The Rally Turned Out to be Pretty Big News After All

You can probably chalk up 90 percent of Trump’s appeal to racism and status anxiety among white non-college males. Some of that status anxiety is real. Non-college, non-urban white men are rightly worried that their kids won’t do as well as they have, now that they have to compete with immigrants and minorities for the fewer and fewer high-paying production and manufacturing jobs. If they send their kids to college, they worry they’ll get woke and become gay or trans or otherwise unrelatable. Trump might not have had an economic analysis, but he had meme-worthy synecdoches like “lock her up” and “Low Energy Jeb” that captured their rage at the status quo libs and establishment figures who didn’t care about them, and he gave them an aspirational figure in his own person–rich, funny, powerful, over-sexed, and in-your-face confrontational–to identify with.

Now there really is a crisis–a deadly contagion, massive unemployment, and a sea change in the cultural view of immigrants, blacks, the genders, the confederacy, and so on. Trump spent the first months of the pandemic on TV, either minimizing it or babbling about how great and misunderstood and unappreciated he is. Then he showed up in Tulsa and did the same. But first he demanded that his cultists pay tribute to him by not protecting themselves, like an abusive lover who demands that his partner prove their devotion by not using a condom. He spent more time explaining why he looked feeble on the West Point ramp and bragging about how many TVs Air Force One has than explaining what he is going to do to ensure their children’s prosperity. He proved, over and over again, that all that stuff about him caring about their hopes and dreams was just a griff–that what he’s really been interested in from day one is what they can do for him. For most of them, the racism more than makes up for his narcissism. But if he loses even three percent of his hardcore support, then he may find himself speaking to a lot more empty stadiums in the coming months.

And now this…..

People are beginning to smell the weakness. Roberts, Milley, and Berman aren’t lefty congressmen from racially gerrymandered districts in blue cities or even MSNBC anti-Trump Republicans–they are as establishment as you can get. When people like that start saying “no,” others will be emboldened to say no too (or too scared for their own survival to defend Trump when others do). Even if Trump steals or challenges the election, even if the court reluctantly supports him, he will not be able to govern. Something tells me the Tulsa rally won’t be the biggest news story this weekend.

More diary

6/17 I’m about halfway through Susan Faludi’s THE TERROR DREAM, about the post-911 media narrative, and I’m startled by 1) How transparent the myth-making was, 2) How many pundits who are still prominent participated in it (and not just right wing jerks like Rush Limbaugh, David Brooks, and Peggy Noonan, but more progressive and supposedly thoughtful people like Jonathan Alter). Last night, I read an amazing excerpt from an article by the pre-Mondoweiss Philip Weiss, in which he described how he and his soft creative class friends couldn’t stop talking about the glories of torture and vengeance. What a difference a few years would make in his politics!

If you don’t remember (and I certainly didn’t), there was a huge push to make 9/11 feminism’s Waterloo–the moment when America’s masculinity was restored. Women professionals were quitting their high-powered jobs to marry strong, silent, blue collar protector types and have babies, the story went. Sensitive brainy Alan Alda types and geeky Silicon Valley nerds were being supplanted by Jack Bauer and John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards as symbols of national prowess. Sewing machines were flying off the shelves; there was a colossal baby boom. None of it was true–to the extent that women were leaving their jobs, it was because of the recession, there was no baby boom, and those first responders didn’t actually “save” the twin towers or the city–they were victims too. People were stanning (though the word didn’t exist yet) over Rumsfeld and Giuliani’s sexiness; George W. was Shane and Laura Bush the national mother. Some of it reminds me of Andrew Cuomo and Anthony Fauci’s brief reigns as sex symbols (people really do have this need for saviors and a lot of women seemingly do want to marry their fathers, and the media and smart politicians exploit it).

But almost none of that archetypal myth-making has been shaped around Trump during our current crisis, and I think I know why–because Trump was already the defining figure going into it: there were no hard women and soft men left to disown and dethrone. If there was a national longing for comic book righteousness back then, nowadays there’s just a lot of anger. No one but a Trump cultist believes that Trump is a super-hero and they’re stoked on their angry delusions already. The rest of us are mad at him. Back then, we as a nation were trying to displace our fears of impotence. Today, we’re mostly just pissed.

