America: An Exegesis

This was written in 2017; it is unfinished, and ends abruptly after introducing a new thought, but much of it is still relevant now (even if Paul Ryan is out of power, he still deserves our mockery; also, David Koresh was a child rapist). The title is ridiculously pretentious but everything about this new site is stilted enough that I’ll just roll with it.

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All discussions of the 2016 election must precede from one overwhelming reality: Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than Donald Trump. To forget this fundamental fact is to misdirect our anguish, to wonder how we could have possibly made this choice; when in fact this choice was made for us more than two centuries ago, a Vichy-style “compromise” between the ideals of liberty and the reality of evil — if you think I am overdramatizing the vileness of the electoral college perhaps it is because you learned it as a method of protecting small-state interests, or even as the Hamiltonian check on majoritarian tyranny, when in fact the electoral college exists for neither of those reasons but almost entirely as a method to implement the three-fifths rule and enable the hegemony of the slaveholding south.

Small-state interests are, after all, protected in the Senate; as for Hamilton’s post-hoc justification for such cruel compromise — that it should prevent the popular election of a venal, populist tyrant — well, it only took us two hundred and twenty-seven years to get to the punchline of that particular ironic joke.

(Try to apply the three-fifths compromise to a national popular vote. You will quickly discover that this is meaningless, and why thirty-two years of the nation’s first thirty-six years were spent under the leadership of slaveholding Virginians.)

Born of slavery and continuously advantaging white votes over black and brown: there is no truer form of structural racism than the electoral college. That the party whose power is enabled by it is also the party which brought us reckless and destabilizing war in Iraq, the party which created and now denies all responsibility for the global refugee crisis, serves as a lesson in tragic intersectionality, the fortunes of global billions directly dependent upon the oppressed in America making their claim to full citizenship, a claim whose negation is written into our founding document, yet to be amended.

The Constitution has some very good ideas in it, but it is not all enduring greatness; at most, we should keep maybe three-fifths.

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2016 was hardly the first election with a popular/electoral vote split — we are here preceded by 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000 — but only the election of 1888 also went uncontested. The peaceful transfer of power is praised, as though continuity of governance is more absolutely important than the structure of that governance; it is a fixture of American political identity to take pride in our longest-standing democratic constitution, a global bragging right protested only by a tiny contingent from San Marino — but the truth is that we are closer to the iterative evolution of, say, the French than we might care to admit. Our First Republic was politically and economically defined by slaveholding, and it is this fact more so than any eye-rolling debates of what James Madison might have thought of cell phones which gives lie to the very notion of constitutional originalism. “What would the Founding Fathers have thought?” is a question whose first answer is, almost always, “slavery” — whether in affirmation or negotiation is contingent upon the Founding Father under discussion but the totalizing influence of that vile institution upon the formation of American government is hard to overstate. The tragedy of the Civil War is not that it occurred but that its occurrence was foreordained, an inevitable consequence of the untenable compromise that undergirded the nascent United States, the willingness of those same Founding Fathers to pass the issue to future generations a damning moral failure that must always be weighed against their greater achievements; not from self-hatred or anti-Americanism but because anything less is incomplete, a masturbatory illusion.

If the Thirteenth Amendment marks America’s Second Republic then we might begin the Third with the Civil Rights Act, bringing an end to Jim Crow and the Dixiecrats but ushering in an era of mass incarceration and white flight. Perhaps Barack Obama and the Movement for Black Lives will one day be regarded as the dividing line between Third and Fourth Republics, the age of Trump nothing more than a blip of backlash enabled by structural racism and outvoted, overwhelmed by America’s long, slow march to democracy.

Such demarcations are necessarily rather pat oversimplifications, but race is the fault line on which this nation was constructed, and while America has known tumult from economics and immigration and foreign wars it is only the tremors of our central quake zone which have ever threatened to bring this whole edifice down.

