Our Weekly Discontents, 11/2/20

I want to swallow all the days ahead at once

It feels like we’re waiting to find out which type of cancer we’ve got.

I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow but if I had to guess it will involve a disputed Trump loss followed by massive unrest and Biden coming out and immediately chastising “looters.”

Hello it’s Luke from Welcome to Hell World and I don’t feel very good. Part of that is because we bought enough chocolate for five Halloweens a couple of weeks ago and then no one even came to get any of it on account of the pandemic we’re currently still having so eating candy has now become my full time job. The other part is well… you know.

Due to sheer happenstance my turn to helm the Discontents newsletter this week came just as my new book has gone on sale. It’s the follow up to my Hell World book from last year and like that one it’s a mix of reporting, essays, and commentary on matters political and personal but this time focused on the first seven months of the Covid era. If you’d like you can pre-order it here. Turns out it’s pretty hard to write a book about any given chunk of the Trump administration because every time you think you’re ready to stop 500 other amazingly stupid and frightening things happen almost instantly and you have to email your publisher and be like: Wait. Ah fuck hold on.

I’m gonna toss an excerpt from the book at the bottom here for anyone who’s interested but first let’s have my Discontents comrades tell us what they’ve been up to this week.

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Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future

Patrick Wyman

I think Biden is going to “win” the election, to the extent that he gets more votes and more electors, and that it should be clear enough as Election Day winds down for him to declare victory. The problem is that it’s almost certain declaring victory won’t be enough to put even a temporary end to this nightmare. In all but an enormous blowout — Biden winning Ohio, Iowa, Florida, Georgia, and Texas, along with all the other swing states leaning his direction — the election itself won’t actually decide the things in any meaningful way. My prediction is a tense, unpleasant Election Day followed by a longer period of confusion, a few outbursts of violence, and hopefully some kind of resolution within a couple of weeks.

How about something completely different? On Perspectives last week, I wrote about a lost civilization: Old Europe, the Neolithic farmers of eastern Europe. The people of Old Europe occupied the Danube Valley and its environs in present-day Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Ukraine, building settlements that lasted for generation after generation on top of artificial mounds. They made incredible decorated pottery, pioneered metalworking, and built some of the world’s first urban sites. After thousands of years of continuity, however, the Old European heartland in the Danube collapsed practically overnight. Their settlements were abandoned, their towns lost, their homes depopulated, and they were forgotten for thousands of years.

The Flashpoint: The Grift Spigot

Eoin Higgins

I’m notoriously terrible at predicting political outcomes, having totally whiffed it on the 2016 election and the Virginia governor’s race, among others. So I’ll pass on making a call on this one.

A quiet week for The Flashpoint—I’m still working on a Covid long-hauler profile but the election and other news has kept me pretty busy.

I did find time to write about the Lincoln Project’s Reed Galen getting stuffily self-righteous about Miles Taylor, a former Trump administration official, outing himself as “Anonymous,” the so-called Resistance inside the White House.

Galen’s issue with this, of course, was that it cuts into the grift he and his colleagues have already perfected:

The need to keep the cash and influence spigot on necessitates making the Lincoln Project’s ideological position the limit to the rehabilitation of the right-wing. And that means pretending that Trump’s former aides are beyond the pale—while those who worked alongside the Bush administration can be forgiven.

See you all on the other side.

Foreign Exchanges

Derek Davison

It is most definitely election season. Over the past couple of weeks we’ve seen elections and/or plebiscites in Chile, Guinea, Lithuania, Seychelles, Tanzania, Algeria, Georgia, Ivory Coast, New Zealand, and I’m sure I’m missing several others in there. As far as tomorrow’s US election goes, at this point what can you say? The numbers say that Trump winning this time around would be a bigger surprise than it was in 2016, but the pandemic has disrupted normal voting patterns to such a degree that we likely won’t know who’s won on election night and even if it’s clear then that Biden has won, objectively speaking, there’s a reasonable chance Trump will appear to be “winning” as the situation stands at midnight. He’s made it very clear he’ll be taking things to court as soon as Wednesday, and is anybody prepared to say that this Supreme Court won’t invent whatever rationale it needs to keep a Republican in the White House?

