Is the Western world slowly going nuts, or is it just our imaginations? Are we living through a real inflection point, a cultural hinge that signals lasting change, or is this only a particularly dodgy moment in the managed chaos that is normal, everyday life? Damned if I know, but when has ignorance ever stopped a blogger from spouting?
This has been a horrible summer. (“Wretched,” as the Times put it.) Violence and lunacy have dominated the society. We have officially become inured to mass murder, even when the victims are police officers. The ludicrous Donald Trump campaign is the most click-worthy assignment in what’s left of journalism. The British electorate narrowly but decisively announced that it is not European and instantly became the world’s sixth largest economy, down one slot from its former #5. The unglued leaders of Russia and North Korea are rattling their sabers, and some of those sabers are big scary bombs. A frustrated ISIS is stepping up its global campaign of random mayhem. There’s a nasty virus that’s about to strike the homeland while Congress dithers away any scientific funding for petty partisan “reasons” that also hobble the simplest efforts to compromise on anything. Nor does warm-weather leisure offer any solace: our beloved summer blockbuster multisequel extravaganzas have collectively run out of gas, uniformly disappointing the folks at the multiplex (maybe the Ghostbusters will save us this weekend), and if violent crime doesn’t harm any Olympic athletes in Rio, then filthy water will. All this is overlaid with an inchoate feeling of formless dread, like the dinner party in that creepy indie THE INVITATION. People are disturbed, uneasy. I can hear it in casual conversation. It’s something more than the natural urge to kvetch about whatever bastards are in authority. It feels to many like there’s some calamity lurking just beneath the surface, but they can’t quite put their fingers on it. Something is happening and they don’t know what it is. Do they, Mister Jones?
Kids who were grade schoolers in the Fifties/Sixties, like me, have lived their whole lives with a deeply repressed fear of the atomic bomb. The “duck and cover” drills, the overheated educational films, the high drama of the Cuban missile standoff, all made innocent tykes actually contemplate the end of the world. That looming feeling largely dissipated with the Cold War, but listen to William Perry, Bill Clinton’s defense secretary: “today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware.” But that’s not it, nukes. Rather, it’s a wispy feeling that something ineffable is slipping away. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold, as Bro. Yeats reported. When white men fear the loss of their hegemony, first they get mad. Then they get even. Thus Brexit. Thus Trump.
I don’t know much about British politics, but I get the feeling that many who voted to Leave the European Union were simply staging a retail-level protest. They voted to “stick it to The Man,” as the kids sing in the SCHOOL OF ROCK musical, but they didn’t expect to actually win. I get that feeling because nobody seems to know what to do now. The bad boys of the Leave movement, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, had to admit the very next morning that their promise of freeing up £350 million a week for the National Health Service had been bullshit, and that cold reality would leave Brexiteers intending to restrict EU immigration “disappointed.” I also get that feeling because the torrent of citizens clamoring to sign a petition calling for a new referendum was so intense that it crashed parliament.uk. That’s some serious Leaver’s remorse. All that’s left after the maelstrom is a populist detritus of racism and xenophobia: after all, the true dog-whistle pitch was that all those pounds sterling were going to lazy low-class (darker) Europeans.
Sorry, Brits, no do-overs. You Brexit, you own it. After hearing your decision, the EU doesn’t want a new vote either. Brussels would rather you get the ball rolling and get out — because unless it makes an example of the UK to show the perilous downside of secession, the whole arrangement could crumble. Yes, the Leave campaign turned out to be nothing but warmed-over snake oil, but nobody forced you to buy it. So don’t let the door hit ya where the good Lord…
Here at home, that same sense of frustration is responsible not only for Trump (in fairness, he was unwittingly aided by a, um, Mexican standoff among all other Pub candidates, each of whom wanted to be THE ONE PERSON to shut him down) but also for Bernie Sanders’s amazing insurrection of a campaign. They both promise the impossible, a Great Wall and job restoration here and free college tuition there, but as with the Leavers, it sounds good.
Trump’s most vocal constituency seems to be with what’s left of the Dixiecrats, who now live all over the country (see Nicholas Confessore’s great piece in the Times), but the same suppressed rage that powered Brexit is his electoral backbone. It’s whiter and older than the country at large, but it may be enough to actually make him competitive in some swing states; for example, a new Pew Research poll suggests that if the election were held today, more than three quarters of white evangelical Protestants would vote for Trump, that devout God-fearing pilgrim. (Watch out for polls in general: Bernie and Brexit both upended them this year. Tech makes good political polling harder and harder to pull off.)
In contrast, the Sanders pitch fell snugly into the ears of the Yutes, and no wonder: he was painting a picture of the way things really ought to be, and idealistic young minds responded heartily. But as Mario Cuomo liked to say, you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose. If Congress can’t even agree on Zika funding before slinking off to summer vacation, if threats from the bullies of the NRA can turn bold patriotic solons into sniveling cowardly toadies, then Bernie’s program is a non-starter. We change things in this country incrementally. The last try at a popular revolution didn’t work out so well for Jefferson Davis and pals. Real progress has to issue from inside the institution, which first of all means simply voting the obstructionist sumbitches out of office.
As for those polls (again with the polls) suggesting Sanders would do better in a one-on-one matchup with Trump, they’re ignoring one thing: the Pub slime machine. The right has been clawing, biting, nipping at Hillary Clinton’s heels for thirty years now. All their oppo is out in the open. You can see the desperation on the faces of Trey Gowdy’s laughable, tax-wasting committee. This e-mail business is the last sliver they’ve got, which is why they’re stretching it like a rubber band, refusing to let the matter go while there’s still an election on. But fear Bernie Sanders? Like Br’er Rabbit feared the briar patch. If he were the nominee, stomping the Socialist would be a cinch. Remember those Commies you used to hate? Well, that’s this guy! Sen. Sanders would also be the first Jewish president, but they wouldn’t even have to go there: anti-Semites will figure that out for themselves. And remember, you don’t have to win the popular vote to win the election, as George W. Bush showed us in 2000. But it could get even worse than that. If too many progressives sit on their hands or vote for a third-party candidate, nobody would have a majority and the election would be thrown to the House of Representatives. Each state would get one vote. Look at a map.
A lot of frustrated people voted for Brexit. Well, we have a lot of frustrated people here too. Today’s Times reports Clinton and Trump actually tied (these pollsters are really starting to bug me), as the tiresome Pub mantra of You Can’t Trust Her continues to weigh her down. Next week’s Republican convention in particular will be a major sideshow: people will be packing heat outside (I hope nobody gets hurt; the Secret Service is imposing gun control inside the convention hall), and Trump’s acceptance speech — assuming the terrified party bosses can’t find some way to hijack his candidacy — will probably be the highest-rated such speech in the history of television. The Democrats meet the following week, but during the primary season all they could talk about was boring old issues, so how could it possibly be any fun? This election seems like a horror-comedy, but it’s dead serious. The know-it-alls have counted out Donald Trump from the instant he descended from the heavens on an escalator last June. We’d better pay attention now. There’s one more thing for the uneasy American to worry about today, and that’s this. TRUMP. COULD. WIN. And there’ll be no do-overs. Like the Leavers, we’ll own it.
11/9/16: Holy shit.