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election anxiety countdown

17 Days: Loser

Yesterday, I engaged in some speculation. It felt good to imagine what comes next. It isn’t a certainty that Biden wins. FiveThirtyEight put it in dice-rolling, probability terms, as I did the other day. Trump’s chances are “a little worse than the chances of rolling a 1 on a six-sided die and a little better than the chances that it’s raining in downtown Los Angeles.” The odds of the latter are one in ten. None of that matters if we don’t follow through, show up, vote.

After superstitiously worrying if I’d jinxed everything by writing a version of Trump’s next few months and years, I was surprised to read this morning that Trump had done the same. Late last night, Heather Cox Richardson wrote:

Tonight, at his Georgia rally, Trump outlined all the ways in which he was being unfairly treated, then mused: “Could you imagine if I lose?… I’m not going to feel so good. Maybe I’ll have to leave the country, I don’t know.”

Heather Cox Richardson

Early in Trump’s political rise, I read about the influence of Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking on his life. For a time, Trump was even associated with Peale’s Manhattan church. I have understood many of Trump’s most outrageous statements to come from a twisted adherence positive thinking at all costs. He will only say things out loud that he wants to happen in the world. If he says something inexcusable — “Russians, if you’re listening,” or “one day, like a miracle it will disappear” — I can point to his adherence to positive thinking to rationalize it, to understand how his brain works. The same goes for his stubborn unwillingness to say inconvenient and unflattering facts out loud. He is incapable of letting facts impede positive thinking. It is the inverse of my reluctance to publish yesterday’s speculation.

Peale’s philosophy is dangerous to the degree that its adherents allow faith in positive thinking to get in the way of rational thought and action. It is the same thread of belief that kept my spiritually inclined Grandmother from seeking medical treatment as her health declined in her later years. Eventually, my parents and uncle intervened and persuaded her to see doctors. She had diabetes. With this help, she successfully managed it in her last years.

The fact that Trump uttered the words, “could you imagine if I lose” — putting the image in his followers’ minds, in his own mind — is an uncharacteristic crack in his positive thinking. That he is describing a need to leave the country is even more alarming. What are the circumstances he images will require him to live in exile? It’s a path typically reserved for corrupt authoritarians when their reigns come crashing to an end.

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election anxiety countdown

32 Days: Infected

Last night, I watched David Lynch’s Eraserhead for the first time. I woke up to the news that the President has the ‘rona. I feel like the latter news — and all of 2020 — makes a lot more sense as part of a Lynchian industrial wasteland dreamscape.

I began a long essay about why I’d never seen Eraserhead before, why I haven’t examined Lynch as closely as other auteurs of his generation. A journey through what I influenced my early film habits. I’ll circle back to those thoughts in coming days. A short David Lynch film festival may be in order first. These are the kinds of things I have time for now that I’m less invested in having baseball on in the background for three or four hours per night while I read, write, and load the dishwasher.

I’m tempted to draw parallels between Eraserhead‘s shock-haired protagonist Henry (played by John Nance) and Trump. Henry is clueless and adrift. I feel like Trump had as much interest in being president as Henry had in being a father, in being involved with Mary, who returns to his life early in the film because she is pregnant. It seems she and Henry are having a child, are getting married because the Man In The Planet pulled a lever, not because of free will.

Then again, Trump is infected, and Trump is the problem. Maybe the strange child at the heart of Eraserhead is Trump. The child does not stop whining and screaming for much of the film. This fits the description of Trump. The child is infected, is sick by the end. Henry takes action in the end to deal with the infected, screaming child. Maybe you and I are Henry.

But then who is the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall. And what does the Pencil Machine dream, or the dancing Lady in the Radiator have to do with Trump? We have another month to figure that out.

Trump is infected. He’s been cavalier about the virus. At Tuesday’s debate, he criticized Biden for wearing masks, taking precautions. His entourage broke the debate commission’s agreed upon Coronavirus protocol by not wearing masks at the site of the debate. He was just flown the short distance from the White House to Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda. While there, he will receive the most focused and attentive medical care given to a single human in history.

Meanwhile, 208,000 people (and climbing) in the United States have died of Coronavirus. This is something like 20% of the global deaths. The U.S. population is about 4% of global population. I’m used to talking about these percentages when talking about American consumerism, oil consumption, pollution. Americans greedily devouring scarce shared resources. Maybe we are simply out of control, period. The Man In The Planet has given up on us. Or has it out for us.

