History’s Discordant Rhymes

Trump’s ongoing crusade to overturn the election has had a weird split-screen quality that would be hilarious if it weren’t so dystopian. On one hand, you have all the overblown rhetoric and accusations of fraud and election-rigging, elaborate conspiracy theories about voting machines being manipulated by China and Venezuela, dead people voting by the hundreds of thousands, and the active suppression of Republican poll-watchers. On the other hand, you have the fact that Trump et al have had, at this time of this writing, thirty-two of their legal challenges often literally laughed out of court, while they’ve only succeeded twice, on minor procedural questions. Notably, once in the courtroom, the allegations of fraud, never mind fraud on a massive conspiratorial scale, evaporate—because unlike one of Rudy Giuliani’s hysterically inchoate press conferences, the courts demand that evidence be presented.

You might think that this contradiction between what the Trump people allege and their inability to produce evidence in court, coupled with the glaring fact of their 2-32 win/loss record so far, would start to sink in and make Trump’s followers start to understand that there was no fraud and that Biden won what Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security called “the most secure election in American history.” But then, in order to think that, you’d probably have had to be in a coma these past four years. About a week ago I broke a personal rule and got into an argument with someone on social media who was convinced that election fraud had been perpetrated. When I pointed to the fact that the Trump people had not been able to produce any evidence of systematic wrongdoing, he repeatedly and sarcastically demanded, “Oh, are you a lawyer? Are you there in the courtroom? You don’t know what evidence they have!” I have since seen this line of argument repeated, most prominently by Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis, as if these court cases are black boxes and not publicly available … or that if Trump and Giuliani actually had any actual evidence, that they wouldn’t be putting it on public display 24/7. (My argument with the fraud-advocate ended when he told me he was “terrified” for my students, as it was “obvious” that I couldn’t be trusted to let them offer opposing perspectives in class).

Meanwhile, as his legal teams racks up losses like the New York Jets on Dramamine, Trump keeps tweeting his confidence that his re-election is all but a done deal, and his supporters continue to close ranks. Even Trump’s most voluble advocates aren’t safe from their wrath should they voice even the slightest doubt, as Tucker Carlson found when he made the rather glaringly obvious observation that such subtly orchestrated fraud on a vast scale—which leaves no trace—strains credulity: “What [Trump lawyer Sydney] Powell was describing would amount to the single greatest crime in American history,” Carlson said on his show this past Thursday. “Millions of votes stolen in a day. Democracy destroyed. The end of our centuries-old system of government.” The backlash from Trump supporters and other Trump-friendly media figures was immediate, with Rush Limbaugh’s producer asking (and betraying an ignorance of how evidence and the law works), “Where is the ‘evidence’ the election was fair?” With trenchant understatement, the NY Times Jeremy W. Peters observes that “The backlash against Mr. Carlson and Fox for daring to exert even a moment of independence underscores how little willingness exists among Republicans to challenge the president and his false narrative about the election he insists was stolen.”

It goes without saying that this state of affairs is deeply dangerous, and serves to obviate any kind of amusement or schadenfreude at the spectacle of Trump’s presidency figuratively—and Giuliani literally—melting down.

I think the adhesive for Rudy’s human mask is dissolving.

As I wrote in a recent post, the incoherence of the aggregate accusations being thrown around is a feature, not a bug, of conspiracism. All it all needs to do is cement in the minds of Trump voters—not all Trump voters, but a critical mass of them, to be certain—the illegitimacy of the Democrats and the impossibility that Biden could have won without cheating. It was always a given that Trump would not concede, but there was always the milder possibility that he’d resign with high dudgeon and Nixonian resentment (“You won’t have Donald Trump to kick around any more!”), claiming that he’d been cheated, accept a federal pardon from President Mike Pence, and retire to Mar-a-Lago to sulk and tweet and plan his comeback.

But no. It seems he’s determined to go all-in. Whether he actually believes he has a chance to steal the election with his scheme to have state electors overturn the results is something we’ll likely never know; but what seems more likely is that he wants to be forced from office. He wants to be seen going down fighting, a victim of Democratic malfeasance, the Deep State, interference from China, Venezuela, and Cuba, and whatever other fecal matter they want to fling at the wall. And while the prospect of seeing Trump literally frog-marched out of the White House by the Secret Service one minute after noon on January 20th is too delicious to contemplate, that is probably one of the worst scenarios. Why? Because all of those people who have gone all-in on Trump and the narrative of the election being stolen will look up from their phones on January 20th to see Biden taking the oath of office, and see the culmination of their present fears and convictions. And what happens then is anyone’s guess, though the one absolute certainty is that a not-insignificant proportion of the U.S. populace will believe it has been stabbed in the back by the rest of the country.

More than a few times I’ve seen the fantasy being built by Trump et al called the “stab in the back” narrative, and it never fails to chill. When Germany surrendered at the end of the First World War, it came as an utter shock to the soldiers and much of the civilian population. They had thought they were winning, due to a series of gains they had made in the spring of 1918, but in truth, there was nothing left with which to continue the war. The gains they had made were the result of the Kaiserschlacht, or “Kaiser’s Battle”—more commonly known as the “Spring Offensive,” that began in March 1918 and carried on for several months. The offensive was a gamble, and a risky one: the German High Command knew their resources were running low. The recent entry of the United States on the side of the Allies made the situation even more dire. So they went all-in on a massive series of attacks in the hopes of breaking the enemy lines and forcing them into a peace negotiation that would be favourable to Germany.

They failed, but they failed while looking as if they were winning. But the tank was empty. They could keep fighting, of course, with vastly denuded stocks of weapons and ammunition, with an ever-more demoralized army, and with starvation at home. They chose instead to surrender rather than put the military through the inevitable meat grinder.

But as is the nature or quasi-dictatorial monarchies, the German government wasn’t adept at messaging … the end came as a shock to the army and the civilian population because they had no idea how bad the situation actually was. And after the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, unsurprisingly, people looked for whom to blame. One of the most persistent theories was the “stab in the back” narrative, which held that powerful business interests with an internationalist character and therefore disloyal to Germany—i.e., the Jews—were responsible for bringing about Germany’s cowardly capitulation. For stabbing Germany in the back.

Yes, yes, insert Godwin’s Law disclaimer here. But it is more than a little uncanny to consider that these events occurred almost precisely one century ago—and doubly uncanny to further consider that 1918-1919 was the last occurrence of a truly global pandemic.

As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Unlike most rhymes, however, these one can be discordant and jarring to the soul.

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The Mad King in his Labyrinth

For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, I’ve been thinking these past several days about mad kings, both fictional and historical.

It started with a Facebook post, alluding to George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire—which some will know better by the HBO adaptation Game of Thrones—in which I said “We could really use a young Jaime Lannister in the White House right about now.” The allusion, which anyone who has read the novels and/or watched the series, will know, is to a key backstory plot point in which the Mad King, Aerys II, was murdered by Jaime Lannister, a member of his sworn Kingsguard—clearing the way for the usurpation of the Iron Throne by Robert Baratheon.

Martin, a keen student of history, loosely based the conflict animating the first few novels on the Wars of the Roses, the English civil wars that convulsed the nation for the better part of the fifteenth century; indeed, the two principal warring families of his series, the Starks and the Lannisters, bear more than a passing resemblance (phonetically, at any rate) with the Yorks and the Lancasters. But the Mad King himself—glimpsed only secondhand in various characters’ accounts of Robert Baratheon’s rebellion—bears a closer resemblance to the handful of lunatic Roman emperors who populated the empire’s declining years: Caligula with his murderous licentiousness, Nero’s narcissistic self-regard, and so forth. Nero was declared a public enemy by the Senate and killed himself in exile; Caligula was murdered by the Praetorian Guard. Martin borrows from a raft of such histories, which also include the killing of England’s Edward II and Richard II.

The other figure Martin’s Mad King resembles is the more contemporary dictator, reduced to paranoid, delusional ranting, surrounded by toadies and sycophants because he has banished or killed everybody who dares voice the slightest dissent. It was only a matter of time (probably minutes) before somebody did a Trump version of the much-memed bunker scene from Downfall.

The mad king—or tyrant, or dictator—is a compelling character for much the same reason that car crashes are fascinating: whether it’s Hitler in his bunker or Lear on the heath, we’re witness to the unspooling of a formerly powerful, formerly charismatic person’s mind. What has been remarkable about the Trump presidency these past few weeks is how public the unspooling has been. Historically, infirmity in the highest of offices has been hidden, as much as possible, from the public view (the examples of certain Roman emperors notwithstanding). Only a handful of royal handlers were witness to the madness of George III. When Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke late into his second term, his wife and aides kept it quiet; ditto for Ronald Reagan’s latter-day dementia. We only found out about Richard Nixon’s drunken conversations with the portraits of former presidents in the final days before his resignation years after the fact.

