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.
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.