With the end of the year, the arrival of vaccines, the resolution of the election, the devolution of President Trump into a not so private Hellamania, and the full flourishing of the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels like the right time to end this series on the pandemic. The subject matter has turned mushy. I feel like I’m mangling reality. So I call this last entry Pandemic Mangle. If a surprising new development were to pop up—say a coup or martial law or a tripling of the COVID-19 death rate—I could always extend the series on that angle later. But as of today, Pandemic Mangle, yes, Pandemic Angle, no!
Victory over Japan ended World War II on August 15, 1945. Formal surrender papers were signed on September 2nd aboard the USS Missouri. On the 15th (V-J Day), my wife Beverly, aged 8, had five uncles overseas fighting for the United States of America. Four were the Husson Brothers, Sam, Bert, Scott, and Irving. Scott, a Marine, fought down the chain of South Pacific islands occupied by the Japanese. The others fought in Europe, including in the Battle of the Bulge. Irving, the youngest, was wounded twice in different battles. The fifth, Uncle Mike, Aunt Anita’s husband, fought in Italy, was captured, and waited out the war in a prisoner of war camp. All survived. All would be coming home. That’s what V-J day meant to Beverly. There was mass celebration, and dancing in the streets, both in Beverly’s hometown of Manchester, New Hampshire, and in mine, Somerville, Massachusetts, and, of course, everywhere else. A massive weight had been lifted, peace had come, and the nation’s future shone bright before us.
When Joe Biden’s victory over Donald J. Trump was declared on November 7th, memories of V-J Day came to mind. An oppressive weight had lifted; spontaneous happiness burst forth; windows and doors opened wide; flag waving and dancing broke out in the streets. Democracy had prevailed over autocracy. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had won a victory as consequential for the Union as Lincoln’s over McClellan in 1864.
Seventy-four million people voted for Donald J. Trump in the 2020 election. Pundits were aghast at Trump’s impressive numbers and spoke of deep splits and divides in the nation. I’m just relieved he lost. More later on the divide claim.
On the importance of the large number, there may be less than meets the eye:
- A presidential election is a singular political event held once every four years.
- The outcome is usually close.
- This one was not as close as most. Trump got less than 47% of the vote. Biden won handily by 7 million votes. Biden’s 306 electoral votes matched Trump’s landslide definition self-claimed for the outcome of the 2016 election
- The vote mostly measures the relative strength of two political parties. The Republicans did surprisingly well down ballot while losing the presidency.
- Trump blew whatever credibility and general support he had when he refused to concede to the victor. He wouldn’t be able to garner near the same number of votes if the election were held today. Supporters are peeling off like dead dandelion puffballs with every new conspiracy theory, wacky claim, legal ploy, and political trick. You can’t fool people forever!
The grifter has been able to lift more than two-hundred million dollars from supporters’ pockets through post-election emails with messages like this: “I need you now more than ever. . .” “The Recount Results were BOGUS.” The money isn’t going into contesting the election though. That’s the outrageous part. It’s paying off campaign debts, kicking off a new super-PAC, and funneling dollars back to Trump. The fraud seems clearcut, but the legal basis for the scam is reportedly well-covered in the small print.
Longstanding suspicions about President Trump have been definitively confirmed. He is in the game for himself. He can’t admit error or defeat. He doesn’t want to do the actual work of President. He wants the title and the power. He’s completely uninterested in the coronavirus pandemic. He feels no empathy. He will do anything to get his way. He anticipated loss. He developed a plan in advance to reverse the outcome after the loss. He would stage a coup to stay in office if he could. He would trade in democracy for dictatorship.
The nation is fortunate that the election wasn’t close or the outcome in doubt. We dodged a bullet, but just barely, and it’s not over yet.
The “deep divide” seems to be mostly myth. It’s nothing comparable to ‘free choice versus determinism,’ ‘belief in God versus atheism,’ ‘flat-earthers versus globalists,’ or even ‘conservatives versus liberals.’ It’s mostly a split in messaging between electronic communities that hunker around CNN and MSNBC on one side and Fox and the alt-right platforms on the other. It’s a media phenomena.
