Our Long Walk Home
We started this week.
Rounding the Corner
Bruce Springsteen’s 2006 song, “Long Walk Home,” offered a stark metaphor for George W. Bush’s America. The protagonist returns to a hometown peopled by friends who, having abandoned their ideals, have become strangers to him.
Since 2016, that feeling has rung true for many of us, arguably to an even greater extent.
But the song is also resolute and hopeful about the long walk back to enduring ideals, a better town and a better country. Its most memorable lines are:
You know that flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t
That positive message came to mind this week, as the nation stepped back from a president who would do anything he could get away with and as we took key steps toward installing a successor who values the public interest and public health.
More specifically, the Electoral College officially affirmed Joe Biden as President-elect. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Republicans finally recognized Biden’s win, albeit shamefully belatedly.
Moreover, a New York nurse received the first shot in the national coronavirus inoculation campaign. The FDA cleared a second vaccine for imminent approval.
To use a phrase that Donald Trump misused so often, so dishonestly and so ridiculously, we’re finally rounding the corner.
A Rough Road
We still face an awfully long, awfully rough road ahead. In addition to the good news, the week also saw the United States top 300,000 official Covid fatalities (with the true Covid toll, measured in excess deaths, standing at over 350,00).
The worst is yet to come this deadly winter. Total lives lost here could reach half a million or more. Debates and egregious inequities regarding vaccine distribution will roil our country and the world.
We also could see Trump at his worst in his final weeks in office. Both before and after he sails off into his post-presidency sewer, he’ll do his best to poison our democracy. His supporters will try to make a fiasco out of Congress’s normally pro forma tallying of electoral votes on January 6. And if there is one lesson we’ve learned about Trump, there’s no low to which he won’t go, including lows we might not even imagine.
Finally, it’s clear that our problems transcend Trump. Even if he disappears from the scene, he’ll leave behind a Republican Party whose de facto denigration of democracy is only rivaled by its refusal to address climate change and the myriad other problems plaguing the country. What’s worse, a big chunk of the public supports such stands.
Back to Bruce
Which brings us back to Bruce and to some sense of hope. His assertion, “that flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone,” takes on retrospective resonance. The judiciary, including many Trump appointees, consistently rejected the president’s preposterous attempts to overturn the election. That flag still flies.
Springsteen’s insistence that there are certain things we won’t do originally applied to the Bush administration’s violations of our values, with torture topping the list. The administration shattered standards set in stone (even as it upheld some others, such as the president preaching tolerance toward Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11). It did so at the price of what the flag represents, of ideals we needed to restore.
Trump has committed so many transgressions that it’s hard to know where to begin listing what he’s done that previous American presidents would not do. Costing hundreds of thousands of lives through pandemic denialism and lies? Ripping hundreds of migrant children from their parents, perhaps permanently? Spewing and spreading hate at every opportunity? Seeking to destroy our democracy?
We’ve Been Here Before
But let’s recall the good news: This week saw us set out on the long walk to undo Trump’s legacy, to restore some normalcy and decency to our governance, to launch policies that will help millions of Americans and – after months of incompetence, indifference and disinformation – to conquer Covid.
We’ve trekked on such paths many times before in our history, never completing the journey but often achieving significant success. Springsteen wrote “Long Road Home” two years before Barack Obama’s election most recently took us back onto a positive course.
Obama’s presidency was far from perfect. However, he led the country out of a very dark phase, rescued it from an economic abyss, enacted health care reforms that helped many millions and otherwise showed us what our better angels can accomplish. The fact that Trump succeeded Obama does not negate such progress.
A “Long Road Home” also says this:
Here everybody has a neighbor, everybody has a friend
Everybody has a reason to begin again
My father said, “Son, we’re lucky in this town, it’s a beautiful place to be born…
We can begin again by grasping how lucky we still are, compared to so many other countries on their own obstruction-strewn roads.
I know that “lucky” is that last word we might want to use, in view of both the last four years and our many troubling long-term trends. I by no means suggest that we should be happy with our situation.
Nonetheless, America’s relative levels of wealth, education, resources, security and institutional independence and competence place us in a better state than numerous less fortunate nations. We should remain aware that reformers and ordinary citizens in those places have prevailed over their own, even more desperate plights or are now striving to do so.
Consider South Africa, for instance. Nelson Mandela aptly named his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom partly because of the decades of sustained struggle he and his anti-apartheid movement undertook. Like his fellow non-white citizens, he endured potentially spirit-crushing racist indignities and abuses for much of his life. He then spent 27 years in prison.
Yet, to paraphrase a line from Trump ally McConnell, Mandela persisted.
And he prevailed, leading the defeat of apartheid and ascending to his country’s presidency in 1994.
And consider Cambodia. As I write this, an old friend and other leaders of the country’s pro-democracy opposition party plan to fly back there from abroad early next month, to face trial and quite possibly jail on trumped-up charges.
Why? In order to shine an international light on the repressive thugocracy ruling the country. And to continue, potentially at great cost, their own long walks to freedom.
We can ignore such other nations’ struggles that should inspire us. We can view the wreckage Trump has wrought as impossible to overcome. We can surrender to the obstacles that he, McConnell and so many others throw in our path. We can understandably wonder what kind of populace accords him so many votes.
Or we can accept that the fight for freedom is never-ending, that the long walk home is grueling and that, while we can never get all the way there, we have reason to begin again.
If you’re up for a beautiful rendition of “Long Walk Home,” here it is:
If you’re in the mood for something comical about Trump’s rounding-the-corner claims, here you go: