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'How do we become a serious people again?' Dave Eggers, Annie Proulx and more on the 2020 election

Richard Powers, novelist

Richard Powers. Circular panelist byline.

In January, 2017, the day after being sworn in as president of the United States, Donald Trump directed the interior department to help lie about the size of the crowd who turned out to witness him rave about “American carnage”. I read the news in a state of stunned disbelief. Since then, few weeks have passed without some escalating offence coming from the White House.

Four years of sadness, horror, and trauma: We’ve all been broken by it. In these four years, I’ve lived through things that I could not have imagined witnessing in my country. The president has stoked paranoid conspiracy theories. The president has championed division and hatred and violence. The president repeatedly attacks basic decency and violates the constitution. The president is actively working to undermine public trust in the election. Each new day brings some impossible outrage that I have habituated to, changed by the daily horrors in ways I can no longer see. As Yeats captured it, in another time of civil war:

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love …

I’m afraid this election will shake the US to the breaking point. I see the polls but take no comfort in them. The president’s plans to subvert the vote are forming up in plain sight, as open and obvious as all the other high crimes and misdemeanours that he has already gotten away with.

Maybe the vote will yield the results that all the polls predict. Maybe the president will leave office peacefully, without ordering his supporters into the street. (It would be the first such conciliatory act of his life.) But even if the election follows the best possible course, an uncontested Biden victory won’t save us: for four years, 40% of the country has unwaveringly backed Trump’s every assault against civic life, and the once-great party that has enabled him at every turn shows no sign of repudiation, even now. It will take decades to heal the deep wounds.

One thing is certain, though: Trump’s re-election would maim the US beyond recovering. A considerable majority of Americans now know that, too. I’m braced for the worst, but I take my slender hope from our great poet of democracy, Walt Whitman, writing over a century and a half ago, in the middle of the war for the nation’s soul that we’re somehow still fighting:

Over the carnage rose prophetic a voice,
Be not dishearten’d – Affection shall solve the problems of Freedom yet;
Those who love each other shall become invincible.

Annie Proulx, novelist

Annie Proulx. Circular panelist byline.

When I was young I thought American capitalism and democracy were equal working partners. Years passed and I saw the democracy of the United States with its banners of equality and justice was an illusory ideal and there was partnership only when capitalism found it useful.

Before the 2016 election I ached with ecological grief to see the natural world torn and burned at accelerating speed. Melting ice, flaming forests, catastrophe-size storms and floods, species extinctions – these were proofs that we irrational and egotistic humans had set forces in motion that were retooling the workings of the Earth and would send many species, possibly including ourselves, to the extinction chamber. I believed the rumbling climate shift caused an invisible, unspoken malaise in people the world over. Something was wrong and they felt it in their bones, even those remote in the ice, among the lianas, in thin high air, even in denying cities. Climate crisis exposed the bad wiring in the human brain.

I saw Trump’s election as more evidence of ecological derangement. People may have sensed that their god-given right to wrest a share of wealth from the natural world (the source of every fortune) was passing from “unlikely” to “sorry, it’s over”. An immediate assault on natural resources could be a last chance and Trump, masquerading as a “businessman”, would lead the way: to force, to grab and get by any means. To win! And so colourful and energetic he seemed an extension of Friday night football. I was afraid then and I am afraid now. The last four years have been a stress-building mix of anger, sorrow, loss, disgust, evil wishes and fear. Not a generalised fear but a multiple-barbed hook of unemployment, Covid-19 pandemic, oil drilling, naked racism, people at one another’s throats. Trump is a catalyst in this cauldron of miseries. Take him out of the mix and we have a chance.

I had a history professor long ago who came from the Pennsylvania coal fields. One day, following a discussion of European political power and how multiple smaller factions are funnelled into two gargantuan opposing sides, he looked out at the class and in a hard voice said “You don’t know how quickly left can flip to right.” Now I know. Less than four years.

Dave Eggers, writer and editor

Dave Eggers. Circular panelist byline.

Last week, Donald Trump, a 74-year-old man who may or may not have still been contagious with a deadly virus, danced to the Village People’s “YMCA” in front of thousands of closely packed supporters at rallies in Pennsylvania and Florida. The same week, Americans won five Nobel prizes.

