A Modern Great Depression: We are in one of the most profound crises of American history
One of my children asked me once if people living through the Great Depression understood just how bad their era would look to historians. I answered that, on the whole, I thought not. People are focused on what’s in front of them: finding work, feeding their kids, trying to keep it together, making it through the day. It’s only when historians look back to gauge an era that they put the full picture together.
So for those who cannot see it: we are in one of the most profound crises of American history.
We are in the midst of a vicious pandemic that is killing us at an astounding rate while the administration ignores it or, worse, exacerbates it by encouraging our neighbors to think that wearing masks and social distancing to protect lives is somehow a political statement they must resist. Cases of coronavirus are spiking across the country. Hospitals are overwhelmed and health care workers exhausted. More than 14 million Americans have been infected with the virus and more than 276,000 of us have died of it. December 3 saw over 211,762 new cases and 2,858 deaths. The days to come will likely be worse.
The pandemic has crippled our economy. After a brief recovery this summer, it is faltering again. More than 20 million Americans are receiving some sort of jobless benefits. Pressure is building for some sort of federal aid package to provide relief and stimulate the economy to bridge us over the next months as vaccines are distributed. But until that happens, people need to work to keep food on their tables and a roof over their heads, so they cannot lock down to stop the spread of the disease.
The president of the United States is ignoring the pandemic, instead spending his time fighting against the results of last month’s election. The president’s opponent, Democrat Joe Biden, won the election handily, by close to 7 million votes and by a majority of 306 to 232 in the Electoral College. But Trump, supported by loyalists, continues to insist he has won, even though the states he claims will swing the Electoral College behind him have already certified their votes for Biden.
The attack of a president on the outcome of an election is unprecedented. Four times in American history, a candidate who has won the popular vote has lost in the Electoral College but the loser has bowed to our system, even though, curiously, it has always been a Republican who won under such circumstances and never a Democrat—indeed, Trump won in 2016 under just such a scenario.
In this instance, though, there is no misalignment between the popular vote and the Electoral College. Biden has won both, handily. And yet, the president is actively attacking the results and the underlying democratic system that produced them. His supporters are asking him to declare martial law and seize power, although the military has denounced this idea and those supporting it are making such increasingly wild claims that at some point they simply must fall apart. Indeed, there is reason to believe Trump’s claims of fraud are simply a grift: his campaign was effectively broke before the election and he has raised more than $207 million since it. But, money grab or not, this is an unprecedented assault on our democracy.
There are, though, signs that change is in the wind. For all his drama, Trump is losing relevance. Congress finalized its draft of the defense authorization bill, and in it members of both parties pushed back on Trump’s demands. They refused to reduce the number of troops in Germany and South Korea, as he announced he would do in what appeared to be an attempt to weaken U.S. ties to Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), our military alliance there. Congress also ignored Trump’s demands to strip technology companies of liability protections (apparently he is angry when insulting names for him trend on Twitter) and his insistence that he would veto any measure that called for renaming military bases currently named for Confederate generals, a plan endorsed by members of both parties.
The measure also more directly rebukes Trump for things he either has already done or hasn’t done and should have. It orders the Secretary of Defense to report on Russian bounties offered to Taliban-linked fighters in Afghanistan for killing U.S. troops, limits how much military funding the president can move to domestic projects — as Trump tried to do for his border wall — and requires that federal law enforcement officers “visibly display” their names and the names of their agency when engaged in public responses. This summer, the officers dispatched to the streets of Washington DC, and other cities could not be identified. In another rebuke to the summer’s police violence, the measure also prohibits the Pentagon from handing off bayonets, certain combat vehicles, and weaponized drones to state and local law enforcement.
It is not just Congress that is pushing back on the president. News broke that within the last two weeks, a political operative Trump had installed at the Department of Justice has actually been banned from the building after pressuring staffers to give her information about investigations, including those about the 2020 election. Heidi Stirrup, the appointee, is an ally of Trump adviser Stephen Miller. Trump appointed her to the board of visitors of the Air Force Academy. It would have been unlikely that a Trump ally would have been physically removed from the Justice Department in the days before the election turned Trump into a lame duck.
In the first interview President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris have given since the election, aired on CNN, they reiterated their support for all Americans and their determination to combat the coronavirus pandemic, saying they would ask everyone to commit to wearing a mask for the first 100 days of their administration. Harris told journalist Jake Tapper: “There couldn’t be a more extreme exercise in stark contrast between the current occupant of the White House and the next occupant of the White House,” and the country will be better for the change, she said.
But it was CNN journalist Don Lemon who summed up this changing moment best. He told Tapper: “[I]t feels like we are watching … a president-elect and a president who are on Earth One and Earth Two. And at this particular Earth that is in reality, it was very normal, very sedate. And it was welcoming news. It was good to watch. It was good to actually get content. We heard no fake news. We heard no conspiracy theories. We heard no personal grievances. We heard a President-Elect and a vice president who want to work with the other side.”
Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress
Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics