What if We Just Let Them Think They Won?

The United States is politically held hostage by tens of millions of people living in a delusional version of reality. No matter the facts staring them in the face, just a little less than half of the electorate seems to believe in an alternate universe in which Trump won the election, left-wing terrorists are destroying our cities, COVID is a hoax or an exaggerated flu, and white Christians are the most oppressed group in history.

So I had a thought.

Information silos, filter bubbles, and algorithms can obviously make millions of people believe almost anything. So if what the Cult of Trump needs is to live in a fake reality, well, maybe we can just let them. And then the rest of us can carry on with actual reality.

I turned this thought into a bit of speculative fiction.

* * *

After a hard day at work, Rick plops down on the couch and flips through his phone to see what’s new.

He’s a father of three, but two of the kids are grown and out of the house, and the other is out with friends. His wife, Danielle, is making dinner, which she always does unless she’s not feeling well.

Rick scrolls through his social media feeds and gets updated on some of the latest headlines. The border wall had just been completed, and the pictures were stunning. 30-foot high partitions, black as midnight, effectively invisible in the dark, but reflective so that the sun blazed in the eyes of anyone who looked at it from the right angle. Smooth, unscalable, and a true monument to America’s force of will against invaders. President Trump would be there tomorrow afternoon for a ceremony celebrating this achievement.

It’s a good time for this kind of morale boost, as China has made more threats against the United States, promising to choke the American economy while making incursions into our Pacific territory. And who knows when they might release another virus. The president has been undeterred, however, and Rick is reassured when he hears Trump call China’s bluff. You just try it, thinks Rick. See what Donald does.

It is 2023. Joe Biden is embroiled in several lawsuits over his attempt to steal the 2020 election. Hunter Biden is in prison in Moscow. Kamala Harris is still out there, working with AOC, Antifa, and George Soros (now 93 and obviously being kept alive with some kind of secret pharmaceuticals or cybernetic implants) to foment a revolution and take over the country. (No chance, thinks Rick.) Black rioters have nearly destroyed several major Democrat-run cities, so they are now being occupied by federal agents who are arresting criminals, guarding property, and saving the lives of innocent Americans. The president has forced Twitter to shut down for censoring conservatives, which is against the Constitution. Facebook has learned its lesson and now treats conservative voices fairly.

As he scrolls through his feed, Rick almost skips past a headline that said something about someone on Fox News saying something about Joe Biden. He reverses the direction of his thumb swiping to find the item. And there it is. The post reads, “Fox News Guest Says Joe Biden is Currently President!” Rick chuckles out loud.

“What’s so funny?” Danielle asks from the kitchen.

“Something really stupid,” says Rick. “Not important.”

It is stupid. Everyone knows that Fox News went off the rails back in 2020, and really couldn’t be trusted anymore, except for a few hosts like Hannity and Tucker. But what kind of delusional nonsense was this? Why would anyone say that Joe Biden was actually president right now? Some kind of hangover from the 2020 election debacle? The facts are the facts! Trump won the election, even though Democrats tried to steal it with loads of fake votes. But President Trump refused to concede, vowed to keep fighting, and eventually (and inevitably) triumphed in the courts. Thank you, Justice Barrett!

Some say that Trump is thinking about running for a third term. That would be just fine with Rick.

Danielle coughs from the kitchen. And then again, and emits a little bit of a groan.

Rick calls out, “You okay, honey?” Danielle had been under the weather ever since they went to that basketball game Danielle’s nephew was playing in. It was actually a really good game, and the place was packed! She probably picked up some bug going around.

“I’ve been better,” she responds. “I’ll lay down after dinner.”

Rick makes a mental note to check her temperature, and maybe his own. He’s not feeling so great either, but he’s never been one to admit when he’s sick.

Then he remembers what he was looking at. Right, that dumb Fox News person who said Biden’s the president. Rick taps on the item.

The post had been deleted.

That’s weird. Fake news never really goes away, does it? You just have to keep vigilant, and only trust the sources that you know for sure are giving it to you straight.

Rick thinks back to the border wall, and he smiles. Yeah, he thinks, Trump is doing a fantastic job in his second term. A third term would be just fine by him.


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Homepage Hopping at the End of Democracy: How Are News Sites Presenting Trump’s Coup Attempt?

I have a bad habit. When big, anxiety-producing events are taking place (and they always are now), I hop around to different news sites’ homepages to see how they are characterizing the situation. My guts are in a constant, immovable clench as I doomscroll and site-hop for any new development.

Here’s what CNN’s homepage presented its readers this morning:

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“Akin to a dictatorship”! That should wake people up, right?

You see, it’s not just news I’m looking for. I’m trying to get a sense of how the major news organizations are presenting the story to their audiences. Republicans are trying to overturn democracy, and I’m hoping that our news outlets are making that clear, right away, without normalizing or both-sidesing.

CNN’s headline, while horrifying, at least told me that a mainstay institution of American news was getting the point across.

