What I’m Reading Aside from my reading for the term and for research, I’m about three-quarters of the way through Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land. It is a very long book (700+ pages) that doesn’t even get to the end of his first term; it is reflective, often pausing in its narration of events so Obama can ponder the vagaries of decisions he made or didn’t make, and ruminate on the broader significance of this or that detail in the broader context of American history; he also frequently digresses into little potted lectures on history and political philosophy to better frame the stories he’s telling.
Or to put it another way: I’m loving it. There are many reasons why I have such vast respect for this man, and why I think history will ultimately rank him as one of the best presidents; his humanity, intelligence, and passion are among those reasons, and they come through on every page, along with a professorial and nerdy wonkishness that I aspire to. After four years of Trump, this book is a salve to my soul.
What I’m Watching Really, my life these days in measured out in week-long increments of impatience between each new episode of The Expanse. I latched onto the novels by James S.A. Corey (the pseudonym of Daniel Abrahamson and Ty Franck) soon after the first one (Leviathan Wakes) was published, and have read them obsessively since (we’re now eight novels along, and I’m waiting for the ninth and final installment rather impatiently). So when I saw they were adapting the novels to TV, I experienced the usual excitement and trepidation one often does when beloved books are being adapted to the screen. Will it be good (Good Omens, Game of Thrones) or bitterly disappointing (American Gods) or just … meh (The Magicians)?
The Expanse not only did not disappoint, it has gotten steadily better every season as the writers have found their groove and the special effects budgets have grown. This season—the fifth—is the best so far. It benefits in part from the narrative build of the previous seasons, in which otherwise seemingly insignificant plot points and elements of world-building have culminated in some pretty virtuosic storytelling, matched by amazing acting and visuals that now rank The Expanse among the best SF/F that has been brought to TV.
I don’t want to get into detail, because spoilers, but I will almost certainly write a much longer and spoiler-filled post once this season is done.
The Pleasures of Zoom-Teaching To be certain, I miss being in the classroom with the intensity of a nova—teaching and interacting with my students is easily my favourite part of my job, and the classroom has always been a quasi-sacred space to me. Talking to the Brady Bunch arrangement of squares on my laptop screen is nowhere near the same thing … but there are aspects of it I like. Not the least of which is I can conduct classes wearing pyjamas. Also, they don’t know what’s in my mug, heh …
There is also Zoom’s chat function. As class discussion progresses, sometimes students will carry on a parallel conversation in text. It’s as if they’re passing notes in class, but I get to read them.
But by far my favourite aspect is the presence of pets. My cat Gloucester is a frequent visitor, jumping up onto my lap and staring at the faces on my screen with his golden eyes. And there is a petting zoo worth of dogs and cats—and in the case of today’s class, a bunny!—perched on my students’ laps or occasionally pushing their snouts close in to the webcams.
Oh, Yeah—Classes Started Today Memorial delayed the start of term for a few days to give students a slightly longer break (something I was grateful for, too), so today was day one of the winter term. My first class was my graduate seminar “The Spectre of Catastrophe,” and if today was any indication, this is going to be a good term. There was a wonderful energy to the class, and everyone was enthused and engaged.
Tomorrow I start with my fourth-year seminar “Utopias and Dystopias,” a class that was designed by a former colleague of mine, now retired. It was always a student favourite when he taught it, and I’ve been requesting it since he retired several years ago. My teaching dance card was always too full to slot it in previously, so I’m delighted to finally get to teach it.
Last semester I taught a course on pandemic fiction; this term, it’s utopias and dystopias and post-apocalyptic narratives of the 21st century. Sense a theme? It feels a little bit, after 2020, like I’m steering into the skid.
For me, one of the more reliably comforting shows to watch over the past four years has been Late Night With Seth Meyers. Of all the late night hosts, I find Meyers the sharpest and the funniest; his “A Closer Look” segments are among the best pieces of political commentary I’ve seen. And yet, about a year and a half ago, I found myself yelling at him on my television screen.