But then again, Trump has arguably always been unhinged—that quality of mercurial unpredictability and volcanic temper is central to reality television, after all, and it was through The Apprentice that Trump was able to reforge his public persona in such a way as to delude a critical mass of Americans into believing that he was a brilliant and canny businessman and dealmaker. I’ve lost count of how many op-eds and think pieces have made the observation that his presidency has essentially unfolded like an exhausting four years (five, counting the campaign) of reality television conventions and tropes. He is himself not unaware of this fact; it is an open question of whether his tendency to do or say something outrageous when news unflattering to him breaks is a deliberate distraction strategy, or simply Trump being jealous of the spotlight.

But now we’re in the endgame. True to form, he’s playing a character, however inadvertently: sequestered in the White House, his general avoidance of the public eye speaks about as loudly as his all-caps tweets. Structurally, it is a bizarre situation, by which I mean the mad king in his labyrinth would normally be invisible to all but his closest advisors, some of whom would trot out to podiums every so often to offer anodyne updates. But of course this White House, as my mother would say, leaks like a chimney (as opposed to smoking like a sieve), and so we have frequent reports of Trump brooding, and details of the argument within his inner circle about whether to convince him to concede or keep fighting. But even without such leaks, we still have the logorrhea of Trump’s Twitter feed to keep us abreast of his downward spiral into increasingly deranged conspiracy theories about George Soros and Dominion Software voting machines. And of course we also have his devoted sycophants, like Rudy Giuliani and Lindsey Graham, taking every possible opportunity to go on television and propagate his paranoid maunderings.

The one bright spot in all of this is that at least there’s an expiration date: January 20, 2021, obviates the need for a Jaime Lannister or a Praetorian Guard. Which is fortunate for Trump.

Though that would make for good TV.

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Post (Mid?) Election Thoughts: The Incoherence of Conspiracy Theory

Sixteen years ago I defended my doctoral dissertation, which I’d titled “The Conspiratorial Imagination: Economies of Paranoia in Postmodern Culture.” You’d think that would make me an expert on conspiracism, and it does, but I have to admit that the proliferation of conspiracy theory over the past ten years or so—from Birtherism to Glenn Beck’s manic chalkboardsto the frenzied speculation over the Mueller investigation to the juggernaut of QAnon—makes my head spin. Every time I’ve had the thought that I should dust off the old thesis and revise it for publication in this context of renewed relevance, my mind has shrunk from the prospect. There was just too much. I would most likely have to start from scratch, and in the Age of Trump, where does one find an Archimedean foothold from which to form a critical methodology?

One thing I am finding rather fascinating, however, as we watch the election returns trickle in with excruciating slowness, is this bizarre conspiratorial split-screen in which Trump makes accusation after accusation of a Democratic conspiracy to steal the election, accusations which are themselves part of the execution of his own longstanding conspiracy to disrupt the election in the hopes of stealing it.

Though I suppose to call what Trump’s doing a “conspiracy” founders a bit on definitional shoals. Trump and his people—as the saying has gone these past four years—always say the quiet part out loud. Can we properly call something a conspiracy when it unfolds out in the open? It has long been something approaching a certainty that Trump would not go easily into the night if he lost, that he would accuse his enemies (a group that comprises anyone who isn’t a sycophant) of rigging the election. He did it in 2016, and he has been sounding that horn again at least since the Democratic primaries began. But then, over the past few months, he has sketched out his plan in greater detail: repeatedly claiming (falsely) that mail-in voting would be rife with fraud; “enlisting” an “army” of poll-watchers to monitor voting for the fraud he claimed was inevitable (and, presumably, intimidate voters and poll-workers, though mercifully there doesn’t seem to have been much of that so far); promising that he would challenge an election loss in the courts; and to that end, ramming through the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett prior to the election, because—again, he said this out loud and repeatedly—he wanted a 6-3 majority on SCOTUS to adjudicate his court challenges (and though he didn’t say as much, Trump’s nakedly transactional nature dictates he believes Barrett, Kavanaugh, and Gorsuch owe him).

And now, as his prospects for victory dim with every tallied mail-in vote, he has twice addressed the nation and (a) claimed victory, (b) accused his opponents of voter fraud and a long list of other nefarious acts. His address from the White House on Thursday night was really quite shocking in the sheer number of blatant lies he told—and after four years of Trump’s rank mendacity, the fact that he can still shock is nauseatingly impressive. The gist of his speech, however, was an inchoate laundry-list of the ways in which his enemies have conspired to steal the election from him, starting with the accusation that the pre-election polling, which erroneously showed large leads for Biden and other Democrats, was deliberately inflated: “These really phony polls, I have to call them phony polls, fake polls, were designed to keep our voters at home, create the illusion of momentum for Mr. Biden and diminish Republican’s ability to raise funds. They were what’s called suppression polls, everyone knows that now.” He then went on to tell bald lies about how Republicans had been barred from poll-watching, that millions of unsolicited ballots had been mailed out, and continually suggested that the “whittling down” of his leads in Pennsylvania and Georgia was happening because the poll workers kept mysteriously “finding” ballots … and, oh, wasn’t it so interesting how one-sided the mail-in ballots were proving to be?

Never mind the fact that the scenario of Trump’s early leads evaporating wasn’t just predicted over and again, but that it was entirely predictable from the moment he started vilifying mail-in ballots and thus turning them into a partisan issue; predictable also because he turned the pandemic into a partisan issue, with Democrats believing the science and behaving accordingly, while Trump’s enthusiasts flouted mask-wearing and social distancing. Never mind the fact that he never made clear precisely how voter fraud on a massive scale was supposed to be perpetrated. Never mind that fact that, if the polls showing a significant Biden lead and the likelihood of a blue wave were consciously fabricated, then everybody in the news media and the polling industry at large is doing a really good job of pretending to wring their hands and beat their breasts at their abject failure. And finally, never mind the fact that if Trump’s enemies had in fact managed to orchestrate voter fraud on a huge scale, why would they have let Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, and Susan Collins keep their Senate seats?

But of course, that is how conspiracism works: you have to never mind the facts. It is essentially the antithesis of Occam’s Razor: conspiracist thought flourishes on obfuscatory complexity in which apparent contradictions are actually subtle connections to which non-conspiracists are blind. Take a half hour to read about QAnon for what is perhaps the most spectacular example of this thinking to date. And as Fredric Jameson notes in his book The Geopolitical Aesthetic, the two basic elements of conspiracy theory are contradictory: the predication of a vast, omniscient cabal or group, and its invisibility. Where most conspiracy theories fall apart is in the assumption that a huge group of people can conspire to malevolent ends with preternatural silence and competence. Faking the moon landing would have entailed the labour of thousands of people. My simple question to 9/11 Truthers is: do you honestly believe that the Bush Administration was competent enough to carry that off without a hitch? And for the same reason, I never believed that there was a complex conspiracy between Trump and the Russians. Were Trump et al collusion-curious? Absolutely. But the smoking gun, the desire for a spectacular revelation that lies at the heart of conspiracism’s appeal, was never in the cards. And as for the spectral conspiracy Trump keeps flinging about, Stephen Colbert did a tidy job of summing up just how ludicrous it is: “If Donald Trump is right—if Joe Biden did pull the strings behind the scenes in Republican states like Arizona and Georgia while coordinating with Democratic states like Pennsylvania and Nevada and Wisconsin and Michigan and throwing in the red herring of letting the Republicans keep the Senate and gain a few seats in the House while just barely removing Donald Trump—wow! I mean, kudos to that level of interstate coordination. I mean, anyone who could accomplish that many things at once right now really would be the president we need during a global pandemic.”

There have been moments in the past four years when I’ve looked at Trump’s mendacity and the obvious fact that he has, at best, a tenuous grasp of reality; and I’ve looked at the stubborn support he has from forty percent of America’s electorate; and I’ve listened to the torturous logic employed by his enablers and mouthpieces to support and justify his presidency; and I’ve had moments in which I’ve honestly had to wonder whether it wasn’t me getting everything wrong. To be clear, these moments are rare, but they’re worrisome—not least because they are reflective of the broader cultural trend in which such touchstones as science, fact, and just a generally shared reality have been so deeply eroded—and are, in fact, anathema to Trump and the phenomenon of Trumpism.

