What's Tony Thinking

2020: The Hinge Year


Last night we went to a meeting of Seattle friends and acquaintances interested in doing field work (voter registration, door-belling) in swing states for the upcoming 2024 election. We went to a similar meeting, in the same home in fact, in 2016. It led to my trip in October of 2016 to Ohio, where I worked for the Clinton campaign.

There wasn’t an equivalent meeting in 2020, which set me to thinking about that year. Looking back now, it seems that 2020 was a nearly apocalyptic year that spun our country in a variety of centrifugal directions that have been playing out ever since.

The equivalent organizing meeting didn’t happen four years ago because of COVID, which was changing everything at just this point in 2020, that is late February and early March. That year my political activism was mostly via phone calls, a lot to Georgia and Florida, as I recall. Linda wrote a ton of postcards and letters to voters in those states and others urging people to get registered and vote.

But consider the successive challenges and collective traumas of 2020.

Just before COVID took over, the first impeachment trial of Donald Trump which had began in 2019 ended in February of 2020 with an acquittal. No conviction. But national division certainly hardened.

Throughout the spring of 2020 we were shutting down, masking up and isolating. Schools closed. People started having groceries delivered or picked up curbside. Restaurants were on the ropes. We ordered take-out to keep them in business. The economy staggered. Only “essential businesses” remained open. Mobile morgues were set up as hospitals were overwhelmed.

Then in late May, May 25 to be exact, came the death — murder — of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis. Floyd’s death capped a decade of highly-visible and publicized deaths of young African-American men, often at the hands of police. People took to the streets in protest, despite COVID.

In Seattle, ground zero for protests was Capitol Hill. Seattle Police in riot gear did battle with protestors who mounted the “Defund the Police” movement, which was soon endorsed by most — maybe all? — of the City Council. A sort of truce was declared leading to CHOP, the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest zone. The Mayor was on the ropes. The Chief of Police was soon out. The nearest Seattle precinct station was shut down and abandoned.

Similar protests and violence in the streets took hold in many cities including nearby Portland, where Trump sent federal marshals and black-clad ANTIFI went on a tear that has lasted years. Downtowns in places like Seattle and Portland went into a tailspin that was combination of protests and violence, business shut-downs and homeless encampments spurred by shelters emptying or shutting because of COVID.

That summer there was even a very tense Black Lives Matter protest in Enterprise, Oregon, the county seat of Wallowa County where we have a family cabin that was built by my maternal grandparents in 1926. At the demonstration, armed citizens stared at us from the other side of the street. They believed ANTIFI was coming to Eastern Oregon and had turned out to protect their town. On our side of the street, at the BLM demonstration, rumors swirled of Proud Boy and Bougalou, right-wing groups, coming from Idaho.

All this as COVID had people on pins and needles, infection rates were soaring and deaths mounting as the country divided over vaccines. The anti-vaxxer movement was strong in Eastern Oregon that summer.

Fall came and kids and their parents were faced with doing school on-line. Families overtaxed, scrambling, trying to help their kids negotiate a totally different school experience. Visiting our grandchildren took place across fences and at distance outside. No physical contact.

Then came the 2020 election in November. No sooner had Biden been declared the winner than Trump was claiming the election was rigged and his “Stop the Steal” campaign was underway. Scores of court cases were filed (and dismissed), calls for recounts and claims that Dominion Voting Machines were rigged in Venezuela, while the likes of Sydney Powell and Rudy Giuliani seemed everywhere.

On the left, Black Lives Matter had morphed into what we came to speak of as the “Woke Movement” with its claim that the explanatory framework for best understanding America was White Supremacy. Earlier that year the New York Times 1619 Project had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It explained the Revolutionary War not as a revolt against British colonial rule, but as an attempt to maintain slavery. Our national story was a political hot potato.

The January 6, 2021 riot at the Capitol, followed by Trump’s Second Impeachment belong, in some ways, to 2020. It’s gruesome coda.

I’m sure there was more, but this is what I remember as I look back from the vantage point of 2024 and as we move toward what appears, at this point, to be another election of Biden v. Trump. Our lives now framed in four year increments.

When you add it all up, what’s the conclusion? That we are — all things considered — doing pretty well? After all, we avoided a major economic depression or recession. We didn’t have a second Civil War. The pandemic, in its acute phase, is over.

Or that during this apocalyptic year the divisions that mark are nation hardened, and that the extremist scripts that we’ve lived with since have played out?

Or maybe both are true?

What I do know is that 2020 was an extraordinarily difficult year. Stunning, really, in retrospect. I’m inclined to lean toward the view that either we did pretty well or that perhaps there was some dim outline of grace at work amid the fractures and craziness. Still, I feel a kind of shaky PTSD just thinking back over it all.

Maybe the more important conclusion is that with all that happened in 2020 we were a nation that was living way too much in “fight or flight” mode, the so-called “lizard brain.” We couldn’t catch our breath or gather our wits about us. In hindsight, 2020 was the hinge year. But it remains uncertain which way that hinge has swung.




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