6/15 Not out to shame anybody, just observing and opining. The demonstrations in Brooklyn are big and a little scary if you are in your 60s and have some of those preexisting conditions, but nearly everyone wears masks and people tend to be good about not crowding too close together. Walking around Flatbush, Prospect Heights, and Park Slope on my daily walks, I see something like 80 to 90 percent mask compliance.

I just got stuck in traffic in Williamsburg, though, and was amazed–the sidewalks were mobbed as always, and I didn’t see a single Satmar wearing a mask. Not one. It’s as if masks have been declared tref or something, because they’re not part of the 18th century costume. That’s somewhat less the case with the Lubavitchers in Crown Heights, closer to where I live. My guess is that the Satmars believe they’re social distancing already by living as separately from gentiles and non-frum Jews as they do. I don’t think they realize that they can carry and share the germs among each other–which I suspect is why people in general have been so vulnerable to plagues throughout history, because putting distance between yourself and your friends and family feels so unnatural while blaming and punishing outsiders is instinctive and emotionally satisfying. If I were an anthropologist, I’d do an ethnographic study, comparing MAGAs and Satmars. They might have more in common than they realize.

Don’t kill the protesters

More journal:

6/12 Remember when the Soleimani killing was presumed to be the most consequential event of 2020? Thought it would be interesting to revisit some of Trump’s tweets from January 12, 2020, six months ago, when he was in the midst of his maximum pressure campaign against Iran. At 9:48 am he issued an all cap warning to the country’s leaders: “DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS,” adding “The World is watching.” At 10:06 he said that John Kerry regrets “ridiculously giving the 150 Billion Dollars Plus” to the regime. At 10:26, he quoted an op ed extolling his Iranian deal making and at 12:12, he plugged Jeanine Pirro’s show. After spending the rest of the afternoon on the impeachment hoax, at 7:46 pm he once again cautioned Iran not to “kill your protesters,” but in lowercase this time.

Wonder what they think about our own protests in Iran now–and Trump’s vow to dominate the streets. “The Americans have for years lectured other countries on human rights,” Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani said yesterday. “And now it has been revealed for the whole world that the issue of human rights for the US is nothing but a means to achieve its objectives.” The account I read noted that “the senior cleric predicted that what happened to the former Soviet Union awaits the US due to the oppression and the crimes that Washington commits against innocent people.”

6/10 Even as Sweden admits that maybe its “herd immunity” plan sacrificed more people than it needed to, the US is throwing up its hands and letting the coronavirus burn. I think I understand the Republican thinking: if 120,000 or so excess deaths didn’t bring down the house in three months, then 250,000 in six months, or a million in a year won’t do much harm to them either.

It seems astounding until you look at it from a perspective that puts capital before people. Setting aside the elderly and people with chronic conditions (“takers,” as Mitt Romney might have called them, when he thought he still had a chance to be president), the virus pretty much maps exactly with poverty and race. If Americans are able to live with the vast health, wealth and justice disparities that exist for non-white and low-net worth demographics, then why should a higher death rate change anything? Look at all the other things Americans have made their peace with: school and workplace shootings, medical rationing, high infant and maternal mortality rates, and open voter suppression.

It’s really no wonder that people who don’t see through that particular lens are out in the streets. The virus isn’t the worst thing we’re facing after all.

6/8 “Can you imagine if stop-and-frisk Mike Bloomberg, who used police as a weapon, had somehow won the nomination?” Charles Blow tweeted this morning. “Dems would be dead in the water in this moment of protest against police brutality.”

Counterthought: That’s WHY Bloomberg got so little traction–because Democrats aren’t the least bit hungry for a rich authoritarian of their own. Neither are independents. This is a very different race than we had four years ago.

Things are tipping everywhere you look.