His guest was Meghan McCain, daughter of the late Senator John McCain, who has in the past few years polished her brand as a conservative truth-teller, largely in the context of her seat on The View. Though she situates herself as an anti-Trump Republican, she often ends up tacitly defending him in the name of calling out ostensible liberal hypocrisy. The bone in her teeth the night she appeared with Meyers was Representative Ilhan Omar—who had, at some point prior, made comments over Twitter that many people (Democrats included) perceived as anti-Semitic (basically, accusing Washington politicians of being in thrall to pro-Israel lobbyists; she was accused of indulging in Jewish stereotypes regarding money). Around the same time, she had also made comments to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, saying the council “was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.” The phrasing “some people did something” predictably pissed a lot of people off because of the glib way it glossed over the horror of the attack. Even more predictably, the right-wing media latched onto both of these instances and used them as evidence of Omar’s putative radicalism and capital-O Otherness.
Hence, it was thus unsurprising that McCain would similarly voice her umbrage, but when Meyers pushed back, pointing out that Trump has a long history of anti-Semitic remarks, as well as numerous impolitic comments about 9/11 (such as falsely claiming that, with the collapse of the Twin Towers, the tallest building in NYC was now one of his), she grew increasingly irate, ultimately accusing him of having a double standard. Sure, you’ll attack Trump, she spat, but not someone on your side of the political coin.
This is when I started yelling at the TV. Not because I disagreed with anything Meyers was saying, but because he wasn’t making what, to me, was the most obvious point: that of course there’s a double standard for the words and behaviour of a freshman congresswoman on one hand, and the President of the United States on the other. The former represents something just north of 700,000 constituents in Minnesota. The latter was elected president of 330 million people; is the face of America to the world; has access to the codes for the nuclear arsenal; commands the largest military on earth; and occupies the most powerful political office in the world. The idea that we wouldn’t hold him to a different standard is categorically insane.
There is much about the attacks on Omar that were infuriating, even if you grant the premise that her comments were as offensive as people charged. For one thing, she apologized (something Meyers pointed our several time to McCain, who was dismissive), and promised to learn from her colleagues how best to educate her perspective, whereas Trump has never admitted error or apologized for anything. In his life. For another thing, it’s hard not to speculate on how much grief a white dude would receive for such comments as opposed to a hijab-wearing Black Muslim woman.
I cite this interview because it’s what tends to leap to mind every time I encounter the rhetorical gambit of whataboutism. You’re familiar with it, of course: equal measures of deflection and the implication of your own hypocrisy. “Trump has been credibly accused of sexual assault and harassment of numerous women.” “Oh yeah? What about Bill Clinton? Where’s your #MeToo sanctimony with him?” On some levels, there’s a value to such a turnaround, as it can raise discomforting questions. How do we now think about Bill Clinton’s behaviour while in office, to say nothing of the prior credible accusations against him? And while that can be at times a helpful and necessary exercise in taking a moral inventory of one’s positions, in the context of an argument, whataboutism tends to erase context and nuance. The most obvious answer to my above example would be to say, “We’re not talking about Clinton, we’re talking about Trump. We can talk about Clinton later if you want, but that’s not the subject at hand.” That is unlikely to satisfy your interlocutor, however, and almost certainly will evoke a sneering charge of hypocrisy. On the other hand, any good-faith attempt to address the question necessitates teasing out distinctions of context and changing societal attitudes, which inevitably takes you away from the original premise of your argument. And if you’re up against an inveterate whatabouter, you’ll be peppered with the machine-gun fire of follow-ups. “What about X? What about Y?”
To be fair, there are times when whataboutism is unavoidable, but these tend to be fairly narrow and specific; when the Biden camp put Neera Tanden’s name forward as head of the Office of Management and Budget, a handful of Republican senators protested that they probably couldn’t vote to confirm her, because she’d been frequently caustic and pugilistic on Twitter. Which, honestly, is one of those moments when you just have to say … seriously? What about Trump’s tweeting habits? After four years of being silent on this President, now you choose to take issue with someone being mean on social media?
