by Charles Yu
by Mike Jaccarino
by A.S. Hamrah
by Eileen Myles
by Judith Martin
by Olivia Laing
by Yinka Elujoba
by Lauren Oyler
by Jane Hu
by Liane Carlson
by David Owen
by Christian Lorentzen
by Christopher Beha
In Philip Roth’s late novel The Plot Against America, history is knocked abruptly off course when the Republican Party nominates a politically inexperienced America Firster to be its standard-bearer. In the 1940 presidential election, the famed aviator, isolationist, and anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh upsets the incumbent, Franklin D. Roosevelt, causing widespread disbelief, “especially among the pollsters.” Soon after taking office, Lindbergh signs nonaggression treaties with Germany and Japan, fulfilling his promise to keep America out of the war. He proceeds to remake the United States in his image, transforming a country that has been a beacon for immigrants into a land of xenophobia rooted in white Christian identity, a stalwart champion of democracy into a friend of fascists, and, little by little, into a fascist state itself. All the while, well-meaning citizens stand aside, placidly confident that such a thing could never happen in America.
For obvious reasons, The Plot Against America had a central place on the short shelf of resistance literature that came together after Donald Trump’s election. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Roth’s novel returned to bestseller lists and was made into a TV series. Both works were seen as warnings of where the country was headed if we didn’t resist or, alternately, as pictures of where we’d already arrived.
But readers looking to The Plot Against America for lessons seemed to ignore the book’s least convincing part: its ending. In 1942, Lindbergh disappears in a mysterious plane crash. (Roth spins out an elaborate theory for this disappearance, but the important part is that Lindbergh is gone from the scene.) Roosevelt returns to power in the next election. In 1945, he dies in office—as the real Roosevelt did during his fourth term—but not before entering the war, putting the Allies on track for victory. The cumulative effect of these events is to place the book more or less back on the real historical timeline. (“Do you understand what’s happening?” one character asks after Roosevelt returns to public life. “It’s the beginning of the end of fascism in America!”) While the trauma of the Lindbergh presidency remains—“Fear presides over these memories,” the novel begins, “a perpetual fear”—we are left to assume that the second half of the twentieth century will unfold much as it actually did.
This sleight of hand is necessary because the book is presented as a memoir written in the early twenty-first century about Roth’s own childhood during the Lindbergh years. In typical works of counter-history, such as Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or Robert Harris’s Fatherland, the break in history is traced out for many years until we arrive in a world that is radically different from our own. Roth does almost the reverse: he writes from our actual present about a radically different past.
The idea that we have been living in an alternate timeline—that the world in which Donald Trump never became president exists alongside the horrible funhouse world we’ve been forced to occupy for four years—has been a common social-media trope. This is partly an incredulous response to the sheer strangeness of our situation, but implicit in the joke is the idea that we might somehow find our way back to that other place.
The election of Barack Obama’s vice president as Trump’s replacement (and the fact that he is unlikely to seek reelection in 2024, as though he’d already served one term) has in some ways encouraged this hope. At the same time, Joe Biden’s razor-thin margins and the poor performance of down-ballot Democrats means that this election was not the resounding repudiation of Trump that so many of us wanted. Not only must we continue living in a country that once elected Donald Trump as president; we must also continue living in a country where half the population wanted him to keep the role, a country where Trump may even seek office again. And just as Trump did not act like any president before him, we can be sure that he will not act like any ex-president before him.
But even if there were an easy way to usher Trump offstage, as Roth did with Lindbergh, that would not return us to the “normal” world. That world does not exist. We will never again live in a country where Trump was not president, and because of that, a perpetual fear may simply be part of our lot from now on. But there is also some hope to be found in the fact that we can’t return to the timeline Trump disrupted. The reason no such timeline exists is that the future is not determined—not by Trump or by anyone else. The question we face now is how to live after Trump, and the question is our own to answer.
Whenever a president leaves office, particularly when he is replaced by a member of the other party, we wonder what will come next. Usually our conjecture concerns specific policy areas. We speculated about trade policy after Clinton, tax policy after Bush, foreign policy after Obama. We ask what a president’s departure will mean for the judiciary, the military, the civil service. The answers depend almost entirely on who is taking over the Oval Office. But a signature feature of Trump’s presidency has been his ability to colonize every square inch of our lives, including many areas seemingly removed from politics. As a result, it is not just Biden but all of us, in various ways, who will need to find a way to replace Trump, to figure out what happens next.
To start this process, Harper’s Magazine asked a dozen writers to consider life after Trump, with particular attention to areas where the occupant of the White House ought not to intrude—but where Trump absolutely did. These are parts of our lives where the future cannot be determined by Joe Biden or Mitch McConnell or Nancy Pelosi. And so in lieu of purely political considerations, you will find meditations on film and literature, on relationships and imagination, on tabloids and golf and etiquette, even on reality itself.
Charles Yu is the author, most recently, of Interior Chinatown, which won the 2020 National Book Award for fiction.
A presidential election is, of course, about many things, but the most recent one took on an added dimension as a referendum on reality. For sixteen days in November, we waited to find out what kind of world we would be living in for the next four years: a fact-based reality, or one propped up by fictions. The former won out, largely thanks to dedicated civil servants and principled judges who insisted on doing their jobs—i.e., complying with and enforcing the rule of law. The barrier was tested and it held. Just barely.
That’s how it looks from this side of things, anyway. In the other realm, even Trump-appointed judges were part of a Democratic conspiracy to steal the election. The barrier held on that side, too, and it is made of a wondrous material—durable and flexible, impervious to evidence. Appeals to logic or data do not weaken its integrity. Just the opposite—attacks serve to make it stronger.
This psychological barrier has a solidity to it that springs from something deeper than reason. It comes from our love of a good story. At a fundamental level, we want to believe that the world we live in has meaning. Seen through this lens, the resistance of this competing narrative to being punctured by any number of facts is an asset, not a liability. For our fellow Americans are engaged not in governance or political campaigning or even ideological warfare, but in something else entirely: fiction writing.
I am not qualified to catalogue the absurdities we have normalized over the past four years—people much smarter and more informed than me have done so already, in these pages and elsewhere—and anyway to even begin such a list we would need a lot more space. What I can say is this: Donald Trump and his enablers in politics and the media have demonstrated considerable skill at worldbuilding.
By worldbuilding, I mean creating an imaginary realm that seeks to be immersive and engrossing. Good worldbuilding entices its audience, welcomes them into an invented space, and keeps them there. (Think Tolkien’s Middle-earth or Lucas’s long-ago, faraway galaxy.) A well-built fictional world doesn’t have to be seamless, or rational, or even coherent. It just needs to be robust enough to convince the audience to believe in it.
Trump did not initiate the fiction in which so many Americans have been living these past four years. He inherited the script. But Trump—who had already proved himself a talented builder of worlds during his career as a reality-television simulacrum of a real estate mogul—rebooted the series, freshening it up for the social-media age. In doing so, he gave the narrative a new reach. Trump was both a co-writer and the main character, mouthpiece and vessel, at times the generator of the story, at other times a perfect avatar for enacting his audience’s fantasies.
In the process, Trump has conjured what all worldbuilders desire: audience participation. At some crucial tipping point, the best fictional worlds become collaborative acts. By way of collective effort and belief, a fantasy achieves a kind of mental sovereignty. It becomes not just a book or a movie or a television show in which people happily spend a few spare hours a week, but a universe that people never have to leave, one they prefer to reality.
The boundaries of Trump’s fictional domain are not easily demarcated. They cannot simply be drawn around red states, or red districts, or even individual Trump voters. Plenty of people who voted to reelect the president do not live in Trumpworld. But there are just as many, if not more, Trump voters who inhabit an entirely different mental ecosystem from the rest of the country. Having spent many years participating in worldbuilding, living in a particular fantasy and enjoying it, they are not likely to abandon it just because their king has lost his crown. Trump’s defeat, while a step in the right direction, does not change the fact that millions of people like it over there just fine.
How big is this kingdom? Recent polls give us an idea. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of Americans believe the election was stolen from Trump through massive voter fraud. That gives us an idea of Trumpworld’s population. And where is it located? It’s right here. Not adjacent to our territory, not overlapping. On top of us. Underneath us, all around us. The geographical boundaries of the territory are coincident with those of America. We are two nations, sharing one space.
I have close friends and relatives who live in this other land. People who, in their personal and professional lives, contribute to their families and to their communities. People I vehemently disagree with on almost every issue, yet who show respect in our interactions. People I admire and love and care about, and who care about me as well. People to whom I want to give the benefit of the doubt—at least until they use it up. There is clearly a large group of people who no longer deserve this benefit—people with hate in their hearts, people who seek to divide or exclude or discriminate, people who seek to manipulate the narrative for their own political or economic gain. But those in Trumpworld whom I know personally—I want to understand them. I am trying to see them as well-meaning, sincere people who just happen to be really, really into toxic fanfic. Fan fiction that pretends to be non-fiction. Fan fiction that has taken over their minds, their hearts, their lives.
These people have, without realizing it, become immigrants. They have left America, set off for a land of make-believe. They are in the thrall of a mythical narrative. To them I want to pose two questions: Why does your new land appeal to you? And what was it about reality that made you want to escape?
Now, I’m not clueless. I have tried this with friends, and it hasn’t gone over well. I’ve also seen inhabitants of this other place on television, usually on the news, protesting reality. I’ve watched how they react when their fiction is disturbed, when a reporter asks them a question that threatens to poke a hole in their bubble. I’ve observed the sequence of reactions they cycle through—verbal, cognitive, emotional, gestural—as they fend off threats to the integrity of their narrative.
So attempting such conversations is fraught. It will require tact and strategy, careful selection of potential targets, those who might be open to border diplomacy. Not all worldbuilders will be open to such an approach—initially maybe only a small number. But the goal isn’t (and can’t be) to topple some towering structure, to despoil the land they have created. War tactics have not worked; our weapons are ineffectual.
Instead, I’m proposing a softer form of engagement. Tradecraft. Asset development. Recruit, encourage, educate. No more frontal assaults. Get behind their lines, live among them, learn the language. Gain an understanding of their world, not as a citizen but as an informed visitor. Differentiate between those controlling the narrative and those consuming it. Remember that the consumers include our neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family.
Understand that the goal is not destruction but reunification, that engagement does not have to be about politics or religion. We don’t have to agree on everything, or even on most things. Just that we are one country, not two. And that our country exists in the real world.
It will be painstaking work, and it will need to be done not at the national but the personal level. There’s no returning to reality—we are already there. Even if we could feel normal, we shouldn’t want to. A return to normal would mean ignoring all we have learned these past four years, in particular the fact that, to millions of Americans, we’re the ones living in a fiction. We are the ones across the border. To them, we are worldbuilders. If we continue to attack, they will continue to defend. Reality after Trump requires new construction, a reimagination. We can’t defeat a story with arguments. Only a better story will do.
In December 1989, Donald Trump and his wife, Ivana, were in Aspen, celebrating Christmas, when a woman named Marla Maples showed up on the slopes. What happened next is a matter of public record, thanks largely to the vicious tabloid war that followed. For weeks, the Daily News and the New York Post traded front-page volleys as they hunted for photographs of Trump’s mistress, vying to be the first to publish a picture of the couple. “Marla was hiding out in some real estate guy’s house in Southampton,” the former News photographer John Roca told me. “The tabloids had a bounty on her head of twenty-five thousand dollars for just her and fifty thousand dollars for them together.”
Over the decades, the Daily News and the Post profited greatly from inflating Donald Trump’s image, creating a Frankenstein’s monster out of a million gossip items and gonzo gets. As one former News staffer, Jose Martinez, recounted: “Trump’s roast at the Friars Club? I went to that. His wedding, I went to that. I did stories about the man’s hair. We talked to barbers, trying to solve the mystery.” And the love affair was mutual. Only hours after Marla had given birth to Tiffany Trump, Donald summoned a News columnist, Linda Stasi, to the hospital. “It was so awful,” Stasi recalled. “I would kill my husband if he allowed some newspaper reporter into the room.” Another New York City journalist told me that you could always reach Trump so long as you had a media affiliation after your name. “His secretary, Norma, would put you right through. He was willing to talk about anything.”
