The last time I was around a large group of people without need of wearing a mask was March 9, 2020, when I gave a talk at Brandeis University. This was just two days before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and four days before then-President Trump declared it a national emergency. News of the crisis had been spreading–the lockdown in Wuhan, China, a cruise ship quarantined off the coast of California–and so I greeted the professor with an elbow bump instead of a handshake; by the time I got home, my hands were dry from so much washing.
Already at this point, three things were eminently clear to me. First, that COVID-19 would disrupt life for months, if not years: killing millions worldwide, infecting tens of millions, and devastating the economy. Second, that Trump’s response to the virus would dramatically exacerbate the situation. And lastly, that his disastrous response would likely lead to his losing the November election. So when I started my talk to about 15 students in a course called Managing the Triple Bottom Line, I was full of competing emotions: the knowledge that we were entering a dark chapter, but also the realization that we might also, as a result, be closing another horrific period–one whose continuation could prove fatal to American democracy.
On balance, however, what I felt was glee. Terrified that Trump was going to be re-elected, there was immense relief in the confidence that one tragedy was likely to erase the far greater horror of another four years of American fascism. And while no one can prove that had it not been for COVID-19, Trump would have won, it certainly did not help his chances. After all, his whole pitch was that he created a fantastic economy; with the unemployment rate in double digits, that argument didn’t hold water, and he simply couldn’t lie or bluster his way through this–although he certainly tried. Of course, defeating Trump in November entailed the extraordinarily hard work of activists nationwide, fighting in the courts, in the streets, and at the ballot box. But at the end of the day, he only lost by a couple hundred thousand votes in a few swing states–Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan. We came extraordinarily close to catastrophe.
The attempted coup on January 6 strengthens my belief that the suffering caused by the pandemic was worth getting rid of Trump, but no one should feel good about the state of American democracy. (To be clear, I supported doing anything and everything to stop the pandemic from day 1, as quickly as possible; I didn’t want a single person to get sick. But outside of wearing a mask encouraging people to follow CDC guidance, and Capital Good Fund providing 1,100 Crisis Relief Loans to people impacted by the crisis, there wasn’t much I could do. My point is that the situation created an issue to be used against Trump to defeat him.) Consider that the former president was just acquitted in his second impeachment trial by a Republican party still beholden to him; over 30 states have immediately begun filing legislation to make it harder to vote; disinformation and white supremacy threaten the fabric of our society; and timid Democrats, if they refuse to eliminate the filibuster, will make it impossible to pass crucial reforms like a new voting rights act, D.C. statehood, climate legislation, and more.
But what perhaps should make us most concerned is the extent to which the Trump era has poisoned all of us, Democrat, Republican, Independent, political junkie, and disinterested citizen alike. My glee that day, which I shared unabashedly with the class (did they think me heartless or share my conflicted delight?) is Exhibit A: in what healthy society do people of goodwill celebrate tragedy because of other tragedies that might be avoided? To be clear, this is not a “both-sides-are-to-blame” argument. On the contrary, it is the Republican Party that allowed, excused, abetted, and benefited from evil; I’m not excusing them. Nevertheless, we have to reckon with the ugliness that has been unleashed in all of us.
This not the first time I’ve written about the way in which those with fascist inclinations bring out the worst in good people. During the 2016 campaign, I bemoaned that my first response to the Pulse nightclub shooting, which killed or wounded over 100 people, was to hope that the shooting could not be ascribed to terrorism, because that would be “bad” for Hillary and “good” for Trump. I wrote then that “I can’t avoid the feeling that we have become an ugly nation.” By that presentation at Brandeis, we had all become ugly people, struggling to tell truth from lies, conflicted about what is good and what is bad, questioning everything and everyone.
There are no easy answers. When one of the two major political parties, and therefore a significant percent of the voting public, traffics in hate, conspiracy theories, and falsehood, it is not possible to negotiate or debate in good faith. As I wrote last week, “The nature of the challenges we face is such that our only course of action is to ram through good public policy that addresses these challenges.” The question is how do we fight, and win, political battles against odious people–battles that require a kind of democratic brutality–without becoming odious ourselves? Having just finished At Canaan’s Edge, the third part of Taylor Branch’s masterful trilogy about “America in the King Years,” notions of love-for-all are top of mind.
While I’m not ready to love or forgive Trump supporters for the horrors they enabled, I’m determined to avoid becoming an angry, cynical, and hateful person, which is something the Trump era came close to doing to me. I don’t know how to steer clear of that path–engaging less on social media seems like a helpful strategy–but I’ll try. I hope to never again have reason to leverage suffering for electoral gain, even if I recognize that, to defeat the far-right, one must be willing to turn anything, even tragedy, into a winning political issue. Such is the nature of American democracy in 2021.