But then I remembered that most folks don’t go to news websites directly. Regular people who aren’t obsessed with this stuff don’t constantly refresh the front pages of the Washington Post or the New York Times. If they’re not just getting everything through social media, a lot of them are just opening their browsers and seeing whatever was already set as their default homepage. So how are they covering the coup?

It’s not as reassuring.

Here’s Yahoo News.

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It acknowledges the issue, but it’s framed as an ongoing contest, not a power-grab. Trump has a “new weapon” and insists he didn’t lose. Biden isn’t concerned. Yes, well, I am concerned.

Look further down the page, and what do they choose to highlight? Biden’s mask mandate idea and how he can’t actually enforce it. So right away we get “Trump says he didn’t lose” and “Biden can’t make you wear a mask.” Not encouraging!

Aol.com’s homepage, which is still Yahoo content, at least begins with “State election reports defy Trump’s baseless claims.”

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There’s also MSN, which is where millions of Edge and Internet Explorer users will get their first dose of news, and there’s no mention of the coup at the top, but some everything-is-normal coverage of a presidential transition, a little tiny dose of paranoia about Trump’s border wall, and something about the guy who played Ron in the Harry Potter movies.

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You get the point. While CNN—correctly, I think—presents the coup as the emergency it is, the news outlets that most regular people will probably get their information from are a mixed bag.

ABC News and NBC News both take the coup more seriously on their respective homepages. ABC gives context to Trump’s bullshit by showing that he always does this (as well as featuring the news of the recanted claims of voter fraud by a postal worker). NBC highlights the personnel massacre at the Pentagon, along with other problems caused by Trump’s recalcitrance. (Plus, further down there’s stuff about how great Stacy Abrams is.)

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CBS News’s homepage is formatted differently, highlighting whatever they’re talking about on CBSN, which, I assume, nobody watches (I could be wrong). But what did I see when I popped that URL into my browser? BALLOT PROBLEMS!!!

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Yes, it’s Puerto Rico. Now, you and I know that Puerto Rico doesn’t vote in the presidential election (and we also know that this is morally wrong). Regardless, any big-splash story about BALLOT PROBLEMZZZ only serves to feed the existing false narrative of a rigged election.

I was also none too pleased to see USA Today’s homepage, which seems to be stoking a lot of small fires without committing to one conflagration.

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The CDC is stumbling. The lieutenant governor of Texas is offering a bounty for evidence of election fraud. Trump “shakes up” Pentagon leadership. It’s not at all clear that these things are all part of One Unified Crazy.

Then I had to look at Fox News, because I am sure plenty of folks do make a beeline to that homepage for their dose of indoctrination. And it was not exactly what I expected.

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There’s Fox News calling Biden the president-elect right in its top headline! The propaganda arm of the GOP is saying, yes, this guy is your president-to-be, folks. As weirdly assuring as that is, it’s heavily saturated with reasons to be afraid of this new administration. “Controversial names”!!!

I mean look at those people hovering over Biden’s shoulders like a quartet of devils! There’s that crazy socialist lady Elizabeth Warren! There’s a Black lady right next to her! On the other side of Joe’s head is a Black guy! AND THEN ANOTHER WOMAN. CONTROVERSIAL!!! PERSONNEL IS POLICY!!!

As gross as Fox News is being, it almost feels like a return to normal…where normal isn’t very good to begin with.


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The Caretaker

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Photo: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When Barack Obama picked Joe Biden to be his running mate in 2008, I was delighted. I had always been enthusiastic about Biden’s as a political figure, and loved his role in the ’08 primary campaign as a no-bullshit happy warrior. (Remember “a noun and a verb and 9/11?” So great. And even better considering how far the subject of that jibe has fallen.)

While Biden’s persona and personal charms probably figured into the Obama campaign’s choice to bring Biden onboard, it wasn’t the main reason. To reassure an electorate that might be wary of an inexperienced, black presidential candidate, they put an elder statesman by his side, someone whose very presence vouched for the qualities of the man at the top of the ticket. There was no doubt that should tragedy strike, the next Vice President of the United States would be ready and more than qualified to take over. Not unlike George W. Bush’s choice to tap Dick Cheney in 2000, Biden would be the adult supervision.

Certainly, Biden’s trademark folksiness would help sell the Obama candidacy to those who might not be quite as excited about diversity and cosmopolitanism, by speaking to them in terms to which they could relate. But these were bonuses. In my opinion, it was all about the picture of the two of them together, the image of the exciting and untested buttressed by the familiar and trusted. The message was that Joe would look after Barack, and make sure the new guy found his footing.

(Honestly, I have difficulty trying come up with a presidential ticket in which the two candidates complemented each other as well as Obama and Biden did — save perhaps Biden and Harris, which I’ll get to in a bit. Bill Clinton and Al Gore are in the ballpark, as two ridiculously intelligent, relatively young southerners with diametrically opposing personalities that somehow clicked electorally. But still, almost all the pairings I can think of felt forced. Pence as a Christian bandaid for Trump. Tim Kaine as the blatantly inoffensive white male for Hillary Clinton. Paul Ryan as a youthful junior-executive sidekick to Romney. Sarah Palin…yeesh. And John Edwards as John Kerry’s personal TV ambulance chaser. God help us.)