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election anxiety countdown

59 Days: What’s In It For Him?

On Thursday, The Atlantic reported that Trump called American soldiers killed in action “losers” and “suckers”; that he did not want disabled Veterans to march in military parades because “nobody wants to see that”; that he said to retired General John Kelly near the Arlington National Cemetery grave of his son Robert, who died fighting in Afghanistan, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”

“[Trump] can’t fathom the idea of doing something for someone other than himself. He just thinks that anyone who does anything when there’s no direct personal gain to be had is a sucker. There’s no money in serving the nation. Trump can’t imagine anyone else’s pain. That’s why he would say this to the father of a fallen marine on Memorial Day in the cemetery where he’s buried.”

Friend of retired General John Kelly, The Atlantic

Never mind that volunteering for military service is the only obvious and sure way out of extreme poverty and desperate situations for many Americans. Service to something larger than yourself — helping others, defending democracy, protecting your country from danger — is a worthy reward on its own.

I expect and hope that this is the most important reward the Commander-In-Chief gets from the job of President in wartime or peacetime. If Trump asks, “what was in it for them” of dead soldiers, that means he does not see any of the above answers — helping others, defending democracy, protecting your country from danger — as his reward for the job. So, what’s in it for him?

I have plenty of concerns about how much we spend on military equipment and our decision to use military force, war, and killing as our means of engagement with the rest of the world, but those who serve are choosing to be a part of something bigger, are trusting our government to use force wisely for purposes the country’s democratically elected leadership stands behind.

Trump chose to run for office, but from the start it was not clear he wanted to serve. It’s not clear he has any interest in making sure we trust the military, in engaging with tough decisions about how to use force wisely.

How would he answer the question? What is in it for him? Money? Influence? Ego? Something else?

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election anxiety countdown

69 Days: Salvation

Today was a busy day. I wrote for a client in the morning and finalized a book layout in the afternoon. I was settling in to read and zone out with the comforting background noise of masked, quarantined, socially isolated baseball when I remembered that I hadn’t written today’s post.

I was unsure if that baseball game would be played tonight. In fact, I was hoping it wouldn’t be. The Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA staged a wildcat strike in the afternoon, staying in their locker room, not playing their playoff game, after the shooting of another unarmed Black man — Jacob Blake — in Kenosha, Wisconsin. My Minnesota Twins have a George Floyd banner hanging in right field this season. Minneapolis is not so far from Milwaukee and Kenosha. I thought — hoped — they might be among the first MLB teams to express solidarity, but as I write this their game in Cleveland is well underway (tied at three in the seventh inning). MLB games in Milwaukee, San Francisco and San Diego, and NBA and NHL games have since been called off in solidarity. MLB is slower to respond. It is far less Black than the NBA. Players from Latin America, the Caribbean and white Americans dominate most lineups, including the Twins’. In recent years, NBA players have taken more ownership in their league (literally and figuratively) and have stepped up in their calls for social justice.

You’ll notice I am again not tuning in to the Republican Convention. But I’d been thinking all day about the images I did not tune in to see last night that stand out to me second-hand from email newsletters and occasional glances at the web and social media today. President Trump and Melania Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo all used taxpayer resources to make their political case (in violation of the Hatch act). Past administrations have followed this separation carefully — if not because it’s the right thing to do, because it is an anti-corruption law — and campaigns should rightfully take a hit when they publicly engage in a violation of an anti-corruption law (otherwise known as corruption). Pompeo’s violation was egregious. He was traveling abroad in Israel when he appeared via video — it is expensive to taxpayers and against diplomatic norms to represent domestic partisanship while abroad.

But the fact that he was in Jerusalem seems to have been the point. Trump’s moving the American embassy to Jerusalem was done to please Evangelicals. Trump having his man in Jerusalem shows they aimed the programming at that singular Trump audience.

I’d been thinking about Evangelical images even before making the Jerusalem connection. The strongest image I didn’t tune in to see last night was the image of Trump performing Presidential acts: a pardon for a Black man and a citizenship ceremony for a diverse group of Immigrants. Official government business on political time. Some reports described this as trying to soften his edge and show he cared about Black Americans and Immigrants. But I read it as his performing the role of a preacher at the front of a church. The laying on of hands. Theatrical acts of healing and salvation. It’s a role that Evangelicals would recognize, subconsciously if not explicitly. The power of the man in authority granting new life to sinners and heathens.

