Dear Phil, Sorry for not writing…Trump got in the way

Will Biden get in?

By Stephanie Urdang


Dear Phil,

I haven’t forgotten about your request to write something for Ars Notoria.  Your faith in me and my ability to produce something worthwhile is gratifying.  But at the moment Trump and his lies and his sheer evil are messing with my head.  If it was just the Coronavirus and the impact on the lives of us all, I think I could be at my computer churning out something.  But those of us who care about justice and real democracy in America, know that we have been hit by two deadly forces.

Having been hunkered down in social isolation with John, my husband, and my cat for close to eight months and counting, I just can’t get up the energy, focus, inspiration to write anything.  We are trying to get through each day until the election, just under two weeks away as I write (panic surge).  Many of us are managing these last days, working in whatever way we can to help GOTV.  We are saturated.  I feel like I am gasping for breath in a room filled with toxic fog.

And anyway, everything and more, has been said, written, punditted, filled the news as if the rest of the world hardly exists.  Some of it enlightening.  Some of it horrifying.  Most of it frightening.  What could I possibly add that is worthwhile to the density of words being spewed out about the election?  About the president? About Biden? About the state of the United States.  About everything and nothing. Just sifting through it gives me a headache. 

… this deep distress about what is happening in the country and what will continue to happen even if Biden is elected, stills my fingers from writing something worthwhile for you, Phil

I envy those who can get up each morning and analyze and probe and yell and sound off at the mouth about what is going on with such eloquence while I wake every morning wishing I didn’t have to get out of bed and face the day.  Wake every morning angry.  Pissed off. Upset. Filled with fear.

But I do get out of bed, usually not before I have grabbed my phone, tuned into the news, read the roundup of The Guardian and The New York Times and other feeds that seem to believe they have been summoned like nasty Halloween clowns to scare the bejeebers out of me.   A word I hear often these days from friends when we commiserate with each other is ‘disoriented’.  ‘Untethered‘.  Another word is “overwhelmed”.  Not used lightly as in, “I am overwhelmed by choices”, but in a deep, existential way.  We feel overwhelmed by the barrage of Trump’s actions at all levels, moving through each day trying to cope with the effect of the pandemic on our lives, individually and collectively, trying to cope with the bombardment of news from which we can’t distance ourselves.

Trump has done irreparable damage to this country. The Administration’s refusal to develop a national policy for Covid has led to over 220,000 deaths and rapidly counting – possibly half of which could have been avoided – while at the same time stalling a new stimulus package for those rendered economically fragile.  Covid, the economy and the disaster of Trump are bundled up together, bringing chaos to this nation.

his [Trump’s] name will ever be associated with horror, disgust and pain.  His balcony appearance when returning the White House from his hospital stay for Covid was described as Mussolini-esque.  He is fascist-esque. 

There was a time in another era, just a very few months ago, when I would say to myself, “Things can’t possibly get worse.”  They got worse.  Now there is no room for getting worse.  Life in America is pretty much the worst.

Where is that country I emigrated to, to get away from the apartheid totalitarian, police state? When I arrived in New York City from Cape Town in my early twenties towards the end of 1967, I thought I was arriving in a democracy.  A good place, I thought.  With opportunities and freedom, I thought.  I could talk on the phone without out the clicks alerting me to the fact there were more than two people on the line.  I didn’t have to walk to the bottom of a garden or worry about bugs to converse about politics or about the work I was doing at Defence and Aid before it was banned.  I immersed myself in reading – nothing was banned!  I had vast choices! 

The Administration’s refusal to develop a national policy for Covid has led to over 220,000 deaths and rapidly counting – possibly half of which could have been avoided

Well, I knew about US imperialism, I wasn’t totally innocent.  My father, the Trotskyist he was, had railed against the belly of the beast.  But me, I thought that if Americans could just come to grips with how totally awful and oppressive the apartheid state was they would pressure their government to pressure the apartheid government to change its ways. 

I was that naïve.  My naivete didn’t last long.  1968 was around the corner. The assassinations of King and Kennedy.  The police riots against demonstrators as the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The student uprisings the world over. The 60’s slid into the 70s. I joined anti-Vietnam war marches and protests; I marched to demand the passage of the (unsuccessful) ERA – Equal Rights Amendment – and I threw myself with heart and soul in the anti-apartheid movement, into the solidarity movement with the peoples of the Portuguese colonies fighting wars of liberation; I reveled in and learned from the women’s movement, became a feminist; I marveled at the Black Power movement.

