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.