In the days following November 8th, when Donald Trump unexpectedly secured enough electoral votes to become the 45th president of the United States, those of us in shock and sadness were frequently remonstrated with to get over it, and assured that we would: with the passage of time our pain would dull, and anyway, we would see that things could not be as bad as we feared.
Two months later, the shock has indeed abated, but the alarm has only intensified. There can be no more pretending: there will be no sobering realization of the demands of the office or the gravity of the role, no growth, no pivot. The only question is how catastrophic things will be, not whether they will be catastrophic. Some things are certain: The United States’ vital role as a stabilizing force in the international order will be weakened, both by the president’s ignorance and volatility and by his explicit promises to undermine our international alliances. A reactionary majority on the Supreme Court will undo decades of important precedents, and leave intact Shelby County v. Holder, the Roberts Court’s indefensible decision gutting the Voting Rights Act. The United States will do nothing to address global climate change for the next four years, ensuring that we lock in irreversible temperature rise and its terrible ramifications. And our pluralist democracy will be rent by a president willing to violate its norms, from the horror of making racism speakable again to the corruption inevitable in having the president profit from a business selling his name while he is in office. Beyond that, our hope for a best-case scenario rests on our president-elect proving to be as unfaithful to his campaign promises as he has been in every other arena of his life. If he takes those promises seriously, the damage to our people, our country, and the world will be incalculable.
(This is rational catastrophizing–yes, it is assuming the worst, but assuming the worst on the basis of things the president-elect has promised to do, and has begun to do, and considering what this country would look like if he did all of them. To husband our energies and maintain our focus, it is important not to indulge in irrational catastrophizing–the feverish speculation about when internment camps might be built or yellow crescents issued to Muslims to wear on their clothing. Goodness knows, there is enough to worry about in the here and now.)
This is as bad as it seems. There is no comfort to be taken here. And yet, as an historian, I can take courage. The story we like to tell ourselves about the United States–about a country that started off good and got better–is arrant nonsense. The United States was a beautiful idea whose founding was inextricably bound up with the practice of owning human beings as property; stealing their work, their bodies, and their children. Its growth was made possible by the theft of large amounts of others’ land, with the attendant destruction of their bodies and their culture. The United States wasn’t born good–it was born with the capacity to become good, and to the extent that that potential has been realized, however fitfully and with whatever reversals, it has only been through almost-unimaginably-hard work.
If politics is the slow boring of hard boards, perfecting the Union is slower still–and the drill bit sometimes runs backwards. If we date the fight to end slavery from the founding of the first abolition society in the United States in Philadelphia in 1775, it was 90 years until the practice of rendering human beings things was ended. People engaged in the fight, gave their last true measure of devotion to it, and did not see it won. If we date the fight for women’s suffrage to the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, it was 72 years until women were granted a voice in the government that ruled them. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott–none lived to see American women fully enfranchised. Ida B. Wells, the most inspiring “nasty woman” in American history, risked her life to end lynching, and died in a country still firmly in the grip of lynch law. We romanticize the Civil Rights movement, but forget that from the Montgomery bus boycott to the Selma march was ten long years–ten years in which progress was halting and uneven, ten years in which Medgar Evers, Jimmie Lee Jackson, three civil rights workers in Mississippi, four girls in a church in Birmingham, and too many others died. From the organization of the Knights of Labor until the passage of the National Labor Relations Act was sixty-six years–sixty-six years in which union organizers were beaten, tortured, killed. Gay rights, an issue on which there has been a comparatively unimaginably-rapid societal shift, still saw decades elapse between Stonewall and our country’s guarantee of full civil rights for LGBT citizens.
We love to quote Dr. King that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Perhaps King was unduly optimistic, and Ta-Nehisi Coates is right: the arc of the universe bends towards chaos, unless we fight to bend it otherwise. Or perhaps we’ve just forgotten how long “long” can be. We are used to seeing progress, and have come to expect it and take it for granted. There have been recent reversals–the Bush administration was a terrible time for due process, the rule of law, the norms and legal bans against torture, and the Obama administration was no great shakes on due process, either. But the fundamental idea of our democracy as pluralist one that accepts, indeed, welcomes men and women of all races, ethnicities, religions, and, increasingly, sexual orientations–that has been a norm to which parties and candidates professed fealty for decades, one that we could not have imagined needing to defend anew in American public life.
And yet, here we are.