6/6 Childhood memory: I was a nice Jewish boy, raised in the suburbs by loving, overprotective parents. I’m about ten, so it’s 1967. My father and I are in a car with my bohemian Uncle Archie, a one-time Communist who made good on Madison Avenue. We’re driving through Westchester, and we pass a building whose workers had been on strike. “The cops came in,” Archie was saying, “And broke their heads.”

“Why did they do that?” I piped up from the back seat. My father gave my uncle a look and they both fell silent. I sat there thinking about broken heads for the rest of the ride.

A Ray of Hope

Today, for the first time in a long time, I want to post something that’s a little optimistic. Living at ground zero in Brooklyn as I do, I don’t see these demonstrations as a shock to the system. While the looting is unfortunate, the police violence horrific, and DeBlasio’s meltdown pathetic, the protests themselves feel very cathartic in, to borrow Mattis’s weirdly apt word, a “wholesome” way.

It’s been a hellish three years, and an even more hellish three months. Something had to give way and it has. All of these documented examples of police violence that are surfacing—the old man in Buffalo yesterday, the girl they were kicking somewhere else, the journalists being clubbed in Brooklyn—have been a revelation to white America. They were to me. So were Trump’s and Cotton’s declarations of war.

It’s been more than fifty years since rioting broke out in Newark and spread across the country after the police beat a black taxi driver. The long hot summer of 1967 and then the student disturbances in 1968 felt like a terminal spasm of the liberal consensus–the end of the New Frontier and the Great Society. The unrest today feels more like a therapeutic blood-letting. A lot of terrible things can happen between now and November and they undoubtedly will. The pandemic has yet to peak; Trump has lots more mischief up his sleeve. But the boil has been lanced; maybe soon the fever will break too.

More From my Plague Year Journal

6.4 So Tom Cotton is selling a narrative in which New York has fallen into the hands of elite white gangs of leftists, whose leaders drive Mercedes around the city ordering random attacks on minority business owners while its effete liberal mayor insists that the police stand down. Nice scenario for a low-budget post-apocalyptic movie starring some ex-wrestlers, but in reality, the NYPD has been running riot every night and the mayor, who won election as a police reformer, won’t stop weakly defending them. DeBlasio has been under siege from both the left and right for his pandemic response too–there is as big a crisis of leadership in this city as there is in Washington, and it’s frankly hard to understand.

There was a shooting a couple blocks from my house last night. Someone stabbed a policeman in the neck and grabbed his or her gun. Shots were fired and three police and the assailant are in the hospital. No one is saying yet whether he or she was a protester, a looter, antifa, white, black, pro-Trump, or anti, but you can be sure that there will be confident stories that they were all of those things before very long.

If we get to November without riot police or federalized National Guard or Bureau of Prison enforcers shooting bullets into a crowd, I will be amazed. If there is an election, Trump is going to lose it in an unprecedentedly huge way. I can’t imagine how he will leave office without violence–and for every Mattis that can quote the Federalist papers, there are a thousand angry cops. Trump is a cornered animal, and I am afraid the militarization in Washington is a rehearsal for the fall.

6.3 I more and more believe that the conspiracists get all the details wrong, but are right about one thing: that there is indeed a hidden explanation that unifies the seeming randomness of events. The deity that we worship as God is really a demonic ringer; the deep state framed Oswald; Trump is on a crusade to rescue America’s children from pedophiles. Their stories are completely nuts, of course, but they’re grasping at an intimation that things are not what they seem: That our great national experiment–with its melting pot, endless entrepreneurial opportunity, and love of liberty–is a flimsy front. Scratch the surface of most conspiracists’ writings and the hidden power turns out to be Jewish. But the critical race theorists have broken a real code: they’ve seen that America’s liberal humanism is built on a foundation of race supremacism, religious chauvinism, land theft, and chattel slavery. Some of the American dream is real, of course. Ethnicities have melted into the mass over time (very few of us think of people with Slavic features, like Melania Trump, as non-white anymore); anti-Papism is mostly a thing of the past in this once militantly Protestant country. Some Americans really have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, and we have a body of law that gives great deference to individual liberty. There are are real American heroes and role models, though pretty much all of them, like pretty much all heroes and role models everywhere, have feet of clay.

