This Amer­i­can Car­nage

At the Na­tional Mall, watch­ing the United States de­scend into rage and hys­te­ria

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Stephen Marche

At the Na­tional Mall, watch­ing the United States de­scend into rage and hys­te­ria

Ifound my­self in the mid­dle of a cozy lit­tle riot. The pro­test­ers, if that’s the right word, lit a fire, and we all gath­ered round. At the in­ter­sec­tion of 13th and K Streets, on the day of Don­ald Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, scented by the lin­ger­ing af­ter­haze of pep­per spray, they stood around burn­ing news­pa­per boxes and garbage cans. The fire was ringed with cam­eras, a me­dia scrum of the peo­ple record­ing the mild de­struc­tion cre­ated so they could record it.

The roar­ing blaze quickly grew bor­ing. A woman be­gan throw­ing the news­pa­pers that lit­tered the street onto the con­fla­gra­tion, and the man stand­ing near­est, who had some vaguely pro­pri­etary relationship to the scene, shouted at her to stop: “Don’t feed the fire! Don’t feed the fire!” He grabbed the news­pa­pers out of her hand.

“I want to feed the fire! I’m go­ing to feed the fire!” she shouted, grab­bing the news­pa­pers back.

He ripped the news­pa­pers out of her hand and threw them away over the crowd. Force gave him the fi­nal word. “Don’t feed the fuck­ing fire.”

But then there was noth­ing more to burn, and with noth­ing more to burn, there was lit­tle left to film. Hap­pily, cap­i­tal­ism came to the res­cue. One of the street hus­tlers of Washington who sell shreds of po­lit­i­cal mem­o­ra­bilia to the tourists ar­rived

There’ll be the break­ing of the an­cient Western code. Your pri­vate life will sud­denly ex­plode. There’ll be phan­toms. There’ll be fires on the road. And a white man danc­ing.

— Leonard Cohen, “The Fu­ture”

wav­ing a bunch of Trump T-shirts in the air. “I got fuel right here.” The shirts were five bucks a pop, and he man­aged to sell sev­eral. They didn’t burn as well as news­pa­pers, but they burned.

The crowd would later be clas­si­fied as an­ar­chists. I have no idea, re­ally, what that means, but po­lit­i­cal pro­grams were far from any­one’s thoughts as we gath­ered around the fire. Footage was top of mind. The must-have in riot gear this year is a cam­era. The line be­tween a pro­tester and some­body re­port­ing on the protests has blurred to in­vis­i­bil­ity. Record­ing drama is the pri­mary method of par­tic­i­pat­ing in it.

“It’s Casey Nei­s­tat! It’s Casey Nei­s­tat! Oh my God, it’s Casey Nei­s­tat!” a slight, trucker-hat­ted teenager be­side me shouted. It was in­deed Nei­s­tat, the Youtube star who typ­i­cally vlogs vi­rally about snow­board­ing through the de­serted streets of New York dur­ing bliz­zards, or trav­el­ling on a $21,000, first-class air­plane ticket.

Nei­s­tat paused in the mid­dle of the sup­posed anar­chy and grace­fully took a selfie with the fans. This is Amer­ica. Even in the throes of a po­lit­i­cal up­ris­ing, there are celebri­ties and then there’s the rest of us.

I stood on the roof of a smashed limou­sine, the limou­sine they would later burn. Acrid smoke and ashes the di­men­sions of over­sized Dori­tos lifted to the clouds. A raggedly bearded guy in his twen­ties, dressed as if he were used to be­ing ar­rested, leaned back and howled, “Le­gal­ize Pales­tine!” to no one in par­tic­u­lar. He had prob­a­bly at­tended the rally that morn­ing on Dupont Cir­cle at which pot ac­tivists had handed out 8,400 free joints. His friends laughed, and he mum­bled to him­self: “I guess that doesn’t make sense.” His con­fu­sion was un­der­stand­able.

The in­au­gu­ra­tion of Don­ald Trump marked the day when the mean­ing of Amer­ica col­lapsed. I be­long, loosely, to a group of peo­ple who may be called jour­nal­ists — we go in print, we go on tele­vi­sion, and we act like we know what we’re talking about. The in­au­gu­ra­tion of Don­ald Trump pro­vided the ul­ti­mate proof that we do not. The in­au­gu­ra­tion it­self was an ab­sur­dity and seemed be­side the point. On the one hand, there was the great­est achieve­ment of the Western En­light­en­ment: the peace­ful tran­si­tion of power in the most pow­er­ful coun­try in the world, the sub­li­ma­tion of vi­o­lence into dis­course (burn­ing news­pa­pers not­with­stand­ing). On the other hand, at the cen­tre of this great tri­umph, there was the spec­ta­cle of a man who can­not stop ly­ing, tak­ing an oath.

