportions ... then a time of peace, then maybe the end.”

Not to be outdone, Amedia, pastor of Touch Heaven Ministries in Canfield, Ohio, and a former adviser to the Trump campaign on Christian policy, delivered his own vision of what the country will face if Biden wins: “Progressive Marxist socialism,” “lawlessness,” even an embrace of “animalism” - “somebody can marry a cow and have perverse sex with them.”

On camera, Amedia, who hosts “Potus Shield,” a YouTube series devoted to praise of the president, predicts an apocalyptic future if Trump loses, a time of secular riots and biblical upheaval. But off camera, the preacher seems more anguished than angry, more searching than seething.

“Both sides agree that the soul of the nation is at stake,” he said in an interview. “I know that other nations faltered by becoming divisive, amoral, totally based on personal ambitions and agendas. We seem to be there.”

Amedia believes Trump was chosen by God to lead the United States, but he has no illusion that the president is an admirable character. Amedia laments the “sad political discourse in the country that has developed into a win-at-almost-any-cost mentality. How did we end up with Joe Biden and Donald Trump? We’re supposed to have certain ideals and I don’t think either of them musters up to it.”

The pastor, who is 68, wants to believe that America’s energetic and idealistic young people will pull the country back from a disturbing rejection of truth, science and faith.

Skepticism of science and antagonism toward intellectuals have surged at stressful junctures in American history, in battles over the teaching of evolution, fluoridation of the water supply, or acceptance of same-sex relationships.

“That skepticism can be healthy and democratic,” said Stearns, the George Mason University historian. “But what we’re seeing now, with a serious erosion of respect for authority, is new and different. It reflects a division that I think can bring us close to violent civil war.”

Social-justice activists confront patrons at a restaurant while marching in Washington, D.C., in August. The patrons were ordered to show support for victims of police shootings by raising their arms and making a fist. Photo for The Washington Post by Astrid Riecken

Amedia shares the fear that the country is tumbling toward violent conflict and wider spread of dangerous conspiracy notions. The only way to avert such a fall, he said, is through wiser and more widely accepted leadership.

“Why are some people joining into causes and movements? Why are they finding some credence in things like QAnon?” Amedia asked. “They’re trying to fill a void. In this season of anxiety, people want something that’s beyond this feeling of loss of control. Our house is out of control - our presidency, our Congress, the virus. People want leadership that’s fair and open. Why must we choose between right and left? Why can’t we be for both Black justice and right-to-life? Why can’t we accept the science and the faith?”

The pastor plans to continue his “Potus Shield” prayers for the president whether Trump or Biden wins.

“That’s what we’re supposed to do as Americans,” he said. “In my church, we accept the results whatever they are, and we’re going to be the voice that brings the unity. Sometimes, when things have gotten a little too easy, people need to get put into a little bit of a pressure cooker to discover what their real values are. Maybe that’s where we are. How can we heal the wound with respect for each other?”

Activist Allison Lane, 34, stands amid candles at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C., during a July vigil to mark the death of civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis, D-Ga. Photo for The Washington Post by Astrid Riecken

• • •

Four years ago, R.J. Cutler, a documentary filmmaker who focused on American political culture in “The War Room” and “A Perfect Candidate,” said that the country was heading into a time “when any bad thing seems possible, when we no longer know the ground rules about the weather, about democracy, about very basic things.”

The reality of Trump’s presidency has been worse than he anticipated, Cutler says now, and he is certain that a second term would be a disaster.

“I’m one of those people that believes it’s the end of democracy and we’re in for a totalitarian state,” he said. Trump "wants his cultural enemies silenced. He wants to control communication. The culture will fight back, but this guy’s going to put people in prison. To quote my mother, ‘Good luck to us.’ "

Cutler’s view represents not only the perspective of an artist who lives in liberal Los Angeles, but a broader swath of left-of-center Americans who believe Trump’s re-election would threaten the stability of the government, the future of the electoral system and even the fate of the Earth.

Many on the left experience what social scientists call “extinction anxiety,” the belief that, as Barkun put it, “society as we know it is going to be destroyed and Trump will accelerate that because the system has run out of resilience. It’s particularly surprising to hear from the left that the system has lost the capacity to absorb Trump’s actions.”

