On June 13, 2016–right in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections in American history–“an American-born man who’d pledged allegiance to ISIS gunned down 49 people…at a gay nightclub in Orlando.” The Pulse Nightclub shooting was, at the time, “the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11.” (It was in short order overtaken by a mass shooting in Las Vegas, in which 59 people died and over 500 were injured.) Later that day I wrote an essay titled On Orlando, Politics, and the Ugly State of America, in which I noted how quickly many of us had politized the tragedy:
“I imagine that I was not the only Democrat who found him or herself saying Please, please don’t let this be Islamic terrorism. The reason is obvious, but no less disturbing and disconnected from the awfulness of the event: it would have been bad for Hillary Clinton if the attacker had been Muslim and good for Donald Trump.” I went on to bemoan the fact that “we are always taking in the news and looking for ways to use it to win. Victory seems to be the goal; victory at all costs; victory as a means to the end of more victory.”
The past three-and-a-half years of the Trump presidency have radicalized me. While I was complaining that the American electorate is more focused on winning than being morally right, the Republican Party, which has always shared the twisted, despicable, anti-poor, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim views of Donald J. Trump, has ramned its agenda down the throats of the nation and the world. While I once whined that “nothing good comes of our politicizing everything in the news if we don’t strive to be good people ourselves,” the Republicans have had no qualms about cutting taxes for the rich; slashing consumer protections; installing over 193 right-wing Article III judges (including two Justices of the Supreme Court); turning a blind eye to Trump’s mind-boggling corruption and endless lies, including acquitting him in a sham impeachment trial; attempting to get rid of Obamacare with no plan for a replacement, while also gutting the law; preventing the passage of sensible gun reform; and allowing an abhorrent immigration policy, led by Stephen Miller, a white nationalist, to cage immigrant children and terrorize immigrant communities. Republicans now control the Senate, the White House, the federal judiciary, and 52% of governorships.
Republicans are winning and Democrats, despite their rectitude and erudition, are losing. The result is that climate change rages on, as does mass incarceration, income inequality, and all manner of inequities. The administration’s despicably incompetent response to the COVID-19 crisis, which has shut down the American economy and put millions out of work, is the latest example of why winning is imperative: we cannot put into place moral public policy if we don’t control the levers of power. So whereas in the summer of 2016 I cautioned against using tragedy to score political points, I now see an ethical imperative to do so.
Can we for a moment doubt that were a Democrat in the White House, the Republicans would be excoriating them for the crisis–running attack ads, distorting the truth, whipping up their base? Of course not. (Fortunately, I am finally seeing Democrats do some of that, but for the next year we should hear nothing but COVID-19, COVID-19, COVID-19 the way Republicans talked about Benghazi or emails for years, and still do.) The Right will use anything, no matter how false or immoral or exaggerated, to gain power, including extremist propaganda like “Pizzagate” or birtherism. They lie, cheat, steal: if it helps them win, they’ll embrace racist dog-whistles or tepidly disavow the “alt-right.” On March 11, I posted the following on Facebook in reference to COVID-19:
“I’m already hearing Democrats make anodyne statements about how this isn’t the time to play politics and how we need to come together. Bullshit. Everything is politics. If we don’t leverage this moment to extract things like paid sick leave, then we lose–AGAIN. If we want to help workers and families, we have to win. To win we must play politics more ruthlessly than the other side. Otherwise–and this is what I think will happen–we’ll end up with a payroll tax cut that won’t help the underlying problem and that will also help Trump and balloon the deficit. Don’t fall for it: the Republicans ARE playing politics with this, but to help their electoral chances.”
Saul Alinsky, the famous / infamous organizer, had a lot to say about people who try to take the high road. In his book Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, he wrote, “The means-and-ends moralists, constantly obsessed with the ethics of the means used by the Have-Nots against the Haves, should search themselves as to their real political position…Their fears of action drive them to refuge in an ethics so divorced from the politics of life that it can apply only to angels, not to men. The standards of judgment must be rooted in the whys and wherefores of life as it is lived, the world as it is, not our wished-for fantasy of the world as it should be.” Similarly, before and during the Civil War abolitionist leaders such as Wendell Phillips (1811-1884) would say “Peace if possible, justice at all costs”: they recognized that the enslaved did not have the luxury of moralizing and hand-wringing.