It’s now fairly commonplace to see presidents task their VPs with particular portfolios, as a way of 1) communicating the importance of an issue by putting in the hands of the vice president, and 2) giving the poor guy something to do. But think of some of the things President Obama handed to Vice President Biden: Implementation of the Recovery Act after the financial meltdown, saving the auto industry, upgrading workforce training, addressing violence against women, cultivating and maintaining relations with foreign leaders, and the “moonshot” to cure cancer.

These were all caretaking roles. They conveyed a message: People who have been hurt, people whose lives have been upended, people who have lost jobs, people who have been alienated, people who are scared, people who are sick: Joe Biden is going to take care of you.

Now think back to March of this year. Biden’s campaign in the Democratic primaries had been shaky at best, and was being more or less written off, until his blowout victory in South Carolina. Coinciding with the sudden awareness of the threat posed by this “coronavirus” thing, Biden’s victory there seemed to change something in the very air.

Candidates began dropping out before Super Tuesday and endorsing him. I got the sense that they were relieved to do so. The coming general election campaign was likely to be the ugliest and most brutal in generations. The mysterious virus was looming. No one knew what was going to happen. With a sense of foreboding and anxiety that few could not have articulated at the time, the Democratic Party and its electorate turned to a father figure, a figure of stability, normalcy, and comfort. Someone to watch over them and take care of them. That was Joe.

The choice of Kamala Harris as Biden’s own running mate makes even more sense to me now, seen in this light. There was no shortage of brilliant, utterly qualified candidates, but Sen. Harris represented something I think few others could: As a social progressive with a law enforcement background; as a woman of a mixed ethnic background and the daughter of immigrants; as a stepparent in a modern, multi-faith family; and as a woman who pulls no punches for vice presidents, former or current; she is the future. She is, really, the present, but the electorate is not always ready for the present. By choosing her as his second-in-command, Joe Biden sets the stage for her ascension, and the ascension of a whole new generation. And he is trusted to do that.

I think we got Joe Biden at this moment because we are a nation in pain, wracked with fear and anger, unable to nurse our old wounds while triaging the new ones. To replace the current president, who seeks only to inflame every gash and tear every stitch, we need someone who will tend to us, heal us, take care of us.

I don’t think Joe Biden ever thought of himself this way, but this is the burden he’s been given, in his personal and in his public life. Time and time again, he has been asked to take care of us, and he always has. Election Day is about 55 hours away as I write this. If Joe Biden is elected, it will be because we needed him to take care of us one more time.

What’s so funny?

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This is from the fifth edition of the Near-Earth Object newsletter, to which you can and should subscribe, right here.

How do you make political satire when the real political universe is already a parody of itself? I’m hardly the first to ask a question like this, but some recent events have made this question more salient than it has been for a while.

To be effective, political satire begins with what we know to be true (or at least plausible) about a given individual, group, or issue position, and stretches it — in a logical direction — toward an absurdity, thereby highlighting the flaws or harmful implications of whatever is being parodied.

But in the real world, right now, one side of the political debate is living out the parody. “Not The Onion,” the once-ubiquitous refrain on Twitter in response to news about the president, is now nowhere to be seen, because, well, why bother? The president himself just the other day retweeted a satire piece from the definitely not-funny Babylon Bee, thinking it was real. The very fact that most Americans even know what QAnon is tells you all you need to know about how the absurd has become all too real.

My friend Brian Hogg wrote a parody autobiography of Trump in 2016, Trumped Up, which is absolutely hilarious. After Trump actually won the election, which neither he nor I expected, and the damage he would do to the republic became ever more apparent, it was harder to find comedy in someone who was such an obviously ridiculous figure at the time the fake autobiography was written. The real President Trump turned out to be way, way too similar to the bananapants Trump character that Brian created for his sci-fi/time-travel/pseudo-hagiography/comedy book, except the real Trump had real power to ruin real people’s lives.

He and I have often mused about the prospects of creating some new venue for political satire in the form of blogs or podcasts, but we always run into the same brick wall. How do you do funny-smart without just winding up sobbing?

This was how I felt about the video “Weird Al” Yankovic (who is one of my heroes) did with the auto-tune masters, the Gregory Brothers, about the Trump-Biden debate for the New York Times. To me, that debate was traumatizing, a national tragedy. Perhaps I’m over-sensitive about this kind of thing, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling psychologically injured by that event. But Yankovic’s video treated the debate like it was any other conventional debate between two conventional candidates. “Who’s it gonna be?” was the musical refrain, as though it didn’t really matter in the end. I don’t think Yankovic or the Gregory Brothers actually feel that way, but that’s how their video made it seem, that the two figures on stage were equally worthy of being satirized.

Turning a debate into an overblown music video works when it’s yet-another set two dudes in suits parroting the same predictable, boring talking points, and the stakes aren’t all that high. But this wasn’t that. It was the tearing of an already-open wound. I’m sorry, Al. I love you, deeply, but there’s nothing funny about this moment. Not now, anyway.

