Billy Goat Tavern, Chicago, Nov. 8
The bad news rolled in on the TV, which sat above old newspaper clippings from Chicago’s long-past glory days of journalism. I was here alone, in town for work. Earlier I’d struck up conversations with other anxious loners at this fabulous dive. But I melted into the night as the inevitable became clear.
I flipped off the Orange Turd’s eponymous tower as I passed by during an aimless, frantic walk. Then, during a painful phone call with colleagues who were refusing to accept reality, I insisted that we tear up our newsletter’s issue on the Clinton administration and go with the much thinner one on the looming clown show.
After I hung up I had a gentle argument with a guy on the street, who said he was frustrated by the Democrats (more on that later). He made good points. But eventually he agreed that the next four years would be far worse than what would have been under Clinton.
Back at the hotel, the lobby bar was packed, and I leaned into the beginning of a four-year bender. I vaguely remember haranguing strangers about Putin bombing Estonia. (I was and remain a believer in Russiagate. Read the Mueller report and tell me I’m wrong. But a lie repeated endlessly becomes accepted truth.)
As the night winded down, two middle-aged jagoffs marched through the lobby, chanting the pathetic conman’s name. Before I knew what I was doing, I cupped my hands and belted out my best “Booooo,” honed by decades of being a Bengals fan. Many others joined in. “You’re in Chicago, motherfuckers,” a fellow patron yelled. The two steakheads slunk away, cowards like their invertebrate leader.
It wasn’t like the results were a surprise. I’d spent time in Ohio and the Dallas suburbs in the weeks just before the election, my brain seared by so many of those damn signs you see carpeting Red States. Friends and relatives there showed Facebook memes about Clinton to me and my wife. Back in DC, where we live, we shared our worries about the election. Several of our friends yelled at us and patronizingly insisted we were wrong. I wish we had been.
I’d also been in Cleveland to cover the convention a few months earlier. It was as insane as you’d expect. But also a waste of time for me, although I did get a decent story out of my afternoon with Jerry Falwell, Jr. Tough run for him of late.
Oddly, I don’t remember being filled with rage from my time in the Cleve, though that’s been the dominant emotion for me during the last few years. My five-year-old daughter can confirm. “You do hate him Daddy, right?” she asked me this week. I couldn’t lie. She saw it clearly in me, as soon as she was able to recognize the emotion.
The last four years have turned me into a radical in many ways, even more anti-everything than I was as an idealist twentysomething. I’m not ashamed of that, really, as it’s a logical response to the shitshow of the last four years. Although I am sincerely sad I don’t give a shit what Republicans think anymore. (Does that make me a fatalist? Or just a ranting, aging white man?)
As a journalist with old-school sensibilities, I try hard to understand all sides of disputes. Where there’s tension over how smart people with relevant expertise think society should deal with enormously complex challenges. You know, real life. Not fucking a tidy little bow on a viral Facebook post that reinforces your bias about being on the right side in the heroic struggle of good versus evil.
The skeptic vibe comes naturally to me. I’ve always been wary about true believers. And more than I’d like, the Left is loose with the facts on the issues I cover. In my social circles, that’s often because progressives want to pretend they aren’t part of the 10 percenters who benefit from this inequitable system staying so fucked up — the dream hoarders. All that bothers me deeply.
The Right, though? On another planet. This version of the Republican Party is so severed from reality it doesn’t have much to say in my world. They’re bizarrely close to being wrong — morally and factually — on almost everything. I still can’t quite process how that can be, that in this case the baddies really are that bad.
Our national nightmare has turned this healthy skeptic into a full-blown cynic. One filled with rage that goes nowhere healthy and who increasingly is convinced the human condition is the problem. That’s a bad look, I know.
But I’m proud about skipping every night of the convention in Cleveland. I like the idea of that empty chair in the arena as our wannabe dictator spouted his spite-dripping word clouds.
The saddest, most infuriating truth is that he’s only part of the story. He made it far worse, for sure. Cutting the head off of the snake should help. But this trajectory began long ago. Remember birtherism? Mission Accomplished? Purple band-aids? Willie Horton?
I was hunkered in my basement during the 2017 inauguration. My toddler daughter went up to the TV during that ghastly “American carnage” speech. I took a photo as she touched the screen. It came out perfectly — so much so it was hard to look at. I considered deleting the pic, but figured maybe some day she’d want it.
Later she started calling him “The Country Man.” She’d been asking me questions — no doubt fascinated about this figure who so animated her parents. I tried to explain what his job was, and said something about him running the country. Hence the moniker, which stuck for the three of us, and eventually a widening circle of friends and family.
Turns out it’s easy to explain anger at this administration to a young child. For example, she totally got that it was lame and not cool to lie about a hurricane and to use a sharpie to doctor a meteorological forecast. Why does he lie so much? Why did he tell people “the bug” isn’t real? Why can’t he admit he lost the election? Does he have a dog? Is he nice to kids?
Like so many of us, I completely lost it with this administration’s gleeful move to tear children away from their parents, put them in cages and eventually to lose track of hundreds of children and their families. My wife and I held a fundraiser for a legal aid group at the corner bar during the heat of that moment.
