(Originally published Summer, 2022)
There are so many reasons for pessimism at this time in our country’s history, and that of the world in general. The world seems literally to be falling down around us. Daily we are bombarded by news of unfathomable suffering, cruelty, and tragedy. This generation doesn’t need horror movies. We have our newsfeeds.
War, famine, corruption, ecological catastrophe, mass starvation, and political instability have always been grim parts of the global equation, but these things are pressing in on us evermore, both in reality and in perception, thanks to the ravenous monster that is our 24-7 news cycle. Moreover, these things are no longer relegated to the notorious caldrons of chaos in the Middle East, Central America, or Eastern Europe. They have come to our own doorstep and settled like radioactive particles into the once civil and comparatively serene nooks and crannies of American life.
Mass shootings occur, on average, multiple times each day. There have been 314 such shootings so far in 2022, an average of 1.7 per day, according to the Gun Violence Archive.[i] This includes the July 4 shooting at an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, IL, in which a gunman killed six and wounded many more; and the massacre of 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, TX. Even during a recent mall shooting in Greenwood, IN, which was stopped, thankfully, by an armed citizen, three people were killed and two more injured. Despite the intervention of the fabled “good guy with a gun,” sightings of which have been Sasquatch-like in their fleeting rarity, three innocent people were still gunned down. Not exactly a win, and certainly not a strategy to prevent future bloodshed. Nor, I would submit, are the tiresome “thoughts and prayers” offered up in knee-jerk fashion by impotent and feckless lawmakers who simultaneously and perversely boast of their NRA approval ratings.
We can no longer enjoy the simple pleasure of a retreat from the summer heat to a cool, dark movie theater without thoughts of survival strategies, as we choose our seats not for the best view of the screen, but by calculating the most direct route to an exit. The very act of going to a movie, or a restaurant, or the grocery store can seem a gamble at times in the roulette wheel nature of random gun violence which pervades American life. We live daily with the specter of calamity. The very real possibility of untimely and violent death has become a constant, loathsome companion.
Our country survived four years of Trumpian griftocracy, incompetence and corruption the likes of which we have never seen, and for which our democracy was woefully unprepared. Many who voted for Trump in 2016 assumed he would be a clownish novelty as president, ultimately to be reined in by systematic guardrails, political norms and the wisdom of advisors. Despite whatever hesitancy or discomfort they may have felt about his court jester persona, boorish behavior and troublesome pronouncements (“I could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and I wouldn’t lose any voters, ok?”), they could not bring themselves to vote for Hilary Clinton, or for that matter, anyone with a “D” behind their name. Their’s was a political calculation for many caught between what they considered two unsavory choices.
More perplexing was the choice of over 74 million Americans who voted to give Trump yet another four years in office in 2020. Particularly those evangelicals who, I can only presume, must have found the President’s personal behavior, (“grab ‘em by the pussy”), appalling, embarrassing and unacceptable. Ultimately, many of those evangelicals, being essentially single-issue voters, made the jaundiced calculation that nearly any Trumpian excess was excusable, so long as he did their bidding, appointing friendly judges regardless of qualification, who would ultimately do the work of dismantling Roe through misdirection and outright lying under oath. And in that calculation, their grandest hopes came to pass.
But with the end or Roe, the genie is now out of the bottle, and many “red” state legislatures have predictably proposed draconian laws which would ban abortion altogether, even in cases of rape and incest or when the life of the mother is threatened. Texas, which boasts of doing everything bigger, has taken this derangement to new levels, passing legislation which would provide monetary awards – bounties – for private citizens who report other private citizens engaging in, or assisting with a procedure which had been legal only days before. The legislation is as perverse as it is callous, incentivizing vigilantism, dividing communities, and rewarding cruelty when compassion is needed. Some states which have passed abortion bans are studying legislation which would prohibit its citizens from traveling across state lines to obtain abortion legally elsewhere, a dystopian police-state strategy Stalin himself would have warmly embraced. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some elected officials within the deranged Trump realm have suggested a Federal abortion ban, even after years of arguing that abortion should be a state-by-state issue – a breathtaking display of hypocrisy even by Washington, D.C. standards.
And many other rights may well be rolled back. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been vocal in opining that the right to gay marriage should now be reexamined, a right supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans. Some within the GOP seek what can only be described as theocratic rule.
The Republican Party, in its traditional sense as one of the two major political parties in the United States, has ceased to exist. It is now, effectively, the Party of Trump, or Trumpism, as that movement seems poised to well outlive its corpulent septuagenarian founding father. Crazy has become mainstream, and an insurrectionist fervor has taken hold of the former Grand Old Party. Well-meaning, patriotic former Republicans have been censured or outright purged from the party for speaking out against Trump’s most nakedly anti-democratic impulses, or by simply telling the truth about January 6th. There is no room for anyone who refuses absolute fealty, who stands on democratic principle, who refuses to kiss the ring.