Don­ald Trump, the man who once com­pared him­self to Alexan­der the Great in an ad for pizza, whose hair is the most elab­o­rate comb-over in his­tory, a man who ac­cepted the de­scrip­tion of his own daugh­ter as a “piece of ass” for the pur­poses of a ra­dio bit, who de­clared that the eth­nic blood­line of an Amer­i­can judge dis­qual­i­fied him from ser­vice, who may well be com­pro­mised by Rus­sian se­cu­rity ser­vices, was sud­denly pres­i­dent.

I watched the world as I had known it end from the Cana­dian em­bassy, which is on Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue. The party at the Cana­dian em­bassy is sup­posed to be the hot party of the in­au­gu­ra­tion, and I sup­pose this is true if your def­i­ni­tion of hot­ness en­com­passes a bunch of naval at­tachés lin­ing up for Beaver­tails and slap­ping their maple-leaf mit­tens to­gether in the win­try air. But I was glad to be there. It seemed the right place to watch the cer­e­mony. Canada’s per­spec­tive is unique. Like Mex­ico, we are highly vul­ner­a­ble to Trump. If he ac­tu­ally does what he says he’s go­ing to do, we are fucked.

Look­ing out over the more- or-less de­serted pa­rade route along which the pi­rate king was to progress, the crowd at the em­bassy — pub­lic-spir­ited, pol­i­cy­minded civil ser­vants and their hang­er­son — sensed that the dark­ness of the scene was only a symp­tom. Amer­ica is not the only one to have fallen. The ul­tra­na­tion­al­ist forces of Europe — Front Na­tional in France, Vik­tor Or­bán in Hun­gary, the Five Star Move­ment in Italy, and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland — are no longer mar­ginal. Lon­don, the great in­ter­na­tional city, has been rocked by a rise in hate crime fol­low­ing Brexit. Loathing for oth­ers is now a world­wide phe­nom­e­non.

A decade or so ago, a new cos­mopoli­tan or­der seemed in­evitable. In his 2006 book, Cos­mopoli­tanism: Ethics in a World

of Strangers, Kwame An­thony Ap­piah wrote: “It is hard to re­sist... the ev­i­dence that, start­ing with our com­mon bi­ol­ogy and the shared prob­lems of the hu­man sit­u­a­tion (and granted that we may also share cul­tural traits be­cause of our com­mon ori­gins), hu­man so­ci­eties have ended up hav­ing many deep things in com­mon.” Tell that to the crowd at the Trump in­au­gu­ra­tion.

The threat to cos­mopoli­tanism is com­ing from both the Right and the Left. While the neo-na­tion­al­ist Right is re­shap­ing global pol­i­tics along the lines of racial and eth­nic cat­e­gories, the Left has been con­sumed, al­most en­tirely, by ques­tions of cul­tural iden­tity, prob­lema­tiz­ing cross­cul­tural ex­change. Read­ing the books, wear­ing the clothes, even eat­ing the food of the other have be­come fraught ges­tures, bur­dened by the weight of col­lec­tive guilt. All en­coun­ters across cul­tures now stand sus­pected of ap­pro­pri­a­tion. Those who be­lieve with the great African Ro­man writer Ter­ence that “I am hu­man: noth­ing that is hu­man is alien to me” are pressed from both sides. The cos­mopoli­tan ideal is dy­ing a lonely death. The world is re­turn­ing to its stupid tribes.

And the tribes hate truth. The fact — a quan­tum of in­for­ma­tion out­side of opin­ion, or, more ac­cu­rately, a state­ment we had all agreed to stop ar­gu­ing about — has dis­solved un­der the force of hy­per-par­ti­san­ship and so­cial me­dia. Tech­nol­ogy and nar­cis­sism cre­ated an epis­te­mol­ogy of tribes. A thing now is a fact if enough peo­ple like it.

