Virginia’s toxic campaign season: life in the Divided States of America

November 1, 2021 12:03 am

Voters cast ballots at Main Street Station in Richmond in 2020. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In school board meetings, city council sessions and public hearings across the country – including here in Virginia – you see due process dissolve into red-faced rants, threats and arrests.

On the grounds of the university Thomas Jefferson founded and in Charlottesville, we saw it explode in blood and death four years ago – a prelude to even more stunning violence at the U.S. Capitol in a failed Jan. 6 bid to halt the next president’s inauguration on the site two weeks later.

Peaceful marches in protest of manifest racial injustice – the broad-daylight police murder of a Black man on a street in Minneapolis – were hijacked by malign interests who fomented violence that burned the very communities where the most oppressed lived.

Spread across the slick cardstock mailings and the even slicker attack ads pervading the airwaves and your online portals are bitter, cutting words – distortions usually and often outright mistruths – as candidates in a deadlocked governor’s race finish their scorched-earth, damn-the-consequences campaigns.

Even in arenas where Americans retreat for the diversion sports provides from the nastiness of society, fans believe the tickets they bought entitle them not only to watch the event but to intercede into the on-field game, raining bottles, cans and even golf balls onto officials and visiting teams.

Twenty-one years into the 21st century, this is what we’ve become: the Divided States of America. Yet it doesn’t reflect how shocking and dangerous our national dysfunction has become.

We are a nation losing the ability to communicate and reason. We have obliterated our sense of common ground and shared experience and are becoming a culture of perpetually warring tribes, all easily susceptible to disinformation, manipulation and subversion, not just from our most aggressive foreign adversaries but domestic enemies of our democratic republic, the Constitution and the rule of law.

It’s been fully two decades since the attacks of Sept. 11 last galvanized America behind a unified purpose – defeating an evil rooted in a diabolical, murderous distortion of Islam. U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan and fought the nation’s longest war to root it out, only to be withdrawn in chaos, death and heartbreak two months ago while agents of the very darkness they sought to eradicate reasserted their absolute rule almost overnight.

All we have to show for those 20 years of lost American treasure, blood and life is deeper political division back home. Our protracted failure hung over the recent 20th anniversary of 9/11 like the thick palls of acrid, toxic smoke that poured from the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and a crater gouged into a Pennsylvania meadow that heartbreaking morning.

But now when we look for the enemy, increasingly we see ourselves.

It crept upon us incrementally and insidiously, with each new outrage that we internalize, rationalize and ultimately acquiesce to as an ever-diminished “new normal.”

We ignore the warning signs. And they are plentiful.

Here in Virginia, Loudoun County’s school board meetings have become the stuff of national news. For the better part of this year, parents and board members have disputed the district’s bathroom and locker room policies for trans students, particularly after reports of a restroom sexual assault on a girl. They’ve also angrily rejected what they say is the teaching of “critical race theory,” a doctrine that systemic racism has always pervaded U.S. institutions and something the district says is not and never has been in its curriculum. Meetings start as shouting matches and worsen from there, leading at one point to an arrest and spectators being cleared. One board member recently resigned amid the long-running conflict.

Nationally, the FBI has been mobilized to investigate violent threats made against school board members in similarly confrontational settings, many of them provoked by critical race theory and pandemic-inspired pupil masking mandates.

Memories of the violent August 2017 Unite the Right riot that resulted in the deaths of a spectator and two Virginia State Police officers who were monitoring the unrest from a helicopter remain fresh. The night before the bloody showdown in Charlottesville’s downtown mall, columns of neo-Nazis and white supremacists carrying tiki torches marched through the University of Virginia campus, surrounding students and screaming “You will not replace us!” and the Hitlerian battle cry, “Blood and soil!

In January, kindred forces, urged by President Donald Trump to march to the Capitol and “fight like hell” after his comical consigliere, Rudy Giuliani, exhorted “trial by combat,” were part of a mob that overran the Capitol to nullify an election Trump falsely claimed was stolen from him. They stormed the seat of our democratically elected republic in a bid to scuttle the constitutional process that would make Joe Biden the rightful next president. Though the insurrection failed, invaders ransacked and looted congressional offices, smeared their feces on walls and did something that four years of the Civil War never achieved: a Confederate flag being paraded through the Capitol.

As the police killing of George Floyd ignited international protests over injustice toward Black Americans, the fault lines emerged clearly on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, then punctuated by gaudy bronze monuments to Confederate leaders. Amid peaceful daily protests, sinister provocateurs inflamed an already angry situation. A truck was driven into protesters. A transit bus was set ablaze downtown. Minority businesses were vandalized and looted. Police unleashed rubber bullets, teargas and pepper spray not only on protesters but also journalists covering the unrest. The brutality cost the police chief his job.

The closer this fall’s gubernatorial race gets, the meaner and less tethered to truth communications from the candidates – Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin – become. And the same is true for down-ticket races. “Wrong about vaccines … dead wrong for Virginia,” said the baleful voiceover in a televised campaign ad for one House of Delegates candidate. Its sinister tone is ubiquitous, not only over the air but in our snail mail and your social media feeds.

Two Saturdays ago, actionable unrest showed up in a sellout college football crowd of more than 100,000 in Knoxville, Tennessee.

After the homestown Tennessee Volunteers came up one yard shy of a first down on a desperation fourth down attempt with less than a minute to play and officials awarded the ball back to the visiting Mississippi Rebels, projectiles rained onto the visitors’ bench, forcing players and coaches out to midfield, outside the range of most of the water bottles, beer cans, vape pens, small batteries, golf balls and even a squeeze bottle of mustard that pelted the turf. Officials suspended the game for nearly 20 minutes – longer than a halftime – as the fusillade continued. Both schools’ bands and cheerleaders were evacuated, some of them using posterboard spirit signs to shield their heads as they scurried for the tunnels.

Full disclosure here: I am not only an Ole Miss alumnus, I am a former player. In hostile SEC venues long ago, I dodged an occasional ice cube, a small battery or two and once, after a blowout loss in LSU’s Tiger Stadium in 1976, an empty Jack Daniel’s bottle flung from the cheap seats (which, come to think of it, may have been from one of our own fans). Certainly, visiting teams sometimes got similar mistreatment at our home arenas. It is wrong in every instance. However, the display of hooliganism to the degree and duration that millions saw live from Rocky Top should be a wakeup call. When spectators en masse presume the right to physically intrude upon the game, our sports-loving country has lost the balm of sports as we know it.

Is it all too far gone? What would it take to turn things around? Another 9/11-type act of war from a foreign enemy that refocuses our collective rage outward rather than within?

That’s a damnable price to pay just for us to see one another as fellow Americans again, to focus on the vastness of where we agree rather than dwelling on petty vexations that divide us.

But maybe the timelier question at the merciful end of yet another socially corrosive Virginia election is not whether we can recover a sense or community, it’s whether we even want to.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]