Living Through History Fucking Sucks

Living Through History Fucking Sucks

Because I am an idiot, I spent the night of the 2016 election in some of Staten Island’s numerous cop bars. It was one of those last-minute assignments, taken in a pinch, when there wasn’t time to travel far but the thought of spending a long evening refreshing election results seemed less than ideal. It was a bad idea, the kind of man-on-the-street series of interviews designed to complement but surely not enhance blue and red maps updated by the second during the last gasps of a campaign.

You see that sort of filler all the time in the scramble to wring every last glimmer of meaning and web traffic out of the one unknowable climactic event on everyone’s mind. To my small credit, at least I didn’t try to pass GOP operatives off as regular guys. But I could probably do the same interviews today as I did that November 8: I spoke to a retired NYPD officer who told me there was an American “epidemic” of civilians killing cops. I talked to an immigrant voting for Trump who said “illegals” were making the country worse for everyone else. I met a smirking young nationalist-in-training with an MBA whose friends held forth about me, the lying nasty press.

I did these interviews with the broad understanding, bolstered by the polls I’d been watching closely, that Hillary Clinton would almost certainly be the next president. Around midnight, by which time it was abundantly clear that was not the case, I stopped doing interviews and started drinking with much more zeal, watching Fox’s post-game celebration from the end of the bar. Then I went home, and went to bed, and got up the next morning to spend the next four years acutely aware of my own stupidity and hubris, covering an unimaginable barrage of horrifying events.

I’ve been returning to that moment recently, along with everyone else. As much as I hate the comparison to 2016 it’s inevitable, appearing most regularly in stories that hinge on whether the predictions we have are more or less wrong than they were before. On a given day, depending on the calculation, it’s possible to read a story about how Joe Biden will win in a landslide and that Trump will pull through back to back. I’m haunted by my own certainty four years ago, and absolutely sure that whatever happens next won’t be good.

In newsrooms across the country, including this one, reporters are being assigned pre-written posts to announce either a Trump or a Biden win. At Jezebel, we don’t have anyone working on prefigured news items about violence at polling sites or a candidate refusing to concede a tight election, but I’d guess that somewhere, somebody probably is. I am, in all honesty, obliterated by anxiety: With four days left until an election considered even more historic than the historic election four years ago, in the middle of a series of interlocking historic events, I’m struggling to find many feelings left but an omnipresent sense of dread.

After four years of watching politicians recalibrate their own sense of normal while they implore us to “vote him out,” my capacity to think about the future still, as it has for months, ends squarely at some point in the early morning hours of November 4. The statistics offered by the moment are relentless: Record numbers of early voters appear at the same unremitting speed as record numbers of the infected and dead, the election an extension of this year’s uncanny experience of trying to get a handle on unthinkable events through a torrent of percentages and graphs.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, I listened to smart people warn that the political reality would become twisted by leadership that would try to shock the public into exhaustion. They said that autocratic regimes are most successful when they’re normalizing violent and once-unimaginable acts. And there certainly aren’t as many headlines declaring that “this is not normalas there were around 2017. Our politics, it turns out, are capable of absorbing a whole lot. Even as nothing feels ordinary to the people who are protesting police violence or grieving the preventable deaths of loved ones or who have seen their family members functionally disappeared, politicians from both parties are continuing, for the most part, their diplomatic routines: In the aftermath of a confirmation hearing pushed through at the last possible minute by a party openly plotting to throw the results of an election with the court, Diane Feinstein spoke about what a wonderful time they all had and gave Lindsay Graham a fucking hug.

But as my various news and advertising delivery systems alert me, for instance, that Brett Kavanaugh has endorsed the president’s view that absentee ballots should only be counted on election day itself, they are also cheerily and persistently imploring me to vote. For weeks Instagram has been instructing me to register with just a swipe. Advertisements on Spotify tell me to have my “voice heard.” On Snapchat, a dancing hot dog dressed as Uncle Sam will be informing the public about their voting locations. The pastel tones of a fun and flirty democracy, delivered by some of the same companies who have arguably done more than anyone to fuel instability in this moment, only exacerbate the sense of cognitive dissonance and impending doom.