During Trump’s presidency, the dynamic has been reversed. The tabloids propped up Trump in the Eighties and Nineties, and now he has returned the favor. Like all newspapers, the News and the Post have been battered by digital news sites. Long America’s largest newspaper by circulation—with as many as 1.5 million readers during the early Eighties—the News now reaches fewer than three hundred thousand. The Post is in a similar spot. But despite their diminished stature, both have retained an outsized national reputation—the News thanks to its viral Trump covers, and the Post thanks to its access to the president. That these papers have thrived in the Trump era comes as no surprise to reporters like me who participated in the tabloid war. Both have long captured the day’s stories in pithy fashion, boasting meme-worthy front pages with outrageous art and headlines—“woods,” in tabloid parlance. For example, the day after Trump thanked a right-wing conspiracy theorist for likening him to the king of Israel, the News ran an imitation of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, with Trump swapped in for Christ. Beneath the image ran the headline: the last whopper.
In some ways, it’s hard for a tabloid reporter to imagine life after Trump. After all those decades together, all those pages, all that ink, where do we go from here? But as one current News staffer told me, “You could look at so many things in the same way. 9/11 seemed like the end of the world, but here we are almost twenty years later. There will always be news. We’ll still fill the paper.” He then offered an anecdote: on the day it was announced that the president had tested positive for COVID-19, he had gotten up early and gone for a walk. “By seven-fifteen, my phone was ringing, and I didn’t stop writing about Trump until that evening,” the News staffer said. “The Trump thing takes people away from the stuff they’d typically cover. On a regular day, I might have done three local stories: a homicide, a feature, a Sunday feature. But instead it became all Trump.”
Just because Donald Trump has lost the election does not mean that he will be creating less news than he does today—certainly not from a New York City tabloid perspective. There will still be towers to build, lawsuits to skirt, skyscrapers to name, gaudy lobbies to decorate, steaks to sell, and suckers to dupe. He may not be riding the escalator to campaign events anymore, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be taking it somewhere. As Martinez put it, “It’s not as if the News and the Post are suddenly going to stop covering the man.” And he will no doubt welcome the coverage.
It was a news story out of Hollywood that would have received greater attention last summer were it not for the pandemic and the election: Ron Meyer, who had run a movie studio longer than anyone else in the history of American motion pictures, had been fired by NBCUniversal.
Meyer, then seventy-five, had been the president and COO of Universal Studios and the vice chairman of the whole company since 1995. Although recent computer-generated animal fare—including the pointless, ugly Dolittle, with Robert Downey Jr., and the perplexing, miserable Cats—had lost Universal hundreds of millions of dollars, Meyer was not “ankled,” as they say in Variety, because his films were terrible and lost money; the man the Wall Street Journal called Hollywood’s Mr. Nice Guy had survived flops before. He was fired because he was being extorted by a woman almost fifty years his junior, had paid her off, and had neglected to tell NBCUniversal’s board, just as he had, a few years earlier, declined to come clean about his gambling addiction.
The past few years have not been kind to Meyer, who in the Seventies co-founded CAA, the talent agency that changed Hollywood by packaging film productions with their clients, and only their clients. In addition to the blackmail and the gambling problem, Meyer, an avid art collector, had recently learned that a Rothko he owned, which had hung in his Malibu house for twenty years, was a fake. He had been under the impression that the painting was worth at least $10 million. In fact, like Cats, it was worth nothing.
Unlike many studio nabobs, Meyer often admitted in public that the films his studio made were, to use his word, “shitty.” In 2011, he announced at the Savannah Film Festival that expensive, high-concept Universal blockbusters such as Land of the Lost, Cowboys & Aliens, and The Wolfman were “just crap.” He got specific about Cowboys & Aliens: “All those little creatures bouncing around were crappy,” he said, before upgrading his assessment a little. “It was a mediocre movie, and we all did a mediocre job with it.”
Meyer, the man who once green-lighted a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, had a solution for all this barely presentable, box-office-loser crap: a movie based on the board game Battleship, with a part for the pop sensation Rihanna. Battleship came out in 2012, and it lost money, too. In a nonsense twist on the board game, the movie featured alien spacecraft attacking the fleet: sailors vs. aliens. One critic called it “crushingly stupid.” Some people never learn. They don’t have to.
Such movies cost enormous sums to get on the screen. Equally true is that when they come out and fail, the world can’t wait to forget them. Meyer succeeded in Hollywood because of our collective ability to forget the garbage we generate and, it seems, because he was super nice. Sitting in his office on the Universal lot under three Warhol portraits of the not-so-nice Chairman Mao, he was “Ronnie to everybody,” Angelina Jolie told the Wall Street Journal. “You never have a problem with ego.” Others laid it on thicker. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson called him “an incredible amalgamation of elegance, brilliance, focus, care, and warmth.”
Meyer did not care whether Universal’s films were good, but being an amalgam of those other things, he won the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s 2017 Humanitarian Award. “Ronnie gets along with every person who’s bought the company,” rival honcho David Geffen said. Meyer will no doubt be remembered for his pleasant personality, instead of for guiding a studio that produced movie versions of the sitcoms McHale’s Navy and Sgt. Bilko, and a Blues Brothers sequel without John Belushi. After all, no one really remembers those movies. That’s the point.
Like Donald Trump, Ron Meyer made crap and somehow found a way to thrive, at the highest level, while doing so. Like Trump, he did not care about quality, and he did not care that he was making the culture stupider weekend after weekend. In any case, many people other than Meyer have lost their jobs in Hollywood since last March. Nearly three hundred thousand “creative” jobs have disappeared in California amid the pandemic, according to the Los Angeles Times—more if you count agents. The future of the exhibition sector of the American film industry now depends on a vaccine that might allow audiences to return to movie theaters without worrying about their exposure to a deadly virus.
In the meantime, after Warner Bros. finally released Christopher Nolan’s long-delayed, very costly Tenet in September and then suffered its pandemic-related underperformance at the box office, the studio realized that none of its films needed to be released in theaters at all. In early December, Warner Bros. pulled the plug on exclusive theatrical releases for at least the next year. That loud sound you heard was its entire 2021 slate of films being sucked directly into streaming on HBO Max, which, like Warner Bros., is a division of AT&T.
Not in the same league as the larger streaming giants, HBO Max has lagged behind them since it was introduced last May in part because no one associates HBO with the Warner Bros. archive of classic films, which stretches from James Cagney through Harry Potter. Few care anymore which new releases are Warner’s as opposed to Universal’s, Paramount’s, or Columbia’s. Implied in the Warner Bros. decision is the idea that AT&T will, at some future date, begin introducing ads into its streaming content, like the free lower-end streaming services Tubi, Peacock, and Pluto.
Nolan, a noted lover of 35-mm film, had a vested interest in getting Tenet onto the big screen, beyond the aesthetics of proper large-scale projection. The director was reportedly promised 20 percent of Tenet’s first-dollar gross, the kind of rare deal set aside in Hollywood only for certain big-money talent. What was supposed to be Warner Bros.’ other tentpole blockbuster film of last summer, Wonder Woman 1984, a superhero sequel, kept getting postponed. It was the fear that it would go the same route as Tenet, as the coronavirus spread in ferocity during its second wave across the United States, that seems to have led Warner Bros. to this desperate move. (“Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio,” Nolan said in response to the announcement, “and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.”)
Disney’s “premium” streaming release of its live-action remake Mulan, which premiered on the day after Tenet flopped, provided the industry with an important lesson. Maybe film studios don’t need to bother with theatrical releases, or maybe they don’t need to wait as long to send movies to streaming platforms, or maybe, if they control the whole chain of viewership and don’t have to deal with the giant cineplex chains, they would be better off. Maybe they could keep for themselves all the money they shake from parents’ pockets.
Right around the time Meyer got pink-slipped, Trump’s Department of Justice managed to get a U.S. district judge to terminate the Paramount Consent Decrees, a 1948 federal mandate that made it illegal for film studios to force movie theaters to bundle their releases—meaning that studios could no longer deny theaters the movies that owners expected would make a lot of money by forcing them to book the ones they expected to tank as well. The mandate had also ended the practice of studios being allowed to own movie theaters themselves. It meant that, while there might still be a theater in your town with the Paramount Studios logo on its marquee, it had nothing to do with Paramount Pictures, even though it still showed Paramount movies sometimes.
The end of the consent decrees could make it possible for streaming services—from Netflix to Amazon Prime to Disney+—to own movie theaters and use them to screen only their own films. In effect, these theaters would be advertising storefronts for the films they make and then stream, the same way the M&M’s stores in New York and Las Vegas and Shanghai are more a form of advertising than they are candy stores—which is what movie theaters are, too. Candy stores, I mean.
The change also suggests that if independent movie theaters can’t reopen after the pandemic, they may be scooped up by streaming giants the same way shuttered restaurants may come to house Yum! Brands fast-food restaurants, Pizza Hut–Taco Bell–WingStreets. Not that a movie theater couldn’t also become a restaurant. Netflix has already experimented with long-term rentals of movie theaters for certain releases, and Disney owns the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, where it shows its films. There has long been a Disney store on the ground floor. As in Trumpworld, the name of the game is licensing. It’s a business of hats and T-shirts, too.
Since the release of Jaws in 1975, Hollywood has relied on one business model: the opening weekend, with a movie appearing on as many screens as possible, in large buildings that are usually outside of town and that no one can walk to. The success of any given studio film depends on the opening weekend. That’s why the budget for prints and advertising was sometimes as high as a film’s production budget, and that’s why Hollywood was not prepared for the coronavirus outbreak. Imagineers all, they could not imagine another world, another way of doing business.
The era of Trump and COVID-19 has killed the blockbuster. Don’t be fooled that it has not. Though all the big studios make blockbusters, it was Disney that claimed 60 percent of Hollywood’s profits in 2019. Now Disney has realized it can send its poorly reviewed, politically questionable remakes straight to streaming, and, what’s more, charge a premium price for them. Part of the insidiousness of this plan is how it exactly replicates the old model of studio-owned theaters—except now the theater is in your house and in the devices you cart around with you so you can text people, take photos, and scroll through social media.
Premium video on demand, or PVOD, means that in order to see certain new movies, any potential member of the audience must first subscribe to a studio’s streaming service for a monthly fee, and then, when a big new movie comes out, pay an additional price to see that as well. You must, in effect, book every single movie and TV show that Disney+ offers in order to watch the one new movie you actually want to see.
Sometimes, if it’s in a good mood, or in the holiday spirit, Disney may choose to premiere a new movie as part of its basic subscription service, as it has done with Soul, the latest Pixar film. On an earnings call reported in Entertainment Weekly (which comes out monthly) Disney CEO Bob Chapek told investors:
In terms of Soul, we also realized . . . that part of the lifeblood of Disney+ is providing great content to the base-level subscribers that are in there. And so the idea is that we thought it was a really nice gesture to our subscribers to take Soul during the holiday period and provide that as part of the service.
How kind they are. Disney+ is a service that has “lifeblood” and Soul, and what Chapek calls “the most desirable library in the world.” It now includes, along with Pixar, the Star Wars movies, the Marvel superhero movies, the Muppets, and every Twentieth Century Fox movie going back to the Fox studio’s founding in 1915. The blockbuster is, mammal-like, morphing into new, smaller, coronavirus-era forms, such as The Mandalorian, a streaming Star Wars series featuring Carl Weathers, Amy Sedaris, Werner Herzog, Baby Yoda, and the voice of Taika Waititi—more a variety special than a blockbuster.
By a wide margin, deep-blue Hollywood voted for Joe Biden. One area did not: Beverly Hills, the part of town most associated with movie glamour, with Hollywood as a concept and ideal, where the average house costs $5 million. Beverly Hills went for Trump by a lot, even more so than in 2016. On its face this might seem puzzling: voting for Trump indicates a lack of concern with how long the virus rages on, and the longer the pandemic continues, the longer movie theaters stay closed. It would seem that the wealthy maharajas of the film industry voted against their own interests, since individual asses in seats are what made them their money. Could it be that they have a live-and-let-die attitude toward the audience that paid for those mansions on Laurel Way and in Trousdale Estates? Or have they had the same inklings as Disney?
Their votes suggest that we could lose movie theaters as public spaces, with entertainment conglomerates deciding they want audiences to stay home to watch new releases. Already, those movies can be consumed by subscription and paid for like utilities, with the occasional premium event-movie thrown in for a few dollars more. In the last years of the blockbuster, movies had been pricing themselves out of the market anyway, resorting to gimmicks like 3D and IMAX to charge even more than the already too-high ticket price of regular presentations—all that to make the Charlie’s Angels reboot seem worth it. Even so, in a movie theater, you were alone with strangers, sharing in the communal act of watching shadows on a screen. There was power in that. Now, merely alone, a blue light shines in your eyes. In the world of streaming, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are Disney+ Bundles.