So however anxiety-inducing and—as regards the Senate—disappointing this election has so far been, it’s been a weird comfort to see these two forms of conspiracy: the actual conspiracy articulated openly by Trump, and the manic conspiracism he flails about in as the reality of the election results encroach. It’s distressing to know that millions of people accept his conspiracy theories without question, but at least the contrast offers me a bit of mental stability in the moment.

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Four Years Later

Slightly less than four years ago, a countdown started. Perhaps it was obscured at points by speculations about the twenty-fifth amendment, or the spectre of impeachment and removal—or, well, really, any number of possible eventualities—but ultimately for those of us horrified by the election of Donald J. Trump, Election Day 2020 was a cognitive terminus, that point at which America’s national nightmare would either end or be validated anew. And given that the latter was, and is, more or less unthinkable—an existential crisis of both political and spiritual dimensions—this coming Tuesday is a day of reckoning. To repurpose a line from Good Omens, November 3, 2020 has been throbbing in the collective brain like a migraine.

With less than a week to go, I’ve been oscillating between zen-like calm and apocalyptic agitation. On one hand, I’ve been watching Trump unspooling in real time with all of the schadenfreude you would expect; every time he pleads, whines, or drops yet another increasingly absurd lie (did you know that California is forcing its citizens to wear a “special” mask that you cannot take off, and have to eat through? Or that Trump recently ended a 400-year war between Serbia and Kosovo?), I get calmer, seeing in his behaviour his realization that he’s going to lose. But then I read news pieces about the gun-wielding militias declaring their intentions to take to the streets if Trump loses; about the ongoing efforts by Republicans to suppress the vote; about the near-certainty that, if Republican legal challenges to a Biden victory make it to the Supreme Court, the facts of the case won’t matter all that much to Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

This all makes me feel, as Bilbo Baggins would say, somewhat thin and stretched, like too little butter spread over too much toast.

And I don’t even live in the U.S.

In the autumn of 2016, I was teaching a second-year course titled “Critical Approaches to Popular Culture.” The Department of English had recently absorbed the Communications Studies program; pop culture was (is) one of the required courses for the major. I’d taught pop culture years before, twice, when I was in the latter stages of my PhD at Western, so it was lovely to return to it. For one of the course’s units, I focused on recent sitcoms that articulated diverse, feminist sensibilities: we looked at episodes of Archer, Master of None, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Parks and Recreation. A former student of mine from about six or seven years earlier, who had gone on to do a masters in English and another in gender studies, and was at the time a journalist and feminist activist, was a massive fan of Parks and Recreation, and identified strongly with the series’ main character Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler). The connection my former student has with Leslie was and is an obvious one: she is blonde, passionate, unremittingly (sometimes exhaustingly) enthusiastic, and devoted to feminism and the possibilities of local government to do good. Early in the semester, I emailed her and asked if she’d like to do a guest lecture on feminism and Parks and Recreation. She emailed me back almost immediately, asking (possibly jokingly) if she should do it in character as Leslie Knope.

The way things had fallen out in my scheduling, her guest lecture would take place the Thursday after the 2016 election. This was not by design, but I was delighted by the serendipity of it: the idea that I would have this extraordinary former student coming in to deliver a lecture on the character of Leslie Knope—who, in the show, idolized Hillary Clinton—two days after what most of us assumed would have been the election of the first woman president of the United States.

Well. We know how that worked out.

It was a huge boon to me that I did not teach on Wednesdays that term. Normally I would have gone up to the office anyway, but that day—which was, as I recall, appropriately grey and rainy—I instead stayed home and sat at my desk in my pyjamas, trying to work through my thoughts. I read dozens of news articles online. I wrote a blog post. And I tried to come to terms with the fact that the United States had actually elected Donald Trump.

The next day, I introduced my former student in my pop culture class, and, not unpredictably, she knocked her guest lecture out of the park. She was amazing, her lecture was amazing, and I can still congratulate myself on my decision to invite her. But there was also the uneasy sense of whistling past the graveyard, as it were: Parks and Recreation, which had by that point ended its run, was wreathed in the spirit of the Obama years. Real political figures made not-infrequent cameos as the series went on, both Democrat and Republican, conveying a sense of comity consonant with Obama’s (frequently frustrated) inclination to want to reach across the aisle (such as in the episode where Cory Booker and Orrin Hatch tell Leslie that they share a passion for Polynesian folk music, and perform together in a band named “Across the Isle”). And of course there was the running joke of Leslie’s conviction that Joe Biden is the sexiest man alive:

(Somehow, Leslie’s admonition to the Secret Service that Biden is “precious cargo” is a little more poignant in the present moment).

In the days leading up to the 2020 election, I’ve been rewatching Parks and Recreation. On one hand, the show is not unlike The West Wing as an imaginative salve for the present moment; but where Aaron Sorkin’s drama offers a liberal fantasia in which people work and argue in good faith (mostly), Parks is somewhat more on point insofar as it hews to a more realistic premise: people are terrible. All Leslie Knope wants to do is improve people’s lives, and not infrequently suffers unforeseen effects of liberal statist interventionism.

One such case occurs when the town’s sole video rental store, which hosts weekly screenings of film classics, is about to go out of business, as every other video rental store in the world has. The store’s proprietor, a pretentious film snob played by Jason Schwartzman who refuses to stock popular movies, does not help himself by being, well, a pretentious film snob who refuses to stock popular movies. Leslie secures him a grant from the city council, making him promise to overhaul his stock with more popular selections—which he does in fact do, but goes to the other extreme and turns his store into a porn emporium. Business then booms, but not even remotely in the way Leslie Knope had intended.

Such mishaps aside, the series chronicles the ways in which Leslie’s earnest and idealistic faith in government batters against the apathy, indifference, and hostility of the citizens she so wants to help. But for all of their awfulness, the people of Leslie Knope’s Pawnee aren’t hateful; they do not actively wish harm on others. Rewatching the series right now, I can’t ignore the simple fact that a stubborn forty percent of Americans support a defiantly hateful man, whom they love not for his principles but for his enemies—for how much pain he can inflict and how much cruelty he can practice.

That same semester in 2016, I taught a fourth-year seminar I titled “Revenge of the Genres.” The premise of the course was to look at texts and authors that transcended popular genres, or else used them in metaphorical or critical ways: we did Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, Colson Whitehead’s zombie apocalypse novel Zone One, Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home, among others … and we ended the class with Hamilton. Even more than Parks and Recreation, Hamilton feels like a relic of the Obama years—not least because its conception, staging, and extraordinary success unfolded over Obama’s presidency, and indeed received its first audience in 2009 for the title song at the White House.

One of our points of discussion in class was how to read Hamilton not just post-Obama, but in the new age of Trump. By the time we started on it in class, we were a few weeks past the election; there was a sort of cosmic irony in examining a musical about a man whose co-creation of the Electoral College was undertaken to prevent the rise of a populist demagogue to the presidency.

There was also the leaden feeling that the play’s optimism and faith in the American experiment had been definitively belied by Trump’s election. As much as I love Hamilton, my one misgiving about it has always been the conviction that part of its popularity—aside from simply being an astonishingly good play—proceeded from the fact that it gave white liberals permission to celebrate the origin story of the United States without caveats. I mean, let’s be honest—the story of the United States’ founding is a pretty compelling one to start with. As a Canadian kid who grew up watching Schoolhouse Rock, I was frequently envious, because my own country lacked a revolutionary beginning and such colourful characters as Hamilton, Jefferson, and Franklin. But of course, as one ages and learns more, the broader contours of that history become tainted by the ugly facts of slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples. The story remains compelling, but the more honest we are about the actual history, the more those caveats are going to inflect it.

Hence, a hip-hop musical written by a man of Puerto Rican heritage—whose first musical, In The Heights, was about life in an Hispanic neighbourhood in New York—which not only unapologetically celebrates “the ten dollar founding father” and the “American experiment,” but also casts predominantly Black and brown performers to play the roles of the white Founders, gives permission to white milquetoast liberals like myself to set aside the caveats for two and a half hours and enjoy America’s origin story set to virtuosic music.

And lest that sound cynical, I should hasten to add that it’s not merely about the permission structure—it’s also the hope it inspires.

