Story by Pete Shaw
A year ago, almost exactly to the minute of my typing this, I came home from the gym and said to my better 99%, “Do you think I am smart if I say I should not be going to the gym anymore?” While lifting weights, I had noticed on one of the televisions that the then-novel coronavirus was apparently not respecting national borders, and it seemed clear it was going to be a problem.
“No,” she replied, “but that is, shockingly enough, a good idea.”
Two days prior, Republican president Donald Trump had told the country everything was “very well under control.” And if anytime an authority figure states things are under control it sets my brow into a skeptical, worried furrow, then when such a demonstrably stupid and foolish authority figure states things are under control, and for his usual good measure throws in inflating additives, I act accordingly.
On February 28, the first US case of The Virus was confirmed, just up the road in Seattle. I began wearing a mask when outside of my house to protect others and myself. My spirit had hopes this would only last a few weeks, even allowing for the possibility of my usual St. Patrick’s Day party. My mind, however, vibrated negative, and soon it became clear that between the cruel, jabbering dupe in the White House, and far more importantly, him being just the latest in a line of both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations that for decades has overseen the dismantling of the nation’s public health system and national public infrastructure in general, greater vigilance for both self and community was in order.
Now one year and over 500,000 US deaths later, the sun rises and sets at the same time and place, but the world in many ways is not just different, as I would expect in any case, but tangibly seems so. The past year has for many people exposed, and for others further opened, cracks in a society that has been fracturing for a long time. Those fissures were firmly exploited by Donald Trump, but they are the products of a capitalist system that values private profits over people, and in the United States has done so since July 4, 1776.
In a former life, I was a history teacher. I often noted to my students that from its inception, the ruling class in the United States has had a commitment to keeping the people below it in ignorance, something that is probably true for any ruling class. As a result, we now live in a culture where people carry around their own facts, cannot distinguish fact from opinion, and rather than glean information from learned experts, eschew using their minds and instead put their faith in hucksters such as Donald Trump or the recently deceased Rush Limbaugh.
After a short spell, when Trump got tired of Dr. Anthony Fauci or other virologists, pathologists, or doctors of associated specialties hogging the microphone, Trump began showcasing his stupidity that a good number of people took as gospel. It was alarming, to put it mildly, when a few months into the pandemic Trump tossed out the idea of taking hydroxychloroquine or ingesting bleach as a possible cure for The Virus. And it was horrifying, both from an intellectual and a human perspective, that some people believed him. Following his advice regarding bleach, calls spiked to poison control centers from people who had done as suggested.
My better 99% is a pediatrician and an internist. She was both alarmed and insulted by how useless and potentially harmful those sessions were. Here was a man bragging–lying–as cases and deaths continued rising, about how so many doctors were amazed by how much he knew about viruses. A man who had never gone to medical school, and who likely never cracked a biology textbook.
On most occasions, he refused to wear a mask. He refused to mandate wearing masks. He made a show of flaunting social distancing guidelines. No surprise there. He is a selfish man, the distilled essence of a capitalist system that holds that value in the highest esteem. When he returned to the White House after contracting The Virus, he apparently had plans to open his dress shirt, revealing underneath it an undershirt with a large “S” emblazoned on it. The reference would have been to Superman, but those concerned with accuracy would have discerned it as meaning Shithead.
If we lived in a civilized society, he would be taken to a mental hospital for observation. But instead he was elected president, running for a second term, and millions were following his cues. Wearing masks, they said, was an impingement upon their freedom and liberty and constitutional rights and whatever other nifty sounding words they could string together while waving US, Gadsden, Trump, or Confederate battle flags. Over the past year, it was largely hard to find anything more ironic than people with such obviously colonized minds proclaiming their refusal to be shackled.
Then came January 6 and Trump inciting a mob to storm the Capitol building, trying to overturn the results of the November election he lost and was desperately trying to steal–claiming it had been stolen from him–largely to avoid possibly going to jail for years of financial misdeeds. That gave us the interesting sight of a building that is a monument to white supremacy, built by enslaved Africans on Anacostan, Nacotchtank, and Piscataway land, being stormed by white supremacists who were running amok both inside and outside of the building.
Almost none of the events of that day astonished me. Trump inciting the crowd to riot, the crowd rioting, police being involved with the rioting, many of the rioters having murderous intent, and most of them treated with kid gloves, a far cry from how those demanding recognition of the dignity of Black lives were so often violently handled–it all seemed an exhibition of whiteness and whitelash, if the sort that is not usually on display all in one place for public consumption.
That much of this was apparently inspired by QAnon, the conspiracy theory whose humble and stupid beginnings started in a basement of a pizzeria where supposedly a satan worshipping child sex ring was operating, also was not revelatory. Trump, of course, was going to put a stop to this trafficking and whatever other manner of conspiracy was soon spread and subsequently gobbled up by a large and growing pack of rubes. After all, who better to curtail such a squalid thing than an apparent serial assaulter of women?
