State of Disunion

American Democracy Is At Risk, But the People Still Have the Power


The United States is in a dark place, but don’t underestimate our collective force.



It’s Thursday of one of the most brutal weeks in these unrelenting times, and SCOTUS delivered four devastating decisions in a row, punctuating it all with perhaps the greatest kick in the stomach at the end, the announcement of Justice Kennedy’s retirement. He’s hardly Justice Ginsburg, but he’s been a bulwark against the reversal of Roe v. Wade and the swing vote in important gay rights decisions. We knew his retirement was coming, but at this exact moment, it feels practically apocalyptic for the cause of civil rights, workers’ rights, and so much more. And it comes on the heels of two weeks in which Trump’s racism and sociopathology have been so extreme and so grotesque that even the most politically disengaged people seemed driven to the brink of despair.

There’s a lesson to be drawn from this, and believe it or not, it is a hopeful one: More and more of us are fighting.  And we can, and we will, defeat this scourge.

There has been a shift in public opinion, in the media, and even among some individuals in Congress—a broader recognition, at least among those who are not in the Trump cult, that we must bring our collective power to bear and hold this abusive administration in check, to beat back its assault on human dignity and decency. And above all, that we can do so: We have the power, we have the voice, and we will prevail. We are seeing it in the form of contested political races all over the country, in which reliably red seats are going blue or barely hanging on and thrilling candidates like Beto O’Rourke and M.J. Hegar actually have a shot. We saw it at the polls for the Democratic primaries earlier this week, when exciting, progressive candidates won their primaries and newly energized incumbents fought for their seats and realized it’s time to fight harder for us. We see it in in the form of Democratic state attorneys general and activist groups like the ACLU suing the Trump administration to preserve our rights (including 18 attorneys general suing them over family separations), and in the response of the lower federal courts: This week, Trump’s odious policy of separating children at the border from their parents has been enjoined and he must reunite them within 30 days. And the American people are voicing our disgust and our rejection of Trump’s atrocities—in newspapers, on social media, in protests (as we’ll see at the Families Belong Together rallies on Saturday around the country), and at the polls where the call has been made resoundingly clear that Americans want midterms to be a check on Trump. We have the power to fight and to win, if we use it.  It is simply that we must marshall it as perhaps we never have before.  

For months now, we have been ceding that power, or felt it was taken from us. The results have been hideous, culminating, in recent weeks, in the wanton infliction of irreparable trauma on children, which violates international law and may be a form of torture; government actors speaking about and then, inevitably, treating human beings as if they are “vermin,” an infestation to be squashed or exterminated, stripping them of basic dignity and violating their rights, in a twisted and repulsive celebration of power over innocence, brutality over empathy, inhumanity over morality. And that cruelty has been accompanied by the unabashed lies of Trump and Kirstjen Nielsen, and the doubling-down defenses of Jeff Sessions and Corey Lewandowski (“womp, womp”) and the race-baiting of other Trumpists.

And because no one with an ounce of decency can look away from this and live with themselves if they remain idle, people have acted. On a collective scale, people are recognizing the painful wisdom of the adage, that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. We call our representatives; donate money (together, in the millions) to try to help parents find their children through funds for immigration-rights advocates; share our anguish on social media; publicly express our opprobrium to officials responsible for implementing or defending this policy by protesting their presence in Mexican restaurants (as we did with Kirstjen Nielsen and Stephen Miller), and asking them politely to leave restaurants whose workers are the targets of the administration’s bigoted policies (e.g., Sarah Huckabee Sanders).

People took to social media to crowdsource translators to help the parents and child victims of this administration’s policies. Individual citizens are pushing back against illegal racial profiling and demands for papers by ICE agents designed to intimidate and arrest immigrants. And more and more legal advocacy groups have been forming and expanding in the wake of the 2016 election, like Lawyer Moms of America—formed in reaction to the Sessions-Trump policy of stealing children from their parents—and Lawyers for Good Government, a non-profit with tens of thousands of members (of which I am one) that relies on volunteer attorneys across the country, and which immediately partnered with a number of established immigration-rights groups to match volunteers to organizations in need when the separation of children policy became public.