Politicians’ pleas to voters to overcome their malaise and rally around our completely functional democracy take a similar sanguine tone: Having failed to get the president to “self-impeach,” they’re leaving it up to us, the voters, to locate a sense of enfranchisement and hope. The patron saints of the resistance have been warning the GOP will use cynicism to take away our democracy; they say Trump, a “national psychic wound on our politics,” has succeeded in “making people even more cynical.” In this version of events, cynicism is a form of voter suppression, a way to influence people not to vote; any criticism of Democratic positions or candidates an invitation to have those grievances amplified and broadcasted by the Right. But cynicism feels like a pragmatic response to what has happened here, and it’s not mutually exclusive with hoping for a better election result. Our politicians are pretty cynical about us.

To get it out of the way, I did vote, just like I did four years ago, for a candidate I didn’t much care for. But given my experience of 2016, and everything that’s followed it, the promises about what a Biden win might mean feel childish, as if it’s possible to come back from what we—or more precisely, the people who govern us—have learned in these last years, the most important lesson of which is that when you’re a star, you can absolutely do whatever you want. Nothing of significance has happened to prevent Trump and his family from profiting off of the presidency, or dismantling entire agencies, or rerouting medical supplies from Democratic states and leaving hundreds of thousands of Americans to die. I’ve watched three Supreme Court justices being lobbed softball questions on their inevitable way to unelected lifetime appointments in the space of four years and white nationalist architects of policy, once their white nationalism has been irrefutably uncovered, refuse to resign. It’s easier to describe hypocrisy than nefarious intent; more comforting for politicians and the press to focus on an administration’s tone or break from tradition than its obvious disregard for human life. But the only thing that’s kept up the veneer of democracy in my lifetime, it seems, is the fact that most of the people in office until this point learned their manners together at Harvard and Yale.

From Trump’s executive order to ban travel from seven countries a week into his tenure all the way to the fascist pageantry of the sick leader parading doctors around to insist on his vigor and health, the attention economy that rewards a scolding tone has vied to rank and sort an unending series of awful events: While you’ve been distracted by mass unemployment, lawyers can’t find the parents of 543 migrant children. As you’re reading about the administration wrestling control of covid-19 data from the CDC, the president is encouraging white nationalists to “stand by” and supporters to “monitor” the polls. This is a problem Masha Gessen predicted in their 2016 warning to “maintain one’s capacity for shock” in the “face of the impulse to normalize,” an observation based on the Russian-American author’s reporting on autocratic regimes. It’s become both more difficult and more urgent to embody as even regularly cautious outlets report extensively on how the national guard will handle the election, or what happens when Trump refuses to concede.

The impulse to accept despair as routine works both ways, I think, and it’s as rational to point out the palpable sound of venerated institutions rotting out as it is to say it’s not normal for a campaign rally crowd to chant “lock him up.” Trump may be the most overblown avatar of where politics have shifted, but this moment neither began or ended with him. The politicians on the ballot have already been calibrated to appeal to the new normal, their positions often prefigured responses to how Trump might twist their words. 60 Minutes asked Kamala Harris about her “socialist” policies. Joe Biden, faced with another uprising in another city once another Black man was killed by a cop, would only comment that for the people of Philadelphia there is “no excuse.” Both parties will continue to do their politics while people die, and Biden will be even more cynical when he steps off the campaign trail. I think it’s reasonable to acknowledge, even in the last days of the campaign, that there’s absolutely no going back after this—and that whatever we’d be going back to is also what brought us here.

Molly Osberg is a Senior Reporter with G/O Media.

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DISCUSSION

proudhamerican
ProudHamerican

I didn’t think that Hillary was going to win and I didn’t trust the polls. This is not because I am smarter or politically savvy in any way whatsoever. This is because I kept in touch with my “disenfranchised” (lol) hometown. What was incredibly fucking annoying though was when everyone in my super liberal city dismissed my predictions as a “anti-intellectual hot take.” We need to do a better job listening to people with different points of view. The media and political orgs also need to do a better job of hiring people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. What I’m saying to the New York Times is: hire smart people from less prestigious universities.