December 3, 2020
One of my children asked me once if people living through the Great Depression understood just how bad their era would look to historians. I answered that, on the whole, I thought not. People are focused on what’s in front of them: finding work, feeding their kids, trying to keep it together, making it through the day. It’s only when historians look back to gauge an era that they put the full picture together.
So for those who cannot see it: we are in one of the most profound crises of American history.
We are in the midst of a vicious pandemic that is killing us at an astounding rate while the administration ignores it or, worse, exacerbates it by encouraging our neighbors to think that wearing masks and social distancing to protect lives is somehow a political statement they must resist. Cases of coronavirus are spiking across the country. Hospitals are overwhelmed and health care workers exhausted. More than 14 million Americans have been infected with the virus and more than 276,000 of us have died of it. Today saw over 211,762 new cases and 2,858 deaths. Tomorrow will likely be worse.
The pandemic has crippled our economy. After a brief recovery this summer, it is faltering again. More than 20 million Americans are receiving some sort of jobless benefits. Pressure is building for some sort of federal aid package to provide relief and stimulate the economy to bridge us over the next months as vaccines are distributed. But until that happens, people need to work to keep food on their tables and a roof over their heads, so they cannot lock down to stop the spread of the disease.
The president of the United States is ignoring the pandemic, instead spending his time fighting against the results of last month’s election. The president’s opponent, Democrat Joe Biden, won the election handily, by close to 7 million votes and by a majority of 306 to 232 in the Electoral College. But Trump, supported by loyalists, continues to insist he has won, even though the states he claims will swing the Electoral College behind him have already certified their votes for Biden.
The attack of a president on the outcome of an election is unprecedented. Four times in American history, a candidate who has won the popular vote has lost in the Electoral College but the loser has bowed to our system, even though, curiously, it has always been a Republican who won under such circumstances and never a Democrat—indeed, Trump won in 2016 under just such a scenario.
In this instance, though, there is no misalignment between the popular vote and the Electoral College. Biden has won both, handily. And yet, the president is actively attacking the results and the underlying democratic system that produced them. His supporters are asking him to declare martial law and seize power, although the military has denounced this idea and those supporting it are making such increasingly wild claims that at some point they simply must fall apart. Indeed, there is reason to believe Trump's claims of fraud are simply a grift: his campaign was effectively broke before the election and he has raised more than $207 million since it. But, money grab or not, this is an unprecedented assault on our democracy.
There are, though, signs that change is in the wind. For all his drama, Trump is losing relevance. Today Congress finalized its draft of the defense authorization bill, and in it members of both parties pushed back on Trump’s demands. They refused to reduce the number of troops in Germany and South Korea, as he announced he would do in what appeared to be an attempt to weaken U.S. ties to Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), our military alliance there. Congress also ignored Trump’s demands to strip technology companies of liability protections (apparently he is angry when insulting names for him trend on Twitter) and his insistence that he would veto any measure that called for renaming military bases currently named for Confederate generals, a plan endorsed by members of both parties.
The measure also more directly rebukes Trump for things he either has already done or hasn’t done and should have. It orders the Secretary of Defense to report on Russian bounties offered to Taliban-linked fighters in Afghanistan for killing U.S. troops, limits how much military funding the president can move to domestic projects—as Trump tried to do for his border wall—and requires that federal law enforcement officers “visibly display” their names and the names of their agency when engaged in public responses. This summer, the officers dispatched to the streets of Washington, D.C., and other cities could not be identified. In another rebuke to the summer’s police violence, the measure also prohibits the Pentagon from handing off bayonets, certain combat vehicles, and weaponized drones to state and local law enforcement.
It is not just Congress that is pushing back on the president. Today the Associated Press broke the story that within the last two weeks, a political operative Trump had installed at the Department of Justice has actually been banned from the building after pressuring staffers to give her information about investigations, including those about the 2020 election. Heidi Stirrup, the appointee, is an ally of Trump adviser Stephen Miller. Today Trump appointed her to the board of visitors of the Air Force Academy. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo notes that it’s unlikely a Trump ally would have been physically removed from the Justice Department in the days before the election turned Trump into a lame duck.
In the first interview President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris have given since the election, aired tonight on CNN, they reiterated their support for all Americans and their determination to combat the coronavirus pandemic, saying they would ask everyone to commit to wearing a mask for the first 100 days of their administration. Harris told journalist Jake Tapper: “There couldn't be a more extreme exercise in stark contrast between the current occupant of the White House and the next occupant of the White House,” and the country will be better for the change, she said.
But it was CNN journalist Don Lemon who summed up this changing moment best. He told Tapper: “[I]t feels like we are watching ... a president-elect and a president who are on Earth One and Earth Two. And at this particular Earth that is in reality, it was very normal, very sedate. And it was welcoming news. It was good to watch. It was good to actually get content. We heard no fake news. We heard no conspiracy theories. We heard no personal grievances. We heard a President-Elect and a vice president who want to work with the other side.”
