Just Powers

If I had to pick a single day in the history of this country that I would name as the worst day, I think it would have to be April 12, 1861 — the day Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, beginning the Civil War. Many things have happened in our country that were demonstrably far worse than that battle — 9/11 leaps to mind, but that was an event in which outsiders attacked the United States (no, I don’t buy the conspiracy theories that it was an inside job). The First Battle of Fort Sumter was the worst day in American history because it was the beginning of the sundering of the nation, the opening salvo of a cataclysm in which the country turned upon itself militarily, politically, culturally, socially and morally.

We need not have any sanitized notions concerning either of the belligerents in the Civil War. No entity in any war is morally perfect. But we must recognize that that conflict was precipitated by an armed insurrection against the United States that was taken up by the secessionists with one purpose. Some say it was for “states rights.” Certainly this is true, if by that we mean the rights of states to enslave human beings. That and that alone is the cause for which the Confederates fought and killed and died, and I say with Ulysses Grant that “that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” Fort Sumter demonstrated with unmistakable and irrevocable certainty that the enslavers and their supporters were perfectly willing to smash our democratic republic to pieces rather than surrender what had been, up to that point, their legally protected right to treat human beings as property. I therefore remain persuaded that April 12, 1861 was the worst day in American history.

I am not certain that November 8, 2016 wasn’t the second worst. On that day the nation turned upon itself. And I greatly fear — though of course I pray that I am wrong — that like the Confederates of yesteryear, supporters of Trump are perfectly willing to let the nation crumble to bits rather than forsake the unholy principles which Trump represents. We comfort ourselves with notions that Trump’s policies will actually hurt many of the people who voted for him, and that they will therefore turn on him; that his bumbling, staggering incompetence, his ceaseless mendacity, his boundless recklessness and his incorrigibly rotten character will cost him. To some extent, this surely must be true. Trump got 63 million votes, but of course all of us who vote have had the experience of holding our noses while voting, and we can be sure that some who voted for Trump did so quite cheerlessly — and perhaps some among them now regret it, given Trump’s truly dismal performance and his utter failure to deliver on most of his promises, some of which he seems to have blithely forgotten: I don’t see any effort whatsoever being made to “lock her up!” — not that I’m surprised that that was anything more than the bullshit bluster of a cowardly bully. But experience shows that some segment of the electorate is going to stand by Trump no matter what. Experience shows that some people seem perfectly willing to fragment the republic rather than give up on what Trump represents. I am not at all convinced that their motivations are all that different from those of the traitors who opened fire on Fort Sumter a century and a half ago. History show us again and again that human beings will sometimes go to great lengths, even great lengths of self-destruction, rather than confront the complicated and terrifying realities of life’s problems and our own role in creating them and in having to solve them. My overpowering feelings of revulsion toward what Donald Trump represents make it exceedingly difficult for me to understand his appeal, but I am increasingly persuaded that his ascendancy owes a great deal to how he exemplifies a bottomless self-indulgence. In Trumpworld, every problem is somebody else’s fault; in Trumpworld, nuance, paradox, complexity and ambiguity are nonexistent; in Trumpworld, self-sacrifice, duty, introspection, delayed gratification, compromise and patience are all to be avoided at all costs. His entire life speaks volumes that these are his values, and I greatly fear that those qualities are precisely why he is beloved by his most ardent supporters. He gives people license to be self-centered, impatient and irresponsible, to blame everyone but themselves for their pain, and to embrace facile notions and empty slogans instead of doing the hard, often frustrating, frequently dull and not infrequently disappointing work of coming together with others to find real solutions. That is, at its core, what the Confederacy was about. That is what sexism is about, and that is what every nativist and nationalist and racist social and political movement has ever been about — in this country or any other time or place.

Our nation’s founders, in the act that made this an independent nation, declared that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Yet I do not consent to being governed by a narcissistic, self-serving, vindictive, sexist, racist demagogue. Some of Trump’s supporters want people like me to “get over it.” I can only say in response: What part of “never!” do you not understand? What am I supposed to do to “get over it”? Am I supposed to accept that this dog-whistle racist, this Imperial Grand Wizard of the “birther” lie deserves our respect and support? Never. Am I expected to acquiesce to our government (no, not Mexico) spending billions upon billions of dollars on an idiotic border wall? Never. Should I go along with addressing the shortcomings of the Affordable Care Act by willfully depriving tens of millions of my fellow citizens of access to health insurance? Never. Should I just “get over it” that this remorseless swindler who puts the moc(k) in democracy has the nuclear codes? Take at his word the man who says that millions voted illegally, that he has nothing to do with Russia, that he had the largest inaugural crowd ever, that he won election by a landslide, that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, that there were “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville? Never, never, never and never. I do not consent.

