It would be inaccurate to call the collective malaise of November 9th a hangover. Much of the United States muddled through the day, fighting a sense of despair a lot more like the aftermath of September 11, 2001 than a long night of drinking. There’s been nothing celebratory about the political atmosphere of 2016, despite the satire of late night television. The stakes have always been astronomically high, and the consequences of the Trump electoral college victory were immediately apparent. Something died on election night.
As with any death, the grieving body politic has engaged in a variety of coping strategies. There’s political in-fighting as fingers are pointed and tempers flare. There are the clinical autopsies of the election as technocrats attempt to parse what went wrong in the polling and in the strategy. There’s a distinct sense of confusion in the news media, who fumbled the coverage of this critical moment in our nation’s history by turning something deadly serious into entertainment. Reality TV meets sports programming. I’m not remotely interested in any of that discourse. I’m interested in characterizing this moment to achieve clarity. Where are we? What are we now faced with? What can we do about it? What is our moral obligation to civil society?
I’d like to make perfectly clear that I admire both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for being gracious in their recognition of the electoral college outcome. It’s their duty to set an example for the American public that we can maintain our composure as we transition from one legally elected government to another. They are custodians of our system, broken as it is, and it’s incumbent upon them to keep our faith alive even when it’s shaken to the core. This was a legal election, at least on its face. I’ll address that momentarily.
Let’s be clear about what just happened. A person who established his political persona by questioning the legitimacy of the sitting president for the better part of eight years will now sit in his chair. A person who used the loudest racial dogwhistle our politics have seen in more than a generation will dismiss our first African-American president in January and proceed to tear down much of his hard fought progress. I’ll ask you to take a look at this image and consider its use as a weapon against a man of great dignity, who has shown respect for the institution of the presidency. Be clear about what it is.
Barack HUSSEIN Obama, they called him, emphasizing his middle name to cast him as something other than American. His celebration of Kenyan heritage was turned into an internet meme, used to suggest he’s a Muslim, something we may find cause to celebrate if we believe our own American story. Donald Trump rode a political wave of white nationalism to the presidency. He’s George Wallace with a reality TV profile, used to dilute the seriousness of his hateful beliefs. “He tells it like it is,” they say. “He’s just a clown,” they say dismissively.
Clearly, many people failed along the way. The result of this election is a national nightmare and a civil emergency. It’s the outcome of our surrender to a corporate media, a public who have chosen amusement over involvement, and a corrupt political system that feels no urgency to work on behalf of the public. People of all political stripes, including Trump supporters, sense this.
The elected body of the political left has failed us miserably. I won’t litigate policy at the moment, instead emphasizing the tactical and strategic failures that have left us impotent in the face of great moral danger. The right wing has used the letter of the law as an instrument to obstruct and destroy much of the progress we’ve enjoyed over the last century. They’ve had no concern for the spirit of law. They have so little respect for the will of the legally won rights of the American public they use the dark of night to tear at the fabric of the established social contract. Voting rights have been gutted at the state level. The right of a women to choose has been systematically undermined by a series of state and local laws aimed at zoning and building codes. The list is extensive and growing. The sad truth is that they’ve looked us all in the face and laughed at us all the while, knowing that our convictions about fair play would never work. While we demand fair play, they use legal means to subvert the spirit of our social contract. We say, “Hey! Look what they’re doing. That’s not fair,” and they laugh.
Our news media have done little to educate the public about this. Their interest in balance has led them to cover our body politic as though two equal parties are engaged in civic duty, and that all disagreements are simply ideological in nature. They’re not….almost ever. One neutered political party insists on negotiating in good faith, following the rules, while the other sticks in the knife and twists. Why do we allow this to happen?
There have long been committed activists, marching and protesting at every injustice. They scream at the top of their lungs on our behalf, trying to break through the chatter to educate us about our rights and insist on greater action. They have been committed protectors and heroes of civil rights, and most of them have been women and people of color. I should also include the many gay men who suffered great indignity at the hands of the state, fighting for equality under the law and in our cultural family. From the margins of power, they have long shouted a call to action. In many cases they have won. We’re grateful that our society has become fairer and more just over time because suffragettes stood up, because the SCLC took on segregation in the South. We know a lot of their names – Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Harvey Milk, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lewis. We don’t know nearly enough of their names, and we don’t match their love and commitment to protecting what was won by blood and by ballot.
