The Cost of Cheap Grace

Susan Saxe
9 min readNov 14, 2020


And the Case for a Second Reconstruction

Before we jump too quickly to bandaging over the gaping, infected wound that afflicts the US body politic in the name of “healing,” we need to think long and hard about what this kind of cheap grace has brought us in the past. (“Cheap grace,” refers to a term coined by Dietrich Bonhoeffer to mean quick forgiveness that papers over misdoing without acknowledging or repairing the harm done.)

Let us first look at two historical cases in which we moved on from serious assaults on our very existence as a democratic nation without a serious reckoning and without holding the perpetrators accountable, only to have these same bad actors regroup and resume their attacks by other means.

After the Civil War, a treasonous insurrection in the cause of an evil institution, that caused untold suffering and destruction and claimed 750,000 American lives over four bloody years, almost complete amnesty was granted to top Confederate traitors, with just a few exceptions: Jefferson Davis was imprisoned under rather harsh conditions for 2 years, Lee lost his citizenship, and two Confederate officers were convicted and executed for horrific crimes against Union POWs. All the other Confederate traitors and war criminals received blanket amnesty, went back to their former lives and promptly proceeded to resume their war by other means.

As a second example, consider the millionaire traitors who plotted the “Wall Street Putsch” of 1933. Had they succeeded FDR, the duly elected and wildly popular President, would have been deposed and replaced with a military junta accountable to ruling class oligarchs, the New Deal would have never happened and one can only guess where we would be today as a nation…or where the world would be. It is only because of the patriotism of General Smedley Butler that the plot was exposed and halted, and history proceeded as it did. And yet, not one of the plotters was ever prosecuted despite the Congressional testimony of Gen. Butler detailing their treason. Contrast this to the massacres, framing, show trials, jailing and executions of countless labor and civil rights heroes and martyrs or the criminalization and persecution of activists on the left today.

In both of these cases, magnanimity, generosity and amnesty were rewarded with more treachery. Here is what a history of healing without reckoning, the granting of grace, tolerance and compassion for the rich, powerful and — let’s be honest — white, has given us.

Abraham Lincoln was rewarded for his policy of “malice toward none (and) charity for all” with a bullet through his brain, while the Southern traitors promptly resumed their war of attrition against the Union in the form of a relentless campaign of murder, pillage and terror against Black people that has continued uninterrupted, in both legal and extralegal form, to the present day. Compare this to how quick this same nation was in 1859, just three years before that war broke out, to execute John Brown and every last one of his comrades captured after their failed raid on Harper’s Ferry. Compare it to how today right wing violence is ignored and tolerated while peaceful protesters for racial, environmental and social justice are gassed, shot and beaten in our streets.

The millionaires and banksters who escaped prosecution for their 1933 coup attempt regrouped and launched a decades-long campaign to undo the progress of the New Deal and return millions of Americans to peonage, decimating organized labor, weakening the social safety net, undermining hard won civil rights and creating the vast, growing wealth gap that plagues us now. We have these scoundrels and their successors to thank for every dysfunctional mechanism threatening what remains of our democracy, from the massive right wing disinformation machine to the torrent of dark money corrupting both parties. We have them to thank for the politicization and weaponazation of religious fundamentalists determined to impose a theocratic regime and for the death grip on political power wielded by a minority of right wing extremists leveraging the tools of voter suppression, gerrymandering and court stacking to retain control. They are behind the capture of both major parties by corporatist toadies, making it a steep uphill battle to push back against even their most egregious excesses.

So here we are, after four long years of ramped up plunder and pillage, with immeasurable pain and suffering inflicted on the most powerless and vulnerable among us and mounting deaths from a disease that could have been stopped in its tracks by a competent national government. We have wrested a hard-won reprieve from even worse, only to hear, once again, that we should, in the name of healing and moving on, welcome back into the fold those who have inflicted all this harm, seeking their approval and advice and rewarding them with amnesty, comity and cabinet positions. The impulse may be well-intentioned, but is it wise? Have we learned anything at all from what just happened? Can we learn anything at all from our past mistakes?

This moment cries out for a Second Reconstruction and this time we need to see it through.

Let us recall that the Union originally set out, under Reconstruction, to restore order, rebuild and impose some form of justice on a vanquished Confederacy. At first, much progress was made, expanding civil rights and voting rights and building a public education system, all of which benefitted poor whites equally with newly freed Blacks. But Reconstruction was never completed. When Federal troops were withdrawn from the South by President Hayes under the compromise of 1877, all that progress was undone and further progress foreclosed for generations.

Likewise, the failure to prosecute the “Wall Street Putsch” plotters left them and others free to carry out their mission by other means, a protracted campaign that led us to our most recent brush with domestic fascism and left us in the weakened position we are in today in terms of a hollowed out public domain, tattered democratic institutions, decaying infrastructure and battered norms.

Now let us look at a different situation, one in which healing came about but in the context of real change and reparation. After the defeat of the Axis Powers in WWII, both Germany and Japan were generously rebuilt by the US and allies (with the exception of East Germany which experienced retribution by the Soviets and remained under occupation until 1989). Both countries (along with Italy) were restored to full participation in the family of nations BUT ONLY AFTER they were disarmed, their military capacity eliminated or severely diminished, their social structures dramatically reconstructed, their Constitutions rewritten and their societies inoculated for generations against a resurgence of fascism.

What could be done today to insure a more just and lasting peace? Below is a list that could serve as a starting place. I offer it with no illusion that the Democratic Party as it exists today, would be capable of delivering on even a fraction of it. I don’t even believe they want to. Nevertheless, that does not mean that options don’t exist or that we should not demand that they be pursued.

