I woke up this past Saturday morning filled with dread about possible outcomes that seemed feasible for later that night in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As the dominoes fell that evening, I was thrilled that my fears of Tulsa being a “powder keg on the brink of exploding” turned out to be unfounded. Last week was, in fact, a pretty good week for democracy in America. Let’s take a moment to briefly recap and celebrate some of the good news, and then focus in on why we must remain vigilant regarding what it bodes for the future.
Positive developments centered around: two very important decisions protecting the rights of minority groups that came out of the US Supreme Court; revelations disclosed from former Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton’s new book providing the public with additional insight into how Trump had repeatedly sold out American interests; and Trump and Attorney General William Barr being thwarted in an attempt to eviscerate the ability of the US Attorney from the Southern District of New York (SDNY) to investigate the crimes of Trump and his cronies.
And then came Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa on Saturday evening. The event closely packed together thousands of non-mask-wearing supporters into an indoor arena in the midst of a global viral pandemic. It was planned over loud objections from public health experts indicating that it was unsafe, and attendees were required to sign a waiver of liability should they get sick and/or die from attending. The day of the event, it was disclosed that six of Trump’s campaign staffers planning the event in Tulsa had themselves tested positive for COVID-19.
The Trump campaign had promoted that more than a million tickets had been requested for this event, held in an arena holding a maximum of 19,199 people. The event was taking place in Tulsa during a time of protests for justice, a day after Juneteenth and just over 99 years after the worst racial massacre in the history of the United States happened in a Tulsa suburb. Businesses in downtown Tulsa boarded up and prepared for a potentially violent night following the rally.
It turned out that only about 6,200 people showed up for the event, less than 1/3 of the venue’s capacity. Tulsa stayed peaceful that night. Trump gave a bizarre and embarrassing performance, where he spent more than 15 minutes discussing his difficulties walking down a ramp and then demonstrating that he could drink a glass of water with one hand. He also made the horrific admission that he had tried to limit COVID-19 testing in America in an effort to make the pandemic seem less severe than it actually was. As Heather Cox Richardson aptly noted: “Far from energizing Trump’s 2020 campaign, the rally made Trump look like a washed-up performer who has lost his audience and become a punchline for the new kids in town.”
Looking Ahead — The Morning After
If you think Trump is on the ropes and will surely lose in November, think again. He will do anything to be reelected. Our side has limits because we believe in democracy. Trump has no limits because he doesn't.
— Robert Reich (@RBReich) June 21, 2020
While we can celebrate that it was a good week for America we must remain cautious because there are still more than four months until the presidential election in November and nearly seven months until Trump might leave office in January. Trump still has many more opportunities to do extreme damage to America, and past performance indicates a strong likelihood that he will in fact make many such attempts and that some of them will be successful.
Over the past four years, America has suffered assault after assault on basic human rights, the freedom of the press, the “rule of law,” and core constitutional principles and democratic processes that seem unparalleled at least since the days of America’s struggle with McCarthyism and the civil rights movement. In the midst of it all, I’ve often watched, with some degree of sadness, as some people within my social network have failed to use their voices to object to these steps backwards, while at the same time often speaking out to support “law and order,” white privilege and America’s drift towards fascism.
LAW & ORDER!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 24, 2020
(“Law and order” is what is used by authoritarians to maintain order by applying rules and laws, when they choose to, primarily to suppress the voices and actions of those who do not support them. “Rule of law,” on the other hand, is the democratic principle of applying justice equally regardless of whether one is black, white or brown; rich or poor; Christian or Muslim or Jewish or atheist; a friend of those in power or someone who protests those who are in power.)
So on Father’s Day, the morning after Trump’s rally in Tulsa, I opened up Facebook to find a public posting from an acquaintance that caused me to cringe. The post was well-intentioned, wishing people a Happy Father’s day and longing for a greater sense of community in America. But at the same time, it was also subtly misleading, mired in white privilege, and rather tone-deaf to the significance of this moment in history. It well illustrates the difficulties we all face in moving America back to a path supporting equality and democratic principles.
