Last night my wife and I were lying in bed. Then one of us said, “What if we lose?” I don’t even remember which of us it was, that’s how totally panic immediately overwhelmed both of us.
Call it liberal bedwetting; being afraid, unable to maintain our emotional hull-structures and psychological balance. Of course, it is all of that. Our internal shields collapsed. Not just waking up in the middle of the night thinking about how bad Trump and the Republicans are and have been. (That’s been a norm for four years, never being able to “normalize” the actions of this ruling class.) But feeling like we were staring in the face of something bigger. And personal. Something like … our faith in America — our mealy-mouthed, privileged, naïve liberal conviction that the country would get better, erratically and only through fighting, but in some way that felt nevertheless reliable. I have always assumed that while the arc of history is long and hard and fraught, that in the end it really will arc toward justice. This was probably always foolish, but I felt it. The most pressing questions about progress always seemed to be when? and how fast? and over what obstacles? Not if.
We are pictures of privilege, of course, and blinkered by it. But for the last few months, indeed the last few years, we also blinkered ourselves, wanting to believe that on some level, even as we tore our hair out about him, that Trump would pass, and that the protests and outrage would come to something. That we could even stomp out Trumpism — a.k.a. nativism — as an acceptable public expression, let alone a governing one. We needed to feel some amount of control — reassuring our panicked friends that the polling was holding steady, playing the voice of reason even over the sound of our own rising internal anxieties. We tried to be cool-headed, thinking despair was a kind of defeat. We learned this in the fight against AIDS. We even found ourselves sounding, sometimes, like professional political commentators, talking strategically about the race as a way of avoiding drowning in its meaning.
But last night I felt an end to all that, and to a deeper way of thinking — my actual foundations of believing, of living, I think. A lifetime of liberal positivity — conducting myself, my politics, and work in such a way that deep down I thought things could be changed and made better. All that feels in the balance, especially now that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died. I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. The mass vigils for her that sprung up almost immediately after the news broke were strange, in their way a secular canonization. But they were also a kind of collective acknowledgement by a nation of frayed liberals that the country they believed in was held together by wire and string and the frail body of a single octogenarian battling pancreatic cancer. That thread snapped.
I know this sounds dramatic, and I hope I look back on it in November and roll my eyes. But I also know that I’ve spent the last few months pretending I didn’t feel this panic, or deemphasizing it. I feel like I am confronting something that I’ve been trying to hold back for a long time. Like the American Pequod and its mad white racism is finally being destroyed by its Moby Dick; that we might be fated to live under a kind of American apartheid by an old, white, Protestant minority; that not just progress but the hope of progress may disappear for many. It’s like the South won the Civil War and its values, ideas, laws, prejudices, and mores are ascendant. If Trump loses in November, it will have been good to have all this dredged up in me and millions of other smug white liberals. But I’m terrified what it will mean if he doesn’t.
Last night, contemplating that future, I wondered about all the political podcasts I listened to, the actions, little resistances, tweets and retweets, “likes,” marches, flash mobs, protests, donations to liberal causes and candidates, community town halls, Facebook screeds, phone calls propping up one another, sharing the latest Republican hypocrisies and corruptions, cheering videos from the Lincoln Project, united in some collective fight and strange new coalition, all the time monitoring microscopic fluctuations in FiveThirtyEight’s “Chance for a Trump Win” and the teeniest change setting off waves of alarm. What was it all for?
I think this panic has been growing in me since the end of the failed impeachment hearings. In this crisis of courage and truth, I never thought Republican senators would impeach their overlord, but I was still glad that the hearings took place. Even as farce, they were still some show of “accountability.” “Our side” putting it in the record, if nothing else. Contemplating all this from my devices, I held out hope, even if it was never delivered. No matter; we all lived to keep fighting. Then came the coronavirus, and Trump’s total failure to even really address it. This was accompanied by ensuing months of witnessing the madness of Trump’s crowds — loving him, refusing to wear masks, certain the pandemic is a “hoax” because he and their right-wing news told them so. Meanwhile “our” media could not convince them otherwise because we are just playing catch-up, trying to just report it, point out every lie and inconsistency and abuse of law, and as a result we “normalized” all of them and him. Or so I fear.
