October 22, 2020
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Where I Am and Where We Are

Somewhere around January 2016 I began to write obsessively about Donald Trump. I think (without false modesty) I have good radar, and have proved it many times since I began publishing the Spectacle in 1995. I knew from the start I couldn't laugh him off, and that he might be President.

I was still shocked when he won. I continued writing almost every lead essay about him for the years which followed. He was possibly the most important phenomenon I had ever covered--and also the place where all the lines met, where, as Yeats sang:

There all the barrel-hoops are knit,
There all the serpent-tails are bit,
There all the gyres converge in one,
There all the planets drop in the Sun.
Yeats is the poet of Epiphany, and even of the deadly Epiphany at the end of History, but he is also the poet of fatigue: "That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown/ As weary-hearted as that hollow moon".

In the weeks after the 2016 election, I conceived Mad Plans, of which the worst was to open a Twitter account under the handle JohntheJew, and troll the trolls (I could have gotten myself killed by now). I was going to write a weekly letter to my crazy atavistic confused Jewish Congressman, Lee Zeldin, who was supporting the Trumpean Anti-Semites. I would find some other grandiose ways to fight the depradations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, at least where our democracy was concerned. And so forth.

Four years have elapsed, and I am taking stock. As is usually the case, I could argue I met those goals, and that I missed them by a mile. Certainly the momentum I had in writing the Spectacle evaporated, and I can't say precisely when. (This is also not uncommon.)

I met my goals: I have never ceased activism. I have attended demonstrations, I have written truthfully here and in the Mad Manuscript, and most significantly, I have continued defending the oppressed and marginalized in court. I have nothing to be ashamed of, and not for a moment have I decided to go to ground, be silenced, and take no risk.

I missed my goals: my original impulse was to go straight for the enemy. And again, and again. And never stop. That was what drove that JohntheJew thing. I haven't really done that. But this seems related to a very useful, and relaxing Epiphany I had along the way, that I have lived then life I was suited for. I was made to occupy a particular place, and not easily retreat; and I have stayed in that place. JohntheJew was something else.

Along came Coronavirus Time, and it suited my personal needs to start a journal about it, which has continued to analyze and oppose the Powers that Be even though it has too often tended towards the "another motherfucker not wearing a mask" entry (though the President himself thrives on being that person).

Still, we are on the eve of the election, and the person I Aspire to Be would have written ten essays by now, breaking it all down and advocating a vote against Trump, in favor of humans, democracy and Optimism, and explaining why.

So this instead is a small Squeak, breathing the things I think I have learned and about which I would have written those ten essays.

American democracy never was as good as its Own Press suggested. In the massive (I said no false modesty) Research by Wandering Around I have done, I have understood that, notwithstanding the First Amendment, we lock up the people we don't like purely for their speech at least every fifty years. It began immediately, when John Adams, our first one term President, dueled Thomas Jefferson, his great adversary, and used the Alien and Sedition Acts to lock up editors and even people saying stupid stuff in bars. Jefferson as President retaliated later using state laws to punish Adams supporters. Fifty years later, nobody now remembers that Lincoln had his own domestic Guantanamo, a prison where he even interned New York journalists. In the Woodrow Wilson administration, uniformed troops mysteriously left their bases for violent riots, throwing suffragettes out of windows opposite the White House and beating Socialist protesters in New York. Next came Smith Act prosecutions for "Aesopian" language--nonviolence construed as mysterious threats of violence--which began while Truman was still President. In the Nixon years, public figures like Dr. Benjamin Spock were prosecuted for opposing the draft, just as some professors and public figures had been under Wilson.

After 9/11, this country took a huge turn in the direction of surveillance and inventing new forms of speech crime. The "material support" laws, in their first Supreme Court test, led to a ruling that an international nonprofit trying to teach peaceful ways to violent organizations could be prosecuted for giving them material support. An astonishing factoid is that Elena Kagan as President Obama's Solicitor General argued in favor of the law. Asked whether a lawyer filing an amicus brief in a case involving a terrorist could be construed as having broken the law, she acknowledged it was possible. I myself had broken that law: In 2002, I filed an amicus in the case of Jose Padilla, an accused Al Qaeda member who was an American citizen, who had been interned without trial in a naval brig, arguing that he should be tried in the American legal system, not interned open-endedly without trial as an "enemy combatant". The Bush administration settled the case by transferring Padilla, and he was in fact tried. Later, young people with Arab surnames would be prosecuted for "material support" for merely maintaining web sites containing some quotes from Al Qaeda--and one of them was a student preparing a thesis on the group.

Along came the Trumpoid Object, threatening to bring back the prosecution of critics this country had already experienced under Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, Truman, Eisenhower and Nixon. In tweets and campaign rallies, he calls for the incarceration of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe and Hunter Biden, and Congressman Adam Schiff. It is almost useless to mention that prior to the normalization of this kind of discourse, we thought of that as something that happened not here, but in places like Ukraine, where ex-president Yulia Tymoshenko was imprisoned by her successor.

