election anxiety countdown

64 Days: Crescendo

I finished Timothy Denevi’s Freak Kingdom today (earlier mentions here and here). The last sections concern Nixon’s reëlection and downfall. Denevi makes the case that the conflict against Nixon and all he represented exhausted Thompson and resulted in his last widely acclaimed work. Denevi is also explicit about the parallel he’s drawing between Nixonian fascism and Trumpian fascism.

The early 1970s quotes Denevi chose for the closing scenes jump off the page as if responding to events of the past week: the uprising following the police shooting of another Black American, Jacob Blake; the white supremacist militias who have trolled Kenosha and Portland escalating tensions; the bizarre Covid-ignorant, Hatch Act-ignorant Republican convention at the White House:

when poor Barry (Goldwater) unloaded that fateful line about “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice…” I remember feeling genuinely frightened at the violent reaction it provoked.

That is Thompson flashing back to the 1964 Republican convention as he writes about the “terrifying crescendo” of the “four more years!” chant at Nixon’s 1972 re-nominating convention. Goldwater’s line could as easily be delivered tomorrow when Trump appears at a Kenosha event its mayor has discouraged. I imagine the militants he’s refused to denounce (there “were very fine people, on both sides” of the deadly racist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, he said).

This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who makes us uncomfortable…

The math is a little different in 2020. More used car salesmen. More guns.

And finally,

In May 1974, Republican congressman Charles Wiggins, one of Nixon’s staunchest supporters, tried to contextualize the mushrooming Watergate scandal: “These things go in fifty-year cycles,” he said, “from Grant to Harding to Nixon.”

Add another fifty and here we are. Let’s make sure we don’t have to wait for the Trump scandals to work their way through the courts and Congress after the election.

election anxiety countdown

68 Days: Exodus

Today I began reading True Grit as the next book in the #APStogether quarantine reading series hosted by A Public Space. At the opening of Charles Portis’ 1968 classic (the basis for Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2010 film), the narrator’s father has been murdered by a scoundrel and she must tend to the mundane tasks of the next of kin: sign papers and bring them to town, talk to the sheriff and the undertaker, arrange for the body’s return, convince the toughest U.S. Marshal she can find to bring the scoundrel to justice. Her ability to carry out these tasks is slowed because her father had the misfortune to be murdered the day before a triple-hanging at the courthouse. Tourists from three states have flooded the city, and everyone she needs to talk to is at the hanging.

A pattern has appeared this summer reminiscent of that nineteenth century tradition of making a day trip to see and take part in state-sanctioned violence. White men with time on their hands, enough disposable income to fill their basements with high end gas masks, emergency rations, and assault rifles have been grabbing that equipment and driving to neighborhoods like mine hoping they can witness, take part in, accelerate destruction.
A man who fits that description ambushed a Federal security officer in Oakland during the wave of protests following George Floyd’s murder in late May.  
A man who fits that description calmly broke a plate glass window with a hammer while holding an umbrella in the other hand to avoid security cameras (though he was surrounded by phone cameras) during early moments of the uprising in Minneapolis. The building was the first to burn.   
A seventeen-year-old child who fits that description walked around the edges of the Kenosha, Wisconsin uprising two days ago with an assault rifle. Police accepted this as normal and helpful. Soon the child killed two people. The police did not pursue him with deadly force as they did Jacob Blake, the Black man who was shot seven times in the back as he left the scene of a domestic dispute on Saturday in Kenosha, as they have with countless Black teenagers and men. The child who killed two adults was apprehended at his comfortable Illinois home the next day. He will be tried for homicide (as an adult) in Wisconsin. No charges have been filed against the police who shot Blake.
These are three examples. There are plenty of others, and an exponentially higher number of followers of these ideas lurk in the dark corners of the internet.

