Over the past two weeks, the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions became Fort Sumters, with both parties firing broadsides at the other, opening what could be America’s most uncivil political war in history.
Democrats called Donald Trump the most dangerous president in modern times, unfit for holding office and incapable of knowing or telling the truth.
Republicans, meaning the president, played the fear card, asserting that Americans would be unsafe under a Joe Biden presidency — that the candidate was a Trojan horse for radical socialism that will destroy jobs, defund police, escalate violence, lead to nationwide anarchy and end America’s democracy.
Listening to both parties, this is the first presidential campaign in which the most dangerous president ever faces a rival co-opted by extremists to embrace an anti-American agenda bankrupting the country and ruining its economy. That is a quite a choice. The only certain prediction is that the campaign will become more vicious, angry and polarizing.
Looming over the election in what may be the ultimate determinant of who wins is the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly 200,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. Perhaps no president could have done better, or at least that is what this president says. The record speaks otherwise.
During the 1918-20 Spanish flu pandemic, President Woodrow Wilson refused even to acknowledge its existence and the federal government did virtually nothing to limit its spread. Trump is in partial denial of COVID-19 and certainly was very slow in taking effective action.
The president was late in recognizing the seriousness of the pandemic, ignoring science and the advice of his expert medical team. He was late in advising (and never mandating) the wearing of masks and social distancing. His rallies and his nominating acceptance speech in the Rose Garden ignored those basic measures, making these events “super-spreaders.” And the president has returned to campaigning in front of large rallies, disregarding basic health safety precautions.
The president has prioritized reopening the economy over restricting it until the pandemic subsides. While the administration used the Defense Production Act to manufacture ventilators and protective equipment, testing has become politicized. Virtually all medical science agrees that massive testing is crucial to allow for enough contact tracing to limit the spread of COVID-19. That has not happened.
The president put in place Operation Warp Speed to develop vaccines and therapeutics. Across the globe, many tens of thousands of researchers and scientists are working overtime to find cures. Conceivably, one or more cures may be created before the election. More likely, the pandemic will determine the timetable. And large rallies along with school openings could fuel its spread. These uncertainties will cause the respective campaigns to take even more extreme positions.
The Biden team argues that the president was negligent if not derelict in his handling of the coronavirus. That will be a central message. In response, the president will pursue a law-and-order platform claiming that the violence and rioting is being promoted by Democrats who support Antifa and other left wing radical groups. Indeed, his senior adviser Kellyanne Conway explicitly confirmed that greater violence helped the president as the most affected cities were headed by Democratic mayors who would bear the blame.
Will there be any bottom to these campaigns? Here are two signs of a possible bottom. Republicans will label Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization, inciting the far right to contain that threat with violence. Democrats will urge the president to hold even more rallies, so that large numbers of his supporters contract COVID-19, in essence voter suppression by pandemic.
Impossible? Because partisan politics have never been more polarized and angry, probably since the Civil War, anything is possible. Rage and emotion are not compatible with a civilized debate and peaceful election.
In the battle over a woman’s right to choose and when or where abortion should be legal, anti-abortionists and right-to-lifers bombed clinics, killing staff. The perverted message: Murder was justified to prevent the murder of the unborn. A similar form of insanity, as the pandemic is infecting the nation, could too easily contaminate the political campaign.
In this poisonous environment, law, order and public safety are explosive issues that, if not contained, can provoke vigilantes of left and right to take up arms against the other. That suggests a civil war. The difference is that, if war erupts in this information age, it will be uncivil.
If violence or the pandemic surge, the consequences will make the future dystopian view presented by both parties at their nominating conventions reality.
Hope is never a strategy. But that may be the only way to avert uncivil war.
Harlan Ullman is UPI’s Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist, a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book, “The Fifth Horseman: To Be Feared, Friended or Fought in a MAD-Driven Age.”