How far after Trump? Is it far enough now. I was crossing lower Broadway to look at a show and a guy with long sandy-colored hair seemed to know me and invited me to come inside and I said that’s exactly what I’m doing I’m a fan, meaning a fan of the work of the artist named Sky Hopinka whose work was inside and that’s when the honking and cheering began. It’s like the whole city came at once and I felt a sobby feeling and tears came to my eyes ’cause we won and I didn’t even know it was this visceral yet it was. I had allowed that monster into my body and now he was gone. I went inside the gallery and looked at the video which was overhead slides, still slides of nature and handwritten thoughts by the artist and he was reading these thoughts aloud and I am aging and I don’t hear as well as I once did anymore particularly in acoustic situations with reverb and walls and but I found that if I lay down on the floor near the speakers I could hear it pretty well and this was enabled by the defeat of the president, the end of the terrible man, everyone in the gallery was out on the street and extreme though my posture was I was still only partially susceptible to Sky Hopinka’s work. I’ll come back I told the dazzle-eyed gallerist who was out on Broadway now with his friends and that’s where you wanted to be now with your friends. I was in Texas during the earliest parts of COVID and I stayed there for a while and I was keenly aware that this was the first true crisis I had missed in New York. Well I also missed the explosion of that building on East 7th Street and 2nd Avenue a few years ago but I was present for the first big blackout in 1977 and the power outage during Sandy and of course 9/11 and I learned the thing you never forget about New York City, my beloved New York City that it is an organism and I am a part of it and when it hurts we all hurt and everyone awakens to everyone else in a crisis for instance during 9/11 I saw the kid who worked in that pet-food store on 4th Street, he was a young maybe eighteen years old blond handsome guy, neighborhoody and very unfriendly. He sold me my can of dog food for a year, never said hello yet right after the towers came down I saw him on 1st Avenue and he smiled. I hadn’t seen him in years but I was the neighborhood and so was he and I was okay. I smiled back at him. No self-consciousness at all. My favorite thing about the city is to suffer with it. I still pass that bar with the bear outside on 6th Street whenever I ride to the river on my bike and we sat in there in the afternoon and only then that one time in my life drinking warm beer on that first afternoon of the blackout. Beers were really cheap. All drinks were the same price all over downtown because the registers didn’t work. It was very hot and everyone was drunk in it. I rode all over the city on my bike on the Saturday we won. Every intersection was a party. Arms were generally lifted in that celebratory disco way, cars started blasting their music immediately. Everyone danced, everyone said yay. Cars in general knew what they were suddenly, party horns, cars would see a small crowd of people on a corner or gathered on the sidewalk and they would honk their horns and everyone knew what that meant and they would go yay. It was kind of a mating call. I’d say more of the honkers were male and more of the yayers were female but it was mainly gendered in an orchestral sense that I will lend this sound to that pile of people and they will make a sound back, it was love. I kept riding through all that and every time I saw a crowd about to go I’d yell yay. I’ve never been that person dancing around on the dance floor, grooving by myself but today I was alone but not really for a second I had friends all over the city. Sometimes it’d fail. There was no rule. You’d see these cars trying to turn. Some of the drivers were black, some were white or brown. They were mostly male but I would say they were generally nice cars and the people inside looked like they had money and they would look straight ahead and they were not having any of this cheering thing. They were going somewhere and this was super irritating traffic and they would not give you face, or a smile a honk or a cheer. It was grim for them driving through the city. I wouldn’t say these were Trump people necessarily but they were like him. Angels without joy. A sexless lot, unconnected already in their own ring of hell. There were people in the cars with them sometimes and they were all on a mission and we were not. We were here. You know how it was for months: all the numbers the talking heads and banners on screens and charts omigod charts really for a year but definitely a lot since last Tuesday. That was gone. The drone was o’er. I’ve never written o’er before. It was done. The organic was back. I don’t have to look at my phone constantly anymore. I don’t have to listen to those voices. Send me a video said Erin. She was on Long Island with her friends. I sent her street corners. Pretty unimpressive because no picture could convey the feeling on the land. I told her how buses, city buses would honk as they turned past a cluster of exhilarated citizens, young men and young women, boys and girls. Straight people, trans people, queers. The bus would honk and everyone would cheer. Buses honking brought tears to my eyes. I wrote Erin that. Buses are honking. Imagine that. Buses. Buses have politics. The working class. I thought of Jason Hargrove, the Detroit bus driver who was so mad at all the people getting on without masks. And then he got COVID and died. And Trump did that. Buses know. Buses suffer with us. You can’t drive a bus full of coughing people without thinking, man I’m going to get sick. I love buses. Buses suffer with us. Buses see the city. Buses see us. I go into Tompkins Square Park and it’s the same old guys playing guitars. Several clusters of them. Young people milling around. Skateboards flashing by. Regular. A little more crowded than usual. You could tell it would thicken later. But it feels glad. The old guys have smiles on their faces when they wah-wah like they’ve done for years on Saturday in the park. Bring pizza said Joe. What kind. Charlie likes pepperoni, I like olive and mushroom. Anything. You got it I said. I’ll go to that place on 13th Street. If I knew the name I’d order a pie but then I’d have to wait. I’ll go to Union Square Park on the way. I love that I don’t even think about what I look like. I stopped at home to get chargers. It’s warm. I dropped a jacket off. Don’t get in an accident today. This is a bad day to die. An easy day to get killed. By one of those happy buses. I notice trucks don’t care. I haven’t seen a single happy truck. Are those Trump voters. Do trucks love Trump and buses love Biden. Most cars love Biden. Many cars do. Everyone loves Kamala Harris. Do the cops love Kamala Harris. People who don’t like Kamala Harris say she’s a cop, cops should love her right. Union Square Park is all about cops. Cops lining 14th Street, facing the park. Guardrails are up and cops are standing there. I notice young people leaving the park say things like thank you for your service officer. I think the kid meant it, he was being polite but the cop didn’t like it. I heard the tone. It meant class. I should stand here invisibly translating everything for everyone like a god. Joan says god in Hebrew is plural. So much for monotheism. So much for he. Hope you guys are having a good day said another kid. The cop smiled. He was probably a nice cop it was tonally right. I waded in. Have a good day you guys I said. They stonewalled me. I think they thought I was needling them. Nah I was just testing the waters. Did you ever hear about Williams syndrome. I just read about it. These people have this condition where they have like party personalities like they are able to walk up to strangers and say things, they are very gregarious people and they are deeply affected by music. This is like a psychological type it seems and they are studying them. I worried I was like that but I’m not gregarious. I’m only trying. Like a scientist. I want to see what happens. I think comedians are like this. Anyone who does stand-up has this condition I believe. I head west on 14th Street. I keep walking into the grocery store when I mean the pizza shop. What is this about. I’m overexcited. I say to the guy, Great day. What. I said great day. We got rid of the bum. See I’m just testing. Maybe I have that condition. The president. Oh well. You liked him? I’m really getting pushy now. I didn’t like the way he talked. That wasn’t right. The guy shook his head. I think it’s great I said. I’m crowing now. I’ll have a Coke and a Diet Coke. And a water. Is this sex. I think this is sex. I can see that my joy can easily turn into hostility. I was standing outside for a while because only three people can be in this pizza shop at the same time. I think it’s called Village Pizza. There were three guys in there getting lunch. Workers. They didn’t look happy. They looked like it wasn’t even happening. Why do they like Trump. ’Cause he’s gross. He doesn’t make them feel gross because he is gross. He’s one of them. And they are not gross necessarily. But they are afraid not to be gross. Because they will be mocked. It’s a kind of self-mockery. You protect yourself by acting thicker than you are but it becomes you. People think it’s great that he can have so much money and be like them. And it’s true. He was abused and he became a clown, a gross rich clown. I know someone whose mother went to school with him in Queens. Nobody liked him. He was gross. I’m looking at these guys in there all waiting together. You don’t have to all be in there. I can’t order my slices from out here. There’s two guys behind the counter. One is huge and is just sitting there. He’s the guy I talked to. He looks very unhealthy. He can hardly move. The other guy does all the work. Maybe they’re family. The workers are not going to wait outside because they are together and they are committed to not being observant because what the fuck do they care. I’m working. I’m getting my lunch. To them I’m like a big NYU person or something like that. I don’t know what I am but they are set and that’s what gross means. Everything felt like that for a while. The grossness was descending on the city. He was not our style, we did not like him, we did not vote for him but his disease was everywhere and now it is gone. Just for today. Hyperbole which is a party or anything else clears the deck for a while. The deck is clear right now and we are cheering. All our problems are not solved and we are cheering. I lock my bike outside the pizza shop and I carry the pizza over to Joe and Charlie’s building. Joe’s had an infection in his chest so he hasn’t been out except to go to the doctor’s and Charlie’s a workaholic and sitting at his mountain of screens making things except when he comes out and we all sit here smiling eating pizza. I got plain for myself. I put a little pepper flakes on everyone’s and some garlic salt but a lot on mine. It’s spicy, we’re just eating and smiling I’m drinking my drink a Diet Coke. Everyone’s gross. Finally everyone’s gross. What do we do. Joe sets his iPad up so we can still hear the news. So he got Pennsylvania that’s what happened. He’s probably going to get Georgia too. Really. Wow. Charlie smiles. It’s unbelievable. Have another. There’s more? Yes I’ll bring it to you on greasy paper. They put my slices in a box and each is on a paper plate and then the wax paper or whatever is drenched in oil. Everything’s delicious and ordinary. I love my friends. I love being here. There’s a drill across the street so you can’t hear the cheers so much. What’s that. Who knows. They’re working on some pipes. They’re always working on some pipes. You want to go down. We were just talking about Joe’s family and his sisters and how they feel about being in his writing. They don’t like it. Are they Trumpies. I think we’re talking about who we will celebrate with today. I think my brother in Texas is a Trumpy. He was military. You saw that picture of his first wife. With the gun. My family’s not Trumpy but I don’t talk to them. I mean my sister. I don’t talk to my sister. She’s not Trumpy. Yeah let’s go down. We walk slow. We’re going down Charlie, Joe goes. You want to come. No. Charlie’s back at his computer.
We’re all over the city today. We’re all over time. Joe and I hit 14th Street. There’s police tape around their building but it’s just construction. It’s bright. Joe has a cane. This is an adventure. This is a big deal. Joe remains sexy. He’s got the deep voice. The Joe voice. He put his Biden-Harris T-shirt on which was brilliant. Everyone cheers when they see him. He’s like a sign. He starts acting like a sign, saying yay to everyone. Women always say yay, some couples won’t. Or they say a little. Not everyone in Chelsea is happy. They’re doing their Chelsea thing. Shopping, getting some food. This is a disruption. It’s like they didn’t even know there was an election. We stop at the subway entrance. A place to lean. Two cops are there. Nice or maybe subway cops. Are subway cops nice. Maybe nicer. It’s different right. We’re just standing there. People walking by. Everyone cheers. Cars honking. I guess Times Square is a hot spot Joe says. He’s looking at his phone. This is great. Yeah we’re out. It’s like a parade. The whole city is a parade. Okay this is good says Joe. You’ve had enough? Yeah this is good and we turn around. Some people are coming and he does a little dance. He’s disco Joe. He does that Christ-y thing with his arms extended and his chest thrust out. We had to negotiate the police tape to get back into their building. We’re weaving around the curb and young people are darting around us. It’s like that thing when people are making you go around them to get out the door. I do it too. You just aren’t awake. Young people, lots of people are very alive but not very awake. They get around us and then make a sweet face and go sorry and they mean it they just didn’t see. You spend so much of your life not seeing. I remember being on crutches once no several times years ago and people stumble all over your leg on the subway they just didn’t notice this person on crutches and the graffiti was ugly because I was so slow and the brightness was not what I wanted to see at that pace. We go back up and talk for a while. You probably want to go out said Joe no I think I want to go home but I’m curious I want to see Washington Square Park right now and I do and it’s crowded. Right at the entrance at the arch is a bunch of Anonymous people in white masks holding iPads with images of factory farming and some holding signs that say truth. Can I tell you about what we’re doing. I know Anonymous I say. You do says the young woman. I mean there’s people all ages all over the streets but the ones that come together are young. They want it. I want to see them. I want to feel what they’re feeling then go. I guess I do. I know about factory farming. Are you vegan. I’m not vegan. My girlfriend is. I don’t eat pig. I love pigs. I’m working on it. Tell your girlfriend to work with us. She gives me a card. Tell your girlfriend to explain it to you. I’m getting closer I say, I am getting much closer I say as I’m backing away.