Still, I wish I could’ve better controlled my rolling fits of white-hot rage. When that piece of human garbage belittled the suffering of “Democrat-run” cities and states during the early months of the pandemic, for example, my rants were so visceral that my kid will probably remember how red my neck would get and the f’ bombs I dropped more than she will the reason for the reactions.
Last week she told me that she and a couple of her buddies from school made up a chant on their walk to the playground from the daycare center — we subsidize our online kindergarten with the sort of additional care we and other comfy liberals can swing, unlike so many other Americans. The chant was just a simple, “Kamala Harris! Kamala Harris!” Not ashamed of the brainwashing. Couldn’t help it.
As I misted up hearing this story, I remembered sobbing in front of the kid and my wife the night Biden tapped Harris for the ticket. The trigger was seeing a tweet from Taylor Swift, her favorite artist by far. The tweet said only: YES!
Like so many of us, I’ve had to say a COVID goodbye. My grandmother didn’t die from the virus. And she was very old. But my brother and I had to kneel in the dirt outside her window when we visited to say our farewell. It was better than nothing. And I can’t blame the nursing home — seven people in her wing had died from COVID by then.
My grandmother was a hard-bitten Depression kid for life. She told us she was hanging on at 98 just to get the chance to vote for Biden, and against the most virtue-free politician in modern history. She didn’t make it there, but would’ve been proud her home state of Pennsylvania helped seal the win.
For years she said the only way out of the downward spiral for this country would be for something to break the fever — the reality-denying madness of social-media fueled resentment and ignorance. I truly thought a pandemic and its sandblasting effects on all our lives would do the trick. Oh well. Maybe COVID helped dislodge the 300-pound tumor in the White House.
I should be hopeful. And some days I am. But the selfish weakness that has infected this country runs so deep, I don’t see many good outcomes. It would help if the Left would get its head out of its ass. Don’t get me wrong, the coalition that formed to make this election happen was impressive. Their platform is exciting. Honest.
But the failures of the Left’s ability to get the working class are on display in the fantastic documentary “American Factory.” The film takes a nuanced look at a Chinese company’s attempt to resuscitate a long-dormant truck factory in my hometown. They make windshield glass there now, employing far fewer people at much lower wages. With safety violations out the ass. Is it better than nothing? I don’t know.
The interviews with Black (and white) union members are powerful. They articulate far better than I can why a monolithic view of racial identity and an inability to actually help struggling, hard-working people stabilize their lives has contributed to a deep distrust of Democrats. One that’s well earned.
The dismaying reality that large swaths of this country remain lost in the fever swamps of QAnon conspiracies has taken me back to a cynicism that predates my adulthood — the flannel-wearing Gen X grunge phase. We weren’t wrong to focus on the foundational lies of society and what fuels them: Here we are now, entertain us. I feel stupid, and contagious.
Marketing sellout garbage ruined grunge quickly, of course. But it reinforced the feeling in my peer group — at a developmentally crucial time — that we’d never feel comfortable with the conventional wisdom in this country. (And I still love going down a Layne Staley rabbit hole on YouTube.)
I’m kinda done with politics, perhaps for life. I’d like to not know the names of the Members of Congress who head committees. And for years now I’ve been avoiding political news coverage, the stuff that treats it all like ESPN’s take on which team is going to make the playoffs. Fuck that.
Decades ago I decided to have limited ambitions in journalism. Not sure it would’ve mattered if I tried to make it to the bigtime, anyhow. Journalism is like show biz — make sure you have a backup plan. I found a good niche, covering issues I care about with a depth that feels worthwhile, as long as I remember it’s relatively superficial and that my role is more of a gameshow host summarizer than an expert.
But thanks to the pandemic, I’m now more focused on my four-block radius and who lives in it. And I’d like it to stay that way. No more offices or work travel for me, if I can make that happen. So a couple months ago I decided I didn’t want to keep scrambling to help the publication find its footing in a fast-shifting market.
And I’m done with the hours. Editing copy until 11 p.m. on weeknights — I’m too old for that shit. So I filed my notice. No more journalism for when 2020 ends, before this appalling administration slinks away. I’ve got plenty of job options already. It’s good being a 10-percenter.
I have another pledge, one that will be hard to keep. So much so that I’m afraid to type it. But after Jan. 20, 2021, I’m not saying that grotesque caricature of a human being’s name ever again.
My personal blackballing of The Country’s Man’s name is part of a fantasy that he and the wave of ignorant, selfish fuckwittery he rode to the White House collapse on their own weight, shriveling like a dying star, becoming a tiny speck that eventually is swallowed by a Black Hole, its very existence annihilated by the cosmos.
I’d belly up to the Billy Goat for a High Life toast to that; that is, if bars were to open again.
This is a fantastic piece, your career in journalism shows in the quality of the writing. I like “The Country’s Man” and would also like to never say his name again.
The left should get their heads out of their asses! But also, the problem is that we have a Left & a Right and nothing else. Right? I mean, far left & far right are still really just left & right. This is going nowhere. What I mean to say is that we can all focus, like you, on our 4-block radius. On our towns. and on Local politics. And we can make sure to vote in people, no matter their party, who are willing to change our current political system. The Electoral College has got to go; the idea of Ranked Voting is long overdue. If it has to happen state by state, so be it. But nothing’s going to be different–no matter who’s “in charge”–if we don’t change the system itself.