The Sentence

It was in 1982, while studying Politics in college, that I began keeping a journal. The first presidential race that would show up in these books occurred two years later, with the reëlection of Ronald Reagan. Whatever I wrote was undoubtedly troubled, as I’d been studying the administration’s malevolent treatment of Africans and Central Americans, and its Armageddonist instincts around nuclear weapons and America’s National Forests, for four years. But I don’t know exactly what I wrote because naturally I ended up burning those early, angsty journals.

It was left to the unlikely election of George H. W. Bush, on November 8, 1988, to inspire my first verifiable comment. That night I wrote, “BUSH WON. We’re in deep shit.” I had double-underlined the first two words, incredulous that, despite eight years of helping a B movie actor wage secret wars and unravel our economic security nets, Reagan’s vice president, the former head of the secret police, could also be president. The entry continues, “I really don’t know what to think. Reassuring thoughts babbled from the mouths of kindred souls, like, ‘Well, the government will likely be controlled more by the House and Senate this term,’ and ‘Bush’s election will probably mobilize a huge progressive movement.’ Doubtful. Probably what we’ll see — or not see (get it?) — is an uptick in domestic spying and a new war or two.”

In 1992 Clinton usurped Bush. (“At least he can speak in complete sentences.”) The two entertaining but largely mediocre Clinton terms were followed by the darkling ascension of Bush and Cheney, who twice seized power in elections of questionable legitimacy. In 2000 I wrote, “Holy shit. Alfred E. Neuman and Adolf Eichmann. This can’t be happening.” Then the world welcomed Obama, his wit, his intelligence, his health plan (which saved my wife and I six hundred dollars a month). “Very exciting! A Harvard-educated constitutional lawyer. And he’s black! Never thought I’d see it.”

Not once since 1984 have I failed to make note of the national election the night of or the morning after. Until 2016.

On November 8, at 5 p.m. in California, my startled wife blurted, “Trump is winning!” I was shocked but not surprised. After witnessing seven wins by Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II, I could feel about Trump bewilderment, disgust, and fear, but not disbelief. His ascension represents a natural progression of the right. It’s almost like they need to get it out of their system.

My friend Ken Miller is a physician and practiced political analyst who joined me throughout the general election to warn people that Trump could win. On September 20, 2016 Ken sent me an email with the subject line, “Why Trump Wins.” In one of the most astute predictions made by anyone in the country, Ken said, “I worry that Trump reflects something very American, plus he appears to be, and probably is, a great disruptor, which is appealing to many who are frustrated, as if it has ever been any different. Nostalgia relies on amnesia. And Trump provokes and then revokes, a clever strategy to keep him newsworthy-ish. Trump approaches everything as a Deal, in which he throws everything around as an initial offer, which discombobulates and gets everyone’s bewildered attention, and then he negotiates. His timing is perfect. Romney made the mistake of pretending to have come up by bootstraps, entertaining many, whereas Trump gets the American exaltation of wealth, toughness, and power. Throw in voter suppression and post vote shenanigans, and then the subacute [e.g. October] surprise, and you’ve got President Trump.”

I replied to Ken, “Unfortunately I am with you 100 percent. I’m going to create a line of ‘NOW WE’RE FUCKED’ bumper stickers and then, of course, move to Canada.”

Hearing the news from my wife I grabbed 50 two-by-two-inch stickers and journeyed downtown to a pub that was hosting what was supposed to be a victory party for the first woman president of the United States. At first people were surprised, even offended, by the stickers, believing that I was referring to Clinton. Comprehension, however, quickly coalesced, and by 6 p.m. fifty thwarted celebrants were wearing “NOW WE’RE FUCKED” armbands and crowding the bar.

That night it rained. I opened my journal and stared at the page. Nothing. I remembered the time I tried out for the high school football team. The coach had us line up and run at each other headfirst and hit as hard as possible, to test our mettle. I did this once. It was clearly one of the most appalling things you could do to a person, or, in my case, to yourself. After that single collision I had a lot of feelings about it, but if someone at the time had asked me to recite those feelings I would have gazed back blankly. Trump’s win was a smash on the head.

Next morning, same thing. I knew what had happened, could pretty much figure out what was coming, but I couldn’t write anything. This occurred several times for a week. Voltaire once said, “The secret of being boring is to say everything.” In my writing career I have certainly been guilty of such sin, but now I couldn’t say anything. I’d open the book, pen in hand, stare for a while, then shut the book. It was not a good week. Sleep came in spurts, which is rare for me. Every morning I’d wake up agitated, even angry. My wife got pissed at me for being pissed. The Trump victory was slowly searing my soul, like a radiation burn. I hadn’t been this disturbed since Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1973. I was twelve years old. Now I’m an adult. I can parse this, right?