Look at your family, acquaintances and friends. Each person —phone in hand, and seated before a screen—is tethered to electronic puppeteers in frequently consulted media. This electronic bond is influential in determining political positions. While primary group bonds should be more important, they are not, which explains why the faux divide splits every family in every nook and cranny of the land.
The “content” of the schism changes with the daily news cycle and with the messaging skits of host puppeteers. “Beliefs” emerge out of the ether and change wildly without participants changing sides. It’s a moving fault line of mini-electronic earthquakes. Free traders become supporters of tariffs. Anti-handout apostles take personal handouts from government. Cold war warriors turn into defenders of Russia. Law and order advocates support militias and vigilantes. Licensed automobile drivers become fierce mask resisters. The divide eventually loses all intellectual credibility and turns emotional. Anger, not reason, prevails. We’re witnessing propaganda and cult building in action. Lies and conspiracies are made more efficacious than fact and truth. In pithy “comments” “tweets,” “shares,” and “copy pasta,” powerless respondents react to the messages of “spin” weavers. The fictional fault line is thereby maintained, adjusted, and shored up.
Conversation is the best way to resolve differences and transcend divides. Conversation between equals facilitates understanding, even as diverse viewpoints and real differences are clarified and appreciated. Unfortunately, deliberate thought and respectful conversation is considered too slow and boring for news cycle culture. So it’s discouraged. It isn’t that people can’t talk about their differences. It’s mostly that rapid, snarky emotional expression—the personal “take”—is the form favored on the Internet. Debate and debasement are the norm. There is never time to talk: “don’t go anywhere,” “back in thirty seconds.” Of course, it’s a lie. There is all the time in the world for conversation, especially during a pandemic. We’re in danger of losing the art form of conversation by hustling and harrying ourselves to death.
Of course, real problems and divisions do exist. Inequality, injustice, differential COVID-19 effects, climate change, immigration, refugees, environment degradation, hunger, poverty, unemployment, crime, and business foreclosures. All, and more, are very real. I’m only saying that the reputed “deep divide” between people doesn’t match or address those problems. It is electronic messaging that’s insanely unreal and divisive. We’ve got to talk about it and talk our way through it.
There is another wise step to take. Ask the local librarian for help when you have questions on disputed matters. The citizen is in good position to know what’s true. One doesn’t have to wait to hear what the leader or expert thinks.
Donald J. Trump, the man, doesn’t deserve anyone’s vote. Millions voted for him anyway. Some voted for him as a Republican. Others voted their pocketbook. Others had specific practical reasons; he could deliver something they wanted, lower taxes, a supreme court judge, less regulation. Others liked pieces of his foreign policy; he backs Israel; he’s opposes Iran. He’ll bring troops home. He’ll impose tariffs on China! Most trusted him as a business man and bought into his angles on the economy. Still others liked his religious liberty shtick. The majority, his base, apparently buy into his visceral prejudices against blacks, women, immigrants, and Muslims. I most appreciate the voters who had the decency to hide their shame from pollsters. Shame can keep a person on the trail when conscience fails. The ashamed may act better next time.
Whatever your reasons, Trump voters, I accuse you of three intellectual treasons that allowed you to defile yourselves and sell out democracy. You proved yourselves willing to contemplate sedition.
Fundamental Treason One
The fundamental intellectual treason was to accept the invitation to vote for a man who refused to represent the American people. Trump made clear his intent to represent some, but not all, American citizens. No one should vote for a candidate who excludes you, an American citizen, from representation. But you, the Trump voter, voted for one who excluded me, my family, and millions of others. That’s un-American. Invidious distinctions around “blue state-red state” differences soon followed and dichotomies multiplied into “we-them” contests all across the land. That’s where the rot and the tyranny began.
Fundamental Treason Two
The second intellectual treason was to forsake the concept of representation. Representative government assumes that citizens elect officials from among their own neighbors to represent their interests in legislative bodies and executive offices. Voters have the needs, the problems, the ideas, the power, and pay the bills. Respectful politicians take their guidance from the people and act on their neighbor’s behalf. Ours is supposed to be a government of the people, by the people, for the people.
