The End of the Year End is Near
What others see as a “revolution” I see as a wrecking ball (both meanings) swinging in and around my home where I huddle with friends and family. And for some of us, that larger family may be outside, urging on the invasion. Perhaps I deceived myself as to just who has been inside all this time. Perhaps we did not look as long or as carefully as we could have at the culling outside. We had so much to do with people far more interesting and in places much more exciting.
I have lived through the election of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, both Bushes (most woefully George W.) and now Donald Trump. Reagan was elected right after I moved to the island of Manhattan, a place almost buried now under all the development of the past two decades. I knew no one who had voted for Reagan. We thought his election was the end of the world, our world. It would soon be very much the end for many loved ones and colleagues, who would die because that new President’s “revolution” rolled over bodies dead from AIDS and felt nothing. Those of us who survived learned that politicians do not pay attention until you force them, and that many of our fellow Americans would willingly promote policies that exclude, ignore, or effectively kill people they don’t have to recognize as equals.
Now we have Trump, who ran as the candidate not of the future but the past. He has not built anything in years, and, as is true for the entire Republican party, his only skill is in destruction and hucksterism, deeply resenting the equitable distribution of progress and seeking to see it smothered. His American youth of privilege and power, so beloved to him, when blacks had no such power or wealth and women were there to serve coffee, sex, and offspring, is the cord wrapped around his festering mind. Yet Trump is revealing himself to be an eager fanboy of the very establishment he claimed to critique. He wants to be the elite; that’s one of the reasons he ran. Unlike fascists of the past, he won’t destroy that elite, for they are the ones purchasing his products, or at the very least giving his brand cachet for those that gaze upward in awe.
We do need to analyze and argue over what led to this mess. But tearing into how Clinton and her team conducted the campaign must be done clinically and carefully; Hillary is not Bill. She did move/was moved to the left, to the credit of the Sanders’ side, who proved that this country can be moved. Unfortunately the Democratic Party, true to institutional form, snapped-back to the grid and the candidate it was comfortable with. That cannot happen again. Sanders showed that someone truly rattling the cage just might win. With Trump, it’s the wrong side of the bars but that will change. This election requires reflection on how we process percentages. We have been bewitched by polls, and struggle to align the polls with the polis. It seems the sophistication of the system has taken precedence over the sophistication of the information delivered. Can we reset our priorities, along with our distracted fascinations? The computer went on the fritz, the data deceived us. We are in recovery mode.
Grieve, then organize. The next Congressional election comes in a mere two years. The schizoid nature of much of the American electorate may bolt in a direction we can’t know yet, but some mapping needs to be done now. If Obama’s citizenship could be questioned, if we can be denied a Supreme Court judicial appointment, then there is room for “extreme” actions that actually protect the security of the nation. Obama will not do this unless there is massive pressure, but the waning days of his administration have shown he’s willing to take bold, unilateral steps to do what is right. He needs to take more and we need to be behind him.
For my friends who identify as artists; this is when we might do our best work. In the theatre, we love talking about stakes; they couldn’t be higher. That flies in the face of idealistic desires (which I share) for healing and hope, but we have to tear into the wounds, not simply close them up, so that when and if they heal they do not fester (remembering that rarely does permanent healing happen). We have to come to terms with how the capitalist system has merged with acquisitive materialism to form a culture of resentment; we have, you want, and we make you want what we have but won’t give it to you because you are stupid and lazy and live in the wrong place with the wrong people. This requires asking ourselves; do we really want to hear the voice of “the other”? Are we willing to move past our own rhetoric and examine why the language of inclusion and opportunity inspires resentment and rage in far too many Americans? I’m asking myself these questions, and I’m not always proud of my response.
I seek solace in the young (always the go-to for the aged when things don’t go our way). My students, the morning after the election, wanted to mourn and vent (so did I), but they were also generous in their concerns. Several whom appear to identify as straight, white, etc. were most worried about their friends and colleagues whom are neither of those things, in particular a fellow student who just that day gone Facebook public with being transgender. A student I could only see as white revealed that much of her family is black or mixed race and she fears greatly for them. Yet in this chorus emerged (with some coaxing) another voice, a young man from across the Pacific who struggled to understand his fellow students’ angst. “In my country, we don’t get to vote for our leaders. You elected him, so why are you not waiting to see what he does? He is a businessman, and maybe he will help the economy. That’s what we worry about in my country. And if they don’t do that, then we complain” (I am paraphrasing). The comments of his fellows were mostly about social issues; these were not his concerns. I was reminded of more than ten years ago, when I attempted to tell a group of young Cubans in Havana that the U.S. was not the paradise they saw on their (pirate) TV’s. Their uncle gently upbraided me; “You don’t get it; they want what you already have, your Adidas and Nikes and Sonys…”
Most of the class, even the many who come from very conservative families, have identity and life-options which are the product of an expansive and inclusive culture, one which appears to have snapped shut again, triggered by the reactions of a minority of voters who are part of the Trump electorate. I teach in an art school at a public university in a state we were told “leaned blue” but didn’t. My students spend their time rehearsing, learning lines, memorizing songs, figuring out choreography. And that’s in their free hours. A good many of them are spending far too much of their time working at junk jobs in order to afford their schooling, and some are even raising families. Some are taking care of their parents, or their parents’ other children (a few of my colleagues are doing this as well). Drunken pool parties, for which institutions like mine are famous, are not part of their lives. Since we just endured an election graphically reminding us of the divisions between us (the lessons of which we immediately purge as readily as do students the “correct” answers on a quiz), the sounds of our sundering are shocking. Who are these people who voted for Donald Trump?