The list is could go on for pages and barely scratches the surface of reparations due to victims of racism and colonialism. But to even start recovering from the last 4 years, let alone the entire legacy of white supremacy and settler colonialism, we could start with:


-Economic relief is the top priority, starting with a sweeping Federal moratorium on eviction and foreclosure until the crisis is over and then a just system of debt cancellation that protects homeowners, renters and small landlords, resetting the clock to before the pandemic went out of control. This is a first step toward a debt jubilee that starts with education and medical debt but goes on to a comprehensive overhaul of credit and bankruptcy law.

-A quarantine stipend for every American family, with no means testing (a hurdle that costs more than it saves and creates resentment and social friction). Stipends must be sufficient to sustain people for however long the crisis lasts, preventing non-essential workers from being forced to take risks to themselves and others just to keep the wolf from the door. It should also include investment in personal protection and hazard pay for essential workers.

-Free COVID care and vaccine when available, leading toward a full court press for Medicare for All by any means necessary, including using the Bully Pulpit that Obama refused to even consider, to build a movement that demands this basic right and will remove from power anyone who stands in the way of it.

Merely tweaking around the edges of this crisis won’t placate Republicans, who have a vested interest in letting their fellow Americans suffer in the hope that it will translate into a future electoral victory. And it will only add to the rage and despair that drove and continues to drive Trumpism, fueling the impulse to grasp at the false promises of the next toxic con-man who comes along.


-Reinstatement of the Dreamers and others formerly in protected status. An immediate moratorium on jailing of immigrants and refugees, the release of those in custody solely for immigration-related causes, and a well-funded and sincere effort to reunite families with reparations for trauma caused. Immediate repatriation of deported veterans and their family members and all others unlawfully removed or removed without due process. This is a first step toward real, comprehensive immigration reform.


-A comprehensive and well-resourced investigation by the Justice and Treasury Departments, staffed by experts on white-collar crime and asset tracing to expose and prosecute every case of law-breaking, self-dealing, public asset plundering, insider trading and other criminal looting by Trump Administration appointees or underlings who took advantage of lack of oversight to enrich themselves at public expense. The purpose would be not only to hold the perpetrators responsible but also to educate the public about these crimes and claw back public money.

- A comprehensive audit of public funds misappropriated under various government programs (especially COVID relief packages) that lacked oversight or were overseen by corrupt officials. The goals, as above, would be to hold lawbreakers accountable, educate the public and claw back misappropriated funds.

-A reversal of the outrageous tax give-aways to billionaires and corporations and the institution of steep, progressive taxes, including income, estate, speculation and windfall taxes, to recover the vast troves of wealth plundered from the economy in recent years and insure a more just tax structure going forward.


-A Congressional investigation of Federal Judges appointed under Republican administrations, particularly the most recent, focusing on those that filled positions that should have been filled under Democratic leadership but were blocked by Senate Republicans. In cases where appointees lied to Congress in the course of their confirmation hearings, or in cases where full disclosure of all evidence and testimony was blocked by Senate Republicans, these confirmations should be revisited through the impeachment process as soon as Democrats retake the Senate. Brett Kavanaugh comes to mind.

-Cabinet positions should be filled by people who will use them to serve the public, not special interests. We need a lifelong civil rights advocate at the head of the Justice Department and a Secretary of Education who is an educator and an ally of organized teachers. We need a Secretary of Labor who wants to rebuild the American Labor Movement and a Secretary of the Interior who is an environmentalist and a scientist, not a fossil fuel executive or lobbyist. We need a Secretary of State who is not a captive of the Military Industrial Complex, a Secretary of Agriculture who is a friend of the family farmer, and so on, throughout the executive branch. What we don’t need are a bunch of DC insiders and token Republicans who Mitch McConnell will block anyway, just because.


-A freeze on the transfer of military weapons to police departments, the seizure of such weapons from departments that have abused them, a freeze on more money for police and a real realignment of resources toward non-violent means of addressing social problems.

-Reinstatement of consent decrees and other Justice Department oversight of abusive police departments and further investigations into civil rights violations and other abuses, with appropriate prosecution and sanctions. Pressure on states to do likewise or forfeit Federal funds.

-A blanket amnesty for all non-violent victims of our racist, misguided drug war, coupled with reparations for years stolen, and funding for reintegration into our communities. This is a first step toward unwinding our mass incarceration crisis and a full criminal justice overhaul with harm reduction and restorative justice at its center.


-Unleash the full and formidable computing power of the Federal intelligence establishment to finally find out who the hell “Q” and other similar conspiracy mongers are, exposing the fraud. This should also apply to the whole violent gun-toting right wing militia and white supremacist ecosystem that poses a real threat of domestic terrorism. This to be followed by appropriate regulation of mass communications and social media, starting with reinstating the Fairness Doctrine and installing privacy protections on personal data.

And finally, finally, one wish that we should, must, fight for, tooth and nail…NO PARDONS AND NO AMNESTY for people who abused public office to enrich themselves or harm others. Cheap grace is never really cheap.

PS: On an individual level, I leave it to each of us as to how we want to relate (or not) to that crazy relative, friend or neighbor who fell down the right wing rabbit hole, voted for this mess, egged it on and is now convinced that they were robbed. Personally, I have better things to do but if they come to their senses and want to apologize I’ll listen.



Susan Saxe

I’m a lifelong radical activist, intersectional in outlook since back in the day when we just expressed it as the idea that “everything is connected.” It is.