I think I’m experiencing democracy grief, and this issue is real.
Seeing what Trump is doing to America, I and many find it hard to fight off despair.
The despair felt by climate scientists and environmentalists watching helplessly as something precious and irreplaceable is destroyed is sometimes described as “climate grief.” Those who pay close attention to the ecological calamity that civilization is inflicting upon itself frequently describe feelings of rage, anxiety and bottomless loss, all of which are amplified by the right’s willful denial. The young activist Greta Thunberg, Time magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year, has described falling into a deep depression after grasping the ramifications of climate change and the utter refusal of people in power to rise to the occasion: “If burning fossil fuels was so bad that it threatened our very existence, how could we just continue like before?”
Lately, I think I’m experiencing democracy grief. For anyone who was, like me, born after the civil rights movement finally made democracy in America real, liberal democracy has always been part of the climate, as easy to take for granted as clean air or the changing of the seasons. When I contemplate the sort of illiberal oligarchy that would await my children should Donald Trump win another term, the scale of the loss feels so vast that I can barely process it.
After Trump’s election, a number of historians and political scientists rushed out with books explaining, as one title put it, “How Democracies Die.” In the years since, it’s breathtaking how much is dead already. Though the president will almost certainly be impeached for extorting Ukraine to aid his re-election, he is equally certain to be acquitted in the Senate, a tacit confirmation that he is, indeed, above the law. His attorney general is a shameless partisan enforcer. Professional civil servants are purged, replaced by apparatchiks. The courts are filling up with young, hard-right ideologues. One recently confirmed judge, 40-year-old Steven Menashi, has written approvingly of ethnonationalism.
“How Democracies Die,” Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard describe how, in failing democracies, “the referees of the democratic game were brought over to the government’s side, providing the incumbent with both a shield against constitutional challenges and a powerful — and ‘legal’ — weapon with which to assault its opponents.” This is happening before our eyes.
The entire Trump presidency has been marked, for many of us who are part of the plurality that despises it, by anxiety and anger. But lately I’ve noticed, and not just in myself, a demoralizing degree of fear, even depression. ..
Kimberly Grocher, a psychotherapist who works in both New York and South Florida, and whose clients are primarily women of color, told me that during her sessions, the political situation “is always in the room. It’s always in the room.” Trump, she said, has made bigotry more open and acceptable, something her patients feel in their daily lives. “When you’re dealing with people of color’s mental health, systemic racism is a big part of that,” she said.
In April 2017, I traveled to suburban Atlanta to cover the special election in the Sixth Congressional District. Meeting women there who had been shocked by Trump’s election into ceaseless political action made me optimistic for the first time that year. These women were ultimately the reason that the district, once represented by Newt Gingrich, is now represented by a Democrat, Lucy McBath. Recently, I got back in touch with a woman I’d met there, an army veteran and mother of three named Katie Landsman. She was in a dark place.
It’s like watching someone you love die of a wasting disease,” she said, speaking of our country. “Each day, you still have that little hope no matter what happens, you’re always going to have that little hope that everything’s going to turn out O.K., but every day it seems like we get hit by something else.” Some mornings, she said, it’s hard to get out of bed. “It doesn’t feel like depression,” she said. “It really does feel more like grief.”
Obviously, this is hardly the first time that America has failed to live up to its ideals. But the ideals themselves used to be a nearly universal lodestar. The civil rights movement, and freedom movements that came after it, succeeded because the country could be shamed by the distance between its democratic promises and its reality. That is no longer true….
Trump’s political movement is pro-authoritarian and pro-oligarch. It has no interest in preserving pluralism, free and fair elections or any version of the rule of law that applies to the powerful as well as the powerless. It’s contemptuous of the notion of America as a lofty idea rather than a blood-and-soil nation. Russia, which has long wanted to prove that liberal democracy is a hypocritical sham, is the natural friend of the Trumpist Republican Party….
The nemeses of the Trumpist movement are liberals — in both the classical and American sense of the world — not America’s traditional geopolitical foes. This is something new in our lifetime. Despite right-wing persecution fantasies about Barack Obama, we’ve never before had a president who treats half the country like enemies, subjecting them to an unending barrage of dehumanization and hostile propaganda. Opponents in a liberal political system share at least some overlapping language. They have some shared values to orient debates. With those things gone, words lose their meaning and political exchange becomes impossible and irrelevant.
Thus we have a total breakdown in epistemological solidarity. In the impeachment committee hearings, Republicans insist with straight faces that Trump was deeply concerned about corruption in Ukraine. Republican senators like Ted Cruz of Texas, who is smart enough to know better, repeat Russian propaganda accusing Ukraine of interfering in the 2016 election. The Department of Justice’s inspector general’s report refutes years of Republican deep state conspiracy theories about an F.B.I. plot to subvert Trump’s campaign, and it makes no difference whatsoever to the promoters of those theories, who pronounce themselves totally vindicated.