No matter who wins, are we going to be able to enact meaningful and desperately needed change in US foreign policy? The DC foreign policy establishment—the “Blob” if you prefer—is still pretty well entrenched despite its less than stellar record. To get a better sense of how that establishment came to be in the first place, this week I spoke with Stephen Wertheim of the Quincy Institute and Columbia University about his new book, Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy. We talked about the birth of US empire amid the darkest days of World War II and whether there’s anything about that post-war debate about America’s proper role in the world that can inform the debate we’re having about the very same issue today. Please check it out and then check out the book!

Thanks for reading!

Wars of Future Past

Kelsey D. Atherton

Violence is under-studied. In my regular beat, I write about the machines of violences, tools sometimes old (but mostly new) purchased by governments and used to kill human beings in wars abroad. Sometimes, those machines end up back in the hands of interior security forces. This is the case of MRAPs, the massive armored vehicles built specifically to withstand a special kind of insurgent-made bomb in Iraq and Afghanistan, which now populate the armories of local police departments throughout the United States. They are not tanks, but the Pentagon-correct distinction doesn’t matter; even without a turret, treads, and battle cannon, MRAPs are so imposing and armored as to fill the same purpose. They let the occupants of the vehicle do violence from the protection of armor, and they threaten the lives of people by their mere presence.

When we think about violence within the United States, especially political violence, we tend to look at tactics first, and organizational structures or capacity second, if at all. There is a concern, especially among the twittering classes, about distinguishing between good protests (nonviolent) and bad ones (which aren’t), and inferring a kind of effectiveness from a moral preference. It’s a silly game to play, because it treats those same MRAP-equipped and publicly funded police as irrelevant to the picture, rather than central to it.

The most common kind of political violence in the United States, I’d wager, is that of the ongoing police riot against the mere concept of accountability. The police are structurally reactionary (as Kim Kelly has written, there’s good reason other unions correctly see police unions as an existential threat to labor), and the role of police in waging the Forever War at Home has only made them more so.

As we go into the election tomorrow, my main prediction is that police will do a disproportionate share of violence, and it will get covered far less than any broken windows. That the Democratic Party coalesced around the cop-friendliest Presidential ticket possible might mean something for shaky suburbanites at the polls, but it will almost certainly do very little to calm the violent reactions of actual cops. With luck and spine, I expect the Biden ticket can claw out a victory, but getting police to accept it might entail a grim deal further enshrining qualified immunity into law.

A Lonely Impulse of Delight

Connor Wroe Southard

Here’s the only prediction for this week that I can guarantee is right: I will not be putting out a newsletter. It’ll be my first week off in the seven months of A Lonely Impulse of Delight. I do this not out of reverence for our [Jed Bartlett voice] august and redoubtable electoral institutions. I do it because 1) I inevitably finish up the letter on Tuesday night and, well, we’ll all be busy and 2) I don’t expect many people to be reading newsletters that are supposed to be “fun” and “about art” on Wednesday morning.

This newsletter will resume, in maximum fun mode, next week. Last week was fun. The future, at least within the realm of my newsletter, will strive for fun. Sign up to get in on the good times.

I do hope we all have fun Wednesday night. I retired from electoral forecasting after Biden’s victory in the Democratic primary made it clear to me that I have zero intuition for what voters will do. We all know what the polls and models are showing. My main piece of advice is to avoid Twitter at all costs.

The Insurgents

Rob Rousseau and Jordan Uhl

This week we’re joined by Discontents partners Jack Mirkinson & Sam Grasso from Discourse Blog. We reflect on where we were election night 2016, whether Donald Trump is going to be able to shock the world again, or whether Biden will become the next President, fail to address the systemic issues that led to Trump getting elected in the first place, and usher in a future for America that is, somehow, worse than the current present. We didn’t talk much about the possibility of anything really substantially improving, but who knows, maybe that will happen!

Make sure you watch Discourse Blog’s election night livestream on Twitch and subscribe to their new website.


Gaby Del Valle and Felipe De La Hoz

Who’s going to win the election? No clue, honestly. Maybe Biden will win and Trump will refuse to concede. Maybe not. Probably, Trump will declare victory no matter what happens.

