Two Cheers

(photo by Robert Mapplethorpe)

We seem to be on the verge of discovering what democracy means in an ignorant society. The next decade could make the execution of Socrates by the Athenian democracy look like chump change.  – Glenn O’Brien

This was the first election when nearly everyone I knew spoke of civil war. My conservative relatives cleaned their weapons and stockpiled ammunition. My liberal friends bought handguns and shotguns for the first time and signed up for lessons at the gun range.

That, all by itself, made it extraordinary. I’ve never experienced anything like it.

Now, it wouldn’t be the first time violence broke out around the results of an election. You could call the Civil War itself the largest election dispute of all time. The Colfax Massacre during Reconstruction was another. American history is darker, more chaotic and, in certain ways, more glorious than we generally know. But we forget.

Several articles did remind us about the collapse of Kosovo — how it all fell apart so quickly and how the next thing you knew bearded men in fatigues were murdering you in the woods nearby.

Well, we all love drama. It hasn’t come to that, not yet, anyway. I rehearsed a few heroic scenarios of my own. I tried to imagine how the battles could happen, and I realized how unlikely it would be that a squad of Proud Boys would materialize on my doorstep, their knuckles dragging on the ground, ready to launch a cleansing. It wasn’t likely. Modern life offers few chances for unequivocal, violent, and correct action. 

No High Noon for me.

Although I would prefer to die heroically and not drooling in diapers, I also am grateful that my country maintained its composure and didn’t erupt in bloodletting. 

Last Tuesday, I went to bed convinced that Trump won. I resolved, grimly, to soldier on. And I was enraged: at the perennially dysfunctional Democratic party, at the pollsters who made a sucker out of me a second time, at the establishment press for missing what’s really going on, and then at the Trump voters themselves.

How could they vote for Trump? I didn’t understand, and I’m not the only one with that blind spot. Most of the establishment press and a lot of my friends simply can’t make the leap to understand why you’d vote for that guy. I asked a few people who’d likely be Trump supporters who might be able to articulate a point of view. No luck. Politics are so poisonous now that even relatives avoid the topic completely out of fear of offense or of being offended or perhaps out of simple consideration.

I occasionally read conservative blogs and news sites. I try to venture out of my mental silo. Through Herculean efforts of imagination, I almost understood some of the motivations of Trump voters, and they’re not all bad. Unchecked globalism is harmful for working people. NATO doesn’t make any sense, unless you’re on its payroll. Christians are persecuted abroad and ridiculed all out of proportion, and no one seems to recognize that. The police do have a role to play in cities. The woke among us can be severely annoying. Then, there’s abortion.

(By the way, Trump’s still not the worst president we’ve had. George W. Bush, who launched a war of choice, authorized torture, and murdered hundreds of thousands of innocents along with way, puts the Donald to shame. )

Yet, even with those points in Trump’s favor —and believe me, I’m working very hard here to see the other side— but even with those arguments in place, they’re not enough to balance out his documented corruption, lies, and incompetence. Not even close.

Yet, in a television-addled country that is so bamboozled by the masquerade that parades by its screens 24/7 that it mistakes reality TV for the real thing, the possibilities are endless and ugly. So winning 70 million votes is shocking, but not surprising. 

The DNA of my country is complex. Puritanism wraps around prurience yielding Stormy Daniels and Jerry Fallwell. (Then there’s Jerry Fallwell Junior who blended them both.)

P.T. Barnum had it all figured out

But a constant theme is the slick con man and the gullible rube. Mark Twain made a lot of hay out of that, it’s even in our other great national classic, The Wizard of Oz. P.T. Barnum — among others — grew rich. So rich, he could reveal his secret: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

That’s the only conclusion I can come to. It is a snooty one. It brushes aside some of the reasons I listed earlier. Resentment plays a role, too. 

But, wait!

Via Le Monde: urban areas with a population of more than 2 million vote Biden

The all-time best explanation, the one that still holds up, appeared in Cracked, of all places. David Wong sums it up as city vs. country. It was true in 2016, and still applies to 2020. Two nations, divided by a wretched media and pop culture. You should read the article. (That city/country divide explains a lot of international politics as well — look at Poland and Turkey for starters.)

So I didn’t buy the predictions of a landslide. I held my breath every time Biden spoke ad lib, dreading some senile slippage that would doom his campaign. Trump clearly had his 43 percent locked up, no matter what.

Election day came, then the week that followed was excruciating. Biden played it cool; Trump blustered. 

American champagne. Okay, okay: sparkling wine. It’s pretty darned good.

On Saturday, starting at 9:31 am, people starting cheering outside my window and huge bursts of firecrackers popped, then crackled again as others beat pans and howled like wolves. Now, nothing ever happens in my neighborhood, ever. Oh, you might hear a few firecrackers on the Fourth of July, or noises at midnight on New Years Eve. But, this is not Naples. Yet, a huge celebratory pandemonium broke out even in my suburban park. Downtown, people danced in the streets all day and into the night.

I’ve never experienced anything like that, either.

I myself happily whooped, banged my pan, and honked my car horn. Ding dong, Donny’s gone. An overwhelming sense of relief washed over me. We drank champagne and exchanged ecstatic texts with friends. The time of the great gilded orangutan was drawing to a close.

Sunday, I had a slight hangover from mixing champagne and margaritas. It lead to melancholy thoughts. Like these:

The media is broken. The owners learned they can make more cash by pandering to their target audience’s prejudices. This is as true of The New York Times and CNN as it is of Fox. And they’re massively profitable because of that.  (Hate, Inc, by Matt Taibbi is a well written and deeply researched book about this if you’d like to learn more — and suffer from depression.)

Great journalist I.F. Stone. We need more like him.

Try watching Fox News, or at least, just listen to someone who does. Or, check out Sinclair media, which runs small-market TV stations across huge swaths of the country. If you compare that with what’s on NPR, you’d conclude that they’re covering two separate universes.

A corrective to this could be a vigorous, old-school approach to journalism which can delve into a topic and offer complexities along with the headlines. One that acknowledges its biases, but tries to pursue objective truth and find out what’s going on down on the streets or out in the cornfields. 

Instead, we fly blind. We choose sides. We hear and read crafted agendas, not sloppy and inconvenient truths. Oh, and I’d like pet unicorns for everyone. That would be nice, too. Prospects for either one of these are pretty low, though. Speaking of which:

No one agrees on what facts are. “Facts are stubborn things,” John Adams said. We seem to be even more obstinate about ignoring them. This is suicidal. Without some commonly shared sense of reality, democratic politics are impossible. 

Americans live in a country that’s split 50/50. It almost doesn’t matter who runs. In 2016, the Democrats ran the most unpopular politician ever to seek the presidency. She lost the Electoral College, but won the popular vote.

In 2020, after years of outrage, scandals, an impeachment, an economic collapse and a botched response to the pandemic, Trump gained votes among women and minorities. He held on to the 43 percent of Americans who’ve always approved his job performance. He’s even bigger in the rural swathes of America. No one really budged.

Either party could run a naked raving hobo for president and win about the same percentage of the vote. (Actually maybe they both did. At least, it looked like it on the night of the first debate).

We need to invest billions more in education. High school graduates should have a basic command of English. College graduates should be able to make a decent case for their contentions. I could go on, but we’d both get bored. It’s obvious, heartbreaking and, increasingly, dangerous.

When I believed Trump had won, I took comfort in the idea that the country is larger and stranger and greater than most of its leaders have ever been. That’s still true. Biden will likely act sensibly about managing the pandemic and the environment. And that’s good enough for me.

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