But here’s the thing about Brian’s fake Trump autobiography: It really isgoddamn funny. The plausibility of Trump speaking about himself as a long-reining god-emperor who falls in love with a future robot version of himself, and leads a liberation rescue team that includes Chris Christie and Ted Cruz to put an end to the “Mexican rape fields,” is what makes it funny. Trumped Up reads like it came right out of the real Donald Trump’s mind. Which is what also makes it uncomfortable.

Maybe that’s part of why it works, and why something like Brian’s book is necessary. It is funny and it’s uncomfortable, because it takes what we know about a political figure or moment and points to where it all leads.

In my own work, I’ve sort of accidentally stumbled upon a twist on political satire that I might keep exploring, something like “aspirational satire.” It started when I wrote a resignation speech for Trump at the time of his attacks on protesters outside the White House for his Bible photo-op. I knew he wouldn’t resign, but I found the fantasy of his doing so irresistible. If it couldn’t be real, I’d at least indulge my wish with some amusing fiction.

More recently, I wrote and recorded a speech intended for President George W. Bush, an address to the nation that he could give in the near future, if and when Trump refuses to concede a lost election. I don’t actually think Bush would take this task on, but he could, and I strongly believe he should. But rather than just wish and bemoan, I decided to write him one myself, so at least such a thing would exist in the world.

He obviously would never use the speech I wrote, as I make references to how shady the 2000 outcome was, but the stuff I wrote about looking to Al Gore’s concession in 2000 is, I think, absolutely on point, and something a real speech by President Bush could and should bring up as a contrast to the expected behavior of a defeated Trump.

For me, this aspirational satire works because it doesn’t mire us in the current moment, but rather allows us to exist, temporarily, in a place where the horrors of the now are exploded in a favorable way. Their plausible absurdity makes them feel safe to laugh at, and maybe just a little bit hopeful.

If there is a post-Trump world, maybe old-school satire will feel good again. For that to happen, I think politics need to get a little more boring, and a lot less terrifying. That’s when we’ll once again have the emotional energy to laugh. Oh, there they go again, those stuffed suits and their empty sound bites. It’ll be bliss.

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If Trump Won’t Concede, I Have George W. Bush’s Address to the Nation Ready to Go

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McConnell Center (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the Trump era has been how establishment Republicans have rolled over for him, aiding and abetting Trump in every asinine, narcissistic urge, never having the guts to do anything to stop him from laying waste to the republic. Mitt Romney has had his good moments, but they were too few and too late.

Throughout the election, I have nursed a wish that President George W. Bush would put down his paint brush, get in front of a camera, and tell the folks who still love him that Trump needs to go. He’s never done that, even though you know he believes it.

Now, Election Day is nigh, and Trump continues to assert that he will refuse to concede if and when he loses. Lord only knows what he will do with the enormous power he thoughtlessly wields in order to remain in office.

If Trump loses and attempts to deny Biden the presidency, my last hope is that Bush will finally speak up and urge his fellow Republicans to accept the results of the election. He probably won’t.

But just in case he’s thinking about it, but doesn’t know quite what to say, I thought I could do my part as an American, and help our former president out. Here is my draft of what could be President George W. Bush’s address to the nation if President Trump refuses to concede a lost election.

President Bush, I am open to changes. Have your people get in touch.

UPDATE: I made a video for the speech, just to really drive it all home. I am helping!

Address to the nation by former President George W. Bush on the outcome of the presidential election, November 2020.

Let’s get right to it.

One score and none years ago, I was declared the winner of the presidential election because our side was better at whatcha call “political maneuverings.” Me and Al Gore pretty much wound up in a tie, and you can’t have two presidents at the same time, so our guys just did a better job of greasin’ the wheels and workin’ the refs, simple as that.

It wasn’t all above-board, those ballots in Florida where old Jewish folks were accidentally voting for Pat Buchanan was some real sketchy shit, and to give it to ya straight, even we were surprised when the Supreme Court just kinda let me be president. But like I said, it really was just a tie, and I think everyone figured it was just the other team’s turn to be in charge for a while. It weren’t pretty, but the thing got settled and we moved on.

But here’s the real important part, and I probably should have said more about this at the time, but the reason things got settled is because of Al Gore. Listen, Al was sure as hell that he’s the one that won that election. He was positive he’d won Florida, and hell, maybe he really did. “Butterfly ballots”! I mean, goddamn. But both sides filed all their lawsuits, both sides did their PR bullshit on TV, and in the end, those five Justices shut it all down. Al coulda’ kept fighting. I don’t think it’d’a changed anything in the long term, but you never know, and it’s not like we’re talkin’ about a fight over who gets to be employee of the month at a Pep Boys. This is the presidency. It doesn’t get any bigger’n that.