The dichotomy of American life has never been starker. We still have enlightened humans inhabiting our land, thinking profound thoughts in labs and universities, even though in most other ways we’ve become the world’s silliest people.

In the US, there has long been a maxim that says: “Anyone can grow up to be president.” The idea is that from humble beginnings, anyone can rise to the highest office in the nation. Over the years, though, this egalitarian notion has been bastardised to the point where in 2016, 60 million people thought a reality TV star, with not a day’s experience at governing at any level, could lead the most powerful country on Earth.

It followed a prankish pattern that begins in every American high school. In an often half-hearted attempt to expose students to democratic processes, every school holds their own elections. And because teenagers tend to disdain anyone who actually wants to be elected – think of Tracy Flick in Election – high schoolers tend to vote for the least qualified, least serious person possible. In my own high school, we elected a guy who otherwise would have flunked out. He had no platform and didn’t want the job. “If I wasn’t class president,” he used to joke, “they would have expelled me.”

In 2016, Hillary Clinton was Flick, and Trump was the least qualified candidate. His supporters thought it would be hilarious, demented and disruptive – thank you, Silicon Valley – to elect a person who hated government to be the one to lead the government. Everyone knew Trump was a racist, a draft-dodger, a sexual predator and a tax avoider with nothing approaching a presidential temperament, and still they rolled the dice. A T-shirt vendor I interviewed at a Trump rally in El Paso summed it up: “I wanted to see the guy fuck shit up.”

In the wake of the Trump administration’s breathtakingly incompetent pandemic response, at least some voters have sobered up enough to realise that there is a difference between high school and adult life, between reality and reality TV. We elected the class clown, and have spent four years living inside the horrifying carnival of death and division he created.

How do we become a serious people again? It has to start with education. Civics as a topic is rarely taught in American schools any more, but it should be a yearly unit, starting in grade school. We must ask ourselves and our children: what does government actually do? How does it affect our lives? Should the people running our water systems, roads, schools, fire service and military have experience in the work they oversee? Should we have a dog groomer run the water treatment facility? A water-treatment specialist run the air force? A golf course developer run the nation’s pandemic response? By the end of 2020, 400,000 Americans will have died to prove that simple government competence matters. It should not be so hard to teach this to our kids: when we vote for ridiculous people, we become a ridiculous nation.

Kiley Reid, novelist

Kiley Reid.

Yesterday, I took a long walk through West Philly. Almost every corner was blanketed with large red, white and blue signs declaring, “VOTE: MAKE A PLAN.” As I walked along one of the neighbourhood’s main arteries, Baltimore Avenue, I saw two middle-aged white women chatting on their stoop. Their porch was littered with several signs– Resist! and Vote! – but taking up the most real estate was a large black letter board, quoting Rebecca Solnit. “VOTING IS A CHESS MOVE,” it said. “NOT A VALENTINE.” A number of houses in this predominantly black but gentrifying part of Philadelphia had Biden-Harris signs, but if there was excitement around any single message, it was this: vote. The same day I received an email from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania informing me that my ballot was in the mail.

One of the surprises of the past four years (to me, anyway) has been the onslaught of art that couples grand symbolic gestures with a stupendous lack of ambition. Film studios, TV shows and publishing houses have vowed to tackle white supremacy and include more voices of colour. This, in the abstract, is a good thing. The stories of non-white people continue to be neglected. But this emphasis on representation mainly operates as a form of rebranding: we’re getting the same glossy stories lionising the same class of people – but with a slightly higher percentage of dark faces. And while this minor change in cultural production did surprise me, it shouldn’t have. The liberal bourgeoisie want to see themselves as enlightened and inclusive, while capital wants to expand into new markets. A dollar is a dollar regardless of who it’s taken from. Everyone wins but the working-class (and people who like art).

This dizzying disparity between what’s said and what’s done extends to our politics, too. Democratic mayors paint “Black Lives Matter” on the streets of their cities while increasing their police departments’ already bloated budgets. Democratic governors tell us they believe in the climate crisis while ramping up fracking. And Biden proclaims that healthcare is a human right while opposing any plan that would realise that right.

Lately, I’ve been watching Fred Hampton’s speeches when I need a break from writing. “Political power does not flow from the sleeve of a dashiki,” he said in 1969. No other line better encapsulates the failures of our era. Symbolism has overwhelmed both art and politics during Trump’s presidency, but it’s a sterile symbolism, detached from power.

