Over the past few weeks, as the number of deaths across the country from Covid-19 soared past 80,000, the media expressed a mix of surprise and dismay that President Donald Trump appears utterly uninterested in mourning the dead of this pandemic — or even acknowledging death at all. Thirty-four years after Ronald Reagan earned the sobriquet “mourner-in-chief” for eulogizing the astronauts killed in the 1986 Challenger Disaster, the current White House cannot even muster an effort for the most basic and ineffectual of gestures: lowering flags to half-mast.
“In his daily news conferences,” Peter Baker writes in The New York Times, Trump “makes only perfunctory references to those who have died as he stiffly reads opening remarks, exhibiting more emotion when grieving his lost economic record than his lost constituents.” Journalists have described Trump’s “empathy deficit” as simply another function of his narcissism. But it would be a mistake to understand this deficit as entirely attributable to Trump himself.
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While the modern Republican party has dismantled crucial government infrastructure over the past two decades — from voting rights, to unemployment, to medical care, to the CDC — it has also quietly dismantled the nation’s communal capacity to grieve, a vital public infrastructure which has left us without a mourner-in-chief, or anywhere to channel our grief at all.
On May 5, Senator Kamala Harris tweeted a response to a leaked White House projection about Covid deaths leveling off at 3,000 casualties a day: “That’s the number of people we lost during 9/11. Every. Single. Day.” It’s a staggering comparison, but referencing September 11 has become a commonplace system of measurement for politicians, one that doesn’t apply to other mass casualty events. We don’t speak of a “Katrina’s worth of deaths” or a “Pulse-nightclub-shooting number of fatalities.” Perhaps because the September 11 attacks were the last time we collectively engaged in grief as a country, a number of dead that conformed to a measurable output of national pain.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, mourning became a national pastime. What began as spontaneous memorials of candles, flowers, flyers and other homemade artwork in parks and streets in lower Manhattan quickly became ritualized. The New York Times began a series called “Portraits of Grief,” providing short obituaries for the 2,977 lives lost during the attacks in an attempt to rescue these individuals from becoming mere statistics. Annual commemorations regularly attended by sitting presidents involved reading the names of the dead and observing a moment of silence.
Politicians on the right have always found it much easier to praise first responders than to face grief; every tragedy is a miracle if you look at it right.
But after September 11 we, as a country, decided we would not be silent. George W. Bush climbed the rubble at the World Trade Center site with a small American flag and a bullhorn just three days after 9/11. When he proclaimed, “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon,” it was more than just a defiant rallying cry; it was a signal that America’s mourning was to be weaponized. Bush’s voice was drowned out by chants of USA! USA! In this moment, it was clear to everyone watching that American mourning would be replaced with American vengeance.
The trend away from mourning toward revenge has been a long time coming. In his 1994 book Achilles in Vietnam, psychiatrist Jonathan Shay explained that in his work with Vietnam veterans who had PTSD he became increasingly aware so many of them were suffering because they had not been allowed to grieve their fallen comrades. Instead, soldiers were encouraged to sublimate their grief into violence. In his book, Shay discusses how “the folk culture of the American military, especially during the Vietnam War, merged fighting spirit with being berserk.” In particular, how “leadership beliefs encouraged the conversion of grief into berserk rage as a militarily desirable consequence.”
In the wake of September 11, this attitude spilled out of the military and into American popular consciousness, and it’s where we’ve been as a nation, more or less, ever since. If our grief can be channeled toward political ends — primarily war, but also other forms of supremacy — then it is useful and encouraged. If it cannot, then it is suppressed.
Compare the unrestricted, encouraged outpouring of grief after September 11 to two other mass casualty events that happened during George W. Bush’s presidency. The Defense Department decided the optics of caskets returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan would have the potential to turn public opinion against the war, so it renewed a media blackout on military funerals — a ban which had been put in place in 1991 by then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney during the Persian Gulf War. (Images of soldiers’ caskets returning home had been commonplace during the Vietnam War.)