At home I do all my stuff. I soak my feet. I like soaking my feet. I read my email. I eat. I can just eat again and again. It’s still that kind of day. I want to dance. The object is to make the dancer dance. That’s what I heard. It’s the singer’s job. And people are dancing everywhere. Adam says what are you doing. I’m steeping. He laughs. I need a couple of hours. Should we go walk around or avoid everything and watch a movie. Movie sounds more perverse. And we do. We watch this movie (in masks) where a woman is dancing in a field and later we learn she’s killed someone and this is how she feels about that. And after that she’s sitting on a bus. I think what she felt became different later.
Americans have lost the ability to debate with any semblance of civility. It is not only politicians, who apply the term to a format that everyone knows is just dual showcasing. It’s citizens. If you have a substantive disagreement with your nephew or sister-in-law, will there be a polite exchange of ideas in which you learn from each other and perhaps find common ground? Or will it be only an opportunity for all to show off and show up others? Thus the old etiquette rule against discussing religion, politics, or sex over dinner. If the conversation turns to abortion, immigration, or LGBTQ+ rights, it is time to talk about the weather. No, wait—that might lead to a fight about climate change.
But avoiding controversy is no way to run a democracy. Our form of government depends on working through differences to achieve consensus or compromise. The idea that civility does not apply to important issues, so that denouncing others is a virtue and listening with an open mind—perhaps even conceding a point or two—is weakness leads to futile acrimony. What we have now is an unpleasantly antagonistic society in which many refuse to deal with their opponents directly and instead attack their character—or worse.
Constructive conflict requires discipline, and the more important the controversy is, the more discipline is needed. This is why rules of etiquette—how to show respect for authority, how to dress, how and when to speak—are so strict in areas of serious contention, such as courtrooms or playing fields. Interrupting the judge or sassing the umpire brings swift punishment.
As everyone who has participated in or watched a high school debate knows, there are basic rules that make it possible for conflict to be aired and resolved. These include taking turns speaking without interruption, staying on subject, being prepared to supply evidence, and refraining from personal insults. And no eye rolls or exaggerated sighs.
The goal is to argue the merits of a subject rather than the intelligence or goodwill of the opponent. Thus legislators are instructed, at least in theory, to say, “I’m afraid my esteemed colleague has been gravely misinformed,” rather than, “You’re either a liar or an idiot.”
In everyday life, the language used should be no less gentle, if not quite as stilted. More along the lines of, “I think you may be mistaken about that.”
In other translations: “That’s a lot of BS” should be “What’s your source for that?” “You don’t know what you’re talking about” should be “Have you considered the possibility that. . . ?” “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard” should be “How would that help?” And “Talking to you is a waste of time” should be “Would anyone like coffee?”
The place to practice this is at the dinner table—nightly family dinner, as should have been resurrected during lockdown, now that nobody can plead hockey practice or committee meetings. Children who have been praised for parroting their parents’ views, or discouraged from disputing them, will be ill-prepared to hold their own in the outside world, let alone to run it.
One of the many things the Trump years have put into question is the nature of the relationship between imagination, fantasy, and truth. Since 2016, it has felt as if the concept of truth—the idea that certain things are factual, accurate, provable, and in accordance with reality—has been deliberately corroded. Truth is just your opinion, truth is a deepfake. Truth is promised on one website and debunked on another. Scientists are liars, doctors are paid extra when their patients die. Documents can be concealed or forged, figures suppressed, witnesses gagged.
Once doubt is cast on truth, reality, too, begins to wobble. Instead of facts, there are competing stories, shored up by rumor, gossip, and conspiracies mapped out on 4chan and TikTok. Making people doubtful and suspicious, paranoid about the news, uncertain not only of where truth is located but that it can be said to exist at all, has always been the playbook of dictators, the murky realm in which power can be seized and consolidated.
This is the fantastical landscape inhabited by 9/11 truthers, QAnon apostles, and Sandy Hook deniers. But even those of us who aren’t conspiracy theorists operate at least partially in an unreal realm, projecting emotions, playing out mythic scenarios, shaping events to fit particular story lines. One of the things that Trump’s behavior over the past four years so powerfully encapsulated was the gratification of primitive urges, the fantasies of crushing enemies and getting away with aggressive if not actively criminal acts. His appeal was intimately tied to a longing to buck reality’s yoke, to storm and conquer, to vocalize hate, to claim the spoils and leave before the check arrives.
According to object relations theory, a school of psychoanalysis developed in the aftermath of the Second World War by, among others, Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott, such willful immersion in fantasy represents a return to an infantile position that under normal circumstances is superseded by a recognition that the infant is not the only being in existence, but must share resources with other people, who are equally real. This recognition is both painful and deflating, but it also offers ample compensation, since it is through being witnessed by others that we gain a sense of our own fundamental reality.
The fact that Trump lost the election and will soon leave the White House does not mean that this era of fantastical malice has ended. We are merely divested of an impediment in grappling with the two great, entwined crises of our time: white supremacy and climate change. What we need now, badly, is to reconnect with reality. What we need is to recognize that other people are real; that their needs, hopes, bodies are real; that freedom is not an opportunity to do whatever you want but a delicate and constant balancing act between self and neighbor, self and planet.
Even with Trump out of the frame, this is not an easy task. Capitalism, and in particular the type of late capitalism that has emerged from Silicon Valley, conspires to make every transaction seem frictionless and natural, as if an endless parade of goods is simply conjured from thin air. It takes imagination to see that the Amazon delivery, the new iPhone, the can of Coca-Cola all come at a price—environmental despoliation or exploitation of other people’s bodies, in factories in India, China, or Bangladesh. It’s an epidemic of hidden violence that requires diligent effort to apprehend. It takes imagination to understand mass extinction and habitat loss, to make images of melting glaciers and climate migrants seen among millions of others on a screen resolve themselves as actual events. It takes imagination to reconnect to a three-dimensional, temporal, organic, imperiled world, where actions have consequences and things that are gone are gone for good.
Part of the reason this imaginative reconnection with reality is so difficult, I think, is that we have become addicted to a mode of information gathering that is profoundly antagonistic to it. The internet has accelerated the news cycle, which Trump made his own by provoking bursts of shock and outrage. The bad news keeps coming, faster by the day. It has felt as if keeping up with this ceaseless wave of information is a moral duty, a way of staying aware and awake. But the effect is more like being whacked on the head. The algorithm prioritizes continued consumption of the feed, not action. It always seems as if something enormous is coming down the line: something revelatory, something you couldn’t possibly afford to miss. Hours go by, then years. Everything is the same color, tone, pitch. No resolution arrives.
Imagination doesn’t work in this sort of space (and I say that as someone who has written a novel composed partly of Trump’s tweets). It happens in the gaps between things, on the slack tide. It requires enduring those two main drivers of internet consumption, boredom and doubt. It means being pained, it means tolerating uncomfortable feelings. Imagination is the opposite of the hot take, the op-ed, the “I might not have predicted this, but I can surely explain it in a thousand words of threaded tweets.” For shame, I’ve wanted to cry. How hard is it to say I don’t know? I wouldn’t mind taking a minute to educate myself, to feel, to read, to think.
That said, I think there is a kind of art that speaks to the cramped, unreal, increasingly perilous space in which we find ourselves. I’m not talking about the current prevalence of dystopia porn. The fictional corollary to the bad news cycle, the compulsive consumption of agonizing future scenarios, feeds the anxiety caused by the real apocalypse quickly approaching. I’m talking about art that invents spaces in which it is truly possible to feel what is happening in this moment, to connect with its real threats and dangers, without succumbing to the paralyzed terror that both dystopian entertainment and the internet tend to provoke.
The dramatic polarization of our politics over the past few years has made it difficult to create art that communicates its moral concerns sincerely. It is hard to talk about kindness and justice, à la Dickens, without tumbling into a caricature of the woke liberal. The art that works is tougher. Stripped to the bone, it treats language as a potentially lethal force, speaking with a halting tongue. I’m thinking of plays such as Sarah Kane’s Blasted or Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, which grapple with the limits of cruelty and endurance. These are writers attentive to the aftermath of violence and destruction on a massive scale, who mistrust the contortions into which language can be coerced, who are capable of summoning spectral zones analogous to the dying landscapes of the twenty-first century, but who maintain a stubborn hope in the inoculative effects of reconnecting with reality.
To see how this might work, take Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, a novel set two thousand years after a nuclear holocaust has destroyed the world. It’s written in a maimed and bastardized tongue barely recognizable as English. You cannot read it at a tilt. You have to stumble along, panning each word—“barms,” “puter leat,” “1 big 1”—for meaning. This grinding pace forces the reader into a position of bafflement, face in the dirt, struggling to make sense of a secretive and dangerous technocratic culture. The seemingly impenetrable language opens up a different kind of understanding, one attentive to fractures and fissures, gaps, ambiguities and double meanings. Nothing can be trusted. All understanding is provisional.
Hobbled, one realizes how much one misses when reading at high speed. The density of Hoban’s writing demands that the reader labor to make meaning. It’s painful but also weirdly exhilarating, this process of wringing knowledge out of language. The world expands its dimensions as each new word is decoded. The reader is no longer a spectator, but a participant. “Wel Im telling Truth here aint I,” Riddley says. “Thats the woal idear of this writing.”
I want that kind of truth, even if it hurts, and I want the imaginative vessel to take me there, to show me what has been lost and what can still be saved or built. As an antidote to the perpetual now of Twitter, I’ve been reading the late works of William Burroughs, in which he reckons with the emergency of mass extinction: ancient forests destroyed for hamburgers and Hiltons, a whole magical universe dying. The Cat Inside, The Western Lands, My Education: A Book of Dreams. These books are riddled with what we might now call the grief of the Anthropocene, the desolation and loneliness of being the only species left.
Burroughs grasped the problem with sentimentality: “It’s dead mawkish muck and it destroys the truth under it.” Long before Trump, he knew how reality was concocted and manipulated by the men in power, infected by what he called the Ugly Spirit. His solution? Change the dream frequency. In novel after novel, he storms the reality studios, revealing the future we’ve been assigned and then dismantling it cog by cog. He sets the clocks to run backward, so that all the exquisite, extinct animals, the spitting cats and forest lemurs, reassemble out of radioactive soil. An old evil undone, language morphing like a virus to facilitate new thoughts, a commune of hybrid bodies gathering beneath a black flag. These are fertile dreams, seeding a future that remains possible, even now, decades on. It isn’t too late to ward off what’s coming, not yet.
I want art that can break the spell, that can wake me up to the emergency I’m in. I want art that kindles a sense of possibility. I want the ferocious imagination of Kathy Acker, skewering the violence and hypocrisy of America, and I want the tender imagination of Samuel R. Delany, dreaming up a utopia founded in sexual contact, dissolving the borders between class and race. I want art like an inoculation, art that has seen it all and can still imagine a better, stranger, wilder future, in which the old guard is irrelevant and something new appears, a sail cutting across a rising, warming sea.
There is a telling photograph of Donald Trump seated on a golden chair. Behind him, a wall patterned with gilded florals glistens in the light. The floor, too, is gold. Trump leans out of the chair, his left hand on his knee, his right hand folded into a fist. His left heel is slightly raised; his gaze is set. His expression suggests a longing for royalty, for kingship. If this were a silhouette, one might mistake Trump for Louis XIV, the Sun King, who is said to have declared “I am the state” and who strikes a similar pose in a hand-colored lithograph attributed to the nineteenth- century French artist Jules Breton. The pose is that of a man who believes himself higher than any earthly law.
Like Louis XIV, Trump is in love with gold. It appears everywhere, from the golden facade of Trump Tower to liters of Trump Vodka shaped like gold bars to Gold Rush, the name of one of the fake corporations on The Apprentice, which seems both appropriate and sinister since his grandfather Frederick Trump made his fortune running a brothel in British Columbia during the Klondike Gold Rush. In September 2011, Trump accepted a security deposit of about $176,000 in gold bullion rather than in cash. One of the first things he did after becoming president was to replace the crimson curtains in the Oval Office with yellow- gold ones. In 2013, he tweeted his Golden Rule of Negotiating, “He who has the gold makes the rules,” and he once expressed a desire for the United States to return to the gold standard, saying in an interview with GQ that the change would be “very hard to do, but boy, would it be wonderful.”