A helicopter is circling my apartment with a spotlight now. I haven’t seen helicopters circling the neighborhood low like this since the protests following George Floyd’s murder at the start of the Summer. The searchlight is an aggressive and fresh development. Is it a coincidence that I heard protest chants in the distance an hour ago? A news alert on my phone tells me tonight Trump’s crew is talking about law and order.

D.C. activists are organizing a new wave of protests this week in solidarity with Kenosha, in memory of Jacob Blake, to defund the police. Trump has a permit for fireworks near the White House tomorrow night at the end of his nominating speech. Trump might get more than he bargained for. But I’m worried that’s exactly what he wants. Fireworks.

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election anxiety countdown

90 Days: Lies

What is the difference between a fiction and a lie?

A fiction writer aims to tell a story that is believable even though you know it isn’t real. A liar also aims to tell a story that is believable, but they expect you to believe it is real. Their intention is to deceive rather than to entertain.    

When I woke up this morning knowing I’d write about lies today, I did not have to do much research to find one. My first read, Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters From An American (an inspiration for this series) detailed a lie necessitated by an earlier wave of Trump lies:

Trump’s insistence that mail-in voting will cause fraud and the “most corrupt election” in American history has apparently discouraged Republican voters from applying for ballots. Republican leaders are panicked.

So today the president did an abrupt about-face, at least for the Republican state of Florida. “Whether you call it Vote by Mail or Absentee Voting,” Trump tweeted today, “in Florida the election system is Safe and Secure, Tried and True. Florida’s Voting system has been cleaned up (we defeated Democrats attempts at change), so in Florida I encourage all to request a Ballot & Vote by Mail!”

Heather Cox Richardson

This is a more complicated lie than usual for Trump. Late in his term, the stories are getting harder to keep straight. The tangled web is turning back on itself. He has lied about voter fraud, which is extremely rare, since it became clear that he lost the popular vote. He has lied about mail-in ballots (they have been good enough for his votes) while the likelihood grows that mail-in ballots will be the only safe way for many to vote in November. Now he is claiming that there is something different about Florida, that it’s all better suddenly. But just in this one spot, not everywhere. 

Who is this new lie for? Is there anyone who still believes his words have meaning? “But all politicians are liars,” says the imaginary conservative/contrarian reading this. Perhaps in the literal sense that we all on average lie twice a day about small things (why didn’t you pick up the phone earlier?). I think it’s more common for politicians to make promises they are unable to enact, or to tell deceptive and selective truths. A big lie from a prominent politician warrants front page news, or at least an op-ed. But on average, Trump lies over 23 times per day in public statements; so often that we long ago stopped listening. Which might be his real goal. 

Near the start of Nick Flynn’s new memoir, This Is The Night Our House Will Catch Fire, he quotes Adrienne Rich: 

“The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting things in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.” 

Adrienne Rich

Flynn is writing about an extramarital affair, the kind of secret that brings a cascade of lies — about where you were, what you were doing, what you spent money on, and why you came home drunk. “If you are willing to share this lie with me, you will know me in ways that others cannot,” he imagines as the lovers unspoken words. 

To reconstruct Rich: The country is a group with infinite alchemical possibilities; our president keeps losing sight of them. If he ever knew they were there.

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election anxiety countdown

97 Days: A Circuitous Path

During the 100 days leading up to the election of Donald Trump in 2016, I was an artist in residence at D.C.’s Halcyon Art Lab (then S&R Foundation) north of Georgetown. I had been paid to work on the last two elections, so it was strange to be on the outside, not traveling to a swing state to knock on doors, not crafting updates responding to every sliver of breaking news. 

The art studio was located in a century-old former elementary school. I learned that D.C. had sent only white children there before the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawing segregated schools. While working in the building and learning this history, it occurred to me that my parents were in elementary school when Brown was decided — not ancient history at all. If they had grown up in D.C. instead of Minneapolis, they might have attended such a segregated school. But northern cities had segregated schools too. Courts forced Minneapolis schools to desegregate in 1972, citing a long pattern of neighborhood boundary manipulation that included the South Minneapolis neighborhoods three generations of my family called home.

The project I developed that fall involved a lot of digging in to these kinds of histories and a lot of abstract, contemplative exploration on foot and in archives. It was in some ways a response to how I spent the previous two presidential election years. Working ten- and twelve-hour days at a political organization, I found little time for detours, nuance and creativity. I had come to believe that imaginative local work is a better way to bring about change, even though that sort of thing doesn’t scale.