This American Carnage
At the National Mall, watching the United States descend into rage and hysteria
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.