I am wondering if I have let these sad, dangerous men become bigger than life gangs of villains in my mind, or if there are more than I think traveling to big cities in moments of pain to inflame tensions. Umbrella man haunted me for weeks thanks to all my Minnesota friends and a good many others around the country sharing the footage of him. But he is one person. It’s come out that he is part of a white supremacist Hell’s Angels group (another tie to my reading about Hunter S. Thompson’s late 1960s reporting). Each of these men has ties to different militias and white supremacist groups.
I cannot identify with such hatred, with a desire to burn everything down. Surely the number of people who have given up on the project of working together for a common purpose is tiny. A light should be shined on them. We should keep an eye on these extremists, but we should also keep in mind that they are outnumbered.

In the past few days, I have seen posts from a surprising number of my favorite New Yorkers describing the new lives they are embarking on in rural elsewhere. “New York is over,” is a topic being discussed with seriousness. I can’t help but think of the late 1970s era of “Ford to City: Drop Dead”  when NYC was bankrupt. This was also the era of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, of the birth of Hip-Hop, of low rent and punk rock and the freedom to experiment. The New York that also included “a paradoxical combination of elitism in aesthetics and an egalitarianism bordering on socialism and utopianism in politics,” according to Edmund White
And here in D.C. too, a dear friend — an impulsive traveler before the pandemic — is leaving town. Three months is her initial plan. But there was an air of permanence to the announcement. I know these are small samples from a few already transient and privileged voices. Heavy social media sharers each, their declarations of self-exile seem much larger for the volume of New York posts that promise to be replaced with rural dispatches. They do not represent the majority any more than umbrella man and his kind do. The metropolis is always changing. The tourists who come to witness its demise will be disappointed by our loyalty to common purpose. 

election anxiety countdown

76 Days: Convening

The Democratic Convention is underway in… the internet. It was supposed be in Milwaukee, but Covid-19 pushed it online, as it has pushed so many things.

This smaller, studio- and home-taped version is working. It is more intimate and faster-paced. Perhaps the days of expensive conventions are over. Decades ago, the convention floor ceased to be a place where the parties conduct the messy business of politics in public. The purpose of party conventions today is to create made-for-TV (made-for-streaming-video?) moments that give voters a formal (re-) introduction to the nominee and kick off the urgent work of the final weeks of the campaign.

I attended the 2008 and 2012 conventions. Witnessing Barack Obama’s acceptance of the nomination at Denver’s 76,000-seat football stadium is a moment I’ll never forget. I’m sure that everyone there that night went on in some small way to contribute to Obama’s victory, the historic gathering fueling our work. But it was a moment made for the screen, made for home audiences first, and the cumulative efforts of the millions watching at home surpassed those in the packed stadium by far.

It is expensive to rent out stadiums and convention centers, to fly your most engaged supporters across the country, buy up all the hotel rooms within 100 miles, feed and transport everyone for several days, pay for security and policing for an entire hotel and convention district, or an entire downtown. There have to be better ways to spend the money on winning the election.

Then there is the carbon footprint. Recent Democratic conventions have made a push to be more sustainable. This is to be expected from the party that has the common sense to acknowledge the urgency of the climate crisis — but the hundreds of delegates and groups who seek to influence the party each have an impact that is harder to measure. I still discover worthless plastic trinkets with corporate logos and advocacy slogans from those conventions a decade ago in odd corners of my apartment.

In the big picture, whatever carbon cost is associated with the Biden campaign will be trivial compared to the impact his administration will have if it rejoins the Paris Climate Agreement and implements national policies that help flatten the curve of a warming planet. Then again, if Coldplay is committed to figuring out how to have a carbon-neutral or net positive concert tour, I’m sure Democrats can do the same.

The carbon footprint of a virtual convention might be much lower, but what is lost when a convention is not held in person? The most engaged members of the party from all over the country do not have a chance to meet in person, to talk about ideas, break bread together, drink and celebrate and strengthen ties across different parts of the country.

