Esquire (USA)

STATE OF UNREALITY

In this year of plague and quar­an­tine and mon­u­men­tal dis­rup­tion, a COL­LEC­TIVE SENSE OF DIS­SO­CI­A­TION is set­tling in. Just in time for the elec­tion.

- By Charles P. Pierce U.S. News · US Politics · Politics · Elections · Washington · Iowa · United States of America · Pete Buttigieg · Bernie Sanders · Joe Biden · South Carolina · Donald Trump · U.S. Supreme Court · Republican Party (United States) · Wisconsin · Louie Gohmert

In this year of plague and mon­u­men­tal dis­rup­tion, a col­lec­tive sense of dis­so­ci­a­tion is set­tling in. Just in time for the elec­tion.

THIS ISN’T THE 2020 I AN­TIC­I­PATED IN DE­CEM­BER. AS ONE decade pre­pared to lap over into an­other, I planned to split time be­tween Wash­ing­ton, where the pres­i­dent was be­ing im­peached, and Iowa, where the Demo­cratic can­di­dates seek­ing to pry his hands off the na­tional ex­ec­u­tive would face their first real con­test. I would have some happy hol­i­days—I was a new grand­fa­ther— and get right into an­other cam­paign, with the third im­peach­ment of a U. S. pres­i­dent as a kind of con­sti­tu­tional lagniappe.

Then I got hit by a car.

I cracked two lum­bar ver­te­brae and got twenty sta­ples in my head and spent Christ­mas and New Year’s flat on my back. I watched the de­lib­er­a­tions of the House Judiciary Com­mit­tee from my hos­pi­tal bed, doped to the gills and won­der­ing whether Con­gress­man Louie Gohmert was a hal­lu­ci­na­tory event. I sat through much of the run-up to the Iowa cau­cuses and didn’t re­turn to ac­tual re­port­ing un­til I went to Wash­ing­ton to cover the im­peach­ment trial in the Se­nate, gimp­ing around the Capi­tol at the con­clu­sion of an ex­er­cise that was as fixed and fore­gone as any pro­fes­sional-wrestling match.

Then it was on to Iowa for the last week­end be­fore the cau­cuses. This got me there just in time for the en­tire process to eat its own en­trails. The whole op­er­a­tion was so badly de­signed and poorly run that it never was clear whether Pete But­tigieg or Bernie San­ders had won the damn thing. But one bit was cer­tain:

huge and as lethal as the 1918 in­fluenza pandemic that killed more than fifty million people world­wide. Burr had also re­cently made some stock trades.

Joe Bi­den swept the South Carolina pri­mary, and that mo­men­tum car­ried him on through Su­per Tues­day and be­yond un­til fi­nally, with the coun­try on lock­down and tens of thou­sands of Americans dead from the virus, Bi­den clinched the nom­i­na­tion. By then, the cam­paign was an af­ter­thought, and the im­peach­ment of Don­ald Trump might as well have hap­pened on the moon. The Amer­i­can people were hun­kered down in their houses, look­ing out at their neigh­bor­hoods like fish in an aquar­ium. It was Zoom­world. The body count kept climb­ing. The pres­i­dent made daily ap­pear­ances on the tele­vi­sion, where he lied, and he whined, and he de­flected all blame and re­spon­si­bil­ity onto who­ever was handy. Joe Bi­den was largely ab­sent. A shadow-play cam­paign, evanes­cent fig­ures across an aban­doned land­scape, face­less and sound­less, moved steadily to­ward a con­clu­sion like a river that had gone un­der­ground. No, this wasn’t the 2020 I was ex­pect­ing at all.

THERE IS NO POS­SI­BLE WAY TO DE­TER­MINE how this elec­tion will play out. Long be­fore the virus came ashore, it was go­ing to be a grimy, grind­ing cam­paign, be­cause that’s the only kind the in­cum­bent pres­i­dent and his party know how to wage any­more. There was al­ready dis­in­for­ma­tion, for­eign and do­mes­tic, and an en­tire ar­chi­tec­ture of vot­er­sup­pres­sion tac­tics, rat­fuck­ing un­der the color of law, more wide­spread than at any time since the height of Jim Crow, thanks to the Supreme Court’s evis­cer­a­tion of the Vot­ing Rights Act.

These are the things that were al­ready there, the ex­ist­ing mold and rot in the sys­tem, be­fore the Repub­li­can Party saw fit to nom­i­nate Don­ald Trump, and be­fore enough Americans saw fit to el­e­vate him to the pres­i­dency. As a po­lit­i­cal crea­ture, he ex­ists in that mold and rot, feeds on it, and tells his vot­ers that it’s all fine din­ing. It was the case in 2016; it’s still the case in 2020: Forty years of con­ser­va­tive ide­ol­ogy and Repub­li­can pol­i­tics made some­one like Don­ald Trump not only pos­si­ble but in­evitable. And that was be­fore the pandemic’s ar­rival threw every­thing into pal­pa­ble unreality.

Re­cently, in try­ing to get a grip on what the con­text of the up­com­ing na­tional elec­tion might be, I came upon a psy­cho­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­non called “de­re­al­iza­tion,” a dis­so­cia­tive dis­or­der the symp­toms of which in­clude: • Dis­torted per­cep­tion of time, space, and

size of things around you.

• Feel­ing of unreality from the world

around you, as if in a dream or trance. • Feel­ing as if every­thing is foggy,

fuzzy, or warped.

• Sense of be­ing dis­con­nected from those around you as if you’re trapped in a bub­ble.

• Thoughts of go­ing crazy or be­ing very ill.

And it struck me that not only did that de­scribe my own gen­eral feel­ing dur­ing this time of plague and quar­an­tine, but also it fairly de­scribes the po­lit­i­cal con­di­tion within which the pres­i­dent has suc­ceeded po­lit­i­cally, be­cause it also fairly de­scribes the world that he has cre­ated around him­self his en­tire life. He cre­ates de­re­al­ized sit­u­a­tions, milks them for ev­ery dime, mines them for ev­ery pos­si­ble ad­van­tage, and then moves along to his next one, leav­ing his vic­tims stuck in the fog of dis­be­lief, both of what they have ex­pe­ri­enced and of how the pres­i­dent keeps get­ting away with it.

There is no telling what the cam­paign will be like, ex­cept that its heart will be dark and omi­nous. There is even less telling what the elec­tion it­self will be like, ex­cept that it will be foul and fu­ri­ous. The pandemic has sounded El Degüello for all of us. No quar­ter given. Your bal­lot or your life. We’ve al­ready had a dry run of that in Wis­con­sin, where the state’s Repub­li­cans forced an in-per­son elec­tion in the teeth of the virus, only to lose it to an en­raged Demo­cratic turnout. How­ever, about two weeks later, right on sched­ule, people in Wis­con­sin be­gan to get sick.

In this un­prece­dented time of plague and fear, we are asked to be sep­a­rate and to­gether and choose a pres­i­dent, to be to­gether while we are sep­a­rate in or­der to judge the fit­ness of a man whose demon­stra­ble un­fit­ness has helped cre­ate the de­re­al­ized coun­try that will some­how hold an elec­tion. No, this is not the 2020 I had an­tic­i­pated. It is not at all that.

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