Tuesday, May 31, 2016

How We Got to Trump

There are a lot of potential lessons from the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for president and, given how the Republican establishment is falling in line to support someone they very recently told us was unfit for the job, it looks like many of those lessons will go unlearned. Perhaps the most important of the lessons, at least in terms of potentially improving our political discourse in the future, is how a Trump candidacy can even fucking happen. As much as Republicans, Trump voters, and some currents of the media would like us to believe that Trump is sui generis or a fluke or the result of an historically weak Republican field, he is the result of a long political process, one that has consequences far beyond the human parody now leading the Republican party. Understanding that process is the first step, both in preventing a Trump presidency and in recreating a political system in which future Trumps are impossible.

McCarthyism & the Red Scare
I don't think the idea of “real Americans” was born during McCarthyism and the House Committee on Unamerican Activities, (I'm sure there is a brilliant doctoral thesis out there about the idea of “real Americans” and how that idea has moved and changed and manipulated political discourse in our country.) but it was during the Red Scare that the traits of the “real American” began to include being a Christian living in a small town (rather than one of those out-of-touch big cities), who believed in capitalism (rather than in socialism or any of its possible forms). Furthermore, this is when actors, writers, and university professors were all summarily barred from the “Real American Club.” Given how it has defined populism, America has always had a fraught relationship with its public intellectuals, but it was here with McCarthy that the very act of intellectual exploration, or the development of intellectual talents, awareness, or resources, became inherently suspect. Essentially, this was the beginning of the end of nuanced, intellectual, and truth-seeking discourse in the public mainstream media.

The Southern Strategy
In the city of codes, the dude who just fucking says it, rules. I feel like there should be some bodily punishment for every Republican who refers to their party as “the party of Lincoln.” With the Southern strategy, Nixon and his allies sought to capture the racist southern Democrats who were alienated by the Civil Rights movement, by, well, by turning the Republican party into the party of racists. But, of course, no one said that. Instead, over time they developed a whole system of codes and policies (e.g. The War on Drugs) that disproportionately affected African Americans and other minorities; a system of codes that is easily transferable to whatever non-white group Republicans in power can blame for America's problems. All Donald Trump did with his racist nonsense was stop talking in the Republican code.

Morning in America
The American century from 1870-1970 saw the greatest increase in overall standards of living in human history. A combination of technological advancement and federal economic management essentially created the middle class, the single-income family, and retirement from the wreckage of the Great Depression and World War II. Really, the only white people who weren't substantially better off in 1970, than they had been in previous decades, were the rich oligarch assholes at the head of so much of society's previous misery. (Of course, they also benefited from the technological advances so it's really, really hard to argue they lost anything anyway.) Obviously, they weren't going to take their slight diminishment of power sitting down. And so, though the stagflation and general malaise of the 1970s were really just a blip at the end of unprecedented century and nothing that couldn't be fixed by some energy independence, rich assholes used it as an opportunity to dismantle the wealthiest and most equitable (for white people) economic system the world had ever seen.

Politics has always been an emotional game, but I believe it was here, with Regan's “Morning in America,” where a candidate ran on the idea that everything would be fixed if we just had the right person as president. Trump's success right now is almost entirely based on the idea that he'll just fix things because he's a good leader and we have Regan to thank for that. (Oh, and pretty much all of our current economic problems, but this piece isn't about those.)

Bill Clinton's Triangulation
It's one of those ideas that makes perfect sense: if you listen to both sides of an argument and take a position roughly in the middle, you'll get a lot of people to agree with you. Shit, you might even stumble into a good idea or compromise while you're at it. And by “makes perfect sense” I mean, “reveals politics as a shell game of shifting power structures that has nothing to do with fighting for the best policies.” In some ways, after losing so much political ground to Regan Republicans, Bill Clinton's triangulation wasn't a bad idea for winning back the White House and stemming the tide of conservative legislation. Unfortunately, rather than triangulating with him after his re-election, Republicans simply moved the center rightward. In the short term that meant Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the Defense of Marriage Act, Welfare Reform, the continuation of the drug war, the further dismantling of financial and consumer regulations that were such an important part of past growth, and, lest we forget, the George W. Bush presidency.