I don’t know exactly how one finds the courage to fight what one knows is a losing fight, over and over again, for the chance merely to limit the damage that will be done. I know that our country has only made it this far on the backs of people who did. Many of our generation have felt that we were not called to greatness, as Americans who lived during other eras were. We are called now. We must take up the fight, because what is at stake is too important to succumb to the unaffordable luxury of despair. I am a privileged white woman in a blue state–I will be reasonably okay on most fronts. (On the climate front our descendants are all doomed, but that fight was lost on November 8th.) There are others who will not be as fortunate, if those of us with some leverage do not choose to use it.
At the same time, I have no truck with #notmypresident. Painful as it is, this racist, authoritarian, narcissistic ignoramus will be my president, as he will be all of ours. This summer’s nomination fights helped me see that I am deeply an institutionalist. I believe in working within current institutions and structures to effect change, rather than trying to destroy those institutions; there is no getting rid of the mice by burning down the barn. This is true for pragmatic reasons: in the short term, change in the United States will only come by working through the existing institutions of government and civil society, both by changing them from the inside and putting pressure on them from the outside. The urgency of the moment calls us to concentrate our efforts where they can do the most good, the most quickly.
But it is true for principled reasons as well. As compromised as they are, as much as they replicate and reify power relations, institutions, norms and laws give the powerless more of a chance than the state of nature, red in tooth and claw. When we take those away, when we loose all restraints, it is the least powerful who suffer the most. (That is the fundamental flaw in the “there’s no significant difference between the candidates so let’s help elect the worse one to heighten the contradictions” argument of Ralph Nader and Susan Sarandon. When you’ve heightened the contradictions enough to lose 20 million people their health insurance, it won’t be Susan Sarandon’s to go.)
In his play A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt puts this argument in the mouth of Sir Thomas More, arguing that the laws must be followed even when they slow the pursuit of one’s desired ends.
William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!
There’s really no need to ‘splain me about all the ways in which those institutions and norms fail, or are stacked against the left, or have been weaponized by Republicans over the past two decades; the ways they have been used to confirm and maintain white supremacy, sexism, and heterosexism. All of those things are true. As with Churchill’s observation about democracy–that it is the worst system of government other than all the others that have been tried–abiding by the norms and functioning within the institutions of our democracy is the least effective way to make change except for all the others. (And yes, peaceful civil disobedience does count as being within the norms of our democracy.)
(And to any who would make noise about using force to effect change, please grow up. You may have guns. Maybe you’ll buy yourself an AR-15 and learn how to shoot it. Yay. The U.S. Army has tanks and bombers and a nuclear arsenal. You’re not going to win. When violence has been resorted to as a means of effecting change in American society, it has invited a harsh crackdown on those very people it was intended to help. Dr. King’s embrace of nonviolence was not only the principled acting-out of his radical Christian vision; it was also the very pragmatic realization that to engage in violence would be to invite a bloodbath which would be supported by a white America afraid of black men with guns. We are embarking on at least four years in which the Justice Department will have little interest in investigating or addressing police brutality–and major law enforcement organizations have expressed their sympathy for Trump’s approach and rhetoric. Whom do you think would most be hurt by any turn to violence?)
We are entering a deeply dark period of American history. Some have called what we are watching unfold the Second Redemption, a reference to the period at the end of Reconstruction when black people were systematically stripped of political power and voting rights, often by violence and terror. It took many long decades, and many thousands gone, for those fundamental rights to be restored. But we are not now where we were then. There are many more of us who care to stop this–a majority of voters on Election Day, in fact–and, because of the demographics of the electorate, there will be more every year. We will have to work, and work hard, fighting a rearguard battle to stop destruction and unraveling, rather than fighting to advance. It is a disheartening prospect. But there is too much to fight for, too much at stake, to give up now. There are statehouse and Congressional elections to win in 2017 and 2018, and the time to begin working on that was yesterday.
In his transcendent speech at the end of the Selma to Montgomery March, Martin Luther King Jr. quoted James Russell Lowell’s poem The Present Crisis:
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne–
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
It is our deep misfortune to see Wrong on the throne–but it does not make Truth any less true. The poem continues:
We see dimly in the Present what is small and what is great,
Slow of faith how weak an arm may turn the iron helm of fate,
But the soul is still oracular; amid the market’s din,
List the ominous stern whisper from the Delphic cave within,–
“They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.”
I will not enslave my children’s children, and I will not compromise. But with God in the shadow keeping watch, my weak arm, and yours, will turn the iron helm.