ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- If I were to distill a recent public discussion about the state of our nation to one word, it would be "worried."
Not fearful, not angry, but worried -- about the future; about an election season that has made evil-clown sightings seem weirdly apt; but mostly about what will happen after the election. How do we mend the deep divisions that have evolved during this thoroughly nasty -- and, at times, X-rated -- campaign season? How does the country salve its wounds and reunite in common purpose?
Audience members here at the Poynter Institute's "Community Conversation," at which I was invited to speak last Thursday, posed these and other questions. The 150 or so attendees were a cross-spectrum mix of students, professionals, retirees and a few notables -- a diverse group, in other words, with no protesters, rabble-rousers or armed combatants in search of a revolution. The latter may have been occupied in nearby Lakeland, where Donald Trump had pronounced a global conspiracy against him the day before.
Clinton supporters at the Poynter event told me privately that they were afraid to put "Hillary" signs in their yards for fear of retribution, not from roaming vandals but from once-friendly neighbors. My suggestion that this campaign was reminiscent of the run-up to the Iraq War, when politically opposite friends avoided each other, was received with nods of agreement.
Whether for Trump or Clinton, neither side can conceive of what compels the other. In this duplex of horrors, Clinton is a corrupt, lying, hypocritical career politician and Trump is a sleazy, lying, narcissistic, autocratic, (alleged) sexual predator. Ne'er the twain shall meet.
Once the votes are counted, who knows what's next? President Obama's final two months may require his coolest touch yet.
Meanwhile, the questions posed here did not readily present answers. What's needed, I posited half-seriously, is a superhero. Someone to rise from the marshes and cut through the fog of our discontent, someone who can summon our better angels and help restore the country's self-respect.
At least for now, one is optimistic without reason.
We can know with near certainty that a defeated Donald Trump will unleash the armies of Mordor, comprised of a fan base that will embrace his dark conspiracy theory that the election was rigged. To their minds, his loss couldn't possibly be linked to a very long list of objectionable, as well as dishonest, statements he's made, only one of which is the sex-talk video we needn't view again.
Talking dirty has become the new normal, as anyone walking down a city street can confirm. And the objectification of women isn't remotely limited to Trump's warped view. As disgusting as Trump's verbal (and possibly physical) assaults have been -- and, yes, hurtful, too, as Michelle Obama so passionately said last week -- a certain contingent of his supporters are reluctantly willing to overlook the nastiness for the sole reason that they dislike Clinton more.
Others aspire to loftier goals, such as preventing a liberal Supreme Court or reducing the tax burden with an eye toward economic growth. These are certainly legitimate reasons. But Trump's willingness to pave the way for a "revolution" were Clinton to win should be sufficient evidence that this man isn't fit for the office.
To what extent are Trump sympathizers willing to express their disappointment? Well, who knows? But many will have seen the interview with a woman at a Trump rally last week who said she and her comrades are prepared to take their country back, cheerfully reminding the interviewer that "you're in the South. We're all Second Amendment pros."
Is she talking about a well-regulated militia, perchance?
This is the mindset Trump has nurtured these past many months. These are the people he will summon at the end. These are the reasons the less-emotionally taut are so worried.
More worrisome still is the opposite result: What if Trump wins? We can presume that Russian President Vladimir Putin will be delighted, his possible WikiLeaks alliance having paid off. North Korea's Kim Jong Un, who has called Trump a "wise politician," will order extra platters of chicken wings to celebrate.
As the Japanese proverb goes: When the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends.
Remember, too, that Trump has vowed as president to make it easier for people to sue the media, which, constitutionally, he can't. But as all authoritarian figures tend to do, Trump has to blame someone else for his failures. The media are handy bait for the credulous and misinformed.
Don't be afraid, but be worried.