And it is getting wild out there, folks. Former Missouri Governor and current insurrectionist candidate for US Senate, Eric Greitens, boasted in a recent, unhinged political ad of going “RINO hunting,” the infamous acronym for “Republicans In Name Only.” In the ad, Greitens wields a shotgun, and flanked by a SWAT team, raids a home evidently occupied by someone of the same party who holds a mildly different political slant than his own. “There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn’t expire until we save our country,” Greitens swaggers, enraptured by his own perverse, maniacal cosplay fantasy.
The reptilian Matt Gaetz of Florida’s 1st-Congressional District, who is under federal investigation for statutory rape and sex trafficking of a minor, said recently of a 19-year-old abortion rights activist, “Why is it that the women with the least likelihood of getting pregnant are the ones most worried about having abortions? Nobody wants to impregnate you if you look like a thumb.”
Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia’s 14th-Congressional District embodies the race-baiting, mouth-frothing, moon-barking, conspiracy-peddling heart of the Trumpist Party. She recently claimed the government was keeping track of how many bowel movements you are having, and how many cheeseburgers you are eating, forcing people instead to eat meat promoted by Bill Gates and grown in a “peach tree dish.” In an infamous antisemitic Facebook rant, the likes of which would cause Berliners of the 1930’s to blush, she implied blame for the western wildfires of 2018 on the Rothchilds, a wealthy Jewish banking family long the target of antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories. This is but an infinitesimal sampling of the delirium which currently infuses the party of Abrahahm Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower.
Culture wars and performative lunacy have replaced governing philosophy within the former GOP. Gone is even the faintest pretense of guiding conservative principles which once narrated their efforts, and long gone is any thought of “Big Tent” inclusiveness. Weakened by the headwinds of demographic change and the mass defection of moderate voters, remnants of the once-proud GOP have reformed over the energized waters of grievance politics and right-wing nationalism. Having abandoned any hope of broadening the base, they are bent on minority rule via the grossly anti-democratic machinations of gerrymandering and systematic voter suppression. And there is no end in sight to their putrid, self-destructive march.
So why the optimism?
The excesses and perversions of Trump and his minions do not represent America, or Americans in the way I know them to exist. This is still the country which, despite its myriad flaws and transgressions, has stood as a beacon of hope and liberty for millions of oppressed peoples across the globe. We are still the people who intervened in two world wars, sacrificing hundreds of thousands of our own to preserve democracy in Europe and beyond, even while our own country effectively existed in a state of racial apartheid.
In the years which followed, we addressed some of our most grievous failures through landmark Civil Rights legislation, moving us closer to that “more perfect union” extolled by our Founders. During the Cold War, the American-financed broadcasts of Radio Free Europe emboldened freedom-craving Eastern Europeans to imagine a life beyond their grey existence behind the Iron Curtain.
We are still the people who, through the inspired words of a young president, the ingenuity of our brightest scientific minds, and our own restless energy, did the once unthinkable by putting a man on the moon in 1969.
We are still the people whose first instinct is to rush in and help, to care for our neighbors, to, when we are at our best, when we are truly living the rhetorical question, “what would Jesus do?” be big-hearted in our embrace of “the other.” Emma Lazarus put it most succinctly in her poem, The New Colossus, inscribed upon the base of the Statue of Liberty, when she wrote:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
I am optimistic that we are still those people.
It is often said that hope is not a strategy. Well, I would submit that neither is pessimism. We can still accomplish anything if we recapture the optimism of Kennedy and Reagan, the energy and vigor of Teddy Roosevelt, the ingenuity and determination of Franklin Roosevelt, and the moral clarity of Lincoln. These are the qualities which make us distinctly American.
Yet, optimism without action is both empty and delusional. Every American dedicated to the preservation of liberty and our democratic system of government must act in whatever way we are able to maintain and expand our birthright of freedom, and to cast off the looming, existential threat of autocracy and strongman rule. Through educating ourselves, engaging others in well-intentioned conversation and respectful debate, and taking an active part in the democratic process, we still have a chance to right the ship.
Action eliminates hopelessness. You literally cannot simultaneously act and remain hopeless, for in the very action of running for local office, or writing a letter to the editor of a local paper, or contacting a Congressional representative, or voting, or driving an elderly neighbor to the polling place, or volunteering to assist a recent immigrant, you are asserting your power, and lending your voice to what is still the greatest democratic experiment in the history of the world.
I am optimistic that liberty will carry the day, and firm in my belief that those cold and feckless souls who have abdicated their solemn oaths to uphold our Constitution will be relegated to the shameful place in history they have so richly earned.
[i] “There have been at least 314 mass shootings so far in 2022. There have only been 186 days.” Christina Prigano and Ryan Huddle, Boston Globe, July 5, 2022. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2022/07/05/nation/there-have-been-least-314-mass-shootings-so-far-2022-there-have-only-been-186-days/