In these fights, power has been all that mattered for Republicans. Might makes right while “our” side seeks to sort out the right from wrong, nuances of untruth and norms being broken. But especially after the death of RBG and the immediate, immense raw power move by Republicans to place a third right-wing justice on the court (in the next 40-plus days), my resolve, camaraderie, and hope felt imperiled, nearly dead.
How do we go on knowing that they will get their way with this? Again. That we can’t stop them, that all the checks put in place to stop this sort of thing are being willfully manipulated by those in power or sidestepped altogether. Knowing, too, that there’s more to come in the next five weeks, that already Trump is exploring ways of ignoring a losing result, that Michigan and Pennsylvania are putting forward laws that will make electorates vote Trump even if their state goes the other way. It’s like a blast-furnace of mendacity and fraud worthy of any so-called banana republic. And it feels like we are almost powerless to operate the levers of government to stop any of this.
After all, a Republican presidential candidate has won the popular vote exactly once in the last 32 years, and yet that party controls the White House and is poised to dominate the Supreme Court. They also control the Senate, despite the fact that Republican senators represent a far smaller share of the nation’s population than do Democratic senators. And we are on the brink of having all of this counter-majoritarian governance locked into place for a generation or more. Democrats are in the pathetic position of hoping — and, yes, fighting and canvassing and donating and phone-banking — for a landslide victory of undeniable scale. We need a historic triumph on Election Night to even trust there will be a quick and peaceful transfer of power — that is how wounded our institutions of government are; how wounded our American positivism has become; how fragile. And though we probably want to dismantle them, too, we are now cast in the role of trying to preserve what’s left of those severely damaged institutions. Republicans and Trump are playing the role of happy pirates, fine with blowing the whole thing up, not legislating, tearing down whatever they don’t like with no thought of what to put in its place. Winning is everything in this zero-sum game.
In my dark state, I fear a Trump win. Or even if he loses, I see Republicanism dismantling the Affordable Care Act, outlawing abortion, and worse. I envision gerrymandering as far as the eye can see into the future, making it all but impossible to ever root any of this out. There’s a good possibility they would overturn even the Voting, Clean Air, and Water Acts. They would certainly make it impossible to ever pass and put into action any kind of a Green New Deal. Gun control? Gone. Every state could be open carry. There could be defend-your-domain laws everywhere. The idea of prison reform will be a thing of the past; police forces will become more militaristic. Our former alliances will collapse as Trumpists continue toadying up to dictators and strongmen. Transgender and gay rights will be rolled back. The still-unpassed Equal Rights Amendment will be scrapped for good. The wall will be built. Republicans will do with taxes what they do. And all the rest. Where once I felt that at least progressives could work to slightly change an already suicidal status quo and help the economy, health care, climate, and equal justice, I now see the politics of the future as deadly.
This political panic is the worst I’ve ever felt. (I was at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and was in the park battling police.) And as a 69-year-old progressive I always saw the Republican Party as an existential threat. Since at least 1988 I saw an almost all-white, Protestant, Evangelical Republican Party. After Reagan and Bush the First came the much worse Bush-Cheney war machine and their destruction of the economy. Trump is only the final arrival of those always-present politics. After acting, pushing back, and raging against this dying party, I feel like I’m drowning. Nothing compares to this.
Of course, I want to believe I’ll gather myself and take to both the social media and the outdoor barricades again. That the fire in me isn’t out; that I won’t leave America; that I’ll remain an activist and an art critic, and keep “searching for the ghost of Tom Joad.” That it will be more like it’s been before, after setbacks and defeats, than we all fear. But I don’t know how much of that is common sense and perspective, and how much is wishful thinking and naïve delusion. Because I really can’t imagine what it would feel like, or what I would do. Right now the panic is hitting me from below; deep down something that’s been there for as long as I can remember feels in terrible jeopardy, like it’s dying, being taken from me — from all of us. For the very first time in my life as a first-generation American born to a Jewish Estonian immigrant who barely escaped Stalin and Hitler and whose entire family was wiped out in WWII, my inner Whitmanesque American philosophy of hope and what all this meant is punctured. I see a putrid nihilism of the right rising. And I fear it is permanent.