So think about what Al must’ve been feeling. He believed he’d won more votes in Florida. He believed the Supreme Court was screwin’ him over because they liked me better. That’s probably true! And what’s for sure true is that Al won more votes than me overall. He beat me by about a half a million in the national popular vote — and don’t think I didn’t feel that sting for the next four years, til I definitively kicked Kerry’s ass in ’04. Now, winning the popular vote doesn’t mean shit if you don’t win enough’a them electoral votes, and he knew that, but you just know it all had to be makin’ him nuts.

I mean, imagine, you’ve been the Vice President of the United States for eight years, you’re the smartest guy you know and you’re not only sure you’d be a better president than the guy you’re running against, but you know you’d be way better than the skirt-chasin’ hillbilly who’s shadow you been stuck under for a decade. You run your race, you win more votes than the other guy, and then it all comes apart because of a bunch of technicalities and bullshit.

But listen. After all that, even though he believed in his heart that he was being wronged, he stopped, he put the best interests of the country ahead of his own, and he opened wide to take an enormous bite of the biggest shit sandwich ever served in American history. On December 13, in the year of our lord 2000, Al Gore went in front of those cameras and told the American people that it was over, and that I was his president.

I mean, holy shit.

Now while you think about that, then look at where we are today. There’s no technicalities. There ain’t no tie. Everyone knows that Joe Biden beat the pants off of Donald Trump. Yeah, sure, there are a bunch of mail-in votes that ain’t been counted yet in Pennsylvania or whatever. But come the hell on. Trump lost this election the second he told folks to think about injecting themselves with bleach. I mean, you all know I said some stupid shit when I was president, and even I spat out my O’Doul’s when I heard that one. Mike Murphy says that the country has been tryin’ to cough up Trump like a hairball, and I’m tellin’ you this election was the cat’s final hork. But now the hairball is trying to haul its soggy ass back into the cat’s mouth. That’s just gross.

And it just ain’t gonna fly.

A lotta folks who supported me back in the day also supported Trump. I get it. I ain’t exactly excited about Biden bein’ president. But the race is over. Biden won it, plain as day.

Trump is tellin’ you that he’s been robbed, that the election was fixed by some Deep State antifa pizza parlor tinfoil hat shit. He wants to make you scared and angry. But that’s because he’s scared and angry.

He’s humiliated. You best believe I had my doubts about whether I belonged in that Oval Office, but deep down, Donald Trump knows he sure as shit never shoulda been there. And now he can’t stand the idea of lettin’ it all go. So he’s pulling every trick he can think of so he can stick around. Too many goddamn people who certainly know better are letting him.

Since he won’t do it, I will. I’m here to tell you, it’s over.

To my fellow Republicans, my fellow conservatives, I know you don’t like the idea of a Democrat in the White House. Lord knows, I don’t either. But the people have spoken, and they have not been subtle about it. Joe Biden won, and he’s gotta get sworn in on January 20, and Donald Trump has to let it go.

Republicans in Congress and in your state governments need to hear from you, right now, that they need to step up, like I’m doing now, and to tell their president to stand down. Don’t let Trump rile you up with a bunch of crazy, made-up conspiracies about a rigged election. Don’t let the cable news folks and the talk radio folks get your blood boilin’ and making you think you been screwed. I know the system’s screwed you over a bunch of times before, but this ain’t one of ‘em.

Joe Biden’s a hell of a good guy. He talks too much, and it makes me tired just thinking about him going on and on about how some guy he met in some town had some damn expression and on and on. But he’s a good man who won fair and square. And if you don’t like what he does, and you do like some of what Trump was doing in terms of policy and what have you, well then you vote for Republicans for Congress in the next election, and you support the next Republican candidate for president with everything you got. Fight like hell, and beat ’em fair and square.

But let’s not do it like this. What Trump is doing now, it’s unseemly. It’s unsportsmanlike. It’s weak.

Remember ol’ Al Gore. He had an honest-to-God claim to say that he’d won that race back in 2000, and that he oughta’ve been president. But he knew that the peaceful transition of power was more important than him being president, and more important even than keepin’ someone whose guts he hated from getting the job instead. He put his country first, and he took it like a man. He took it like an American.

Republicans can take this one too. Donald Trump can’t, so we’ll have to do it for him. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

Party of one

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This is from the fourth edition of the Near-Earth Object newsletter, to which you can and should subscribe, right here.

For me, today was Election Day. I got my ballot in the mail, I filled it out (it’s a ranked choice ballot, which is GREAT, but there’s nothing worth ranking this year; there are no “second choices”), drove over to the local ballot drop box, and SAVED DEMOCRACY.

I was as excited as a little kid getting a new toy when my ballot arrived, and I tried to make a big, fun deal out of filling it out, but no one else in the house seemed to be on the same wavelength. (“Don’t you usually get to vote?” asked my son, as if that very fact weren’t something worth celebrating.)

WHATEVER. I don’t get excited about almost anything anymore (why would I?), so if something sparks enthusiasm in me andit’s part of the effort to save the world, you better believe I’m going to get goofy. Election Day — or Election Month or Election Season — is a momentous occasion, no matter what the buzzkills I live with think. WOO, VOTING!

