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Tomgram: Liz Theoharis, Grappling With a Divided Nation

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Yes, he golfed numerous times, gave a double thumbs-up through his car window, and tweeted ominously in all-caps ("I WON THE ELECTION, GOT 71,000,000 LEGAL VOTES. BAD THINGS HAPPENED WHICH OUR OBSERVERS WERE NOT ALLOWED TO SEE. NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE"), but for nine days, the most voluble president in our history made not an official appearance, nor spoke a single word to his fan base or anyone else in public. Even at his first official post-election outing on Veteran's Day, though he was shown touching a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery and saluting the "suckers" and "losers" (as he once reputedly called them) buried there, not a word. Not a single word from the man who could talk for hours non-stop to that adoring base of his at those super-spreader rallies and then do it all over again an hour or two later.

In short, the most self-praising president in our history had fallen silent, even as he fired his secretary of defense and various other Pentagon officials, and began remaking his national security crew with just 10 weeks left in his presidency, while refusing to concede a defeat that was obvious beyond words. As the man of the hour (other than Joe Biden, of course) in this (ir)reality show of ours, complete with scam fundraising practices, he's proving to be the hostest with the leastest. Above all, and no surprise here, he's proven utterly incapable of doing the one thing he practiced so successfully for so many years and was still practicing on Mark "Yesper" and crew. He simply couldn't bear to fire himself.

If this isn't a coup d'e'tat -- and it probably isn't -- then what is it? The strangest presidency in our history is all-too-appropriately coming to the strangest end imaginable. Donald Trump, silent for the longest time in his presidency, finally held a relatively brief news conference on day 10 to hint at admitting someday that Joe Biden might be the next president ("time will tell"). In what universe could all of this happen?

Polls show that a staggering percentage of Republicans now suspect a fair election of having been fraudulent beyond belief. Meanwhile, in his own strange fashion, their president continues to remind all of us that we now live in a land divided in ways inconceivable since the Civil War ended more than a century and a half ago.

Where we go from here is anyone's guess, so I thought it appropriate today to turn this website over to the co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, TomDispatch regular Liz Theoharis. She considers where exactly we are as the Biden years approach, however bizarrely, in a riven land of such staggering inequality as to be almost beyond imagining, and just what might still emerge from all this. Tom

The Other America
The New Politics of the Poor in Joe Biden's (and Mitch McConnell's) USA
By Liz Theoharis

In the two weeks since Election 2020, the country has oscillated between joy and anger, hope and dread in an era of polarization sharpened by the forces of racism, nativism, and hate. Still, truth be told, though the divisive tone of this moment may only be sharpening, division in the United States of America is not a new phenomenon.

Over the past days, I've found myself returning to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in 1967, just a year before his own assassination, gave a speech prophetically entitled "The Other America" in which he vividly described a reality that feels all too of this moment rather than that one:

"There are literally two Americas. One America is beautiful... and overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies; and culture and education for their minds; and freedom and human dignity for their spirits...

"But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."

In Dr. King's day, that other America was, for a time, laid bare to the nation through mass social unrest and political change, through the bold actions of the freedom fighters who won the Voting Rights Act and then just kept on fighting, as well as governmental programs like the "War on Poverty." And yet, despite the significant gains then, for many decades since, inequality in this country has been on the rise to previously unimaginable levels, while poverty remained locked in and largely ignored.

Today, in the early winter of an uncurbed pandemic and the economic crisis that accompanies it, there are 140 million poor or low-income Americans, disproportionately people of color, but reaching into every community in this country: 24 million Blacks, 38 million Latinos, eight million Asians, two million Native peoples, and 66 million whites. More than a third of the potential electorate, in other words, has been relegated to poverty and precariousness and yet how little of the political discourse in recent elections was directed at those who were poor or one storm, fire, job loss, eviction, or healthcare crisis away from poverty and economic chaos. In the distorted mirror of public policy, those 140 million people have remained essentially invisible. As in the 1960s and other times in our history, however, the poor are no longer waiting for recognition from Washington. Instead, every indication is that they're beginning to organize themselves, taking decisive action to alter the scales of political power.

For years, I've traveled this country, working to build a movement to end poverty. In a nation that has so often boasted about being the wealthiest and freest in history, I've regularly witnessed painful divisions caused by hunger, homelessness, sickness, degradation, and so much more. In Lowndes County, Alabama, for instance, I organized with people who lived day in, day out with raw sewage in their yards and dangerous mold in their homes. On Apache land in Oak Flats, Arizona, I stood with native leaders struggling to cope with generations of loss and plunder, most recently at the hands of a multinational copper mining company. In Gray's Harbor, Washington, I visited millennials living in homeless encampments under constant siege by militia groups and the police. And the list, sadly, only goes on.

As the future administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris heads for the White House (no matter the recalcitrant loser still ensconced there), the rest of us must equip ourselves with both courage and caution, living as we do in a divided nation, in -- to be exact -- two very different Americas. Keep in mind that these are not the insulated, readymade Americas of MSNBC and Fox News, of Republicans and Democrats, of conservatives and liberals. All of us live in a land where there are two Americas, one of unimaginable wealth, the other of miserable poverty; an America of the promised good life and one of almost guaranteed premature death.

Unleashing the Power of Poor and Low-Income Voters

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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