But for the most part, whataboutism isn’t about opening up the discussion, it’s about shutting it down in a way that promulgates a sense of political cynicism. Meghan McCain’s false equivalency between a freshman congresswoman and the President is merely just a more glaring example of this kind of thinking. Over the past few weeks, there have been a three recurring examples, which taken together comprise a pernicious narrative thread that culminated in the attack on the Capitol: in response to people upset over Trump refusing to concede, you’ve reliably heard people pointing out that Stacy Abrams never conceded her loss in 2018’s gubernatorial contest in Georgia; in the run-up to Republicans’ plan to contest the electoral votes on January 6, many on the Right have pointed out that Democrats contested electors in 2001, 2005, and 2017; and in the aftermath of the MAGA crowd’s storming of the Capitol, the charge has been that liberals and progressives cheered on the BLM “riots” all summer, but now they’re calling for law and order when Trump supporters perpetrate something similar?
The appeal of whataboutism is that it’s easy, and provides a blunt rhetorical cudgel easily taken up by people with little interest in context and nuance. Not one of the three examples I cite here holds up on examination, but to engage each of them on their merits requires making distinctions in which those inclined will see no difference. There is no equivalence, none whatsoever, between Stacy Abrams’ refusal to concede and Trump’s recalcitrance. Abrams’ refusal was a symbolic protest—she accepted the fact of Brian Kemp’s electoral win and did not attempt to overturn the election results. But she held, not that the results were fraudulent, but that her opponent had acted inappropriately in his dual role as gubernatorial candidate and Georgia’s Secretary of State, and thus in charge of overseeing the election in which he was running—and in the process, enacting voting restrictions that disenfranchised thousands of Black voters. Which is not even remotely similar to Trump’s refusal to concede based on his repeated claims of voter fraud on a massive scale that was somehow perpetrated with such subtlety that no evidence of it could be produced in over sixty lawsuits. The difference between Abrams’ refusal to concede and Trump’s is that hers did not deny the reality of the election results—it was, rather, a protest against voter suppression perpetrated through entirely legal means (and the fact that it was entirely legal is one of the crucial problems she sought to address). Trump, by contrast, is a conspiracist and a fantasist, and his repeated assertions of fraud—repeated and amplified by his useful idiots in conservative media—have created a dangerous alternative reality among his supporters.
Indeed, the flimsy tautology cited by the senators and representatives contesting the electoral votes on January 6 was that they had an obligation to open an investigation into the election because so many people believed it was fraudulent … belief fabricated out of nothing by Trump and his mouthpieces. And, further, contesting electoral votes was hardly uncommon, given that Democrats had done so after the 2000, 2004, and 2016 elections. But again, that whataboutism infers equivalence where there is none: in each of those cases, the election had been conceded—by Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton, respectively. And in each case, the protests were raised by outliers in the Democratic Party; in 2001 and 2017 they were gavelled down by the outgoing Vice Presidents Gore and Biden (“Come on man, move on,” was Biden’s characteristic rebuke). Last Wednesday, we saw twelve senators and over one hundred representatives in an organized effort to disrupt and delay the confirmation of Biden’s presidency, egged on by a delusional lame duck President stuck in a bubble of resentment and rage, while the insurgency he had spent months fomenting made its way to Capitol Hill.
“But what about all the violent riots by Black Lives Matter protesters this summer?” I find this one particularly saddening, mainly because it was disheartening to watch the perception of an historic nation-wide movement calcify into the overdetermined and inaccurate memory of “riots.” It is crucial to remember the widespread shock and horror inspired by the images of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a callous and indifferent police officer; it is equally crucial to remember that BLM’s national approval was over sixty percent in the weeks that followed, most specifically because, in addition to the cruelty of Floyd’s murder, millions of people witnessed the police doubling down on their brutal methods when faced with mass protests: confronting BLM marchers in riot gear; being the ones to incite violence as they charged the protesters; bombarding them with pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets; driving their vehicles into their lines. While some police precincts attempted more peaceful conciliation, they were the outliers—for the most part, police met protesters in quasi-military garb and militant tactics, while largely ignoring or winking at right-wing groups like the Proud Boys when they showed up after curfew to clash with the protesters.