In 2012, I went to the polls three hours before my shift. I wanted to vote and I’d made a plan. But after waiting in line for two and a half hours, I had to forfeit my place, and my vote, to go to work. I now have the leisure of voting whenever I want, without worrying about my shift, but after four years of capitalists donning dashikis, I’ve never been more aware that my vote is symbolic and bereft of power. No matter what move working-class voters make this year, they lose. In chess, this is called a checkmate.

Ocean Vuong, poet and novelist

Ocean Vuong. Circular panelist byline.

The US election is looming over us and I am struggling to grapple with it.

My technique of survival, for my own mental health, is to question the office of the presidency itself. I think we have a double standard for our presidents. They are allowed to do so many horrific things. If you sat down with someone and they told you that they had deported thousands of children; brushed off a water crisis in Flint, Michigan; bombed multiple countries in the Middle East, you’d probably scoot away. Regardless of whether their name is Donald Trump or Barack Obama, you’d probably say, “I’m going to go home.” But somehow, we allow this.

I question America as an institution. Our rendition of freedom is to choose between a horrific choice and a bad choice. When we go to bed at night and say: “This is the American Dream, this is democratic freedom” – I am not sure that is where we want to be.

I am pessimistic about this election. I know the polls are looking good for Joe Biden. But I also live here. I grew up with a lot of working-class folks. I live in Massachusetts and if you drive 30 minutes out of Northampton, there are Trump supporters. So I wouldn’t be surprised if it is a Trump election again, based on what I see in the people.

I have been reading a lot of essays by William Carlos Williams. People think he wrote cute poems about plums and wheelbarrows. But what he wrote about best is what it means to be American. I am thinking of him a lot at this moment. He encourages writers to question the institutions themselves, and I am trying to do that.

Joyce Carol Oates, novelist

Joyce Carol Oates. Circular panelist byline.

Like Chekhov’s three sisters ardently, desperately yearning for Moscow, amid the paralysis of 19th-century Russian provincial life, so, since the stunning surprise of November 2016, when an unqualified, race-baiting, several times bankrupt conman “billionaire” was elected president of the United States, opponents of Trump have yearned for things to be set right again, for justice to be restored, something like common sense, decency, sanity reinstated. For what seemed like forever, great hope was stirred by the long-awaited Mueller report, as if a lifelong Republican (Robert Mueller) might reasonably prove to be a saviour for Democrats. Then, when the Mueller report, diluted of its potential impact by Mueller himself, and mocked and ridiculed by Republicans, failed to make any difference, impeachment proceedings initiated by the Democrat-controlled House stirred even greater hope, providing a national showcase for the investigation of what was just a small fraction of the president’s “crimes and misdemeanours”. But these failed to gain support in the Senate among Republicans, thus were doomed to defeat with the predictable consequence of inspiring the indignant Trump to ever more divisive and despotic acts.

This yearning has prevailed, at times quixotically, with a hope that, for instance, the long-time demand for an exposé of Trump’s taxes might finally be fulfilled, however belatedly, and that this would make a difference, or lawsuits filed by women in the wake of the #MeToo movement alleging that Trump had sexually abused them, or, indeed, the most potentially damaging evidence made public, that Trump had been an intimate associate of the scandalous Jeffrey Epstein, convicted of the sexual trafficking of a minor in Florida, and charged, at the time of his suspicious death in a Manhattan detention centre, with the sexual trafficking of dozens of minors in Florida and New York City – that this would make a difference …

One by one, like beguiling mirages that, on closer examination, are revealed to be only distortions in the atmosphere caused by pollution, these hopes for the reversal of political fortune emerge and quickly fade, leaving Republican-controlled institutions – presidency, Senate, supreme court – stronger than ever. Each day echoes Dorothy Parker’s query: “What fresh hell can this be?”

We have, admittedly, a minority government in the US, like apartheid South Africa; such governments, once entrenched, even in nominal democracies under assault by rightwing propaganda (Fox News, rightwing radio, social media), are difficult to overcome. Catastrophic fires in the west precipitated by the climate emergency, an upsurge in explicit acts of racism encouraged by Trump’s support of white nationalism, even the loss of more than 220,000 Americans to Covid-19 as a consequence of Trump’s pretence for months that the pandemic was a “hoax” have not made much difference in Republican approval of Trump though, over all, Trump’s support has been shrinking.