No, that also did not surprise me. Nor for that matter did the thousands of QAnon supporters who actually believed that in an addendum to the assault on the Capitol, Trump would come riding in on a white horse on January 20, just before Joseph Biden was sworn in as president, and have him, Kamala Harris, and everyone else who was in on It–child sex traffickers to election stealers–arrested and taken to the gulag, or perhaps executed. Their shock that this did not happen, some of which played out on Twitter in a manner that was both hilarious and pathetic, made sense. For four years they had been fed a steady diet of bullshit, and now their bodies had completely adapted to it, becoming obligate consumers, unable to digest anything else.
However, what did surprise me was that seemingly none of the people involved in that attack on the Capitol thought they would be held accountable for their actions. As my Friend Jim said, it was like these people did their thing and then said, “Okay guys, I gotta run. I got some spreadsheets to work on before heading to the office tomorrow.”
I have been to my share of rallies and demonstrations. I have been physically attacked by police, had concussion grenades explode in close proximity and rattle my brain, and heard pepper balls whiz by. None of those surprised me for the simple reason that I have never attended any such event without considering the possibility that I would be held accountable for violating The Rules. I don’t expect it, but I always remind myself that it might happen.
None of those events have ever involved anything so grandiose as assaulting the Capitol. The closest I have ever come to that was parading through City Hall, chanting, demanding the City council vote a certain direction on some issue. We were in and we were out. Certainly, nobody stole a lectern or wiped their shit on the walls.
For the life of me I cannot figure how so many of these folks apparently felt they would not get in trouble. The many accounts of them in shock at being put on a no-fly list or arrested at their homes remains baffling to me. I am not sure I will ever understand it. Maybe the greatest example of white privilege is being able to establish your own reality where you rarely have to deal with the consequences of it being untethered from the real world. In what world can you attack the, so to speak, second most powerful building in the world, and expect no reprisals?
And so, five people died because Trump refused to accept the results of an election in which he got beaten like a gong, an election he should never have lost, and one he never would have lost had he taken The Virus even half-seriously. And even so, he garnered a huge number of votes. The man basically advertised, “Vote for me. 400,000 people died on my watch. More people will die, perhaps you, but rest assured, I won’t care. I will golf and write things on Twitter.” And still he garnered 47% of the popular vote.
Even after saying nearly all Mexicans were rapists and drug dealers, mocking a person with a disability, banning Muslims from entering the country, putting children in cages, claiming there were good people on both sides when fascists held a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, opposing the removal of Confederate symbols, telling the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” and otherwise catering to every base and vile–deplorable–negation of human qualities, over 74 million people voted for him.
Or perhaps because.
And now, here we are, about five weeks into the Biden Administration, one year after I went into something of a lockdown. Covid-19 numbers are down, vaccines are rolling out, and there is something refreshing about an administration that will at least in some instances abide by the recommendations of experts.
There have been changes, although many appear to be window dressing. His proposed cabinet is being touted as the most diverse in history, which surely is something, but as far as I can tell–and as much as I would expect–this is not an administration, steeped as Biden is in neoliberal economic policy, that will truly challenge capitalism and all its attendant bigotries that have brought us to this point. Materially, it seems Biden is content to take things back to where the Obama Administration left off, and indeed he has backed off some of the progressive promises he made during his campaign.
As well, none of this is unexpected. In fact, I find myself surprised that Biden has taken a few genuinely progressive steps. For example, the immigration plan he is apparently putting forth, while far from truly just and liberatory–it does nothing to address the US policies that compel people to migrate from their homes–is again, something. And it is something because so many Latinx folks organized, organized, and organized, with the result being that they played a decisive role in putting Arizona and Nevada’s electoral votes in Biden’s column. As well, Latinx organizing (along with the tremendous organizing of Black led grassroots groups) helped deliver both Georgia’s electoral votes to Biden, and the two Senate seats in that state to the Democrats, giving them razor thin control of that body. In short, Biden and the Democratic Party owe them.
Biden’s proposal will need to pass both houses of Congress. That will not be easy, and we should not forget that as president, Biden has vast powers that can shape immigration reform and migrant justice, but we must make him willing to use them. The Constitution is a conservative, byzantine document. The largely white, land-owning, enslaved-African-holding men who drew it up so that its own class interests would be attended to–a small segment of the population–meant for change to be difficult. Those who wish to work within the system by influencing the Democratic Party from within should understand that.
They should also understand that voting without organizing is a devil’s gift. It may feel good, but it does little more than change the actors in an ongoing production that long ago led to, as Martin Luther King had it, the United States being the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.
I have long held that the main problem many people had with Trump was that he had poor manners. When one is engaging in imperialist and colonial projects, and supporting the domestic terrorism of police as they uphold and enforce capitalist white supremacy within the country, one should comport oneself with refinement, even sophistication.
We can do better. We must do better.
As always, the real solutions lie in organizing.