A nation’s crisis of meaning
America was discovered, and what was discovered was not a place, one among others, but a setting, the backdrop of a destiny. It began as theater.
It is the morning of 9 November 2016. From my room in a block-sized apartment complex on a highway in Millbrae, California, I hear occasional wailing sirens that, on 7 November, would have been only threads in the patchwork of background noise. They now seem to herald civic collapse.
Millbrae is a commuter city 20 minutes south of San Francisco. It is all affluent green lawns, curvy pastel California houses, Asian restaurants and grocery stores, and quintessentially wide American roads. When finally compelled to venture outside (the friends I’m visiting are a Mormon couple, meaning the apartment is sans coffee) I find that, despite the election result, the country is still there, as are its people. A singletted, ball-capped man in a pick-up truck pulls up at an intersection, leans out his window, and politely barks, ‘Y’all know where Wells Fargo is?’ I’m glad that I can tell him. It makes the world feel civil. But to take one white man’s civility to another as representative of a civil world is dangerous. It is one of the stories we tell ourselves to impose knowledge and order, to ward off guilt and madness and action.
While walking to Starbucks on Millbrae’s main strip I see evidence of the horror that last night visited the nation. The headlines and front-page photos visible through the scratched and grimy glass of newspaper vending machines (I manage to muster some reserve shock at the fact that not only do these machines still exist, but someone is also filling them) tell the story, as do sporadic clusters of locals. Outside the peak-roofed, redbrick post office two women lean into one another; proximity is reassuring. ‘We’ll see what happens,’ says one, ‘but above all we have a wonderful constitution,’ the adjective drawled as if it were describing a bridal gown.
During my three weeks in what locals call the Bay Area—the trip is a blend of holiday, visiting friends and archival research at University of California Berkeley—I overhear people in bars and bookshops and university campuses discussing the Republican National Committee’s nervous attitude towards Trump, whether Ruth Ginsberg will remain on the Supreme Court, the radical differences between Obama’s 2008 transition team and Trump’s, the right’s rejection of climate change, the president-elect’s Twitter strategies, the meaning of Hillary’s having won the popular vote. I see Americans trying to preserve the conviction that their nation is exceptional, and sustain the hope that their country might continue to shuffle gradually towards the best possible version of itself. These conversations always take the form of explanation; one person making predictions or describing a process, revealing secret knowledge, a ‘Let me tell you how it is’ implicit in every assertion. It is as if all citizens are guests on cable news. This pundit posture is generally a method of reassurance, often more necessary for the speaker than their audience.
Two weeks after the election I watch an anti-Trump protest in the misty San Francisco rain. Police motorcycles dart and snarl, ushering the chanting, sign-waving crowd past backed-up traffic, car horns honking in solidarity or frustration. A lone man on the pavement makes an L with his right thumb and forefinger and taunts ‘Loser!’ as if watching a defeated home team trail back to their bus.
Megaphone: What do we want?
Protestors: Trump out.
Megaphone: When do we want it?
(Repeat × 3)
Megaphone: If we don’t get it?
Protestors: Shut it down.
(Repeat × 3)
I think of the woman in Millbrae who showed such confidence in her republic, and wonder if this is what she thought would follow the ‘see what happens’ period.
At the protest, Justine, a local student, hands me an A4 flyer with the headline ‘In the Name of Humanity, We REFUSE to Accept a Fascist America’.1 She is unsure exactly which organisation is in charge, but saw the event announced on Facebook and felt compelled to march. I ask Justine, an Asian American, why she thinks people voted for Trump. ‘Racism,’ she tells me, nodding with such force that she bounces up and down.
I hear this a lot. An Uber driver who moved to the Bay Area from Pakistan 13 years ago says that ‘the election of Mr Trump, it proved that racism in America is very strong’. Another Uber driver, a 25-year-old white dude from Oakland, concurs. After he divulges a plan to feed his parents marijuana edibles (‘just enough to take the edge off’) now that weed is legal in California, talk turns to politics. ‘The election showed that we’re more racist than we thought,’ he explains, ‘and now everybody hates us.’
The 2016 presidential election reconfigured many Americans’ conception of their home. Sensible people fear for the nation. But most still speak of their country as if it has a soul. Many Americans appear to believe that its essence must be good, and that this essence must be recoverable. Disputes turn on who can recover the essence, or what that essence constitutes, but not on whether the essence exists. America must mean something.