The term “fake news,” which had, for a brief few weeks, sig­ni­fied the de­lib­er­ate spread of mis­in­for­ma­tion and which had re­sulted in 40 per­cent of Trump’s sup­port­ers in Flor­ida be­liev­ing that Hil­lary Clin­ton was “an ac­tual de­mon,” was coopted al­most in­stantly by hy­per-par­ti­sans. Rush Lim­baugh called the lib­eral me­dia “fake news,” and Don­ald Trump called CNN “fake news,” and then the term was mean­ing­less. There was our fake news and your fake news, so there was no fake news, and it was all fake news. The ground from which to see the ground fall­ing out from un­der us was fall­ing out from un­der us. Pew Re­search re­ported in De­cem­ber that 16 per­cent of Amer­i­cans ad­mit­ted to hav­ing shared a story they later re­al­ized was fake, but 14 per­cent of Amer­i­cans had shared fake news know­ing it was fake. Of all the losses that the in­au­gu­ra­tion sig­ni­fies, the most es­sen­tial is this: the au­thor­ity of fact has died in the hearts of or­di­nary peo­ple.

Ev­ery­body, at least, could see the in­au­gu­ra­tion. There was the jock­ey­ing of in­sid­ers on a stage, an oath sworn on a cou­ple of Bibles. Then there was the speech, which was both shock­ing in its rage and folly, and to­tally un­sur­pris­ing. It did con­tain a line that I be­lieve will stand along­side “Let the word go forth” and “The only thing we have to fear is fear it­self.” The pres­i­dent of the United States, with the great­est mil­i­tary the world has ever known be­hind him, un­em­ploy­ment at 4.7 per­cent, and the Dow at al­most 20,000, de­clared: “This Amer­i­can car­nage stops right here and stops right now.”

What does it mean? No­body knows what it means. What does it sig­nal, and to whom? What are its pol­icy im­pli­ca­tions? The pro­fes­sional diplo­matic class watched the pres­i­dent say, “It’s go­ing to be only Amer­ica first, Amer­ica first,” and there was a sharp in­take of breath. They couldn’t even guess what that meant. Mean­while, the elites of other coun­tries were try­ing to plan, but they were plan­ning like gam­blers, plan­ning like pa­tients who’ve been told the rate of sur­vival for can­cer, try­ing to an­tic­i­pate their out­comes.

We ate our chowder and sipped our Crown Royal with cider and looked at one an­other and did not know what to say. In the year of Canada’s 150th birth­day, the United States has pro­vided a mas­sive re­minder that we are ut­terly de­pen­dent on an oc­ca­sion­ally in­sane neigh­bour.

The real ac­tion was be­hind the Cana­dian em­bassy, any­way — one of the main en­try points onto the Na­tional Mall, and one of the nearer points to the stage for peo­ple with­out in­au­gu­ra­tion tick­ets. A loose col­lec­tion of ac­tivists had made a hu­man chain to block ac­cess. There were phys­i­cal fights with Trump sup­port­ers, push­ing and shov­ing and hit­ting, be­cause young men are un­bear­able when they think they’re in­volved in his­tory, but again it was mostly your-cam­era-against-mine. Ac­tivists from

the “alt-right” showed up with HD cam­eras to record their con­fronta­tions with Black Lives Mat­ter, who were record­ing their con­fronta­tions. Your vi­ral­ity against mine.

The block­ing ac­tivists sang all the usual an­gry chants: “What do we do? Shut shit down,” and “This check­point is closed.” The “alt-right” asked them why they were such losers. And then Alex Jones, leg­endary ranter from the web­site In­fowars, passed by. This has been his time. Con­spir­acy the­o­rists were hot in 2016 and are look­ing to get hot­ter in 2017 — at one point, it was ru­moured, with of­fi­cial press-corps ac­cred­i­ta­tion from the White House. Jones, of course, was much too im­por­tant to stand and fight, but he took the time to stop and call the pro­test­ers “scum.” Mov­ing on, he caught the eye of a young black man wear­ing a “Make Amer­ica Great Again” hat — grounds for tak­ing a selfie with him. “You’re a brave man,” he said.

I stayed be­hind to talk to this brave man. An­son Paul is twenty-seven years old, a reg­is­tered Repub­li­can, and says he’s a per­sonal trainer to many politi­cians, in­clud­ing promi­nent Democrats. I asked him whether he has ever dis­agreed with any­thing Jones has said. He laughed, and replied, “Ge­orge Soros.”

