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April 30, 2021
I’ve spent this week struggling with how to write about the aftermath we are living through.
Here in New York, we are emerging from a winter that feels like it lasted more than a year. Tulips are blooming in Manhattan’s parks. Clusters of small purple flowers cling to the limbs of the crabapple trees. The dogwoods in my neighborhood are in bloom. People are bringing their lunches and dinners into the parks, spreading a blanket on the grass, and talking gladly, seated not far from one another. Growing numbers of pedestrians are going about unmasked, responding to the authorities’ announcement earlier in the week that it’s safe for those who’ve been vaccinated to do so. The vaccination centers have started taking walk-ins. The mayor wants to reopen the city entirely by July 1st.
This is an ephemeral aftermath. In phone calls, I find myself sometimes referring to the pandemic as though it’s over; then, more or less instantly, correcting myself or being corrected. The grass is growing again, but the earth isn’t healed.
Of course, it’s not over. Two-thirds of New York State’s population has not yet been vaccinated. We lost dozens of New Yorkers to the disease on every single day last week. Throughout the United States, the 7-day average daily death toll stands just under seven hundred. Thousands remain hospitalized. In India, the disease is spiraling out of control with exponential rapidity. Official statistics paint a horrifying picture—in 14 days, cases up 72%, deaths up 169%—that’s widely thought to be understated by an order of magnitude. Photos of makeshift crematoria in Indian cities processing dozens of bodies at a time and tales of widespread shortages of bottled oxygen present an even more dire, and probably more realistic, view. Even as other nations begin to rouse themselves to help, India’s population is so large, and its infrastructure already so overwhelmed, that things appear to be headed in an unimaginably dreadful direction, with grave consequences for the whole world. Other countries also face difficult outbreaks. In Colombia’s capital, “the mayor is warning residents to brace for ‘the worst two weeks of our lives.’”
Then, there is simply the weight of all that we’ve already lost—more than half a million American lives cut short, businesses forfeited, weddings cancelled, birthdays passed alone, friends unseen, connections unmade. I find myself returning when I think about this to the chart of what are called ‘excess deaths’ in the United States—the deaths, for any cause, that exceed the long-term average. The human mortality last year shoots up and away from the plains of normality, carving out a sharp-peaked mountain range, which we appear to be descending, but from which have not yet emerged.
One can’t dwell forever in the grief of it all. But we ought to remember that many of these losses were preventable, and powerful people like the former President of the United States and the current Governor of New York bear their share of responsibility for the severity of the crisis, even though they’ve refused to accept it.
“Only thank God men have done learned to forget quick what they ain’t brave enough to try to cure,” one of William Faulkner’s characters says in his novel The Hamlet. In our hurry to embrace new life, new growth, and the glorious aftermath of a vibrant spring, I hope we have the courage to try to cure our political culture. We owe it to the memories of more than half a million Americans who didn’t get to see this beautiful spring.
The Sea of Tranquility
Almost every day on Twitter, I see someone remark that their health is improved, their life is better, their mornings are happier, because the former president is no longer on the site.
I feel this too. Twitter was his most potent political weapon, and he used it caustically and abusively. We’re all better off having him—for now—largely out of our digital lives, out of the most powerful office in the earth, and issuing inane paper statements about the Oscars or whatever. For all of us, it’s a good thing.
(For Twitter itself, it’s a mixed bag. Despite booting off its most-watched account, the site beat expectations for revenue and profits in its most recent quarter; however, Twitter didn’t attract as many new users as analysts were hoping for, and its stock was getting pummeled this morning.)
But the same worries apply about hastily forgetting something that we don’t have the wherewithal to address. The irresponsibility of the Trump administration is a big part of the pandemic story, and whether there’s accountability for it could have an enormous impact on our future. Moreover, that’s only one little colorful segment of Trump’s mosaic of injustices and abuses that call out for fact-finding and remedy and legislative action.
It seems to me the aftermath of the Trump administration is largely bound up in this question of whether to embrace our newfound peace and quiet or to demand truth-telling, accountability, and reform. Often, it seems like that choice isn’t even ours to make—determined ineluctably by an unmoving Senate and a hidebound, unmotivated Justice Department.
But then, every once in a while there’s a tiny glimmer of hope for accountability after all. On Wednesday, the political world was set aflutter by the news, first reported in the New York Times, that federal agents had executed search warrants at the residences of Rudy Giuliani and Victoria Toensing, both lawyers for the former president who had been deeply involved in his efforts to use the power of the presidency to wring a public announcement of an investigation of Hunter Biden out of the government of Ukraine. Giuliani’s' home and office were searched, as was Toensing’s phone.
The existence of the warrants indicated that the investigators had persuaded a federal magistrate judge that there was probable cause to believe each of the searches would uncover evidence of a crime that had been committed. This judicially-managed standard for authorizing search warrants explains why they’re given such significant news coverage; if a judge finds investigators have met the standard, it means their investigation has significant momentum and is likely to mature into arrests and concrete criminal charges than the average inquiry. Of course, the Giuliani inquiry has already yielded charges against two of his known associates—the hapless Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were arrested on their way out of the country the November before last and indicted along with two other defendants and whose cases are still winding their way through the pandemic-delayed courts.
The Giuliani raid is a tantalizing moment for people who’ve longed for some accountability. On the one hand, we’ve arguably been through this before. We’ve seen a steady procession of Trump aides and associates face serious prosecutions and just convictions, and sometimes flip, but even with their eventual cooperation (see, e.g. Michael Cohen) the long arm of the law hasn’t yet laid a glove on the former president himself. On the other hand, this is perhaps the first time it will happen while Trump is not presiding over the apparatus of the federal government and wielding his pardon power as a personal shield. Maybe it will be different this time. Or maybe one of the local investigations in New York and Georgia will bear fruit. Hope springs eternal.
Frustration springs eternal, too. It’s crazy-making to serially sit in suspense, waiting to see if some electronic device will cough up the incriminating text message that tips the great balance of things toward justice. It’s not that still-secret thing, if it exists and whatever it may be, that prompts the yearning for accountability. It’s what the former president did right out in the open—the manifest lies, the obvious frauds, the patent abuses, and the public betrayals. Most saliently, we all watched President Trump and his servants systematically foment a gargantuan lie about the presidential election for months, gather his most fanatical supporters in the capital, stoke them into murderous rage, and set them upon the legislature in the sacred hours when its members were accomplishing the formal transition of democratic power. That’s a large open account we have with him, and it feels awfully small to hope for some tawdry thing on Rudy Giuliani’s cell phone to settle it for us.
But, all in all, it’s nice not to hear from him so much and to enjoy the weather and our restored freedom. I hope everyone had a good week.