2020: The Year that Broke Us

There’s a certain kind of adversity that bonds people together, a brand of struggle that brings out the “better angels” of our nature. We experienced just such adversity after the September 11th attacks: a unifying moment when strangers comforted each other and American flags seemed to wave from every home. It’s hard to imagine that the unity experienced on September 12th was just nineteen years ago; in the odd manner of nostalgia, it feels like “just yesterday,” and yet another era entirely.

There have been other such moments throughout history: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Space Race against the Soviets, the Revolutionary War. Other countries have also shown a similar capacity to rally around a cause, and yet America’s example is somehow more remarkable given our incredible diversity and democratic ideals. Coming from everywhere, we seem to represent both the best and the worst of what humanity could be.

2020 has been full of adversity and struggle, but – just in case there were any lingering doubts – no unity, no common cause, no better angels. While there have certainly been individual cases of heroism and sacrifice, America as a whole feels more divided than ever. As I reflect upon the past nine months, it seems more likely that 2020 will go down as the year it all finally came apart, the year that broke us.

It started with the COVID-19 pandemic, the “coronavirus” that seemed so far away in January and February as it ravaged Italy and China. It seemed that way because we didn’t know that it was likely already here. We didn’t have the daily death counts plastered across every news station to remind us, inspiring the terror that we or our loved ones might be next.

Then suddenly it was “here,” though “here” felt different in New York and New Jersey than in rural Virginia where I live. We went from “schools might close for a while” to “we’re shutting down for two weeks” to “we’re not coming back in person this school year” in what felt like a matter of days. New phrases like “flatten the curve” entered the American lexicon as we admonished each other to practice “social distancing.” We were told this was the biggest challenge of our lives, and all we had to do was stay home.

Surely this was easier than storming the beaches of Normandy or sheltering with Washington through the winter at Valley Forge. We might have endured a toilet paper shortage, but there was no rationing, no gas lines stretching around the block. In the Internet Age, we had Amazon to supply us, Netflix and Hulu to entertain us, and Zoom to interact with friends and coworkers. How could we complain?

Slowly the weeks became months, and still the children were kept inside, the elderly kept isolated in nursing homes, schools and churches shuttered. Workers who had initially enjoyed a nice break from the daily grind were furloughed, then fired, then unemployed. Businesses began to close. The market crashed, then recovered. Stimulus checks, beefed-up COVID unemployment, and the Paycheck Protection Program provided welcome relief, but they could not stop the overall economic situation from deteriorating.

By May, a good half of the country seemed to have had enough of lockdowns and distancing measures. Deaths were declining. The weather was warming. Worst case scenario predictions of over two million U.S. deaths no longer seemed possible, let alone likely. COVID-19 was shown to be less deadly than initially predicted (or at least declining in its virulence), not more. Yet as repressive measures continued, people began to protest the undemocratic edicts of overzealous governors and demand a return to business as usual.

But there remained another half of the country who – for whatever reason – did not want the restrictions to end. Maybe they had experienced a personal loss due to COVID; maybe they still feared for their family’s health. Maybe their political leanings spurred them to defy Trump, who was clearly on “Team Reopen.” If Trump wanted the schools and businesses open, they had to close. If Trump promoted hydroxychloroquine as a possible treatment, it had to be banned. Whatever their reasons, Team Lockdown condemned Team Reopen as reckless and selfish, while Team Reopen responded with charges of tyranny and excess. And yet people still spoke as if summer might bring a return to normalcy.

It didn’t. Instead we had the death of George Floyd, following other high-profile victims like Ahmad Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Born after the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement roared to life, gaining an army of new converts. Video evidence showed Officer Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck. Floyd later died. Who now could challenge BLM’s narrative that America was racist to the core, with an army of racist cops wantonly hunting African Americans in the streets?

This was not the time to conduct careful statistical analysis of the evidence, not the time to bring up the fact that more unarmed whites are killed by cops in the United States than blacks, and that far more blacks are killed by criminals than by law enforcement – making them a much greater threat to black lives. This was not the time to ask tough questions about why certain disparities persist across racial lines, despite tremendous progress in recent decades.

Oh no, not by a long shot. This was the time to search one’s soul for any vestiges of unconscious bias, to post black squares on social media, to declare one’s allegiance to the cause. If you were white, this was the time to be an “ally” – which basically meant shutting up and conceding to ever more radical demands:

Confess your white privilege. Kneel. Beg forgiveness for the sins of your ancestors, or at least other peoples’ ancestors who shared a similar skin pigmentation as you. Defund the police. Don’t criticize the young people looting Target; it’s “just property.” Pay no attention to the smashed windows and burnt buildings in New York and Chicago and Portland and Kenosha.

Oddly enough, the people making these demands tended to be white liberals, while many ordinary Black and Hispanic folks were begging for an end to the looting and rioting.

Their pleas fell largely upon deaf ears. America had gained a new national religion – one that had been steadily growing in power for some time but needed an event like the death of George Floyd to hit the mainstream. The dying civic virtue of old and a much-diluted Christianity proved incapable of pushing back against the Cult of the Woke.

The summer of 2020 saw over a billion dollars in property damage due to rioting, including small businesses that may never rebuild, many minority-owned. At least twenty-five people died in the violence, including David Dorn, a retired cop who happened to be African American. He was defending a friend’s pawn shop from looters when his murder was livestreamed on Facebook.

America seemed to have lost all sense of dignity, propriety, and respect. The very goodness of our existence was called into question, as statues celebrating American history (not just the Confederacy) were attacked and destroyed.

If there was one silver lining to the early summer “unrest,” it at least seemed to normalize leaving one’s home. Here were crowds of people in the streets: day after day, night after night, and no one seemed to be stopping them.

