Guernica is a Basque town near the Bay of Biscay in northern Spain. Founded in 1366, it became world famous on April 26, 1937 when, at the request of fascist dictator Francisco Franco, Germany’s Luftwaffe and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria bombed it to smithereens, killing over 1,600 civilians. It was a first, but something that Luftwaffe incorporated into their terror bombing strategy.
Picasso’s Guernica (11ft 5 inches tall by 25 ft 6 inches across), commissioned by the legitimate Spanish government and painted the same year, is widely considered one of the most powerful anti-war paintings of all time. This week, award-winning American artist Nancy Ohanian did the above version, Americanization of Guernica.
Peter Wehner is a conservative speechwriter who worked in the administrations of 3 presidents: Reagan and each Bush. But he seems to hold Trump in as much disdain as he once reserved for Obama. His Declaration of Disruption column for the July 4th, 2017 NY Times is a classic. “A presidency characterized by pandemonium,” he wrote, “invades and infects that space, leaving people unsettled and on edge. And this, in turn, leads to greater polarization, to feelings of alienation and anger, to unrest and even to violence. A spirit of instability in government will cause Americans to lose confidence in our public institutions. When citizens lose that basic faith in their government, it leads to corrosive cynicism and the acceptance of conspiracy theories. Movements and individuals once considered fringe become mainstream, while previously responsible figures decamp to the fever swamps. One result is that the informal and unwritten rules of political and human interaction, which are at the core of civilization, are undone. There is such a thing as democratic etiquette; when it is lost, the common assumptions that allow for compromise and progress erode. In short, chaotic leadership can inflict real trauma on political and civic culture. All of which brings us to Donald Trump, arguably the most disruptive and transgressive president in American history. He thrives on creating turbulence in every conceivable sphere. The blast radius of his tumultuous acts and chaotic temperament is vast… We have as president the closest thing to a nihilist in our history— a man who believes in little or nothing, who has the impulse to burn down rather than to build up. When the president eventually faces a genuine crisis, his ignorance and inflammatory instincts will make everything worse. Republican voters and politicians rallied around Trump in 2016, believing he was anti-establishment when in fact he was anti-order. He turns out to be an institutional arsonist. It is an irony of American history that the Republican Party, which has historically valued order and institutions, has become the conduit of chaos.”
Yesterday, writing for The Atlantic, Wehner urged his readers to not succumb to MAGA fatalism and offered 3 strategies to cope with Trump-induced gloom. “America is in a bind. Many Americans are,” he wrote, “rightly, gravely concerned about the threat posed to our nation by the MAGA movement, which started with Donald Trump but has now engulfed almost the entire Republican Party. In recent days, I have heard from men and women whose level of alarm is rising fast. ‘Each morally or legally wrong act only seems to give Trump’s soldiers more energy and cohesion,’ I was told by a clinical psychologist who requested anonymity to speak candidly. ‘Their general can do whatever he wants now, and they will take up arms if he tells them to. It’s so, so dangerous.’… Jonathan Rauch, a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a model of equanimity, told me he ‘feels shaken’ by what he has seen from the Republican Party, especially since January 6, 2021. He described the ‘gleeful barbarism’ and ‘the embrace of performative cruelty’ that characterizes so much of the American right and said that it feels as if MAGA has sealed every exit.”
I share these concerns; indeed, I have been warning about the threat Trump and his supporters present to American democracy and our political and civic culture since as far back as July 2015 and as recently as two weeks ago. Given that the situation seems to be getting worse rather than better, the temptation to succumb to despair and fatalism is strong.
Hopelessness isn’t warranted. But also unwarranted are false hope and blithe reassurance. What is the proper way to approach this moment?
The first thing to do is to remind ourselves that our responsibility is to be faithful, not necessarily successful. All of us would rather be both, and sometimes we are. But the best any of us can do is to act with a reasonable degree of honor and integrity, defending, even imperfectly, what we believe is right and true. None of us controls what happens beyond that. I have found the words of C. S. Lewis to be meaningful. “It is not your business to succeed (no one can be sure of that) but to do right: when you have done so the rest lies with God,” he wrote. If we don’t act when success isn’t guaranteed, then success will always be beyond our reach.