The representation model is completely incompatible with a cult of personality. Donald Trump was a celebrity and a television star before running for the Presidency. Some voted for him as fans. Others treated him first as their representative and later became fans. The fan base eventually metastasized into a hard core, rally-driven cult of personality. The traditional roles reversed. Representation ended and autocracy began. The cult leader thereafter told his voters what to believe and think. His assertions, along with prodigious help from FOX news, became their truth, his stories their stories, his wishes their marching papers. Citizens turned into followers and then into lemmings.
In the hands of a fabulist like Donald J. Trump a cult of personality is dangerous. Trump is a habitual liar. The Washington Post, who keeps tabs, has identified more than 22,000 untruths over his term of office. He averages about fifty lies a day. Nevertheless, his fans accept the lies as truth, and act confidently upon them. Fact, knowledge, history, science, government, truth, and reality have been the casualties. Millions of Americans don’t seem to know what to believe anymore, or know what is true. COVID-19, pandemic, public health guidelines, climate change, election—all untrue, all hoaxes, all conspiracies. How do we know? Our President said so. When cult members follow, stupidity leads the way.
The surge of COVID-19 in November, reaching daily averages north of 180,000 infections and 2000 deaths, is a direct consequence of accepting Trump’s lies. Our statistics are now the worst in the world. Fan base buy-in on the President’s virus lies and on the “stolen election” caper exhibit mindless conformity, intellectual stupor, moral decay, and failing government.
Fundamental Treason Three
The third fundamental treason is personal and private. The Trump voter forces himself to participate in a self-mortification process by habitually excusing Trump’s atrocious and sometimes criminal behavior. This soul deadening process consists of a pair of mistakes repeated innumerable times. The first is to decide that a deeply discrediting offense isn’t that bad; one can give Trump a pass on “that” this time. The second is to manufacture a rationalization justifying Trump’s conduct and explaining the pass. Self-deception legitimizes and announces moral decadence. Count the offenses! Count the excuses! Look at the coward! View the morass!
In an example from 2016, Trump slams Pope Francis irreverently for suggesting Trump build bridges rather than walls. The Trump voter gives Trump the benefit of the doubt on the grounds that the Pope had criticized Trump first. The cult follower has repeated the sequence hundreds of times since on events such as criticizing gold star mothers, attacking the free press, paying off porn stars, racist remarks, slamming Senator McCain, firing James Comey, siding with Vladimir Putin, Impeachment, firing inspector generals, overlooking Russian bounties, caging children, pardoning Roger Stone, paying personal bills with Trump foundation money, defrauding students of Trump University, gouging the federal treasury for services rendered, campaigning in the Rose Garden, photo oping with a Bible in Lafayette square, etc., all the way to yesterday’s effort to convince Governor Kemp to flip the election in Georgia. Give him a pass, they say. I have my reasons. They’re good enough.
But they’re not good enough. They aren’t even good for their authors, whose conscience is silenced and rational thinking thwarted. Look closely at the Trump voters interviewed regularly on the Internet. Most present themselves as flat-out angry, emotional, and combative for no obvious or stated reason. Most are inarticulate; words fail them; they can’t explain themselves. When words fail, behavior make no sense. Anger and violence is the recourse; that’s all that’s left.
Americans have wondered over recent years whether some kind of civil war is in the works. I don’t know why that should happen, but the passion of rally goers and protesters grows. Armed militia show up more often at government offices and peaceful protests. Plotters are arrested for planning to kidnap the Governor of Michigan. Public Health experts like Dr. Tony Fauci are threatened with violence. White supremacist and Antifa groups face off.
The big civil war of the 1860s is what continues. The secessionist states never decried slavery or admitted defeat. Freedom and voting rights for blacks were rolled back and replaced by the “black codes” and Jim Crow. The plantation master’s concept of freedom is still asserted and resonates with white alpha males throughout the land. The chant, “Make America Great Again,” is a call for a return of white supremacy. A second civil war isn’t imminent, but the original civil war continues. That is why Trump and tribe are willing to secede from our democracy and form a dictatorship. Trump is white supremacy’s last best chance. If Trump loses and exits, a diverse, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation is confirmed.