When asked to assess the danger, the same public health officials who begged us not to hold funerals or visit elderly relatives in nursing homes now declared that protesting racism was a worthy reason to gather in large numbers. George Floyd was given multiple funerals. Civil rights icon John Lewis had a large service attended by several prominent politicians with minimal distancing. And yet the little people were expected to continue living by draconian edicts flouted by their very architects.

Two events in the summer of 2020 served to lift my spirits: the release of Hamilton on Disney+ and the Republican National Convention. Of course, both were attacked by the woke for the crime of celebrating America, for not dwelling enough on its sins. But they reminded me that America is still a land of patriots, that we have a great history that has carried us forward to this moment. There are still a lot of good people in this country who believe in the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Fall rolled around, but few students went “back to school” in the traditional sense. Having been initially dismissed and then encouraged, masks were now mandated almost everywhere. Their donning took on an aura of almost religious observance, with the unmasked attacked in the public square.

The 2020 presidential campaign ratcheted up, exacerbating an already polarized climate. Big Tech revealed its bias in the censoring of the New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s incriminating laptop, after demonstrating an earlier willingness to censor stories critical of the COVID party line. It was enough to make one wonder just whose interests these mega-corporations existed to serve — those of the American people, or of the Chinese Communist Party?

People hoped things would go back to normal after Election Day. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

After months of cautionary Facebook memes (“If you can wait in line at the grocery store, you can wait in line to vote”), it soon became clear that many states had radically altered their election laws in potentially unconstitutional ways. It had to be done, we were told, to keep people safe from COVID. Then on Election Day, the word went out that it was okay to vote in person… even if you had COVID.

When most Americans went to bed on Election night, Donald Trump seemed to be cruising to reelection. He had already won big victories in Florida and Ohio, Republicans were holding the Senate, and Trump had commanding leads Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The following day, we learned that these states had all decided to stop counting the votes around the same time, only to continue in the absence of poll watchers. A mysterious “pipe burst” had halted the counting in Georgia… a story that was later revealed to be a lie. Accusations of voter fraud and “shenanigans” abounded, though often with the helpful Facebook or Twitter tags that such claims were “disputed.”

You know the rest. The media decided to call the race for Joe Biden the Saturday after the election, despite ongoing recounts and lawsuits. Rudy Giuliani has been leading the legal fight for Trump, who has yet to concede the election. In the meantime, the charismatically unorthodox duo of Sidney Powell and Lin Wood have alleged even more widespread and nefarious election stealing.

In the meantime, Trump’s supporters are being urged to “unite” around Joe Biden; this after four years of being harangued as a bunch of deplorable racists and bigots. The same media that pushed unsubstantiated allegations of Russian collusion for three years now swear by the integrity of our electoral process. Their hypocrisy is not lost on conservatives, who are in no mood for unity.

If Biden is inaugurated, at least a third of the country will always doubt his legitimacy. If Trump somehow prevails, America’s cities will likely have to put back up the plywood to protect stores and property from the mob, now that they have had a taste of their own power. Say what you will about Trump supporters, but even their belief that a presidential election has been stolen from their anointed leader has not prompted violence, nor is it likely to do so.

To recap, almost everything fun has been taken away: parties, festivals, big weddings, concerts, sporting events. The small pleasures we are still allowed come with a multitude of distancing requirements and distrustful glances from behind blue surgical masks. Even news of a record-fast vaccine has not prompted the likes of Dr. Anthony Fauci to suggest we are anywhere near to regaining the old normal, if it ever returns.

We have gone from at least aspiring to color-blindness to the opposite extreme of becoming color-obsessed. The old civic religion glorifying the Founding Fathers and the U.S. Constitution has been replaced by a new religion that sees racism everywhere, just as the Puritans once viewed sin. But unlike the Calvinism of old, this new religion offers no forgiveness, no possibility of atonement, no unity of purpose. It is reductionist and militant and joyless.

Our electoral system is a mess. Millions of Americans have lost faith in the process.

Throughout this entire screwed up year, I have still enjoyed moments of great happiness and joy, and I know I am not alone in this. The sun still shines. Nature is as wonderful as ever. The blessings of marriage and new life remind us that there are some things no pandemic or election can take away.

But through all the ups and downs, I cannot help but grieve for America: for all that we have lost this year, including the loved ones we have lost to COVID. I feel as though I have been in a state of low-grade grief since April, and it’s exhausting. Nothing is as it should be, nothing makes sense. How does one remain sane in an insane world?

From the perspective of heaven, we Christians know how the story ends. We are promised that the “gates of hell shall not prevail” against the Church, but the Bible offers no such assurance of America. The Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable, and yet it was brought down by an iceberg. How will these new fault lines be repaired?

How do I get over the the dehumanizing experience of being regarded as potentially infectious material, or the realization that many of my fellow Americans would turn me in for hosting an illicit gathering in my own home? It’s a deeply unsettling thought to share a country with millions of people who care nothing for basic human freedoms, who would give it all up in a heartbeat for the promise of safety. Even when the current madness ends, what happens the next time there’s a crisis?

How do we get back to the point where we respect each other as individuals and fellow humans, not just representatives of privileged or oppressed groups? As this highly contentious election continues to play out, how can our faith in American democracy be restored?

Of course, it’s still possible that we can come together: masked and unmasked, black and white, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat. But based on the evidence alone, and barring some dramatic new development, it seems highly doubtful.

2020 may instead go down as a turning point in American history, the year that finally broke us. They say “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and a certain kind of adversity can serve to strengthen the body politic. But what doesn’t kill you can also leave you weakened, diminished, and traumatized. The trauma of 2020 is bound to leave deep scars upon both our collective and individual psyches, wounds only divine intervention can heal.