Hope also feels a little like a relic of the Obama years, but I can’t let myself think that. I’m wound up pretty tightly at the moment, but I do think that there are reasons to hope. I always tell my studies in my American Lit classes that America is an idea. As one obscure Irish poet put it, it’s possibly the best idea the world ever had, but it has never been properly realized. The power of that idea, however, is what fuels Hamilton, what made The West Wing a hit TV show, and why Leslie Knope is an endearing character. The problem at the heart of Trumpism, as with all nativist populism, is that it has divorced the idea of America from its mythos. The America of MAGA is inert: an unchanging bundle of resentment stuck somewhere in an imaginary past. The idea of America, by contrast, is dynamic and hopeful; it is generous and open. It is also what Joe Biden has been articulating throughout his campaign. Precious cargo, indeed.

See everybody on the other side.

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The Quiet Tragedy of Hunter Biden

In all of the drama and, well, chaos, of the ongoing U.S. election, I’ve found my thoughts returning again and again to that moment in the first presidential debate when Trump viciously attacked Hunter Biden—calling him a cocaine addict and falsely charging that he’d been dishonourably discharged from the military for drug use.

I’d like to think, and I really, really hope, that we’ll look back on that moment as the tipping point in Trump’s fortunes. I suspect that the debate as a whole will be a moment when Trump’s megalomaniacal, compulsive tendencies became too overt to be excused or explained away, but it was that specific unhinged verbal assault on Biden’s surviving son—when Biden had been memorializing his dead son Beau—that most horrifyingly distilled the President’s sociopathy.

As painful as it is, I’ve watched the exchange several times now, mainly because I wanted to make sure I was not misremembering it. There’s a lot to parse here: Trump castigating Hunter’s issues with addiction seems more than a little tone deaf, not least because the opioid crisis that has been tearing through the American Midwest disproportionately afflicts Trump’s principal voting demographic. Perhaps his base can disassociate the scourge of addiction in their communities from Trump’s cruel words; but I have to assume some people—addicts in recovery, family members struggling with their loved ones’ addiction, or else mourning those lost to overdoses—heard the callousness of Trump’s words clearly. And possibly they also heard Joe Biden’s response, which was to say, as he looked directly into the camera, “Like a lot of people you know at home, he had a drug problem. He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”

The contours of Hunter Biden’s story are sadly obvious. His brother Beau was the son being groomed to follow in Dad’s footsteps, earning medals for his military service and then running for office before the tragedy of brain cancer felled him. Hunter was the fuckup, the drug user, the son who couldn’t quite get it right. Speaking about his questionable appointment to the board of Burisma, Hunter offered the not-quite-believable excuse that, with a father in public office and a brother set to run for public office, it fell to him to earn money “for the family.” I suppose it’s possible that the Biden clan was strapped for cash, but that doesn’t quite pass the smell test. More likely—as has been widely reported—Hunter was himself badly in debt, and took on the Burisma position (over strong recommendations that he not) for that reason.

One of the plot points I find most telling in this sad saga is that there were numerous people in the White House who thought Hunter’s relationship with Burisma inappropriate—and advised Joe Biden to that effect—but were rebuffed by Biden, who said that, as a rule, he did not interfere in Hunter’s personal business.

To be clear, we don’t know the details, and so much of this is mere speculation. But Biden’s refusal to ask Hunter “WTF are you doing?” and pressure him to walk away from Burisma reeks of a father’s reluctance to chastise a son who already sees himself as the lesser scion, the pale shadow of the golden child. As foolish as it was not to wave Hunter away from Burisma, there’s a germ of Biden’s empathy and kindness here: possibly, the understanding that his son was in pain, and had been for some time, and thus an unwillingness to hurt him further—even though it meant allowing him to make yet another poor choice.

This is manifestly not something Donald Trump understands. When Biden launched into an attack on Trump’s alleged characterization of American military dead as “saps” and “losers,” citing his dead son Beau, Trump evinced a momentary confusion. “Are you talking about Hunter?” he demanded, to which Biden said no, he was talking about Beau.

Trump’s answer, inadvertently, distilled his thinking on this and every issue. “I don’t know Beau, I know Hunter.”

Again, too much to parse: of course Trump doesn’t know Beau, as he has no understanding of someone who devotes himself to public service. Hunter, though? Who in Trump’s mind is corrupt, a grifter, and only interested in exploiting his political connections for personal gain? “I know Hunter,” he says, perfectly happy to smear his opponent’s son while his own corrupt spawn grin and leer from the audience.

Meanwhile, as Trump yells his invective, Biden repeats: “My son. My son. My son.” Asserting his filial connection. “I’m proud of my son,” he says when he gets a moment.

The cruel part of me wonders if Don Jr. and Eric felt a twinge of pain at that.

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Thoughts on Petards and Hoisting

For an embarrassingly long time, I assumed the expression “hoisted on his own petard” had something to do with someone being strung up on a flagpole, and that “petard” was an archaic term for flag or pennant. As is often the case with colloquialisms, I didn’t examine it too closely—if I had, I might have noticed that the general sense of the expression (i.e. one of poetic justice) did not quite square with a flag-raiser somehow hoisting themself along with the flag. It was only when I took a graduate class on Shakespeare that I learned he coined the expression, that it was from a textual variant of Hamlet, and that the expression is “hoist with his own petard.”

I further learned that a petard was a crude bomb used in late-medieval siege warfare, at a time when gunpowder had been developed, but reliably safe delivery systems had not. A petard was a bell-shaped bomb with a wooden base, which was attached to the gate of a castle or fortified town, or placed underneath the wall. Then the bombardier lit the fuse and ran like hell. Thing was, these bombs weren’t particularly reliable, and often blew up the bombers as well. Shakespeare uses “hoist” to mean “lift,” or as we might express it, blowed up real good.

I’ve seen this expression being used a lot these past few days—both correctly and incorrectly—for reasons that should probably be obvious.

I lost a day of work last Friday. As has so often happened during the Trump presidency, a specific news item effectively blotted out all other thought and left me stewing in anger and worry, trying to put my thoughts into some kind of order. What ultimately resulted was a long Facebook post, which read as follows:

I am so. Fucking. Angry right now.

I hate the fact that my instinctive reaction to the news of Trump’s diagnosis was a kind of schadenfreudistc glee, a smug satisfaction at poetic justice. It angers me that I feel this way, because it means that, in one small sense, he has won—he has infected me, albeit minimally, with the spite and cruelty that is his only mode of being.

And it infuriates me that, no matter what the outcome, he will have again succeeded in making a bad situation worse. If it proves to be a mild case from which he recovers quickly—which is probably the best scenario here—he will use that as vindication for his claim that COVID is no big deal; that his opponents have been making mountains out of molehills all this time; and it will encourage his supporters to flout masks and social distancing even more than they do now. And there will be others whose genuine fears about the disease will be falsely alleviated.

If his case proves more serious and he has to be hospitalized up to or past election day, the kind of violence and unrest we’ve been dreading will likely be worse than anticipated. His most ardent followers will take to the streets demanding that the election be cancelled or postponed, and if he loses they will call it illegitimate. If Trump survives, he will join that chorus and amp it up even more. His Congressional sycophants will do the same. Perhaps this is a situation in which more moderate Republicans will finally grow a spine, but I think that is entirely dependent on whether Mitch McConnell sees himself keeping the Senate majority or not—if he does, he’ll probably be happy to see Trump’s exit, but if not, expect him to want a do-over too. A do-over if we’re lucky, as that scenario assumes that Republicans don’t seize the opportunity to simply annul the election result and call for martial law.

And if Trump dies, he will have won. I don’t want him dead—I want him standing on his own two feet as he’s delivered a humiliating electoral defeat, I want to see him return to a private life with fraud indictments waiting and a massive amount of debt coming due. I want him to be alive for all of the revelations that will come in the aftermath of his tenure as president. If he dies now, he becomes a martyr and a rallying-cry for white supremacists, neo-nazis, and all of the people who found his brand of cruelty inspiring rather than repellent. If he dies now, he never has to face any consequences for the catastrophic mess he’s gleefully caused.

All of this because he’s too narcissistic and self-obsessed to grasp that the office of the president is one of public service, and that him contracting COVID-19 has such dire implications for everyone else. All of this because he’s too narcissistic and self-obsessed to model good behaviour, to wear a mask, to take a once-in-a-century pandemic seriously for reasons beyond his own self-interests. That he has been afflicted with a disease he’s spent eight months dismissing, downplaying, and ignoring isn’t poetic justice, it’s a potential catastrophe for the nation he took an oath to serve.

So, yeah … last Friday was a weird day.

