Most of you will be reading this on the day before the election or during a time when the outcome is still uncertain. The election has occupied so much of our collective brain space for the past year that it’s hard to imagine writing about anything else at this moment, but I’m not sure what thread of the tangle that’s accumulated I want to honor in my eleventh hour wrap up. Ages ago I directed a writing program whose motto, usually attributed to E.M Forster, was “I don’t know what I think until I see what I say.” So, I’m just going to plunge in and go wherever my nose takes me. Don’t expect to encounter any new ideas. At best, you’ll find some that validate your own
A friend posted on FB the other day a wish for Trump to be placed on trial once he’s out of office. For a long time, I’ve been fantasizing about a Nuremberg war crimes trial that included not only Trump, but William Barr, Mitch McConnell, his other Congressional collaborators and the likes of Sean Hannity. None of that is likely to happen because Biden and his advisors will rule out any actions that inflame and divide the public any further than is already the case. But will a Democratic victory – and I’m basing my comments on that assumption because any other result is so dark as to be unbearable – be sufficient catharsis for those of us who have suffered the indignities, the lying and the erosion of decency that Trump has inflicted on us?
The problem is that, regardless of who wins the election, the story will be far from over. In an interview on Fresh Air a while back the Houston author Attica Locke made a comment that I’ve paraphrased in many conversations since. It goes something like this. “Trump will be gone at some point, but I’m going to have to live for the rest of my life with the people who made him possible.” The point is that even when the results of the election are known, the story will be far from over. An evil genie was allowed to escape from the bottle and there’s no easy way to jam it back in. The conspiracy theorists and the militia men will be with us even if Biden wins and the Democrats gain control of the Senate. Imagine, for example, the attempt to impose a national mask mandate, which should be one of the new president’s first orders of business. Distrust of government and the media is now coursing through our bloodstream and every attempt to redirect us to actions and decisions based on fact and science will be met with resistance.
Amy Coney Barrett now sits on the Supreme Court, locking in decades of reactionary supremacy in our most powerful tribunal. The people who didn’t like or trust Hillary in 2016 and sat on their hands, voted for a third party candidate or, God help us, decided to give Trump a try, need to ask themselves what responsibility they own for Barrett, Kavanaugh and Gorsuch. It’s hard for most people to grasp the fact that arguably the most significant impact of a presidential election is not the president himself, but the people he brings with him to operate all the agencies of government that have a direct impact on the quality of people’s lives, from the cabinet positions to departments whose existence is a mystery to most of us. For Trump his cast has been heavy with grifters and lobbyists committed to dismantling the agencies they were appointed to oversee or busy filling their own pockets. Their primary qualification for office is their loyalty to the president. Once there is the slightest hint that their loyalty is no longer absolute, their time is over. One of the things that will please me most if the results turn out as I hope this week is to say goodbye, not just to Trump, but to this crew which has been party to stripping the government of any small vestige of decency and principle it possessed before Trump.
Thanks to a recommendation from my wife’s book group, I’ve been reading The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat by Rsyzard Kapuscinski. It’s a study of the corrupt regime of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. It’s impossible to read almost anything these days without finding something that seems to bear on our current situation. Here’s what struck me in this book’s account of the beginning of the end for the Emperor:
“We must remember that the Palace was a nest of mediocrity, a collection of second-rate people, and in a time of crisis such people lose their heads and think of nothing but saving their own skins. Mediocrity is dangerous: when it feels itself threatened, it becomes ruthless.”
This is an apt description of the atmosphere in these last days before the election and will be even more on the mark in the months after a Trump defeat when all his sycophants attempt to scrub themselves clean of the mud from that undrained swamp.
Although a Biden win will help us put some of the nightmare of this administration behind us, it’s hardly the end of the story. It restores some welcome civility and decency to our public life, but most of us know that it just returns us to a place of injustice and inequity that predated Trump. Electoral politics is an important social gyroscope that can keep the ship from tipping over and sinking, but it’s a faulty mechanism for moving us forward in any significant measure. The New Yorker has just published a chapter from Barack Obama’s upcoming memoir. In it he tells the story of the passage of the Affordable Care Act. It’s a sobering reminder of the centrist country we are, at best, and how difficult it is to make giant steps operating in the political context that Biden has inhabited for 47 years, as Trump has relished reminding us over and over.
We have to welcome Biden while at the same time look past him to reach for the real levers of change. I’ve just begun to read the biography of Ella Baker by the distinguished historian Barbara Ransby which has been sitting on my shelf for years waiting for the right moment for me to tackle this lengthy tome. Now is the time. Baker, less well known than the familiar icons of the Civil Rights Movement, was the wellspring from which that Movement and many others sprung. She understood that change arrives on the backs of ordinary people joining forces in a mass movement powerful enough to move our otherwise glacial political institutions. Baker would love the efforts of Black Lives Matter and the work of young environmental activists. If our man wins, we can’t lay our burdens down. We have to shift our energies in the direction of the mass movements already at work and those yet to be born and keep moving forward.
If Trump is re-elected, he will be in a position to use the powerful machinery of government to consolidate
his corrupt regime and to further stifle our freedom and our quest for greater equality. That’s the nightmare vision that has haunted us as this election day has approached. I’m putting my hopes and my bets on a better outcome.