Though we’ve known for four years that the 2020 US election cycle would be even more fraught than the strange and painful fall of the 2016 elections, most of us still find ourselves a little disoriented these days. For some, the urgency to remove Trump from office has immobilized us. For others, it’s fortified us into action to get out the vote and to sway those who are undecided, apathetic, and reluctant.
In the final five weeks before the election of a lifetime, we asked writers to consider the undecided voter and contribute compelling arguments and ideas for making the world right. Some contributors sent us work that takes on issues with precision and gravity. Others sent us different work, perhaps an even more visceral snapshot of this alarming moment — a one-act play, an open letter, a story of exile. New writing will be published weekdays; we believe its wisdom and strength will help us all navigate the uncertainty ahead.
Nearly a century ago, as my father was growing up in an anarchist colony populated by Jewish garment workers, my friend Tim’s father was being born into an Irish Catholic family in the coal-mining country of Pennsylvania. From those disparate compass points, they both moved their families to Highland Park, New Jersey, where Tim and I met in 1965 as fifth-graders.
Tim was new to our town, and I was new to its north side. We readily took up the chance to spend innumerable hours playing two-on-two basketball and touch football, the teams rounded out by Tim’s older brother and the mutual friend who had introduced us all.
Early on, certainly by the turbulent year of 1968, with its war and riots and presidential election, Tim and I began to fathom the vast difference in our respective paternal heritages. In ways we could not possibly understand at the time, our families revealed the unpredictable lines of class and ideology. In my house, we subscribed to I. F. Stone’s Weekly and canvassed for Eugene McCarthy; in Tim’s, they read the National Review and revered Barry Goldwater.
My father, who had become a successful capitalist by building a machine shop into a biotech company, bought our family a brick colonial house in the section of town where Rutgers professors lived. Tim’s father and mother – he was the vice president of a textile company and she was a registered nurse – rented an apartment in what was mostly the Black part of our indelibly yet unofficially segregated town.
Through our high school years, these divergences were present but hardly dispositive. When the turmoil in my parents’ marriage sent me in search of safe harbors, I found one with Tim’s family. Once, when my father was on a business trip at the time of my baseball-league banquet, Tim’s stood in for him. And when my father complimented me on my taste in friends, he was thinking very much of Tim. A couple of dateless teen geeks, Tim and I watched a lot of Saturday-night movies together.
When it came time for college, I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that famous radical redoubt, while Tim attended Notre Dame, where his brother had just graduated as an ROTC cadet. What happened outside class, though, sealed our bond. My mother died during my sophomore year, after five debilitating years of battling cancer. Tim’s brother died in the summer before our senior year, when his jet crashed during an Air Force training flight.
When you’ve had losses like ours at the age of nineteen or twenty, you feel estranged from your peers, marooned on an island of grief. Tim and I could talk to one another, in the candid and confessional way men are socialized to avoid, and our conversations have never ended.
Over the years, we took for granted that we voted differently. In the ten presidential elections, from our first in 1976 until the last normal one in 2012, we concurred just four times: Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1992, and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Otherwise, Tim was the Republican and I the Democrat.
In 2016, Tim intended to vote for a third-party candidate rather than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. As it turned out, his I.T. company dispatched him to an out-of-town client on Election Day, so he missed voting entirely. Then, three months into the Trump presidency, Tim and I grabbed coffee in Manhattan, where I teach at Columbia University.
“I’m gonna tell you something,” he said. “And you’ll think I’m crazy.”
“You know you can tell me anything,” I replied.
Tim proceeded to describe his waking nightmare of Donald Trump declaring martial law and suspending elections so he could seize dictatorial power.
“I don’t think you’re crazy,” I said, wagging my head in sad approval. “I’ve had the exact same fear. And I’ve been afraid to tell anyone else.”
We have spoken about it repeatedly in the subsequent three years, and emailed and texted terrifying articles back and forth. Events, tragically, have ratified and indeed magnified our initial alarm.
I tell this story of Tim and me because he never viewed himself as an ideologue, and, in his center-right sensibility, he looked for bipartisanship. Put another way, he has been a quintessential swing voter, as his presidential ballots attest. So I hope – no, I pray – that he can be a modest role model for other such voters out there, including those like him with ancestral roots in working-class conservatism.
As I developed this essay, I emailed and asked Tim what had convinced him so early and fiercely of Trump’s danger. He answered:
“Trump’s polarization of the American people over race, over citizenship, and even religion (even though he is obviously an atheist) started the ball rolling of anger on all sides of the political spectrum and signaled acceptance of the beliefs of the ultra-right. His statements in the 2016 debates, where he would not accept election results, started a belief that he could possibly incite armed insurrection in support of him.
“I think about my grandchildren and the fear of what the future may hold for them with regard to a failing Republic, global climate change, and pollution. I don’t necessarily believe that they will enjoy an America similar to 1980 to 2016…which is not necessarily the greatest but at least stable and not yet fraught with the potential for worldwide failure.”
I like to think that both of our fathers, different as they were in politics but united in their belief in democratic practices, would be proud.
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Samuel G. Freedman is the author of eight books and a journalism professor at Columbia University.