There's a virus going around.
The symptoms of this virus are widespread, profound and unyielding. Unlike COVID-19, they don't involve the loss of smell. Rather, its fetid stench can be detected across the entire country. Nor do they involve the loss of taste. In fact, its latest manifestations are in incredibly bad taste.
Other classic symptoms include sore throat and shortness of breath, typically brought on by a lot of screaming and shouting. And while body temperature normally hovers around 98.6, those infected often behave at fevered pitch.
Fatigue generated by this virus affects both the infected and everyone around them, though it's less a physical exhaustion and more a weariness of the heart and soul.
Millions and millions of Americans have caught this virus. Some may have died from it. But most of its casualties are more subtle in nature. Casualties like the death of common sense, for one, and basic reasoning for another. Casualties like the death of honesty and civic transparency. Casualties like the death of compassion, and empathy, and a concern for the greater good.
Those infected with the virus generally fall prey to a series of one or more "isms." Like nationalism. Or racism. Or tribalism. Or extremism. Or fanaticism. Or any other kind of "ism" that helps divide whatever unity remains in these so-called United States.
Late-stage cases are plagued with severe tunnel vision. Such victims see the world only through bipolar-colored glasses, the lenses of which label all others as either Us or Them.
The Us group includes "everyone like me," which, depending on the victim, might comprise all Republicans, or all Democrats, or all millennials, or all boomers, or all Blacks, or all Whites, or ... well, you get the picture. The Them group, of course, includes everyone else. And, as we all know, if you're not for Us, you're against Us, so Them are The Enemy.
The idea that everyone unlike you is the Enemy is nothing new. When I was kid, The Enemy was always an outside entity, like the Nazis, or the Russkies, or the Klingons. All that's changed now. Under our new American paranoia, The Enemy might be your Republican neighbor or your Democratic sister-in-law.
As far as I can tell, we're currently in the final stages of this viral winnowing process and roughly one half of the country views the other half as The Enemy for one reason or another. And, like many people, I've experienced the polarizing effects of the virus firsthand.
Last year I went on vacation with some high school buddies. When we weren't reminiscing about our glory days, we often talked politics. Now, while our political views ranged across the spectrum – from Left Coast liberal to Midwest conservative – we managed it without any hurt feelings. After vacation, however, all bets were off. Within a couple months of online chats, two of my friends were no longer speaking to one another.
This wasn't an isolated incident. Last year a guy I've worked with for more than a decade suddenly quit speaking to me and another work associate. To this day, I'm not sure what happened, though most likely it was a fallout over politics.
COVID-19, as everyone knows, originated in China. It's hard to say where this one started, though most people point to Washington, DC. And even if it didn't, the toxic power culture there certainly perpetuated it. One might say one party is infected worse than the other, but what's the point? The other half of the country would disagree.
Others blame the outbreak on Russian trolls or social media algorithms, which is almost a comforting thought since it suggests that the hate infecting us is not inherent in our breed.
Me, I'm not so sure. I remember a lesser outbreak in 1970s, during the waning years of the Vietnam War. Symptoms then included dead college kids, protesters putting flowers in gun barrels, anti-war songs with sappy lyrics like "go ahead and hate your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend, do it in the name of heaven, you can justify it in the end" and, mostly, returning soldiers taking the blame.
Because the name of this game is blame, and it's always the other guy's fault. You read it every day in letters to the editor, hear it every day on cable news, absorb it every day on social media.
Last week that viral blame hit a new high, live and on national TV: two old men in their 70s, one a sitting president, the other a former vice president, screaming insults at each other.
They say someday there'll be a vaccine for COVID-19. For the other infection, however, there appears to be no end in sight.
• Bill Wimbiscus is a former editor and reporter at The Herald-News.