Although the tradition goes back to the Pilgrims celebrating their first harvest in 1621, and President Washington made a 1789 thanksgiving proclamation asking God “to pardon our national and other transgressions,” historian Heather Cox Richardson reminds us, our federal Thanksgiving holiday is all about the Civil War.
As she noted today in her “Letters from an American,” official days of thanksgiving were first proclaimed, in November and December 1861, by governors in 17 states in the early stages of the conflict, when things did not look good for the union forces. When the fortunes of the Union — comprising 20 states and 5 border states — began to turn in 1863, President Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving for the sacrifices made in pursuit of maintaining this nation with the ideal that “all men are created equal.”
Although it is difficult for any of us to celebrate this year for a number of reasons — being apart due to the pandemic, struggling financially due to the polarization in Congress — Richardson writes that the idea is that we grow stronger only through struggle and hard work and a willingness to dedicate ourselves to something higher than ourselves:
“Rather than being unprecedented, though, this year of hardship and political strife brings us closer to the first national Thanksgiving than any more normal year.”
In something of that spirit (but with much less eloquence), I share a personal list of the main people and things that helped me get through the past four mind-bending, disheartening years.
As he continues his work to destroy our democracy — giving it that old “I-got-in-by-paying-someone-else-to-take-my-SATs” college try — Donald Trump would call most on my list part of his imaginary “deep state” or “enemies of the people.”
Donald Trump loves to compare himself with Lincoln, but I always think he must be thinking of the luxury car. But I suppose that’s not fair to the car; certainly the Lincoln is no where close to being the worst car in history.
This list is entirely my own. And no doubt I’m forgetting some folks. I’ve left out the former presidents and first ladies who have spoken out. It’s a mark of how bad things have gotten that they felt compelled to do so.
Surely, you’ve had your own go-to list of people who are helping to save you — heart, mind, and soul. Give thanks — enjoy the day and be ready to fight on!
Wayne Barrett: On any anti-Trump list, the late Village Voice journalist Wayne Barrett would be placed at the top. His stories of the financially predatory man-child he dubbed “Mr. Gimme” back in the day in New York City became the deep background for today’s journalists pondering what makes Trump tick (answer: grifting from the public). We should erect a Barrett memorial across Fifth Avenue from the once-and-forever grotesque Trump Tower.
Heather Cox Richardson: In September 2019, during the impeachment hearings, American historian Heather Cox Richardson, who teaches at Boston College, began to post to Facebook her cogent accounts of the hearings. This effort morphed into her newsletter “Letters from an American.” Richardson met the relentlessness of Trump with a relentlessness of her own, with nightly sourced missives to place him and this era into historical context, and to contrast what is happening with the nation’s ideals.
Randy Rainbow: Has this writing and performing genius earned an honorary Tony yet? Early on, my sister would badger me until I would watch the latest one, and I would be a bit annoyed until I found myself once again laughing out loud and shaking my head in amazement.
Pod Save America: Hosted by former Obama aides Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer and Tommy Vietor, the twice-weekly podcasts have coupled humor with serious discussions of the political process and enlightening interviews to help liberals and progressives survive the last four truly dystopian years. Given that so many people voted for Trump even after seeing what he was all about, their work is obviously not done.
Nicolle Wallace: All journalists were decried by Trump, who, in an autocratic move, relentlessly called them “the enemy of the people.” The various anchors and reporters on MSNBC were especially taken to task (in 2016, Katy Tur had to be escorted for her safety by the Secret Service from a Trump campaign rally, and Trump exulted while recounting a story about anchor Ali Velshi getting hit by a tear gas canister — it was a rubber bullet — as he was covering the protests in Minneapolis, saying that what the police did was “a beautiful sight”). Of all the journalists on MSNBC doing strong work, Wallace came as the biggest surprise in her cogent and experienced commentary. It didn’t hurt that she (and other MSNBC shows, the bulk of which are anchored by women) regularly turned to historians like Michael Beschloss and Pulitzer Prize–recipients Jon Meacham and Doris Kearns Goodwin to provide perspective and sorely needed civics lessons.
Rob Reiner: A fierce critic of Trump, Rob Reiner’s Nov. 10th tweet is typically deft: “Donald Trump has been protected against a lifetime of failure. Until now. His fall is exposed for the world to see. And all the King’s sycophants and all the King’s enablers will not be able to put Trumpty together again. You lost. Go home.”
Dan Rather: The 89-year-old former CBS news anchor continues to show us how to age well by staying engaged. His nearly 3 million followers on Facebook and 1.6 million on Twitter have found his voice and historical perspective calming in turbulent times. His sense of humor comes through, but it remains decidedly understated, as in this tweet from Nov. 22: “As names of Biden’s cabinet choices start leaking out, it seems his approach to staffing his administration will be a tad different from his predecessor’s. Experience and proven competence instead of nepotism and sycophancy.” Courage, Rather often exhorts. And his readers nod and then get a better night’s sleep.
