I don’t talk or write about gun violence in America much because, like climate change, I find the subject depressing and the lack of collective action demoralizing. It’s gotten to the point where I have nothing left to say about the issue beyond, “It’s the guns.” Today is the 25th day of 2023 and there have already been 39 mass shootings in this country resulting in 70 dead, 167 injured, and countless traumatized. So, although these recent shootings in particular and mass violence in general aren’t what this post is about, they are weighing on me so I wanted to start with some emergency art.
Before starting grad school, I spent the summer of 1990 in Florence, Italy. After taking a few days to get situated, I got into a routine that lasted for the rest of my stay, unless I was traveling to other parts of the country. After taking classes in the morning, I would stop by the open-air market adjacent to the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, buy a loaf of bread, fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil and then, after hastily assembling a sandwich (how, I don’t remember), I would ride my bike over to the convent of San Marco, to this day one of my favorite places in Italy. There I ate my lunch in the cloisters and then wandered around the halls and library before heading up to the first-floor.
Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, painted in the mid-fifteenth century, is located at the top of the stairs which lead to the 43 monks’ cells, including one that was reserved for Cosimo de Medici and another for Girolamo Savanarola (of the original Bonfire of the Vanities). Each cell contains another Angelico fresco. But The Annunciation is my favorite painting of his. It was created for the express purpose of encouraging contemplation and that’s exactly what it does.
Over the course of the last seven years, I have said the word hate and felt the feeling of it more than in the previous five decades combined. I have, more times than I can count, said “I am so tired of hating people I don’t know.” There is a vast range of human emotion we have access to but the problem isn’t the feelings themselves but either the denial of them or allowing them to take over. Yes, hate is strong word. Feeling hatred is damaging to the person who owns the feeling; it is rarely damaging to the object of it. And it is never damaging to the object who is a total stranger, far removed from the hater’s orbit.
I said recently that I hate Merrick Garland. Do I? The truth is I don’t know Merrick Garland but I do hate what he does—and what he has refused to do. I hate the extent to which he seems not to understand the threats we face, his inability to recognize his responsibility in protecting us against them, American democracy against fascism. I hate his failure to appreciate and use the enormous privilege and power he has been granted to set things right. This abdication of responsibility started with his refusal to follow the very clear blueprint Robert Mueller laid out for the ten charges of obstruction of justice that could have been brought against Donald Trump. The statutes of limitation for almost all of them have now passed.
Seven years of watching the worst among us accrue and abuse power in order to enact policies that unleashed unspeakable cruelty—for which they were rewarded—takes a toll. Mike Pompeo, Stephen Miller, Bill Barr, and Jeff Sessions all escaped without accountability. One of them probably plans to run for president; one is still a political operative with ties to the most powerful people in the Republican Party; one was given the opportunity to go on a rehabilitation tour when his book was published last year. Only Sessions seems to have paid any price but, like so many on the Right, he paid that price because he did the right thing (for once)—in his case by appointing a special counsel to investigate the Trump campaign’s potential ties to Russia instead of sweeping those allegations under the rug as Donald demanded.
Virginia Heffernan, in her excellent newsletter Magic+Loss, recently wrote, “No one could convince me that Trump was just another bad American president, or that his followers were just misguided working-class Joes. . . . I took the other road: the monomaniacal one where literally every day from November 9, 2016, to January 21, 2021, I woke up thinking I have to do everything in my modest non-power to get Trump out of office. I have never sustained so much rage and resisted the habits of irony so fiercely as I did in those years.”
That was the position many of us took. And over the course of those years, during which trauma piled on tragedy, rage became habitual and irony no longer even seemed possible.
It’s safe to say that this country has long been divided but when Donald saw an opening, he exploited and exacerbated our divisions. Division has always been the water in which Donald has swum, in part because it benefits him at the expense of everybody else. But it’s worn us down, changed us even as it leaves him and his followers unaltered, still empowered.
Division has also been a perfect breeding ground for cruelty. And it’s been instructive to see just how many people were willing to join the “Fuck Your Feelings” crowd: Seventy-four million in 2020 up from 62 million in 2016.
In part because of the increasingly stark divide and the almost increasing onslaught of negativity, our ability to be decent and kind has been thwarted, our desire—or even ability—to belong to a broader community without fear has been curtailed.
I acknowledge the negative feelings I sometimes harbor towards those on the other side of the political divide—which far too often have lacked compassion and empathy—and try to justify them, or at least explain them, by saying, “They want me and people like me dead and I just want them to have universal health care, child care, and a living wage.”
It’s hard to understand why someone would choose to withhold kindness even in moments of extreme suffering and when confronted with that willingness it’s hard not to react. It continues to rankle that our need for comfort and reassurance over the last three years was met not just with indifference but with contempt, as if our concerns for ourselves and each other were just another indication of how weak and unworthy we are, as if kindness can be split off from the human experience without diminishing us irrevocably.