Through four exhausting years the prevailing myth has been that there was a “normal” time BT (Before Trump) to which the United States might be restored, as an afflicted person might be restored to previous health. But where once even “hotly contested” presidential elections were understood to lead to peaceful transferrals of power, as if in acknowledgment that politics is a kind of game or sport, and that “good sportsmanship” is the model, now this very expectation, as old as the US Constitution, indeed as old as sport, is suddenly not universally shared but rather another sort of yearning, or fantasy, on the part of liberals.

No one knows with any certainty what will happen: indeed, there might be a peaceful transferral of power, if Biden is elected; or, indeed, there might be, as Trump and his cohorts have grimly predicted, another “civil war” – as the losing incumbent president refuses to relinquish power and the supreme court, a partisan Republican stronghold, is called on to determine the winner. Or, Trump might be re-elected, buoyed by the non-democratic electoral college, election rigging, as in 2016, with aid from Russian disinformation and highly skilled Republican stratagems of voter suppression in “red” states.

In which case, the yearning for the “real” America will prevail, for humankind cannot live without hope, however quixotic.

Maaza Mengiste, novelist

Maaza Mengiste. Circular panelist byline

We have been busy tending to our dead this past year. These last several months have been punctuated by certain numbers: 200,000-plus, 8 minutes and 46 seconds, one woman asleep in her home. There has been an endless accumulation of details: scientific, forensic, the biological realities of our fragile selves. All of it has left us staggered and broken. So we count and measure to describe how our dead became that way, as if that might help us calculate the true extent of our losses. But for that, we need to have slowed down enough to trace our steps into the past, account for the present, and reimagine the future. To understand what has been taken, we must sit with our grief. And there has been no time.

My father died after a sudden illness in late October 2016. He lived in Ethiopia and my brother and I had to rush back to Addis Ababa for the funeral. I returned to New York, still stunned by his passing, just in time to vote in the presidential elections. That night, as the numbers were counted, I went to bed, drained and in shock. I woke to a new America. A horror settled in. It wove around my grief and I often feel that, despite the years, I have not had the time to fully weep for all that I have lost. I wonder if that is why, when I have joined other protesters in the streets, tears well up and I find myself swallowing the sobs, often unsuccessfully.

I have had a quote by Walter Benjamin haunting me these last four years. It has become increasingly central to everything that I am feeling and thinking as uprisings and Covid-related deaths sweep across the world. As the fourth anniversary of my father’s death and the US elections approach. I have paraphrased it to this essential thought: “Not even the dead will be safe from the enemy if he is victorious.” Benjamin was talking about fascism, about how it will rewrite history and tell us who has the right to be mourned. We are all aware of the unnerving parallels between German and Italian fascism and this Trumpian reality. The Black Lives Matter movement, those protesters demanding a reckoning with history and our present, are refusing to bury their dead in silence.

The elections will not end our mourning, no matter who wins – we have lost too much. It will not erase the debt we owe to the dead. It will not ease us of the responsibility we have to protect them, their history and thus our future. If the enemy wins, our history will be wiped clear by the brutal force of a fake nostalgia, a yearning for an America that never was, a criminal amnesia that will, I fear, take us too. Those children, wandering lost without their parents in those camps, understand what this means.

Rumaan Alam, novelist

Rumaan Alam. Circular panelist byline

Now 11 and eight, my children often play a game – long running, seemingly improvisatory – the only tool of which is language. “Pretend,” they announce, then “I’m a dragon”, or “You’re James Bond”, or “We’re on a mountain”, or “We’re in a car”. That’s all there is to it: you say it and it is true.

I overhear them at this game with a premature sense of mourning. I hated losing their malapropisms and mispronunciations, and I know when they’ve aged out of the ability to play pretend like this they’ll have once and for all left behind the interstitial space between fact and fiction, the very thing we call childhood.

For now, I try to appreciate this game for the genius that it is. Children can bend reality using only their imaginations. A stick picked up at the park – why does every child pick up sticks in the park? – is whatever they determine it must be, in that moment. The simple incantation of “pretend” causes the rest of the world to fall away.

