Why is the president leaving us to grieve on our own?
More than 100,000 lives have been lost to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, and while individuals and families have certainly grieved for their loved ones, there has been almost nothing in the way of a public remembrance of the lives lost. No national address; no moment of silence or official recognition beyond the occasional tweet. No sense from the president or his subordinates that these were untimely deaths — needless losses that ought to occasion collective mourning. There will be no speech like President Barack Obama’s in the wake of the Mother Emanuel shooting in Charleston; no address like President Ronald Reagan’s after the Challenger disaster.
Civil society has tried to fill the gap. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post have devoted their pages to memorials, as have local and regional newspapers across the country. But the political vacuum matters. It’s also predictable.
The president’s indifference to collective mourning is of a piece with a political movement that denies our collective ties as well as the obligations we have to each other. If President Donald Trump represents a radical political solipsism, in which his is the only interest that exists, then it makes all the sense in the world that neither he nor his allies would see or even understand the need for public and collective mourning.
In the face of collective tragedy, mourning can’t help but be public. And in a democracy like ours, that means it also can’t help but be political. In her essay “Violence, Mourning, Politics” — written in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the nascent “war on terror” — the philosopher Judith Butler observed how grief and grieving can bring the foundations of our social arrangements into clear view.
“Many people think that grief is privatizing,” she writes, “But I think it furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order, and it does this first by bringing to the fore the relational ties that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility.”
When we grieve as a public, we do not just sense our own vulnerability, but that of those around us who, in our collective confrontation with death and loss, share that grief. We see, acutely, that the world is beyond the full grasp of our control, despite our illusions to the contrary. And that realization, Butler suggests, can provide the grounds for collective political action.
Perhaps the single greatest example of the political power of collective grief and mourning comes from the Civil War. It is
Lincoln’s speech dedicating the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, better known, of course, as the Gettysburg Address. In it, Lincoln gives voice to the great loss of both the battle and the war up to that point. But he does not leave things there. From grief and sacrifice, Lincoln says, comes a kind of purpose: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have so nobly advanced.” Americans will mourn together and use the connection forged by that experience to continue the fight to save the Union.
After the end of the war and Lincoln’s subsequent assassination, this memory of suffering would help fuel the effort to reconstruct the South. The first Memorial Day celebrations, the historian David Blight notes in “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,” had a political character: “They mixed religion and nationalism in a victory cult that provided Northern Christians with a narrative through which to understand their sacrifice of kin and friends.” Mourning would, again, give way to purpose.
All political communities experience trauma and mourning and how we handle it, whether we bother to do it in the first place, shapes and directs our collective response. I think that the particular trauma of a pandemic is one that could provide a foundation for solidarity and collective action.
But that, unfortunately, is the exact ethos to which Trump stands in opposition. He is unable to see beyond himself and his immediate concerns, and he leads a coalition that rejects collective action and denies our responsibilities to each other.
If we are not to mourn the COVID dead together, it will not be because the circumstances don’t demand it. It will be because, although Trump may not be able to express himself in these terms, the president knows that to take this grief seriously — to meditate on what it means for us as a community — is to undermine the very foundations of his political project.