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The re-making of the electoral map from 2012 to 2016 brings with it a certain amount of questions, and none more intractable than the existence of voters — apparently clustered in the Rust Belt — who went, in 08-12-16, Obama-Obama-Trump. Their existence is a mathematical certainty, although their numbers are miniscule — relevant only due to the surreal arithmetic which declares 120,000 votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin to be more valuable than 3,000,000 votes distributed across the country — and they have been elusive, sought by dozens (hundreds?) of journalists on sojourns to steel country, who have too often presented their stories of “lifelong Republicans supported Trump” as some kind of illuminating revelation.

But why even the rare Obama-Obama-Trump voters should follow such a seemingly bizarre pattern need not be a revelation; indeed, it is enacted billions of times each day on social media, as the lesser angels of our natures react to the curated successes of our peers, and badly to those peers whose successes upset our own curated hierarchies. Perhaps we thought ourselves more deserving because of our intelligence, or appearance, or social rank — but no matter how easily we might “like” a photo of a high school classmate posing in a gorgeous foreign locale with a beautiful significant other on their arm, how often are we secretly fuming with jealousy even as we click? That smiling partner, that exotic vacation, that high-paying job which might finance it — didn’t we deserve it more?

Blowback to Barack Obama was unavoidable; to be black in public is to be an object of criticism. But to be unapologetically black, to smile and play basketball and listen to hip-hop, to stay cool in the face of obstructionism, to have a marriage that epitomizes #relationshipgoals and beautiful, high-achieving, seemingly happy and adoring children, to reach heights of professional and personal success that only a fool would call unenviable and to thereby elevate the achievements of Jay-Z and Beyonce, of Kendrick Lamar and Ava duVernay and LeBron James and Steph Curry and Serena Williams and Simone Biles and Issa Rae and Donald Glover and Shonda Rhimes and Oprah and so many others into a #BlackExcellence so visible that it ceased to be exceptional — well, we might’ve liked that Facebook friend well enough at the outset, but after so many images of their towering perfection what grows all to easily in any of us is loathing, the sort that we will project outwards at all costs to avoid ever confronting the ugly truth: that what we loathe most of all is our own paltry lives, so much less than what we were promised.

What is most remarkable about the Obama-Obama-Trump voters is not that they exist, but that there are so few of them.

This is a fundamental problem of any movement towards liberation: visibility invites backlash. The personal is always political and to be publicly, unshrinkingly black or brown or queer or trans or fat or disabled or Muslim or foreign or female is to claim one’s own humanity but also to open space for response. There is, ultimately, no justice without visibility, but along the way the backlash of injustice can be profound and lasting, demanding retrenchment just when it seemed the fight for full humanity was nearly won. The injustice can far outlast its moment if a powerful enough group inscribes it into law, or the Constitution — even the great totalitarian states grew from small minorities, the Nazis and the Bolsheviks tiny assemblies of terror which sought power first and compliance second, obliterating the personal to make room for political domination.

We are not at real risk of totalitarianism (authoritarianism, yes). That the Republicans backed away from Ryan/TrumpCare at all shows some measure of respect for public perception and political persuasion; that they then pushed it through, suddenly and with celebration, shows the continued fraying of that respect. Their refusal to consider the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court and subsequent seating of Neil Gorsuch was an utterly unprecedented violation of norms for which they suffered no political penalty and which will serve to entrench right-wing interests for a generation. That we are not at genuine risk of realizing “The Handmaid’s Tale” owes itself more to culture, geography, demography, and globalized economics than to the institutions and norms of our government, which have already proven themselves a mechanism for an undemocratic seizure and consolidation of power.

Perhaps a peaceful transfer of power — even into its misuse — is really that important. Or perhaps it was just that satisfying to see a woman concede.

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The rise of Trump has led many liberal writers, public figures, and social media scribblers to look back longingly on the days of George W. Bush. The implausibility of such nostalgia is a joke, of course, underscoring just how monumentally awful Trump is, but such a formulation damages our ability to understand just how we got to here; after all, one does not arrive in the land of alternative facts without a long layover at truthiness. The electoral college did not need 2016 to be indefensible, for while counterfactuals are largely useless the unique and highly personal motivations for the American invasion of Iraq can leave us with some confidence in guessing that a President Gore would not have authorized such a military action.

