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November 2020 Issue [Easy Chair]

You Say You Want a Revolution

Morality is often reduced to choices, and imperfect choices at that. This is the human condition; to accept it and do the best we can is a brave thing, and often the only way to avoid tragedy.

Many on the left say they cannot bring themselves to vote for a candidate or a party they blame for making the rise of Donald Trump possible in the first place. I understand this argument, and I acknowledge the shortcomings of the Democratic candidate: his years spent carrying water for Wall Street and credit card companies, his past willingness to contemplate cuts to Social Security and Medicare in the interest of balancing the budget, his opposition to busing as a means of integrating schools. I am aware that Joe Biden hails from a Democratic establishment that has consistently refused to push for bold social and economic changes, even when its candidates ran and won on such policies.

Biden was not my first (or even my third) choice for the Democratic nomination. I voted for Elizabeth Warren in the primary (and for Bernie Sanders in 2016). Yet Biden won because he was, overwhelmingly, the choice of black Democrats, and I want to honor their judgment, especially because the consequences of another Republican victory will hit them hardest. Putting aside our arrogance for a moment, can we honestly say that Warren or Sanders would have a greater chance of winning, the way this race has turned out?

We have shaped great things with unpromising clay before. Abraham Lincoln was a railroad lawyer who didn’t believe in the full equality of African Americans as late as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, wanted to send freed slaves back to Africa, and wrote, in August 1862, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it.” He supported manifest destiny, in the form of the Transcontinental Railroad and the Homestead Act, and his party included paramilitaries who held torchlight parades in his honor. But former slaves, white and black abolitionists, and others who believed in justice hammered his presidency into a weapon of righteousness.

Theodore Roosevelt was a wealthy imperialist who sang the glories of war and of eugenics. Under his presidency, reform-minded men and women smashed corporate monopolies, won recognition for organized labor, rid their food and drugs of poison, and began the redress of the country’s natural environment. Franklin Roosevelt was a cautious, aristocratic reformer who believed in balanced budgets. Working men and women used his administration to transform the nation and to crush fascism around the world. Lyndon Johnson was a wheeling, dealing Texas crook and a friend to the oilman. With the power of the people at his back, he smashed Jim Crow and cut the poverty rate in half.

The activist Daniel Hunter, writing in the New York Times this summer, told us that while “voting is an honorable act,” it is just one of many tactics that social movements should employ. “Regardless of who wins the election in November,” Hunter concluded, “anyone seeking justice knows there’s an enormous amount of work ahead of us.” That’s certainly true. But there’s a profound difference between leaders who can be pushed—who may even want to be pushed—and those who will push back any way they can. Pushing Joe Biden and the Democratic establishment would be hard work. Trying to push Donald Trump and his personality cult for another four years would be a waking nightmare.

Which comes first, the vote or the movement, has always been a chicken-or-egg proposition, but we need both for real change. Abolitionists were incredibly brave in the years before the Civil War, but they often lived in fear. Their meetings were broken up, their houses looted, their presses smashed; many were beaten and even murdered. Then Lincoln put rifles in the hands of 180,000 black men. The civil-rights movement was made possible by women and men of undaunted courage. But African Americans, sometimes with white allies, had fought back before. They had been killed and jailed, their movements shattered. In the Fifties and Sixties, judges who had been appointed by FDR and Harry Truman—and by the liberal Republicans in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration—upheld their rights. Federal agents and troops dispatched by Ike and JFK and LBJ were sent to secure those rights, however reluctantly. Even Bill Clinton, maddening as his triangulations were, gave us twenty-seven years of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.

The valor of those who have stood up to the police in the streets after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others has been remarkable—and the official response has been inadequate. I still get enraged when I look at a photo a friend sent me of his daughter, a slight woman in her early twenties, with a welt across her face from a New York cop’s nightstick. All of us still get enraged when we see casual, sadistic violence inflicted on peaceful demonstrators by the people who are supposed to be protecting them. But rage is not a strategy, and America will not be transformed, as it has to be, by people in the streets.

Revolutions are inevitable at times, but they usually breed more violence and oppression. It took eighty-two years after the French Revolution for anything resembling a stable republic to establish itself in France. More than a century has passed since the start of epic revolutions in China, Russia, and Turkey, yet their citizens have enjoyed only the briefest glimmers of democracy. The American Revolution is often cited as a rare success, but that ignores our original sin of slavery, which would result in the deaths of 750,000 soldiers in the Civil War and stain our republic in perpetuity.

Do not fool yourself. Reelecting Donald Trump will not lead to a socialist revolution, or a powerful new left-wing party, or a progressive takeover of the Democrats. Trump has given us a very clear picture of what a second term will mean: Hundreds more far-right federal judges, stamping a permanent veto on any liberal legislation for decades to come. Runaway malfeasance and corruption in the executive branch, with pardons for those who stay in his good graces. The gutting of vital safety and environmental regulations, no matter how many people such actions endanger. The continued abandonment of our democratic allies around the world, and Trump’s continued submission to a vicious foreign dictator—an unprecedented act of treason.

