On the day of the 2016 presidential election I got a phone call from my work saying the company was being put on hold and I would be out of a job. I had just signed the lease on an apartment with someone and a few of our things were even still in boxes, one stack of boxes against a wall between the new Ikea dresser and the desk from Craigslist that we’d spent several hours disinfecting.
I didn’t feel shock; I hung up the phone and walked through a parking lot, and the sun was shining through the leaves of a palm tree and the traffic was whizzing past the building, which was part of Warner Music and there were people lining up for a free concert. I looked around at this material but unreal new world, and all I felt was the pull of ordinary memories turning into cherished ghosts, the way everything casual becomes a monument when a disaster comes.
All around me people were afraid. The old world seems precious now, its last hours have taken on the aura of ritual. A world where hope still hung in the air like a lack of smog. I remember a nearly empty coffee shop and people leaving work early to be with their loved-ones. The cooks and baristas looking lonely, ignoring pastry cases to check the results coming in on their phones. I drove quickly to pick up my girlfriend at her studio; her Canadian co-writers had left in a hurry saying they were heading to their hotel, not wanting to be out on the streets.
LA always seems poised for an evacuation, and when there is for some reason no traffic on Cahuenga Blvd it gives you the sense of a world already ended, the disasters already visualized so many times on screen becoming collective rehearsal for the inevitable; I kept looking at the road ahead expecting it to rise buckled from the ground in the hands of some giant monster which only Dwayne the Rock Johnson could defeat. Instead there were the mute witnesses of a million screens behind a million little windows. A spreading redness over the faces of a million digital maps. The college radio station interrupted Thee Oh Sees to announce another state tentatively called for Trump, and I remember noting the “Tsunami Escape Route” signs that are posted near the canyon roads. That’s what it felt like: a Tsunami.
There was so much hyperbole in my head, in the days to come there would be so much hyperbole in the news. So much, so far beyond belief that it could only recall some mythologized time before the creation of the present order. A world before Reading Rainbow and Perestroika, a primordial time when our values were being assembled and reordered to the march of jackboots and the shadows of bodies irradiated onto walls.
There are racists on CNN, there are water-rights advocates getting sprayed with freezing water, the torturous irony an absurd comment on a world that makes no sense. There are allegations of Russian hacking. Footage of ISIS militants cheering at the news of our presidential election.
A Tsunami of post-fact; we were drowning in the waves of the unreal.
After nightfall we were drunk and my girlfriend was singing Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World” to a bar full of strangers clinging to one another like no strangers in this city since the earthquakes, since the riots. An older white man felt the need, between songs, to say I’m white but I didn’t vote for Trump. In those early, instinctive hours it wasn’t the nuanced picture of so many communities left behind by neoliberal globalization, all that Times New Roman expended on the plight of the Appalachians or the displaced factory workers. It was something our blood remembered, it was a diverse, cosmopolitan culture suddenly in the shadow of the primitive. The moon was down and the streets still empty as on a holiday. While we waited for a Lyft on the sidewalk after last call, I saw a big truck roaring by with an oversized American flag on its roof and black smoke boiling from the tailpipes. Its driver had his middle finger out the window, was just driving around like that, flipping off the whole world. I thought about psychology and wondered if civilization was doomed.
I reeled with how personal this felt. Privilege manifests so often in the ability to separate the personal from the political. To write about the need for reform while living one’s private life securely, if not fabulously, with or without that reform.
But with Trump and the post-fact neo-Nazis the sense everyone has is of a politics that permits no distance, a politics that is all personal, that is an expression of contempt or of disdain or fear or hatred for you personally. I’m sure it’s not this way in other parts of the country, and that not everyone in Boise or Wichita who voted for Trump actually hates me or would hate me if they met me, but here in Los Angeles with LGBTQ people, people of color, immigrants and their children and non binary folk and even with journalists, even if they be pale, straight, male and cis, the sense was that America had rejected us. Had, in effect, voted for a referendum against my entire generation.
With all that and the frantic posting of numbers of hotlines and representatives, all the hastily writing essays and pasting them as status updates in case anybody was feeling the same way, I lost for a moment the individuality necessary to feel afraid. But the struggle goes on, and on and there’s plenty of room for boredom and the situations of being human no matter how noble the effort, something it’s important to remember so that we don’t lose heart each time we stand united with someone who has a neck beard or listens to Nu Metal. The big things are everywhere, and though they affect the little things the little things keep happening and the individual keeps needing attention, whatever the complexities of its subordination. Checklists for what to do if your health care goes away. If you lose your job. How to get visas, if the need arises. There is still paying rent and walking to the store. Still the anodyne, insensitive timelessness of the cover letter, at least until the day when you actually do have to leave the country. For now I have the immediate fears and no matter how much they crowd me they can’t hide the national situation because they are painted in its shadow and all the mundane personal disasters now march in the colors of the political, as for so many of us they always have. I check my own privilege too late, reminiscing about what it was like to feel at home in a country which has never felt like home to so many of its people.
Suddenly I am looking at the same three buildings from my window and like a bird the thought of those who must hate me arrives and makes the buildings all look so suspicious. The prefab train depot next to the brick warehouse and the Hollywood Regency hotel that is now a parking structure, are they conspirators? The mountains are just sitting there, like green cats on top of the city, but now I look at them askance and wonder if they were in on it too; they are part of a different country now, and did they welcome the change? The last time this happened for them, those quiet mountains, it was Irish conscripts in blue coats, singing strange songs. Green grows the laurel.