Trump’s obsession with gold makes it easy to see why he would look for inspiration to Louis XIV— a megalomaniac with an unquantifiable ego. Trump’s Manhattan penthouse, decorated by the interior designer Angelo Donghia, was modeled after the baroque flamboyance of Versailles, which was commissioned by Louis XIV and decorated by Charles Le Brun, whom the king declared to be “the greatest French artist of all time.” Le Brun, who later became chancellor of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, applied his taste to the king’s propaganda, deciding on everything from tapestries, frescoes, paneling, furniture, vases, locks, and coaches. Le Brun’s design sensibility proclaimed the king as a glittering object. He understood that in order to be acknowledged as powerful, one had to embody an image of absolute power.
Trump is far from the only would-be autocratic figure who has taken Louis XIV as his model: Slobodan Miloševic, Saddam Hussein, and Viktor Yanukovych all furnished their mansions in a similar manner. But most embraced this image after assuming power. Trump acquired the image first. State power would follow.
Imagine a man for whom nothing matters but appearances. Imagine that such a man was, by birth, heir to an empire. Louis XIV’s flamboyant and bloody reign revealed the deep class divide in his kingdom that led to the French Revolution and the institution of a constitutional monarchy. Similarly, Trump’s presidency has revealed a country sickened by white supremacy, extractive capitalism, and warmongering. Perhaps Trump, too, will leave his countrymen with a lesson. Trump has transformed gold from a symbol of power into one of empty braggadocio. Perhaps going forward, when Americans see gold, it will symbolize the value of being humble, and of focusing on the long work of nation building that lies ahead.
For a brief period I got a little bit into taking ecstasy. Besides the namesake feeling, what I liked most about it was that it made everyone want to talk, maybe but not necessarily while stroking each other’s arms in a meaningful but still platonic way. I was talking to so many people at the time that I had a funny idea for a party: I would invite everyone I’d exchanged numbers with while waiting for the bathroom at a club. Such a party would be disastrous, of course, unless there were more ecstasy, but as a funny idea it was grounded in a nice principle of humanity: it was possible that, among the hapless tourists, aggressive vegans, and data-visualization-startup founders, someone generally curious and amenable would be there, and we would become friends. Regardless, the party would surely produce anecdotes, which would become fodder for other conversations, one of which might even turn into a Long Talk. I thought this was what life was all about.
This was during the Obama Administration, but the link between my desire to produce artificial openness and the person who occupied the Oval Office wouldn’t have occurred to me at the time. Unless you worked at certain websites, it was not a historical moment in which every aspect of one’s life was considered potentially emblematic of a systemic issue. Now, at the beginning of a new Obama Administration, I exist in a constant state of tension between 1) wanting to make generalizations about myself and my milieu based on things like what kind of drugs are popular, and 2) knowing that even lighthearted generalizations could get me dismissed in public conversation (Twitter). Nevertheless, and fittingly: as other writers have noted, the trendy party drug of the Trump era has been the dissociative anesthetic ketamine, which has little in common with ecstasy and seems to align with the nihilistic insularity of the national mood. In a 2019 article on The Cut about ketamine’s popularity, one person described how the drug creates an “internal world”: “You’re not trying to reach out or engage with anyone but yourself and who you’re with.”
Over the past four years, the idea of conversation—both in the sense of an informal exchange of ideas between two or more people and in the sense of The Conversation, the landscape of perspectives on the issues of the day—has come to seem, if not pointless, then like a prospect with sharply diminishing returns. Evidence suggests that the difficulties are not exclusive to the recreational-drug-taking class, though the proliferation of usefully descriptive “classes” of people is surely part of the problem: the types of person I can sketch are many, and in theory I dislike almost all of them. As for the rest, they seem tired, and maybe wary of me, too. Meeting new people who haven’t been vetted by mutual friends—and, ideally, had their social-media accounts combed for like-mindedness—daunts more than it excites. I’ve become paranoid and distrustful, quick to judge harshly and assume I’m being judged harshly. Even the conversations I look forward to leave me somehow disappointed; I often feel as if I have something I really want to talk about but can’t, though I don’t quite know what it is. (There are a bunch of things you’re not supposed to talk about, unless you talk about them in precisely the right way, but I’m not about to make the mistake of talking about them here.)
Why? Conventional wisdom says the United States is so polarized that it doesn’t even really seem like one nation. For the side that likes to think of itself as believing in cooperation and empathy, conversation has become a kind of responsibility—and not only for all the podcasters committed to producing a weekly bonus episode for subscribers. Traditionally, dialogue is the route to understanding division, the problems created by that division, and how to fix both. From Trump’s win in 2016 to today, when nearly 75 million Trump voters have blunted the force of Joe Biden’s “mandate,” op-eds and well-meaning Facebook posts have urged liberal white people to have “tough conversations” with the other white people in their lives. A “racist uncle at Thanksgiving” was suddenly something all of us had and knew well. Articles advising “how to talk to your racist uncle at Thanksgiving” multiplied, to the point that predictive commentary about the new annual reliability of such commentary also multiplied. These conversations aren’t actually supposed to be conversations at all, but scripted lectures; the idea is to use the pretense of casual exchange to enact a grassroots educational campaign to explain to every racist uncle why his views are wrong. That no one, of any political persuasion, likes being lectured, particularly not by people they see once a year, did not figure into the left’s talking cure. That framing a usually pleasurable activity as an obligation tends to make people resent the activity also did not figure.
If part of the purpose of these tough conversations is to integrate the bad into the good, they haven’t yet worked. Many people, both online and off, seem to think disagreement is only the result of a lack of understanding, not a different interpretation of the same information; they’re often the people who make the old mistake of talking at instead of talking to. (When arguing with these people, sanctimoniously deflecting with a succinct canned phrase—“We seem to be talking past each other”—is the quickest route back to the comfort of “yourself and who you’re with.”) The racist uncles never joined The Conversation to reject or qualify what they were theoretically being told—indeed, the idea seems fairly ludicrous, in part because the existence of this character, who would be converted by private conversation (who is lacking, in some sense, “all the information”), tends to break down when we imagine their accessing The Conversation, and because giving any Trump-adjacent view a mainstream “platform” is seen as dangerous. Beyond conservative media, siloed social-media posts, and bemused interviews with Trump voters in rural areas, the only opposition to The Conversation came in the form of the man who knew too little, a viral 2018 New York Times article about a guy who stopped reading the news shortly after Trump was elected. It didn’t go viral because everyone respected his decision and understood where he was coming from; it went viral because liberals believe that steering clear of The Conversation is tantamount to voting for the other team. But it’s not hard to imagine that there are plenty of people who have never heard of James Comey, Christine Blasey Ford, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—who have opted out either because the frantic pitch of The Conversation is deleterious to the kind of life they want to live, or who were never in it in the first place.
One could argue that Trump did all this—that he divided and conquered both The Conversation and our conversations. Most of the people who control The Conversation would agree he’s terrible, and still among his various opponents, from Never Trump Republicans to #Resistance liberals to the Democratic Socialists of America, talk has been characterized by vicious arguments about what he means and what to do about it. (The Never Trumpers say he’s a threat to American institutions; the DSA, that he’s the natural byproduct of American institutions; the #Resistance annoy them both by not saying much of anything, loudly.) Under Trump, the shaky status of various social movements only recently established in The Conversation makes those who care about them protective of their newfound gains, and seemingly benign disagreements can quickly result in accusations of bigotry or fascism—again, of aiding the other side. Because the broad stakes are so high, every implication is vitally important. Pressure is piled onto something that’s supposed to be informal—that derives its power from at least a superficial lack of stakes.
But the crisis of conversation has little to do with Trump; he just made it easier to determine whom we wouldn’t have wanted to talk to in the first place. Like the novel, conversation has often been declared dying. Published throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, numerous self-help books promising to teach “the art of conversation,” and parodies of those books, suggest that conversation is a delicate balance of listening and entertaining, of giving and receiving, and that it is ultimately a power play. In his 2006 book Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, Stephen Miller (not that one) traces the significance of conversation from ancient Greece onward, revealing that the notion of a collective discussion that builds a connection between the individual and the community has almost always been essential to the understanding of human life. Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, Samuel Johnson, and Jonathan Swift all agree that good conversation is a great pleasure; they also agree that almost everyone is terrible at it. The “bubbles” that are considered one of the biggest problems with The Conversation today might be compared to the salons and conversaziones that fostered the exchange of ideas from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. And people have always taken public conversation personally, seeing themselves through the lenses it supplies. In a 2014 essay about books that “become part of the conversation,” Tim Parks describes the fierce debate Tristram Shandy produced when it was published in serial form between 1759 and 1767, writing: “People understood their relations to each other by gauging how they related to the book.” If you ever find yourself on Goodreads or “book Twitter,” you may begin to get the sense that this is almost spot-on: people understand their superiority to each other by gauging how they relate to books.
That much of what we call conversation now takes place online, in public, compounds its weight; it’s not unlike what would happen if someone threw a party, invited everyone they met while high in line for the bathroom at a club, and then turned it into a reality-TV show. The word “conversation” is often used as corporate shorthand for the networks of talk generated on social-media platforms: the least popular but chattiest of them all, Twitter, announces on its homepage that new users can “join the conversation.” Among the longest-suffering tweeters, The Conversation is ironically known as “the discourse,” and when someone refers to it she almost always means the tedious cycle of opinion and backlash that follows political news, cultural news, or a random user saying something embarrassing. In this conversation, even bursts of true absurdity—something like the woman who posted, in 2016, that she was “so finished with white men’s entitlement lately that I’m really not sad about a 2yo being eaten by a gator bc his daddy ignored signs”—are predictable to those who follow trends in left-liberal politics and self-promotional styles. Similarly, in 2019, a self-described “feminist wellness educator” posted a thread of tweets lamenting the “emotional labor” required to help friends and acquaintances with their problems, and she included “an example of how you can respond to someone if you don’t have the space to support them”:
Hey! I’m so glad you reached out. I’m actually at capacity / helping someone else who’s in crisis / dealing with some personal stuff right now, and I don’t think I can hold appropriate space for you. Could we connect [later date or time] instead / Do you have someone else you could reach out to?
The feminist wellness educator was mocked for apparently finding talking to her friends so burdensome; phrasing from the hypothetical missive occasionally reappears as a meme. Nevertheless, templates for tough conversations like these are common, and while there are few things more deflating than being on the receiving end of one, the appeal is undeniable. Even nice, old-fashioned chitchat is no longer particularly casual. Cordoned off from much of the chaos of the smartphone but still part of it, group chats, in which a few people can message one another privately on Twitter or Slack, or iMessage or WhatsApp, are the conversation pits of the twenty-first century. They’re seen as a place to say what might get you in trouble—or just make you look bad—if you said it in public, though the frequency with which Twitter users jokingly mention the possibility of a major leak of these private messages indicates that they don’t feel as private as we’d like. (More probable is one of your confidants screenshotting your least flattering messages for the purposes of nice, old-fashioned gossip and betrayal.) The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a renaissance for phone calls—a safer option, but not without its own set of rules and worries; as the novelist Mary Gaitskill noted in a recent Financial Times profile, “Now you make an appointment? Like what the fuck’s that?”
Many liberals believe that the election of Joe Biden will open space for conversations that do not involve politics, and that these exchanges will be easier without the stress of impending total catastrophe. Psychedelic mushrooms were just decriminalized in Oregon and Washington, D.C., and it would be a logical step if, after this era of cataclysm, the new administration were marked by a calmer acceptance—a stunned, sudden understanding and expansive, colorful interpretations. But it seems more likely that all the buildings abandoned over the past year will usher in a new wave of raves and ecstasy. As everyone knows, it’s cut with speed, and I still haven’t stopped grinding my teeth.