When I was 18, my liberal Democrat parents reluctantly left Southern California for Houston, Texas. My father, given that he had to survive in that new environment, and being something of a mimic, took on some of the local attitude, at least in regards to accent. But he did so, as certainly did my mother, with the understanding that the state, with its regressive racial and sexual assumptions, had become a refuge for those white northerners who were delighted to pack their carpetbags and come to a place where they could be dominant again. It was not until I saw these attitudes dribbling down, ever so slightly, to my own parents that I realized how potent they could be. People who have had power, or heard rumors of it from the past, get resentful. The rage of the rising minority is countered by the resentment of the majority, many of whom don’t feel they ever had power, and now those “others” are taking it away. There is not a lot of space between the Nixon/Agnew “Silent Majority” and the Trumpsters. If we fail to find ways to bring them back into the tent, more failure is forthcoming. History is helpful, if only to remind us these cycles have been with us before (I suggest White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg).
According to an investigation by the New York Times, Donald Trump received a $1 million advance from his father decades ago when he was just starting out. Later, when his casinos were floundering and he was threatened with losing them, Pops purchased $3.3 million in chips and didn’t cash them in (thus escaping the tax on inter-family interest-free loans). Recall Ann Richard’s address to the Democratic convention regarding George H.W. Bush: “…born on third base and thinks he hit a triple” (she borrowed this quote from the football coach Barry Switzer). And now we have a President-elect whose grasp of history is so myopic, so ego-driven, that the rumor that Vladimir Putin might like him makes him giddy as a lovelorn teen. Who needs political, economic intelligence or history when the shirtless hunk says he likes you? And will let you suck on his gas pipe as long as you wish, as long as you pay and let him get to 3rd base.
One of the early advisors to the young Donald Trump was the scheming, viciously power-mad (and ultimately disbarred) lawyer Roy Cohn, who had himself been righthand man to Joseph McCarthy in his pursuit of all things commie and perverted, the latter being something Cohn had firsthand knowledge of. This monster is memorably portrayed, though somewhat fictionalized, in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Donald Trump learned from Roy Cohn that keeping lists of enemies and their (perceived) acts against you can be very useful. The line connecting Cohn to Trump is clear; ruthless, self-centered paranoids who overleverage their very being only to accuse “the system” of being the source of corruption. Trump and his father have been exposed (were exposed decades ago) as racist landlords. Landlords don’t like to cover their investment mistakes. They want insurance companies to pay (after they arrange to have their properties torched), or get taxpayers to pay through foreclosure or tax abatements. “We Won’t Pay, We Won’t Pay!” is not the cry of the dispossessed (apologies to Dario Fo) but the whine of the rentier, the landlord. Wayne Barrett’s 1979 Village Voice investigation brought this revelation, quoting another Manhattan developer: "Trump won't do a deal unless there's something extra — a kind of moral larceny — in it. He's not satisfied with a profit. He has to take something more. Otherwise, there's no thrill."
Trump has not made anything in more than a decade. He is not JP Morgan, Henry Frick, Peter Thiel, Bill Gates, or even Mark Zuckerberg (yes, we tend to focus on the men and not the women who make their monomaniacal focus possible). Trump is more a P.T. Barnum; find a gimmick and he work it, milk a brand that would otherwise soon exhaust itself. There’s a sucker born every minute, there’s a society in suicide mode every millennium. He convinced people that his mere name on a product, a place (and now a politic) elevates it, a zombie Death by branding. He became about the deal, not the thing dealt, the cutting of the cards and not the cards themselves. He ceased creating casinos and simply sold the name of them. Now he thinks he owns the biggest casino of all, the entire American economy.
Are we going through a Marxist fantasy of capitalism consuming itself? Brexit, the ongoing devolution of Italy and quite possibly France, and now our recent election might be immolation that births radical change. Rejections of the technocrat, the neoliberal, for someone who claims to be an outsider, a disrupter, is currently causing right wingers to be elected, but it isn’t hard to imagine all this anger shifting left if the expected disruption leaves off the electorate who saw their potential triumph in Trump.
Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton modeled great dignity, restraint, and perseverance. The media wanted a circus, an event with theatrical conflicts. Trump provided unanchored references: “it’s about,” “it’s going to be huge,” “it’s going to be great,” which gave the listener free range imagination, untethered from depressing facts and history. Trump reflects his listeners; as Walt Kelly’s cartoon character Pogo used to say, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Trump is a toxic striver, an out of control id desiring ever more, constantly slavering. This may be a winning trait in the consumer, popular hero realm (and certainly in a fictional character on tv), but in a politician we have to realize that the “more more more” means taking it from somewhere or someone, and that will likely be the general population. Us.