Our Epistemic Dread — Apocalypse Cabaret Diary for November 5, 2020
On election night, the feeling was raw terror at the possibility of rising fascism. It was not considered or curious or even remotely productive. It was just terrified, like an animal discovering it was trapped.
In the days that followed, as the counting continued, that feeling changed to a more epistemic dread. For decades, we have believed that higher voter turnout meant progressives win. Now, in the election with far and away the highest turnout in our nation’s history, Donald Trump has increased his numbers among much of the electorate.
How? Why? What kind of people are we that this is possible?
Fear is now mixed with curiosity, but it is also the limit of our curiosity. We want to understand, but in our dread and hurt we are accepting the degree to which we no longer believe we can understand our country and especially our fellow countrymen. Donald Trump is not a fluke, he is a choice of people who by any measure we understand ought to know better. They want this, often not even because they approve of him but because they hate us. And we want to understand why, but are coming to admit we do not and never have.
And if we have the sneaking suspicion that it is our own ignorance of why they could possibly feel this way about us that has contributed to the depth and heat of these feelings? Well that makes perfect sense …
In many ways, the collapse of confidence in our political polling is both a part of the problem and a perfect metaphor for the problem: pollsters have done very well creating instruments that measure the opinions of the kind of people who would work for a polling firm. Beyond that? Their utility is questionable.
I have managed to take decent care of myself so far during this period. I saw how difficult this would be, and avoided groups of people. No election night parties: if something went wrong, the feelings of so many people around me (even virtually) would have been too much, and kept me from getting a handle on my own struggles. I try to be there for people in times like this — I have a good track record of that — but I knew I wouldn’t have the capacity that night. Not for a group. I would have been carried away by the tide, and quite possibly carried some more people with me.
But I also desperately didn’t want to be alone. So I arranged to have someone over to spend the night, and together we got very trashed and only allowed ourselves to dive into results every 90 minutes or so, and talked and watched movies and when the meltdown came we were able to hold each other through it. I took the next day off, and spent it recovering and being a vegetable in the sun.
I think that was the best I could do.
Today I’m back at work, trying to keep busy, trying not to bump into the barbed wire now lining a pit in my stomach. It doesn’t do to touch it.
After the 2016 election, I wrote a long series of articles — The Apocalypse Cabaret Manifesto — outlining what I thought had happened, and why. That analysis holds up very well in this moment.
Trumpism and all the recent movements towards authoritarianism that we are seeing across the world are not unified movements with a governing agenda of any kind. They are a collective veto of modernity and the changes it brings. They don’t have a direction they want us to go in, they just want the direction we are going in to stop. Sometimes this is for terrible reasons: racism, sexism, a loss of undeserved privilege. Sometimes this is for understandable reasons: economic uncertainty — does anyone know how to feel secure in this world anymore? — or a reaction to a sense of despair reified by the opioid epidemic. A loss of a sense of purpose or meaning in the world. Their reasons do not have to be compatible because it’s not a movement: it’s a veto. A decision to say “no.” It’s what happens when a sufficiently large portion of the population is so intent on stopping modernity that they are willing to burn the world down if that’s what it takes.
And when you want to do that, you almost inevitably choose a vicious corrupt clown. Not because you actually want a corrupt clown, but because people who are compassionate will choose to help real people rather than burn the world down, even if they think the world needs reforming; because people with integrity will unusually not choose to burn the world down, no matter what their rhetoric, because ultimately a holocaust is too steep a price to pay for any goal; and people who are competent usually have too much to lose if the whole world goes under. They all tend to get appropriated by the system, and not keep their promise to destroy it all. So if you really want somebody who will not be turned away from uprooting everything, root and branch, and burning it all down — no matter who it hurts — you end up electing a vicious corrupt clown.
All that still seems to be true.
Four years later, I would update it by saying that what we are seeing now is an alteration of reality that most people need to do when they see that their decision to let the world burn has, in fact, choked the air with foul smoke and blocked the sun.
Those sticking with Trump still want the modern world to stop modernising, that’s still what they care most about, for whatever reason. But they can also see how much sheer cruelty and viciousness they have unleashed upon the world … and for what? What gains have they achieved?
You can’t look straight at something like that if you’re not either a sociopath or willing to change your behavior. So … we get QAnon. Reality is altered so that not only has the wall been built and racism solved but the president is in fact standing up against a global cabal of satanic pedophiles. Your vote, far from being gratuitously cruel and utterly self-destructive, is now heroic, and you can watch the people you resent suffer with a clear conscience. And if you have to double down on this, again and again, to justify what you want to justify … so far you’re willing to do that.
That, in a general way, is the opposition we now face.
But what of us? While it’s important that we get a hand, finally, on just what the opposition is and why, we must also acknowledge — in a way we still have not — the degree to which this problem is caused by liberalism’s failure to create a world in which so many people could live. Where to assign blame is complicated, but the fundamental fact is: the global liberal order of the last 70 years created a world that a critical mass of its participants want to veto. And they do not trust us to lead it. So much so that they have also lost trust in all the auspices of authority — education, expertise, experience, credentials — that we rely on. That brought us unheard of power, peace, and prosperity.
And the truth is we may not have earned that trust.
I still don’t think we’re grappling with the magnitude of that failure, but I think the agonizing closeness of this election is driving the point painfully home.
Sometimes people ask me if I think I did enough. I doubt they really mean “me,” personally, so much as “we” — they’re really asking me if “we” did enough. Of course we didn’t. And of course I didn’t.
Sometimes, depending on who’s asking, I get angry about this question. Sometimes, it’s a person who had no real political activity, or even awareness, prior to the 2016 election. At these moments, my back gets up: how dare you ask me that? Yes, I spent the last few years in a personal crisis. I had, once more, to put my entire life down and leave for parts unknown to see if I could get better. And I feel terrible about disengaging from politics at a time when things got really desperate. But … but … I was an activist in high school and an activist in college. I worked in political journalism, and even occasionally politics, for decades. And yes, I dropped most of that activity — precipitously — at just the wrong time. I lost my way. But where were you when I was struggling in the trenches all those years before? Have you ever had an employer try to fire you because you took a stance? I have. Have you ever had an advertiser threaten to pull their ads if your employer didn’t force you to print an apology for calling their activities in local government out? I have. Were you writing about police brutality in your local municipality before Black Lives Matter blew up? Did people warn you to stop doing it? I was, and they did. How dare people who are only now realizing that somebody should do something questioning whether I did enough?
But of course I didn’t. Of course we didn’t.
What I have achieved during this time is that I have managed, while remaining politically aware, to give the Trump Presidency a very small share of my psychic space — and to help other people who can’t stop thinking about Donald Trump take a break from spinning around that toxic axis, and remember that the world is larger and more beautiful than politics ever can be. That is a thing of value. That is profoundly good, and important.
But it’s not enough. The lesson I have to learn now, and perhaps I am not alone in this, is to pick up the work again — to be politically present and stand up and be counted beyond the ballot box — while still giving so little of my mind and my attention to that nightmare.
To not let the enemies of the world veto my own mind the way they are trying to veto our common culture. That is how we keep growing in a time of struggle, and not become what we are fighting against. To not be reduced to that struggle, even as we engage with it. As we must. Today as much as yesterday.