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I have no idea what’s going on in my state. Last year, I started a subscription to the Portland Press Herald (digital with print on Sundays) because I wanted to be better informed about the place I live, not just in terms of its government and politics, but to learn more about the lives and cultures of the people of Maine, a state I’ve now lived in for almost a decade.

I read a lot of it the first couple of weeks. Then I just read from the print Sunday edition. Then I just did the included New York Times crossword. And then I more or less forgot about it.

National news — more specifically, national political news — is all-consuming to me, but it covers that which is many times removed from me. It doesn’t affect me from day to day, nor do I have the capacity to do anything about what I learn. It would make much more sense for me to be more engaged with the goings-on of my state and municipality, which does directly affect my life, and especially the lives of my kids. It’s not nearly as soap-operatic as the titanic struggles over the soul of the nation happening in the presidential election, but it’s just as meaningful. Maybe more so?

So as we careen toward what I hope to Zod is the reasonable conclusion of this election, maybe it’s time to start refocusing on what’s going on closer to home. Regardless of what happens November 3, I know I can’t have any meaningful influence on what goes on in Washington.

But Augusta? Maybe.

In my own town? Surely.

Something to think about.

The most powerful man in the world gets COVID-19 (because of course he did), and after being given the best care available to anyone in the world, he declares that getting the disease and then recovering makes him feel 20 years better.

Meanwhile, I have to sit in my car in order to watch my daughter’s soccer practice, in which the kids play maskless. None of it makes sense. And that’s what the second episode of my podcast-vlog-monologue thing tries to capture. You can watch it here or listen to it here.

I have a Patreon if that’s a thing you’d like to help out with.

Magma

Here’s a way for me to talk about my response to last night’s debate.

In the parking lot at the grocery store today, I saw a man, who appeared to be in his 60s, returning to his car with his groceries. He was wearing a shirt emblazoned with the Trump campaign logo on the front and “No Basement Joe” on the back.

Adjusting my face mask before walking into the store and catching sight of this fellow, my mind immediately recalled the depravity displayed by Donald Trump the night before at that horror-show of a debate. For a brief moment, my brain struggled to comprehend how anyone—including a presumably sane, sentient human being like the man in the parking lot—could witness the trauma Trump had inflicted on us all and still support him. Worse yet, this man was proudly advertising his continued devotion to the president the fascism-for-idiots he personified on that stage.

And in that moment, I felt hate for that man. To be clear: this was not okay. I know nothing about this person. Merely presuming that this man understands what Trump is and what he represents, I could come to no other conclusion that this man must be evil.

Of course, I have no idea if that’s so. I have no idea what this man is like. I have no idea what he knows and does not know. I know nothing of his life story beyond what could be gleaned by a few seconds passing in a parking lot.

It scares me, that I felt that way. But in noticing that sudden shock of hate in myself, I then considered how deeply and fiercely Trump and his cult have driven their followers to hate, and I became doubly frightened. I experienced a moment of hate, of indignant rage at the moral vacuum I assumed to reside in this stranger’s heart. Just imagine, then, the cauldrons of hate, like geological quantities of magma, seething within those who feel represented by Donald Trump.

For the few seconds that I burned, I struggled to come up with some imaginary scenario in which I might confront this fellow and set him straight. Absurd, of course.

But what about the millions of people, bubbling with hate, and being told to expect their enemies to deny their leader his power—and therefore, in their minds, their power.

I’m very worried about what scenarios they are imagining. I’ve very worried about that.

What I’m also thinking about:

How not to think about everything going on. M.G. Ziegler says, “I think in many ways we can only live through times like these by not stopping to think about them.” I don’t feel like I have that luxury.

John Gorman says:

So go easy on yourself. Try not to think about the future. Instead, think about the present. How can you win the next hour, the next day? How can you be of most value — to yourself, to your family, to your community, and to the earth itself? You still have the incorruptible capacity to create joy, and catalyze change. No one can take that away from you, no matter how dark they dim the lights.

That’s true. But while one’s capacity might be incorruptible, it is not inexhaustible. And I’m pretty exhausted.

Alan Jacobs writes, in Breaking Bread with the Dead, which I mentioned in the previous issue:

I would ask you, dear reader, to remember the next-to-last thing that social media taught you to be outraged about. I bet you can remember only the last one. …

You can readily see, I suspect, how information overload and social acceleration work together to create a paralyzing feedback loop, pressing us to practice continually [informational] triage … forcing our judgments about what to pay attention to, what to think about, to become ever more peremptory and irreversible. … And all this has the further effect of locking us into the present moment. There’s no time to think about anything else than the Now, and the not-Now increasingly takes on the character of an unwelcome and, in its otherness, even befouling imposition.

No argument here, but this particular Now seems unavoidably pressing. It puts us in a state of what I once called “permanent fret.”

Oh, how I long to be bored again.

The Old Normal Rises

There is the moment, at the point of a major crisis when it can no longer be denied, and must now be accepted as a new part of our everyday reality, that we tell the kids that everything has changed.