“Exclamation points,” explained Theodor Adorno in 1956, “have degenerated into usurpers of authority, assertations of importance.” Writing in the muddied wake of fascism, Adorno bemoaned the cooptation of punctuation marks for dogma. These once humble symbols, which developed as notation for reading aloud and evolved into devices (like the parenthesis) to convey meaning, had been perverted by authoritarian rhetoric, growing perilously pompous, threatening to take on lives of their own. Adorno saw these marks as having accrued a bit too much character, an anthropomorphism strikingly like the emojis that would populate social media half a century later. “An exclamation point looks like an index finger raised in warning,” he remarked. “The semicolon looks like a drooping moustache.” Other punctuation dramatized vagueness or made hazy implications across its gaps:
The ellipsis, a favorite way of leaving sentences meaningfully open during the period when Impressionism became a commercialized mood, suggests an infinitude of thoughts and associations . . .
Dashes now, he said, did not bridge phrases, but “feign a connection.” Language, a deflated Adorno mourned, was being punctuated beyond repair.
Without hazarding any historical analogies between postwar Germany and the United States after Donald Trump, one must admire Adorno’s prescience. The struggle between democratic liberalism and dictatorial nationalism has played out in no small part on the field of punctuation. The corruption of public rhetoric was not just a symptom of how Trump led, but its mechanism. And punctuation was one of his primary tools for masking his incoherence: that is to say, it was one of the ways he lied.
Trump’s language is littered with excessive punctuation. He is, of course, a great abuser of exclamation marks, often surpassing the accepted triptych. Consider the entirety of a tweet from August 19, 2016: “#WheresHillary? Sleeping!!!!!” Same goes for the ellipsis, that suggester of “an infinitude of thoughts and associations.” When Twitter doubled its character limit in November 2017, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert broadcast a black-and-white montage of the many moments Colbert had enunciated, in an idiot voice, Trump’s louche usage: “dot dot dot . . . dot dot.” Of the president’s employment of a comma followed by a string of periods, the host exclaimed, “We are in uncharted punctuation waters!”
In reading out Trump’s punctuation, mark by mark, Colbert engaged, as many others did throughout the administration’s term, in a process of Brechtian defamiliarization—reminding us of the absurdity to which we’ve grown accustomed. After four years of his presidential tweeting, Trump’s grammatical idiosyncrasies occupy our collective conscious as something of a new internet shorthand. His epithets (Crooked Hillary, Sleepy Joe) became viral not just at the level of the phrase, but at the level of their presentation. The hashtags, the unusual spacings, the misspellings, the neologisms—none of these can be easily unseen or unheard.
What should have made Trump’s woefully erratic use of punctuation a rhetorical failure was what often made it a remarkable success. Journalists have regularly puzzled over his unique cadences and outbursts, searching for the strategy or conspiracy hovering beneath the surface. The scholar Jennifer Mercieca’s book on Trump’s “rhetorical genius” examines his use of devices such as paraleipsis, ad hominem, and argumentum ad baculum. Yet it may finally be more accurate to read Trump’s verbiage as it first appears: as stark stupidity with nothing to hide.
In retrospect, it seems Trump set the traps for his own rhetorical demise. Recall his first tweet upon learning that he had lost the 2020 presidential election:
THE OBSERVERS WERE NOT ALLOWED INTO THE COUNTING ROOMS. I WON THE ELECTION, GOT 71,000,000 LEGAL VOTES. BAD THINGS HAPPENED WHICH OUR OBSERVERS WERE NOT ALLOWED TO SEE. NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE. MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WERE SENT TO PEOPLE WHO NEVER ASKED FOR THEM!
What makes this tweet such a breathtaking failure is its visible insistence on its own success. While some may quibble over whether punctuation includes capitalization, Adorno described it in terms of graphic signaling, and caps are perhaps Trump’s favorite graphic tool. Part of what made his Twitter compelling was its irregularity, its constant surprises: all of the strange new ways he managed to yell at the public. But in this instance, on the evening of November 7, the relentless capitalization becomes dulling—a loudness that wheezes and drags—and carries an undeniable physiognomic resemblance to Trump’s body language. What hits most poignantly here is that final exclamation mark: the exclamation mark is redundant. SAD!
In the twilight of his presidency, Trump’s desperate attempts to name his authority—all the tweets proclaiming “WE WILL WIN!”—increasingly lost meaning, despite their assertion otherwise. If anything, it is this that rendered his voice finally inert, so much thunder and fury, signifying nothing.
Trump’s rhetorical strategy, if we are to call it one, worked exactly the same way he ruled: with blunt force, carelessly, and in plain sight. And what made his words and style dangerous lay not in any secret craft, but in how the American public took up his blustering, maximalist scrawl to make their own sense of their country, and in doing so pushed the nation closer to the type of discord that an authoritarian could readily answer. For as language began to feel as though it meant nothing under Trump, it likewise seemed to mean everything. He was an uncannily exemplary president for the age of social media, his excesses easily allowing deconstruction and reconstruction, multiple memetic lives and afterlives.
As did other totalitarians before him, Trump generated chaos by first positing it in language. He had roughly twenty million followers upon entering office and exits with no fewer than eighty-eight million. And while he will lose his presidential Twitter protections, the fruits of what he planted, the ideological and material consequences of his linguistic contortions, have yet to play themselves out. Americans are navigating a social field of widening paranoia and enmity, in which language—now so distorted—may only work to further divide, rather than restore.
The pathos and demonstrative rhetoric that dominate social media, and thus, for now, true public discourse, continue to surge—every day new tweets, new memes, and endless refreshing—as we come to terms with how little we can trust the words on the screen, wary of our own use of familiar points and lines. In looking forward, as the country enters a new phase of governance, Americans will need to stay vigilant to all that has been calcified and conventionalized into new meaning under Trump, contending with the rhetorical damage of his era. “History has left its residue in punctuation marks,” wrote Adorno, “and it is history, far more than meaning or grammatical function, that looks out at us, rigidified and trembling slightly, from every mark of punctuation.”
“I apologize for those words. But it is things that people say.” Giving a final, emphatic wave of his hand, Donald Trump ended all discussion of apologies in his second debate against Hillary Clinton. Forty-eight hours earlier, on October 7, 2016, the Washington Post had released the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump boasts to Billy Bush that “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything—grab ’em by the pussy.” His debate disclaimer was his third attempt at an apology of sorts, coming after a flippant press release dismissing the tape as “locker-room talk,” in which he apologized “if anyone was offended,” and a stilted statement in which he promised to “be a better man,” followed by an unintentionally comedic “Let’s be real” and an attack on the Clintons. They were weak and combative apologies, made even more so by the presence of Bill Clinton’s accusers in the crowd as Trump’s guests, but they were also some of the only ones Trump had given in his career. As Hillary Clinton pointed out that night, Trump never “apologizes for anything to anyone”—not for mocking a disabled reporter, not for attacking the Khan family, not for birtherism—but he also never seemed to suffer for it. It was one more norm Trump disregarded in a long and acrimonious campaign, and a keynote for four years in which apologies and non-apologies would become a public obsession.
Like anyone much past college, I grew up with a particular type of public apology. I don’t remember the first time I saw a politician’s wife standing stiff-faced by his side as he explained that he was leaving office to “spend more time with his wife and family.” I am thirty-five, young enough that I only half understood the stories of cigars and a blue dress that were my earliest introduction to American politics, old enough that I remember it being a genuine event when a wife left her husband in the wake of one of these scandals. It was 2009, and Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina, had just resigned as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. It had emerged that Sanford had a mistress in Argentina after he went missing for the better part of a week with a vague claim that he would be hiking the Appalachian Trail. A reporter caught him in the airport. Disgrace predictably followed. I was visiting my parents, standing at their beige Formica kitchen counter, chopping onions for dinner while my mother read the story in our local newspaper. She greeted this news with the same tone of disinterested approval we would all use a few years later when my aunt read a story about a young girl stabbing two men who tried to abduct her on the subway: “Did she? Good for her.” It would take another year for the divorce to go through, but the sheer fact that Sanford’s wife had exerted any agency was a novelty.
Sanford began his 2009 statement by bouncing a little on the balls of his feet, like a boxer, his gaze drifting around the room. The rapid-fire clicks of cameras were loud and he looked, with all the flashes, as if he were caught in a lightning storm. Eliot Spitzer, in the first of two apologies before resigning as governor of New York in 2008 for patronizing the type of prostitution ring he’d built his career on dismantling, sped through his printed-out statement, his wife watching glassily. He barely looked up, then folded the pages like a letter and tucked them into his suit jacket, said he wouldn’t be taking questions, and bolted from the room. Bill Clinton’s 1998 address to the nation after testifying in front of a federal grand jury was astonishingly aggressive. He stared directly into the camera, and after a cool acknowledgment that he had had “a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate,” proceeded to argue with mounting irritation that the affair was a private matter made public as part of a partisan hit job.
I sometimes add these apologies to a list of things I will have to explain to my nieces when they are grown, like winter and democracy. The oldest is twelve, nearly the age I was when the Lewinsky story broke, and the only public apologies she has encountered have been disembodied written statements. She has never seen a man sweating from the sheer physical strain of standing in front of a room full of reporters and admitting aloud the worst thing he has ever done. They were humiliating events, both to watch and to perform, but they were over when the cameras turned off. It wasn’t that we were more decorous or respectful of private space; it’s that public apologies served a different social function. They were a form of ritualized shaming. A crisis had occurred in society: a leader had transgressed, and worse, had been caught. To mend the tear in the social fabric, he had to be publicly humiliated, stripped of his status, and then reintegrated into society.
The actual words the disgraced man spoke were not important, so long as they conformed to the general formula. The apology worked because it was part of a broader communal ritual. It was a speech act in the philosopher J. L. Austin’s sense of the term. In the same way that saying “I thee wed” in front of a priest during a marriage ceremony changes social reality rather than merely describing it, apologizing before a crowd of flashing cameras is the act of contrition, not merely a description of an inner state or an expression of remorse. It may not have been enough to restore a transgressor’s reputation or salvage his marriage, but it at least returned to him the decent standing of a private citizen. No one spent much time debating whether the man who had called such a press conference had really repented. Terse or long-winded, introspective or vague, good or bad, it didn’t matter. The apology had been made.
It’s hard to pinpoint when the traditional public apology disappeared. It might have been after Anthony Weiner confessed to sexting, apologizing “to the people that got these messages for any inconvenience or embarrassment they have caused.” This was actually his second public apology; the first had come two years earlier, when he resigned from Congress for the same mistake. That apology had been greeted with the jubilant cry “Goodbye, pervert!” from a heckler in the crowd, so Weiner must have wanted to skip the second round. But the dying norms still held in 2013, so he trundled his way to the podium and then asked his infinitely more impressive wife to speak. Sometime after that, all the flags were stored away. The wives took off their pearls, the PR agents quietly stopped contacting the television stations whenever a scandal broke, and the grand old public apology became a relic.
So the public apology was no longer the inescapable ritual it had been by the time Trump waved off the Access Hollywood tape, but his refusal to do more than pretend to apologize was a break from tradition nonetheless. His casual, unpunished misogyny left a huge portion of the country furious and absolutely unsympathetic to predatory men.
Then the first Harvey Weinstein story broke, bringing a new form of apology. There wasn’t yet reason to believe that others could imitate Trump’s example and avoid apologizing altogether; Brett Kavanaugh’s defiant performance at his confirmation hearing was still a year away. After all, we’re taught to apologize as soon as we’re old enough to steal crayons, pull hair, and knock over our sister’s apple juice; it’s the only way most of us know to deal with guilt. So on October 5, 2017, Weinstein released a statement, unaware that it wouldn’t fade like those that came before it.
When two hundred thousand people replied with the phrase #MeToo on October 15, 2017, after the actress Alyssa Milano took up a campaign started by Tarana Burke (“If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet”), the story was not about Burke or Milano or Harvey Weinstein—it was about the people who recognized their lives in her tweet. And when Hollywood responded to the scandal, it took the form of Time’s Up, an organization that raised funds to support domestic and agricultural workers who could not afford legal action against their assailants.
#MeToo was an acknowledgment that the problem was bigger than a single scandal, and that there was no reason to expect anything other than self-serving pabulum from the men so publicly outed. The precise language of apologies had never really mattered, and these new ones came in a moment of boundless cynicism. And yet we decided to behave as if they were true.