The poster first lamented the life situation of a friend living in Venezuela. He then went on to mischaracterize the issues and struggles faced by those in Venezuela, as a country “torn apart from the inside.” Venezuela is actually a country that has been torn apart not from within but from the illicit and corrupt misconduct of those in power. Venezuela is where it is today because it is further along the very same path of government corruption and authoritarianism that the United States has been pursuing for the past three and a half years.
The difference here is crucial. When someone says that a country is being torn apart from within, they are implying that giving control and authority to the common people is what is causing its demise. That is the same kind of reasoning that has historically been used in America to deny rights to blacks, women, poor people and other minority groups. There was a time in America that the principles of justice and equality only applied to white male land owners. America has, quite imperfectly, made steady progress in moving towards a society where equality applies to all regardless of financial status, race, creed, color, gender, or sexual orientation. The events of the past weeks, including both the peaceful protests and the Supreme Court decisions, have moved America further towards the ideal of a society in which all people are entitled to equal justice.
The poster then went on to express his belief that what America needs to become better is “more community.” Our country doesn’t actually seem to lack a sense of community. America has strong communities. Some of our communities don’t look anything like a stereotypical white-privileged community, but that makes them no less valid. Community ties in particular are what have enabled many minorities to persevere in the face of systemic racism.
A sense of community can sometimes even become too strong — some Americans are consumed by a strong and cultish mindset that leaves them living in an alternative reality detached from the empirical world. When a sense of community becomes so strong that millions of people start acting like cult members, it is grossly unhealthy and the survival of the society becomes problematic. It is one of the greatest challenges that America faces today.
What America does lack, what it has lost over the last fifty years, is a populace that is broadly educated enough for many individuals to comprehend and respect the difference between science and political ideology, or to understand the importance of the democratic principles upon which America was founded, and has historically striven to achieve. Much of America now seems to support the very same principles (nationalism rather than patriotism, disdain for human rights, control of mass media, minority and immigrant blaming, rampant corruption and cronyism, disdain for intellectuals and the arts, voter suppression) that many of our fathers and grandfathers once fought to defeat during WWII. Much of America has lost any sense of respect, morality and decency.
Much of America praises a leader who engages in textbook criminal, racist, abusive and psychologically disturbed behaviors on a flagrant and daily basis, and is unable to recognize how abnormal and extraordinarily dangerous it is. And because it is so blatant and obvious, we know that those individuals who embrace such things must also live their personal lives with a similar amoral code and lack of decency.
The poster then went on to express his belief that from his childhood until three months ago, America has been making considerable progress. Possibly true in some areas, but clearly false in many others. Fifty years ago America stood as a beacon of the free world, embracing intelligence, education, technology and science. Today it surely does not, and it isn’t because of what has happened over the past three months.
Fifty years ago America seemed determined to strive for equality and fight against racism. We have appeared to be making incremental progress since then, but the last four years have shown us vividly how oblivious many of us were to how much progress we still need to achieve. Only in the last three months have we seen a determination by large numbers of Americans to change the status quo and to start making strides forward again.
The poster then went on to lament America over the past three months being a place of burning, looting, rioting, George Washington statues being torn down, wrongful deaths, the viral pandemic and crazy political stunts.
These things are all, to some extent, true, but when stated in this fashion, it surely isn’t the whole truth and it seems to really mischaracterize where America is right now. At a time in which millions in our country are intent upon coming together through peaceful means to improve America, a personal choice was made by the poster to try to change the conversation and focus first on the very few criminals and haters who have tried to take advantage of the situation by creating mayhem.
Under the circumstances surrounding the injustices of their deaths, the families of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks could have spoken out seeking revenge and retribution against a broken system under which blacks in America have suffered for hundreds of years. The legacy of the mistreatment of blacks in America includes a history of slavery, lynchings, discrimination and being subject to rampant police bias. But rather than call for destruction, both of the victims’ families have spoken with great restraint, calling for change to come through the rule of law and peaceful protest. It has been a beautiful thing to watch a mass outpouring of hundreds of thousands of Americans peacefully take to the streets in support of constructive change.