The media spotlight on the horror has, thankfully, been steadily focused on this; not following their usual m.o. and moving quickly onto the next Trump “scandal.” A number of outlets are calling the administration out on its lies, specifically the fact Trump and Sessions inflicted this immigration policy by choice, and on the false claims that this is the fault of Democrats. Commentators have pulled no punches, castigating this policy for the inhumane attack that it is, drawing the obvious parallels to the early days of Hitler, well before the Final Solution, when his demagoguery whipping up fear and hatred of Jews and labeling them “rats” was merely the precursor of the horror to come, and highlighting the direct line between Trump’s racist campaign and the policies of intertwined bigotry and brutality that have followed suit. Others noted its direct line to the treatment of U.S. slaves, which Sessions invoked when he relied on the same biblical language that was used to justify slavery before the Civil War. Nations across the world condemned the United States, and our already-sinking status is globally plummeting even further.

The wall-to-wall negative news coverage and citizen revulsion exacted a toll (including having all four former First Ladies decrying the policy’s inhumanity) and Trump backed down. He issued an executive order halting the policy of separating children from their families at the border. That was a victory, one that came from sustained citizen outrage and action. That victory was ours, and it matters.

It matters because it demonstrates the power of collective action. When we raise our voices, we will be heard. When enough people come to together to show that we will not stand for something and we will not back down, Trump and other officials will be forced to do so. Even those who remind us that Trump was elected on a campaign of zero tolerance and bigotry. Our job is to bring them to the point where they listen and back down—and then vote them out.

I was also heartened to see that, with the exception of Trumpists, the media did not fall for Trump’s attempt to blame the situation on Democrats and did not allow this new executive order to be portrayed as a workable alternative. Almost immediately the flaws in the order, its failure to require or come up with any mechanism for reuniting children with their parents or for tracking the whereabouts of children or for backing off the criminalization of asylum seeking (in violation of international law), and the ways in which the non-separation policy would lead to even more caging of migrants and deportations, was reported. Rather than let the public off the hook with a “mission accomplished” slogan, the media has been shining a light on the abuses within the immigration system that started long before Trump came to office, but that he has added to and made a cornerstone of his “policy.” And people are recoiling in horror, while at the same time, looking for more ways to resist and to help.

At various points since the November 2016 election, I have seen people succumb to real despair. The cruelty and the lies are relentless; the corruption is unending and exhausting and feels insurmountable; abuse piles on abuse; shame on shame. For every victory we have—whether it is stopping the separation of families, or defeating the GOP’s repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or blocking the GOP’s attempt to gut Medicaid and Medicare—the Administration and/or Republicans in Congress reintroduce another stealth bill in order to reject the clearly and plainly expressed will of the people that has been confirmed in poll after poll. It feels overwhelming and exhausting to have to pay attention to so much, to fight all the time. We have jobs and bills to pay and families to care for, and it requires so much sustained effort to fight against what feels like an onslaught from a government that is determined to destroy not only the lives of innocent children, but the entirety of the fraying social safety net in this country.

When resistance fatigue sets in, we must take a little time for self-care, but also recognize that our activism has made a difference and will continue to do so. Do not forget that, because Republicans control the entire government, it is a wonder that we have been able to block a number of their signature priorities. And many of us have never had to truly fight for our rights and decency and values in a meaningful way, so when we find ourselves facing people determined to destroy what matters to us, and in a position of power to do so, we can feel like our fighting is useless. But as we saw this past week, and as we saw in the fight to block repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and in the fight against the Muslim ban, it is not useless. It is everything.

Resistance is tiring. But living our values in a time of moral crisis is also its own form of self-care. It lets us live with ourselves, show our children and our neighbors that we will not give in, that our rights—all of our rights—will not be taken without a fight, and that we will not cede this country to bigotry. We must be as tenacious as are those who seek to inflict harm.

The most vulnerable among us do not have the luxury of turning away in exhaustion or despair, and certainly over the history of this country, civil rights activists and women suffragettes and LGBTQ rights activists did not secure changes in their treatment by succumbing to feelings of hopelessness. They were tenacious, knowing their rights, indeed their lives, were on the line. If these past few weeks have shown us anything, it’s that this administration’s thirst for atrocity is boundless, but that it will back down if we force it to. We must be thirstier, and force them to back down, over and over. There are far more of us than there are of them. Never forget it. Together, we shall overcome.

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