PITTSBURGH — For four years, David Betras has been unable to escape Donald J. Trump. The president has visited Youngstown, Ohio, the seat of Mr. Betras’s home county. So have the president’s children. People Mr. Betras had known for years became in thrall to Mr. Trump. There was no getting away on Facebook, on Instagram, at the local bar.
“In the last four years, has there been a day when Trump wasn’t somewhere in your orbit?” said Mr. Betras, the former chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party. “Every day, I couldn’t get him out. He was just everywhere. It was like an omnipresence.”
For Mr. Betras and so many others, this was life in the Trump era: four years of waking up every morning to a new revelation, an impulsive tweet, a mass protest, a strange new celebrity from the political fringe, an impeachment or two, another thing to argue about and lose friends over. There is no telling when the Trump era will end, but as a purely technical matter, Mr. Trump will no longer be the president on Wednesday afternoon. His departure will leave a country that is divided, impassioned, fearful, radicalized — and worn out.
“It was like, like a car horn,” Mr. Betras said of the perpetual news cycles of the last four years. “You’re having dinner, you know, and initially, the car horn doesn’t bother you. But after about an hour, you’re looking around: ‘Will someone shut that car horn off?!’”
Political conflicts that once simmered stayed on a permanent rolling boil. A greater share of voters showed up at the polls in 2020 than in over a century, following a summer of possibly the largest protest movement in the country’s history. Antiracism demonstrators gathered in city squares where protests against coronavirus-related lockdowns had taken place weeks earlier.
The public learned obscure terms like “emoluments” and painted them on protest signs. White nationalists battled antifa activists in the streets of American cities. High schools became hotbeds of political division and intramural hostility, families broke apart over bizarre conspiracy theories, small church congregations fractured and seemingly apolitical celebrities publicly declared their allegiances. Then in January, the U.S. Capitol was stormed by pro-Trump rioters.
Even for many of Mr. Trump’s supporters, it has been wearying. Some, still fully loyal, say they feel essentially defeated after years of political battle.
“Four years were kind of unpleasant,” said Gwendolyn Milner, 68, of Fayetteville, Ga., “because we felt we had to defend him but nobody would stop to listen.” It is important to remain engaged, she said, even though she already feels cynical and beaten down.
Others spoke tiredly of trying to defend Mr. Trump’s policies to friends and family only to be hamstrung, inevitably, by some presidential tweet about a potential purchase of Greenland or a diatribe about wind turbines.
“You could never get past that because he kept doing it,” said Ray Abplanalp, 61, of western Pennsylvania, who failed to persuade his brother of the president’s merits.
For still others, even some who had long been champions of the president, the feverish conspiring since November’s election had finally gotten to be too much.
“I cannot wait for this to end tomorrow, to be quite honest with you,” said Carlos Ortiz, the pastor of an evangelical church in Miami, who voted for the president twice. He had no regrets about those votes, he said, welcoming all that the president had done for his evangelical supporters. But after the last two months, and especially after the attack on the Capitol, he is done. “Every single day it was a completely new thing: ‘They stole the election, blah blah blah,’” Mr. Ortiz said. “It mounts, one thing on top of the other. We cannot deal with this anymore.”
For those who have been protesting in the streets, the relentless conflict of the past four years has not been a negative at all but the return of an urgency long sought. There is hope, they say, in the new wave of activism, from the massive Black Lives Matter demonstrations to a series of work stoppages that involved more people than at any time in decades. The Trump era revealed problems that ran deep in the country’s history, some said, and there was no going back to the false comfort of the status quo.
“It’s exhausting, it is probably gut-wrenching, but I would say the same feeling that you felt or are feeling is how Black men have felt and have to live with every single day,” said Ayo Akinmoladun, 29, who led antiracism protests in Memphis over the summer. “This has been our reality.”
The reality of the past four years has varied considerably even for those who stand, politically, on the same side. The fatigue that some now feel from news-fueled outrage or general anxiety is very different from the weariness of those who have been directly affected by administration policies.
When Mr. Trump was inaugurated, Sarvin Haghighi, 41, an Iranian who had married an American man and moved to Chicago in 2013, was visiting her parents in Australia. Just after taking office, Mr. Trump issued an order barring Iranians and others from entering the United States, a ban that, in its initial form, even applied to permanent residents like Ms. Haghighi. She would make it back to her husband in the United States before too long, but she still cries talking about the whole experience. Her parents have not been able to visit at all.
“I am very saddened how divided this country is now, how racism is woven into this country,” said Ms. Haghighi, who became a citizen in 2018. “Even with Trump leaving this office, it won’t go away.”
The notion that the country’s major problems start and end with Mr. Trump rings hollow to many, who see the turmoil of the last four years as not solely because of Mr. Trump, but as part of an array of forces that the Trump era unleashed.
Christopher Kershaw, 41, a manager at a food distribution company in New Jersey, is somewhere in the political middle, approving of some things the president has done and strongly disapproving of others. But everyone had to pick a side, he said, and any given issue seemed to matter less than whether the president was for or against it.
Mr. Trump bore much of the blame for that given his needlessly provocative rhetoric, Mr. Kershaw said, but it distorted every political discussion, even about minor issues. A Biden-Harris administration could best unify the country now, he said, by failing to get much done.
“If the Senate and the House could go back to doing nothing like they normally do maybe we could just have a few minutes to regroup,” Mr. Kershaw said. “Give everyone a chance to go back to their corners and take a breath.”
It is unclear what that might even look like anymore. The groups are scrambled and mutual distrust pervasive. And for many people, the Trump years changed their lives permanently by drawing them deeper into politics.
As the 2016 election approached, Deborah Baughman was living in rural southern Pennsylvania, in contented retirement from her career as an eighth-grade teacher. The election left her in disbelief, an event she remembers as a night when “something very terrible happened.” Mr. Trump won her county by more than 67 percentage points. She had not seen it coming.
She processed, commiserated, went to a women’s march and began attending a newly formed group of Democrats in her county, discovering that there were more like-minded voters around than she had realized. Within a year, she was running for State Legislature, her name in huge letters on billboards around the county. She raised tens of thousands of dollars and lost badly, as she had expected.
But then she decided to run for the Democratic seat on the county commission — by law, one seat is reserved for a “minority party.” After a victory in that race, she now has a new full-time job. All of this because of Mr. Trump.
“Where I live Trumpism is alive, well and stronger than ever,” Ms. Baughman said. Flags for Mr. Trump still hang from front porches and she knows a couple of buses from the county traveled to the now-infamous rally in Washington on Jan. 6. But she does not feel tired by it all. Quite the opposite.
“If it hadn’t been for Donald Trump,” she said, “I wouldn’t be in this new career. And feeling so glad to be part of it.”
Campbell Robertson reported from Pittsburgh, Elizabeth Dias from Washington and Miriam Jordan from Los Angeles. Sabrina Tavernise contributed reporting from Washington.
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