Each time there is another violent protest or shooting, what comes to my mind is The Good Mother.
That’s the 1986 novel by Sue Miller about a woman, recently divorced and raising her three-year-old daughter alone, who tumbles into a sexual idyll so magical and all-consuming that she lets down her guard. In her zeal to reshape her life, she allows something to happen that gives her resentful ex-husband leverage, and, to the outside world, the appearance of righteousness.
All too quickly, the heroine of The Good Mother loses the thing she cares about most: custody of her child.
In this all-consuming moment of social upheaval, the nagging fear is that between now and November something will happen that will rip the U.S. apart for real—and Donald Trump will keep custody of the country.
America, or a part of it, is living an exhilarating, anything-is-possible moment, one of social protest, forged in rage over the mindless killing of George Floyd, but spreading so widely and powerfully and quickly that even the most sheltered elites are cowed. There’s a growing consensus that social change is necessary, right now, everywhere: in police departments, prisons, and courtrooms and also in universities, hospitals, private schools, science labs, corporate boardrooms, newsrooms, theater groups, and movie studios, in valleys from Locust to Silicon. (This week, more than 1,600 Google employees signed a petition demanding that the company stop selling its software to police departments.)
The young, the dispossessed, the marginalized, are suddenly empowered. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very heaven,” Wordsworth wrote of the start of the French Revolution. Be it out of respect, fear, or a currying of favor, department chairs and editors of newspapers and magazines confess their sins, apologize for their “privilege,” and, in many cases, still have to resign. Companies like Target and J. C. Penney made Juneteenth a paid holiday. (Oddly, Amazon, despite lip service to the Black Lives Matter cause, did not.)
This Sunday, The New York Times Magazine makes an implacable case for economic reparations. The American Museum of Natural History asks New York City to remove the equestrian statue of Teddy Roosevelt from its grounds. The video game Fortnite removes police cars from the shooter-survival race. NASCAR agrees to ban the Confederate flag. In Congress, even Republicans concede that change is needed; and at the higher echelons of law enforcement, the demand to “de-fund” the police is taken seriously.
The nagging fear is that between now and November something will happen that will rip the U.S. apart for real—and Donald Trump will keep custody of the country.
And then things will go south. They almost always do. Especially when there is someone in the Oval Office who wants to feed the fever, not calm it. We’ve seen too many times how radical moves, once they go too far, are rebuffed without regard for laws or human life. In 1971, Chilean president Salvador Allende nationalized American-owned copper companies in his country, and Augusto Pinochet seized power in a coup two years later. In 1871, la Commune, the revolutionary government that took control of Paris in March, turned repressive by April, rounding up perceived enemies such as the Archbishop of Paris. Support from within frayed, and in May the national army burst through the city gates and crushed the rebellion in what is still known as la semaine sanglante, “the bloody week.”
American radicals never went that far in 1968, but Republicans stoked the paranoia of “the silent majority” nonetheless, and Richard Nixon was re-elected in a landslide four years later.
It doesn’t take long. It never does. A government building is bombed, a policeman is killed, or a child is kidnapped, and suddenly the illusion of comity snaps and the backlash—fueled by a fear that the social order is collapsing—rushes in. It’s a common playbook: the ruling party paints the movement for social change as a danger to society and regains leverage. Protests inflame into riots, riots descend into chaos, and frightened citizens watching uneasily from the middle ground determine that “law and order” is more important than human decency.
That’s a foreboding that haunts mostly older Americans, ones who can remember 1968 and who watched the euphoria of the Prague Spring with dread because it was all too obvious that, there, repression would win and replace a reformer with a Kremlin-backed tyrant.
For the young in America right now, power—and the sense that it can be toppled and that they might gain the upper hand themselves—is so deliciously intoxicating that warning signs go unheeded. Yet forces of change, however righteous, can be set up to look like criminal activity (check out Trump’s “Wanted” poster for protesters who attacked an Andrew Jackson statue), then things can get out of control, and all hell breaks loose. All too quickly, Trump could gain the appearance of righteousness in the eyes of the average American and win a second term.
That’s what comes to mind each time there’s another shooting. And that’s what people should keep in mind as they agitate for change. The quickest way to a better world is by voting Trump out of office. Once that’s done, go ahead: knock yourselves out.