Tanner Greer put together a very intriguing prospectus for a book of 21st century American history. I am inclined to think that we know very little about much of anything and our perspectives about the present are hopelessly blinkered, so I tend to avoid broad summaries except from oblique angles.
And yet I am fond of books like Karl Dietrich Bracher’s The Age of Ideologies that attempt exactly such a summary. It’s just that I think one must have a combination of age, wisdom, genius, and perspective in order to pull off such a book . I don’t have that combination, so an outline is the most I will offer.
What I have done is to take Greer’s prospectus as a starting point, then radically strip it down to those factors that I believe to have been decisive. The 2000, 2010, and 2016 elections, for example, have made a far greater impact than the others of this century. Continue reading
Political media coverage over the last few months seems to have become more superficial than ever. I think this owes to the collective sigh of relief after the Democrats took back the House of Representatives, which took some of the pressure off of the tension between the tones of Apocalyptic Proclamation and Traditional Horse-race. So the coverage of Trump’s Game-of-Chicken government shutdown focused primarily on the latter, with a vague smidge of the former.
Which is to say that the most important stories are receiving far less coverage than facile ones. We hear much about Gillette advertising campaigns and McDonald’s lunches. We hear a lot less about John Bolton’s plans for war with Iran. This is very much the usual order of things, but as Trump supposedly represented a break with the usual order of things, the increasingly inessential nature of most media either shows how little we’ve learned or how little control we have over the doings of our own institutions. Continue reading
To be a true reader or writer today is to exist primarily in a state of longing and loneliness (sehnsucht, in the German term), because the vast majority of one’s closest associates are dead. Over the course of the 20th century the world of letters separated rather violently from the world of consequence, and so loving writing as writing requires either myopic self-delusion or an absurd appreciation for the spiritual residue of artistic impact. I don’t have the former in me, so it is the latter that drives me.
A remarkable amount of excellent archival issues came out this year, particularly in fiction and literature. The two placed in the pole position are not necessarily more deserving than many others. Rather, I chose them because they seemed to be most resonant with this year, despite being written decades ago. Both are very unorthodox Cold War retrospectives, both vaguely “documentary”-like, and yet animated by almost opposite sensibilities.
Ironically, I found Anniversaries to be a gloomier tale than Kolyma Stories, in the same way that gray is a gloomier color than black, or Faith is more enervating than Closer. Likewise, Johnson’s self-appearance in Anniversaries is more despairing than Shalamov’s varied appearances in Kolyma, because there is a certain abdication of moral authority Johnson took on in writing Anniversaries that is either disingenuous or terrifying. I think it’s the latter.
Trump brings out the worst not just in his supporters, but also in his opponents.
For years, I watched as the rhetoric of talk radio and Fox News was assimilated into the Republican party. It homogenized Republican discourse and kept up a level of anxiety over everything from terrorism to healthcare to Barack Obama himself. The left (and that elite part of the center that now considers itself part of the “resistance”) had its own sub-discourses, but aside from Obama’s fleeting inspirational moment in 2008, there was no common thread that kept Democrats, liberals, and leftists attuned to a single issue. Not even the Iraq War was sufficient. For a genuine mass left movement, you have to look back to Vietnam.
That has changed with Trump. Opposition to Trump personally has become the unifying thread. Standard Republican policies are far more terrifying under the auspices of Trump than they otherwise would be.
Midterm elections historically result in the opposition party gaining ground as voters grow disaffected with the President. No one knows whether that will hold true this year. This is partly because of the unprecedented (in modern times) degree of polarization in the electorate, and partly because of Trump himself.
It’s still worth remembering Trump’s fundamental continuity with Republican politics, if not with its leadership. Trump’s raw, resentment-driven brand of nativist politics beautifully massaged the existing Republican base that developed out of the Southern Strategy, talk radio, and the Tea Party. But his appeal is evidently so much more visceral than most any other recent politician that his approval (and disapproval) ratings have been far more consistent than George W. Bush’s were.