Bush was a tragedy in the truest literary sense, a would-be prodigal son, a desperate striver with Cheney as his Iago; in his desire to best his father’s Middle Eastern escapades we might diagnose an Oedipal complex and hit the trifecta of the Western canon, the Bible and Shakespeare and Greek tragedy all warning us from centuries ago against such naked patriarchal approval-seeking. The man himself might not have been particularly intellectually curious but he nonetheless married a pro-choice librarian, to whom he has been faithful and respectful and with whom he has raised two daughters who, despite collegiate shenanigans, seem to have grown into relatively decent adults who recognize their privilege and see the world as more than a source of their own enrichment. Had he never been president, Bush could have lived a relatively decent life himself, a rich party boy who bought a baseball team and peaked as the governor of Texas before retiring to a quiet life on the ranch, painting and enjoying his family. It is tempting — just as it is tempting to wash the Founding Fathers of their sins — to remember this gentler portrait of the man, but an honest reckoning demands that we not excuse his deception and slaughter, that we never forget that “W” stands for “war criminal.”

The weekend before the election I listened to Kanye West on repeat — “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” a record for the Trump era if there ever was one — to try and prepare myself for the coming administration (sometimes, the generalized anxiety disorder which prevents me from, say, believing in the inevitability of a Hillary Clinton presidency can be a useful emotional prophylactic). Kanye and Trump, after all, share the same desires, the same naked id — champagne wishes, thirty white bitches — but Kanye’s artistic skill is to package such grotesqueries in a gorgeous form, ugly content in a beautiful container, and in the space between his lyrics and his lyricism we can all recognize our similar struggle, the gap between the aspirational perfection we profess in pews or on Instagram and the messy failures of our daily life, the back-and-forth of becoming by which Kanye’s confrontationalism acquires an illuminating value.

There is no similar dialectic apparent in Trump.

The contours of Bush’s tragedy (and Kanye’s) are defined by their humanity, in their creative output and the occasional glimmering self-awareness that opens the potential for a dark night of the soul. Trump has yet to even offer the potential of a soul. My years in Oakland left me sensitive to the misapplication of Gertrude Stein’s most famous maxim but here it is appropriate: when we seek Trump’s interiority, there is no there there.

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What is perhaps most remarkable and most concerning about this particular political moment is the unprecedented vapidity of the Republican party — any intellectually serious political machinery that could fall in line behind Donald Trump is broken on the face of it, and the cast of characters charged with “moderating” Trump are, themselves, caricatures of moral cowardice. When last our nation stood on the brink of rupture the famous compromises of Henry Clay ensured dialogue, at the very least; but our contemporary headlining senator from Kentucky is more akin to John C. Calhoun, whose naked ideology of party (and power)-before-country is alive and well today in Mitch McConnell. He is not the only apparition from the Old Confederacy making itself known, for the — proud! — namesake of our current Attorney General is no less than the most destructive traitor in all of American history, a treasonous and anti-democratic white supremacist whose ghastly legacy is finding new life in the elevation of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.

The current Republican leadership are too shallow even for a sitcom, with the possible exception of Paul Ryan, more wank than wonk, the very preening, venal, simpering, self-serious, too-obviously-good-looking secondary villain that audiences love to see brought low. What’s more unbelievable is that he would play sidekick to such a transparent buffoon, prostrating himself before such an outlandish cartoon as Trump. I’ve written more nuanced white supremacists than any of those in power today, because one cannot wring one hundred pages of comedic conflict from such cardboard characters — the impossibility of constructing a compelling narrative from such laughable idiots is a source of optimism except that the right has managed to pull it off, transforming those idiots into heroes using only the tired props of racism and sexism, rendering them giants against the literally demonized woman and black man.

And alas, we have unwittingly played our parts.

In histories of the alt-right I have seen Waco mentioned only in passing but in my research (writing those aforementioned white supremacists) I’ve come to find it a central feature around which to organize the evolution of the American right, a singular concatenation of boogeymen realized that has propelled the narcissistic fantasies of militant self-victimizers ever since.

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