The natural question, of course, is this: how analogous is the present moment to times such as the Civil war and the rise of fascism? The answer depends on who you are. Victims of gun violence, women stripped of bodily autonomy, immigrants caged and demonized, and those of us who recognize that our futures are being put in jeopardy by climate change are likely to answer in the affirmative: yes, the Trump era poses a grave threat.
I wrote a poem along these lines in August 2019:
Waiting in Line to Donate Blood After a Mass Shooting
This is where we come together,
Not before but after:
The blood already drained, we refill it;
We never lack for blood to give.
It is hot and volunteers bring water,
Or cold and they bring coats.
Amnesiacs improvise memorials,
And even arid soils sprout flowers
Held in vases of denuded blood—
We are generous in our way.
Where else but here and in the armed forces
Does nothing matter—
Not race, not gender, not religion—
Save one’s ability to proffer blood?
Like a hundred-million others, I wait,
Sleeves rolled up bearing veins
Plump like unpicked fruit:
How does so much bounty go to rot
Time after time after time?
The dead and the dying do not care.
Their blood indicts me,
They demand repentance or conviction
As they slip six-feet under an endless land
Whose rulers have never spared
Even 40 acres and a mule…
I go to bed woozy, haunted again by corpses
And by that old abolitionist saying:
“Peace if possible,
Justice at any cost.”
But there’s a problem. Nearly half the population supports and approves of Donald Trump, including the vast majority of Republicans and, I’m sure, a fair number of the people my nonprofit, Capital Good Fund, serves. I therefore feel contempt, disgust, and hatred for about 60 million of my fellow citizens. But is this really surprising? We’re not talking about rational public policy differences on tax rates or regulation, but behavior so egregious and illegal that to countenance it is to absolve oneself of any adherence to the rule of law or a belief in democracy. I can’t love away the fury boiling within me.
What does it mean to hate so many millions of people, especially when your genuine passion is to fight for a better world? What will it look like if we win and progressive policy leads to less poverty, less pollution, less incarceration, and more justice–yet we feel so much animosity towards so many? Martin Luther King, as we’ve heard myriad times, taught that the only way to better the world is to center oneself in love. Unfortunately, his brand of Christian love and charity does not apply to me, an atheist Jew–I don’t believe in any God, let alone in one that calls on me to love my enemies. Nor do many Christians follow the Bible’s exhortations toward universal love, perhaps in part because there are plenty of instances in the Bible where the exhortation is toward violence, but also because Agape requires a level of self-actualization and discipline that is unrealistic for the vast majority of us.
To answer this conundrum–how to want social justice for all while finding abhorrent what so many believe in–we must go back to Saul Alinsky. He argued that these philosophical questions are irrelevant to those for whom the present struggle is one of life-and-death. I could spend my hours in meditation and contemplation, looking to find love and compassion for Trump supporters. I could turn myself into a new-age seeker of Truth and Beauty, burning incense and wearing prayer beads. I could repeat the tired mantra that one should separate hate from those who hold hate in their hearts. But then, while I was following some bastardized, Westernized version of Buddhism, Republicans would continue to shove their evil up my ass, and all I would have learned is to say though I disagree with you, I love you.
Well, I don’t love you. I don’t want to turn the other cheek, to come together in a bipartisan fashion to heal the nation’s wounds. That ship sailed long before Mitch McConnell stole a Supreme Court seat and the Supreme Court stole the 2000 presidential election and Ronald Reagan laughed about the AIDS epidemic and slashed taxes and regulation, ushering in an era of surging inequality and corporate profits. No. If Democrats win the White House in 2020, my expectation is that we prosecute and jail every single one of the corrupt actors who have attempted to destroy our nation the past three years while profiting off their power: the entire Trump family, Congressional leaders like Devin Nunes and Richard Burr, administration officials like Scott Pruitt and Betsy Devos, and others.
Let’s not forget that virtually none of the bankers who brought the world to its knees during and after the financial collapse of 2008 went to jail, despite a mountain of evidence of illegal behavior. This was in part because President Obama chose to move ahead, fearing that it would be harmful and divisive to harp on the past. And what did we get in exchange for that? Financial institutions going right back to doing what they did before and another economic collapse on our hands; people who know that there will be no ramification, financial or legal, for their unlawful behavior, will continue to flout the law.