The El Dorado Fire burns a hillside in the San Bernardino National Forest near Yucaipa, Calif., on Wednesday. Photo by Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post

Whether that anxiety stems from fears about climate change, racial discord, or the way social media platforms funnel users to a diet of ever more extreme political views, the effect is a despair that has only been exacerbated by the isolation and uncertainty resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

Cutler, who has devoted recent years to making movies about the lives of “Saturday Night Live” pioneer John Belushi and pop singer Billie Eilish, remains hopeful that if Biden wins, “you’re going to see a cultural rebound,” a time of creativity and of searching for solutions to long-festering problems.

But even if his side wins, Cutler said it’s hard to imagine that the country would simply turn a corner and start fresh. “We’ve become a stratified culture. There’s no longer one truth. I mean, there are people who think California’s on fire because we haven’t swept the ground.”

A post-Trump period could be a “a political and cultural free-for-all,” Cutler said, in which some Americans, finally freed from coronavirus restrictions, might fall into “a time of hedonism,” while others remain fixated on social divisions that will not disappear quickly.

“Just because Trump goes away - if he really goes away - the forces he unleashed and the forces that arose in response don’t go away.”

• • •

When Thomas Singer, a psychiatrist in San Francisco, was casting around for a cover picture for his book on what has happened to the soul of America, his view of the country had grown dire.

“Things were falling apart,” he said. “Our inner experience, as individuals or groups, on the left or the right, is that there’s something very damaged about everything that makes us American. We’re shattered.”

He stumbled on the famous image at the end of the original 1968 version of “Planet of the Apes,” the harrowing discovery of the ruined Statue of Liberty sunken into a beach - a haunting symbol of a nation that lost its ideals and collapsed.

“Sometimes art anticipates reality,” Singer said. “This was an apocalyptic sense that democracy as we know it will crumble.”

But in the time between choosing that image and publishing his book, Singer came to a different conclusion about America in the time of Trump.

The psychiatrist, who is 78, recalls the anguish that the divided country went through in 1968, “this sense that everything was coming apart.” Yet as a young man, he said, he and his peers never believed their future was doomed.

Now, however, he hears young people lament that they have no path forward, that the Earth is in fatal decline, that new technologies threaten the future of work.

Tire tracks from the Berry-4 automated strawberry harvesting robot are left behind as it picks through rows of plants on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, at G & D Farms in Duette, Florida. Photo for The Washington Post by Zack Wittman.

Though many of the forces contributing to that despair were at work before Trump came along, Singer sees the president as an engine of mistrust.

“He has contributed enormously to this sense that we can’t agree on what’s real anymore,” he said. “He thrives on chaos. He is profoundly rebellious - and that goes to the absolute core of American identity.”

That view of Trump as a quintessentially American renegade - one in a series of rebels without a cause - has nudged Singer toward the view that the president is not simply a destructive force or, as Trump sees himself, a disrupter.

Rather, the psychiatrist says Trump, perhaps unwittingly, is giving the country another chance to do what it has always done best - to battle and shout and rage in what the poet Walt Whitman called America’s essential characteristic, a “barbaric yawp” of conflict that breeds innovation and renewal.

“The soul of the nation gets forged in that collision of ideas, about race, about money and capitalism, about the individual versus the collective,” Singer said.

Populist surges like the one that helped Trump win in 2016 - fueled by the exasperation of Americans who believed that neither party addressed lost jobs, diminished communities and emptied malls and downtowns - have burned out within a few years, fading away as economic expansion, war or political reform eased people’s insecurities.

Singer fears a second Trump term, which he believes would further undermine trust and social cohesion. But now he wonders if the president may have forced the country to confront and maybe resolve some of its deepest problems.

“A leader, like a parent, sets a model for behavior,” Singer said. "Biden is a return to deeply cherished American values of decency and goodwill. Trump has flushed out all of our raw divisions. I’m hopeful that people will find their unruly and chaotic American soul and cry out. The result may be profoundly renewing about race, climate, maybe health care.

“Ultimately, Trump may serve a valuable purpose,” he said. “In the human experience, death and rebirth go together.”

Tens of thousands of empty chairs placed near the White House symbolize the more than 200,000 Americans who have died of covid-19. Photo for The Washington Post by Astrid Riecken
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