Which final arguments in the 2020 election are most compelling? Joe Biden is focusing his remarkably disciplined message on the worsening pandemic and the hope of national healing. President Donald Trump is randomly regurgitating every grievance that has ever brushed up against his ego.
When I entered the voting booth, none of this was on my mind. There is one particular way that Trump has made this a directional, perhaps a definitional, election: He has purposely brought the issue of race to the center stage of American politics. His reelection would mean, in part, the public vindication of his approach to racial matters.
He probably views this as one issue among many — just another way to rile and rally his base. That is the measure of his historical ignorance. The struggle for racial equality is the defining American struggle. Much of our history has been spent dealing with the moral contradiction of America’s founding — how a bold experiment in liberty could also be a prison for millions of enslaved people. That hypocrisy and its ramifications have been our scandal. Our burden. Our sin.
Confronting this challenge to American identity is the through line of the American story. It includes a Civil War that ended slavery but not bigotry. The rise of state and local governments in the South that ruled through violent intimidation and restricting the franchise. A civil rights movement that raised the hope of progress without violence. Now, a protest movement that seeks to end biases built into our institutions and located deeply in our thinking.
Our nation is not inherently better than others. The United States is distinguished because our history, with all its precedents of pain, has a direction, a flow, in favor of human dignity. Some have believed this direction has been set by natural law. Others have detected the workings of a higher power. Whatever its source, Americans have often found high purpose in the improvement of our country, in accordance with its founding principles.
Modern presidents have mixed records on civil rights and voting rights. But all accepted the principle, or at least the pretense, that the United States is a country of growing inclusion.
Until Trump. He has consistently refused to repudiate white supremacists, which has put a spring in their goose step. He has defended Confederate symbols as part of “our” heritage — with the “our” being essentially exclusive. Trump has welcomed the support of “very fine people” who admire a dead country dedicated to slavery — there is no form of Confederate nationalism that is not also racism. He has been eager to attack Black athletes and Black politicians, with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., among his latest targets. The president has promised to protect the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” against the residents of low-income housing and the infiltration of Black protesters — on the theory that suburban moms will get out and vote their bigotry. And beneath much of Trump’s appeal is a toxic nostalgia for the days before diversity.
The goal here is not just to cultivate partisan hostilities; it is to feed race hatred. And what are the results?
Trump’s racial appeal encourages the boldness and planning of right-wing terrorists and others who welcome the approaching thunder of violence.
Trump’s racism has turned most elected Republicans into co-conspirators who will be cursed by the memories of their own complicity and silence.
Conservatives seem oddly dismissive of the point, but a moral message is being sent to young people. Do we really want to cultivate a generation inspired by exclusion?
We have a president who purposefully corrupts the character of his fellow citizens by inciting their prejudices.
So how does this fit into the normal compromises of our politics? In this case, I would encourage citizens to sound out their choices, to actually say them aloud. “Because I support tax cuts and deregulation, I will vote for a bigot.” Or: “Because I am concerned about religious freedom, I will support a racist.” And perhaps the most uncomfortable: “Because I want conservative justices, I will support someone who cares nothing about racial justice.” Compromising this commitment gives away the whole game — the moral ambition of including every human being in full legal and civic membership.
A political commitment to racial justice and inclusion is a moral landmark in American life. Past this point is a different country, under a crueller sun.
The decision in this election is more important than the weighing of interests or the expression of partisanship. One option moves the United States down the path of exclusion. It would reward a leader who does not know or care about great American causes he casually betrays. The other option is hardly perfect. But Biden would put us back on the path of human dignity and equality — seeking a better version of our truth. And that is enough.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.