Surrealistic Homeland Blues

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Surrealistic Homeland Blues

It's been fifty days. How you holding up?

Bob Dylan, who collaborated with D.A. Pennebaker for the iconic Subterranean Homesick Blues music video in 1967, would need a lot more cue cards to keep up with the Trump administration. (Screenshot/with overlay)

You don’t need a weatherman to tell you that we’re in the midst of volatile conditions as we arrive at the fiftieth day of the Trump presidency—which feels more like fifty years in regular human time. With each passing day, the news cycle takes us "through the looking glass" with a perverse array of personas ranging from the Mad Hatter to something more like the Mad Hater. Or if you prefer another metaphor: the prevailing winds are leaving bedlam in their wake, and it’s evident that we’re not in Kansas anymore.

From this moment, the rules of engagement will never quite be the same, as the wafer-thin membrane between politics and theatrics has now been fully eroded. This is the leading edge of another paradigm, not merely an extension of the old one. To illustrate: in supplanting Newton, Einstein showed that large bodies don’t draw smaller ones to them by some unseen force; rather, they warp the space-time around them to such an extent that objects conform to their orbit despite an impetus to traverse a linear path.

"We’ve crossed a threshold in which the old rules don’t apply, yet the tools we have to try and deal with this realization are mostly products of the outmoded era."

Physics aside, the analogy may be apt: we’ve crossed a threshold in which the old rules don’t apply, yet the tools we have to try and deal with this realization are mostly products of the outmoded era. Thus, governmental oversight and media fact-checking don’t hold the same power they once might have, nor do dramatic revelations of scandals or untruths. Not to say these things don’t matter at all—indeed, gravity still "hurts" when you fall—but they are bracketed by a barrage of gaslighting and twitterpating.

Another Fine Mess

I’m reminded in all of this by the old line from Laurel and Hardy: "Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into." Interestingly, in looking into this phrase a bit more (which was altered for the 1930 film Another Fine Mess), it turns out that Andrew Jackson, who Trump apparently admires, was described in a 1912 book as someone who "was pretty apt to make a nice hot mess" of things. The gist of this "hot mess" aphorism describes something that is compelling in its dysfunctionality, which seems about right.

This appears to be a time when disdain for politics as usual bridges the political spectrum, in the belief that the "other side" is to blame within our binary system. Amidst a backdrop of tattered confidence in institutions and suspicion of entrenched powers, Trump takes the stage seeming bold and authentic to his followers, with a self-proclaimed mandate to clean house and "drain the swamp." For many, though, it feels more like "swamping the drain" with pollutants that can’t be carried through the old drainpipes.

Yet this is what makes Trump so challenging to confront, since he seems to covet any attention as part of fomenting the chaotic spectacle. As such, arguing over personality traits or presenting contradictory evidence isn’t likely to change many minds. In fact, such forms of resistance might perversely heighten the perceptual resolve of Trump’s support base. And even if this cohort may be attenuating and was never a majority, their presence on the political stage is tangible—no matter how bizarre it may seem.

Let’s put this in perspective. There are enough of his supporters out there to be mobilized in all sorts of problematical ways, and not only electorally. Additionally, the most potent office in the land (in terms of both the pulpit and powers vested there) is presently occupied by a cadre who seem bent on causing upheaval. This is the reality in which we now find ourselves. Lamenting it doesn’t change that fact, but understanding the implications might provide tools to fashion more durable and effective responses.

Intelligence versus Ineptitude?

At this point, the main sources of top-level pushback against the Trump Administration have come from the intelligence community and the corporate media. Apart from the fact that these bastions of the military-industrial complex (and thus constituents of the "deep state") are unlikely champions for "the resistance," what’s even more puzzling is that they were certainly aware of Trump’s predilections beforehand. Which begs the question of why all the intelligence dramas and media outrage now?

One possibility is that campaign shenanigans are one thing but governance is another, and these antics were supposed to have ceased at this point. Another is that there’s a tendency of this Administration and its allies to self-subvert, and this is merely letting things move in that direction. Or perhaps this is a bona fide contest between elite factions, with divergent views on operations and alliances. But it can’t just be a small circle and a tin-plated martinet with a Twitter fetish versus the entire apparatus, can it?

"The surrealism of this moment has served to reaffirm a commitment to values and processes that were often taken for granted, and has awakened a spirit of direct involvement that has brought masses into the streets and to other forms of organizing."

Either way, we’re faced with a situation that seems to defy logic and precedent. On one side is the odd cabal that has seized the most powerful office on the planet, despite continual missteps and pervasive conflicts of interest—whose ultimate intentions may remain unclear, but whose immediate impacts are destabilizing and, for many, terrifying. On the other side are the stalwarts of an imperfect but relatively stable order (not for everyone, of course) that reflect the familiar detachment of our "normal" politics.

It’s like a formulaic spy thriller, updated in real-time for the social media age. For their part, the media have at times been an important watchdog as the "fourth estate," but have also blurred the line of news with infotainment and celebrity gossip, and have even served as an unquestioning propaganda tool for wars and repressive policies. And the deep state bureaucracy has maintained continuity over decades of conflict and change, but also has prompted many conflicts and changes that are eminently problematic.

However we’ve arrived here, this astonishing moment still appears like a rift between "intelligence and information" versus "ineptitude and disinformation." (These labels may be in the eye of the beholder, depending upon one’s vantage point, which further evokes the stark polarization of politics in this era.) Perhaps the notion of some safe "middle ground" was already illusory, and yet it did function a bit like Newtonian gravity in that it mostly worked in daily life. But when realities collide, strange things occur.

Crossing the Streams

Remember the warning from Ghostbusters about not crossing the streams of the proton packs (which would cause "total protonic reversal")? There are some rumblings on the horizon indicating that such crossovers may be at hand. Is there a direct convergence between the Trump Administration’s ties to Russia and the ostensible meddling by Russia in the presidential election? Is there a nascent connection between Trump’s claims of being tapped, and the revelations (again) that we all might be tapped, too?

Of course, in Ghostbusters it was actually crossing the streams in the end that saved everyone from the apocalyptic rampage of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (so feel free to draw your own analogy there). What might be said about this is that when confronted with surreal conditions, it sometimes requires a fantastical response. And perhaps this is a kernel of buoyancy in a time of tectonic shifts and mounting desolation, namely that the refuge of complacency has been supplanted by the urgency of engagement.

The surrealism of this moment has served to reaffirm a commitment to values and processes that were often taken for granted, and has awakened a spirit of direct involvement that has brought masses into the streets and to other forms of organizing. And all of this in just fifty days, if you can believe it. One can only wonder what the next fifty will bring, now that familiarity has yielded to unfathomability. It seems clear that our senses are going to be pushed to the limit, no matter which way the wind blows.

Randall Amster

Randall Amster

Randall Amster, JD, PhD, is Director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University. His books include Peace Ecology (Routledge, 2015), Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012), Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB, 2008); and the co-edited volume Exploring the Power of Nonviolence: Peace, Politics, and Practice (Syracuse University Press, 2013).

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