The cataclysmic tragedy of November 8, 2016 was not merely that a person wholly unqualified, unsuited, unfit and unworthy of the public trust became endowed with enormous political and social power, but that tens of millions of citizens of this free republic, of their own volition, put him there. We still don’t know all there is to know about the 2016 election, but I find persuasive the contention by our country’s intelligence agencies that the Kremlin interfered — though exactly how, and precisely who was and was not involved, remain unresolved questions. (I pray daily that Robert Mueller’s investigation will proceed apace judiciously and with all deliberate speed.) But Russian interference and the Comey letter and the “baggage” of Hillary Clinton, the “flawed candidate” notwithstanding — I’m so glad, by the way, that she was labeled “a flawed candidate” by my count, approximately 383 gazillion times, which helped us to distinguish her from the numerous perfect candidates we’ve had over the years — the simple fact of the matter remains that 63 million American voters looked at this unconscionable con-man and said, “Yeah, sure: he should be president.”

We Unitarian Universalists talk a mean game about “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Inherent worth and dignity is all well and good; I am not saying Trump doesn’t have inherent worth and dignity. I am saying that I do not want him to be President, I don’t support him, and that I will oppose him. I am not saying Trump’s supporters don’t have inherent worth and dignity. I am saying that they are wrong.

Without a doubt, Trump as president can use the political power of that office to do real and lasting damage — he already has, and he will continue to do so as long as he is in office. It’s cold comfort to recognize that his stupefying incompetence may, in some ways, actually save us from greater harm, though the prospect of having to deal with his dizzying ineptitude for even one day more is hardly one we can embrace cheerfully. He will cease to be president someday, somehow or another, and people of conscience throughout the republic should continue to exert whatever legal and peaceable means are available to hasten his departure from office. And let me emphasize as clearly as I can that this is a non-partisan issue. I completely agree that religious leaders should be non-partisan. I call upon Americans of every political affiliation and every ideological stripe to unite to resist and to adamantly defy this despicable administration. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring is the sixth congregation of which I have served as pastor that is the spiritual home of lots and lots of federal employees, so I hope I have some understanding of the professionally precarious and personally painful position that some among us may be in at the present time. The ways forward are not easy, but I want to make it unmistakably clear that as long as I am the clergy leader of this faith community, from this pulpit and from this minister, Donald Trump will be given no quarter. He must go, and until he does, his government must be nonviolently but steadfastly opposed by every legal, social, cultural, political and moral means. It is a religious duty of all Unitarian Universalists to do so. I was ordained in 2003; in all my years as a religious leader, I have never had greater clarity in my own conscience on any social issue than this one.

I do not by any means relish the prospect of a President Pence, but if we cannot abide him either — and I can see no reason why we should — then we can also use whatever peaceful and legal means available to us to remove him from office as well. Let us face what we must with patience, courage and fortitude; we’re gonna need ’em. Once the Trump era is over, we will all have to work together to undo the damage he has done, and we will no doubt have varying degrees of success and failure in doing so. But as daunting as all that surely is, the great task before us involves not Trump, but one another: we will need to find a way to bring the country together. And I admit with fear and trembling that I do not know how we will do this. Racism and xenophobia and sexism are not new; they were not invented by Trump; they have been with us for centuries, and they will not disappear when Trump leaves office. But he has made them worse, and he has done so deliberately. Millions of our fellow citizens have gulped down his venom eagerly. No excuses can be made for their willing compliance with evil. Yet Trump supporters are not some alien species of demonic monster; they are our neighbors, our co-workers, our family members, our friends. How will we find a way to live together when this cruel, reckless man has worked so hard and done so much to exacerbate what divides us? I don’t know. I only know that we must.

We have a precedent for this, something vastly more terrible than what we face now. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…” We know the wounds of the Civil War have never fully healed, that it is the still ongoing work of generations and of centuries for us to build a nation that will live up to the true meaning of its creed. What we must prepare ourselves to do, what we must be doing already, is finding a way to be in right relation with our fellow citizens who have embraced the poisons of racism and sexism, of greed and xenophobia, of self-indulgence and cynicism. We must find a way.