Nothing is the same, though it keeps up appearances for the time being. On the day of the election I heard I was laid off. The company was going into hibernation, my boss said, awaiting the spring time of renewed investment. Bedtime for Democracy, was an album I listened to in high school. El sueño de la razon produce monstruos, the Goya etching that haunts me.
Everything political is also personal, and so the election is a rude announcement that millions of people find me to be worthless and would be ok with the destruction of everything I cherish about my country. Millions of people. Moms and dads. How did they get that way? Dads, trying to pay their insurance premiums, moms who always win pie contests! I am not the reason for your loss of optimism! I want to shout it from the rooftops but only the internet will hear me and their internet won’t hear my internet.
I go to a right-wing website and wait for it to load. For a long time there is only an ad for tactical flashlights.
I’m looking around this reeling culture for clues. Who were they? The ones who did this? I never see them on the streets, I suppose they are out there dotting the vast plain; they are not the ones who put the swastikas on this bus stop: their dads fought at Normandy. I suppose they travel in cars over bridges and lock their doors when they exit freeways in the city. Somehow I keep imagining they are all the people who didn’t like me in middle school, the ones who had cargo shorts and spiked hair. The boys who would be boys, who thought if you were into Star Trek and eyeliner you should get beat up, probably.
But this isn’t about jokes, not being able to take them. This isn’t about hurt feelings, it’s about the rule of law. Like political correctness which is just a shitty euphemism for respect. As if giving respect to those other than straight cis white males was a political stance and not part of the basic web of human decency. Call it manners and suddenly the people railing against political correctness seem like exactly what they are: boys from “Lord of the Flies.”
But this isn’t about hurt feelings. It’s about the defending the sacred. The knowledge that without respect for the sacred, the Constitution is just words. That electing a post-factual nihilist means we can have a commander in chief who says to our system of checks and balances, “you and what army?” A commander in chief who boasts about breaking the law.
On the right-wing website I read an interview with someone who started or maintained another right-wing blog and of course, I think, he would hate me. His hatred would be advanced and semantic and most of all about style. Like me he was probably bullied in middle school, probably got made fun of for what he liked. In the interview he singles out some of my favorite authors and says he hates them. He hates their language, way they are unafraid to care, hates the burden of empathy which a nuanced style imposes.
He is a self-proclaimed troll, he preaches a libertine gospel of offense, to lift from the tired and put-upon the burden of caring, the burden of empathy. The truck drivers on disability, the owners of electronic security firms in Agoura Hills, to them the troll says, forget what you were taught in school, in church, by your parents. It’s ok not to care anymore. No one cares about you, not the poor, not the government. They take your money and give it to their criminal friends and they give it to the drug addicts. Resentment spreads.
Across the world the proud old countries are taking themselves apart laughing. We are diving into our genocidal histories like bullies at a pool party.
The trolls are behind it all. The trolls, not the moms with “Bless this home,” framed by their front doors, the guys with sod businesses and one autographed catcher’s mitt. Not even the old, white men with tiny flag pins and documents, hemming on CSPAN.
The trolls are perpetual strangers, so scared of being hurt by those around them that they became afraid to even admit that anything mattered. So scared of bullies that they built entire ways of being based on the first things they said that made bullies laugh.
We think we’re scared of the tigers but it’s the small man squatting with the whip in the corner. He’s urging on the maulings of all those people, on him fall the bloody arms, the frozen tents, the tear gas, and he’s more scared of the tigers than anyone.
I read a few pages from the right-wing website. I get the sense again of The Stranger, like the Camus character. The right-wing website bears an overwhelming nihilism. It paces with its gun in an empty landscape where everything is meaningless. Trolling is just one option for coping with the shock of the void. Nihilism is just one option for handling hurt feelings. A lot has been said about the minds of the right, but maybe none of it sticks except to say that they are afraid. Too weak for empathy, they elevate impulse and appetite, say things for shock value because some confused bullies once mistook their tantrums for bravery.
As always, the jocks are just followers. The leaders of today’s fascist movement are like Christian Slater’s character in The Heathers. They found that shocking opinions, no matter how insincere, scared basic people, and they found also that being feared was a great refuge for the perpetually afraid. So they went with it, kept on with their men’s rights and their racist comments because the nice people were appalled and that meant they didn’t get it and could never have helped them, could never have loved them, didn’t understand their pain, and because the bullies laughed and kept their distance and that was better than being understood. They are adults now but a few of them are inflicting their high school movie traumas on the country.
And something in a great many people is responding to them. Twenty million repressed bullies, maybe, deep in the persons of the nice coach who rescues cocker spaniels, the mom who runs the bake-sale, the nurse’s son hooked on oxycontin. Maybe they are recalling the simplicity of a time when they could each command respect in uncomplicated ways. The urge to go back and punch that kid with his glasses who ratted you out for copying Linda McGovern’s math homework. A nostalgia for the brute springtime of childhood, which becomes the imaginary “greatness” of your nation’s past, a yearning for nature and simplicity manifest in a subconscious urge to destroy civilization. Freud called it the death drive. Sid Vicious embodied it, GG Allen on stage. Punk was a warning. But the right-wring blog owners didn’t listen to punk, or else its solace asked for too much from them, or the punk girls didn’t go out with them because it wasn’t cool to make sexist jokes about Kathleen Hanna. Now they want to race toward oblivion.
I wonder if conservatives and the devoutly religious will realize too late that the “alt-right” are not conservatives but libertines and sadists. I wonder if they will be left graying meekly in the footnotes with the “good Germans” of eighty years ago.