Holding Back the Darkness


These are the times, Thomas Paine wrote in December 1776, that try men’s souls. The Revolutionary War was in its early stages, the outcome far from certain and the stakes incredibly high. Sound familiar?

A lot is going badly right now for people in the United States who care about the Constitution, who are concerned about the rights of others and who see a noble experiment in democracy at jeopardy. This is not the first stage of fascism unfolding in the United States; we are further down the road than that.

Much of the nation’s attention was focused for several days on the Trump Administration’s policy to separate children from their families when they come to the border seeking asylum.  The political outrage in response to that policy seemed to force the President to back down publicly, but, at this point, it’s not at all clear that any children and families are actually being reunited.  Rather, confusion is reigning even as Trump continues to spew forth vile rhetoric and outrageous lies about immigrants.

Protest demonstrations are scheduled all over the country this weekend, but events have yet again overtaken that story.  It’s not that the separation policy is any less bad than it was.  Rather, more horrors have rained down on our hopes for the future.  The Supreme Court in a series of highly partisan 5-4 decisions has done exactly what the Republican Party continues to do, defer to Trump’s madness and refuse to exert any independence.

The worst one may have been their decision to uphold his Muslim ban.  Don’t even try to sugarcoat it as something other than that.  Chief Justice John Roberts, at his most obsequious, decided that the Court didn’t need to take into account the words from Trump’s tweets in judging the intentions of the ban.  Rejecting what was staring them in the face, Roberts and four conservative colleagues decided that deference to executive authority was a higher value than individual rights or equality under the law.

The Court, again by 5-4, dealt a severe blow to labor unions by concluding that they could not collect dues from non-members even though those individuals benefitted from the union’s negotiations.  They also nullified a state law requiring anti-abortion clinics to share information about options available to the women in their clinics.

And then there were the long-awaiting decisions on a series of gerrymandering cases.  The five-member majority may have sustained personal bodily injury in their efforts to duck from addressing the important issues raised in these cases.  Rather, they left standing state districting decisions that were clearly driven by partisan motivations and missed a chance to increase both confidence in and fairness of our electoral system.

All of that is incredibly bad news. But, as we have come to learn, it can always get worse.  On Wednesday, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who sometimes has been the swing vote on the Court, announced his imminent retirement.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will be best remembered in history books for having stolen a Supreme Court nomination from Barack Obama, was quick to guarantee that a Trump appointee would be confirmed by the fall.

What’s at risk after a Neil Gorsuch-conservative is added to the current court?  The 1973 abortion decision, Roe v. Wade, is in grave danger.  This court’s majority cares nothing about precedent and has constantly demonstrated a willingness to impose its conservative ideology onto its decisions.  The Obergefell decision on gay marriage is likely to be threatened as well.  Count on more deference to presidential authority.  Count on less interest in protecting individual rights.

These are indeed the times that try men’s and women’s souls.  As awful as the first year and a half of the Trump presidency has been, the times ahead are almost certainly going to be worse.  If you aren’t truly worried about the risks to our democratic system as a result of having a president who is only interested in himself and perhaps his friends, you either haven’t been paying attention or you really  don’t care about American democracy.

For those of us who do care, what’s to be done?  Speaking out and offering encouragement to other like-minded citizens is important, but not nearly enough.

First, it is critical that Democrats regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the fall election.  There’s been a lot of chatter about a “blue wave”, but it won’t happen unless people vote, work for candidates running to replace Republicans and contribute money to their campaigns.

It would be great to win back the U.S. Senate as well, but the numbers there are more daunting.

Second, work to regain control of state governments from Republicans, in both the legislature and the governor’s office.  Winning the U.S. House of Representatives would enable Democrats to stop the worst actions of the Trump administration, but winning back state governments will allow democracy to flourish while the national fight goes on.

These are not abstract suggestions.  I know lots of people who are making more and larger political donations than they ever have before.  That’s what it is going to take.  Don’t be sorry after the election that you didn’t do enough.  In Pennsylvania, with a group of friends, we have raised nearly $100,000 to support Democrats running to retake State House seats currently held by Republicans.  In our efforts, we have discovered numerous other groups working for the same objective.

2018 has to be a year of urgency, not complacency.  It has to be a year of action, not just talk.  It has to be a year in which everyone who cares about the future of the country stretches, does more than they thought they could.    Don’t be a bystander in a year that will keep testing our resolve and commitment and our souls.