Where is that country I emigrated to, to get away from the apartheid totalitarian, police state?

I would soon appreciate that there was a price to the freedom that many Americans enjoyed; that racism was deeply rooted; that white privilege and white supremacy were the warp and weave of American life. That inequality was the bedrock of the nation.  America wasn’t going to change without ongoing protest, organizing, demands.  Our protests helped end the Vietnam war in 1975.  On the global arena, the liberation struggles in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau provided a death knell for fascism in Portugal. In the 1980’s the divestment movement took hold across the US, forcing corporations and the Federal government to end investments, trade and loans to the apartheid regime. We believed ‘we the people’ had power.  That ‘we the people’ could bring about lasting change and transformation. And we did win victories.  We just didn’t win the war.  And now that war is heating up.

Covid has exposed the core of inequality and injustice in the US and elsewhere that no-one can possibly deny.  Unlike South Africans who were ‘shocked’ when apartheid fell because they had ‘no idea’ how bad it was.  Or the Germans who denied what was going on under their noses.  Black Lives Matter has been a rallying cry for not only Black and brown people, but for everyone shocked anew by injustice in America, as police violence and murders have brought all generations but particularly youth out onto the streets in protest.  All this and similar actions give me hope.  As does the election of young men and women into Congress, into state assemblies and city councils; the organizing around climate change; the country-wide campaigns to get out the vote.


It is this that ultimately propels me out of bed in the morning even as my deadlines stall. Ideas stagnate.  What I do write are postcards to help get out the vote. I urge Texans to: “Pledge to vote early and avoid long lines on Election Day.”  In states where early voting ahead of November 3rd has already begun Americans are voting in their millions, but they haven’t avoided the long lines.  People determined to exercise their constitutional right to vote stand in long lines that snake around buildings for half a mile or more.  Photos remind me of images from South Africa’s first democratic election day in 1994.

Will Biden get in?

There is no Federal mandate permitting Americans to take time off from work to vote.  Whether you can get time off, and if so, whether you will be paid for taking that time off, is up to the state in which you happen to reside. Where it is allowed, the limit is two hours, maybe three. If you have to wait for four hours and counting – tough.  In New Jersey, where I live and vote, employers are not required to give their workers time off to vote.  Every registered voter was however mailed a mail-in ballot. I have already slipped the envelope containing my vote into the secure ballot box outside my municipal building. I voted for Biden. Of course.  He’ll be a so-so President.  We need a strong president not a so-so one. But he’s not Trump.  He needs no other credential. He’s in the category of the bumper sticker I saw the other day, “Any Adult, 2020.” 

I would have loved to have inked in the oval next to a name like Elizabeth Warren.  Now that would have given me a charge.  John would have chosen Bernie Sanders’ name.  But then he couldn’t have because John is a Canadian and has lived in the US for the almost fifty years but isn’t a citizen.  But that doesn’t stop him running off his mouth.  He fanaticizes (threatens?) going back to Canada if Trump is reelected.  Sorry.  I love him and all that, but he can go back by himself. Fleeing one totalitarian state in a life time is enough.

I would have loved to have inked in the oval next to a name like Elizabeth Warren.  Now that would have given me a charge. 

Will Biden get in?  This is the million dollar question I am constantly asked by friends outside of America.  Good question.  We’ll know the answer before too long.  Polls are looking very good for Biden. There is a sense of manic optimism in the US right now among many of those who want Trump gone. (Mind if I sprinkle some salt over my left shoulder?) Reminder:  Polls looked good for Clinton.  Reminder: The popular vote doesn’t count.  Only the votes of the Electoral College matter. Reminder:  Clinton won the popular vote by three million, and lost the election.  Reminder:  The United States of America is not a democracy. Only the eight ‘swing’ states, those previously democratic states that gave Trump his win, are important.  Reminder: If Biden doesn’t win these, the state’s electoral college votes will go to Trump even if he wins by just one vote. At the moment, Biden looks comfortably ahead in all polls.  Reminder:  Polls have been shown to be unreliable. 