I made the post public, and it was shared over ninety times—which is as close as I’ve ever come to going viral. Apparently I articulated a lot of other people’s inchoate thoughts, or, as some responses indicated, presented possible scenarios that hadn’t occurred to them.

I’m feeling rather a lot better now. I’m even feeling cautiously … what’s the word? Optimistic? Is optimism even a thing anymore? It’s a strange sensation.

I am still dreading what happens November 3rd and afterward. Even if this election turns into a Biden landslide, there is still a lot of potential for Trump, along with his enablers and ardent followers, to make mischief. But my sense at the moment is that the mood has shifted—that Trump, in catching COVID, has been hoist with his own petard. When I posted my thoughts last Friday, an old friend of mine pushed back in the comments, suggesting that I was overestimating the devotion of Trump’s base—that these were people who, having gone all-in on the façade of Trump as strongman, would fall away from him at any perception of weakness … which, in their minds, would entail admitting to an illness their idol had spent eight months dismissing and downplaying. I replied to my friend that I hoped he was right, but that he might be underestimating the conspiracism of his base—that if Trump were to get gravely ill or die, it would all be characterized as a nefarious plot by the Deep State.

It was interesting, then, that the initial conspiratorial thinking came from the anti-Trump side. A not-insignificant number of people were immediately skeptical, seeing the diagnosis as a ploy to (1) elicit sympathy for Trump; (2) distract the news media from his disastrous debate performance, the revelations about his taxes, and the release of recordings of Melania saying vile things; (3) allow Trump mouthpieces to point at the inevitable schadenfreude as proof of the Left’s hatefulness; and (4) most importantly, allow Trump to emerge after a few days looking hale and healthy as proof that the coronavirus was never the big deal Trump’s opponents made it out to be.

Well … Trump et al are certainly trying to make hay out of #4, but they’re not quite sticking the landing, and those voicing skepticism have mostly fallen silent. For one thing, it becomes more difficult to believe it’s all a fake when there is obvious confusion within the White House as to how to communicate a coherent message—something made more difficult by the contradictory reports emerging from Trump’s medical team. One assumes that if this was all  a conspiracy to fake an illness, the messaging would be more consistent (that being said, however, we should never underestimate the incompetence of this White House to do anything). Also, the ever-increasing number of Republican senators, Trump’s inner circle, White House aides, and (most infuriatingly) White House staff, that have been infected, at once makes it less likely that they’re all in on the con, and also makes the virulence of this virus painfully evident.

And finally, there is the fact of Trump’s behaviour itself, which makes it difficult to believe that he would ever agree to a plan that would make him look weak (and as my friend also said, saying “I got sick with the hoax” is just bad branding). His little joyride in a hermetically sealed SUV so he could wave to his supporters was just twenty kinds of pathetic, more so when it was leaked that Trump chose to put the Secret Service agents who had to ride with him, who now have to quarantine, in danger because he was “bored.” And then there was the sight of him, upon returning to the White House, obviously struggling for breath.

I’m cautiously optimistic that this might be the moment when some Trump devotees start seeing through the con. Because I think my friend was right: if your entire brand is bound up in a particular conception of strength and manliness, any chinks in that façade can be deadly. The bluster and bullying that so many of us find repellent, his absolute refusal to ever admit error or give ground even in the face of overwhelming evidence—indeed, his constant doubling-down on his mendacity—has always been integral to the Trumpian projection of strength. Such niceties as facts, science, evidence, and reason don’t matter to his most ardent supporters, because the point has always been the illusion of Trump as vanquisher of the Establishment, the snowflakes and SJWs, the libtards, the Deep State. Anything that might contradict this illusion is obviously a confection of a confederacy of the aforementioned enemies.

But when the Man Himself admits to getting sick with something he has roundly dismissed, that becomes problematic. That Trump knows as much is obvious from his recent posturing, as he claims that catching the virus is a demonstration of his courage; but he is also obviously flailing, tweeting and calling into Fox News to revisit his greatest hits about Hillary’s emails, “Obamagate,” and the FBI spying on his campaign. Desperate to hold rallies again, he has declared himself “cured,” in defiance of everything we know about the coronavirus.

Perhaps this will work for him, but it feels like the golden toilet is starting to shed its gilt.

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A week into classes

The new school year has just started–I’ve now taught three classes over zoom, which is proving less annoying than expected. Actually, it isn’t annoying at all, which is largely due to the fact that I’ve lucked into a great cohort of students who all seem interested and engaged and more than willing to contribute to our discussions.

I’m teaching just the one class this term: a fourth-year seminar on Pandemic Fiction … because, you know, I like to be topical. The class’ first assignment is a personal essay: given that we’re studying pandemic fiction in the midst of an actual pandemic, I thought it might be fruitful to have my students share their own experiences. It’s a far more informal assignment than I would usually give, but then, these aren’t usual times.

But because a personal essay is a somewhat more open-ended proposition than a typical formal essay, I wanted to give my students some examples of the kind of thing they could do. So I’ve written two of my own: the first is a variation on a post I wrote in early May, “Of Bread and Patience”; this one is more personal, and details my experience of depression for the better part of that month. And when I finished writing, I figured what the hell–might as well post it to the blog.

Oh, and because the required word count for this assignment is 1200, this essay is precisely 1200 words. Because that’s how we do it downtown, baby. (It also means this is the shortest thing I’ve posted to this blog in a long time).

My May Doldrums, in Hindsight

My long dark night of the soul during the pandemic took place over the better part of May. I don’t know what it is like for other people, but I seem only to experience depression in hindsight. Even when in the midst of it, I tend to be blind to the indicators: bouts of anxiety, lassitude, lack of focus, avoidance. While the anxiety is the more acute and unpleasant experience, avoidance is more insidious—avoidance of work, of communication with friends and family, of simple tasks I’d promised myself I would do. All of which was, this past spring, exacerbated by the fact that there was nothing immediate that demanded my attention, like teaching classes or other such professional obligations. I’d been on a half-sabbatical in the winter term, going into my usual non-teaching summer research term, and so almost everything I was working on could be postponed for a day or two.

One of the reasons I only seem to recognize depression in hindsight—besides the fact that avoidance also applied to self-awareness—was that it ebbs and flows. I would have a few days in which I woke up with acute anxiety, followed by a few days that felt, by comparison, much better. But those “better” days weren’t actually good, they were just days in which I didn’t feel the tightness of anxiety in my gut. I was still unfocused, still avoiding those things I should be doing. In the early days of isolation, I wrote incessantly in my journal, and posted to my blog with a frequency it had not seen in years. I tried my hand at baking bread. I cooked elaborate meals. And I went for increasingly long walks; my peripatetic ruminations filled pages in my journal and informed blog posts.

That all crashed to a halt early in May. It did not feel like a crash at the time, but all of the documentary evidence—the sudden paucity of blog posts, the lack of entries in my journal, the sudden lack of pictures posted in my social media feed—spoke to an obvious and sudden gap in my mental activity. I can see now that in hindsight my fever of writing in the early days was itself a coping mechanism, but also that its lack signaled a descent into depression. What I did instead was play games on my computer while watching movies and TV on my iPad.

I should point out that playing computer games while watching something on my iPad is not unusual for me. I find it soothing to play Age of Empires II, Civilization V, or other such games that do not consume your attention in the way more kinetic games do, while having on my small screen something that I can half-watch. Indeed, this has been my preferred method of watching horror films: I am a wimp when it comes to scary movies, and will only go see them in the theatre under duress. I prefer the controlled circumstance of watching them on my own television, when I can get up and go to the kitchen to make tea or get a snack when the scary parts start going down. “Do you want me to pause it?” my girlfriend will call after me—goadingly, because she knows perfectly well the answer: “No, I’m good.” Even better is watching such films out of the corner of my eye as I direct my villagers to chop wood or mine stone while I send my infantry and cavalry to attack my foes.

These games where you build a society or civilization have always been favourites of mine. I played Sid Miers’ Civilization in its original iterations, and all that have followed; Warcraft, Warcraft II, Starcraft and Starcraft II followed, but I think the most perfectly distilled version of these games is Age of Empires II. The point of such games is, starting with just a handful of workers, build a hamlet up into a city, and, ultimately, develop an army with which to vanquish rival peoples. In years past, the endgame was always the most enjoyable part for me: sending phalanxes of pikemen, missile troops, cavalry and artillery into the enemy settlements and razing them to the ground. As a military history buff, I used historical tactics as much as the game allowed: spearmen out front, protecting the second rank of archers who sent withering volleys at the enemy; always with a column or two of cavalry to send swooping in if I was getting outflanked; and finally, the catapults and trebuchets bringing up the rear, to rain fire on the enemy’s buildings once their armies were defeated.

