Like travelers, we are crossing a frontier into a different land, with a terrible king and ancient howling gods.
As I write, it’s just past 11PM in Chicago, which means the Friday has tolled over Washington DC. In a little less than 11 hours, Donald Trump will officially be the President of the United States, and Barack Obama will not. The difference between the two men is a rough measure of the strange and horrible new land we are entering.
How do we enter these new lands? The traditional traveler did so by foot, but did so slowly. Rarely is there a sudden change between here and there. There are gradations, a gradual shift from the familiar to the unexpected, with small hints around progressive corners: sharper stares from strangers, different lunch habits, odd declensions. By the time you cross a border, you’re already in a different land. A stamp just makes it official.
And that’s how the rest of us travel, not through space, but through time. We pass into new worlds without even noticing, because we never cross a border. The world is built around us, slowly modifying who we are, through memory and experience, the loss of friends, the gains of love, the pain of your cherished ones succumbing to their own journey. You don’t even notice your travel until you see at an odd angle how time has changed you. You’re in that different land.
I was thinking about time a lot today, and how each little jump isn’t very much, but they add up, and quickly. My first real memory was of arguing with parents about why Mondale should beat Reagan. This was 1984, and I was not yet six. I didn’t have a reason, but it was the first time that I can recall where I made a decision that wasn’t entirely self-centered. It wasn’t “I want this toy” or “I don’t want this vegetable”. To say I had good reasons was wrong. But I knew, on some level, that this mattered, even if it wouldn’t affect me, which, when you get down to it, is the real beginning of consciouness. Of course, I lost; I don’t remember watching Reagan being sworn in the next January.
Time moves on. A four year leap. For the 1989 inauguration I recall watching it at the St. Paul library. There was a cute “200 Years- From George to George” theme. In 1993 we watched it in a social studies class at Maine South. It was exciting because the First Lady, Hillary Clinton, went to Maine South. It blew my mind someone who went to my high school could rise so high.
1997 I was in college, and watched it because I guess I didn’t have a class. Like everything else around that election, it seemed uninteresting. I wasn’t sold on Fukuyama, but history did seem to be, if not ended, at least in a terminal malaise. That seemed very different in 2001, when still in college (5-year plan), I got drunk at my girlfriend’s place to steel myself for the horror of seeing George Bush sworn in. In, 2005 I wasn’t working full-time, so watched it with grim sadness. 2009 and 2013 I took days off to celebrate.
And now there is this. Each four-year gap can be explained, but the culmination of nearly 30 years seems impossible. We’re all here older, with the weight of the decades on us, both politically and personally, but it is different. We aren’t gradually moving onto another place. We are being ripped into a terrifying new tomorrow.
It isn’t just policy, although that is horrifying. It isn’t just that we seem to be seriously in hock to Russia, which at this point seems like a grimly comic coda to the sour cheapness of the arrangement. It’s that the land we’re entering is fundamentally different than the one we are leaving. It is more cruel, more mean, tackier. There is a baseline vulgarity to everything, a sort of puckered snarl that accompanies every pronouncement. It isn’t totalitarian gray as much as hideous mustard.
I truly believe that this shift is going to be much more violent than we think. There has been, among the horror, an elegy for President Obama, as the country seems to appreciate him more than they have since 2009. His accomplishments are there to be thankful for and debated, but it is more than that.
In President Obama, there is kindness, and mercy. There is thoughtfulness and compassion. There is an intellectual who clearly disdained the cheap and the vulgar, and who loathed the easy. He talked to us like grownups, even when we didn’t deserve it. He felt deeply outside his own experience. He was, in short, the very best of us. Certain policies can be debated; there are many I hate. But as a man, there are few better than the man who is still President as I type.
And now we are going to have the worst. I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of words on this blog explaining why; if you are reading this, you already know. But beyond his ignorance, his vapid stupidity, his tireless and pathetic ego, is that he is the exact kind of dull and base grotesquerie we’d laugh at in other countries. There is nothing there but ego and avarice, brainless pronunciations in the service of cheap laughs from his braying sycophants, who react tumescently whenever he punches down. He’s the comic bouffant strongman, the kind you see in some wretched mountain land. And that’s the border we somehow crossed over.
The true psychic shock of this transition will, I think, be hard to measure, and hard to predict. But I do think, now that the elegies are over and Donald Trump is sworn in, placing his hand on the Lincoln Bible, that there will be a subtle breaking. Its effects won’t be felt all at once, of course. But our conception of who we are will change.
We’ll have a penny-ante strongman in the White House instead of a President. We’ll have a witless dummy who thinks his smirks are poetry. We’ll have a man whose conception of leadership is finding and punishing enemies. Our country will be different. We’ll be different.
The slow slog away from liberal democracy is suddenly happening very quickly. It’ll be aided, I think, by this psychic shock. Our idea of who we are will change, because we’ll be seeing this monster in our mirrors, and that could sap our resistance. After all, we’ve crossed the border. We are now in a foreign land. It’s time to learn the language.
I hope I’m wrong. I know the next years will be tough. They’ll be very hard on a lot of people. There are so many battles to be fought, and the enemies of decency are riding high. Even if we don’t slip into a form of autocracy, we’ll rush headlong into a gilded age mixed with the dissolution of the nation-state in the Eurasian heartland and the Queen of Hearts bloodlust of climate change. We’re having a government of the worse at a time of amortization and globalized medieval revival shows and technological terrors. We’re giving away our heritage just when we need it most.
But maybe this deep psychological shock will force us to fight. Maybe it’ll wake people up. Trump is already deeply unpopular; he may be even more so once people realize he’s President. That’ll cause him to lash out more, and let loose the autocratic and nationalist forces within. Neighborhood watches for disloyalty, racial vigilantes, shuttered media outlets. But it isn’t inevitable. The key to fighting the what’s coming is understanding that while nothing is impossible, nor is it inevitable.
So we’re in this new land. We can let it be made around us, or we can remake it. We enter it bloody and bruised, pulled across the broken-glass border. It’s dirty and polluted, and the guards are already unsheathing their truncheons. But, amazingly, in the same way that the aging man is still the boy who suddenly realized that things matter, the land is still somehow ours. The fight might not be winnable. But it’s the only one we have. Let’s put our heads together, and start a new country.
America, brought to you by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, now playing in streets everywhere.
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