I left home to spend a night in a friend’s tiny cabin alongside a wild river. I fixed a fire in the woodstove, drained a bottle of beer without realizing it, then opened another one, savored it, and allowed the wash of that wild place to bring back my breath. I opened the journal. Here is the entirety of what I wrote:

“It may be that the best we can hope for is that once they’re well underway constructing the camps and the gas chambers the first people rounded will be the sixty million self-absorbed morons who voted for that fascist fucktard. Unbelievable.”

There are several problems with this sentence. Let’s begin with “fucktard.” It is certainly an offensive pejorative, but I choose, in this instance, to own in. Like when John Lennon reminded us, “Woman is the nigger of the world.” (It was actually Yoko Ono, in 1969, who first coined the phrase.) The word fits. It fits in a way that even, or perhaps especially, Trump would appreciate.

The next stumbler is “moron.” To characterize all Trump voters in this way is not only unfair, it’s clearly inaccurate. A lot of intelligent people voted for the fucktard. It’s not my job to explain this — the post facto pundits, like the pre-election prognosticators, have sufficiently butchered this question — but it’s worth noting that two of these smart Trump voters are, respectively, related to me by blood and by marriage. One of them is a former back-to-land hippie, the other is gay. Go figure. I am very fond of these guys. (I don’t know any female Trump supporters, though Trump, in perhaps the greatest and most mystifying of his demographic conquests, did garner 53 percent of white women voters.) We have yet to talk about their choice, and maybe we never will. They represent the obviously intelligent, and even kind, and not even necessarily self-absorbed American voter who rejected a candidate who, while admittedly a walking cliché, was at least capable of running a government, favoring instead an unhinged Hitlerian pussy grabber.

But the biggest problem with the sentence is that, with some obvious exceptions, the Trump voters will be the last people rounded up for the camps. That is, we will even be denied schadenfreude. How bad can it get? Camps and expulsions and state sanctioned murder? History answers: “Yes of course. Haven’t you been paying attention?” It’s clear who the first victims will be: The same people who crashed the Canadian government’s immigration web site the night of the election. The same people who’ve seen their LGBT-friendly churches spray-painted with swastikas (and the words “Heil Trump!”), their Latino children handed fake deportation orders, their hijabs ripped from their heads. The people whose kids are crying and getting extra counseling. The people upon whose labor Trump, in large part, made his fortune. Anyone protesting oil pipelines, coal plants, new wars, torture or indefinite detention could get special treatment. The socialists, the trade unionists. …

I do remain confident that we can avoid these worst-case scenarios. The Trump Administration could well devour itself before doing too much damage, though that’s unlikely. Resistance in the streets might turn America upside-down enough to convince the Right’s remaining sound-minded doormen that their profits rely on calm. Looking back at my startled missives at the launch of each draconian Republican administration, I was clearly anticipating internal authoritarian crackdowns that, with some notable exceptions (perhaps especially the “new Jim Crow” policies that have landed millions of young black men in prison), didn’t materialize. (The peoples of some two dozen countries plundered by these administrations didn’t fare so well, however.) I have also come to understand that we are a nation of basically good people, however misguided and easily led so many of us can be. The Second Amendment defender who voted for Trump might well have your back if the goons come calling. But then he might have your back in a meat hook. You just never know.

After jotting my sentence I left the cabin for a misty walk along the river. The rains had come early — it was the wettest October in recorded history, possibly reflecting our warming planet — so the stream ran clamorous and wide. Except for the extra rain, nothing had changed in the thirty years I’d been coming to this spot. Alders still held the streambank, dippers still fished the roiling waters, otters still glided through calm stretches, curiously ogling intrusive humans. The planet is alive, thriving, and it always will be. In many ways nature is a support system. For the first time in more than a week I felt a calm that perhaps only wilderness can provide.

Back at the cabin I retreated to an old book of Doonesbury cartoons, The Reagan Years. Perfect. I opened to a Sunday panel from the summer of 1980, not long after the Republicans nominated Ronald Reagan for president. Zonker Harris, on a chaise lounge preparing for a tanning contest (toothpicks between his toes), told his friends he didn’t want to think about the choices for president.

“I’m not all that interested,” says Zonker. “The only thing that would really alarm me is if Ronald Reagan were one of the nominees.”

The perennial student and layabout was so beyond politics that he wasn’t even aware of the Republicans’ recent remodeling. But he did know whom to fear. Even Zonker could see the man behind the curtain. Now that the curtain has been all but lifted, things will become clearer still.