Yes, there was a great satisfaction in such victories, but a core pleasure of the game preceded it: the accrual of resources and the construction of new buildings. I am always very fastidious in my urban planning: building out farms from the town hall, with houses along one side and military buildings on another, and one end of town given over to such crucial civilian buildings as the blacksmith, church, university, and market.

During the better part of May, I found myself playing hours of Age of Empires II, while incessantly binging and rewatching Archer, Community, and Parks and Recreation—sitcoms whose beats I knew instinctively by that point. Novelty was not desired. Nor, apparently, was ultimate victory in the game: I wanted only to build, to spawn my villagers and send them to chop wood, mine gold or stone, harvest food, or build up my village. I built defenses on the approaches from my enemies’ territory to frustrate their attempts at invasion, but was not myself inclined to invade. Leave me be, let me build my village and see to my people. On occasion, sometimes just out of boredom, I sent my armies to attack; but more often I ended the game when my resources were exhausted, and started a new one. All while episodes of television I could almost recite verbatim played alongside the computer.

It was all, I can recognize now, a soporific, something to distract my mind, and something to occupy me as I avoided all those other tasks I should have been doing. Perhaps that is why I was preoccupied with building and not with battle: the satisfaction of seeing those tiny, industrious villagers erect buildings and chop trees and mine ore served to offset my own glaring lack of industry. Perhaps, too, it was the illusion of a thriving community of people doing their thing, together, while my own reality was atomized, distanced, reduced to faces in small boxes on my laptop screen. And those sitcoms? Sitcoms are always about family, even when the characters aren’t technically related. Hindsight is annoying, because it shows you what you feel you should have recognized in the moment. I missed my family, both my actual family and the family of friends I have made here in St. John’s; I missed my own industry and sense of purpose; I missed community.

I still do. But coming out the other side of what I now think of as my May doldrums, that benefit of hindsight granted perspective I didn’t have in the moment.

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Fear Itself

When I was young and first watched The Empire Strikes Back, I was, as you might imagine, enthralled. But there was one part of Yoda’s now-notorious dictum that always unsettled me: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” I got the anger–>hate–>suffering equation; but I was agnostic about fear as the root of it all. I was, I should admit, an easily frightened child; I grew up into an easily frightened adult, especially where scary films are concerned. So the idea that fear could lead me to the dark side was more than just vaguely disturbing. Wait, I thought—I’m afraid of sharks. That could make me a Sith? I spent much of my childhood being afraid of the dark, and slept under my covers for longer than I care to admit. And it seemed to me utterly unreasonable that Luke Skywalker should not be terrified of facing the many threats before him, not least of which was the implacable evil of Darth Vader himself. Given that I had it on good authority (i.e. my parents) that courage and bravery was not about not being afraid, but being afraid and doing the scary thing anyway, I wondered if perhaps Yoda wasn’t asking rather a lot.

I suppose this says something about the difference between children’s and adults’ understanding of fear, and the way they experience it: I would of course later understand that Yoda wasn’t speaking of specific, circumstantial fear, which is the kind of fear we tend to experience as children—the monster under the bed, things that go bump in the night—but rather the more existential fears that have to do with who we are and how we see ourselves, and how we might continue on in the world.

It occurs to me that the bizarre arms race that gender reveal parties have become hews fairly neatly to Yoda’s dictum. The original idea, which involved making cakes with pink or blue interiors, was somewhat twee and painfully white-suburban from the start, but at least it was inoffensive—an excuse for a weekend afternoon of chardonnay and canapes. How that escalated into using alligators, go-karts, and explosives, is perhaps a question best addressed by sociologists, but let me offer a thought: at a moment in which the binarisms of gender are more and more eroded by the visibility of trans and non-binary people, and the language of trans rights becomes more ubiquitous (along with that of such detractors as Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro), the militant assertion of birth-bestowed gender is an unfortunate but not unforeseeable reaction. Were it to remain in the realm of cakes and balloons it would be innocuous, but as wildfires in Arizona and California attest, there is a not-insignificant number of people who want to assert their unborn child’s gender by literally blowing shit up.

The fear here is not difficult to grasp: the apparent upending of what has been for most people the most elemental feature of identity we have known. Gender has long been the easiest binary, and the most disconcerting one to have troubled. The thing is, anger isn’t the next inevitable step; but then, fear is not itself inevitable, unless one finds their sense of identity threatened. Then, anger is more likely, and at a moment when Facebook and YouTube algorithms will likely connect you to other angry people (like the aforementioned transphobic asshats), hatred can be a short trip. All of which might well convince you that making an explosive box filled with Schrödinger’s gender powder and setting it off in a place that hasn’t had rain in half a year is a good idea—because that’ll show those SJW snowflakes.

And suffering? Well …

The fear of which Yoda spoke was the same conception of fear invoked by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural speech (and yes, I did just mention Yoda and FDR in the same sentence—life goals!). “There is nothing to fear but fear itself” is another dictum my young self found questionable, because sharks. But of course, FDR was talking about the same nebulous societal and cultural fear as Yoda, fear born of ignorance. Fear, after all, can be galvanizing—it can inspire courage and solidarity. But when we are uncertain of what we’re afraid of, and only know that we are in fact afraid, that is when reason gives way to anger and hate. Doris Kearns Goodwin has recently pointed out that the oft-quoted “fear itself” line of FDR’s speech is really only comprehensible in the context of a line immediately preceding it: “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.” It was in speaking truth about the hardships facing the nation, and the difficult road ahead, Roosevelt asserted, that the blight of fear could be obviated.

And as Jill Lepore observes in These Truths, her magisterial history of the U.S., FDR employed the relatively new medium of radio to unite a nation with his Sunday evening “fireside chats”—in which he would explain what his government was doing; why it was doing it; and how it would affect ordinary Americans. In this way, Roosevelt talked the nation through the worst of the Great Depression, and was its anchor through the Second World War.

Which is why it was acutely galling to read that, in the wake of the revelations made by Bob Woodward this week, Fox News host and Trump’s putative shadow chief of staff, Sean Hannity, compared Trump’s handling of the coronavirus to FDR’s tenure as president:

Did President Roosevelt fan the flames of misery? Did he call for panic and anxiety? No, he actually rallied a nation in a time of need. He focused on making Americans stronger by staying positive, and he got to work and he rolled up his sleeves. During World War II, with the country on the brink, FDR proclaimed, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Well, those were brutally tough times. Did the media attack him? Of course not … The president’s job is to maintain order, and by the way, right the ship during and after a crisis, not spread panic, not spreading fear among the population. Let’s make one thing perfectly clear, President Trump has never misled or distorted the truth about this deadly disease.

This, it should be pointed out, was in defense of Trump’s comments to Bob Woodward that he deliberately downplayed the severity of the coronavirus so as to avoid a panic. Leaving aside the fact that there hasn’t been a panic Trump didn’t gleefully inflame, let’s recall two points I made just a moment ago: first, FDR spoke of “fear itself” in reference to the Great Depression, not WWII (which might seem a persnickety quibble, were it not for the fact that Hannity’s historical error came during a bit titled “Hannity’s History Lesson”); second, FDR espoused radical honesty. His very first fireside chat was about the week-long “bank holiday,” in which banks across the nation were closed so that the government could instantiate federal deposit insurance in the interim. Banks had been closing all across the U.S. since the crash of 1929, with millions of people losing their savings (remember that scene from It’s A Wonderful Life?); having the president talk the sixty million people listening through the rationale for the bank holiday not only soothed their fears, it enlisted them in FDR’s project.

The best responses to any national crisis always proceed from honesty. The greatest insult proceeding from Trump’s ostensible concern about “panic” is how profoundly it condescends to the electorate.

The thing is, aside from getting the timing of FDR’s “fear itself” line wrong, Hannity wasn’t wrong about anything else—until he says, “President Trump has never misled or distorted the truth about this deadly disease.” I don’t know if we can even call this gaslighting, as gaslighting at least entails a measure of subtlety. This is simple, outright lying, mendacity directed at an audience that doesn’t need to be gaslit. Which makes me think that Yoda possibly needed a prefatory condition for fear: ignorance.