Minds are fecund! One idea leads to another. When I was reviewing my thoughts on the Trump vote, the dark outline of poor Jefferson Davis came uninvited to mind. There he is before my eyes. Davis, President of the Confederate States, is working for the umpteenth year on his burgeoning, never ending memoir. What had his life been about? What had he done? Why secession? Why war? Why did we fight? Why did our side lose? Did we lose? How do I explain myself to myself? The two tomes eventually summed to about 1500 pages. That is how hard it was for Davis to justify the unjustifiable.
Red State or Blue State, Civil War, then and now? Patriotism or treason? Autocrat or Democrat? American or un-American? Trump or Biden? How difficult is it going to be for us to explain to future generations what sickened us and what we did about it? For instance, how did so many million people con themselves into voting for Donald Trump?
This revisitation of Davis evoked an image of another President, President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, as he received a winding line of ex-confederate soldiers at the White House petitioning him for the restoration of their full rights as citizens. I thought to myself—and don’t minds work in devilish ways—that’s a good idea! I could do something like that with my conversation invitation!
I then thought—minds go on and on this way interrupting sleep—President-Elect Joe Biden seems as wise as Abraham Lincoln and General Grant were at Appomattox Courthouse when they sent the confederate soldiers home one by one with their freedom, horse, and rifle, no recriminations taken. Biden is offering the same comity under the shining banner of unity. He promises to be President of all the people! Red stater, blue stater, cultist, thief, wall builder, rally baller, poser, chief, child snatcher, vote-suppresser, fixer, reef, tax avoider, revenger, liar in chief—all are welcome back to full citizenship, no questions asked, under Joe Biden’s unity banner.
I’d like to sit there at the White House ‘Unity Desk’ welcoming former Trump supporters and everybody else to the people’s house to celebrate their nation. I’d say to them: Hi. Welcome back! Got time to talk? How about a chat in the Rose Garden?
I’ve got the feeling that most Trump voters are going to be pleased with their new president. He’s for them. He’s for us.
For the five days leading up to Thanksgiving Day, 2020, the new case tallies for the United States read 175,538, 151,588, 174,906, 177,103, and 183,553 on the Worldometer website. totaling to 862,688 cases, an average of 172,538 a day, projecting to 1.2 million for the week. The virus is surging everywhere. Naturally, public health officials pleaded with the public to stay home for the holiday. But no go there, travel they did. Approximately four million, nine hundred thousand flew for Thanksgiving. That’s way down from last year but still a lot. As a result, the pandemic is expected to skyrocket into Christmas. The stats for today, December 9, are 226,953 new cases and 3,265 new deaths. That was more deaths than on 9/11.
On Veterans Day, November 11, Kevin Gover, announced the opening of the National Native American Veterans Memorial on the grounds of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. Gover, a Pawnee, is Director of the museum. The memorial honors the long tradition of military service by Native American men and women in U.S. military conflicts going back to the Revolutionary War. Native Americans fought in all of them! A memorial to these heroes is long overdue.
On November 12th, Samuel Alito, Jr., Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, gave the keynote speech to The Federalist Society conference. Mark Joseph Stern, reporting for Slate, described the speech as “a grievance-laden tirade against Democrats, the progressive movement, and the United States’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic. . .(its) targets included COVID-related restrictions, same-sex marriage, abortion, . . ., the contraceptive mandate, LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws, and five sitting Democratic senators.” I found the speech disturbing and depressing. Alito should step down and run for a legislator position. His speech made little sense unless one assumed him to be a wistful, deeply conservative religionist who thinks history is moving in the wrong direction. His major concern seemed to be the loss of religious liberty caused by state measures against Covid-19.
Four men, three Marine veterans and a former male porn star, the leader, were arrested recently on charges of interstate gun-running. The four are members of a neo-Nazi group that had set up a base of operations in Idaho from which to launch attacks on targets such as Black Lives Matter protesters. They intended to assassinate BLM founder Alicia Garza. The group had been caught buying semiautomatic rifles, altering them into automatics, and shipping them from Idaho to an address in North Carolina.