“Pretend” is the magic word, and adulthood means recognising that magic doesn’t exist. It demands we admit the sword is simply a stick; it demands we acknowledge we’re not dragons or James Bond. I’ll be sad to see my children understand this. Yet I remain hopeful that the rest of our culture will. For too long, we’ve played a game of pretend, one also to do with language.

We ask our candidates for political office about their stance on the climate crisis, pretending belief has anything to do with fact. We let our leaders reminisce about some earlier, greater time, pretending that the past was better than the future might be. We allow strange rhetorical games, pretending there’s nuance in morally straightforward scenarios. It’s all as absurd as a child lost in fantasy, but considerably less sweet.

I hope we are now at that moment I don’t want my children to reach: the inevitable point at which we see things as they are. I hope we have the courage to stop pretending.

Daniel Dennett, philosopher

Daniel Dennett. Circular panelist byline

Donald Trump’s presidency has consistently proved to be worse than I could have imagined it would be – and I was already deeply pessimistic from the day his dubious victory was announced. That fact is one of two horrific lessons I have learned. The other bothers me even more, and it is that so many of my fellow citizens have been so easily and firmly duped into his delusional world.

George Orwell warned us that the Ministry of Truth in a totalitarian state could brainwash the citizenry with a heavy-handed onslaught of propaganda and torture, but it turns out that even in an apparent democracy, using methods that all can see (no secret torture chambers, no burning of books and newspapers) people can be put into a dreamlike state of misinformation from which they cannot readily be aroused by the most evidence-rich and eloquently posed alarms. Wake up, wake up, my fellow Americans! Can you not see what these people are doing to our precious and fragile democracy?

I still hold out hope that the Republicans complicit in this slow-motion coup d’état will back out, much too late to be heroes but not too late to restore some shreds of their dignity and self-respect. I wonder how many of them have had disturbing thoughts about what their children and grandchildren will make of them in retrospect. Children can bring out the best in their parents simply by innocently witnessing their behaviour, and expressing shock – or, even worse, disappointment. Be brave, children, and ask your parents what they are doing and why. You may save us all.

Jill Lepore, historian

Jill Lepore. Circular panelist byline.

Lots of forces conspire to overstate the significance of American presidential elections. The campaigns produce overheated ads. The more desperate the Trump campaign gets, the crazier its ad copy. “Your family and your rights won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America!” warns one ominous ad. Television news networks hawk their coverage in language nothing short of hysterical, and have taken to using countdown clocks, just to hype up audiences. Most Americans find it impossible to open an internet browser without being bombarded by a pop-up instant poll, or being asked for a campaign donation to play a role in what is regularly touted as “The Most Important Election in American History”.

Biden says he is fighting for “the soul of America”, language that has been used many times before, maybe most famously by the Republican and evangelical Pat Buchanan in 1992, about an election that pitted Bob Dole against Bill Clinton. “It is as great a battle and as important a battle as was the cold war itself, because now we are not simply fighting to preserve America against outside aggression, we are fighting to save her soul.”

But curiously, the Biden/Kamala Harris campaign has mostly taken a different tack, backing away from overheated rhetoric. One recent Biden/Harris ad features a black businesswoman in Pittsburgh. “This election is a defining moment for our country,” Marimba Milliones says. “We should not take for granted that things cannot get worse.” It’s one of the frankest, truest and most honest assessments I’ve heard.

How bad are things already? The incumbent president has attacked and undermined and done grave and in some cases possibly irreparable damage to the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of religion, the freedom of speech, the independence of the judiciary, the separation of powers, the rule of law and free and fair elections. His immorality and malign intentions are held in check only by his ineptitude and shortsightedness and shallow understanding of domestic and foreign affairs. He has doomed the Republican party. He has contributed to, and taken a deep and visible pleasure in, the fraying of the ties of affection and loyalty and common purpose that hold a republic together. His abuses of power and assaults on human rights and constitutional government and, not least, his mendacity and cruelty, have so outraged his political opponents that many of them have violated their own good sense of how to act and how to speak in public, have lost sight of what is required of people committed to living in peace with people with whom they disagree, have abandoned their own sense of decency and integrity and generosity and sacrifice. If he is re-elected, no one should take for granted that things cannot get worse.

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