Not true in the sense of an accurate, definitive account of what had happened, but a true reflection of what the apologizing man thought and felt. True enough, at least, to be treated as genuine confessions. Analysis of apologies proliferated. There were broad, temperature-taking articles that were little more than collections of tweets, such as a CNN story titled was that louis c.k. apology really one at all?, and there were smart, careful columns, such as Lili Loofbourow’s reading of Junot Díaz’s (since retracted) apology as exemplifying the tendency of shamed men to offer narratives of personal struggle and redemption in lieu of amends. There was laudatory coverage of good apologies, such as an episode of This American Life about the television producer Dan Harmon’s apology for sexually harassing the writer Megan Ganz. Journalists called experts. Vox interviewed a theologian, while Salon appealed to philosophers in an article that reduced the effective apology to five requirements, like a doctor’s checklist.
This new type of apology broke from the traditionally polished, anodyne products of PR agents, offering much weirder, more personal statements. Weinstein’s, for example, ended this way:
I am going to need a place to channel that anger, so I’ve decided that I’m going to give the NRA my full attention. I hope Wayne LaPierre will enjoy his retirement party. I’m going to do it at the same place I had my Bar Mitzvah. I’m making a movie about our President, perhaps we can make it a joint retirement party. One year ago, I began organizing a $5 million foundation to give scholarships to women directors at USC. While this might seem coincidental, it has been in the works for a year. It will be named after my mom and I won’t disappoint her.
Weinstein’s apology was followed by Mario Batali’s, which closed with the cheery postscript, “In case you’re searching for a holiday-inspired breakfast, these Pizza Dough Cinnamon Rolls are a fan favorite,” accompanied by an enormous photo of the rolls. These statements were arrogant, they were manic, they were self-pitying, but mostly they were incredibly stupid. I am sometimes reminded of a line Gore Vidal wrote in a very different context: “Shit has its own integrity.” These apologies were nothing if not shit, and perversely enough, that lent them a rude sense of authenticity. In the years since Eliot Spitzer and Mark Sanford sped through their typed statements, social media had fed theillusion that celebrities and others were speaking directly to us, unfiltered and unaided. Served up on iPhone screens in tweets and Instagram posts instead of in person before flashing cameras, these flawed, idiosyncratic apologies seemed to be scraped from the bottom of these men’s souls.
Apologies came to matter because it’s hard to tell a story about systemic injustice without wandering into generalities or focusing so narrowly on a single story that the background influences disappear. Tell a story about Harvey Weinstein and you leave out the secretaries, agents, lawyers, and financiers who booked his hotel rooms, shipped him beautiful young stars, drafted his nondisclosure agreements, and handled his settlements. Jail Harvey Weinstein and there are still countless other predators and enablers and bystanders who will carry on as before. It’s the same problem climate-change journalists have been struggling with for years: How do you write about a problem that is everywhere and touches everything?
Climate change got polar bears, while #MeToo got Harvey Weinstein. Apologies seemed to offer the great James Bond villain confession, the climax to a story with a handful of main characters and a satisfying feeling of comeuppance. But celebrity gossip alone would not have satisfied all the women who in the days and months following the Weinstein news had the whispered thought, Me too—if these apologies hadn’t promised to fulfill the profound fantasy of hearing an abuser speak.
I have infinite sympathy for that desire. I have no idea what it’s like to be the fortysomething man who sneaked up behind me when I was seventeen and working at Applebee’s and whispered, “If I were to kiss you, how would you like to be kissed?” I would like to know. I would also like to know what it’s like to be the businessman who started masturbating one night when we were alone on a train; or the man who brushed his hands under my skirt as I climbed the subway stairs, then stared, affronted, when I stepped aside and beckoned him to go ahead; or the handful of men who shouted “Fucking slut!” when I was walking home from work one slushy winter night. I’ve long since forgotten my businessman’s face, but for a moment during #MeToo it seemed as if someone were going to explain what it was like to be that sort of man. Apologies would be that confession. They were irresistible.
They failed, of course, at every level. They failed to explain what it was like to be a famous, monstrous man. They failed to dismantle the networks of power that made such predation possible. They failed even at the traditional task of public apologies, reconciling the repentant with society. They failed because these famous men were the wrong people to explain what had happened and their apologies were the wrong texts. Even seemingly sincere efforts at confession were bound to disappoint. Louis C.K., in his apology, weakly explained that he had always thought masturbating in front of women was fine because he asked first. He was never going to come up with a good reason for his behavior because there are no good reasons for that behavior.
They also failed as expiation, because it turned out that the ritual wasn’t just a hokey holdover that disgraced men could painlessly opt out of. The physical humiliation of the press conference had guaranteed punishment of a sort. The men might not have offered a single insight into their personal and social pathologies, but for that moment, they visibly regretted everything that had brought them there. The new apologies were just written texts, as ambiguous in tone as any text message or email. Without the sight of someone like Eliot Spitzer clutching his printout, readers could only deduce what these monstrous men felt when they wrote about “letting people down” and having been “raised in a different time.” Already in an unforgiving mood, commenters read every generality, every flippant remark as a deliberate slight and condemned the men for failing to apologize.
Mostly, though, they failed for the reasons apologies for systemic problems always fail, and in the same way that we all know removing Trump won’t solve all our problems. It was a mistake to expect the apologies of a few symbolic men to make amends for something as widespread and complicated as misogyny and the networks of power that keep women from reporting assault. Louis C.K. could apologize, Mario Batali could apologize, Dan Harmon could apologize, but what good would any of that do the countless cleaning women, cashiers, fast-food employees, salespeople, and office workers?
Apologies shouldn’t be the story when problems are systemic, but the apologies kept coming. They’re a sleight of hand, the one neat trick to defuse social tensions without having to change anything about society. Make the story about a cop or an editor or a producer or a white lady walking her dog—anyone caught doing something heinous that’s obviously much bigger than his or her own personal pathologies. Ask the perpetrator for an apology or ask the victim for forgiveness, and then carry on as if something has been resolved.
Black thinkers have often been best at seeing through forgiveness culture, because they’re continually expected to forgive without receiving any apology or sign of remorse. Christian Cooper, the bird-watcher in Central Park who filmed a white woman calling the cops on him with the claim that a Black man was threatening her when he asked her to leash her dog, was one of the rare Black people to receive an apology. When asked by a reporter if he accepted it, he calmly said he did, then noted, “It’s not really about her and her poor judgment in a snap second. It’s about the underlying current of racism . . . that she tapped into.” In a single remark he summed up the pointlessness of looking to individual contrition to resolve four hundred years of racist violence. Still, forgiveness is a custom propped up by two thousand years of Christianity and a host of people making money from it. There’s an industry of preachers, teachers, psychologists, and self-help gurus who create a set of cultural assumptions about who forgives and why. Every lemonade-stand psychologist will tell you that forgiveness is essentially a question of “letting go” and “moving on,” as if your hurt and rage were a great weight pulling you underwater. They will speak to you in soothing tones about the need to empathize with the one who hurt you—not for their sake, understand, but for yours.
This self-help culture is the bargain-bin version of forgiveness, I’ve always thought—if you want to love your enemies, love them, don’t make the whole thing about yourself—and one that places enormous pressure on victims to make the hurt disappear. It’s a theory, a bet, that the past is something essentially outside of us that can be let go. Say the magic words, shrug off the weight, cut the cord, and watch the past tumble away. It’s for people ashamed of their history, who half wistfully, half resentfully think that with enough goodwill on the part of the victims, we could leave behind centuries of murder and start over in a bright present without memory.
There’s not much of a leap from believing that victims have the power to move on to blaming them for noticing when the past remains stubbornly present. But there’s also something right about the turn to forgiveness, and that’s what makes this whole conversation so hard. Apologies touch on something systemic solutions can’t quite reach. Even if all our institutions were righted tomorrow and everyone could walk the streets equal and unafraid, the hurt of history would still remain. There’s no forgiveness without justice, but achieving justice doesn’t mean that forgiveness automatically follows. Apologies at their best try to bridge that gap—to make amends for a wrong that’s done and past. It’s too soon to talk about that yet, but we should remember that fixing our social institutions is not enough.
Nothing that has happened in the past four years precludes the possibility of individual forgiveness. Nothing prevents a politician from stepping up to a flag-draped stage with his wife at his side and speeding through every cliché he can think of. But Trump’s brazen refusal to apologize, and the utter lack of consequences for it, created a space where a man like Kavanaugh could refuse to apologize and ugly-cry his way through his confirmation hearing to a Supreme Court seat for life. That opening was not a small one. Public apologies may have been rote, but they were at least a capitulation to a shared set of facts and customs. In this, as with everything else, Trump showed us that seemingly inviolable norms are optional. And he has proved the stupendous power of shamelessness at a moment when there has never been more reason to feel ashamed.
I took up golf late, at the age of thirty-six, in 1991. My wife was not pleased. “I didn’t marry a golfer,” she sneered. In her view, golf was beneath contempt, like vivisection. And she wasn’t alone. Golf was a subject I knew not to bring up in the company of certain people. In the company of most people, really.
Then, in 1997, everything changed. Tiger Woods, who had just turned pro, won the Masters by twelve strokes, an almost inconceivable margin. He was twenty-one years old. I was at Augusta National that week, writing about the tournament, and I saw him do it—by which I mean I saw the backs of the heads of the thousands of fans who lined the fairways as he played. On Sunday, forty-four million people watched his final round on TV, and my wife was one of them. She even remembered some of his shots. Entirely because of Tiger, white, overweight, middle-aged weekend players with bad swings could hold their heads a little higher.
Trump has undone all that, and then some. He cheats. He lies about his scores. He plays with unspeakable people. He owns golf courses that he bought with money from who knows where. He has made golf look even more like the thing that people who’ve always hated it have always hated. And, as he has done with everything he’s ever had anything to do with, he has made himself and golf seem inseparable. I don’t know for a fact that Tiger Woods voted for him, but if he didn’t he’s a member of a depressingly small minority on the PGA Tour—as Jack Nicklaus made clear by endorsing Trump, enthusiastically, right before the election. I can’t watch golf on TV now without thinking about that.
Like Tiger Woods, I’ve played golf with Trump. It was in 2012, at his course in West Palm Beach. I had lunch with him that afternoon and dinner with him that evening, and I spent the night at Mar-a-Lago, in the so-called Adam Suite. I enjoyed my day, and I later wrote that hanging out with Trump had been fun because it was like hanging out with a ten-year-old who had a billion dollars and a jet. But never did I imagine what lay ahead. You can’t spend an hour with him without realizing that he’s a rat’s nest of insecurities and poorly disguised ulterior motives. I wasn’t afraid of what he might do to the world; I just felt sorry for him.
Non-golfers mocked “golf clothes” for decades after golfers stopped wearing them; they may think of golf as Trump’s game for longer than that. The only benefit I’ve noticed since he became the leader of the free world has been in how caddies in other countries treat you. When George W. Bush was president, they blamed American visitors for having fucked up the world, and they didn’t care if you swore you hadn’t voted for him. I expected worse after 2016, but it was actually better: Hard luck, mate. My condolences. Really, really sorry.
Must we now read a decade’s worth of Trump novels? It seems like we only just got over 9/11 lit. In the spring of 2008, reviewing Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Dwight Garner wrote in The New York Times Book Review of “scanning the horizon for . . . the bracing, wide-screen, many-angled novel that will leave a larger, more definitive intellectual and moral footprint on the new age of terror.” Though Garner preferred O’Neill’s effort to many other entries in the then-proliferating post-9/11 genre, he thought it lacked “Dreiserian sweep and swagger.” That June, the Book Review published a letter by Alec Niedenthal, a high school student in Birmingham, Alabama. “Don’t worry; we’re working on it,” he wrote of “the next Great American Novel.”
It will spring from the iMac-fettered keyboards of the young, challenging, Facebook-and-MySpace-addled minds that you have so hastily jettisoned as literary jetsam, from those who see and comprehend, still to the delirious ignorance of the villainous Powers That Be, incalculable brands of grade-A terror being perpetrated unabashedly both by those whom we trust and those whom we loathe.
Another brand of terror—financial—came to the fore a couple of months later, and soon critics were asking: What could novels tell us about inequality, about the banks, about money itself?
