We are always living history as our present becomes our past.
We are closing in on almost two years of a global pandemic that’s taken the lives of over three quarters of a million Americans and sickened close to 47 million just in our country. Up until Mississippi displaced us, our state had the highest per capita COVID death rate on the planet.
At the same time, even amidst this great common tribulation of biblical proportions, we were ourselves sharply divided when we needed unity most. No doubt we were robbed of this essential cohesion, even as death went door to door, by a national government led by Donald Trump who had risen to power based on his prowess as a great divider along racial and ethnic lines.
Much of Trump’s rise to power happened here in the Garden State.
New Jersey is also the landscape upon which so much of the American Revolution played out with Morristown, serving as the military capital of the United States in 1779 when General Washington took up residence in the Ford Mansion.
When Washington’s troops hunkered down in Morristown during November of 1779 during what the U.S. National Park Service reports “would be the coldest winter on record” they did not know that it would not be until Sept. 3, 1783, when the Treaty of Paris would be signed formally ending the American War for Independence.
For those intervening years, after the Continental Army found sanctuary in the hills outside of Morristown, the fate of the nation, that was yet to be, was painfully ground out here in this state, our state.
Some 250 years later, it would be just down the road on Route 202 (Cannonball Rd.) in Bedminster, that Donald Trump uses from time to time as a base of operations which includes his current efforts to use the courts to obstruct the House probe of his actions. It was his success at morphing Trump 2020 into “Stop the Steal” that produced the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol and the police protecting the Congress as they prepared to memorialize the 2020 election results.
Today, some 250 years later, the American Revolution is most often perceived as merely a two-dimensional conflict between the British Crown and colonists striving for independence. But the lived experience was far messier and resembles our current ongoing tumult more than we realize.
Indeed, even amongst the American colonists, opinions on the era’s burning question about independence and fealty to King George III divided families, churches and communities. Washington’s own army had fissures as well that posed a threat to military cohesion. Even within the very army fighting for this new nation yet to be born, there was a dynamic tension that could be so fractious as to put the entire undertaking at risk.
It was in Morristown in December of 1779, that Major General Benedict Arnold’s court martial resumed on 13 counts of corruption and self-dealing. He would be acquitted of all but two of the charges for which he was let off with a reprimand from Washington.
Several months later, Arnold would unsuccessfully attempt to sell out the American cause for £ 20,000 in exchange for turning over the strategic West Point and 3,000 troops. He escaped to British controlled New York City.
Only history would get to deliver a verdict.
It’s fair to say that betrayal of the collective Revolutionary effort born of self-serving grandiosity was part of the American DNA long before the nation itself was fully formed and continues to haunt us. It manifested in the form of that Jan. 6 U.S. Capital Insurrection when President Trump and his acolytes, including some New Jersey Republicans, tried to subvert our democracy to serve Trump’s vanity.
Just a week after the 2020 election, it was then New Jersey GOP Chairman Doug Steinhardt who convened a broadcast conference call headlined by Bill Stepien, the former Christie operative who was Trump’s campaign manager. On that call they rallied the troops to fundraise around the “Stop the Steal” cause that highlighted “various instances of alleged voter fraud, none of which have panned out,” according to InsiderNJ reporter Fred Snowflack.
Years before the egomaniacal White House machinations of Trump, Gov. Christie partisans would successfully commander the George Washington Bridge to put the public safety at risk so as to punish the citizens of Fort Lee because their Mayor refused to endorse Christie’s re-election.
A key member of Christie’s Bridgegate brigade Bill Stepien, who went on to become Trump’s Svengali, has now been subpoenaed for a Dec. 13 appearance before the House of Representatives Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“As manager of the Trump 2020 re-election campaign, you oversaw all aspects of the campaign,” wrote Rep. Bennie Thompson, chair of the panel, in a letter to Stepien. “You then supervised the conversion of the Trump presidential campaign to an effort focused on ”Stop the Steal” messaging and related fundraising. That message included the promotion of certain false claims related to voting machines despite an internal campaign memo in which campaign staff determined that such claims were false.”
The letter continued. “The “Stop the Steal” messaging was echoed by individuals who attacked the U.S. capitol on January 6 in an attempt to interfere with the peaceful and orderly transfer of power. Additionally, the campaign reportedly urged state and party officials to affect the outcome of the November 2020 election by, among other things asking states to delay or deny certification of electoral votes and by sending slates of electoral votes to the United States Congress.”
Like Arnold’s court martial, the failed federal prosecution of Christie’s Bridgegate Junta, presaged efforts at an even bolder scheme. Certainly, Trump’s success at capturing New Jersey’s political class and regulators while he cornered Atlantic City’s casino industry, gave him the perch from which he could prey on America.
While COVID was the virus that afflicted us, it was the division and suspicion that Trump promoted that continues to extend our affliction.
Yet, with each passing day, as the numbers of vaccinated Americans continues to grow, and the deaths and hospitalizations continue to decline, there are signs of us healing. As we embrace that communal lesson of doing for one and another by getting vaccinated, something more hopeful and enduring is presenting itself.
And it must not go unnoticed that all 12 of New Jersey’s Members of Congress, including Republicans Chris Smith and Jeff Van Drew voted for President Biden’s $1.2 trillion once in a generation infrastructure and jobs training bill.
We should take some pride that our state, as best I could tell scanning the Congressional Record, is the only state where, over Trump’s objection, there was a complete bi-partisan consensus to deliver on a beltway promise that took decades to deliver.
Could the state that was the crossroads of the American Revolution be the crossroads of our 21st century reconciliation where we come together to face the real challenges to our wellbeing like childhood poverty and climate change?
Let’s hope so.