In the long term, this lead to an overall shift in policy towards the right (despite a population that is actually fairly liberal when their opinions are broken down issue by issue), while hamstringing the more liberal members of the Democratic party who suddenly found themselves radicalized simply for saying the same things Democrats have been saying since FDR.

The Myth of the Liberal Media
There was never a time of unbiased media. Though most did their best, journalists are human beings and their own biases and opinions are naturally going to color their reporting in some way. That said, there was a time when, despite the problem of bias, journalists at least tried to present objective truth to the public. Now, thanks to conservatives who kept ending up on the wrong side of the truth and Fox News, journalism consists of stating a few unassailable facts and presenting two opposing opinions about it, as if those opinions carry the same weight, whether rigorous critical analysis and research would reveal those opinions to have equal weight or not.

So many people, through little fault of their own, end up believing that utter bullshit is true, or, at least has enough truth in it to confirm their bias. Furthermore, we've now reached a point where the mainstream televised media doesn't seem to know how to critically explore an idea, topic, or policy, in a way that moves towards the truth. (It should terrify us, that comedians like John Oliver and Samantha Bee, seem to be the only one's who have figured out how to do in-depth reporting about a topic.) To put this another way, because we are no longer allowed to present a liberal truth without a side of conservative bullshit, mainstream media (which includes Fox, of course) is no longer capable of revealing Trump's bullshit.

McCain Picks Palin
As destructive to our democracy and our political process as all that other shit was, we still might not have Trump if it weren't for Sarah Palin. By selecting her as his running mate, John McCain legitimized a fringe-faction of the Republican party, while also legitimizing the anti-intellectual, totally myopic image of the “real American just speaking her mind.” In a way, Sarah Palin completely changed how we discuss the idea of being “qualified to be President.” Palin was so far beyond the idea of being qualified to be President that she very nearly undercut the debate about qualifications entirely. And, of course, without Palin there is likely no Tea Party.

The Tea Party Lies It's Face Off and Wins
Not a single thing the Tea Party “revolution” was based on had any shred of truth to it. We need to remember that. Not one fucking thing. We have the Tea Party because for one mid-term election, American voters bought a ton of bullshit about death panels, birth certificates, and the tyranny of getting health insurance. It wasn't just that a section of the population got particularly angry about a policy they didn't understand and then voted for a bunch of like-minded individuals; it's that Tea Party leaders and the Republicans who enabled them lied to the American people and the media let them. Since then, the Tea Party has become entrenched in Republican politics and shifted the Republican party far more to the right than maybe it has ever been, to the point where it is actively and unapologetically undermining the functioning of government.

Of course, government is still functioning and Barack Obama is still doing things, which, to those who believe in the Tea Party, means the Republican establishment is failing them. Hence, the destruction of John Boener's career. It's only natural then, that of the field of choices, Republican primary voters would choose the one posturing as the most extreme anti-establishment candidate.

How We Got to Trump
So how did we get to Trump? In short, white supremacism as a political force never went away it just hid itself in codes and we have removed critical discourse from our political process that reveals the racism and nationalism in those codes. I know there is a temptation to blame both sides for a political problem and though Democrats and especially Bill Clinton were involved in laying the ground work for Trump, the responsibility for his candidacy is not equally split. In short, Republican and conservative ideology is wrong, has been wrong for decades, and looks like it's going to be wrong until it finally dies. Sure, there are Republicans who offered substantive input into our political process and, sure, the Republican aversion to taxation and regulation can create important debates about the role of government and the efficacy of federal involvement in the economy and society, but, as a political ideology, social-conservatism and supply-side neoliberal economics are factually bad for the citizens of the United States of American and, well, human beings in general.