The yearning for fictions that make sense of the present is always with us, especially during times of crisis. The Trump Administration has been viewed at least as a crisis of the Establishment—one of the major political parties taken over by a populist outsider—and at worst as a full-blown world-historical crisis: the arrival, in the globe’s sole superpower, of an incipient fascism, one possibly under nefarious foreign influence. Either way, Trump’s political ascendance was ripe from the start for novelization, and Trump himself was a ready-made villain: he’d been an icon of American greed since the Eighties. Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House—which is set during the Obama era but features a ridiculously coiffed “cartoon king” running for president—appeared less than a year after the 2016 election. A partial roll call of novels in which Trump and his election have figured since then would include Jonathan Lethem’s The Feral Detective, Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, Mark Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham, Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill, Jenny Offill’s Weather, Dave Eggers’s The Captain and the Glory, and Martin Amis’s Inside Story. (In the U.K., Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet has responded to the illiberal climate that took hold after the Brexit referendum of 2016.) Trump is a marginal figure in most of these books—Doten’s surrealist satire is the major exception—but that’s to be expected. Journalistic accounts of the Trump White House have arrived in a torrent and boosted book sales across an otherwise sagging publishing industry. No doubt some authors will attempt a realist portrait of life inside the administration, but electoral politics more often looms in fiction as an ambient presence, affecting the emotional climate of the nation, as the title of Offill’s novel suggests, as much as the material lives of the characters who populate it.
What can we say of the gestalt of these novels? Depression, anxiety, shame, outrage, and denial are all part of the equation. Lerner’s trilogy of autofictions has in turn identified the Bush Administration with fraudulence, the Obama Administration with a dialectic between liberalism and radical protest, and the Trump Administration with a rotten polarization that had been gestating for decades, a nation cleaved by both an idealistic but also mercenary meritocracy on the one hand and a reactionary provincial masculinity on the other. Offill’s and Kunzru’s novels stage elaborate epiphanies about environmental apocalypse and white supremacy, respectively. Sittenfeld’s alternate biography of a Hillary Rodham unencumbered by her marriage to Bill Clinton has her winning a Trump-less election in 2016. That’s one way to spin a comic novel out of a political mess: rewrite it so it never happened. It’s been said that Trump has frustrated his satirists. He’s certainly tested satire’s limits with his own absurdity. Eggers’s novel allegorizes the Trump Administration through a nautical vessel with a commanding officer who brags about his penis and abuses the refugees aboard the ship. It’s a little too on the nose to be much fun. Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha pushes further, imagining the worst, a Trump-ignited nuclear holocaust, inviting us to connect violent political memes with actual violence. These stories equating Trump with new and partially unforeseen disasters are all written by Gen X-ers whose alter egos may be undergoing their own midlife crises; in the novels of Rushdie and Amis, Trump is the face of a generational foil, of avarice and greed and of the fascism their fathers’ cohort fought and thought they defeated.
Literature metabolizes history constantly but slowly, so these books are no doubt the first ripples of a coming wave. For obvious reasons, the Trump lit we’ve had so far makes no mention of the novel coronavirus with which his administration will now forever be linked in common memory. In the future, the pandemic will likely be present in any story about these years, if only as a tragedy yet to unfold.
Still, you never can tell how loud history’s echoes will be. One of the lessons of the influenza pandemic is that not every global catastrophe registers its impact in literature on a scale commensurate with its real-life sweep. The epidemic of 1918–19, H. L. Mencken wrote in 1956,
though it had an enormous mortality in the United States and was, in fact, the worst epidemic since the Middle Ages, is seldom mentioned and most Americans have apparently forgotten it. This is not surprising. The human mind always tries to expunge the intolerable from memory just as it tries to conceal it while current.
Susan Sontag wrote that “diseases understood to be simply epidemic” are “less useful as metaphors, as evidenced by the near-total historical amnesia” about the Spanish flu. In her 2019 study Viral Modernism, Elizabeth Outka attributes the “underrepresentation” of the flu in literary fiction and poetry to its proximity to World War I. Deaths in the war, Outka argues, were valorized and memorialized in fiction, while “more feminine” pandemic deaths drew the attention of fewer literary writers.
Whether or not you share Outka’s gendered view of death (statistically, differences in mortality between men and women were minor, though pregnant women were among the most vulnerable), it’s undeniable that the flu left little impact on the literature of the time. There are episodes in near-contemporary books (Willa Cather’s One of Ours and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel) and novels by survivors published decades later (Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider and William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows), but nothing commensurate with the memorialization of the war. The writers who create what we end up calling literature are sorted and selected by readers over the long haul. It’s unrealistic to expect them to fulfill the documentary duties of journalists or historians. Yet, whether it was lack of valor, lack of metaphors, or a willful amnesia, the relative absence of the flu from the literature of the period is strange.
It seems unlikely that the coronavirus will be similarly forgotten. There has already been an outpouring of diaristic non-fiction about the experience of quarantine and lockdown, surviving the virus, losing loved ones to it, and working in hospitals and laboratories. Some of these accounts, especially a few written by nurses and doctors, have been riveting; others, largely those concerned with the vicissitudes of staying at home—spending more time with family, baking bread, etc.—have been disposable, no matter how charming. These missives were written out of instant reactions to new fears and sudden changes in day-to-day life. Still, the disruptions of the pandemic offer plenty of narrative possibilities (characters separated or thrown together, banal behaviors rendered newly fatal) and intriguing restraints (locked doors, masks, social distancing, and so on). Some differences between the Spanish flu and COVID-19: young people were the most vulnerable to death from Spanish flu; victims of the Spanish flu often died at home, turning purple as their families looked on. In Look Homeward, Angel, the hero’s brother dies that way, gruesomely, and the next day the narrator makes a point of envisioning him in full health, an act of remembrance that’s also a reflexive form of forgetting.
Another contrast between the literature of a century ago and that of today: along with the rest of the arts, writing was undergoing an aesthetic revolution called modernism. If there is a similar avant-garde movement going on today, it has done a good job keeping itself a secret. Anglophone writing still has its stray conceptualists (Helen DeWitt), minimalists (Diane Williams, Gary Lutz), neo-modernists (Lucy Ellmann, Anna Burns, Eimear McBride), and novelists with ambitions of epic sweep (Marlon James, Joshua Cohen), but they are dissidents scattered across a vast realist kingdom. Difficult writing is scarce. Our most laureled writers are easy to read, mostly unironic, and rarely given to ambiguity. How many stray from the left-liberalism of our op-ed pages? Moral didacticism, formal conventionality, political consensus—within these broad parameters there is room for a robust literature. This literature doesn’t at the moment seem revolutionary, but that may be a consequence of its absorption of the past century’s revolutions: modernism, postmodernism, magic realism, science fiction. With all these traditions to hand, what more does a writer need?
But what about those “iMac-fettered keyboards” and “the young, challenging, Facebook-and-MySpace-addled minds” pouring their words into them? Alec Niedenthal, that kid from Alabama who wrote the letter to the Times Book Review, is now thirty years old. He lives in Brooklyn, publishes short stories, and is working on a novel. We’re friends. I asked him what we can expect to see of Trump and Trumpism in the future fictions written by his generation, the millennials.
“In the Eighties,” Niedenthal said, “debasing language was fun. It was postmodernism, Kmart realism! Everyone was doing it. Now Trump has fully destroyed the ability of language to represent reality in a stable way. I dearly hope our fiction writers will deal with that, not only in what they write about but how they write it. That said, I don’t think the liberal intelligentsia has really reckoned yet with what happened in 2016, let alone during the administration. It’ll take time and distance and a willingness to resist easy pieties about what Trump is and means.”
Language debased by authorities and easy pieties from the chorus of the opposition—in between these poles is a vast terrain where almost anything goes and paranoia is endemic. It’s a shift in the culture that hasn’t yet registered in our literature in a way that marks the responses of many writers to the assassinations of the Sixties, the Vietnam War, and the Nixon presidency. With so many conspiracies blooming on the internet, our fictions have become more and more empirical. I doubt this will last. The online realm and the novel have yet to reach a full accommodation. One of the new tasks of a novelist portraying the present is managing just how much of the novel’s world will be mediated by devices, how many of its characters and voices will be ones we meet in the flesh. It’s a problem not unlike balancing how much the political will figure in the imagined lives of ordinary people. Trump, our first extremely online president, and the pandemic, which has turned many of us into extremely online people, will only accelerate this process.
“Personally,” Niedenthal told me, “the internet has made me into Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, an insect staring out the window as it rains. It has made us all European modernists—more anxious, obsessive, isolated, alienated, more preening. I think our younger fiction writers channel that experience in the deep structure of their work.”
We are starting to see narrators for whom online life is as real or more than what we used to call “real life.” As I was writing this essay, I received a review copy of Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, which advances both the extent of what we might call virtual realism and its lyric possibilities. If there is going to be an avant-garde revolution in literature in the coming years, there are a few things we can say about it, speculatively: it will be conducted by the most diverse generation of writers in American history; those writers will bring with them a new set of political values and taboos; and one of their main tasks will be chronicling the effects of technology on our minds and turning that into art.
This sounds exciting. It is exciting. Is the publishing industry as we know it up to the task of bringing this literature into the world? I doubt it. In November, Penguin Random House announced that it would be acquiring Simon and Schuster. How many corporations control how much of the book market may be and should be a matter of indifference to individual writers, but industry observers know that these corporations are taking fewer chances on literary writers without proven track records. More and more, the big publishers are coming to see themselves as the first stop on the supply chain for streaming entertainment: factories that churn out television in prose form. The reception of novels increasingly transpires in an environment of literary consumerism rather than literary criticism. It’s hard to imagine that widening income inequality won’t be mirrored in widening literary inequality. Where the corporations fail literature, little magazines and small presses will emerge to fill in the gaps. Things may start to look a bit like they did one hundred years ago, and the time will be ripe for another aesthetic revolution.
Let’s not kid ourselves: he’s not done with us yet.
Amid all the speculation about Donald Trump’s post-presidency plans, no one imagines for a minute that he might follow precedent and withdraw, even temporarily, from public life. We know that Trump will continue to demand our attention. The real question is whether we’ll continue to give it to him.
To put matters this way is to insist, against much popular sentiment, that we are each responsible for the contents of our own minds, even if we are not entirely sovereign over them. when can we stop thinking about trump every minute? ran a recent headline above a conversation between Gail Collins and Bret Stephens in the New York Times Opinion section. Taken at face value, the question has only one sensible answer: Whenever we want. But one could be forgiven for imagining that Collins and Stephens were directing this plea at their employer, since few institutions in the country have profited more from—or done more to perpetuate—America’s Trump obsession.
The producers and consumers of news periodicals participate in an odd dialectic, and each side tends to blame the other when the results are less than inspiring. Part of the job of an outlet like the Times—or, for that matter, one like Harper’s Magazine—is to signal to its readers what is and is not worthy of their attention. But of course the Times—whose audience skews as Democratic as Fox News’s viewership does Republican—would not have spent the past four years covering every detail of Trump’s life if its readers weren’t doing some strong signaling of their own.
So long as Trump was president, of course, it was possible to treat our obsession with the man as a necessity. To turn away would have been irresponsible, given the threat we faced. This view neatly elides the fact that Trump’s command of our mental space gave rise to his presidency, not the other way around. It was not good citizenship that made The Apprentice a hit; it was not political urgency that gained Trump millions of Twitter followers before he even declared his candidacy.
And if we’re being completely honest, our Trump watching—even among those who hate him the most—has always contained an element of glee. We were delighted when he declared himself a “very stable genius,” when he bragged about “acing” a test of basic cognitive functioning, when his ridiculous hair blew up to reveal the contours of his slathered-on tan. In our hearts, we knew that the public humiliation of such Trumpland figures as Anthony Scaramucci and Sean Spicer ultimately had little bearing on the future of the Republic. We watched because it was fun. Perhaps we told ourselves that this had some civic value: puncturing the aura of a would-be dictator. But all the while we were giving Trump exactly what he wanted. For it is an ironclad rule of publicity that it doesn’t matter why people watch. A hate follow is as good as any other.
Amid all the good things it brings, Trump’s defeat has served to call our bluff. Starting on January 20, it is no longer a matter of national urgency that we give our lives over to him. If we—meaning all the people who have been horrified by Trump but unable to look away—now find ourselves insisting that a Mar-a-Lago news channel or a four-year presidential campaign constitutes a sufficient threat to demand our continued vigilance, we can be pretty sure that the jig is up.
Endless amounts of ink have been spilled over the past four years assessing the psychology of Trump voters, particularly those in the white working class who did not stand to gain from his tax or regulatory policies. What is missing from their lives? we’ve studiously asked ourselves. What unanswered longing does Trump fill for them? If the rest of us continue to give Trump our attention once he leaves the Oval Office, it will be time to start asking these same questions of ourselves.