Sunday May 31, 2020
It’s as if all of our worst fears about America’s decline have come to pass at once.
The president is past attacking our institutions—he’s now handily dismantling them.
The federal courts are stacked with right-wing ideologues, as is the Justice Department, which now serves to protect the president’s cronies and threaten his opponents under cover of neutral law enforcement.
Traditional media has been significantly displaced and delegitimized. Social media is balkanized and the custodians of those platforms either disclaim the responsibility to act as arbiters of truth, or are so tentative in their efforts to do so that they accomplish little, yet still fan flames of victimization on the political right.
Militarized police incite and exacerbate violence at otherwise largely peaceful protests. There are widespread reports of right-wing agitators looting and instigating confrontations with cops at those same protests, deliberately generating viral images of arson and violence, which they then attribute to protestors standing up for justice and equality.
Our current president is some sick combination of Marie Antoinette and George Wallace, who takes his cues, directly or indirectly, from the former KBG officer cackling in the Kremlin. He blithely uses his Twitter feed to incite violence and spread conspiracy theories that further erode the foundations of our democracy.
All this has unfolded against the backdrop of a lethal pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans in three months—nearly all outside of the myriad rural communities that still treat COVID-19 as a hoax. These communities may soon learn the hard way that shortages of hospital beds, ventilators, and PPE in their regions can spell death sentences for them or the people they love.
We are in the early stages of the worst economic crisis at least since the Great Depression and abjectly lack national leadership. One in four Americans has filed for unemployment since March. That’s 40 million Americans in under 90 days. Many of those Americans line up for food and medical care in droves, and await desperately needed financial help that often arrives too late, if it arrives at all.
We have withdrawn from the World Health Organization, the G-7 is collapsing, and we are threatening to abandon NATO. The world does not look to the United States for leadership. With every passing day, our friends have fewer reasons to stand by us. The alliances that have defined global order for three-quarters of a century are disintegrating right now—and America is sidelined.
The U.S. Senate convenes not to pass lifesaving legislation to help besieged Americans, but to ram lifetime judicial appointees, many of whom refuse to say whether Brown v. Board of Education was correctly decided, through the confirmation process. These ideologues are not satisfied with turning back the clock just a bit—they see a chance to roll back the centuries on workers’ rights, environmental regulation, and women’s bodily autonomy.
The number of national public figures who maintain the trust of both hardcore Trump supporters and average moderate Americans is near zero. (Can you name any? Dwayne Johnson? Ellen?) Those who might fit that bill risk their status as neutral arbiters of truth if they speak up. And so far, precious few have been willing to take that risk. We have no accepted moral or political leaders, even as we perish for a lack of leadership.
There is only one thing to do.
Win in November. Resoundingly. Run the table of states in play. Take every possible Senate seat—including long-shots in South Carolina, Iowa, Georgia, and Kentucky. Increase margins in the House. Weather the storm and somehow make it to January (with Ruth Bader Ginsburg still alive) while there’s still some hope of reunifying the nation. It feels like we have to throw a perfect Hail Mary while pulling an inside straight with a tornado whirling, a hurricane wailing, and an earthquake rattling. But there is no other way.
It borders on insanity, but even as we are consumed with fire in our streets and the death at our doors, we need to think coolly and strategically about the November election hurtling toward us even as we tend to the overwhelming daily crises at hand. Though we are depleted and worried and spread thin, every one of us must do what we can, every day between now and November, to register voters, protect their franchise, and do everything possible to guarantee their votes are counted fairly. There is a vast, organized, well-funded machinery working all day every day to ensure that none of these things happen.
That means we have to take meaningful steps every single day. Yes, to respond to today’s tragedies but also to fight for an election that may seem a hundred years away. Because while this election may feel both far-off and also like something mechanical that will simply take care of itself, it is actually neither. This election will shape the outcome of every crisis that follows, along with the ones we are living through today. And that means we must fight for this election, just as we fight to get through the stomach-churning strife in our daily lives. Every single one of us needs to work two jobs now. This is it. Let’s fucking go.
Dahlia Lithwick covers the courts for Slate.
Jeff Berman is a former public defender, former chief counsel to Senator Chuck Schumer, and current entrepreneur, activist, and advocate.