Your first paragraph really hit home and is related to some of what I have been commenting on (mostly) family posts that support Trump (I cannot fathom how some of the people I have known all of my life have done a 180 in their beliefs - but I digress....). I annotate oral histories for the National World War II Museum in New Orleans (I work full-time for the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, Univ. Tenn., Knoxville. Before this, I worked at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles). This side job doing annotations has made me realize that I knew a lot about the official history of WW2 and the Holocaust, but very little of the personal and social history of the world involved until now.
A line that is often repeated by all regarding the Depression is, "we did not know any better because everyone else was in the same boat."
Changing tack slightly, an "aside" related on MAGA, is that in not one of the interviews I have worked on over the past three years has any veteran called themselves Great or aligned themselves with the Greatest Generation. Some have pointedly talked about how they do not like the description, nor Brokaw's book. The quote that often comes to mind is, "he did not talk to the drafted grunts in the mud, shit, and blood."
Very few of the Holocaust survivors (or internment camp survivors - both Japanese-American and Americans in Japanese internment camps), say they did anything heroic to survive.
In both cases, this is not survivor's guilt but more of an ongoing spiritual reckoning with what they have done with their lives since then (due to their ages in these rather late in life interviews). In my opinion, to the majority, the world was as it was, they did what they did, and often, solely to survive. Most, did carry out many, many acts to help preserve the lives of others (some heroically so) as well, but shy away from being recognized for that.
Sadly, most are frightened by the world they see now and that goes back as far as 2005, which is the earliest dated interview I have worked on so far (most fall between 2003 - 2013; only one has referenced "our Islam [sic] President" ;) ).
Anyway, I digress. I was four years old when Medgar Evers and John Kennedy were killed; 6 for Malcom X; 9 for Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. At nine, I recall my mother and the mothers from my southern neighborhood in Safety Harbor, Florida all watching a train moving slowly on the television. They were all crying. I was told a good man was killed by a bad man. I believe 1968 was a record of some kind for assassinations worldwide? Anyway, all of this had a great impact on me and was the beginning of my realizing there was a world that I knew nothing about.
I have only recently discovered how much my parents did to further civil rights during that period of time. They did not march or protest, but lived life in a way to overcome prejudice. Only now do I realize what that meant for them personally (my mother's family goes back at least five generations in Florida). Like the people in the oral histories I work with, they do not think they did anything special or heroic. But they raised their children to try hard to overcome their leanings of their environment (our county, Pinellas County only desegregated under order from the Supreme Court - I believe in 1971).
I am a late in life father whose son is 10 and lives in New Orleans. He and his peers give me great hope. His mother and I both work very hard to make him as aware of current and past events as he can handle. Maybe that is what we do while we are focusing on our own survival day by day. My parents tried to shield us from the dirt. I really do wish I had known.
I wish I could have told my neighbor up the street how much I admired him for allowing his white sons to play basketball in their driveway with Black sons despite having a cross burned in their front yard (I was 11). He is dead now. I did get to tell his sons.
I wish I could have told one of my few Black teachers in junior high school I was sorry for the innocently told "joke" about him on parent/teacher night that in hindsight was racist although the intention was just the opposite. He is dead now. I did get to apologize to his children.
Okay, I did not intend to go all the way through here! It reminds me again of what a remarkable job you do putting all of this together for us. If only one good thing comes of all of the chaos caused by nearly half of our country, I was introduced to Heather Cox Richardson and have been able to introduce her to many, many people. Thanks!
Professor Richardson, like so many others who are proud to be a part of “Heather’s Herd of Hope”, I want—no, need—to express my thanks for your heroic contributions to the welfare of our great, imperiled nation. You have, over the last 14 months or so, provided a focused, historically founded perspective on our societal condition, and a glimpse of possible future outcomes given the current moral and political climate.
However, the immediate outlook remains grim. The wrecking ball that has been used on our governmental institutions and our social norms over the past four years has, as so many here have observed, been devastating.
The question now is: How do we recover? How can we reconstruct a shattered society?
That is the gauntlet that has been thrown down. That is the stark challenge we face. Do we have the intestinal fortitude needed to create the Reconstruction that our forbears failed to establish following the Civil War?
I think we do; we have no choice. It is our destiny to seize the moment, to link arms and march resolutely into the void and begin to rebuild.
The reality is that we Americans have, over the past 250 years and more, taken up our “tools” and built back whatever has been destroyed...better than before! That is what we are called on to do today. This is the opportunity to create the nation that lives up to its ideals, keeps its word, and is always at the ready to help anyone who needs a hand up.
Yes, it’s going to be a hard slog. Yes, there will be pitfalls and roadblocks at every turn. But we Americans have never been intimidated by seemingly impossible odds or opposition that appeared to be invulnerable. That’s when we’re at our best. That’s when we always show our mettle.
I expect nothing less now that our day has come.