The summer was long, and memories and attention spans are tragically short. Frustration mounted. More bad actors inserted themselves into the protests. Was there violence? Yes. Did some of the protests devolve into riots after dark? Also yes. But the confluence of participants–the police, BLM protesters, anarchists, opportunistic looters, right-wing counter-protesters and wannabe militiamen like Kyle Rittenhouse–meant that the excesses could not be blamed on any one group, and the BLM leadership always called for peaceful protests. Sadly, though, what was always a national movement proceeding from a long history of racial injustice became distilled for many as a series of images of fire, violence, and smoke—usually at night—and the nuances evaporated from the larger national discourse and tacitly laid the blame on Black Lives Matter.
The point being that the complexity of the summer of protest bears no resemblance to the stark insurgency that took place on Wednesday. The former sought to wake a nation to its long-standing history of racial injustice, and was met by overwhelming force by law enforcement. The latter was an almost entirely white mob fomented by a delusional president, a mob that sported confederate flags, neo-nazi garb and tattoos, and who—for all their protestations of patriotism—replaced an American flag with a Trump flag. And they were met not by overwhelming force, but by a paucity of Capitol police who apparently did not think a mass of Trump supporters was a threat.
The former was protest. The latter was insurrection. There is no equivalence.
So I’m trying something new on my blog. I often go long stretches between posts. Sometimes this is because I’m otherwise occupied, or unstruck by inspiration, or just plain lazy. Often, however, it is because an idea I have for a post doesn’t pan out … I’ll sit and write and write, but whatever observation I’d intended to make doesn’t quite warrant my standard verbiage.
Partially for my own mental health—and for the fact that I do enjoy writing blog posts—I’m trying to correct my tendency to think that, if something isn’t worth writing 2000+ words on, it isn’t worth pursuing. To that end, I’m trying “A Few Things”: a recurring post in which I will write short and (hopefully) sweet blurbs on the random thoughts that excite my brain.
Wish me luck.
The Stupid Coup. I’m still digesting the events of this past Wednesday. I might have something more thoughtful to say about it at greater length later, but for now all I have is this: people are clowns and buffoons until they’re not. Even as we watched, aghast, as a mob of neo-confederates, white supremacists, neo-nazis, QAnon devotees, wannabe droogs and paramilitary cosplayers, and Trump cultists (that Venn diagram has a LOT of fucking overlap), our social media newsfeeds were also filled with images that would be risible if they weren’t so unthinkable. The bare-chested MAGA Viking. The grinning dude in the Trump toque high-stepping out of the Capitol with the Speaker’s podium. The gypsy in the palace on the Senate dais with a raised fist. The people who, having stormed into the seat of American government, milled around aimlessly, no longer sure what they were about. The people who, having overrun the barricades and broken windows, kept within the velvet ropes in the statuary room.
In many ways, it was the Trumpiest way to end Trump’s term—ignorant clowns and buffoons storming a symbolic building whose symbolism is irrelevant to them, in the name of the clown-in-chief whose entire tenure has been marked by profound ignorance of and indifference to the history of his nation and his office.
But as we know, clowns can be terrifying. Trump went from being a punchline to the guy with the nuclear football. It was fortunate that he proved to be more like Krusty (“I’m a lazy, lazy man”) than Pennywise.
Designated Survivors. I first learned about the U.S. practice of keeping a cabinet secretary in a safe location during the State of the Union address from the West Wing first season episode “He Shall, from Time to Time …” The reason this is done is so someone in the presidential line of succession can assume the presidency in the event of a catastrophic attack in the Capitol that would wipe out the entire government. As noted by Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) in the episode, they usually select someone without much of a public profile, as they want the rock stars of the Cabinet visible in people’s TV screens—in this case, the Secretary of Agriculture (whom Buffy fans will recognized as actor Harry Groening, who played the cheerfully villainous Mayor Wilkins).
Several years ago, this practice became the premise for the TV series Designated Survivor, starring Kiefer Sutherland, whose similarly low-profile role as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development was tapped to sit out the SOTU, which—you guessed it—was bombed, and hence the erstwhile Jack Bauer became President.