I didn’t have children at the time of the 9/11 attacks, but I can imagine that parents of young kids at the time had to find that right moment to explain what had happened with those planes, and why everyone was sad, scared, and angry. All of a sudden, everything was different. So much so that the kids needed to be sat down and told so in serious yet reassuring terms. I don’t know, of course, but I can guess.

I am a parent of young kids now, when the COVID-19 pandemic has really, truly changed everything. 9/11 probably didn’t fundamentally alter anything about kids’ lives back in the early 2000s, but the pandemic has utterly upended the lives of today’s kids, and it shows no signs of stopping any time soon. When schools shut down last spring as the virus broke loose, in a United States too stupid and delusional to even acknowledge it, the everything-has-changed conversation was inevitable.

My own kids had known that something called the coronavirus existed, and it sounded scary, but they had been reassured countless times that, while it was a serious problem for many people, it was not something that was likely to affect their lives or put them at any risk. I strongly suspected I might be wrong about this when I said it to them, but I didn’t know. Americans had largely avoided any upheavals due to the first SARS, West Nile Virus, H1N1, and Ebola, so it seemed like a safe bet that we’d be alright this time too. Ha.

Those several conversations with my kids over a period of weeks and months, about how they wouldn’t be going back to school for the rest of the year, about how there would be no summer camps or activities, how they couldn’t go and be with their friends, how we couldn’t bring them into the grocery store with us, how money was suddenly tighter and we wouldn’t be ordering pizza as often, and how they would be entering into a weird new quasi-school situation in the fall, they all bore the weight of that central premise: everything was different now.

Here’s the part where I admit to something uncomfortable. I genuinely regret all that my kids are losing and missing during this pandemic, and I grieve for the millions of souls lost or made to suffer from this disease. But I also felt (and, I suppose still feel) a certain twinge of satisfaction as I delivered the news of a New Normal to my kids. I think it’s because I know that the world desperately needs a new normal, a realignment of what we value and prioritize, a sober and clear-eyed look at the absurd fragility of our society. Maybe this pandemic would give our shallow, boorish culture the chance to reevaluate what really matters.

That’s not all. On a much more selfish level, I actually like some of the changes to interpersonal interaction that the virus has necessitated. I’m a severely introverted autistic with Asperger’s, I already work from home, I have little desire for travel, and I don’t have any meaningful non-familial connections that live anywhere near me. My pastimes of choice do not involve me leaving my home. The situation to which everyone else was suddenly struggling to adapt was already my comfort zone.

As I’ve written previously, I even have a soft spot for face masks, as they further anonymize me to a species that has consistently shown me that I am, at best, merely tolerated.

It’s more than that, though, because I have to hope that after such a major disruption of everyday life for an entire society, some reconsideration and recalibration will have to occur. There must be a new way of being that emerges from a disaster that is largely and plainly of our own making. If nothing else, perhaps we would experience something akin to the classic tech support cliché: we turn the whole thing off and then turn it back on again. The reboot clears away the cruft and bugs, giving us a clean slate and a fresh start.

But now, I don’t know.

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Freddie de Boer recently wrote about “romanticizing the post-apocalypse,”similarly hoping for something valuable to emerge from the chaos and death. “What I do want is some sign that we have reached a break, that events have forced us to face up to an old then and a new now, and that the tyranny of normal has been defeated at last.”

But like me, he is skeptical. “What this virus has taught me is the supreme durability of normal, the dogged survival of the mundane world, the near-impossibility of some new era in which all old expectations of civility and social norms will just extinguish or burn away…”

This is indeed what I see. While the pandemic has certainly brought out the best, most charitable, and most empathetic selves in many of us, I think for most Americans, it has simply been a pain in the ass that we need to be done with as soon as possible. Not, I should say, as soon as is best, or as soon as it’s safe, but just, like, now. This is obviously the mode of the utterly corrupt Trump administration, and we see it all the time in the outrage-inducing stories of churches flaunting social distancing rules or stupid teenagers mass-infecting each other at parties. But it’s more insidious than that, more subtle.

It’s in the insistence that we shove our kids back into classrooms rather than decide as a society that we should just pay people to stay home. It’s the delusions about how death statistics are being exaggerated (they’re not), how kids are magically resistant (they’re not), and the absurd tribalization of mask wearing.

It’s in the excuses we all keep making about who we imagine it’s safe to congregate with, because they’re family, close friends, or just people that we somehow simply know have been safe and surely aren’t carrying the virus (and, of course, neither are we!). I’m sure I’ve done it, and I bet you have too.

And yeah, it’s in the polls that show that despite the mass death, suffering, and economic calamity, we’re still a coin flip from reelecting (or reinstalling) the guy who’s primarily responsible for running us through this meat grinder.

We are simply determined not to give a shit.

Many of us have given many shits. Many of us have no more shits to give. Too many of us never did to begin with.

In a recent piece for OneZero, Douglas Rushkoff recalls the tech billionaires who have been constructing self-sustaining fortresses in remote locations to shield them against coming disasters such as climate change, global unrest, or pandemics.

