The election of Donald J. Trump as the next president of the United States has changed everything, and it has changed nothing. Waking the morning after, our relationships, our institutions, our selves were the same as they had been the night before, but we saw them now somehow askew, in that eerie green light that precedes a storm. In New York politics, the constants remain constant: Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio continue their time-honored dance of competitive urination, each trying to best the other, to eclipse his opponent entirely. But in Trump’s America, even the petty shufflings of squabbling politicians takes on a new and more urgent cadence, so now de Blasio and Cuomo have a new competition: Who can give the most soaring, lyrical, impassioned, light-on-substance speech positioning themselves as New York’s defiant defender of liberal virtues, our moral bulwark against the storm of hate that rages all around us?
First into the lists came de Blasio, who last week sought an audience with the President-elect and, having descended once more from the tower, spoke to the press about the fear New Yorkers feel at the dawning of the reign of Trump.
Not to be outdone, Cuomo took to the pulpit took to the pulpit at the Abyssinian Baptist Church on Sunday, declaring himself “soul sick for the America that I know and I love.” Cuomo’s speechwriters had clearly been instructed to swing for the fences on this one, and the results were sometimes a bit purple.
“If there is a move to deport immigrants then I say start with me,” Cuomo declared improbably. “I am a son of immigrants.” Cuomo’s parents were not immigrants. But his parents’ parents were, and genealogical accuracy is the enemy of oratory.
Whatever illiberal impulses were revealed in this election, though, Cuomo said, his state holds the antidote. “New York’s message is a message of tolerance, brotherhood and unity,” he said. “New York is going to lead the way in showing the way for positive growth.” The Governor reached far beyond New York as well, invoking the Gospel of Matthew, the Book of Leviticus, the Koran, Confucious, and “Sanskrit traditions.”
Tucked into the Governor’s speech was a single concrete proposal: the creation of a “a public-private legal defense fund to provide immigrants who can’t afford their own defense the legal assistance they need.” When the Voice pressed for details on this plan after the speech, the Governor’s office said the fund will be open to all immigrants, whether for deportation defense or affirmative applications, that it will rely on “panel attorneys, not-for-profits, foundations, law firms, etc.,” and that “the cost will be determined.”
Towards the end of the speech, Cuomo laid on some anaphora:
We must stand up and say, “You spread fear and we will spread love.” We will stand up and say, “You try pull us apart and we will stand stronger for each other.” We will stand up and say, “Yes we are black, white and brown – but we are one.” We will stand up and say, “We are gay and straight – but we are one as a community.” We will stand up and say, “Yes we are Christian, Muslim and Jews – but we are one.” We will say, “Yes we are individuals but we are also one community. One family.”
Here’s Cuomo’s full address:
Noble sentiments, expressed with feeling! Perhaps Cuomo was to be our hero, our own Ghostbusters II animated Lady Liberty carrying forth the torch of freedom in this darkness? But wait — a few hours after Cuomo’s speech, de Blasio announced that he’d be making his own speech on Monday at Cooper Union.
For this speech, De Blasio upped the ante with some stagecraft. Before he even took the stage, a satisfyingly diverse human backdrop assembled itself behind the podium. Then gay, Jewish, and Muslim Fire Department Chaplains gave stirring pluralistic invocations, before the mayor’s wife, Charlene McCray, gave her own assessment. The women’s suffragists who gathered in the same Cooper Union hall in 1866 had to wait 51 years to see their goal realized, she said. “And now, I stand here a descendant of people who were enslaved and the granddaughter of immigrants with the same rights – on paper – as everyone else in this room. Because people like Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and millions of other freedom fighters never gave up no matter how many times they got pushed back and knocked down. And they got knocked down a lot. Our past is not pretty and our rights are fragile. So, we must protect them, and we will with hope and joy in our hearts because, this work we do – it is not a job, it is not an obligation – this work we do is a way of life and it gives us strength – a strength that is rooted in love.”
Finally, the main event, the mayor himself. Cuomo had spoken for 20 minutes; de Blasio would speak for twice that. Like Cuomo, he ticked through the signs of trouble in the land: the uptick in hate-crimes, the fear that our health insurance may vanish and our public institutions wither as tax-cuts for the rich starve the state, the fear of undocumented Americans and their loved ones that deportations could tear their families apart. Like Cuomo, de Blasio posited that New York is the righteous counterexample, the home of a brilliant progressive spirit that can cut through any darkness.
Where Cuomo went with anaphora, de Blasio leaned on epistrophe: “To all Latinos who heard their culture denigrated – we stand by you. To all the African Americans who heard their history denied – we stand by you. To all the women who heard their rights being threatened – we stand by you. To all the Muslims who have heard their faith belittled – we stand by you. To all those in the Jewish community who heard a resonance from history that gave them real fear and pause – we stand by you. To all those in the LGBT community who heard a message of taking us backward – we will never go backward. We stand by you.”
The destructive powers of a Trump administration may be great, but they’re not the whole story, de Blasio said: “In the confusion something important has gotten lost. There is not a national police force. You don’t go to federal schools to get your children an education. No. We in the City of New York, we protect our people with the NYPD. We provide education to our children with our New York City public schools. We provide healthcare with our public hospitals; and all over the country the same. Our constitution says it – that so much of what is decided in the governance of our people is decided at the local level, according to the values of the people who are governed.”
Briefly, de Blasio descended from the heights to talk specifics: People should sign up for the NYC ID card; the city will never turn over their NYC ID database to the feds; people should help their friends get signed up for Obamacare; they should register to vote; they should pray in unfamiliar houses of worship; they should volunteer. They should call 911 and 311 when they encounter hateful acts. He pledged not to comply with any Muslim registry, to refuse any mandated return to stop-and-frisk policing, to provide immigrants in danger of deportation with legal representation, and to protect women’s health care in the event of federal defunding of Planned Parenthood.
34 minutes into his speech, de Blasio, channeling his inner high school salutatorian, threw down with “a challenging thought, but… arguably the most essential: This election was not an end, it is a beginning.” Finally, after several more minutes, de Blasio executed his dismount, a final repetition of the speech’s refrain, Somos siempre Nueva York, we are always New York,” and left the stage. As he did so, the doors at the back of the hall opened, an acoustic guitar struck up the chords of “This Land Is Your Land,” and a troupe of singing children filed into the hall.
Here’s de Blasio’s full speech:
This contest may not yet be over. It’s possible that Cuomo will come back later this week with a Busby-Berkeley-inspired salute to the Bill of Rights plaid out against the backdrop of an LED-bedecked bridge scrolling ecumenical humanist aphorisms. It’s also possible that as the Trump administration gathers momentum and begins enacting policies that hurt people, we will move past the time when mediocre speeches about abstract liberal values can be considered an adequate response to the present situation. If that happens, we’ll see what de Blasio and Cuomo, working in competition or perhaps even together, are able to actually do with the powers with which we’ve invested them. The bully pulpit is a fine tool, but it seems likely we’ll need much more than that from our politicians before this is all over.