I have a theory that a Huge factor in the decline of Western civilization has been the universal spread of a general refusal of responsibility, which, in order to be fully implemented, requires the breaking of cause and effect links. In an age where even the weather is the result of human actions, it has always been grimly fascinating to experience instances of human greed and theft treated as if they were old-fashioned weather. My view of the 2008 mortgage "crisis" was that an entire class of people were the victims of a bait and switch, sold on junk adjustable rate mortgages they could not afford so that Wall Street whiz kids could bundle them into "mortgage backed securities" and then, astonishingly, issue "collateralized debt obligations" betting their own securities would become worthless. When the smoke cleared, this aspirational middle class had been robbed of everything, but no one went to prison, because market crashes are only "weather".

I am mentioning this because we are too prone to see the Trumpoid Object through that lense of generalized nonresponsibility, as if he was a Glitch, a hurricane which merely "happened" and for which no one is to blame. But a lot of people worked very hard for more than two centuries to give us Donald Trump.

I blame Adams and Jefferson for prosecuting each other's supporters, and Lincon for locking up New York journalists who wrote the Civil War wasn't going well and for expelling a Democratic Congressman who thought the war a mistake across enemy lines. I blame Wilson (the most overrated and incorrectly portrayed President in American history) for the "flag-kissing" mobs who beat and sometimes killed neighbors with foreign accents who would not agree to humiliate themselves. I blame Truman for giving into Republican pressure and establishing a loyalty commission which fired people from his government for leftist associations years before. I blame cowardly Eisenhower for sharing a stage with Senator McCarthy early in his campaign and remaining silent when McCarthy attacked Eisenhower's mentor and friend, General Marshall. I blame Richard Nixon for (as only came out forty years later) sending Charles Colson to ask a New York union chief to send his members to beat anti-war demonstrators with pipes, which they obediently did on May 8, 1970, earning their boss a job in the administration. I blame George Bush for Guantanamo, but particularly for setting up protocols which, had he had his way, would have allowed him to "disappear" American citizens here at home. I blame President Obama for his vastly expanded use of drones to kill specific targets, which included American citizens whose sole offense had been to speak and write against their country.

But I think the project which, more than all those others, was dedicated to the production of Donald TRump was the long nightmare of what is inaccurately known as "McCarthyism". The project began in the 1930's, long before McCarthy, with the creation of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, which even in the Democratic years was a bit of a rogue, but which came into its full evil under a Republican president. The anti-Communist project, seen in the light of the astonishing sucking up to ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin today by many of the heritors of the Party status, ideologies and actual jobs of the HUAC members, looks less like a misguided if somewhat sincere spasm, and more like an empty and amoral political strategy conceived in the 1948 campaign, when the Republicans were out of power, the economy was strong and they found nothing else to run on than accusations of treason.

What this all means is that for seventy years, the Republicans have worked hard and successfully to create the Trump voter: they have molded, as I have written in other contexts, the white working class without a college degree into people who will astonishingly vote against their own education, jobs, health, and homes. The only part which did not go according to plan was that this ignorant, entitled, selfish and paranoid "base" eventually turned on their own party, voting for Donald Trump instead of Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. But that was not a Glitch or mere Weather; it was entirely predictable.

Donald Trump, as I have been writing since January 2016, is without doubt a Naked Singularity, a Solvent Dissolving the norms we had left. He certainly has illustrated the utter fragility of what we had, and how much it depended not on the Congressional purse or the power of judges, but the invisible and vestigial belief we had in our joint enterprise, and our desire to see it continue.

I am more interested right now, though, on what the up-surging of Donald Trump has revealed about the Republican Party. I discovered in my personal life in my thirties that when the shit hits the fan, is when you find out who everyone really is. People who posed as courageous as late as the 2016 campaign have proven to be spineless sycophants: Lindsey Graham and supposed renegade Ted Cruz. I wonder how Cruz comes home every night and faces the wife whom Trump called ugly and crazy. Mitch McConnell has stood by quietly, bribed by tax cuts and court appointments, and when his election opponent called him on it in a debate a few days ago, all he could do was giggle inanely.

The complete absence not only of spine but of principle in the Republican Party has been fully revealed in the last few months, by the arrival in mainstream politics of Q-Anon, which believes Democrats suck baby's blood. It is sadly normal that the Trumpoid Object would "dog whistle" to these people. But the Texas Republican party adopting a Q-Anon slogan as their own tag line, Mike Flynn publicly taking the Q-Anon oath, and Mike Pence attending a fundraiser hosted by millionaires who believe in the conspiracy theory, leads me as close as I can get to despair in a time when I am trying to stay organized and live optimistically. I had always imagined authoritarianism in America, if we fell into it, would resemble the Machiavellian calculations of a Bismarck or Talleyrand, or, in this country, Henry Kissinger. It is a revelation that in a few short years, we have fallen into a form of totalitarianism that is actually cheesy, impulsive and psychotic. I want desperately, and almost hopelessly, for Enlightenment values to return; but I of course want America to last long enough for that to happen. Right now, I feel like a helpless passenger in a plane which its pilot has pointed at a mountain, declaring it to be a cloud.