written June 1, 2016
Something fantastical and absurd occurred yesterday on the campaign trail. After checking the history books it can confirmed it had never happened before. It made people in Toledo queasy, and others in Albuquerque absolutely anxious. The fact the many Americans cheered this same moment caused those in Toledo to feel all the sicker. And that was just Tuesday.
The exact candidate, or party, or particular event that leads me to write this column of political disaffection, however bizarre, has also been rendered superfluous. Tuesday’s heresy, its own small gush of gobsmack, is just a poor plink upon the 2016 pile, swollen now to such a size it threatens to swamp most mortal Americans’ memories.
This is why I also believe we, as Americans, are now past the old standard labels when before us stretches a spoiled soup of off-color soundbites and brush-fires of violence. We all feel the pain. We are all embarrassed—or should be—to have this tauntfest beamed around the world. We are all chugging Mylanta. We are all telling our children that it’s okay, it’s safe to go to sleep—then looking for confirmation of this hope in their eyes.
So let’s make this fun, in keeping with this Fun House of an election. Because as I said it doesn’t matter exactly what happened Tuesday, as it has now All Happened. This morning [Candidate A] said [Preposterous Remark B] which made me [Thing C that Medication D is Used to Combat]. See? We know this game. We now—hopefully temporarily—live in it. And I am certain the above formula will continue to work, as a kind of American Mad Libs, for the rest of the campaign season.
This last year has witnessed all manner of unlicensed science experiments upon the country’s psyche, morals, and resolve—from both sides, granted. It is my lingering optimism which wonders, however, if some of these unique tensions being tested upon the public are in some ways healthy, proper and needed. Perhaps our civic institutions have turned sloven, long having lingered on the couch binge-watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and now society is finally being forced to take that jog around the block it’s been promising to do. 2016’s unexplored novelty may similarly flex and strengthen our conceptions of the possible and the previously presumed boundaries of democracy. Hopefully that pain in our side is just democracy, right?
Yet if the two major parties have decided they are both going to have mid-life crises, what other flavors are on the menu? The bags of my mind are packed and looking for respite, a place to lay my head. I for one am not looking for ideological purity at check-in, nor an all-inclusive coddling as a member of my supposed demographic. My eyes are getting red and heavy on Highway 2016, and so I guess I’m getting less picky as the night wears on. All I really ask is some boring yet comfortable consistency, some Gerald Ford-level competency stocked in the political mini-fridge, like a bunch of expired Bugles. Long about the ninth time I hear the utterly-inescapable hit song “You’re a Sleazy Loser, I Guarantee It” on the radio—the only voice that seems to be getting through all the static—I pull off the next ramp. Okay, what do we have? On the left there are a few Green Party huts in the woods with friendly enough people milling about. On the right Gary Johnson is attempted to wave me into his fortified enclave of Liberty. The American Socialist Party meanwhile drinks tea by the side of the road, each careful to sip the same amounts.
“Greetings, I’m Gary, and welcome to Anarchy Lite.”
The car’s back seat is looking better and better. Perhaps I will remain bannerless. No harm in that. The Party of Me. A quorum may be easy but moreover not very much would get done. The Party of Me adjourns jarringly as I now notice the car windows are getting fogged by the breath of a few, who, with strange, awe-struck eyes, could never imagine themselves as singular Republics. One, lingering on me with the most intense glare, long ago took a principled stand to think the long catalog of approved things others said they all thought too. Perhaps he gave his political allegiance the same concerted effort of a local gym membership, or the rigor and thought assigned to a coin-flip one might otherwise decide a dinner destination. Perhaps, and this is most terrifyingly of all, the Lingerer’s party devotion is a completely serious and dedicated undertaking. Suddenly, they all say with surprising unison, that if I stay out here, idling along the median, I’ll just get run over. Fine. The Green Party Inn a quarter mile back can receive my passive notice and half my unmoved heart. They’re welcome, whoever they are.
Maybe you have a road-trip from convention kicking around in the back of your head too, or just a yearning for what’s beyond the stale binary-encrusted conversations we currently have as citizens. It cannot be just Bill Kristol, out there sending furtive smoke signals far and wide for a nominee mystery date. And Mitt Romney’s Trump-wracked mind cannot be the only one in need of public Jungian therapy to sleep at night. The lack of alternatives, the dearth of palatable options, the choice between two rival poisons, if historically high unfavorable polling is to be believed, can obscure the very notion of free will.
Thomas Hobson, 1544–1631
This current quandary recalls an Englishman named Thomas Hobson, who was put in charge of a Cambridge livery of 40 horses. Yet customers could not choose any steed they wished, because he instituted a rule that one must take the horse nearest the door—or none at all. This ultimatum, known as Hobson’s Choice, deploys confusion about a single option to artificially inflate the perception of choice. Thomas Hobson may be no more, but his illusion of free choice lives on, in such institutional contrivancies as unpledged delegates, if selling elephants instead of horses, or—if the darkest corners of electronic suspicion are to be relied upon and Debbie Wasserman Schultz is somehow the Grandest of Conspirators—super-delegate slight-of-hand when dealing in donkeys. Take it, you hear in your ear, or there’s the door. Perhaps this scene overstates the case in an already overheated year. But we need not feel like zombies, if feeling so bitten, marching our way mindlessly toward the November polling places. Perhaps we should wonder what is behind door number two. Or number three. Or four.
Because perhaps I can sleep better now , with a clearer head, at the local Third Party Motel than remain among the coarse, crashing combat occurring in America’s nuclear home. The father is a bluffing puffery lacking in all lenity, a grandiose guilded grab-bag wreckage of half thoughts and full temper, whose amalgamated cruelty and carelessness is worthy of a national restraining order. The mother, who can neither be wept for nor related to, has suffered self-inflicted wounds that illustrate a long-formed shell of protectionism and defensiveness that bodes ill for presidents—though perhaps this unprofessional penchant for privacy is also not a license of veracity for every dark whisper about her that has ever passed in the night. Where are protective services now?
As I fall asleep to the sound of mingled chanting from out my window—The Greens are now pelting the Constitution Party with organic tomatoes— the motel TV is showcasing sly spoofs. Fitting. The current American political conversation has taken on the dimensions of a Christopher Guest film: a clear parody of life in equal measures surreal and awkward, I cannot always be sure of the jokes, yet I know the production as a whole is a farce.