The Disaster

In the corner, a former data wonk for the Sanders campaign is gently knocking his head against the wall. Someone from the TV room says “oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck.” Everyone left looks ashen, subdued, older, exhausted.

This is what awaits us, the shell game, the con, the void.

The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact. Some of us are in the living room, watching the returns, rapt, as we would be anyway. A few more are in the kitchen, cutting the flag cake into smaller pieces, making bad electoral college jokes, or wondering whether flag-eating will also be banned under a Trump administration alongside flag burning and national anthem protests. The friend who baked the cake nearly severed a finger in the process and wound up in the hospital. What’s an American flag without a little blood baked in for good measure? Another bad joke is made about cannibal feasts. Alcohol is consumed carelessly, the more celebratory fermentations are avoided and will be there at the end, unopened.

It’s already over and none of us know it. “I” am not threatened by it, but spared, left aside. A group prefers to stay in the garden, smoking, small-talking. ER is speaking at length about Edward P. Jones’s novel The Known World. He’s discovered it recently and wants to let everyone know with his perpetual innocence and enthusiasm, perhaps only slightly tinged with the need not to talk about the election. He identifies strongly with one of the characters: would you believe they have the same name! We laugh over this, a little too loudly, and then he mentions a parallel between a scene in the novel and Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. We discuss going to bed while the revolution roils the streets outside. Then we nominate acquaintances for the role of Sénecal, the friend who joins the secret police. Who will be the one to betray us to Trump’s Gestapo or shoot us on the barricades?

Night; white sleepless night—such is the disaster: the night lacking darkness, but brightened by no light. A helicopter circles in the distance. The returns are getting worse, the news from Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania. Our wise friend, when asked what to tell the children, speaks of the need for a resilient message: “we keep fighting, we don’t run away and hide when we lose a game. The world doesn’t end when the other team wins.” We nod sagely. “Of course that’s a little simplistic,” she adds. “If I feel my family is threatened, we’re getting out. But they don’t need to hear that.”

In the corner, a former data wonk for the Sanders campaign is gently knocking his head against the wall. Someone from the TV room says “oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck.” Everyone left looks ashen, subdued, older, exhausted. The world-weary friend speaks to the wise friend of life under authoritarian dictatorships elsewhere in the world: there are Russians, Turks, Chinese—they too survive and learn to live within the system. Their lives are blighted, embittered, limited, but they get by. We are joining the majority of the new world order.

Beneath the shock, guilt begins alongside the sense of failure. Everyone here has knocked on doors for the Democratic Party for the past five days in neighborhoods throughout the city and its suburbs. Could we have done more? Ought we to have done more? Pushed harder, launched ourselves more fervently and earlier into more difficult places? One’s sense of agency begins to weaken. This is a room of doers, achievers, people used to seeing the results of their efforts rewarded. Now we recall the young white woman we’d spoken to earlier that day. She’d voted for Trump, she admits to us, but we shouldn’t worry, she says, she always gets everything wrong, her life is a succession of bad choices and she doesn’t know how to pick a winner. “Yeah, he’s an asshole,” she’d said, “but I just don’t like Her.” The woman’s toddler, cashew-toned, blue-eyed, biracial, plays happily with the darker-skinned children around us as we talk. It would have been nice to be able to tell this woman that her choices in life haven’t let her down as much as she thinks, but that she let herself and those choices down when she voted.

And this too is the disaster; the way it disassociates the person from her life, leading her to side against herself. The super-ego voice becomes a voice of punishing desublimation: if only you hadn’t believed the adults when they told you that something was just a game, that there was more to life than competition, that kindness is a virtue. The failure to remain true to your pre-adolescent self stings. Maturity feels like failure.

The disaster does not allow us to entertain this question: what have you done to gain knowledge of the disaster? The quality of the first published responses is extremely high. It’s barely 7 AM and Andrew Sullivan elegizes the Republic:

A country designed to resist tyranny has now embraced it. A constitution designed to prevent democracy taking over everything has now succumbed to it. A country once defined by self-government has openly, clearly, enthusiastically delivered its fate into the hands of one man to do as he sees fit. After 240 years, an idea that once inspired the world has finally repealed itself. We the people did it.

David Remnick’s New Yorker editorial managed to synthesize the entire two-year electoral process while expressing mourning and outrage, and, like Sullivan, offering the inevitable Orwell quotation, although from a more unexpected source. I am impressed by the brilliance of the man’s mind, to be able to put together so much, so quickly, while clearly fighting off despair. The New York Times editorial and front page lede, after their fashion, were similar masterpieces of American journalism’s best Olympian mode, the view from on high in the age of immediate response: “By challenging every norm of American politics, Mr. Trump upended first the Republican Party and now the Democratic Party, which attempted a Clinton restoration at a moment when the nation was impatient to escape the status quo. Misogyny and racism played their part in his rise, but so did a fierce and even heedless desire for change. That change has now placed the United States on a precipice.” It’s hard to read these without also thinking that they are eulogies for a style, a mode of discourse that will be, in addition to so much else, a casualty of Trump’s victory. “We still have the best words” but there is now an emphatic separation placed between those who write the words and the necessary fraction of people who must be moved by them in order to change our politics.

Among certain “primitive” people (those whose society knows no State), the chief must prove his dominion over words: silence is forbidden him. Yet it is not required that anyone listen to him. Indeed, no one pays attention to the chief’s word, and he, in fact, says nothing . . . This is what awaits us, the shell game, the con, the void. Already Peter Thiel, oracle of the new administration is quoted telling the media that it is wrong to take Trump literally, that his screaming supporters long ago understood that “the wall” and the “Mexican rapists” and all that were merely a form of symbolic language, not proposals but a ritualistic enactment of a rite, a rite that would give power back to these people. That rite has now been accomplished, and the rest of us live now under its disastrous sign.

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