To those who recognize the Trump administration’s official lies as such, the scale of dishonesty can be destabilizing. It’s a psychic tax on the population, who must parse an avalanche of untruths to understand current events. “What’s going on in the government is so extreme, that people who have no history of overwhelming psychological trauma still feel crazed by this,” said Stephanie Engel, a psychiatrist in Cambridge, Mass., who said Trump comes up “very frequently” in her sessions.
Like several therapists I spoke to, Engel said she’s had to rethink how she practices, because she has no clinical distance from the things that are terrifying her patients. “If we continue to present a facade — that we know how to manage this ourselves, and we’re not worried about our grandchildren, or we’re not worried about how we’re going to live our lives if he wins the next election — we’re not doing our patients a service,” she said.This kind of political suffering is uncomfortable to write about, because liberal misery is the raison d’être of the MAGA movement. When Trumpists mock their enemies for being “triggered,” it’s just a quasi-adult version of the playground bully’s jeer: “What are you going to do, cry?” Anyone who has ever been bullied knows how important it is, at that moment, to choke back tears….
But despair is worth discussing, because it’s something that organizers and Democratic candidates should be addressing head on. Left to fester, it can lead to apathy and withdrawal. Channeled properly, it can fuel an uprising. I was relieved to hear that despite her sometimes overwhelming sense of civic sadness, Landsman’s activism hasn’t let up. She’s been spending a bit less than 20 hours a week on political organizing, and expects to go back to 40 or more after the holidays. “The only other option is to quit and accept it, and I’m not ready to go there yet,” she said. Democracy grief isn’t like regular grief. Acceptance isn’t how you move on from it. Acceptance is itself a kind of death.
That’s Biden’s central message and the core, urgent issue of our time …
the moral unfitness of Donald Trump to be president of the United States.
A really unexpected thing happened to me this week. I felt a slight but measurable twinge of hope. For the first time, I heard a speech that, while measured and well-balanced, homed in relentlessly — and with passion and authority — on the core moral unfitness of Donald Trump to be president of the United States. Joe Biden’s Iowa address, of August 9th. of this year, finally did what needs to be done, said what needs ti be said:: Leaving questions of policy aside for a moment, it framed next year’s presidential and congressional campaigns as a battle for the soul of America.
Trump’s inability to grasp this country as an idea ultimately beyond race and territory and religion, his despicable moral character and incendiary rhetoric, and his constant threats to Constitutional order and civil peace render him unfit for the office he holds. That’s Biden’s central message and the core, urgent issue of our time — because it relates to all the others: the costs and insecurity of health care, the intensifying climate crisis, the crumbling of liberal democracy in the West, the corruption of the American right, the rise of white supremacist terror, and the pressures of absorbing the biggest wave of immigration in a century, and, in absolute numbers, the biggest wave in American history. With Trump reelected, all of this gets fathomlessly worse. With him gone, there’s a chance to recover. But while he’s there, the danger never ends.
The speech should reassure people — as it reassured me — that the Democratic primary base is not wrong or cowardly or sexist for consistently putting Biden at the top of their preferences. These rank-and-file voters want to defeat Trump and think they’ve found the best candidate for the job available. And if Biden can sustain both his focus and the powerful argument he laid out this week, he may well prove them right.
This is not to say that Biden isn’t showing some signs of aging. He was composed, but he does appear a little frail; there were times his speech seemed a little slurred, and he had several minor slipups. This is not to fault him: At 76, he has enviable sharpness and physical fitness. But at 76, there are limits. And somehow, at 73, Trump’s psychological sickness gives him an edge: a gob-smacking drive to keep going and going and going, with no signs of flagging at all, and many signs of mania. Who in their 70s is crazy enough to keep up? Even as he claimed he was seeking healing and unity this week, Trump was still tweeting insults, filming a shameless campaign video, and comparing crowd sizes with Beto O’Rourke’s. The sheer sociopathic narcissism in the face of such grief and trauma beggars belief. But it sure makes Trump seem younger than he is.
But I don’t think Biden’s age matters that much, or that “Sleepy Joe” is an apposite nickname. In fact, his age and political longevity help him deliver the moral case against Trump more convincingly. Yes, I know that smart analysts insist that the election will be won on policy issues, like health care, jobs, or immigration — and that most voters are bored by the tweet-driven drama Trump revels in. Ignore the wannabe Caesar, we’re told, and you can beat him on policy grounds. Attack his record, not his depraved and corrosive threat to our entire constitutional system. Remember how the Dems won the midterms, that’s how you do it. Offer tangible policy contrasts: a public option in Obamacare as opposed to abolishing it altogether; a program for green investment against Trump’s burn-the-planet-down swagger; taking back the super-wealthy’s tax breaks and redirecting the money to the middle class, so far as possible; restoring America’s traditional alliances, rather than tearing them up. You know the drill.