It was a good choice of a con­spir­acy to dis­own. Jones has claimed at var­i­ous points that Soros is plan­ning to over­throw Amer­ica and to in­stall him­self as its shadow pres­i­dent, and that Soros aided the Nazis in steal­ing from Jews. Paul is a fan, but he un­der­stood this to be a dis­tor­tion. “His de­liv­ery, we all know, is for dra­matic ef­fect. What I like is that he calls at­ten­tion to the other side.”

Paul also knows that Jones makes some things up. “It’s up to me, the cu­ri­ous reader, to do my own re­search. I take it for what it is: en­ter­tain­ment.”

We were stand­ing be­side a crowd brim­ming with phys­i­cal vi­o­lence and held back by po­lice. Some en­ter­tain­ment. I asked Paul if he didn’t think jour­nal­ism should be held to any stan­dard of ve­rac­ity, if it isn’t dan­ger­ous to spread ideas you know aren’t true. He shrugged. “Th­ese are adults. You don’t tell a film what po­lit­i­cal views to hold.”

The fu­ture of Amer­ica is to be de­ter­mined in a con­test be­tween op­pos­ing clans that record and pros­e­ly­tize but pos­sess no faith. Their de­bates will not be set on the terms of the demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions es­tab­lished by the found­ing fa­thers to di­vert the Amer­i­can peo­ple from anar­chy and tyranny. The im­me­di­ate fu­ture will un­fold in the street, in protest — as hap­pened in air­ports across the coun­try the day af­ter Trump’s is­sue of an edict against trav­ellers from seven Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity na­tions — and in the anonymity of ev­er­more-ex­treme web­sites, in con­spir­a­cies. The gov­ern­ment of Trump has already de­clared, to no­body’s sur­prise, that the me­dia is the real en­emy. Such think­ing is not found just at the high­est reaches of an op­por­tunis­tic gov­ern­ment: ev­ery­one be­lieves that theirs is the real me­dia and that the other’s is a fraud. Ev­ery­one be­lieves that they are the true pa­tri­ots and that the oth­ers are traitors.

There’s a story about pa­tri­o­tism and trea­son that I’ve read, and reread, since Trump was elected. It’s an old one, pub­lished in The Atlantic in De­cem­ber 1863, right in the teeth of the Civil War, when Amer­ica was un­sure whether it was a coun­try. Never again since the Civil War has “Amer­ica” seemed so much like a fic­tional con­cept — a coun­try that could de­cide whether or not to be a coun­try at will.

Back in 1807, in real life, Aaron Burr, vice-pres­i­dent un­der Thomas Jef­fer­son and the man who killed Alexan­der Hamil­ton (yes, the guy from the mu­si­cal) in a duel, was charged with trea­son. It was al­leged that he had planned to es­tab­lish a sep­a­rate coun­try in the South­west. Burr was even­tu­ally ac­quit­ted. “The Man with­out a Coun­try” con­sid­ers the story of a char­ac­ter named Philip Nolan, a fic­tional co­con­spir­a­tor of Burr’s, who was not ac­quit­ted. At Burr’s trial, in a fit of rage, he shouts out, “Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again.” And, in a way that could only come to pass in fic­tion, Burr’s pun­ish­ment is the ful­fill­ment of his wish: “Pris­oner, hear the sen­tence of the Court. The Court de­cides, sub­ject to the ap­proval of the Pres­i­dent, that you never hear the name of the United States again.” Nolan is con­demned to an end­less ex­ile.

They even take away his naval but­tons, which bear the in­scrip­tion “US.”

Not only are Nolan’s fel­low sailors for­bid­den to men­tion their home coun­try, but they have to cut any ref­er­ence to it out of his news­pa­pers. “Right in the midst of one of Napoleon’s bat­tles, or one of Can­ning’s speeches, poor Nolan would find a great hole, be­cause on the back of the page of that pa­per there had been an advertisement of a packet for New York, or a scrap from the Pres­i­dent’s mes­sage.”

He craves facts about Amer­i­can pol­i­tics above all. Sex is as noth­ing to his de­sire to know. At one point in the story, he’s in­vited to a ball on his own ship. Nolan meets a woman he knew back in Philadel­phia and tries to squeeze some in­for­ma­tion out of her:

“And what do you hear from home, Mrs. Graff?”

