Four years ago I heard something I had never heard before, in 50 years of observing American politics: “Existential threat.”
People told me, on a regular basis, that they could not vote for Donald Trump because he represented an existential threat.
Many people are saying it this year too, of course, and adding that the threat is now proven.
I had never heard this term applied to a presidential candidate before.
I’d heard Richard Nixon called dishonest and even evil.
I’d heard that Ronald Reagan was an “amiable dunce” who could not fully occupy the presidency.
I heard that George W. Bush was simply a dunce (maybe not even amiable) who would be run by others.
I even heard that Jerry Ford could not be elected to his own term as president in 1976 because his running mate — a young Bob Dole who would one day be seen as moderate if not beloved — was unfit to be “a heartbeat away.”
But no one said anyone was “an existential threat,” which literally means a threat to existence — life itself.
The other day I heard it said about Joe Biden.
“Sleepy Joe,” I now hear, is an existential threat who will bring us socialism, an enhanced nanny state and a collapsed stock market.
Imagine the damage he could do if fully awake.
Four years ago, Paul Krugman, and other eminences, warned that the election of Trump would collapse the markets. Just his election. Walls would fall before he took a single action.
I think what is new is the hysterical but honest conviction that, if the other party, the candidate I do not prefer, or the guy who thinks otherwise prevails (if only temporarily, which is the only way anyone does prevail in a democracy), the sky will certainly fall — the republic will well and truly collapse.
How do you walk back a conviction like that?
You don’t. You say: This is a president, or an election, that I refuse to recognize as legitimate.
The late James Rhodes, four times elected governor of Ohio, had three rules for politicians: Do not steal from the public, not even a nickel; treat those who work for you well; and never hate someone so much that you cannot make a deal with them tomorrow.
No. 3 is most important — and has few followers today.
Joe Biden was right to work with segregationists in the Senate. Politics is often the art of working with people whose character or ideas you loathe — in order to modestly progress.
Let’s say that the election of Trump would result in a further descent into incivility and in further encroachments upon power granted to other branches of government or to the states. Those would be two very serious matters, wouldn’t they?
But would they mean the end of the republic?
Let’s say that the election of Biden would mean the triumph of wokeness and the empowerment of thought police everywhere. Let’s say we would all pay many more taxes and at the end of four years be less free.
These developments, also, would be very serious. But would the country as we know it have ceased to exist?
Politics is about proximate solutions, not ultimate ones. But we have begun to invest our politics with ultimate meaning and ultimate stakes and outcomes — a dangerous mistake.
We are missing a sense of proportion and patience.
The professional politicians of old knew that both victories and defeats were temporary and would be not just ultimately but soon forgotten.
We are missing something else too — a sense of faith. We are lacking in the sense that the country is more enduring than its current politics and bigger than any one moment, woman or man, however good or bad.
We live and fight and think and err today; the country goes on.
That is an existential condition.
By the country, I mean four things: the constitutional system; the ideas that have built and sustained it; the great heroes of our history, from Madison to Lincoln to FDR to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; and the people of the country. The people.
Maybe the first three things are the most important part of our American faith. But we also have to have faith in each other. We have to have faith in the basic sense, decency and patriotism of our neighbors — as neighbors and not opponents or enemies.
In any case, the nation will survive this election and its winner and, maybe in adjusting and accepting it, even recover a few principles that endure.
It is said that the sad fate of the atheist is that when he feels grateful he has no one to thank.
The sad fate of a person who feels no love of country is that he has no fellow citizens to debate. He must put ultimate store in his own small prejudices and private dreams.
Keith C. Burris is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers (email@example.com).