And I certainly don’t think you should ignore policy contrasts. I’d make health-care security a central message. If I were Biden, I’d also defend and embrace Obama’s record on immigration enforcement without the slightest apology — and ridicule Trump for letting illegal immigration soar under his watch. I’d also emphasize how I had shifted on trade, and how acutely I was hearing the concerns of the white working class in the Rust Belt.
But avoiding the lardaceous orange elephant in the room seems like a defensive dodge to me. It gives the impression of weakness. It cedes too much to Trump and normalizes him. It is not the relentless, epiphanous stare-down of Trump that a successful 2020 opponent needs to muster, and that so much of the country is yearning for. And it misses what is in fact the central issue in 2020: the unique danger this bitter bigot poses to this country’s liberal democracy and civil peace.
Next year will not be a midterm election, after all. It will be a referendum on Trump — as it has to be, and as Trump will insist it be. And so the central task of the Democratic candidate will be not just to explain how dangerous Trump’s rhetoric and behavior is, but how un-American it is, and how a second term could leave behind an unutterably altered America. One term and the stain, however dark, might fade in time. Two terms and it marks us forever.
Biden made this moral case. And he did it with feeling, and a wounded sense of patriotism. He invoked previous presidents, including Republicans, who knew how insidiously evil white supremacy is and wouldn’t give any quarter to it. He reminded us that in politics, words are acts, and they have consequences when uttered by a national leader: “The words of a president … can move markets. They can send our brave men and women to war. They can bring peace. They can calm a nation in turmoil. They can console and confront and comfort in times of tragedy … They can appeal to the better angels of our nature. But they can also unleash the deepest, darkest forces in this nation.” And this, Biden argues, is what Trump has done: tap that dark psychic force, in an act of malignant and nihilist narcissism.
Yes, Biden powerfully argued that Trump was an enabler of “white supremacy” in the sense understood by most people, and not the absurdly broad, new left definition that counts as a white supremacist nearly everyone not actively virtue-signaling on left Twitter. But he went further and explained why America, at its best, is an inversion of that twisted racial identitarianism: “What this president doesn’t understand is that unlike every other nation on earth, we’re unable to define what constitutes ‘American’ by religion, by ethnicity, or by tribe; you can’t do it. America is an idea. An idea stronger than any army, bigger than any ocean, more powerful than any dictator or tyrant. It gives hope to the most desperate people on earth.” Hope, one might add, that has been deeply qualified by this president’s outspoken fondness for dictators like Kim Jong-un.
And although some of this might once have seemed like pabulum, in the Trump era, it comes off as fresh. There was even a nice line designed to get under Trump’s skin, ridiculing the listless condemnation of white supremacy Trump recited in the wake of the El Paso massacre: that “low-energy, vacant-eyed mouthing of the words written for him condemning white supremacists this week.” That’s a poignantly wrought description of that sighing, sniffing, singsongy voice that Trump uses when he’s saying something his heart isn’t into.
And more importantly, Biden was able to express all this with authority. The speech was a defense of American decency against an indecent commander-in-chief — and it echoed loudly because Biden is, so evidently, a decent human. I’ve never been a huge fan of the logorrheic, egotistical grandstanding Biden sometimes engages in; I don’t agree with him on some issues; his treatment of Anita Hill was disgracefully off-key. But I have never doubted Biden’s core decency. Maybe I have a soft spot for a well-meaning Irish-uncle type. But for 25 minutes or so this week, I felt as if I were living in America again, the America I love and chose to live in, a deeply flawed America, to be sure, marked forever by slavery’s stain, and racism’s endurance, but an America that, at its heart, is a decent country, full of decent people.
This is not all Biden needs to say or do. He needs to do much more to prove that he understands why Trump was elected in the first place. He has to recast the Democrats as the tough but humane enforcers of immigration laws, and not the party of open borders, and he has to find a way to boost African-American enthusiasm and turnout. But decency is the heart of his candidacy. And voting for Joe Biden feels like voting for some things we’ve lost and have one last chance to regain. Normalcy, generosity, civility, experience — and a reminder that, in this current darkness, Trump does not define America. “Everyone knows who Donald Trump is,” Biden concluded. “We need to show them who we are. We choose hope over fear. Science over fiction. Unity over division. And, yes — truth over lies.”