It is August 10, 2020 and I can’t remember the last time I wore long pants. I haven’t shaved in days, spend much of my time talking to my dogs, and have no idea what the next three months will bring. There are 85 days until the election, and then another 78 days until Inauguration Day—for a total of 163 days that will test all of us in ways we can’t predict.
So this seems like a good time to launch a daily countdown journal. I’m going to try to keep a record here—admittedly a subjective account, but the kind of journal I should have started long ago to understand our insane moment.
Why a diary/journal? Because, unlike histories that impose a coherence on events that didn’t exist, a daily chronicle reflects the confusion, distractions, false starts, and self-delusions of life in real time. It could be embarrassing, because if I’m wrong and deluded, it goes on my permanent record (again).
When Elizabeth Drew was writing her Washington Journal, chronicling Watergate and Richard Nixon’s downfall, she knew that historians of the future would have a different view of the scandal; they would have more facts, more perspective, and they would apply a whole different set of biases than those of contemporary pundits.
But, she wondered, would they “really understand what it was like?”
Will they know how it felt to go through what we have gone through? Will they know how it felt to be stunned—again and again—as we learn what had been done by people in power? Will they know how it felt to be shocked, ashamed, amused by the revelations—will they understand the difficulty of sorting out the madcap from the macabre? . . . Can they conceivably understand how it felt as we watched, on our television screen, our president say, “I am not a crook”?
I’ve been asking the same thing since 2017. Will historians be able to capture the anxieties of our strangely empty, and yet, insanely crowded world? Will they be able to capture the pace of news, the toxicity of social media, the chaotic whirl of Trump-era politics, with its stew of shock, numbness, cowardice, alternative realities, and anger?
Will they be able to process how strange it all was?
In comparison, Watergate now feels like a gentler, more naive time, when we actually had a news cycle, some semblance of guard-rails, and we could still be shocked by the idea that our president was a liar.
The Watergate era had its share of the madcap and the macabre; but we live in a genuinely unhinged age. Last week, the Manhattan DA suggested he is pursuing criminal charges against the president, and no one remembers the story. Trump had an insane press conference on Friday night at his golf club that has already vanished from the micro-news cycles. Last week the president suggested that Joe Biden’s election would “hurt the Bible” and “hurt God,” and ended the census counting a month early, but we’ve already moved on.
I open my notes from the weekend:
GOP operatives are backing Kanye West for president; the Libertarian party candidate has been bitten by a bat, Jerry Falwell the Lesser is done in by an undone zipper, and these are not actually the craziest bits of news that we have to absorb today.
The Russians continue to attack our democracy, new projections suggest that as many as 300,000 Americans may die by December, and the president’s cronies are deconstructing the Post Office in order to sabotage mail-in voting. The attorney general of the United States says with a straight face that Democrats have become a “Rousseauian Revolutionary Party that believes in tearing down the system.” And there is the story about Trump asking about “the process to add additional presidents to Mount Rushmore.”
As we wake up today, the biggest story is Trump’s decision to issue Executive Orders, including his strange gambit to “defer” the payroll taxes that fund Social Security and Medicare. Trump evidently thinks this is a masterful pivot, but when his top aides went on the Sunday shows to explain his actions, it quickly became apparent that it was all a holy hot mess. For the most part, Republicans—even the ones who claimed to be “constitutional conservatives”—went along with the president’s orders, and by this point in his presidency, no one was really surprised by their surrender.
Overnight, rioters “swept through the Magnificent Mile and other parts of downtown Chicago early Monday, smashing windows, looting stores, confronting police, and at one point exchanging gunfire with officers, authorities said.”
Meanwhile, in Sioux Center Iowa, a Trump supporter explains that she is also a big fan of Vice President Mike Pence because “I’d say he is like the very supportive, submissive wife to Trump. He does the hard work, and the husband gets the glory.”
And this is just Monday.
Someday we may know whether any of this actually mattered. But now it just seems to be part of the disconcerting rush that our world has become. No one knows where this is going, because are living in the midst of an unnerving kaleidoscope.
A movie of our times would be a series of quick cuts . . . 160,000 Americans dead … cut … Hundreds of thousands of bikers gather in Sturgis, South Dakota without masks … cut … more than 5 million Americans are now infested with the virus … cut … Trump brags about the stock market … cut … millions of Americans are still without work … cut … protesters try to burn down Portland’s police union headquarters … cut … Disney is charging $30 to watch its live action movie, Mulan … cut … Trump claims that children are “immune” to the coronavirus … cut … nine students at a Georgia high school test positive … cut … and the president goes golfing again.
It is all constant. It is all dizzying because it is taking place in a world of dislocation. Watergate was over there, someplace else. Our crises now are a daily reality right here.
Our routines have been upended, the rituals and mile markers of our lives obliterated. We have our zombie sports: baseball and basketball without fans. But we missed out on prom, graduations, summer camps, births, weddings, funerals. There are no state fairs or summer festivals. In the spring and summer of 2020, family members were told they couldn’t visit their ill and dying parents; but thousands demonstrated in the streets and went to house parties. Masks became a flash point in the endless culture wars.
But those are just footnotes, because almost none of us spend our days the same as we did a year ago; we don’t look the same, we don’t dress the same, we don’t even smell like we did before. Too much information, I know.
Nothing feels normal right now.
I’ve actually done this once before, in 2012. I wrote emails to myself about what I was thinking about Mitt Romney’s chances to beat Barack Obama. It was a humbling chronicle, because it tracked how badly wrong I was. But it was also a sobering lesson in the power of wishful thinking and motivated reasoning. I read lots of things about “skewed polls,” and managed to ignore a lot of clear evidence. I listened to people who I thought were oracles, and found out they were as clueless as I was.
Afterward, I thought I had learned my lesson, and four years later adjusted my approach and got it even more horrifically wrong. Keep that in mind as you read my entries this time around.
This is where I am today: I think Joe Biden will beat Trump, but somehow I don’t feel the confidence that the polls seem to warrant. So many things can go wrong, not just between now and the election, but in the fraught aftermath.
I’m more than a little haunted by this piece in American Interest that looks at the various scenarios between November and January: “The Bad news: in each scenario other than a Biden landslide, we ended up with a constitutional crisis that lasted until the inauguration, featuring violence in the streets and a severely disrupted administrative transition.” There is also some good news about ways to avoid that, but I can’t get past the bad stuff.
This is the question we can’t answer in August: are these fears a sign of paranoid fear mongering, the consequences of raging Trump derangement syndrome? Or are we blithely and naively drifting toward a political cataclysm? Is this the summer calm (it has been unusually beautiful here in Wisconsin) before a disastrous election fiasco? Or will things play out conventionally and predictably? Will historians marvel at our inability to see the iceberg that lies ahead, or will all of these anxieties be historical curiosities and a sign of how unhinged our politics was in the late summer of 2020?
I honestly don’t know and will admit that I toggle back-and-forth between the two possibilities.
There are 85 days to go.