I’m sitting at my dining room table watching the snow falling outside my window. It’s been a week now of increasingly deep drifts, of snow packing down into sheets of ice in the streets only to disappear beneath the latest batch of fluffy, frozen water. Every roof has a thick blanket of perfectly white snow. I live in Seattle; this is weird.
I watched the State of the Union address on Wednesday last week. Within a shared Google doc with one of my newspaper colleagues, we watched and reacted to the SOTU in real-time, drinking our alcoholic beverages to get through the grating experience of listening to the reality TV show star who has, somehow, horrifyingly, become the President of the United States as he addresses the nation.
It was quite painful.
I watched it again, today, on mute and couldn’t help but notice the body language of a one Donald J. Drumpf. Without his voice to distract and enrage me, the squintiness of his eyes, the tilted jut of his chin, the sway of his sloped shoulders, all the ways that he moved and held himself started shouting out to me from my screen. I am by no means any kind of expert on body language. I am simply a human, socialized with other humans, and I found myself captivated by everything I saw him saying in complete silence.
It is not news that Drumpf is, how to say this, a little off. Psychologists have been breaking the Goldwater rule — the unofficial precedence governing against armchair analysis — for the last two years, when his narcissism, pathological lying, his uncontrollable bragging, his desperate, obsessive need for validation all became too blatant to ignore. The SOTU was a brief departure from most of that, given that it was largely a script, written by someone else, that Drumpf mostly successfully sounded his way through, with only a few, tiny insertions of his own ego into the performance when he simply couldn’t contain himself.
While the bland, pre-digested words he was uttering said one thing, his posture told a different story. I saw the truth hidden behind the lies of his words, written not only in his facial expression but also in the way he would swagger while standing still, twisting slightly side to side whenever he was pleased with himself, or throwing his chin up in the air whenever he wanted to strengthen a point he was making. His hands… his hands are a whole narrative in themselves, and always have been. The look on his face when the Democratic women, all dressed in suffragette white, stood and cheered; that look was chilled, frozen, his mouth a flat line, his eyes beady little lasers of rage. Yes, I’m biased against this bloviating waste of space; no, I don’t think that will change any time soon.
At some point, my mind started to wander and I found myself thinking of, not for the first time and likely not the last, of the last true days of the Roman Empire. I’m not the biggest history buff, but I think most everyone has heard of Emperor Nero and the profligance of his reign, the disconnect between the leaders and the citizens, the discontent in the streets, the riots. I wonder how close we are to that. I wonder about the armed white supremacist faction and about the rural contingent, the factory workers and coal miners who voted for a man who is actively fucking them, along with the rest of us, and how it will go down. Will they finally realize that they’ve been scammed, and who will they take it out on?
I’m sure it is no coincidence that immigration has been pushed into the national spotlight. It is always easier to hate an outsider for the perceived or manufactured threat they represent rather than the homegrown conman who gives out easy lies and false gold and whose promises mutate faster than any horror movie monster. And once given, the sunken cost of support becomes imperative, becomes an identity; we are still so tribal in our behaviors, in those deep roots of the brain, we find our small groups and we cluster, shields and swords and spears facing out, defending the little we think we have against the invader. Like a wasp who has snuck into the beehive and once inside is considered to be just another bee, the man who has managed to slime his way to the highest office in our country, against even his own expectations, cannot be considered the real enemy, we cannot admit to ourselves that we let someone so antithetical to our values as a people and so inimical to our survival rise so high in our hierarchy; it is not allowed.
Well, some of us do. Those who supported him cannot. They are too invested. It is part of a group identity now, a tribal identity, that he is Their Guy and they will, they must, believe in him because to think otherwise is to admit that they were fooled by him. Although some have started to flip, actually, now that it is mostly too late; some who voted for him because he promised to lower taxes are seeing, instead, higher taxes and that personal violation of trust is the final straw for them. Not the self-proclaimed sexual assaults, not the caging of children, not mocking disabled people, not even the bait-and-switch of their precious wall that Mexico was supposed to pay for, no, it is being hit in the pocket that finally, only now, is just barely shifting the obdurate tide of opinion. The slow realization that they are being robbed–not the blacks or the queers or the Mexicans or any the possible Others, but them, the ones America is really supposed to be for–that the white working class have been taken for a ride. Some of them are seeing it. A few.
Is it enough? Are there enough of them changing their minds, is it early enough, is there time to change it back? I ask this, looking at the nearly foot of snow outside with more coming down, with increasingly extreme, unstable weather all over the globe, with even fewer environmental and financial regulations on corporate practices: is it too late? Have I lived just long enough to watch it all fall down under the bloated weight of an insatiable fraction of a percent of the population who needed another jet, another megayacht, another private island? The super-rich have their escape plans, be of no doubt. They do not plan to be here with the rest of us when the wildfires and the polar vortices and the antibiotic-resistant diseases and the genetically-neutered crop seeds and the thallium in the soil and the lead in the water spiral together into an inhospitable wasteland. It will just be us, the urban blue islands and the red rural oceans, left to deal with each other, having been exploited and pitted against one another for decades until there was nothing left to take, and nothing left to lose. Are we there?
I don’t know. I really don’t.
I grew up with climate change as a looming bogeyman; the hole in the ozone was the monster under my bed as a child. And while the ozone is actually repairing itself thanks to regulations banning CFCs, we are seeing other major environmental catastrophes not even over the horizon, but on it. We are staring down the hungry, empty eye sockets of environmental and social collapse in the next few decades. My lifetime. My childhood nightmare is real. And yet here we are, worshipping those responsible and demonizing, as we do, the bearers of bad news. I see the unimaginable momentum of the train as it barrels toward the cliff. It’s not, technically, impossible to stop it; the climate scientists say that it’s pretty damn bad but, maybe, possibly, not totally irreversible. We could dedicate our resources to sustainable practices, to technology that restores health to our environment. Theoretically, we could do all of that. Our economy could become based on it. Our society could be based on it. More than anything else, all we really need to do is shift our values.