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The Mafioso-in-Chief

In the virtuosic opening sequence of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, we are treated to a sumptuous and lavish wedding reception. Present is Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton). Michael wears a Marines dress uniform; the Second World War has recently ended. In his conversation with Kay, Michael notes that his father Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), a powerful mafia Don, was none too pleased with Michael’s enlistment. At the end of Godfather II, we get a flashback to the moment when Michael reveals to his brothers that he has enlisted. His eldest brother Sonny (James Caan) is incensed—immediately prior to Michael’s revelation, he had been going on about how people volunteering to go fight in the war were “saps,” because they’re risking their lives “for strangers.” Michael counters, “They’re risking their lives for their country.” “Your country ain’t your blood,” Sonny snaps back. “Don’t you forget that!”

Within the limited economy of organized crime, especially crime organized around family connections, Sonny’s perspective makes a certain amount of sense. If there is no higher loyalty than family, and the family’s prosperity, signing up to fight for a country whose laws the family in question flouts and rejects is, at best, an act of stupidity; at worst, of betrayal.

Michael Corleone will of course become the new Don by the end of the first Godfather, and become one of the most compellingly villainous anti-heroes in American film. But at the outset, nothing sets him apart from his family more, and nothing invites audience sympathy more, than his uniform. One of the great tensions at work in the Godfather films is this contrast between the blood ties of family and the abstractions of nation—given that politics is depicted as being as much of a scam as the rackets of organized crime, with law enforcement and elected officials all having their own price, the only real, authentic connections one has are to family. But like much art that challenges prevailing cultural mythologies, The Godfather uses Michael’s enlistment and his family’s anger at it in the service of troubling audience perception—the contrast between the gorgeous wedding reception and the usually-universal approbation attached to a WWII uniform, here the mark of Michael’s shame.

This week in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg published an article citing a variety of anonymous sources who quote Donald Trump echoing Sonny Corleone on numerous occasions. Referencing the time Trump cancelled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American cemetery in 2018, during the centennial of the end of WWI in Paris, because of “rain,” Goldberg writes:

Trump rejected the idea of the visit because he feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain, and because he did not believe it important to honor American war dead, according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day. In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” In a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed.

I’m beginning to think that “Shocked but not Surprised” should be the title of the definitive history of the Trump presidency.

The White House has of course denied these allegations and condemned Goldberg’s article, so I suppose we must in good faith acknowledge the possibility that his sources were, for reasons passing understanding, all lying. And indeed, it would be difficult to credit that any sitting U.S. president would voice such thoughts aloud. To anybody. Ever. Even if they were genuine sentiments.

But of course we’ve heard such things from Trump before, such as when he denied that John McCain was a war hero, because “I like people who weren’t captured.” Or his attacks on the parents of Humayun Khan, an Army officer was killed in Iraq, for having the temerity to speak for the Democrats at the 2016 convention. Or, as was detail in Philip Rucker and Carol Leonig’s book A Very Stable Genius, when he called the assembled Pentagon brass who were trying to give him a crash course in geopolitics, “a bunch of dopes and losers.” Or, when he saw that the White House flags had been lowered to half-staff when John McCain died, he exploded, “What the fuck are we doing that for? Guy was a fucking loser.”

The point here isn’t that we unequivocally owe military personnel our respect and reverence—I would, indeed, argue that the “thank you for your service” default setting, which allows people to be utterly unreflective about the nuances of uniformed life, is about as harmful as the reflexive hostility of anti-Vietnam protesters—but to observe, with an exhausted sigh, that these most impolitic of thoughts on Trump’s part only serve to reinforce what we know about the President’s narcissism and sociopathic self-regard. Perhaps the most appalling distillation of this is summed up by another tidbit from Goldberg’s article:

On Memorial Day 2017, Trump visited Arlington National Cemetery, a short drive from the White House. He was accompanied on this visit by John Kelly, who was then the secretary of homeland security, and who would, a short time later, be named the White House chief of staff. The two men were set to visit Section 60, the 14-acre area of the cemetery that is the burial ground for those killed in America’s most recent wars. Kelly’s son Robert is buried in Section 60. A first lieutenant in the Marine Corps, Robert Kelly was killed in 2010 in Afghanistan. He was 29. Trump was meant, on this visit, to join John Kelly in paying respects at his son’s grave, and to comfort the families of other fallen service members. But according to sources with knowledge of this visit, Trump, while standing by Robert Kelly’s grave, turned directly to his father and said, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”

Part of me doesn’t want to believe this. Not just the sentiment, but the fact that anyone would say as much to the father of a dead soldier while standing at the graveside.

Part of my doesn’t want to believe it, but at the same time, I have no difficulty believing it—not because, as some might charge, I’m invested in thinking the worst about Trump, but because he has, during the five years since announcing him campaign, given me no reason whatsoever to disbelieve it. Everything Trump does is transactional—as I said in my last post, he has made it obvious that his worldview is absolutely zero-sum. To paraphrase John Goodman in The Big Lebowski: say what you will about Sonny Corleone, but at least he had an ethos. Trump’s business and Trump’s presidency have both been compared more times than I can count to mafia-style operations; but to my mind, Trump et al are the mob at the end of the movie, when all of the original bonds of family and loyalty have been frayed by corruption and graft and over-reach. There was a time when I thought Goodfellas was a superior film to The Godfather and its sequels, because it seemed to me that, where Coppola romanticized his mafiosi, Scorsese was far more clear-eyed in depicting their sociopathy and moral bankruptcy. I’ve since come around on that: the decline and fall of Michael Corleone is the subtler of the two tales, not least because it showed how, criminal though the Corleone enterprise might have been, it had its roots not just in family, but a community at once ignored and victimized by an indifferent nation.

If the history of Fred Trump, Sr. and his successor Donald has showed anything, it’s that there was never that originary matrix of family and community. As Mary Trump details, the Trump legacy was never not zero-sum.

What was in it for them? Trump isn’t just asking that of dead soldiers. He’s asking it of anybody who does anything not just for themselves. He’s asking it of anybody who takes on a job whose labour and effort exceeds the fiscal reward—teachers, nurses, EMTs, firefighters, social workers—but which is done in the name of helping others, of serving a community. In Trump’s worldview, they’re all suckers.

And I think what’s most frustrating in the present moment is that his most ardent supporters—those that aren’t rich, that is—don’t grasp that he thinks the same thing about them. He loves their adulation, but was never about to stand for four hours of selfies like Elizabeth Warren did, or hear their stories. His attitude is best summed up by Bono, of all people, who told Jimmy Kimmel, “”He likes to see their faces in the crowd, but I don’t think he wants to know who they are when they go home.”

Of course he doesn’t. They’re not people to be served, they’re means to an end.

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The Chaos is the Point

Hoo boy. Okay, so wrote this post in part as a failed effort at catharsis. I’ve been running election scenarios in my head, and none of them are happy. I don’t mean I think Joe Biden will lose—I mean I think Trump will render it all moot. I was not encouraged when I read about the “war games” played out by the Transition Integrity Project. Suffice to say, there were no scenarios that did not involve violence in the aftermath of election day.

I went back and forth about whether to post this, or relegate it to a lonely folder of forgotten musings on my desktop. But, well … misery loves company.

caravan

A truck from the pro-Trump “caravan” in Portland.

Two years ago, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote what I think has been the most incisive evaluation of Trump, his administration, and the phenomenon of Trumpism as a whole. It’s also one of those articles whose thesis is plainly stated in its very title: “The Cruelty is the Point.” I feel as though the “is” in that title should be italicized, in tacit response to the sort of punditry that affects bafflement or bemusement at Trump’s behaviour and that of his acolytes, and attempts the Sisyphean task of framing it in terms of everyday politics. What ideology exists in Trumpism is the ethos of resentment and revenge, in which the infliction of pain and suffering on one’s foes is not a bonus accrued in the process of political gamesmanship, it is the game. Serwer writes,

We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era. There were the border-patrol agents cracking up at the crying immigrant children separated from their families, and the Trump adviser who delighted white supremacists when he mocked a child with Down syndrome who was separated from her mother. There were the police who laughed uproariously when the president encouraged them to abuse suspects, and the Fox News hosts mocking a survivor of the Pulse Nightclub massacre (and in the process inundating him with threats), the survivors of sexual assault protesting to Senator Jeff Flake, the women who said the president had sexually assaulted them, and the teen survivors of the Parkland school shooting. There was the president mocking Puerto Rican accents shortly after thousands were killed and tens of thousands displaced by Hurricane Maria, the black athletes protesting unjustified killings by the police, the women of the #MeToo movement who have come forward with stories of sexual abuse, and the disabled reporter whose crime was reporting on Trump truthfully.