But we also–as most nations do–have a horrific past defined by rape and violence that is not even past. Its unacknowledged omnipresence is what gives Trump his strength; our desire to deny it distorts our thinking to the point that cognitive dissonance (like Freud’s repression) has come to define us. Harold Bloom was thinking of something else when he said that the American religion is Gnosticism, but I tend to think he got it right.

6.1 Call me naive or racist, but I had been under the impression that George Floyd had been caught passing a bad check. It wasn’t until I read about the 911 call this morning that I learned that a store clerk accused him of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20. You’d think we’d know about it by now if there was a counterfeit bill in that grocery’s cash register, so I’m guessing he was innocent.

I live a couple of doors down from Brooklyn’s very urban Flatbush Avenue. A couple of weeks ago, the guy at the pet food store told me that people try to pass him counterfeit bills almost every day, so I know it does happen. Some of them must get through, which means that if a citizen like me used a $100 bill to buy a big order of cat food, I might end up with one in my wallet. But I’m pretty sure the police would give me the benefit of the doubt if someone caught me trying to pass it.

On a different but related topic, my gut tells me that Trump and Karl Rove (who I would bet big money will end up running his campaign) believe that they have been dealt a winning hand. By pushing the pandemic out of the headlines, the civil unrest in blue cities has given them the opportunity to strike a decisive blow against anarchy and racial identity politics once and for all. I am expecting military deployments, monkey trials, curfews, and states of emergency for the rest of his term.

Whether voters reward Trump for the American carnage is an open question. My hope is that the hunger for normalcy favors Biden and the Democrats, but my gut also tells me that there will be a lot of state violence unleashed right around November 3, with an aim to discouraging voting.

What Comes After Pandemic Denialism

Two themes Defoe revisits over and over again in THE JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: 1) The deaths are under-counted, and 2) The endemic and the newly poor–the hundreds of thousands of servants, craftsmen, service workers, and other laborers who were left high and dry by the halt of the economy–are compelled to become the pandemic’s front-line workers, guarding the houses where infected people and their households are confined, collecting and burying the bodies, and delivering food and care to the sick and dying (unwittingly spreading the contagion as they do so). The main reason the poor didn’t rise up and sack London, Defoe says, is because so many of them were sick and so many died. Also (no small thing) because of charity.

History should teach us that economies and societies are fairly resilient and extremely forgetful. Bombed out cities come back to life as soon as the fighting stops; plague survivors go back to making, buying, selling, and reproducing themselves without a pause, even when there is no vaccine and the contagion is likely to return. The poor, who bear the greatest burden, make this possible, though their own stories are rarely told.

Keeping all that in mind, it’s not as bizarre as it seems at first glance that so many MAGA people are in denial, insisting that the virus is a Chinese super-weapon, a Democratic hoax, or that its victims are either pretending to be dead or deserve to be. They do the same thing whenever there is a mass-killing, and as the oceans rise. They want the story to be about them and their victimization.

Though people tell me that there won’t be another New York, now that people in red states are crowding into churches and beauty parlors and bars, they will surely start to die in numbers that they can’t deny. When that happens, they will switch from denying that the the black, brown, poor, and old in the blue cities are suffering and start blaming them for their own.

And so you arrive at the ultimate logic of ultra-nationalist populism–the “other” becomes an infestation, a germ, and racism a matter of hygiene.

Who was that Masked Man?

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So now I completely understand why he doesn’t want to be photographed in a mask. It does make him look weak. The presidential seal is an ironic touch.

There were a lot of stories yesterday about Trump’s praise of Henry Ford’s “bloodline,” and how that signals his endorsement of eugenics. Ford’s antisemitism was animated by conspiracism rather than racism (though of course he was racist too). In his telling, innocent Jews were just as much the victims of the wicked bankers who pulled the strings of the world and the evil Jewish songwriters like Irving Berlin who injected Negroid jazz, sex, and big city cynicism into the Protestant veins of wholesome rustic America as those wholesome rustic regular folk.