In order to keep getting elected despite being wrong, Republicans had to cater to racists, create wedge issues and litmus tests, wave the bloody American flag of shouted patriotism in a time of endless war, leverage the worst traits of organized religion, and become the lapdogs of the wealthy while preventing the rest of the country from learning just how much of their bullshit is bullshit. Given that Trump has four bankruptcies, a litany of failed businesses, is currently under investigation for fraud, would have as much or more money if just didn't mess around with what he inherited and still gets away with telling us he is a successful business, his nomination really isn't a surprise. Trump and the modern Republican party are a perfect fit.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Books for the Weird Kids

I was reading Jesse Ball's forthcoming novel, How to Set a Fire and Why and a phrase flickered through my brain, “This is the perfect book for weird kids.” Once the phrase hit me, the list followed. Not all of these books feature “weird kids” as protagonists and only one or two of them were written specifically for young adults, but I think all of them touch on the bravery and creativity that I think define the idea of “weird kids.” So, thanks to the book that I hope will finally make Jesse Ball the international literary superstar that I think he deserves to be, here are some books that are perfect for the “weird kids.”

Lucia's father is dead, her mother is essentially catatonic in a mental institution, her elderly caretaker aunt is just barely scraping by, and she is far, far too smart for her own damn good. A sharp wit, an aversion to the bullshit society asks of us, and exactly zero fucks to give, Lucia is your new favorite character. Though Lucia is very much a teenager—Jesse Ball does an excellent job not forcing adultness on her—it's a few moments scattered throughout the book where her insight breaks through the adolescent doldrums to reach profoundly human, and yet realistic insights or phrases that makes this book so special.

Every brilliant book Jesse Ball writes I think will finally bring him the fame that he deserves. Given that How to Set a Fire and Why is Ball's most realistic and straightforward work, with YA crossover potential that still maintains the sense of wisdom, radical politics, and wonder that defined his early works, and an intoxicating narrator I think this might finally be the book.

Lord of the Barnyard by Tristan Egoff
John Kaltenbrunner is a genius of self-sufficiency. From a young age, he has the knowledge and the aptitude to run his family's farm without any help from the outside world. His is a genius that makes the rest of society (maybe even civilization) irrelevant to him. There are few things society hates more than being ignored and so all the forces of school, government, and religion converge on a young John Kaltenbrunner to take away everything that was important to him and crush every resource he once used to sustain his independence. His farm is taken and he gets sent to jail.

When he returns to his hometown, he ends up on the lowest rung of society that can be occupied by a white man; garbage collector. (Among other things Egoff does brilliantly, Lord of the Barnyard confronts directly the classism and bigotry of our still severely stratified society.) But he eventually gets his revenge by organizing a garbage collector strike that results in massive city-wide riot that is one of my favorite scenes in all of literature.

Grace Krilanovich's novel of drugs, drifting, and language is the thinking goths vampire novel. This dark and moody novel is drenched in language and imagery and manages to portray it's drug-addicted drifting hobo vampires beautifully without glorifying them. (Romanticizing, maybe, but it's not like Krilanovich is the first to romanticism marginalized lifestyles. Actually, now that I think about it, that's pretty much the entire point of the Romantic movement.) In a truly just world the phrase “The Orange Eats Creeps,” would be scrawled on the inside of locker doors as a code to fellow travelers all across the country.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
A lot can happen when you start a band in high school. It could be your foot in the door to the music industry, or lead to fame the long way around, or create nothing more than some good memories of thrashing on instruments in a garage and dreaming of far more than your talent and/or work ethic could ever accomplish. But none of it can happen without that first spark, that first whatever it is you feel in your bedroom or in the back of your friend's car, or during gym class or whatever, that lets you imagine you could be doing something else. You could be in control. You could express yourself. You could be exploring fashion and identities. You could discover yourself. You could be an artist.

Egan's masterpiece is about a lot more that just the music industry and its style looks forward to the next great movements/developments in English language literature, but, with all of its wide ranging brilliance and stylistic innovation, A Visit from the Goon Squad is about that spark that keeps the goons of time at bay.