It is this cruelty, and the outrage it reliably incites, that bonds Trump to his base and makes his stubborn refusal to do anything that might disappoint them comprehensible. “Their shared laughter at the suffering of others,” Serwer says of Trump’s most loyal adherents, “is an adhesive that binds them to one another, and to Trump.”

Even now, pundits and columnists not employed by Fox News still wonder why Trump can’t seem to grasp the fairly basic political ramifications of not presenting at least a thin façade of statesmanship and condemning violence on all sides, of saying something tepid that gestures toward de-escalation. And this after he’d actually managed to be relatively disciplined for four days. The Republication National Convention somehow managed to keep the president on a tight leash and somehow convinced him to stick to the teleprompter during his speech, and presented a carefully stage-managed spectacle specifically designed to give disaffected or alienated Trump voters a permission structure to vote for him again: trotting out every Black Trump supporter they could find, staging a naturalization ceremony for conspicuously dark-skinned new citizens, parading a veritable cavalcade of women (the balance of whom were, true to Trump’s pageant-owning past, blonde and statuesque) attesting to Trump’s kindness behind the scenes and his equitable treatment of women; all of which was by way of soothing people’s misgivings about Trump’s racism and misogyny. Don’t believe the liberal liars and Fake News, and don’t believe everything you think you’ve seen and heard for more than four years—this is the REAL Donald J. Trump.

Cue the panicking of the Chicken Littles, suddenly terrified that the Republicans had been successful in snowing the public yet again.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m afraid the sky is falling, too. I’m just not quite so worried about electoral math. If that was the only problem now, I’d sleep a lot better.

I’ve had a lot of people asked me if I think Trump can win in November. I say no, I don’t. The worry creasing their faces eases for a moment as I break down my reasoning. As we’ve seen since the 2016 election, Trump has a strangely resilient approval of around forty percent. It goes up and it goes down, but never by too much. For any other president, never once cresting fifty percent in the polls during a first term would be catastrophic, something we tend to forget in the present moment, because, however egregious Trump’s behaviour, however monumental his incompetence, and however disastrous his mismanagement of the pandemic response, the economy, and race-based civil unrest, that forty percent remains durable. That is, of course, cause for concern, as that was more or less the number he had going into 2016. But there are a handful of factors at play in 2020 that make a key difference. First, Trump is no longer an unknown and untested quantity. In 2016, it seemed a lot more reasonable to some people to give the chamber a spin and play Russian roulette with a Trump vote. What’s the worst that could happen? was asked a lot—or, as Trump said in his plea to Black voters, “What have you got to lose?” (Which is one of the many, many reasons White liberals need to pay more attention to Black voters—they’re very keenly aware of what they have to lose). After almost four years of corruption and self-dealing, and of course an economy cratered by a pandemic and a death toll pushing two hundred thousand, we’re now living “the worst that could happen.” Second, for a critical mass of unwarranted reasons (and a handful of warranted ones), Hillary Clinton was a deeply unpopular candidate whose unfavourables were comparable to Trump’s. Couple that with the divisiveness caused by a bitter primary fight, and it exacerbates the problem of the third item—third party candidates, who provided safe haven for people who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton (but who also believed she would still win in a walk). A possible Kanye West candidacy notwithstanding, third party candidates aren’t a factor this time around. And even if they were, anyone who bought into Trump’s spiel in 2016 about deal-making and his promises to build infrastructure and tax the rich aren’t about to be fooled again (I sincerely hope).

All of that makes Trump’s chances quite dire, even with that static forty percent popularity, and I haven’t yet mentioned the name Joe Biden. To be clear, he was never near the top of my list during the primary (Team Warren all the way!), and in the present moment I think a ficus in a fedora would give Trump a run for his money, but I’m not unconvinced he’s the person for the moment—someone whose history of tragedy and heartbreak has gifted him with the humility and empathy needed to heal a suffering nation. That, and (touch wood) it looks as though the Democrats have their shit together this time around.

Remember, Trump lost the popular vote; he won the electoral college by eking out victories of less than one percent in three key states. I’m not saying that can’t happen again, just that the factors listed above make it far less likely, at least mathematically.

And this is the point, when I’ve eased my friend’s worry somewhat, that I make their face fall by saying, “But that probably won’t matter.” Because I’m not worried about electoral math: I’m worried about Trump’s capacity to foment chaos.

Which brings us back to the ostensible confusion among some of the pundit class about Trump’s apparent inability to help himself politically by, say, condemning the vigilantism of armed pro-Trump militias in the same breath as he attacks rioters. Or possibly disavowing the ludicrous QAnon conspiracy theories. On one hand, it shouldn’t be surprising—these are, after all, of a piece with his refusal to condemn neo-Nazis after Charlottesville. But this close to an election he looks poised to lose, shouldn’t he do the politically expedient thing?

Well, no. For one thing, as I’ve already pointed out, he loves the adoration of his base too much to ever do anything that might ameliorate their ardour. But he is also by nature a provocateur and an agent of chaos. It’s tempting to quote Littlefinger’s “chaos is a ladder” speech from Game of Thrones, except that would be entirely inappropriate to the example of Trump—Littlefinger is a character of comparable amorality, but one who sees five moves ahead and foments chaos to further his own plans.

Trump, by contrast, doesn’t plan. In the present moment, chaos isn’t a ladder—chaos is the point. Chaos is an end in itself.

As we’ve learned from innumerable articles and books about Trump, his “management style” has always been to pit people against each other and see what comes of it. His multiple bankruptcies speak to the fact that, however many times he refers to himself as a “builder,” he’s never really been interested in building (indeed, his entire election campaign isn’t so much asking voters to be amnesiac about the past few years as it is an attempt to declare Chapter Eleven and start from scratch in January 2021). And there’s a reason he was so adept at reality television, a form that privileges conflict for the sake of conflict, and rewards cruelty and betrayal.

This is my fear: for months now, Trump and his acolytes have been laying the groundwork for abject chaos in November. The pandemic—or rather, Trump &co.’s catastrophic mismanagement of the response—might be the principal torpedo in the hull of Trump’s re-election, but it is also providing him his best means to disrupt the process and the results. Trump and his people have been banging the drum for weeks now about widespread mail-in voting fraud. The fact that this claim is itself demonstrably fraudulent is immaterial—the point is to make the claim as loudly and often as possible. Couple that with the fact that a preponderance of mailed ballots will almost certainly mean that the election won’t be called on the night of, but will take days or even weeks to tally votes, and there is a wide window for Trump to make mischief. I fear that the “Brooks Brothers Riots” of the 2000 recount in Florida—when Republicans organized preppie mobs of lawyers and political operatives (something Roger Stone had a key hand in, let us not forget) to harass the poll workers—will come to seem a genteel exercise. Imagine instead mobs of Trump supporters, many armed, descending on polling locations to denounce the “rigged” election; imagine also counter-protesters, and imagine what side law enforcement will take in such confrontations.

We’re seeing the first glimmers of such a scenario now. Why on earth would Trump make any move to de-escalate the violence of this latest round of protests? Why, indeed, would he discourage wannabe militiamen like Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two people in Kenosha with his friend’s AR-15, or the “caravan” who went to Portland to shoot paintballs and pepper spray at Black Lives Matter protesters? As John Cassidy observes in The New Yorker,

By cheering on the members of the Portland caravan—“GREAT PATRIOTS,” he called them on Twitter—and defending Rittenhouse, despite the fact that he has been charged with two counts of first-degree homicide, the President has crossed a threshold. Faced with the prospect of losing an election, and power, he has gone beyond mere scaremongering and resorted to fomenting violent unrest from the White House.

It doesn’t help matters that Trump obviously sees chaos and disorder as helping his re-election prospects. In keeping with her boss’s habit of saying the quiet part out loud, Kellyanne Conway said on Fox and Friends, “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.”

Trump thus has several reasons not just to abdicate any obligation to cool temperatures, but to actively raise them; but the central and unavoidable reason is that he knows no other way. As he has made painfully clear in everything he has ever done, his worldview is zero-sum. You’re either a winner or a loser, a predator or a mark; to be a loser is the worst fate, and so he has crafted his self-image with a single-minded determination to always be a winner, at least in his own eyes. While he obviously fears losing the presidency and, with it, legal immunity from the various investigations currently being pursued, it’s obvious that his greatest fear is being seen losing on the largest and most visible stage he’s ever been on.

And I think—I fear—he will do literally anything to avoid that.

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