And that splen­did crea­ture looked through him. Jove! how she must have looked through him!

“Home!! Mr. Nolan!!! I thought you were the man who never wanted to hear of home again!” — and she walked di­rectly up the deck to her hus­band, and left poor Nolan alone, as he al­ways was.

Mean­while, the coun­try at home keeps changing, in ways Nolan can­not con­ceive. He be­longs to what he doesn’t un­der­stand. And he loves what he no longer be­longs to.

“The Man with­out a Coun­try” is in one sense a very sim­ple story, one that you could hap­pily read to boys that you’re about to send off to war, a strange but palat­able fa­ble of pa­tri­o­tism. But there is also a very pro­found para­dox knotted in its cen­tre: like the Trump voter who longs for an Amer­ica that doesn’t ex­ist, ev­ery pa­triot must hate his or her ac­tual coun­try. You can love your coun­try only when you imag­ine what it is rather than see­ing it as it is. You can love home only from the boat.

Right now, love for Amer­ica and hate for Amer­ica are more co­eval than ever. The in­au­gu­ra­tion of Don­ald Trump was not a change of gov­ern­ment. It sig­naled the gain or loss of the en­tire Amer­i­can project. The loss of lib­erty it­self. The legacy of that dream — the men who died for it, the women who crossed oceans to be­long to it — burned in the eyes of the pro­tes­tors and the cel­e­brants alike. The im­me­di­ate result of the in­au­gu­ra­tion of Don­ald Trump was that the pa­tri­ots who felt that their coun­try was be­ing taken away from them had their coun­try back. But already you can feel the ques­tions hov­er­ing in the air: Did they re­ally want it back? What did they ac­tu­ally get back when they got their coun­try back?

I sup­pose that’s why the in­au­gu­ra­tion par­ties felt so lit­tle like cel­e­bra­tions. At one of the De­plora­balls, or par­ties the “alt-right” threw for them­selves to cel­e­brate Trump’s vic­tory, I found my­self in a sort of po­lit­i­cal ver­sion of a shitty small­town high-school re­union. The of­fer­ings in­cluded Cuban mu­sic and eth­nic food — ox­tail stew, chur­ros, fried rice in the Cen­tral Amer­i­can style. For some rea­son, over­sized ro­bots, like those you might see in a Mid­west­ern mall pro­mot­ing a one-day sale on big-screen TVS, pa­raded near the en­trance. The guests posed with a large bas­ket, be­cause they were in the “bas­ket of de­plorables.” (Get it?)

The former in-jokes no longer made any sense. Th­ese peo­ple weren’t the al­ter­na­tive any­more. It’s fun to par­ody the other when you’re an out­sider. But th­ese peo­ple were in­sid­ers. And be­sides, when the band played “Bésame Mu­cho,” as a joke, ev­ery­body danced as if it weren’t a joke. Be­cause “Bésame Mu­cho” is a great song. Ox­tail tastes good, for real. Chur­ros taste good, for real. I saw one of the rev­ellers stum­bling drunk­enly out­side in a kitschy som­brero. He looked lost.

Mer­ci­fully, Stan’s was close by. I can­not say for cer­tain that Stan’s is the best bar in the world, but it seems to pro­duce, al­chem­i­cally, hap­pi­ness. Once, long ago, I spent an af­ter­noon in Stan’s with my wife, and af­ter two gin and ton­ics, we de­cided that we were go­ing to call ev­ery­one that we loved — our par­ents, our friends, dis­tant re­la­tions. It’s that kind of place.

In Stan’s, on the eve of the in­au­gu­ra­tion of Don­ald Trump, the clien­tele, mostly African-amer­i­can pro­fes­sion­als, was not mis­er­able. They were not wan­der­ing around lost, like the man in the som­brero at the De­plora­ball. They were laugh­ing and shout­ing out jokes: “I want to move to Ukraine!”

One of them said to me, on hear­ing that I’m a writer: “I would like to speak to Mid­dle Amer­ica. I have two words: fuck you.” But it’s the kind of fuck you that you would ex­tend to the fans of an op­pos­ing foot­ball team.

The morn­ing af­ter the in­au­gu­ra­tion, ly­ing in bed, I could already feel the change in the air. By the time I ar­rived at the sub­way to join the groups of peo­ple head­ing to the Women’s March, it was ob­vi­ous. Change is com­ing. It has to.