When America is spoken of collectively, what do the pronouns signify? Who are ‘we’ in ‘We’ll see what happens?’ What is ‘it’ in ‘shut it down’? What does ‘us’ mean in the notion that ‘Other countries hate us’? How and why do Americans so confidently hold their country to represent an idea that is taken as self-evident? What do Americans talk about when they talk about America? Literary theorist Lauren Berlant describes ‘America’ as an assumed relation, an explication of ongoing collective practices, and also an occasion for exploring what it means that national subjects already share not just a history, or a political allegiance, but a set of forms and the affect that makes these forms meaningful.
When Hillary Clinton referred to half of Donald Trump’s supporters as being in the now infamous ‘basket of deplorables’, she said ‘Now, some of those folks—they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.’ These people aren’t simply outside the loose accumulation of forms and affects that define Clinton’s America; her idea of America is defined by rejecting them.
Where Clinton campaigned (often insipidly) for embracing America’s ‘better angels’, Trump’s picture of America was defined (always horrifyingly) by external threats. ‘They’re sending people that have lots of problems,’ he said of Mexico in his first campaign speech, ‘and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.’2
These remarks by Trump and Clinton became, for the media, and possibly for voters—but who knows?—campaign-defining. In the unending mania of 24-hour false equivalency news coverage, these moments of extreme rhetoric were taken to signify what the candidates truly believed. It is easiest to tell a story in which each side fights an enemy. In this digestible account, Hillary’s enemies were the American people and Trump’s were the establishment (meaning those who had the power to stop the erosion of the middle class, and did not) and foreigners (meaning the easily despised, cruelly blamed for exploiting the erosion of the middle class). This goes a little way to explaining why Hillary lost the election. But the pundit class’s thirst for a simple diagnosis—a thirst for sounding smart and being right and getting paid—is why talking heads and columnists (and folks in bars who adopt their ways of speaking) describe the electorate in nonsensical terms. They ask what America wants as if there were a rational answer. Why this obsession with prognostications about America and its neatly delineated demographics?
America is undergoing a crisis of meaning in which citizens find themselves incompatible with their country’s other ideological half, so are no longer entirely comfortable being labelled as American. Each side feels threatened by the incomprehensible rising other. This other endangers what America means, and America’s ability to care for its citizens. But there I go, using the word ‘America’ as if it meant something unified and sensible, as if it were a person, as if it existed in a way that would make this paragraph’s opening sentence coherent.
I am not proposing that America does not exist; it does. I can tell you that America exists because America interrogated me at SFO customs; America does not know how to make a palatable cup of coffee; America does know how to make a blockbuster film; America is conflicted about the cultural significance of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. America’s wealth is built on the back of the cotton industry, which was built on the backs of black slaves, the brutal legacy of which is evident in its carceral state. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2014 America produced 6870 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent; America has been at war in Afghanistan for 15 years. America exists, but it is instructive to treat America as the product of a powerful delusion, and its politicians as characters trapped in that delusion’s logic.
Ludwig Wittgenstein reasoned that philosophical problems were best confronted by examining concrete examples of words in use. Philosophy, in its desire for clean specificity (or final truth), tends to study language removed from its natural environment. Wittgenstein characterised the sort of philosophy that presumes words such as ‘happiness’ and ‘beauty’ have some essential definable quality beyond their ordinary use as taking language ‘on holiday’. Rather, the meaning of these words depends entirely on how they are used and how they are understood. The best response to anxiety over what ‘America’ means is to observe how the word is used.
If I tell you that ‘I’m going to America next week’, the meaning of ‘America’ is clear. If I tell you that ‘America is now irretrievably divided’, the meaning of ‘America’ is different, more obscure. What hides in this gap, when we stop thinking about America as a bordered nation-state governed according to particular laws and conventions, and begin to think of it as a unified concept, an ideal to which its people are committed?
This sly shift from a relatively straightforward definition to a formless impression, always agreeable to its speaker’s purpose, is similar to the conceptual leap we take when Holden Caulfield becomes our irritating but lovable guide to adolescence, or Emily Dickinson our companion in distress, or Mark Rothko our … whatever he is to you. It requires that we cede our grip on deductive reality and make room for imagining ‘what if?’ Entering a theatre or opening a novel, in a suspension of disbelief we agree to accept the characters as real people in real situations and, for the ensuing 350 pages or 90 minutes plus, our emotions are tugged about accordingly. It is not quite as if we were witnessing a real Lear cradle his dead Cordelia, but we may well weep along, our silent complicity essential to maintaining the illusion. We are called upon to empathise. American politics offers a cruder version of this illusion, this invitation to faith. We will never meet the presidential candidates, just as we will never meet Sylvia Plath or Nick Carraway.