Flight by Sherman Alexie
No other book I've read so perfectly captures the contradictions and complexities of adolescent male anger and how that force, often most mysterious to the young men who feel it, can lead both to tragedy and to growth. The protagonist, Zits, is about to shoot up a bank, but in the instant before he makes the biggest mistake of his life, he goes on a vision quest in which he inhabits the bodies and minds of people across history.

Ultimately, what Zits discovers is that there really is no such thing as an “individual,” just moments temporarily sliced out of the continuum of human life and human decision by the limitations of perspective. Zits discovers he is a part of something that stretches back in time and, if he stops himself now, forward into the future. And Alexie does an amazing job of communicating those ideas through the diction of a teenager, making this one of the books I often recommend to teenagers. And it even has a happy ending.

How I Became a Nun by Cesar Aira
As a rule, Aira writes weird books. Some of the weirdest in fact. How I Became a Nun starts when a sour tasting cone of ice cream leads to a murder by arsenic poisoning. (As happens.) Naturally, that leads to the impossibility of identity and gender in centralized power structures.

There are many things that Aira does well as a storyteller, but, perhaps what he does better than everyone else is maintain a tense but perfect balance between rational techniques for storytelling and utter batshit insanity, so that it is often impossible to tell when a scene has transitioned from realistic to flat out bonkers. Whether they feature weird characters or not, all of Aira's books celebrate the freedom and fun of being weird.

Maclane was the first queen of that magical, wondrous, rainbow dedazzled kingdom of not giving a fuck. A literary sensation and scandal when she was alive, Maclane was an amazing cross between Fredrich Nietzsche and Annie Oakley, with a dash of Whitman and Dickinson's impossible love child. I Await the Devil's Coming is something of a memoir, something of a journal, and something of a manifesto. Maclane herself became one of the first sexually open, feminist superstars, with this debut book selling 100,000 copies in its first month. (So naturally, the patriarchy did their best to erase her from our cultural memory.)

Her prose can be raw, even desperate as she dreams of a freer life than the one she leads in Montana, but despite its volatility, her prose is also intelligent and perceptive. If Lucia from How to Set a Fire and Why came to Porter Square Books, I'd give her I Await the Devil's Coming. McClane is the patron saint of everyone looking to leave this shit town to become a fucking legend.

Geek Love by Katharine Dunn
And, of course, a list of books for weird kids wouldn't be complete without Katharine Dunn's classic. To me, the important idea in Geek Love, at least for this list, is that “normalcy” and “freakishness” are constructions. Whether it's through breeding experiments or the accumulation of social mores or the calculated and intentional marginalization of identities that threaten homogeneous power structures, the ideas of “normal” and “weird” are movie sets, creations that can be built, torn down, replaced, and modified both at the societal and the individual level. Once you see that, and weird kids do see that, the world of potential identity and experience opens up before you.

I was weird kid adjacent growing up. Though I hung out with some of the artists, started a lit mag (that had a shockingly long life), took AP classes, and dabbled in one-act theater, I also played football and hockey and felt comfortable being and looking like an affable cisgendered straight white man. My parents even supported my dream of being a writer. Which is a long way of saying that, though I had my adolescent struggles as everyone did, I never learned the bravery that weird kids learned.

Given that bravery, is it any surprise that weird kids make our art, design our fashion, drive our culture, and invent our great technological breakthroughs? We clearly learn something when socially and sometimes even official outcast from society, something that can help us grow into the world's most successful and important adults. Perhaps the title of this list is something of a misnomer then. I hope that there will be comfort in these books for the weird kids now and maybe even some pride. But I also hope those of us who weren't weird, either by choice or by social pressure can get a lot of out of the books as well. I hope we can see how valuable those risk-taking kids really are to our world, how much joy and beauty their weirdness adds to the world, and perhaps even, try out a little of that bravery for ourselves.