Last week, we wrote about how the Department of Homeland Security has turned into another arm of the Trump campaign. Everyone’s been in full-on campaign mode for months in our shitty, endless-election style of politics. One group who are very much not supposed to campaign are federal government employees: the kind of people who in theory are supposed to run the day-to-day functions of government and keep it all from collapsing in on itself as the culture war rages around it. Yet, as with much else in the Trump administration, even the pretense of a functioning system has melted away as top officials at the Department of Homeland Security have spent the bulk of October openly campaigning for the president’s reelection.

In the past few weeks, officials with DHS and its sub-agencies ICE and CBP have traveled to the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Arizona, and Texas for press conferences ostensibly announcing minor operations that would normally merit little more than a press release.

The officials — including acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf and acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli, both of whose appointments have been deemed unlawful by the Government Accountability Office and several federal judges in Wolf’s case — have taken the opportunity to explicitly paint a picture of chaos and bloodshed in the event of a Biden victory, in what would appear to be a clear violation of the Hatch Act (not that anyone in government seems to care much).

In the meantime, ICE and CBP appear prepared to deploy armed units in American streets to quell expected post-election “civil unrest.” With the Supreme Court already signaling an openness to handing Trump a victory before all the votes are counted, these agencies could have a pivotal role in tamping down on the large-scale popular demonstrations that could be expected to follow, or alternately, in staying hands-off when it comes to the actions of right-wing militia groups and other ultranationalist fellow travelers.

Discourse Blog

Jack Crosbie

I’m going to keep this brief as, you know, the thing. In the past week, we blogged about Stephen Miller (unfortunately not dead), The West Wing, Miles Taylor (unfortunately not Miles Teller), cops lying about protests, Adult Halloween, the NYT’s insane fridge blog, and the Supreme Court. But obviously half of those blogs will immediately be washed from your memory because the election is tomorrow.

Also tomorrow? Our big election night livestream. If you’re looking for some CNN counterprogramming that will still keep you relatively informed, if not sane, throughout the night, head over to www.twitch.tv/discourseblog from 7pm to whenever we decide we’re done or we have a winner. Which will be who knows. The goal is to put on a good show, and we’ve got some pretty exciting special guests. I’ll be hosting along with Katherine Krueger and Jack Mirkinson. Hope to see you there!

(As far as predictions go, watch the stream, we’ll be predicting all night long. I can’t speak for the rest of the staff but I think Biden wins by a moderate amount and then the GOP has an internal struggle as to whether they want to try a coup or not. That’ll be the FunZone.)

Welcome to Hell World

Luke O’Neil

The Last Normal Day series continued this week with two of my favorite entries yet.

Jeb Lund contributed with a gorgeous and bracing account of ~all of this~ while reckoning with some hard realities about fatherhood in the era of shit.

To have been astonished at the fascist interests undergirding the privatized carceral state, the GOP's war on democracy, and the increasing attitude among the military and law enforcement that they are answerable only to one party and tasked with controlling the other required sustained disengagement and repetition degrading unto boredom. To argue that things were unacceptable now required pundits to tacitly concede under a flurry of coughs that all the other assaults on civil liberty were more or less livable before. This had always been tacit and euphemized—the cost of doing business, a savvy understanding that these are the way that things are, a Gallic shrug and an insouciant drag off a Gaulouises. It was less so once the realities of Vichy-level de facto enslavement, de jure disenfranchisement, and a democratically contemptuous white-supremacist thugocracy that had previously loitered in the background blustered upstage.

And Josh Gondelman wrote of a different sort of fatherhood in taking care of his aging dog who refuses to conform to any sort of sleeping schedule while contending with the new reality of a post-Covid New York City.

Now it’s late October of 2020, and life is pretty much normal. That’s not to say it’s good; so much of living through this year has been scary and sad and painful. It’s just no longer weird. I’m used to staying in my apartment for 23-plus hours a day like some kind of eccentric poet and wearing a protective face mask on the rare occasions when I leave. I’ve grown acclimated to having a president who governs for the applause of people he’d rarely choose to get close enough to to spit on (even if it was safe for him), and for the financial benefit of several thousand wealthy old ghouls desperate to extract as much value from the working class as possible for as long as science can stop nature from flushing their screaming souls straight to hell.

Ok here’s a bit from my new book Lockdown in Hell World. “Who cares.”