“These solar-powered hilltop resorts, chains of defensible floating islands, and robotically tilled eco-farms were less last resorts than escape fantasies for billionaires who aren’t quite rich enough to build space programs like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk,” he writes. “No, they weren’t scared for the Event; on some level, they were hoping for it.”

Well, if I had their resources, I don’t think I’d hope for disaster, but I can imagine having a silent wish in the back of my head that I’d get some excuse to go ahead and take refuge in my own personal — and perfectly furnished — Helm’s Deep.

Indeed, Rushkoff says those of us who enjoy the privileges of being able to work from home and not be gripped by the terror of imminent eviction or starvation are making a calculation: “How much are we allowed to use our wealth and our technologies to insulate ourselves and our families from the rest of the world?” he writes. “And, like a devil on our shoulder, our technology is telling us to go it alone.”

I have always found it easiest to go it alone, and I have long been grateful to the technologies of the Information Era that have given me the means to do so, ever reducing the frequency with which I am required to involuntarily interact with humans on any meaningfully personal basis. I have been trying to insulate myself for decades.

I suppose the difference is that I have not by any means lost my sense of moral responsibility to the world I share with these inconvenient humans. The fact that the current crisis resides in the form of a highly infectious pathogen, and that I live with and care for children and a severely immunocomprised partner, limits what I can do outside the home. But I try to play my part from here, with donations to those who need it and can best use it, advocacy for the right causes, and, minimal as it may be, sharing thoughts like this with you right now. It’s not enough, I know.

I do prefer the safety and distance of the domestic-digital life. I do wish, fervently, that this crisis will shake us out of our collective stupor and make us appreciate each other at a basic level. But I do not wish for the end of all things. I do not want to hide while the world burns. I want a new world to grow from this one, a better one inhabited by a people with better hearts. A new world where I don’t need to hide, but in which I retain the option to do so when the time comes.

Everything has changed, and yet it feels like nothing has. Let’s not have gone through this for nothing.

What If He Wins Again?

The tragic truth is that Donald Trump’s chances of being reelected are pretty good, considering the mass death, disease, disruption, and despair that he has wrought upon the electorate. Just as it was in 2016, FiveThirtyEight gives Trump about a 1-in-3 chance of pulling off another upset. And given his hamfisted moves to sabotage the election, I’d say it’s really a coin flip. Even a fist like a ham can pack quite a punch when it’s attached to the President of the United States.

If Trump does win, legitimately or not (and it would almost certainly be by Electoral College technicality), it will be perhaps the darkest moment in American history. Trump’s cultists will of course foam at the mouth as they bellow in atavistic triumph, but for everyone else, it will be a trauma of the highest order. If the results of 2016 were a gut punch to the nation, a Trump victory in 2020 will be a national evisceration. Tens of millions of us will be psychologically and emotionally crushed. Our already fragile hopes will have been utterly dashed. We’ll be terrified and vertiginously disoriented. Save for the MAGA partisans, the United States will be a nation in utter despair.

That’s one of the things that worries me most about Trump’s potential reelection, the pall of gloom that is sure to saturate the national psyche. Defeated and exhausted, too many of us will have lost the will the keep up the fight. I don’t know if there will ever again be free and fair elections in the United States if Trump wins, but there definitely won’t be if a second Trump term lays us all low. And then who will stop the third term, the fourth, and all the rest to come under Presidents Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump, and Donald the Second?

I can imagine the smallest silver lining to a Trump win in November, though. In a previous piece, I lamented the fact that the United States exists in a kind of quantum superstate, as two nations from different universes existing in the same physical space at the same time. Well, in the case of Trump securing a second term, I have to wonder if maybe that will spur the non-fascists of the country to finally take that hard look inside Schröedinger’s box and see for sure that the cat is, in fact, dead.

I lie awake at night worrying over the collaborators, quislings, and cowards that are enabling our transition to a Vichy state, but at the same time I find it almost impossible to imagine folks like, Andrew Cuomo, Gretchen Whitmer, or Gavin Newsome simply rolling over and accepting the new fascist order under Dear Leader Trump. I definitely can’t imagine my own state’s governor, Janet Mills, just shrugging and falling in line. There will be plenty of spineless Members of the House and Senate who will try to stay afloat and play both sides, not to mention the countless both-sidesers in the political-media class, but some definitely will not.

What I’m getting at is that a Trump win might finally snap some of the restraints that have lashed the reality-based states to the fascist-fundamentalist ones. Maybe the establishment of a gold-toilet kleptocracy will cause a few center-left leaders to flip the metaphorical table over and yell, “Fuck this shit!” Metaphorically.

What I’m wondering is, after a demoralizing Trump win, after we’ve recovered from the immediate emotional shock and trauma, and after we’ve gathered up our spilling viscera and shoved it back into our abdomens, whether we might decide that, dammit, we just don’t have to play this stupid game anymore. We don’t have to jerk around with the Nation of Fanatical Ignoramuses anymore. We can acknowledge that the relationship among these 50 states and various territories is just not working out, and that we can do better. We deserve better.

And we can walk.