Robert DeNiro: Whenever DeNiro speaks Trump’s name, it’s like there’s an awful taste in his mouth. Like most New Yorkers, DeNiro knows all too much about their local infamous con artist. His fellow uber-Manhattanite Fran Lebowitz has an easier time speaking of Trump but clearly voices her distaste: “He’s a poor person’s idea of a rich person” and “You don’t know anyone as stupid as Donald Trump. You just don’t.” DeNiro has gone on record to call him a “mutt” and a “wannabe mobster” among other often unprintable epithets. Before the 2016 election, DeNiro pleaded with the public to not vote for such a “bozo” and “an embarrassment to this country.”
Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, and Trevor Noah: For some reason, in that order, in our house, the next day. Meyers and Colbert (and their writers) are uniformly outstanding at taking down Trump and his enablers and various dark minions, but Noah has a super power: being a new citizen with an outsider’s perspective — he grew up in South Africa — adds depth to his commentary on our politics and culture.
Madeleine Albright: Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was alarmed enough by Trump’s authoritarian impulses and coddling of despots around the globe to write the 2018 book Fascism: A Warning, a study of the dynamics, economic and political, behind the rise of autocrats, and how it is made possible only with the assent of conservatives. To promote the book — and to get her higher message across — she made herself available to the various news shows, where she spoke of her family’s close brushes with totalitarianism — her father, a diplomat, twice fled Czechoslovakia with his family, first when the Nazis came to power in 1939 and then after the Communist takeover in 1948. Not one to mince words, Albright noted on the “Morning Joe” program just this week, “The last four years have been a disaster.”
Dan Olear: Novelist and journalist, his newsletter “PREVAIL” is often a delight to read. One, “101 Collaborators: Treason Power Rankings” inspired this piece. His posts are always informative and often devastatingly hilarious.
PBS NewsHour: The indefatigable Judy Woodruff continues to helm this venerable program chock full of in-depth pieces on world news and culture — you know, non-Trumpian things. Imagine! What a joy. Also, tuning into the BBC News or Newsy was always a relief from non-stop punditry.
Jim Wright: A retired U.S. Navy Chief Warrant Officer turned writer, Jim Wright’s blog, “Stonekettle Station,” has been a mainstay and a comfort to his readers for many years. He was great on George W. Bush. He’s a manly man who likes his cats and his photography and woodworking. You may find most mansplaining irritating, but you’ll likely adore his. His credo: “Coffee FIRST. Reboot the cat. Read daily hatemail. Despair for the future of humanity. Buy Whiskey.”
The Lincoln Project: A deep bench of Never Trumpers, including the wonderfully acerbic moderate Republican Steve Schmidt, founded The Lincoln Project to help fellow Republicans not comfortable with Trump see the light. Their promise to Democrats “We go low, so you don’t have to” was brilliant, as invariably were their political ads. (Check out their moving message for Thanksgiving.) Speaking of moderate Republicans, I personally found The Bulwark, which started in 2018, to be of great value, especially the always entertaining pieces by Charlie Sykes.
The Christian Left: Having been raised a Presbyterian, I’m a non-practicing cultural Christian, but I have found myself mighty irked by where the right has gone with their country club Jesus and the prosperity gospel and protestations of faith while supporting Trump and his anti-immigrant and otherwise racist policies and air-horn blasts. The Christian Left fighting for social justice may not be saving my little soul, but it is certainly trying to save the soul of a nation and to put Christ back in Christianity.
Dr. Anthony Fauci: That this renowned public health expert, and his family, faced death threats and needed protection says all one needs to know about Donald Trump — and his apologists. How the good doctor stood up to it all and held it together is a marvel. We are all in his debt — as we are to all doctors, nurses, and other health care workers in the country.
The Deep State: I don’t know about you, but I very much want my state deep — in knowledge, experience and real patriotism (not the phony flag-humping kind). And many, many individuals came through, and many resigned in the face of doing something unethical or were tweet-fired for speaking up publicly in a truthful way. From former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovich, Russian expert Fiona Hill, defense official Laura Cooper, Ukraine expert Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman to former Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency director Christopher Krebs — the list is long. All should be offered positions in the new administration, not as a tweak to Trump but as a necessary corrective to injustice and as a signal to those who think of a career as a public servant.
Mel Hughes: Unless you’re lucky, you don’t know Mel, but this former teacher and current wrestling coach (and vagabond, entertaining musician) deep in rural Missouri has been relentless in defending his notion of what makes for a civilized society — and it isn’t the one we’ve experienced of late. No doubt other people in rural parts of the country have put their reputations on the line in an attempt to awaken their friends and neighbors to the threat to democracy (and to civil rights and the environment and the rule of law) that Trump and his acolytes represent. There’s only one Mel Hughes in these-here parts, but maybe you know a Mel of your own, a person who has, for love of country, steadfastly put his or her standing in the community on the line during these troubling times.