So yes, I hate Republicans and I care about nothing but winning back power: the White House, the Senate, keeping the House of Representatives, and also winning every governorship, state legislature, city council, and school board in the country. I care about nothing but shoving progressive policy down the pie holes of Republicans; and if they don’t like having health care, good schools, a clean environment, and good public transportation and infrastructure, well then they can feel free to leave for another banana republic.
To the question I’m sure many reading this will raise, yes, many Democrats have been corrupt and immoral. We do not have a stranglehold on righteousness: Bill Clinton was an adulterer, Senator Menendez of New Jersey was admonished by a Senate ethics committee over a cozy relationship with a donor, and Democratic administrations haven’t brought unequivocal goodness to America. Yet I have no patience for the argument that “both sides are just as bad.” Here’s but one example: as it became clear in the summer of 2016 that Russia was meddling in the election, President Obama refrained from speaking out, lest he appear partisan. (According to Joe Biden, Mitch McConnell refused “to sign on to a bipartisan statement of condemnation.” Why? Because it would have hurt Trump’s electoral chances.) Meanwhile, the Republicans have refused to pass Democratic proposals to strengthen the security of our elections, again because it benefits them to making it harder to vote and to allow Russian meddling.
The Trump era has shown that so long as they get their tax cuts, military spending, and some red-meat about abortion and guns and god thrown at their base, Republicans will tolerate anything–anything. Such moral depravity is deserving of my contempt. If I were a saint, perhaps I would devote my energy to love and understanding (or perhaps, being a saint, I wouldn’t need to), but I’m tired of being told that it’s important for me to understand where Trump supporters are coming from, that their economic and other concerns are valid. Nope. What’s valid is the knowledge that he, and they, are destroying the country with lies, corruption, racism, bigotry, and misogyny.
But don’t you run the risk of becoming an extremist, even resorting to violence? Maybe. But remember what Alinsky wrote: “That perennial question, ‘Does the end justify the means?’ is meaningless as it stands; the real and only question regarding the ethics of means and ends is, and always has been, ‘Does this particular end justify this particular means?'” And anyway, for now the means I am proposing is not violence; violence is neither a practical nor effective means for gaining political power, at least not in this moment. (But would I advocate violence if I thought it was the only option, such as under the Nazi regime? Absolutely, and without hesitation–but violence would accomplish nothing in America in 2020). I am advocating that we politicize and weaponize everything that happens between now and the November elections, including the Coronavirus crisis. Political ads must be brutal and unrelenting in their excoriation of the Trump era.
You may recall that Trump went so far as to invite some of Bill Clinton’s accusers to the second presidential debate in October of 2016. A Democrat, similarly positioned, would never do that. Well, why not? Would that have been too “dirty” a tactic if it meant defeating Donald Trump and avoiding this hellscape and slide toward dictatorship? I say, absolutely not. Between now and November, nothing matters more than defeating Trump and Trumpism, which means defeating Republicans up and down the ticket. Don’t forget that Republicans accepted the help of a foreign adversary, Russia–led by a brutal, murderous dictator–because they wanted to win. Are we going to say that, given the same chance, we wouldn’t take it, even if that would make the difference? We no longer have the luxury to feel good about ourselves while pinned to the mat, gasping for air.
Winning in November is the means, and the ends are anything short of violence (and that’s as close to legal as possible) that gets us there. I am opposed to Super PACs, for instance, but if we don’t make use of them now and win, it will be impossible to get rid of them by overturning Citizens United later. This is why I don’t care that Joe Biden, who does not share much of my progressive policy preferences, is the likely nominee; the day after his wins the presidency, I will turn from his greater supporter to the most painful thorn in his side, pushing him to the left. But I can only do that if he is elected. For now, he is my God and I his faithful servant, willing to do anything to get him elected.
It is March of 2020 and there is no hope of coming to an understanding with Republicans. Love won’t win them over, nor will calls to their better angels or promises of cooperation. Which is why I’ll leave love to the meditators, the saints, and the aspiring saints, and why I’ll worry about hate when I’m in a position of power and can afford to unclench my fists.