We had to confront, as well, the cultivation of a callousness toward anybody who believes differently or thinks differently, which reminded us that, even though it goes underground from time to time, the impulse toward cruelty never completely goes away. Over the course of the last six years, it resurfaced with such force that it would have been destabilizing at the best of times but came at the worst of times: Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote Love in a Time of Cholera. Donald gave us cruelty and division in a time of COVID.
As is often the case we tend to have greater expectations of and feel more negatively about people in a position to do good who then—for reasons of characterological weakness, misguided priorities, or hidden allegiances—fail us. Leaders of the Republican Party like Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Kevin McCarthy, and other fascists like Ron DeSantis, Josh Hawley, and Matt Gaetz (to name only a very few) who have sought to tear us apart, strip away our rights, and empower the white supremacists, misogynists, and anti-Semites cannot demoralize us. We can and should expect nothing but the worst from them. On the contrary, their unmitigated awfulness has actually served to inspire the majority of us who showed up in 2020 and 2022 for the express purpose of snatching democracy from the jaws of autocracy.
Merrick Garland was installed, ostensibly, in part, to restore the reputation of, and the American people’s faith in, the Department of Justice. What he doesn’t seem to get is that by sticking to the old way of doing things he will inevitably weaken the DOJ and thereby risk the future of a dangerously fragile democracy that depends for its survival on the rule of law.
How does failing to use the very institution you’re trying to save, the very purpose of which is to administer justice without fear or favor, achieve the goal of saving that institution? The short answer is that it does not. What makes Garland’s timidity or judiciousness restraint, or whatever you want to call it, unforgiveable is that it is not only the Department of Justice that must be rehabilitated in order for it to be saved—it is American democracy itself.
The DOJ’s choosing not to hold accountable those in whom a great deal of trust and power has been placed turns on its head the whole notion that “with great power comes great responsibility.” In America, that is almost never true and, more consequentially, it is almost in diametric opposition to the truth of how things really work. The more power you have, the fewer consequences you face. Does Merrick Garland understand this? Does the Democratic Party?
As Jonathan V. Last at The Bulwark puts it regarding the Joe Biden and Donald Trump documents cases, “The problem is that a lot of the discussion about this incident boils down to: This is really bad because people are too dishonest or too stupid to grasp the difference between Biden’s documents and Trump’s documents.” For any Democrats to aid in this deception is unforgiveable.
Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, claimed that President Biden should be “embarrassed by the situation,” and he “lost the high ground on this notion of classified information being where it shouldn’t be.” Embarrassed? Maybe, but Joe Biden has been a public servant since the Pleistocene Era and it’s not necessarily surprising that over the course of five decades, classified documents had failed to be returned. Eventually, Durbin acknowledges that the difference between the way Donald and Biden handled their respective situations couldn’t be more different (Donald’s potentially criminal, Biden’s sloppy) but, let’s face it—the damage has been done. His opening statement gave people room to believe that Biden, by “losing the high ground” had somehow ceded it back to Donald who openly stole government documents and refused to return them. Donald Trump hasn’t been within a billion light years of the high ground in his entire life
That Joe Manchin saw fit to get his jabs in should surprise no one—he supports a full investigation. Sen. Tom Kaine’s statement that, "This news raises serious questions and the appointment of an unbiased special prosecutor to investigate the matter is the right step," did surprise me. I thought he might be better than that. It makes me wonder: Who do they think this faux outrage is for? Why are these ill-informed or misguided or opportunistic or cynical men giving oxygen to inaccurate reporting that allows the Biden situation to be mischaracterized? Why do they seem hell-bent on changing the subject away from the fact that the last inhabitant of the Oval Office stole Top Secret, highly sensitive documents--including Human Intelligence and, the highest classification, Secret Compartmented Information—that may well have endangered the lives of intelligence officers while compromising our national security?
If you can’t support Biden in these increasingly fraught times, even as American democracy continues to balance on a knife’s edge, just shut up. If a full-throated defense is beyond your capabilities, you can simply say, “The two cases (Donald’s and Biden’s) have absolutely no similarities). How hard would that be?
The tsk-tsking from Democratic senators like Joe Manchin, Dick Durbin, and Tim Kaine is confounding and exacerbated by the fact that they and others at the highest levels of power in the Democratic Party, repeatedly demonstrate their unwillingness to push back against the malevolent forces—for us and for democracy—that would destroy us (which is neither hyperbole or melodrama). In the end their stances only serve to demoralize us.
All we ask is that Democratic Party leaders, at every level of government, understand what’s at stake, stand up for us, and fight. If they do that, we can withstand anything.
The Good in Us by Mary L. Trump is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I find your writing’s very interesting. Thank You
Thank you Mary for your thoughtful comments - many of which I can relate to wholeheartedly. Your podcasts are enlightening and provide comfort during these trying times.