The Defense Department claimed the ban protected military families from shock and discomfort, but there was never anything insensitive about the photos. In October 2003, muckraker Russ Kick filed a FOIA request with the Dover Air Force Base and received a CD with images of flag-draped caskets, which he posted to his website, The Memory Hole. It was the first time American audiences had witnessed the caskets of soldiers killed in the line of duty in more than a decade. The images were artfully composed and showed personnel at Dover Air Force Base reverentially receiving the bodies of the dead. They were, in other words, perfectly acceptable expressions of grief and respect for the military dead. The government’s desire to keep these images hidden was less about being insensitive and more about suppressing the act of witness altogether. (The Obama administration reversed the media ban on military funerals in 2009, ending a policy that had been in place for 18 years.)
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Louisiana coastline and devastated New Orleans. The exact death toll remains uncertain to this day; different figures put it between 1,200 and 1,800 lives lost, a staggering catastrophe and one whose effects we’ve never, as a nation, truly reckoned with. Grief turned to rage after Katrina, which was properly directed toward local and federal governments who failed to protect people in advance of the storm and left them to die afterward. Kanye West’s comment during a September 2 telethon that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” was the perfect crystallization of post-Katrina mourning. What the Bush Administration learned firsthand from Katrina is that while you can weaponize grief, you can’t control it. Grief is messy and unpredictable; it lashes out in all directions. Grief can be used against you as easily as you use it against your enemies.
In prepared remarks delivered two weeks after the hurricane’s landfall, President Bush spoke of the devastation of the city of New Orleans in the aftermath of the storm. He spoke of the unexpected compassion of Americans who helped out in times of duress to assist their neighbors. He spoke of the need to rebuild and laid out a plan for federal aid.
What he did not do was speak about the dead. Aside from two fleeting references in the first lines of his speech — of fellow citizens “grieving for the dead,” and the sight of “bodies of the dead lying uncovered and untended in the street” — Bush did not address the staggering number of American deaths that resulted from the hurricane, nor what such a loss could possibly mean to the country. He spoke of the city rising again, but he did not dwell on the grief of the survivors, nor of the mourning that the city — or the nation — would need to do. In his closing remarks, he brought up the New Orleans jazz funeral tradition, but he did so with a metaphor: “In this place, there is a custom for the funerals of jazz musicians. The funeral procession parades slowly through the streets, followed by a band playing a mournful dirge as it moves to the cemetery. Once the casket has been laid in place, the band breaks into a joyful ‘second line’ — symbolizing the triumph of the spirit over death. Tonight, the Gulf Coast is still coming through the dirge — yet we will live to see the second line.”
But the deaths from Katrina were not metaphors for the city’s destruction; they were literal, actual human lives lost, and Bush understood that to admit their existence would be to open his administration up to very obvious questions as to why they had not done more to prevent such a staggering loss. Faced with this uncomfortable possibility, it was simpler to suppress any attempt to publicly mourn them altogether.
During the Obama administration, the GOP not only abdicated the idea that the President should play the role of mourner-in-chief; they came to treat the role with scorn and ridicule. When President Obama broke into tears during a press conference after the Sandy Hook shooting on December 14, 2012, Fox News host Andrea Tantaros was quick to complain that Obama’s crying was “not really believable,” suggesting he hid an onion in his lectern. Meghan McCain echoed these sentiments: “It just didn’t seem horribly authentic. And maybe it is; I don’t know him at all,” she said. “Go to your hometown of Chicago instead of talking about God-fearing Americans when ISIS is coming to their hometown.”
The tone-policing of authentic expressions of grief was vital to the dehumanizing of the children killed at Sandy Hook. In the process, the right has had to work overtime to suppress scenes of mourning for the tens of thousands of other victims of preventable gun violence since. This tactic lasted throughout Obama’s presidency: In a 2016 op-ed, Sarah Palin once again mocked Obama for weeping while “he blamed law-abiding patriots for the nation’s insecurity and sought to strip them of the Constitutional rights that generations of Americans shed blood to protect,” while the National Review’s Charles C. W. Cooke called Obama’s tears “embarrassing,” “irrational,” “dishonest,” and “ultimately weak.”
Grief is messy and unpredictable; it lashes out in all directions. Grief can be used against you as easily as you use it against your enemies.