I want to swallow all the days ahead at once

It’s March and I am a child who knows nothing and you are a child who knows nothing except that we can feel something moving in the basement and we know not to go down there. It’s August and we’re huddled in a besieged grocery store as terrific insects hurl themselves against the glass wearing the faces of our loved ones bearing invitations to playdates and barbecues.

It’s March and I am a child who knows nothing and the idea of being isolated at home and unable to see anyone for weeks more never mind months more seems so suffocating that if I let myself envision it I feel like I’m going to collapse. Instead what I try to do is think about it one day at a time as the folks in the famous secret program which I probably will need to join after this is all over like to say. You don’t have to survive and wait out the entirety of this thing all at once right now all you have to do is make it through today I told people back then when I was a child. Tomorrow will probably be the same shit and the day after that too but tomorrow isn’t your problem at the moment I said but children like me are very famously idiots.

It’s April and we’ve just moved into our new home and after over a month of quarantine I don’t know if I can take my own advice from way back in March anymore. I want to swallow all the days ahead at once right now in one disgusting gulp like I’m trying to hide evidence from the police or like I’m trying to smuggle the duration of the virus onto an airplane and then I take a restless nap on the plane and shit it out after and hand it off to someone else so it’s not my problem anymore. The relief when it’s no longer in your possession. I want to come out the other side. I want to get to the part where we’re all like What the fuck was that all about? then we all go get egg sausage and cheese on an English muffin at Dunkin’ and eat it silently and very fast in a bustling unworried crowd of people whose eyes don’t have poison inside of them.

It’s August and I don’t particularly care what happens anymore or about the passage of time in general. Soon Michelle will be forced into returning to school to teach a roomful of children how not to die instead of how to do multiplication but no one in charge has of yet provided her with that particular curriculum.

It’s April and a reader writes to me about his time at war.

“I take the quarantine day by day and don't focus on the end date, which is exactly how it was on my deployments to Iraq. Once you get used to the kind of weird new part of life of being shelled and fired at you fall into a routine of absolute monotony. Every day you trudge to the chow hall for breakfast, trudge to work, trudge back to the chow hall for lunch, trudge to work or work-related activity or meeting. Go to the gym and spend at least two hours there just to waste time. Everyone tells you not to keep track of the days or count them down or whatever, but by the halfway mark everyone eventually ends up making one of these pie charts from a Microsoft Office program that tells you how much time you have left until you return home or return to normal.”

I wonder if being shelled at would be worth it to be able to go to the gym at this point.

“By the end you are so bored and so want to be done with what you are currently stuck in that it becomes a physical feeling. It's hard to explain but it actually felt like it was mentally fatiguing. I read dozens of books on each deployment but by the end of them I couldn't read anymore because my angst would build to the point that I could feel it in my chest and then my throat.”

I’ve only finished one book during the entirety of quarantine thus far it was The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene. I’ve started many more but finishing a book or finishing anything besides maybe a bottle is a problem for me now.

The book is set during the Blitz in London and people go about their normal daily lives as best as possible going to work at a cafe and having social gatherings and church raffles and so on as the bombs drop all around them. A siren goes off and they all hide or brace themselves for the impact and hope the bombs fall somewhere else distant somewhere where they won’t get them and then they get up after the dust clears the next day and do it all over again once the names of the dead have been reported dutifully in the newspaper. The characters in the book and the characters in the actual war had no idea when the war would end but we do and that’s called irony unless I’m mistaken. We have no idea about when our own thing here will end at this point maybe the people reading this do and that’s irony too.

A dozen or more friends’ parents are gone now but I’ve been absurdly fortunate to have suffered no close personal loss throughout all of this which is a miracle of sorts. My sister who is a nurse that works with the elderly contracted the virus early on and was sick and exhausted and rundown for a couple of weeks but seems to have recovered. We still don’t fully understand what recovering means at this point though. My good friend’s father died in New York City and he talked to me about the ghastly absurdity of the nurse placing a phone up to his ear because of course he and his brothers couldn’t go and say goodbye in person. They got to listen to him breathe for a while. My friend said he wasn’t sure if his father knew they were there on the line so they ended up talking amongst themselves about other random shit and I wonder if their father laying there in the bed perhaps aware he was going to die presently thought to himself Jesus Christ with this shit.

Probably he was just happy to hear his children’s voices…

Pre-order the book here via O/R Books.