This is the way our politics ends…
Years ago, I was crossing the border from Paraguay into Argentina when I got hauled off a bus by federal agents.
It had been a weird few days before that. I had stopped off at this church camp, which I thought had some connection to the faith of my youth, but it turned out to be something more like a cult.
When I bailed out of there, the beers I drank that night were heavy grace. This bit of weed another American shared with me seemed to promise the lighter version if I saved it for another day. So I stuffed it into the bottom of a pack of cigarettes and forgot about it until some time the next afternoon when our luxury bus to Buenos Aires got pulled over, and a German Shepherd led two uniformed agents straight to the right pocket on my cargo shorts.
The federales were really cool, actually. There was a two-hour delay while they filled out forms in triplicate, and searched in vain on their radios for some supervisor, but at the end they let me enter their country. I got back on the bus making every international gesture of apology I could, an obvious a***** to everyone aboard, except for this cute Swedish girl, who is not the point of the story.
Point is, three months later, I really wanted to settle down in Buenos Aires, maybe work for the English-language paper there for a while. I went down to the office where one expects to wait in line. After waiting in line under the sign promising “Visa application starts here,” I reached an agent at the window who was astounded at my presence. I had not even brought the pre-application approval required to start the process.
I gave up on the visa before long, not because the process was any more Kafkaesque than our own, but because I knew that somewhere in the bureaucracy, there was a carbon copy identifying me as a delinquent. They had something on me.
And now, they have something on all of us. The question that wasn’t answered Tuesday at the polling stations of Virginia or New Jersey is what we’re going to do about it.
The papers Wednesday were filled with obituaries for President Trump’s political movement. The NeverTrumpers are celebrating. The election results seem to portend a dead end for his stream of contemptuous emotionalism, even as it undams that other stream of contemptuous emotionalism the Democrats are rafting on.
A year ago, the people affirmed that Trump > Hillary, but if they think he’s better than anyone else, there was no sign of it Tuesday. This means something, but not much.
Our politics have become a symbolic matchup between teenagers aggrieved on behalf of weird strangers and, on the other side, the near-elderly, who still can’t believe how many times life has kicked them in the face.
Whose side are you on? It doesn’t matter much, practically speaking. It is to the credit of Trump’s supporters that they’ve been around too long to expect much from him or any other politician.
Our politics now is all sympathies and symbolism. Congress has done nothing significant since Obamacare, and the Republican governors have done nothing since the early days of Scott Walker. But go ahead and pick a side anyway — salute a flag or kneel and raise a fist. We have descended into the politics of gesticulation.
My Twitter feed Wednesday morning was a mix of traditional Republicans saying they told you so, Trumpkinites promising that they were making lists and taking pictures of anyone speaking such taunts, and observers mocking the sure-to-be-forthcoming pieces on whither Trumpiness? Must he decrease that we might increase?
And my old sympathies for the Republican Party flickered momentarily Wednesday morning, not to life but maybe from dead to mostly dead, but it took all of a couple of hours for the party to remind me why it’s dying, and why it probably should. At least, a breakup for a time might do us all some good, help us figure out what we have in common.
The Liberty Act — enjoying a perfectly Orwellian bit of nomenclature — passed out of committee in the House on a 27-8 vote Wednesday. This was the bill to reauthorize many of the abuses of the Fourth Amendment exposed by Edward Snowden, arguably the single greatest American patriot of the last century.
This bill is about your permanent record. The House Republicans are cool with the government making a copy of it. Thanks to the GOP’s autistic conception of textualism, some of them actually believe the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unwarranted searches of your “houses, papers, and effects” doesn’t apply to emails and Google searches, because they’re not literally on paper.
The fact that this bill has garnered so little attention is its own sort of proof that we are already fully acclimated to totalitarian supervision of our daily lives. In our own country, we’re all mere tourists in Buenos Aires.
We may vote Trump, but we have already surrendered to this evil he might otherwise stand against. No, I’m not talking about the totalitarian aspect of Trump, he who sympathizes with Putin and Duterte. I mean that Trumpism — in the best, most generous interpretation of the movement possible — is a great big middle finger to all the forces of censoriousness and supervision, to everyone who would demand you think a certain way and deny your very humanity if you fail to comply.
For all that I loathe about Trump, this I concede: he is a punk, a renegade, a nonconformist. In an age when all bow to false idols, his heedlessness is a virtue.
But his politics probably have no future. When I worked as a translator, we used to joke that BS doesn’t translate. Even if “-ismo” translates easily to “-ism,” Trumpism as a conceptual whole is about as meaningless as Febres-Corderism or any of the other supposed ideologies cohering around popular figures in the Third World. What is it, after all? Without Trump’s defiant character (or even with it), you’re left with a marginal political platform — something to do with nativism, entitlement spending, and labor unions, perhaps.
That doesn’t appear to be enough to get you to 50 percent — not in New Jersey, where the phenomenally unpopular Chris Christie was going to drag the party down anyway, and not in Virginia, where Republicans underperformed by about five points.
Now the party seems hopelessly split. But here’s the weird thing: Team Trump is fundamentally defiant, as is the libertarian wing of the party, and the Tea Party that bridges the two, so why is it that when you put the band back together, you get crap like the Liberty Act, guaranteeing that everything will go on your permanent record? How are we all nominally on the side of a party that expects us to shut up and obey?
So let’s take a break. Let’s ditch the bipolar view of domestic politics for a triangle, and see which two corners of the triangle might form a decent majority.
In one corner of this triangle, you’d have a socially conservative workers’ party.
In another corner, you’d find the fascist left, ready to purge and eviscerate any adherent whose sympathies are even a kilosecond short of perfectly au courant. (Hadn’t heard time went metric? Racist!)
In the third corner — surely the least popular corner for some time to come — will be everybody who has something to hide. I mean, we’re not going to bill ourselves that way. But we are the fallen, and we know it. We favor a broad sphere of personal liberty, supported by a vigorously expansive interpretation of the unspecified rights in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments.
At first, this liberty party would lose. Polling shows that when you ask Americans about the issues, they’re basically some weird socialist-fascist hybrid. But over time, I think we’d pull support from the other two parties — from the sort of Democrats who oppose the Liberty Act, and from their next generation, which will surely have enough punk rock spirit to find this snowflake generation the dorkiest in history. I mean, there’s nothing cool about obeying the government.
But each corner would be free to pitch one of the other corners on an alliance. I think the alliance between a Trumpian party and a libertarian party would depend upon and crystallize exactly the sort of liberty-oriented policies the current Republican Party favors in theory, but ignores in practice.
Or maybe the liberty party would simply pull some support from Team Trump, by representing the best of Trumpism, which is a refusal to be coerced or blackmailed for not following certain unspoken rules. I don’t know if it means much more than that, but that spirit alone is worth preserving.
Think of that infamous dossier. It’s basically a sanitized version of your internet history. Now the Liberty Act will effectively create a dossier on all of us. We ought to call it the National Kompromat Act.
This is the future. They will know everything about you. And they will use it to silence you.