I have never seen so many women. There were men, too, but they were de­fined by their re­la­tion­ships with women: they were hus­bands and fa­thers and brothers and un­cles and sons. The march was a dis­play of the power of women. White women. Black women. Asian women. In­dige­nous women. Latina women. There were women with $500 high­lights from Man­hat­tan, and there were com­mu­nity-col­lege stu­dents in dirty sweat­pants who had shown up from the sub­urbs. There were rad­i­cal so­cial­ists, and there were hockey play­ers. There were queer Afghan moms, and there were young Black Lives Mat­ter teenagers, and there were Chris­tian grand­moth­ers. There were Jews and Mus­lims. There were the good, hearty Cana­dian women who had dressed ap­pro­pri­ately for the weather. The of­fi­cial crowd-size es­ti­mate was 500,000 — a city of women. It was a city of women flow­ing through a city of power, and it was beau­ti­ful.

Born in the late ’70s, I have never un­der­stood the ap­peal of po­lit­i­cal marches, but I un­der­stood this. It was the op­po­site of the in­ter­net and its in­her­ent di­vi­sion and loathing and face­less­ness. Be­fore the march, the usual splin­ter­ing pol­i­tics of on­line com­mu­ni­ties had threat­ened the demon­stra­tion be­fore it had started. None of that mat­tered on Jan­uary 21. All it took was to see one an­other’s faces.

Sharona Sankar-king had come to the march from New York with her mother. She was not an­gry or hate­ful. “There’s a lot of well-mean­ing peo­ple who voted for Trump. And he duped them. He used them.”

Most of the Amer­i­cans I know are white and bi­coastal, I told her, and they are an­gry in a way I have never seen them, an­gry in a way that seems to threaten the premise of the coun­try it­self. Be­cause it’s one thing for the peo­ple of Kansas and Ken­tucky to de­spise the elites of New York and Cal­i­for­nia and Washington. It’s quite an­other thing for Cal­i­for­nia and New York and Washington to de­spise the peo­ple of Kansas and Ken­tucky.

She explained the sit­u­a­tion to me as you would to a child. “You don’t yell at the pa­tient to get well. You find them medicine.”

But they voted for Trump. They voted for “Hil­lary is a de­mon” and the Mus­lim reg­istry.

She started to lose pa­tience with me. “I’m glad Mr. White Guy is scared. We’ve been through worse. My grandma lived through Jim Crow. My mom used to get shot at for go­ing to school.” Then she paused, and a smile passed over her face. “I’m a se­nior ex­ec­u­tive at an ad agency. Are you kid­ding me? I have no com­plaints. I hope that when my daugh­ter and son think about my life, they think, ‘That was so much scarier then.’”

The mov­ing city of women had none of the de­spair of the pre­vi­ous day’s var­i­ous oc­cu­pa­tions. The march­ing women held funny signs, and they sang and they hugged one other. The most com­mon slo­gan I heard them shout­ing was, “This is what democ­racy looks like.” It is a protest clas­sic, but it struck me: The March on Washington is not, in fact, what democ­racy looks like. Democ­racy looks like Don­ald Trump in of­fice.

Sev­eral of my rea­son­able friends and neigh­bours have ex­pressed a reser­va­tion to me. What’s the point of march­ing? Large crowds marched against the Nazis in Ber­lin in 1932. Protest marches are for the sig­nalling of virtue: a re­sort for losers. But I’m not sure we have all un­der­stood the sit­u­a­tion as it stands. The point is not to achieve po­lit­i­cal ef­fects — not yet. The point is to es­cape the iso­la­tion and frag­men­ta­tion of con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics, to see peo­ple’s faces, to share the same view for a while. Amid the on­slaught of dis­tor­tion, cyn­i­cism is more than a cos­metic dan­ger. Like Rus­sia’s Putin, like Tur­key’s Er­do­gan, Amer­ica’s Trump thrives on peo­ple be­liev­ing that dis­tor­tion doesn’t mat­ter. Cyn­i­cism has to be re­sisted. It is the first point of re­sis­tance.