So, as we do with authors and their characters, we attempt to fit politicians into our social blueprints, evaluating them in the way we would evaluate, say, friends, colleagues, teachers or family. So the campaign trail becomes a kind of horrifically distorted job interview or cocktail party or road trip. Candidates kiss babies, don hard hats and give speeches under the pretence that you will know them better by watching and listening. They act as if their feigned personhood and relaxed joviality will bring you closer to their reality and, consequently, might allow you to see beneath the surface. We all know this is a sham and yet, for the most part, voters and the media take the circus seriously.
It is perhaps taken for granted but not often remarked on that investment in political theatre also requires suspension of disbelief. This suspension is not arduous. And voters don’t believe that candidates on the stump are their genuine selves. Instead, voters judge how adept candidates are at the game; how willing they are to debase themselves on Saturday Night Live, how many times they fly to your home state. Achieving the office of president is not the deserving protagonist’s fourth-act triumph, but the Academy Award for Best Performance. To be American is to be both an audience member and a player on the stage, the illusion of the latter amplified by social media and the fetishisation of the individual’s vote. American democracy is just another space in which participation is performance and entertainment is value. Citizens of the United States are eased into the voting booth as if they were walking into a cinema, as self-assured experts in entertainment, prepared to express an aesthetic preference. To hold onto the belief that American political campaigns are comprehensibly meaningful demands an increasingly high threshold for tolerating cognitive dissonance.
The many paradoxes on which American politics depends—such as Trump running for president as a billionaire who represents the common man, or Clinton’s ‘Stronger Together’ America relying on disavowing Trump supporters’ very Americanness—persist because American public life is widely understood to be allegorical. Allegory is not trivial, but it is susceptible to being entirely unmoored from what happens in the world. Significant time before the final presidential debate was dedicated to speculation over whether Trump and Clinton would begin the event with a handshake, and much post-debate analysis was expended on the fact that they didn’t. This scrutiny carries with it not only the assumption that such actions can be usefully interpreted, but also that any useful interpretation will be persuasive to the electorate. It is of course possible to have both discourse of this sort and more substantive coverage that seeks to understand, for example, whether it’s economically rational to return manufacturing to the Rust Belt (it’s not) or examine the potential implications of a $12 minimum wage (not as high as Bernie Sanders’ $15, but we’ll take what we can get).
But the encyclopedia of policy, if engaged at all, is usually transformed into evidence for the sort of candidate the politician wishes to be, rather than being dealt with as the meat of the problem. This is encouraged by the media and the campaigns. Most of America’s major news outlets—Fox, CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Buzzfeed, Facebook—are at least partially responsible for the triumph of the illustrative over the actual and sometimes for the dissemination of patently false ‘news’. It is as if we were all selecting a Hogwarts house (a comparison validated by the plethora of intellectually hollow, viral-ready articles critiquing political crises through the lens of juvenile fiction); it is as if we were judging a dog show, examining their agility and obedience; it is as if we were deciding which candidate we’d prefer to hang on our wall. This is because both politics and art are, primarily, ways of looking. We believe in them not because they adhere to a logical schema but because of the way they make us feel.
A few days after the election I visit the clean white halls of San Francisco’s recently renovated Museum of Modern Art, a world of allegory largely populated by middle- and upper-class liberals, mostly white, mostly well educated. I hear a girl, maybe 13, approach Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, turn to her mother, and ask, ‘What’s that?’ What would the right answer be? An artwork? A political statement? A urinal? In a room of Ellsworth Kelly paintings another child, maybe 11, obviously aggrieved at his younger sister’s presence and trying to fast-track lunch, accurately exclaims to his parents that ‘They’re just shapes.’ (To be fair, they are colourful, large and neatly hung shapes.) Another boy, raucous, leading a group of skittish peers from room to room in a kind of rapid audit, points to a minimalist Frank Stella—a network of rough lines evoking yellow streets and shadowy buildings—and announces, probably correctly, that ‘I could’ve painted that.’
These children act this way because they don’t know what the gallery space expects of them (or they do know, and thrill at subverting it). They aren’t abiding by the rules. All this while adults explain to one another which Warhol they would hang, describe how Twombly makes them dizzy, or declare de Kooning uninteresting. Surely these sorts of conversations are happening in galleries everywhere, but I am tempted to see their frequency in SFMOMA, and the self-assurance with which they are conducted there, as proof of the particular precocity of American children, and the characteristic eagerness of American adults, across all topics, for contentious and declaratory conversation.