Trump’s obsession with his own good genes doesn’t rise to the level of a theory–he doesn’t give a damn about anyone else’s genes but his own. His pandering to white nationalists is just pandering–he would sell them out in a second, if it served his purposes. Tragically, it doesn’t.

The Future of Remote Work

I have been ghosting/editing op eds and think pieces about the pandemic, including some about the implications of remote work.

My wife is a non-profit executive and I hear her remote working downstairs all day long–chairing long Zoom meetings, managing her reports on the phone. Sometimes people bring things to our house that require her physical signature.

I’ve been a home worker since 2003, so the pandemic hasn’t really changed my way of working at all, except I no longer have to travel for occasional meetings. But it occurs to me that there is a problem with a lot of the “big” thinking about home work, which is that it that it takes a fairly privileged subset of idea workers and turns them into the norm. Some of that, I think, is narcissistic–it reflects the circumstances of the writers like me who are turning out those stories rather than a real inflection.

Big companies may or may not end up reducing their physical footprints going forward, because if they are growing, they are likely spreading out anyway, continually outgrowing their spaces, and if they are shrinking, their business is likely suffering, which is a much bigger problem for them than where they put their people.

In two or three years, the pandemic will be much less of a present threat than it is today. And two or three years is the blink of an eye, considering how long most commercial leases run, and how long it takes to prepare new space for occupancy. When Twitter got its tax break and moved to San Francisco nearly ten years ago, there were all these stories heralding tech’s urban turn (I ghosted some of them). Now that Twitter’s tax break has expired, Dorsey is talking about spreading his workforce throughout more locations and having more of them work remotely. But he isn’t giving up the building in San Francisco, either. Home work hasn’t changed the fact that engineering teams have to work together, that managers need to have a personal connection to their staffs, that off-siting infrastructure functions creates problems that will likely turn out to be bigger than the one they are meant to solve (assuming that COVID-19 becomes less of a threat in a few years). We have a lot of historical data on human organizational behavior (organizations benefit from physical clustering) and a lot of historical data on pandemics (they tend to burn out after a few years), and people aren’t putting the two datasets together.

Ten years ago, maybe 7 to 10 percent of the workforce worked at home. Today it’s closer to 50 percent (or maybe more, since 20 percent of the workforce is either furloughed, unemployed, or about to be). Tomorrow? Most likely it will be a lot more than it was 10 years ago and a lot less than it is today. I suspect that history will remember 2020 as the year that the Second Great Depression began and democracy died in America rather than the year that everyone started working at home.

It’s the Hate, Stupid

I didn’t go out into the world to talk about conspiracy theory until after I wrote my books. Like many autodidacts, I felt a little put in my place by how much more than me most of the professional pundits I encountered knew, but also disappointed (and sometimes outraged) by how wrong and complacent some of them seemed. One thing that I hadn’t sufficiently considered was how often even the most off-the-wall conspiracy theorists get at least one predicate right–that the government lies and is not to be trusted. Look closer and you will almost always see the evidence of shadowy others pulling strings. Or sometimes not that shadowy–money is very powerful and most of the time it isn’t the least bit occult. Politicians tend to put themselves up for sale.

Something I think I did get right is that the philosopher’s stone of conspiracism–the catalyst that turns magical thinking into theory, hallucinatory sex fantasies into politics–is race hatred. But even so, I didn’t take it seriously enough. I was writing when Obama was still in office, and my frame of reference was historical: Robert Welch and the Birchers, Henry Ford and the Protocols of Zion, the anti-Masons, Knownothingism, and so on. I assumed that a lot of the racism in our own context was opportunistic and performative–a convenient button to push for people whose core agenda was money. In retrospect, I honestly don’t know what I was thinking.

If you want to understand Trump, look to Birtherism. If you want to understand Birtherism, it’s about race hate. Racism (and anti-Papism) are America’s original sins. And we are reaping a Biblical punishment for them.