Have you noticed how general support for Black Lives Matter and police reform waned as the election approached? Donald Trump’s law and order pitch seems to have succeeded in bringing “cautious” white voters home? I may have been there in the figurative moment when the last few million white male votes decided for Trump. I was speaking to a white male friend, a fellow Democrat, about the Black Lives Matter protests. He said “I don’t like this talk about defunding the police.” Then, following up, “I worry about the nightly protests and police skirmishes in Portland.” My mind whispered “me too.” That’s the revealing moment. When racism kicks in for white liberals, watch out; tally up a few million votes for Trump! Neither of us had ever been to Portland, Oregon, but we were ever so “worried!”
Harmeet Kaur reports for CNN that indigenous people across the US want their land back and that the movement to do so is gaining momentum. This includes descendants of Native Americans who were there with the Pilgrims for the first Thanksgiving more than four hundred years ago. “We’re kind of stereotyped as the tribes that met the Pilgrims and that’s our whole history, like we ceased to exist in 1621,” said Robert Maxim, a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, “that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
On November 26, the New York Times, reported that the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, decided in favor of religious organizations in New York that claimed to have been targeted by pandemic-related restrictions imposed by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. “Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” said the unsigned opinion granting a stay of the state’s orders. Gosh, is that true? Was Governor Cuomo targeting people for their religion? I thought he was following the science. The assenting Justices might have had the benefit of hearing Justice Alito’s Federalist Society speech.
In Pandemic Jangle, I explained how racism is linked historically to evangelicalism, and how a group of evangelical ministers decided to back President Trump’s election. A prayer group of Evangelical pastors convenes periodically in the oval office for the laying on of hands and to pray for the President. Most of these pastors totally back the false claim that Trump won the election and that it was stolen from him. Please note that God’s power and authority would be on the line in such a fight, and so would Apocalypse, Armageddon,“end times,” and judgment day too. If you believe that Trump’s coming was ordained by God, you’re in an existential pickle. How could he lose? Where do they go from here?
Here’s a disturbing hypothesis about the 2020 election. President Trump’s tragic failure to provide national leadership in fighting the pandemic may have cost him the election—I’m not sure—but his decision to fight for “liberation” against the Blue State governors and insist that they lift restrictions on the economy seems to have drawn votes and cost Democrats in the down ballot races. It’s amazing that the pandemic is surging even as Trump voters deny its existence.
I am ashamed and embarrassed for the mask resisters and the cowardly crowds that stake out the houses of public health officials and threaten them in the cause of liberty. I remember the pride we kids and our parents and neighbors felt in World War II as we collected aluminum foil, cleaned and squashed tin cans, painted the upper half of headlights black, weeded victory gardens, respected curfews, ate recommended liver, rationed food, and supported our heroic troops. Why can’t these people do the same? Have they no idea what price our ancestors paid for their liberty?
Off the Trail
The nation has elected a new President and Vice-President. They take office on January 20, 2021. A vaccine was approved yesterday and vaccinations are to begin soon. This is thrilling and hopeful. Yet, the nation is reeling under the sway of an emotionally disabled man who can’t admit defeat and whose conduct regarding the pandemic is fueling a surge of COVID-19 cases and deaths at levels exceeding daily the attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet, his followers resist cooperating with public health officials and wearing masks. A large minority think victory was stolen from him. It feels like fascism is in the neighborhood, and sedition in the air. His party, morally bankrupt, backs him absolutely. Violence is threatened. While help is on the way in the form of vaccines, these were made possible by an approach to the world, science, that many reject in favor of religious belief and magical fairy tales. Humanity’s finest friend, science, gets little respect.
We are off the trail, temporarily lost. As Ralph Waldo Emerson asked: where do we find ourselves? Perhaps by self-examination and listening better to one another. The lesson of my stories of deep divide, treason, chronic lying, and sedition could be expressed: “know thyself.” Understand others. We are after all not bad people, and, as President Lincoln insisted, we have access within us to “better angels.” We must want to see ourselves clearer, and we can.
I have long prized William Stafford’s wonderful poem and ritual as a mirror and curative. Written decades ago, it directly responds to our current hour. I find the poem prophetic and prescient. If we are to welcome and rejoin conversation once again and make wise use of President Elect Joe Biden’s invitation to unity, what better ritual could we practice then the one Stafford recommends in his poem?
A Ritual to Read to Each Other
William E. Stafford
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
William Stafford, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, 1998.
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year.
Will Callender, Jr. ©
December 12, 2020