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What Comes Next is Up to Us

What if we stopped separating the looming national chaos into separate categories —racism, climate change, war, vote suppression, election theft, pandemic, science denial, white supremacy, police brutality, etc. — and tried looking at it all at once?

This may be the legacy of Donald Trump, our first corkscrew-in-chief: He has popped the cork on who we are and reality, so it seems, is gushing uncontrollably like never before. Trump, with his defiance of political correctness and the norms of the status quo, not to mention his desire to be the American Mussolini — unchallenged in his leadership either by election results or medical consensus — has created much of the chaos on his own. But the bulk of the chaos is simply America the Terrible emerging from the shadows: our real history suddenly visible.

I apologize for the following lyrics, but with the American empire possibly on the verge of collapse, I felt the need to begin writing a shadow version of “America the Beautiful”: “O terrible for brutal cops, for presidential lies, for racist actions endlessly, beneath the smoke-filled skies. America, America, God’s sick and tired of thee. Coronavirus, that’s your crown, from sea to shining sea.”

Now then, with Trump wearing the crown, let’s look, as best we can, at the larger picture. This is, after all, a single future that we’re facing, and strange synchronicities sometimes pop up between seemingly unrelated situations.

1. The looming election in the context of a pandemic. I have to begin here, simply because it can’t be pushed aside. Voter suppression has been a political game the powerful have played forever, finding ways to maintain power despite majority voter disapproval. Will mail-in votes be fairly and honestly counted?

Here’s one recent example aggravating everyone’s doubt: Greg Abbot, Republican governor of Texas, has declared that every county in the state will be limited to a single mail-in ballot drop-off location. That means large urban counties, like Houston’s Harris County, with a population of over 4 million (and, of course, a Democratic stronghold), will have one drop-off location, just as rural, sparsely populated counties. This is guaranteed to cause chaos among voters and reduce the number of properly counted ballots. And it’s just one scheme among many to limit the non-Trump vote.

2. The pandemic itself, with safety regulations mocked and dismissed by Trump and so many of his supporters. But here’s the crazy thing: Not only is the pandemic continuing to claim victims throughout the country, it’s sweeping into the White House and the Trump inner circle. Trump himself recently tested positive, as did Melania, and members of his inner circle, including Hope Hicks, Kellyanne Conway, Chris Christie, campaign manager Bill Stepien and GOP Senators Mike Lee, Thom Tillis and Ron Johnson. Trump supporter and former presidential candidate Herman Cain died of Covid-19 on July 30, less than a month after defending a maskless Trump rally at Mount Rushmore. Cain had tweeted: “Masks will not be mandatory. . . . People are fed up!”

One of the ironies here is that the Republican senators’ positive testing could interfere with the GOP plan to quickly and hypocritically replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court with Amy Coney Barrett, jeopardizing a Republican majority vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate itself. Chaos expands in all directions.

3. The rise of both anti-racism protests and Trump-supported white supremacy. Both phenomena, of course, emerge from the depths of American history. The country has always been . . . “racially divided,” hardly the right term. The nation is founded on the dehumanization of people of color, with white people using them for their own gain, declaring them, initially, slaves or savages, then second-class citizens. They have been controlled and brutalized by a domestic occupying army known as the police. And American law enforcement entities, beginning with slave patrols, are founded in racism, which is apparent today both in the murder of and brutality against black Americans and the police sympathy for and collaboration with armed white supremacists, i.e., domestic terrorists.

The Black Lives Matter movement has been an extraordinary force for national awareness and change, but Trump, in his recent, infamous instructions to the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” continues to hint that he’s prepared, if necessary (say he loses the election), to launch a new civil war.

Recent news: a 22-year-old police officer was recently charged with murder for the Oct. 3 killing of Jonathan Price, a 31-year-old black man, who had just intervened in a domestic disturbance he’d witnessed at a convenience store, in Wolfe City, Texas. The officer regarded him as a suspect, but Price, unarmed (of course), “resisted in a non-threatening posture and began walking away.” Verdict of the moment: death penalty.

4. Climate change: the West Coast on fire. In the era of pandemic and the resurgence of white supremacy, here’s something else that’s unprecedented: Five of California’s six largest fires on record are burning right now.

“The largest of this year’s fires, the August Complex Fire, has burned more than one million acres across seven counties in Northern California and is still growing,” writes climate scientist Kristy Dahl. She adds that lifelong Californians are in a state of shock. This is not situation normal. Aggressive fire suppression and the drying out of vegetation caused by climate change are creating the conditions. “As a result, wildfires are burning more land than they did in the past.”

5. Racism and hysterectomies at the border. Remember ICE? The border guardians, infamous for their mistreatment of non-Americans, have recently been called out for forcibly sterilizing imprisoned female immigrants, at Georgia’s Irwin County Detention Center. The imprisoned women, of course, come from what the president once called “shithole countries.” But involuntary sterilization of people deemed undesirable is as American as apple pie, Natasha Lennard writes, noting that “white supremacist eugenic practices . . . have always been inherent to a country fixated on its ‘borders’ and locking certain people away.”

6. Endless war. Are there patterns emerging here? What we’re facing is both unprecedented and as old as time itself. Medea Benjamin, asking if the next president could be “transformational” and take steps to shift U.S. foreign policy away from endless war, quotes Bernie Sanders (for some reason that name sounds familiar): “Maybe — just maybe — instead of spending $1.8 trillion a year on military budgets and weapons of destruction designed to kill each other, we can pool our resources as a planet to fight our common enemy: climate change.”

I know this much. It’s too late to put the cork back in the bottle. What we’re heading toward is a new world, and we’re the ones about to create it.

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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