People say they are going to vote Democratic, then don’t bother to vote.  People are hesitant to admit that they are voting for Trump.  And if the majority of the votes, including in the swing states, are for Biden, Trump has already indicated he will challenge the hell out of a “rigged” election hoping for a decision in the Supreme Court.  We know how that one will go.  And on top of this, if Biden wins but the Senate maintains a Republican majority, his efforts to turn his policies into legislation with be blocked. The Republicans did it with Obama.  They’ll certainly do it again. A Trump victory and a Republican minority make it harder for Trump to continue to destroy this country. So although I shave off slivers of hope from the polls, I still have difficulty facing the day.


There is another reason for my morning mindset.  I seldom see my two- and-half year-old grandson.  Since March I have seen Adam – FaceTime doesn’t count – perhaps eight times.  He lives a 50-minute drive from my home to his in Brooklyn.  We get together in Prospect Park, trying but not totally successfully to keep the advised social distance, using hand sanitizer constantly.  The touch of his little hand in mine as he pulls me towards the large climbing structure darts straight to my heart; the softness of his skin, the warmth of his fingers. I try to stop tears.  I am skin hungry for my little boy.  Cuddle hungry.  I envy my friends who are in a pod with their children and grandchildren. We can’t be. My daughter is a risk factor for us vulnerable parents. She is nurse practitioner working at a women’s health clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of the poorest NYC neighborhoods.  She has not been infected herself, but co-workers and patients have.  The leaves are glowing orange outside my window. Winter is fast a-coming.  No more park visits.  Until…?

I try to stop tears.  I am skin hungry for my little boy.  Cuddle hungry.  I envy my friends who are in a pod with their children and grandchildren. We can’t be.

In case, Phil, you are moved to feel sorry for me, don’t!  Don’t!  I know all too damn well how privileged I am.  I am literally moved to tears of emotion, as I drive passed the long, long line of cars – new vintage cars to cars needing body work and valve replacements, filled with families or a single driver as they line up to pick up free food at a distribution center in my town, where some of the most affluent families in New Jersey live.  Yes, I might be affected deeply and personally by this president and his refusal to confront the virus, but it is nothing, absolutely nothing in comparison to those who have lost their jobs, who are living in cramped quarters with children, worrying about where the next meal will come from.  To those who live alone in loneliness and despair without social contact. To those who have lost fathers and husbands, mothers and wives, children.

And thinking of children, my not seeing Adam can’t even begin to compare with the children separated at the border from their parents, the ultimate measure of Trump’s cruelty. To the millions worrying whether they will still have cramped quarters to live in because they can’t pay their rent and no help is coming from the government.  Worrying, if they are sick, whether to go to the hospital because they don’t have health coverage.  Those opening their mail to find bills for hospital stays in the thousands and thousands of dollars that they don’t and will never have. 

In case, Phil, you are moved to feel sorry for me, don’t!  Don’t!  I know all too damn well how privileged I am.

Access to free or low-cost health care is taken for granted in Europe, where the virus has raged and is re-raging.  But not so in the US. This country is the only industrialized country that does not provide universal healthcare. It is a major source of bankruptcy and destitution for Americans who can’t afford health insurance.  Most get it through their employers but Covid has caused lay offs of an unprecedented number of workers. To buy health insurance is expensive and way beyond the means of most individuals and families. Across America families have used up their savings, if they had them, to pay for food and rent.  For those living from paycheck to paycheck savings are a distant dream.

Across America families have used up their savings, if they had them, to pay for food and rent.

Trump will go down in history conjuring up the shock and horror reserved for the names Hitler or Mussolini or Verwoerd.  I am not saying he is the equivalent of Hitler et al.  I am saying his name will ever be associated with horror, disgust and pain.  His balcony appearance when returning the White House from his hospital stay for Covid was described as Mussolini-esque.  He is fascist-esque.  We are in trouble.  Not only those living in America.  But the world.             

So this deep distress about what is happening in the country and what will continue to happen even if Biden is elected, stills my fingers from writing something worthwhile for you, Phil. Meanwhile I try to remember to breathe until the election results are known.


Stephanie J. Urdang is a writer and journalist. For many years she was a consultant on gender equality for the United Nations and UN agencies.  Her latest book is the memoir, Mapping My Way Home: Activism, Nostalgia and the Downfall of Apartheid South Africa. Two previous books covered the role of women in the (now failed) revolutions in Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique. She lives in New Jersey, USA although still deeply attached to South Africa where she grew up.

https://www.stephaniejurdang.com/