Before Designated Survivor, however, there was the remake of Battlestar Galactica—in which the multi-planet human civilization apparently operated similarly to the U.S. republic. When the Cylons nuke most of humanity, reducing us to a handful of spaceships fleeing their androidial malice, the presidency falls to the Secretary of Education (Mary McDonnell), the only member of government in the line of succession to survive the attack. More recently—by which I mean, this past Wednesday—The Expanse replicated this logic. Former U.N. Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala (Shoreh Aghdashloo), exiled to the moon by her successor, is approached by the Secretary of Transportation after an attack on Earth wipes out most of the government. The Secretary is now the Secretary General, and asks Avasarala to join his cabinet.
Granted, it’s only two SF television series, but isn’t it a bit weird that the U.S. system is what becomes the default in the speculative future? (It gets weirder when you think about Battlestar Galactica’s ending revelation, but I’d rather not be spoilery on that front).
The Crown, season four. Stephanie and I had not watched the three preceding seasons. Born in South Africa, she has a rather bitter antipathy to the British monarchy (she’s still rotted that, when she became a Canadian citizen, she had to swear allegiance to the Queen). But we’re both massive fans of Olivia Coleman, and even massiver fans of Gillian Anderson. In both cases, this led to some rather conflicted feelings, as neither of us wanted to feel sympathy for the Queen, and were even less inclined to be sympathetic to Margaret Thatcher … but both actors were brilliant, and in my opinion Coleman did a better job as QEII than Helen Mirren in The Queen, and Anderson outshone Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady.
I found the final episode oddly apposite to the current moment: it depicts Thatcher’s downfall at the hands of her caucus, and her resentment and bitterness as their betrayal. “These pathetic … men,” she grouses to the Queen about the mealy-mouthed ministers taking advantage of her unpopularity to oust her. It was, I thought, a particularly shrewd moment of television: whatever sympathy we might otherwise be inclined to have with a woman meeting her Waterloo at the hands of a group of mediocre men is entirely obviated by Thatcher’s own internalized sexism—having opined at length about women’s general weakness, and frequently shown determinedly playing the role of the housewife not just to her husband, but insisting on cooking dinner for cabinet ministers meeting at Downing Street.
I’ve been thinking of the opportunism of Thatcher’s ministers in her last days as PM as I watch Donald Trump’s erstwhile enablers head for the lifeboats. For eleven years, British Tories were happy to let Thatcher lay waste to British civil society, hating her behind her back while she won elections, never offering objections to her most egregious and cruel policies, finally only declaring a mutiny when they were safe from her barbs. If Twitter enacts a lifetime ban on Trump, and if Trump is suddenly embroiled in numerous criminal court cases, expect Republicans to pretend they’d always wanted him gone.
So, five days into 2021, I’m about halfway through Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land; my partner and I just yesterday finished watching season four of The Crown; and we’re all (that is to say, everyone I know) watching with varying degrees of incredulity what we can only hope is the final phase of Donald Trump’s post-election meltdown.
While these three things might seem at best tenuously connected—I suppose they’re all about leadership in troubled times, one way or another—they comprise in my mind an oddly serendipitous trifecta. This feeling of serendipity is a product of my own idiosyncratic thought processes, to be certain, not least because I’ve found myself musing at various points over the past few years about the irony that America’s Founding Fathers, in their antipathy to kings, tyrants, and demagogues, created a system that, 227 years later, facilitated the election of a demagogic king-wannabe with a tyrannical temperament. And in the determination to create a republican rather than a parliamentary democracy, they and those who followed them introduced certain rigidities that circumscribed a presidential term of office in ways that are anathema to a parliamentary system: the absolute scheduling of elections and inaugurations, for one thing, but also, more significantly, the designation of the President as somehow different in kind from other officeholders. While a prime minister is “first among equals,” the U.S. President inhabits a dual identity—the person himself (or hopefully sometime soon, herself), coterminous with the Office of the President. Again, considering the Founders’ aversion to kings, the relationship between the president and the Office is weirdly not unlike the principle of the King’s Two Bodies, a bit of medieval legalese designed to account for how a person supposedly divinely sanctioned to rule could also be lascivious, cruel, or just generally sinful. The principle distinguishes between the corporeal, temporal, and corruptible person of the monarch, and the monarch’s eternal, divine role as God’s Anointed (if you’ve ever wondered why British kings and queens refer to themselves as “we,” this is why—they’re speaking for their two bodies).