Republicans seem to have learned that once you have taught people to instrumentalize grief, you can’t stop them from turning it against you, particularly with — as with the case of gun violence — death that stems entirely from the GOP’s policies and political base. Any politician who would seek to express any kind of bereavement over a mass shooting, or the death of soldiers in a bungled and never-ending war, must be inauthentic. The litany of “thoughts and prayers” is intended to work as a smothering blanket, a ham-handed attempt to sever the link between tragedy and politics, and it provides, at best, temporary cover for the real work of repressing death altogether. When Senator Chuck Schumer broke down during a press conference over the president’s immigration ban (which has resulted in the deaths of dozens of people, including children), Trump was quick to ridicule him as “Fake Tears Chuck Schumer,” eager to obliterate any notion that American policies might trigger a genuine emotional response.
Perhaps expressions of grief now only can happen at a local level, because they no longer serve national interests. In the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in American history — 58 killed at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas — an impromptu memorial sprang up on the Vegas Strip consisting of crosses, flowers, photos, and handwritten signs. It evoked the same kind of spontaneous expressions of grief that marked September 11 and Katrina, an authentic outpouring of emotions from a community grieving together.
During his October 3 remarks about Vegas, Trump did his best to sound presidential (“Hundreds of our fellow citizens are now mourning the sudden loss of a loved one: a parent, a child, a brother or sister. We cannot fathom their pain. We cannot imagine their loss. To the families of the victims, we are praying for you, and we are here for you, and we ask God to help see you through this very dark period.”) But as soon as he was asked by a reporter about gun control, he shifted his stance: “Look, we have a tragedy,” Trump responded. “What happened is, in many ways, a miracle. The police department, they’ve done such an incredible job. And we’ll be talking about gun laws as time goes on.” Politicians on the right have always found it much easier to praise first responders than to face grief; every tragedy is a miracle if you look at it right.
The spontaneous memorial, meanwhile, stayed there for six weeks before it was moved to the Clark County Museum, retired and removed from popular consciousness. While an attempt to design a permanent monument sputters on in fits and starts, the rest of the country seems to have moved on.
All of which leaves us where we are today: A country crippled by 80,000 dead and counting, with no national mechanism to mourn.
Mourning in America has always been political. As the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has commented, “Life and death are not properly scientific concepts but rather political concepts, which as such acquire a political meaning precisely only through a decision.” How a death becomes real is through remembrance and public grieving. Whose death is commemorated every anniversary, who is given a monument in granite and stone, whose death merits a holiday on a calendar — these have always been contested questions.
The extreme, logical conclusion of the Right’s attempt to deny the reality of gun violence has been the rise of the Truther movement, conspiracy theorists who maintain that Sandy Hook and other mass casualty events were hoaxes perpetrated by a government trying to restrict gun access. For years, families who lost children at Newtown have been living in a special Hell, where the grief is ridiculed by internet conspiracists who claim their children never existed.
These conspiracies have largely been relegated to the fringe, but they’re now on the verge of becoming policy. The White House now seems to be moving toward a re-election strategy that hinges on normalizing catastrophic deaths from Covid-19, while also suggesting that the reported numbers are overstated.
As the unprecedented death toll continues to mount as a result of the coronavirus, right-wing politicians are increasingly telling us that death no longer matters, from Chris Christie arguing that we’re just “gonna have to” accept thousands of deaths each day, to Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick stating that there are “more important things” than living, to Indiana Representative Trey Hollingsworth calling death the “lesser of two evils” when compared to a faltering economy.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported, Deborah Birx, who oversees the administration’s response to the pandemic, became frustrated in a recent meeting with “the CDC’s antiquated system for tracking virus data,” worrying that it “was inflating some statistics — such as mortality rate and case count — by as much as 25 percent.”
Death, to these ghouls, has ceased to mean anything beyond numbers, statistics, and polling results. But what lies behind all of these statements is more than an obsession with profits over people. It’s an attempt to control the politics of death, to deny our right to suffer and to grieve, and to suppress our ability to merely acknowledge the death all around us. As our loved ones die in politically inconvenient ways, there will be increasing pressure to simply deny that they ever died — or lived — in the first place.