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America is getting meaner, on the left and on the right

Timothy Egan (Credit: Amanda Koster for The New York Times)

I went to see my doctor the other day for a COVID-19-delayed physical. Instead of talking about what ails me, he wanted to talk about what ails us. A dystopian country. The Babel of misinformation. The lack of trust in everybody and everything.

“And how did Dr. Fauci become the enemy?” he said. My doctor is politically moderate and ambidextrously smart. After much steam had been let off, I wanted to say, “Enough with American vitals — what about my own?”

Trust in institutions — government, the press, religion, big business — is at or near record lows. My own profession, journalism, has been kicked to the cellar of disdain. Almost 40% of Americans have little or no confidence in newspapers, according to Gallup’s annual surveys — up from 24% in 2000.

But the “press,” where free speech and all its cacophonous chaos reside, has been a punching bag for some time. More shocking is that about 50% distrust our electoral system, according to a Morning Consult survey.

But underlying these cynicisms and suspicions is a truly sad development: The United States is becoming a mean country.

Take the story of the airline passenger who knocked out the teeth of a flight attendant — part of a frightening rise in unruly flyers. Or consider the man who shot and killed a Georgia supermarket cashier when she asked him to pull up his mask. Lament the absurd sorrow of the Philadelphia food festival that was designed to celebrate culinary diversity — then canceled after the decision to disinvite a food truck selling Israeli food sparked controversy.

Tribalism, and the corrosive hatreds that go with it, has always been just below the surface in the risky experiment of our multi-ethnic democracy. Of late, it has surfaced in many of our daily interactions — and accounts for much of the meanness of this moment.

Once upon a time, the crackpots could mostly talk only to themselves on bar stools; now they have an enormous community in the dark reaches of the web. That explains why up to one-fourth of Republicans believe the country is under the control of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, as they huff the vapors of QAnon. It’s also the likely reason a third of Americans continue to believe the fiction that Joe Biden took the election through fraud.

The jump from a provably false premise to physical attacks doesn’t require skill. In Mean America, in January, nearly 3 in 10 people surveyed expressed support for politically motivated violence, if necessary.

Sadly, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — so heartbreaking and so norm-shattering — was much more of a reflection of the times than an aberration.

The left shares the blame, with its cancel culture, groupthink stridency and identity politics — tactics now picked up by the right (See the canceled Liz Cheney, party fealty to the falsity that Trump won).

I’ve been working on a book about the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, a time when up to 5 million Americans belonged to the nation’s oldest hate group. A favorite tactic of the Klan in the ’20s was night-riding to people’s homes to terrorize them.

The underlying theme of all this meanness is intolerance.

My own better angel, currently on hiatus, tells me that the majority of people today aren’t as awful as they appear on social media, which rewards hate at a high volume. But who, or what, rewards civility and nuance?

There’s an old saying, attributed to the Sioux: A people without history is like wind on the buffalo grass. What may be worse are a people without a heart, unable to see half their countrymen and countrywomen as anything but the enemy.

Timothy Egan is a columnist for The New York Times.