My Changing Moods

Last night, two separate experiences had me caroming from a heartfelt sense of optimism for America’s future, sure of its underlying strengths, to a feeling of foreboding, questioning whether the United States truly does have the institutional stability to come out of its present chaos whole. — Today I thought a bit more about last night’s mental journey.

I’ll start with what initially put me in such a good mood. Tuesday night was the monthly meeting of the New Trier Dems Executive Committee. These meetings aren’t always mood enhancers. They’re often just about routine stuff (although, it is always enjoyable to gather with fellow Democrats who have a fierce concern for the health of our democracy).

But at this meeting, we welcomed a special guest who’d been invited to speak to us. Lauren Underwood is the Democratic candidate running to unseat Republican Randy Hultgren in Illinois’ 14th Congressional District. If you Google the 14th District map you’ll see that it covers a huge area, southwest, west and north of Chicago. It spans seven Illinois counties and includes tracts of rapidly growing suburban communities as well as expanses of farmland.

Randy Hultgren has been the district’s unremarkable Congressman since 2010. According to the website Five Thirty Eight, he has voted in line with President Trump 98.7% of the time. His career party-line voting record is 99%. (Not exactly an independent thinker.)

Lauren Underwood has already shown herself to be a formidable candidate. In the March Primary, she defeated six other Democrats, winning over 57% of all votes cast! Hultgren knows he’s in trouble.

Lauren is a Naperville native, a registered nurse who previously served as a Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of Human Services (HHS). A pre-existing heart condition as a child inspired her to become a nurse. Understandably, her personal experiences have given her valuable insights into what our present health care system (or lack of it) needs.

But as Lauren presented her views and answered our questions, we quickly learned that she is not a one-issue candidate. She has an appealing agenda of progressive goals that appears to be resonating with many voters in her district.She is young, a “Millenial,” but her maturity and intelligence are apparent as soon as she speaks. There wasn’t one question from our Exec Committee members that she didn’t handle with skill and confidence.

Although Lauren Underwood doesn’t represent New Trier voters, she left us convinced that her presence in Washington will benefit every Illinois resident. I know that the NTDO will be looking for ways to help her win a U.S. House seat in November.

So, as our meeting adjourned, I was definitely in a positive mood. When I got home, I turned on the TV, watched the Cubs wrap up their latest win, then switched channels to watch Frontline on WTTW. The Frontline documentary was about the neo-Nazi violence that hit Charlottesville, Virginia one year ago this week. – What I learned erased my cheerful mood.

As all of you no doubt know, Charlottesville, Virginia was the scene of a terrible tragedy during demonstrations supporting the removal of Jim Crow era statues of Confederate heroes. A fanatic white nationalist drove a car into the crowd, killing a young demonstrator, Heather Heyer. But what I didn’t know is that there was a much larger story behind the Charlottesville violence. There were two days and nights of thuggish activity by the white nationalist neo-Nazis in which the local police seemed to be more “violence observers” than peace enforcers.

Beyond that disturbing fact, the history of those neo-Nazis leading up to their appearance in Charlottesville is much more complex than the impression given by news bites at the time of the tragedy. These warped, angry young men (and some women too) weren’t just local right wing agitators. They traveled in from other parts of the United States as far away as the West Coast. Many wearing their red MAGA Trump ball caps. (Recently, I heard a reporter note that many license plates on cars gathered at “local” Trump rallies are often from out-of-state.)

In a nation of 325 million people, the number of such fanatics has always been relatively small, and they’ve usually been fairly inconspicuous. But since the campaign and election of Donald Trump, with his inflammatory language and tacit approval of violence and racist views, these dangerous fringe groups have become emboldened to step out of the shadows. They are recruiting and, so far, it doesn’t appear that the Trump Administration is doing much to stop them.

The actions in Charlottesville were just a few steps removed from the 1920’s Nazi Brown Shirts who helped pave the way for “their Fuhrer.” In fact, I’ve long wondered how those bloody confrontations in the Weimar Republic were allowed to occur. Where were the local police or the government peacekeepers? Where was the outcry from the nation’s leadership? Did they just view it all as unfortunate occurrences between “good people on both sides?”

I’m not saying we’re approaching anything close to the Weimar Republic’s collapse. Our democracy and economy are still strong and our free press still has a influential voice. But even so, our best hope for leading our nation away from the sort of violent abyss demagogues love continues to be our political system. It still allows good men and women to come forward and gain a voice in our government. Those candidates, thoughtful, dedicated men and women (this year, especially women) are out there right now. They’re running in dozens of races across the United States that, with the help of people like us, they will win. I met one of them last night. And thinking about that now does put me back in a better mood.

Nels Howard
NTDO member since 1973

P.S. Here’s the link to the Frontline wesite and their Charlottesville documentary.