It is unfortunate to see a George Washington statue torn down, because while he was a flawed man and a slave owner, George Washington stood for something positive — the idea that America could exist as a democracy of equals rather than an autocracy led by a ruling class. But this statement lacks context and displays bias by focusing solely on outrage over a George Washington statue being removed while failing to give appropriate praise for the many more statues that were torn down because they expressly and intentionally commemorated traitors who had betrayed America while fighting to continue black slavery. Those statues had served the express purpose of intimidating black people and reminding them of their second-class place in southern society.
Finally, the poster concluded by lamenting that there was much to not like about America right now and that it was very disappointing to see how we have taken many steps backward over the past three months.
And there is indeed a lot to not like about America right now. But it is for the most part a direct and inevitable repercussion of decisions Americans have made over the past fifty years (See my earlier column: The Day We Reached for the Stars and Acted With Decency), and most especially over the past four years.
On the whole, much of what has happened over the past 90 days has served to expose our flaws and motivate many to improve our country, and that is a very positive thing indeed. COVID-19 has given us (well, at least those of us who survive the pandemic) an exceptional opportunity to pause our busy lives and reflect on how we can make them better and more fulfilling. As Julio Vincent Gambuto notes in Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting: “This is our chance to define a new version of normal, a rare and truly sacred (yes, sacred) opportunity to get rid of the bullshit and to only bring back what works for us, what makes our lives richer, what makes our kids happier, what makes us truly proud.”
Over the past 90 days, so many Americans, white, black, and brown, have woken up to strive to end systemic racism and white privilege in America. It clearly makes some people uncomfortable, but it is hard for me to see it as anything other than a wonderful development. I hope we will continue to see more people strive to use their voice to become part of the solution, rather than to continue to deny and deflect from the problem.
The tragic deaths of so many from COVID-19 that have occurred so far are horrific, even more so because we know that so many of them could have been avoided… and that so many more deaths are still to come given America’s lack of resolve to address the crisis in a scientifically prudent manner. We see other countries that have taken a far more constructive approach with much success, so we know it is feasible.
But on the positive side, many have awoken to realize that science trumps ideology when trying to combat a virus. Many have come to realize the price of putting extraordinary incompetence and corruption into a position of government leadership. It is a lesson paid for with the lives of more than 120,000 Americans thus far, and hundreds of thousands more likely to come, and it is hard to conceive of how anyone with empathy for fellow human beings would be likely to repeat such a mistake again anytime soon.
Political writer David Frum is fond of saying, “When this is all over, nobody will admit to ever having supported it.” If Trump’s prospects for re-election continue to dwindle, expect to see more diversion and gaslighting and more calls from those who have championed divisiveness for all of us to “come together.” Those who are truly willing to use their voices and actions to effect positive change should be welcomed and encouraged to join in being a part of the solution, regardless of their past. But also recognize that often these calls for togetherness are thinly-veiled attempts to maintain a white privilege status quo and silence those working to effect positive change. As I’ve stated before (See my earlier column: Speak Truth To Power)… “Kumbaya” will not fix it. “Thoughts and prayers” will not fix it. “Let’s all come together” as a community will not fix it… unless it is a community that acknowledges our problems and works to address them.
New Biden slogan for 2020: "Make America Part of the First World Again" https://t.co/xtiu7LEOaE
— David Frum (@davidfrum) June 23, 2020
America was once the world leader in science, education, technology, democracy and the quest for equality. But America today is justifiably seen by much of the rest of the world as having a culture supporting racism, white privilege, corruption, fascism and the glorification of stupidity and ignorance.
Sometimes they laugh at us. Sometimes they pity us. And sometimes, they cry for us. But they can’t fix us.
Only you and I have the power to do that for ourselves, if we choose to.