Make no mistake, the civil emergency we now face is real. The election of Donald Trump isn’t an equal and opposite reaction to eight years of Barack Obama, as the “fair and balanced” news establishment likes to frame things. This is the transition from a civil society, governed by an earnest but flawed host of political figures, to a dangerous and destructive demagogue swept into power by a disaffected mob. Every ugly thing aimed at people of good faith during the Obama presidency is now manifest in the machine of American political power from the Oval Office to the Justice Department to the EPA to the State Department and beyond.
The chipping away of civil rights in state legislatures is now boldly empowered by a government wholly controlled not by Republicans, in any real sense, but dangerous autocrats who will strip out every piece of progress achieved over the last century. They’ve longed to do it, to undo the New Deal legacy and the legacy of the Johnson administration, and they will. They talk about taking their country back, and squashing “PC” culture, which is simply code for empowering white people on the backs of everyone else. They connect their political machine to the political machine of the Brexiters in the United Kingdom, who similarly played on nativist mob energy to wrest control. They will continue through France’s body politic and then to Germany. The rise of global white nationalism is a project with real political momentum. The United States is now the most powerful home of that project, and the people brought in by Trump will use the instrument of government to gut the social contract, crush civil rights, and build a wave of white nationalist political power than spans the Atlantic Ocean. Will we wait until it’s too late to act? Will we treat this as politics as usual?
Every great challenge our society has ever faced has required more than the commitment of a few dedicated activists. It requires more than a few patriots to lead the charge. Every challenge won on the behalf of civil society has required the defiant stand that only a united majority of decent people can guarantee. Electoral politics is only one form of democracy. For most of us, sadly, it’s the only form of democracy we practice. Protest is democratic in the greatest sense. Defiance in the face of great evil is a form of spiritual democracy that allows us to stand on high moral ground. This democracy is participatory in nature. It asks us to wake up to the great crises of our times, if not for the workaday business we do. It asks us to engage in civil disobedience to grab hold of the real power in our numbers. Democracy of this sort can’t be ignored or dismissed. It becomes impossible for those invested in the status quo to point at the crowd and emphasize their piercings and colorful hair, characterizing protest as the act of counter culture oddballs. (I love each and every one of them, by the way.) Everyday people rising to the occasion, both colorful in their individual expression and reserved, bend the long arc of the universe back to justice.
This is such a moment. Please don’t wait until it’s too late, until the damage has been done. History has taught us the terrible cost of such inaction. I will stand. I will march. I will be defiant. I will strike, and I hope you will too. Let us remember the power of the Arab Spring. Remember the great risk assumed by committed Egyptians in Tahrir Square. They agreed, en masse, to shut down the country via general strike. They closed Egypt for business in order to fight for their civil rights and for a free and just society. That fight continues in Egypt, across the region, and indeed around the world. This is our time to fight again. It’s our time to remember that freedoms are not free and they require the people of good will and decency to stand together defiantly as a malevolent tide rises in on our horizon. Recognize that this moment in history is already significant and that your early intervention can make all the difference in the world.
My final word is a call to love. Every great American movement of the last century has been fueled by the marriage between defiance and love. First, we must love our own progress. We must love the recognition of human dignity and equality that characterize our greatest achievements. Solidarity based on that love cannot be broken. It’s the source of great courage and resolve. We must also love the humanity of our opponents. We must never paint them as monsters, but recognize them as human beings lashing out from a place of frailty and fear. Our defiance is an act of self-love. Our non-violent commitment is an act of love for humanity, even in the face of its ugliest manifestations. Make no mistake, though, it is our duty to defy the consequences of the election, even as we recognize its legality. The rule of law must always win out, both in letter AND in spirit. At the moment we are the spirit of the law. We are the champions of that spirit, and it’s our duty to protect it at all costs.
In love and defiance.