When I was in high school, we studied the novel by South African author Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country. There is much that can be said about the book, but there are two things that I distinctly recall about it. I remember that the novel, written while South Africa was still under apartheid rule, was heartbreakingly sad. And I remember what my English teacher declared to be the theme of the book and so important that she demanded we memorize it:
“Deep down, the fear of a man who lives in a world not made for him, whose own world is slipping away, dying, being destroyed, beyond any recall.”
More than 40 years after I read that book, that haunting sentence has stuck with me. In fact, at a class reunion a few years back, it turned out that it had stuck with several of my classmates, who could still recite this sentence word for word. I wonder if they are thinking of it today as they watch the news.
The turn toward authoritarianism
I've thought of that sentence over the past few years as I've watched my country move ever closer to authoritarianism. While weeks of protests against police violence raged — protests that themselves included too many instances of police violence to list — President Donald Trump urged governors to get even tougher with protesters. In reference to Minnesota, where one of the most egregious acts of police aggression resulting in the murder of an African American man sparked the protests, Trump said, it was “so bad a few nights ago that the people wouldn’t have minded an occupying force. … I wish we had an occupying force in there.”
Then, after he was mocked on social media for hiding in a White House bunker and taunted with the hashtag #BunkerBoy, Trump had the National Guard use teargas to clear peaceful protesters from outside the White House so he could walk across the street for a photo op in front of a boarded-up church.
Trump, the draft-dodger-turned-reality-show-president, has been itching to be a real-life strongman, to talk tougher and look tougher than anyone else, whether or not he has the legal authority to do what his tyrant’s heart desires. He admires dictators like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un and seems jealous of their unchecked powers. Trump has snubbed his nose at Congress’s constitutionally determined oversight responsibilities, and at his rallies he has encouraged police to use the kind of aggressive restraint tactics that are a mainstay in autocratic countries but at least officially illegal here. In this reality show, it seems Putin and Kim are the leaders and Trump is the apprentice trying to curry favor.
COVID makes a bad situation worse
The pandemic, which the Trump administration has bungled so badly by downplaying the danger and the necessity for simple interventions like wearing masks, has served to further expose the corruption and ineptitude of the people in charge.
We've seen U.S. senators use their early briefings on the coming pandemic to enrich their stock portfolios while telling their constituents that there was nothing to be all that concerned about.
We heard Trump claim that the virus would just disappear one day "like a miracle" — meanwhile more than 300,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and it is projected that that number will be closer to half a million by March 1, 2021.
It was inevitable that the pandemic was going to be bad and that many would die. But it was not inevitable that so many would die. That was the direct result of an administration that put unqualified political appointees in charge of the nation's public health, leading to failures to provide adequate testing for months and to direct honest and apolitical messaging that would have saved lives. Instead, Trump and his cronies talked about hoaxes and bogus medical treatments, ignoring the need for frank warnings of the danger at hand.
Waiting for cavalry to arrive
For months, the country waited for Election Day to offer a remedy, and ultimately, painfully, it did. But now as we live through the countdown to Inauguration Day, we are watching Trump work every day to break down the democratic institutions that stitch the country together. He has launched dozens of lawsuits challenging the integrity of the election, almost every one of which has been dismissed or denied by the courts, often by Trump-appointed judges. Trump loyalists in Congress are threatening to challenge the vote of the Electoral College and there are reports that Trump has actually discussed simply refusing to vacate the White House come January 20, 2021.
The full effects of these misdeeds can't be completely calculated just yet, but one thing is clear — Trump has succeeded in convincing most of his followers that he actually won the election and that he is being cheated out of his victory. The danger this places the country in is hard to fathom.
America feels like a giant powder keg. Credible threats of violence have been made against elected officials and those who serve to conduct our elections. It's possible that the combination of election anxiety, pandemic exhaustion, and racial tension has lit a fuse that cannot be put out.
If that fuse burns down to the point of ignition, I’m not sure what will be left. I have no doubt that Trump will try to use this situation to deconstruct our democracy more and more, breaking down the institutions and norms that held us together for nearly 250 years. It has been a shock to learn how delicate that structure was all along, how much it has depended all this time (with very mixed results) on the basic decency of a select group of white men — because, of course, women and minorities had largely been kept out of it. It turns out that the bedrock I’d been led to believe our democracy was built on was actually more like marshmallow fluff.
Democracy on fire
At the time I read Cry, the Beloved Country in high school, America was still reeling from Watergate, the resignation of Richard Nixon, and the stain of having had a deeply corrupt regime helm the country. It was notable, though, that in the end, with much pain and anger, the system worked, at least enough to force the removal of the deceitful, insecure racist at the top. I was a teenager then and perhaps I was naive, but it never occurred to me that in my lifetime we would have another even more crooked leader — one that the system does not seem capable of dealing with.
That is why I find myself thinking of that sentence I learned so long ago, because our country now may be slipping away, dying, being destroyed, beyond any recall.
I keep thinking about a Facebook comment one of my high school friends made on election night 2016 — one of those same friends who studied Cry, the Beloved Country with me all those years ago. That night, that sad, shocking night when so many of us were reeling in fear for what the next few years might hold, she wrote:
“I honestly thought better of us.”
I want to think better of us again. But first, we have to be better and demand better for our fellow countrymen and women, regardless of skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or country of birth.
We need to stop pretending this is a meritocracy as long as the top positions in our country are filled by the sons and daughters of the barons of finance and industry, whose paths have been gilded by generations of family largesse.
We need to stop looking the other way when abuse in any form happens — first, because it should never be tolerated in a free society, and second, because today’s witness may easily become tomorrow’s victim. Bullies are always on the lookout for more prey.
We need to rescue what is left of our democracy and cradle it like it’s a baby tossed from a burning building.
Our country is indeed on fire. It’s time for every one of us to decide if we want to be on the side of the man with the matches or the side of the fire brigade. And we have to decide before our country slips away any further.