But also, a less expensive convention may mean less fundraising from big corporations. A virtual convention means there are no social events sponsored by big donors after the night’s speeches. No need to see progressive governors show up at a cocktail hour sponsored by the oil industry.

But also, those who disagree with the direction of the party are not on camera. No dissenting t-shirts or signs. No acts of protest on the streets outside. I am continuing my way through Timothy Denevi’s Freak Kingdom, and have just read the section on Hunter S. Thompson’s day at the Chicago convention of 1968 when anti-war protesters and bystanders (and Thompson, with a press badge) were pinned down and beaten by Chicago Police.

With a virtual convention, reporters like Thompson (and unlike Thompson) will be forced to do more work to cover the story of dissent. How do protesters march on a video that was taped hours or days earlier in an unknown location? I’m sure new ways of marching, disrupting, and dissenting will emerge. We may see some of that next week when Trump’s version of a virtual convention takes place.

election anxiety countdown

85 Days: Crusade

I’ve recently started reading Timothy Denevi’s Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism. Denevi is a familiar face at all the literary events in D.C. I’ve been missing since February, like Little Salon and The Inner Loop.  So reading his book — which has been in my to-read pile since its release in 2018 — is something of a substitute for those missing gatherings.

Thompson is a writer who I have long avoided for reasons that have nothing to do with the words he put on the page. In my early twenties, I read many of the booze- and drug-fueled poets and novelists who make cameos in the first chapters of Freak Kingdom, but I didn’t yet see nonfiction and journalism as art on the same level. This despite the nonfiction zine-art I was creating in those same years. Later, I knew Thompson as the Important Writer at Rolling Stone. But I took music more seriously than writing at the time, and Rolling Stone was the magazine that put pop and classic rock stars on its cover instead of the more adventurous emerging musicians I found reading SPIN or NME in the aisles of Minneapolis record stores (avoiding spending my precious music money on magazines). 

But there is no more perfect time to get to know the real Thompson than amid this project on writing and the anxieties of the 2020 election. As Denevi makes clear, Thompson was concerned about the rise of authoritarianism in America from the start. And he wanted to write well-researched journalistic stories using the tools of a fiction writer. 

Thompson covered the 1964 Republican national convention, witnessing Nixon speak at Barry Goldwater’s coronation, and seeing the raving crowd shout down Nelson Rockefeller. As a stringer for National Observer he had no freedom to do the style of writing and reporting he was interested in, but could see a path to it in the work of Norman Mailer and Joan Didion. 

On Saturday, I wrote about nonfiction and said that this series was turning in to a memoir of personal and electoral anxiety. Thompson’s collected works might be called the same thing. He became a character in his own reporting — contrary to the conventionally distanced approach of journalists.

Thompson’s breakout opportunity was an assignment on the Hell’s Angels. As part of earning the trust of the motorcycle gang, to convince them he would tell a more complex and honest story than reporters had told in the past, he had a half-dozen members over to his tiny apartment after bar close to talk until sunrise. His wife Sandy and their young child slept (or tried to) in the bedroom nearby. 

There are many ways to tell a story based on actual events. In the past few years, I’ve been reading with fascination the prominent authors of new autofiction, including Sheila Heti and Karl Ove Knausgård. Somewhere between novel and memoir, autofiction generally follows a first-person narrator with the same name, relationships, background, and publishing history as the author. Unlike Thompson, these stories are crafted largely from memories of the past rather than original reporting and new relationships forged while getting closer to sources. Their goals are introspective rather than persuasive or informative. The titles alone tell you as much: How Should a Person Be? (Heti), My Struggle (Knausgård).

How much original reporting will I do for this series? How much will be more of the memory-mining I’ve done so far? Probably a lot more of the latter. Trump himself lives just a 30-minute stroll down Vermont Avenue from my quarantine bubble. Somehow I don’t think he’ll make the walk over with his gang of bullies to talk until dawn in my studio before this countdown reaches zero. But maybe I’ll see Tim by then.