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In the chaos of this moment, it seems likely that Joe Biden will just squeeze into the presidency and that he’ll certainly win the popular vote, Donald Trump’s Mussolini-like behavior and election night false claim of victory notwithstanding. Somehow, it all brings another moment in my life to mind.
Back in October 2016, my friends and I frequently discussed the challenges progressives would face if the candidate we expected to win actually entered the Oval Office. There were so many issues to worry about back then. The Democratic candidate was an enthusiastic booster of the U.S. armed forces and believed in projecting American power through its military presence around the world. Then there was that long record of promoting harsh sentencing laws and the disturbing talk about “the kinds of kids that are called superpredators — no conscience, no empathy.”
In 2016, the country was already riven by deep economic inequality. While Hillary Clinton promised “good-paying jobs” for those struggling to stay housed and buy food, we didn’t believe it. We’d heard the same promises so many times before, and yet the federal minimum wage was still stuck where it had been ever since 2009, at $7.25 an hour. Would a Clinton presidency really make a difference for working people? Not if we didn’t push her — and hard.
The candidate we were worried about was never Donald Trump, but Hillary Clinton. And the challenge we expected to confront was how to shove that quintessential centrist a few notches to the left. We were strategizing on how we might organize to get a new administration to shift government spending from foreign wars to human needs at home and around the world. We wondered how people in this country might finally secure the “peace dividend” that had been promised to us in the period just after the Cold War, back when her husband Bill became president. In those first (and, as it turned out, only) Clinton years, what we got instead was so-called welfare reform whose consequences are still being felt today, as layoffs drive millions into poverty.
We doubted Hillary Clinton’s commitment to addressing most of our other concerns as well: mass incarceration and police violence, structural racism, economic inequality, and most urgent of all (though some of us were just beginning to realize it), the climate emergency. In fact, nationwide, people like us were preparing to spend a day or two celebrating the election of the first woman president and then get down to work opposing many of her anticipated policies. In the peace and justice movements, in organized labor, in community-based organizations, in the two-year-old Black Lives Mattermovement, people were ready to roll.
And then the unthinkable happened. The woman we might have loved to hate lost that election and the white-supremacist, woman-hating monster we would grow to detest entered the Oval Office.
For the last four years, progressives have been fighting largely to hold onto what we managed to gain during Barack Obama’s presidency: an imperfect healthcare plan that nonetheless insured millions of Americans for the first time; a signature on the Paris climate accord and another on a six-nation agreement to prevent Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons; expanded environmental protections for public lands; the opportunity for recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — DACA — status to keep on working and studying in the U.S.
For those same four years, we’ve been fighting to hold onto our battered capacity for outrage in the face of continual attacks on simple decency and human dignity. There’s no need to recite here the catalogue of horrors Donald Trump and his spineless Republican lackeys visited on this country and the world. Suffice it to say that we’ve been living like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, running as hard as we can just to stand still. That fantasy world’s Red Queen observes to a panting Alice that she must come from
“A slow sort of country! Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
It wasn’t simply the need to run faster than full speed just in order to stay put that made Trump World so much like Looking-Glass Land. It’s that, just as in Lewis Carroll’s fictional world, reality has been turned inside out in the United States. As new Covid-19 infections reached an all-time high of more than 100,000 in a single day and the cumulative death toll surpassed 230,000, the president in the mirror kept insisting that “we’re rounding the corner” (and a surprising number of Americans seemed to believe him). He neglected to mention that, around that very corner, a coronaviral bus is heading straight toward us, accelerating as it comes. In a year when, as NPR reported, “Nearly 1 in 4 households have experienced food insecurity,” Trump just kept bragging about the stock market and reminding Americans of how well their 401k’s were doing — as if most people even had such retirement accounts in the first place.
Trump World, Biden Nation, or Something Better?
After four years of running in place, November 2016 seems like a lifetime ago. The United States of 2020 is a very different place, at once more devastated and more hopeful than at least we were a mere four years ago. On the one hand, pandemic unemployment has hit women, especially women of color, much harder than men, driving millions out of the workforce, many permanently. On the other, we’ve witnessed the birth of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which has provided millions of dollars for working-class women to fight harassment on the job. In a few brief years, physical and psychological attacks on women have ceased to be an accepted norm in the workplace. Harassment certainly continues every day, but the country’s collective view of it has shifted.
Black and Latino communities still face daily confrontations with police forces that act more like occupying armies than public servants. The role of the police as enforcers of white supremacy hasn’t changed in most parts of the country. Nonetheless, the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement and of the hundreds of thousands of people who demonstrated this summer in cities nationwide have changed the conversation about the police in ways no one anticipated four years ago. Suddenly, the mainstream media are talking about more than body cams and sensitivity training. In June 2020, the New York Times ran an op-ed entitled, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” by Miramne Kaba, an organizer working against the criminalization of people of color. Such a thing was unthinkable four years ago.