We know about Trump’s desire to undo everything accomplished by Barack Obama. But much as Melania Trump blithely dug up the White House Rose Garden, which had been looked after by first ladies for more than a hundred years, her husband has promised to uproot every advance we have made in social justice.

Trump has spoken of suspending payroll taxes not only during the COVID-19 emergency, but permanently—which would terminate Social Security, unemployment, and Medicare. In order to offer up untested cures and vaccines to defeat a pandemic he claims to have already conquered, he has tried to gut the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was established in 1946, and the Food and Drug Administration, which Teddy Roosevelt instituted in 1906.

To suppress the vote, Trump has begun to dismantle the U.S. Postal Service—an agency written into the Constitution—pulling sorting machines out of post offices and mailboxes off of street corners. In a second Trump term, the very sinews of our democracy will be under attack.

He may do, or try to do, things that are painful even to contemplate. Backed by his newly emboldened gun thugs, his police, and his unscrupulous attorney general, Trump will be the bodyguard of white supremacy, one of the few things he seems to genuinely believe in. His hostile position toward Iran and his decision to pull out of our accord with the country are likely to lead to still more blood, perhaps even a “preemptive” nuclear strike—not hard to imagine from a man who has seriously questioned why we don’t use nuclear weapons to fight hurricanes.

We are rapidly running out of time to do anything about climate change, with sizable portions of the western United States and the Amazon burning in the past two years, enormous hurricanes tearing through the Gulf of Mexico, and Greenland’s ice sliding into the sea. Yet Trump has not only ignored the threat but accelerated our environmental degradation, in the name of achieving worldwide “energy dominance” in fossil fuels. He has moved to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, and seeks to authorize drilling in the Arctic Ocean. (Imagine a Deepwater Horizon blowout under the harshest conditions on the planet.) His Environmental Protection Agency, another captive governmental body, has been so zealous in rolling back vital standards that even American automakers and oil companies have been loath to accept his gifts. His actions are needlessly destructive. In a second term, they would likely be even more extreme, and the damage to our environment could be irrevocable.

There is also the threat that Trump poses to reality. His compulsive public lies, now numbering in the tens of thousands, his deliberate use of the Big Lie to flip truth on its head—all of this has a way of running away with itself.

Trump has been calling for Hillary Clinton’s incarceration for four years now. He has accused Obama of breaking the law in “Spygate” and ordered his chief flunky, William Barr, to investigate the investigation of his—Trump’s—own perfidy. To press these lies so far is to risk eventually seeing an American president arrest his political enemies.

Millions of Republican voters now profess to believe in the bizarre conspiracy theory QAnon, which imagines that Trump is locked in combat with the “deep state,” an enormous ring of liberal pedophiles and child-eating cannibals—many of whom, as a disinvited Republican convention speaker tweeted, are Jewish. At least a dozen Republican congressional candidates have expressed support for the theory, and one or two are likely headed to Capitol Hill next year.

How many of them truly believe what they are spewing is impossible to say, but that barely matters. To call someone a molester and cannibal of children is to mark them for death, just as the persecuters of Jews did for centuries in Europe. This is all of a piece with a president who routinely calls Democrats godless (Joe Biden will “hurt the Bible, hurt God”) and newspapers “the enemy of the people.”

We have only one means at hand of stopping Trump, and that is to elect Joe Biden president, to elect a Democratic majority in the House and Senate, and to elect Democrats to as many local positions as we can.

For all the hopes this year, the sense that we could transform our world through a Green New Deal and the defunding of police forces—the fact of the matter is that America has been pulled in the other direction for decades now. While our consciousness has been raised, we on the liberal left have been failing, constantly, to exert our power.

The left now knows better, but the right has done worse, pulling down pillar after pillar of our once-liberal democracy: labor unions, much of the social safety net, crucial environmental regulations, a progressive tax system, a livable minimum wage, affordable housing and health care, free and fair elections. Trump is merely continuing that assault, but he is also a political black hole, pulling light into a place from which it may never emerge. Some, I know, point to shifting demographics as the country’s saving grace, but increasing diversity is far from inevitable. White supremacists in power succeeded in closing the door to most immigration between 1924 and 1965; America’s white population retained its demographic share throughout this period, and the foreign-born population plummeted. Similar legislation could easily pass in a second Trump term.

It is said every year that the upcoming election will be the most important of our lifetime. But this repetition doesn’t discredit the notion. It underscores the urgency of our situation, and the need to take a stand and stop this cynical, soul-devouring, white supremacist regime the only way we can, even with the most imperfect of instruments. We have been losing for a long time. There is no more ground to give.

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