Both conceptions entail a logic of succession: upon the death of the monarch, the title then passes to the heir; and as we’ve heard many, many times over the past several weeks, the moment Joe Biden takes the oath of office on January 20 is the very instant in which Donald Trump ceases to be President—and, if he has thus far refused to exit the White House, the same moment he becomes a trespasser to be frog-marched out of the building by the Secret Service (fingers crossed).
When I think of the logic of succession, I can’t help but think of a passage from Terry Pratchett’s novel Mort:
The only thing known to go faster than ordinary light is monarchy, according to the philosopher Ly Tin Wheedle. He reasoned like this: you can’t have more than one king, and tradition demands that there is no gap between kings, so when a king dies the succession must therefore pass to the heir instantaneously. Presumably, he said, there must be some elementary particles—kingons, or possibly queons—that do this job, but of course succession sometimes fails if, in mid-flight, they strike an anti-particle, or republicon. His ambitious plans to use his discovery to send messages, involving the careful torturing of a small king in order to modulate the signal, were never fully expanded because, at that point, the bar closed.
Except that, in the case of the U.S. constitution, the “republicon” particle repurposes the instantaneous transmission of monarchy for its own uses.
For all of the very self-consciously constructed philosophical and political distance between republicanism and monarchy, I find it oddly amusing to find such vestiges of the latter embedded in the former. While we Canadians might still constitutionally have the British Crown as our head of state—and while that might irk and chafe a good number of us—on the whole we don’t tend to think of it as that big of a deal, given the purely ceremonial nature the Queen plays. And there is something comforting in the fact of the “first among equals” principle, that we don’t invest the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) with the same sort of eternal, enduring quality as the office of the President (indeed, references in the media to the PMO figure it for what it is—a political communications shop).
But to be fair to the American system, it has largely functioned well, lo its relatively short life. Watching Trump wreak havoc on norms and behavioural expectations has been a disturbing object lesson in just how many things we assumed were matters of law were in fact just norms and behavioural expectations. In some ways, it’s remarkable that it’s taken this long for a president to test the boundaries of presidential power and privilege in such egregious ways. Even Richard Nixon treated the office with a measure of respect that is simply alien to Trump. But then, Nixon was also a career politician and, for all his faults, an intelligent man who understood the history of the U.S. republic and its laws—which is likely why he went to such length to hide his crimes, whereas Trump consistently says the quiet part out loud. In the end, however “swampy” Trump proved to be, he did ultimately prove, in this respect, his status as an outsider: an inveterate grifter, he is also simply ignorant of history and tradition and, more significantly, has no use for it. (Perhaps at their base, the most elemental characteristics of the loathed “elites” and “establishment” are a grasp of political history and a sense of that knowledge’s worth).
It is then perhaps ironic that, even as we were shocked to discover what we assumed to be laws were just norms, it was constitutionally circumscribed law that made Trump more or less untouchable for these long four years. To be certain, he was enabled by a craven and opportunistic Republican congress; but even if the G.O.P. had been inclined to stifle his more extreme behaviour, what in a parliamentary system could be resolved with a vote of no confidence is subject to a much higher bar: either the invocation of the twenty-fifth amendment, or impeachment and removal. The twenty-fifth, presumably, is still a possibility should Trump truly go off the deep end in the next two weeks, but it was never a viable option with his sycophantic cabinet and VP (two-thirds of the former and consent of the latter are required to invoke the amendment). And of course he was impeached, but a two-thirds vote in the Senate for conviction was never in the cards … as it hasn’t been historically.
All of which conspired to give Trump a level of impunity we associate with monarchs. In the words of John Mulaney, “I don’t remember that from Hamilton!”
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.
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.
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.
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 sointeresting 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.
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.
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.
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.