The Government Has Dismantled Our Ability to Grieve as a Nation

Grief is an unwieldy weapon, and the GOP has shown it would rather mock death than mourn it.

Colin Dickey
GEN
Published in
11 min readMay 14, 2020

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Activists hold signs and tombstone shapes in front of the Phillip Burton Federal Building to honor Covid-19 victims.
Activists in San Francisco honor victims of Covid-19 who died while incarcerated Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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.

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…

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Colin Dickey
GEN
Writer for

Failed histories, histories of failure. Author of four books: The Unidentified, Ghostland, Afterlives of the Saints, and Cranioklepty.