In the Trumpian pandemic moment, gun purchases have soared in a country that already topped the world by far in armed citizens. And yet young people — often led by young women — have roused themselves to passionate and organized action to get guns off the streets of Trump Land. After a gunman shot up Emma Gonzalez’s school in Parkland, Florida, she famously announced, “We call BS” on the claims of adults who insisted that changing the gun laws was unnecessary and impossible. She led the March for Our Lives, which brought millions onto the streets in this country to denounce politicians’ inaction on gun violence.
While Donald Trump took the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish environmental activist, crossed the Atlantic in a carbon-neutral sailing vessel to address the United Nations, demanding of the adult world “How dare you” leave it to your children to save an increasingly warming planet:
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
“How dare you?” is a question I ask myself every time, as a teacher, I face a classroom of college students who, each semester, seem both more anxious about the future and more determined to make it better than the present.
Public attention is a strange beast. Communities of color have known for endless years that the police can kill them with impunity, and it’s not as if people haven’t been saying so for decades. But when such incidents made it into the largely white mainstream media, they were routinely treated as isolated events — the actions of a few bad apples — and never as evidence of a systemic problem. Suddenly, in May 2020, with the release of a hideous video of George Floyd’s eight-minute murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota, systematic police violence against Blacks became a legitimate topic of mainstream discussion.
The young have been at the forefront of the response to Floyd’s murder and the demands for systemic change that have followed. This June in my city of San Francisco, where police have killed at least five unarmed people of color in the last few years, high school students planned and led tens of thousands of protesters in a peaceful march against police violence.
Now that the election season has reached its drawn-out crescendo, there is so much work ahead of us. With the pandemic spreading out of control, it’s time to begin demanding concerted federal action, even from this most malevolent president in history. There’s no waiting for Inauguration Day, no matter who takes the oath of office on January 20th. Many thousands more will die before then.
And isn’t it time to turn our attention to the millions who have lost their jobs and face the possibility of losing their housing, too, as emergency anti-eviction decrees expire? Isn’t it time for a genuine congressional response to hunger, not by shoring up emergency food distribution systems like food pantries, but by putting dollars in the hands of desperate Americans so they can buy their own food? Congress must also act on the housing emergency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Temporary Halt in Residential Evictions To Prevent the Further Spread of Covid-19” only lasts until December 31st and it doesn’t cover tenants who don’t have a lease or written rental agreement. It’s crucial, even with Donald Trump still in the White House as the year begins, that it be extended in both time and scope. And now Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has said that he won’t even entertain a new stimulus bill until January.
Another crucial subject that needs attention is pushing Congress to increase federal funding to state and local governments, which so often are major economic drivers for their regions. The Trump administration and McConnell not only abandoned states and cities, leaving them to confront the pandemic on their own just as a deep recession drastically reduced tax revenues, but — in true looking-glass fashion — treated their genuine and desperate calls for help as mere Democratic Party campaign rhetoric.
“In Short, There Is Still Much to Do”
My favorite scene in Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic 1966 film The Battle of Algiers takes place at night on a rooftop in the Arab quarter of that city. Ali La Pointe, a passionate recruit to the cause of the National Liberation Front (NLF), which is fighting to throw the French colonizers out of Algeria, is speaking with Ben M’Hidi, a high-ranking NLF official. Ali is unhappy that the movement has called a general strike in order to demonstrate its power and reach to the United Nations. He resents the seven-day restriction on the use of firearms. “Acts of violence don’t win wars,” Ben M’Hidi tells Ali. “Finally, the people themselves must act.”
For the last four years, Donald Trump has made war on the people of this country and indeed on the people of the entire world. He’s attacked so many of us, from immigrant children at the U.S. border to anyone who tries to breathe in the fire-choked states of California, Oregon, Washington, and most recently Colorado. He’s allowed those 230,000 Americans to die in a pandemic that could have been controlled and thrown millions into poverty, to mention just a few of his “war” crimes. Finally, the people themselves must act.
On that darkened rooftop in an eerie silence, Ben M’Hidi continues his conversation with La Pointe. “You know, Ali,” he says. “It’s hard enough to start a revolution, even harder to sustain it, and hardest of all to win it.” He pauses, then continues, “But it’s only afterwards, once we’ve won, that the real difficulties begin. In short, there is still much to do.”
It’s hard enough to vote out a looking-glass president. But it’s only once we’ve won, whether that’s now or four years from now, that the real work begins. There is, indeed, still much to do.
Rebecca Gordon teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.
Copyright 2020 Rebecca Gordon. First published in TomDispatch. Included in Vox Populi with permission.