At the end of “The Man with­out a Coun­try,” Philip Nolan is ly­ing in bed; his room has be­come a shrine to the coun­try he cursed. A friend who has come to visit him de­scribes what he sees:

The stars and stripes were triced up above and around a pic­ture of Washington, and he had painted a ma­jes­tic ea­gle, with light­nings blaz­ing from his beak and his foot just clasp­ing the whole globe, which his wings over­shad­owed. The dear old boy saw my glance, and said, with a sad smile, ‘Here, you see, I have a coun­try!’ And then he pointed to the foot of his bed, where I had not seen be­fore a great map of the United States, as he had drawn it from mem­ory, and which he had there to look upon as he lay.

As Nolan lies dy­ing, his friend fi­nally tells him all that has hap­pened to Amer­ica in his ab­sence — of the states that have joined the union, the tri­umphs of the young coun­try. But he can’t bring him­self to talk about the Civil War. Even in the end, even by a com­pas­sion­ate friend, Nolan has to be de­ceived about the na­ture of his coun­try. The pa­tri­o­tism the story celebrates is a bunch of empty sym­bols in a mis­er­able room on a boat. And then his last wish! “Bury me in the sea; it has been my home, and I love it.” The fate of Philip Nolan, the man with­out a coun­try, is home­less­ness, root­less­ness, pure cos­mopoli­tanism. It is a painful fate.

Ihave al­ways be­lieved that the most beau­ti­ful qual­ity of Amer­i­can life is the way Amer­i­cans talk to one an­other. You no­tice it the mo­ment you ar­rive from a for­eign coun­try. The agents be­hind the air­line coun­ters gos­sip more freely. The cab­bie and his fare ar­gue about di­rec­tions more openly. The frank­ness of Amer­i­can speech is felt more often than rec­og­nized, as much a part of the back­ground as the smell of stale tobacco or run­ning en­gines. Amer­i­cans them­selves don’t no­tice the way

The March on Washington is not, in fact, what democ­racy looks like. Democ­racy looks like Don­ald Trump in of­fice.

that they talk, be­cause they have this habit of as­sum­ing ev­ery­one is the way they are. It’s why so many for­eign­ers, my­self in­cluded, feel jum­bled, both lib­er­ated and lost in space, on ar­rival in the US. Frank­ness is ob­vi­ous in the most ev­ery­day in­ter­ac­tions, but it is po­lit­i­cal, too, the essence of be­ing a cit­i­zen rather than a sub­ject. The First Amend­ment comes first af­ter all. The most Amer­i­can state­ment of all is to be able to say what you mean.

What if Amer­i­cans have stopped be­ing able to speak with one an­other? What if they no longer care what they say? Dur­ing the cam­paign, Trump lied like ev­ery politi­cian, but he also blurred the line be­tween truth and fic­tion. Now he has promised an im­pos­si­ble thing: to turn back time. He promised to make Amer­ica whiter, maler, straighter. It will not be. Trump ran not against a po­lit­i­cal plat­form but against his­tory. Four years from now, the Make Amer­ica Great Again crowd is go­ing to wake up in a coun­try where the de­mo­graph­ics are the same, but their in­sur­ance costs more. Whom will Trump blame then? Be­cause lies vaulted him to power, he has to keep ly­ing. Dis­tor­tion leads to more dis­tor­tion.

The most ob­vi­ous acts of re­sis­tance to Trump­ism are see­ing and speak­ing clearly. Writ­ing it­self, the at­tempt to make sense, is now a po­lit­i­cal act. Science, the at­tempt to de­scribe the world, is now a po­lit­i­cal act. Whether we want it or not, any­one who ob­serves and re­ports is now an agent. Factcheck­ing and peer re­view are no longer ab­struse func­tions of pro­fes­sional castes; they are sa­cred obli­ga­tions. To check a fact is to pre­serve a white dove in the heart of the tem­ple.

Thanks to the pol­i­tics of dis­tor­tion, speech­writ­ers for Ge­orge W. Bush and rad­i­cal fem­i­nists cur­rently have more in com­mon with one an­other than ei­ther group does with the pres­i­dent. They be­lieve that there are such things as facts and that they mat­ter. The other side does not. The de­spair is new, and the hope will be new, too. I do not know whether the forces of ar­tic­u­la­tion are more pow­er­ful than the forces of dis­tor­tion, but for those whose pol­i­tics are the pol­i­tics of the fact, there is no re­treat. We have that go­ing for us.

Of course, the other side has its ad­van­tages, too. Jour­nal­ists were ar­rested near the burn­ing of the news­pa­per boxes that I wit­nessed at the in­au­gu­ra­tion. They were charged with felonies.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.