On the eve of the presidential inauguration, two rival Americas prepare to share a common playing field

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Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., bustles on the eve of the presidential inauguration. - JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES
  • Joe Raedle/Getty Images
  • Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., bustles on the eve of the presidential inauguration.

Years ago my wife and I were living in Spain, and our landlord invited us to spend a weekend in their cabin outside Madrid. Sunday morning he drove us to a nearby village in search of folklore and local wine. A small glass cost five pesetas. "In the next village they demand ten pesetas," said the landlord, and explained, "That's a Moorish village."

Technically it hadn't been a Moorish village for roughly 600 years. But once some things get fixed in our minds, it's hard to change them. My earliest memory of an election is of my mother letting me sit alone in our car (unthinkable now, at least in enlightened parenthood circles) while she ran into the polling place to vote against Harry Truman. Civic courses would teach me that elections involve concerned citizens starting at zero and assessing the candidates' pluses and minuses—but what I came to see was that in our house Republicans began the contest on third base while the Democrats had already been thumbed out of the game. Like those Moors, they suffered from something hard to distinguish from original sin.

Over the holidays, my wife and I took a drive to Florida and back to Chicago that was very interesting. Because southerners are such friendly people, the hatred of Hillary that seemed to hold sway there was less troubling to us northerners passing through than it had been when we contemplated the region from Chicago. The further south we got, the more the south seemed simply a charming but separate country whose eccentric notions about America suffer—as they do in all foreign countries—by lack of first-hand knowledge of it. And I'm sure they'd return the compliment.

We're all the same in that we know what we know about each other, and it hardly matters to us whether we actually know much of anything. (I wonder if my old landlord in Spain ever set foot in the next village.)

I am aghast at the results of November's elections, aghast at the crowd taking over the White House tomorrow. I am aghast at the misjudgment of the electorate, which I attribute to the millions of nominal Americans who don't live on my street and who don't understand the world or their own country or even their own interests well enough to know what they were doing. But Trump, I think, is as much a cartoon to southerners as he is to us up here, just a less malevolent one. When a region's default position is "Hillary = evil," that has a way of putting lipstick on an orange-hided Swabian.

Trump is as much a cartoon to southerners as he is to Chicagoans, just a less malevolent one. - SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES
  • Spencer Platt/Getty Images
  • Trump is as much a cartoon to southerners as he is to Chicagoans, just a less malevolent one.

I grew up understanding a presidential election to be a serious business conducted by and for grownups for high stakes. Whenever, in my view, the wrong man won, human progress was imperiled but life went on. This election was different. And the reason it was—again in my view—is that Trump isn't a grown-up. He remains an impulsive and adolescent brat, and as such an existential threat to the fate of the earth. I won't make the case here because it's been made a million times already, but I do want to point out that a lot of people agree: the Huffington Post recently reported that six times as many bus permits had been requested for the Women's March the day after Trump's inauguration in Washington as for the inauguration itself.

My wife and all three of my daughters will be joining that march, and so will plenty of other friends and relatives. A lot of time beforehand has been taken up in discussing what the signs should say, with messages flying back and forth on cell phones. And as solemn and urgent as the march intends to be, stricken fervor won't have the last word: everyone's gathering after it's over in a joint where the margaritas are touted as the best in town. Commonality in crisis is always worth celebrating.

The weekend promises amazing spectacles. Partisans cheer in a new president one day and yield the field the next to an even more vast throng of critics who've come to let the new president know they intend to resist him every step of the way. I know the center cannot hold and the worst are full of passionate intensity, et cetera. But at this time and in this place—21st century America—the best are full of it too. We're two gung-ho Americas sharing a common playing field. I can't help but think of the last few moments before the second-half buzzer of a basketball game, when the two bitter rivals, having traded ends, toss in a last few practice hoops before getting back down to business.

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