The second thing to bear in mind is that unexpected inflection points— events that change the way we think and act, that alter underlying assumptions and sometimes the trajectory of history— can occur in the life of a nation. Why they happen is not always clear in real time; it’s typically a combination of the right (or wrong) moment, the right (or wrong) individual, the stars aligning in the right (or wrong) way. Sometimes things are one way and then they are another. An appeal may fall on deaf ears in one season but not another.
Winston Churchill experienced his “wilderness years”; then came the Munich Agreement and Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939.
In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger; the next day, Martin Luther King Jr. proposed a citywide boycott against racial segregation on the public transportation system. Six months later, a federal court ruled that laws keeping buses segregated were unconstitutional. A year after Parks’s arrest, the Supreme Court concurred.
When Andrew Sullivan wrote his 1989 cover story for the New Republic on the conservative case for gay marriage, it was unthinkable; by the early aughts, it was a reality in states such as Vermont and Massachusetts. By 2011, a majority of Americans approved of gay marriage; in 2015, the Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to recognize same-sex marriage; and today gay marriage is widely accepted by Americans across the board, including a majority of Republicans. Sullivan, who has said that when he wrote his New Republic essay he never believed he would see gay marriage in his lifetime, later wrote in The Atlantic, “History is a miasma of contingency, and courage, and conviction, and chance.” It rarely moves in straight lines, but it always moves.
A third point in the context of the MAGA threat to the American republic: We are still mid-drama. Acts have yet to be written. And in a self-governing nation, “we the people” are the authors. American citizens are not like corks caught in the current of a raging river. We are not powerless, without agency. At this point, nothing is inevitable about the triumph, or the defeat, of right-wing authoritarianism. After all, Joe Biden did defeat Donald Trump, by a comfortable margin, and our institutions—many of them, at least—passed a serious stress test. The battle has been engaged; it hasn’t been resolved.
In an interview with the blog The Art of Association, Caroline Mehl, a co-founder of the Constructive Dialogue Institute, explained that four main levers exist to strengthen American democracy:
1- Redesigning electoral systems,
2- strengthening democratic institutions,
3- improving our media ecosystem, and
4- revitalizing our civic culture.
I would add to that list the transformation of the American Church, and particularly the white evangelical Church, from an instrument of anger and antipathy to one of grace and justice. Thoughtful people are thinking through practical steps that can be taken in each of these domains and others.
In June 1966, Senator Robert Kennedy took a five-day trip to South Africa during the worst days of apartheid. At the University of Cape Town, he delivered one of his most memorable speeches. Addressing young people, he warned about the “danger of futility: the belief that there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills—against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence.” And, using words that would be engraved near his gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery, he said this:
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.
Margaret Marshall, a South African anti-apartheid student activist who became the first woman to serve as chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, said, “South Africa in 1966 was as dark a period as I have ever been in. There was this great granite wall of power and privilege of the apartheid government.”
She had been in the audience when Kennedy delivered his speech.
“It made such an impact on me,” Marshall said. “I know it made an impact on others, and I have essentially carried that message for the rest of my life—if we each just do one small thing when we are faced with evil or oppression or discrimination or inequality. You don’t have to assume that you will be able to change the entire world. It was remarkable; it was breathtaking.”
None of us can change the entire world. But each of us can change for the better the world we inhabit. Each of us can “live within the truth” rather than within the lie. We can lean into politics rather than withdraw from it. We can be agents of healing to people whose lives are broken. We can support the institutions that civilize our lives and make democracy possible. And we can speak up for veracity and decency when it matters, including challenging people within our political and cultural tribes, even as we listen well to others. These are not heroic requirements, but they are essential ones. Everything hinges on Americans sending forth ripples of hope.
And, by the way, this was said by a relatively "mainstream" Republican senator, not by Donald Trump: “If you are that slacker barista who wasted seven years in college studying completely useless things, now has loans and can’t get a job, Joe Biden just gave you 20 grand… Like, holy cow! 20 grand. You know, maybe you weren’t gonna vote in November, and suddenly you just got 20 grand… And you know, if you can get off the bong for a minute and head down to the voting station… or just send in your mail-in ballot that the Democrats have helpfully sent you, it could drive up turnout, particularly among young people.” Cruz didn't have to mention to his supporters that driving up turnout is a bad thing; that's a precept that is part of their religion-- unless it's turnout among the very wealthy who benefit from GOP tax breaks aimed at the rich.