Looking at where politics and art differ shows why political conversation so often dehumanises while art humanises. Art can undercut formal assumptions but a politician cannot campaign ironically or self-reflexively; art can be specific, where politics must be general; and art is best when ambiguous, while politicians cannot countenance ambiguity. The press lacks the tools to confront the electorate’s racism and misogyny and other hatreds because so much political conversation in America assumes that the country is fundamentally and essentially good. Evils are not easily accommodated under their definition of the United States. America is defined entirely against all the characteristics that Americans wish it didn’t possess, and we are left with a nonsensical picture of America. Premising citizenship upon a desire for a unified nation depends on knowing what someone means when they use the word ‘America’, and the nation’s meaning is blurring.
The ominous question ‘What are other people for?’ stirs under the surface of our everyday interactions. At our worst we decide that people surround us for our benefit; at our best we let the question go. Art pushes back on the question by resisting utility. Politics answers the question by instrumentalising people. Politicians are to be voted for or against (usually against). They exist to lead and to be blamed, and it is no coincidence that a reality television star thrived in this world of clear-cut choice.
I arrived in America on 6 November—two days before the election—and that night ate a lamb roast in the apartment of old schoolfriends. We were joined by a native, their friend Jonny, a 42-year-old square-jawed and boyishly handsome Utah Mormon who was gently ribbing everyone within minutes of arriving. He is the sort of man I fear would loudly nominate me as the audience participant at a magic show, but whom I would be glad to have in the passenger seat if my car broke down in the desert. The dinner conversation followed what was to become a familiar pattern during my time in the States. An hour went by without talk of politics. Then someone mentioned the election (whenever this was raised, it would always be with fatigue and frequently accompanied by an apology, before and after 8 November). Then Trump’s name was uttered. For the rest of the night, we spoke of nothing else.
Jonny talked vaguely about the need for change, then more specifically about many friends being out of work and the government manipulating unemployment statistics to disguise massive job losses. He told me about a close friend with a Clinton sign on his lawn who was always looking to argue, putting the friendship at risk. As the night went on, his grievances became more conspiratorial. I questioned his claim that illegal immigrants were turning up at American hospitals and undergoing surgery worth $50,000 then returning to Mexico with the bill unpaid. I did not know how to respond to him telling me of his ex-FBI friend who had once been assigned to Hillary Clinton’s security detail. ‘Everyone hated her,’ he declared. I conceded that Clinton was flawed and, sure, uninspiring, but if I were an American staring down the barrel of a Trump victory I’d be looking at emigration options. I told him that, technically, Clinton had done nothing illegal. ‘That’s interesting,’ he responded. ‘But all the CEOs, the business people I know, they’re all voting Trump.’
For more than an hour we discussed the various appeals and dangers of Trump and the benefits and weaknesses of Clinton. Given that Utah had looked vaguely like a swing state, I asked, after all I’d told him, whether he would consider voting for Clinton.
‘Not a chance in hell.’
At the end of the night he admitted that my various (probably mildly hysterical and somewhat patronising) efforts at persuasion had resulted in his being slightly less terrified by the prospect of a Clinton victory. He seemed exasperated. ‘I’m not a political guy, but they say something, you say something, how are we supposed to know the truth?’
Jonny was on my mind every day for the rest of the trip. What stories was he hearing after Trump had won the election, and which did he believe? Had his Clinton-voting friend made peace or cut ties? Would there be a point at which he would turn on Trump? How do you know when it’s too late for someone to change their mind? What makes a story feel true? Does it just have to sound good?
The day I witnessed the anti-Trump protest was my last in America. Before saying goodbye to Justine, I asked her how she had felt on the evening of 8 November. ‘Democrats are blue and Republicans are red,’ she explained, ‘and on election night the map looked like blood.’ She delivered the line as if it had been scripted.
- It includes maybe 400 words of polemic in 10 point, prose in the tone of radicals totally jazzed that the language of resistance they had been using for decades is again gaining mainstream relevance (‘Don’t conciliate … Don’t accommodate … Don’t collaborate’).
The final sentence of this Trump quote is enlightening. His nauseous verbal acrobatics frequently include an escape clause, resisting rebuttal with vagueness. The addition of the insanely insufficient placatory final remark means the claim’s literal meaning is now ‘Some immigrants are good and some are criminal’, which taken literally is difficult to dispute. Obviously this is neither the claim’s actual nor intended meaning.