I went to a protest last night. I think the last time I participated in a group protest was when I was a freshman in college, long enough ago that the guy who was president had been elected on the sucker-baiting slogan “make America great again,” and the thing we were protesting about was our fear we would die in a nuclear war. I guess it always comes back around—this time, with all the indicia of actual fascism thrown in for good measure.
Those 80s protests were fun. We gathered on the quad and pretended to die. I started dating one of the other members of the nuclear freeze club, an art major, and we would go around New Orleans spray-painting nuclear death shadows on the sidewalks, as if anyone would notice. We had other events focused on the wars in Central America, and I started writing about the events for the school paper and through that got to interview some amazing people, including Hunter S. Thompson, whose gonzo was profoundly missed last year.
This protest was different, though it made me instantly remember how good mass protest can feel. There were thousands of people. The mayor was there, most of the City Council members, and one of our local Congressmen, the one who holds LBJ’s old seat. I saw leaders of the business community I know from my work as a lawyer, old neighbors, young radicals, one of the clerks from my old company’s accounting department. And every goddamned one of those old Austin hippies that I was sure were an endangered species. I guess the specter of dictatorship is a great way to get us all off the couch and on our feet.
The march across the river and into downtown had amazing energy. Most the people who chanced upon the crowd joined in, except when we passed the Hooters, which (of course) appears to be a haven for trumpism, as evidenced by the beefy young Tex-bros standing out front trying to look scary tough but clearly flummoxed by the size and diversity of the crowd. The threat of violence was only evident if you went to the back of the march and found the police escort of unmarked, dark-windowed vehicles loaded with cops ready to maintain order if things got out of hand.
I watched the formal part of the inauguration, including that insanely dystopian speech, with the Harkonnen figure of Sheldon Adelson in his sponsored seat on the dais and the weird moment where all those uniformed officers suddenly appeared behind the new President as he spoke. But I didn’t stick around for the parade—I went for a run, and then to a neighborhood meeting. I already saw one dystopian inaugural parade, and it scared the shit out of me, profoundly changing how I perceived my own country.
I was there when Bill Clinton was sworn in, as a young Senate staffer, back at the upbeat beginning of the Long Boom that turned out not to be so long after all, when the political parties really did seem to bleed into each other at the edges. But it was when I went back in January 2001 that I could start to smell the failures of our democracy that got us to today—some of which may be attributable to the diminishing political diversity that followed the “End of History.”
I got to go to the 2001 inaugural because I was a lawyer, and it was lawyers who made Bush 43 president. I remember going to work the day after that ballot, a gray morning full of the heavy feeling of there being an election and no one knew who won. W and his people were holed up in the hotel next door to our office, and from my window I could see their bulletproof limos idling in the drizzle. That day and the interregnum that followed pulled back the curtain to reveal how much mythology and falsehood lights the theater of our democracy. But you wouldn’t have known it from the party the lawyers threw on Pennsylvania Avenue that January 20, the kind of party prosperous lawyers throw to celebrate their victories as advocates without much regard to who the client is, or the cause.
I am pretty sure we would not be where we are today if it had not been for that election that failed to produce a winner. The next inaugural was transformatively frightening, seeing the open public Washington where I had spent most of my twenties as a young public servant turned into a militarized zone. All of the major public buildings were barricaded, the East Lawn of the Capitol building torn open like some Mordor hole, the great oaks of the People uprooted to make room for the new underground Congressional bomb shelter masquerading as a Visitors Center. There were machine guns everywhere, snipers and spotters in black tacticals on every rooftop, radiation detectors at every checkpoint, and the protesters mostly got rounded up, leaving their signs to be trampled on the sidewalks. I saw Dick Cheney looking every bit the dark cyborg lord of the Deep State as he peered out through the window of his shiny black limo at the people screaming their hate. Maybe you would say it was all Osama’s fault, but that day I saw the institutional face of our military-industrial complex coupled with the mass American Id. It was scary, it never really went away, and now it has pure rampaging Id at its head.
This week Barnes & Noble published an excerpt from my forthcoming novel Tropic of Kansas that was described as “spookily prescient,” but for me it was really just a slight extrapolation from the Washington I saw on that cold day in 2005—my effort to use literary naturalism in speculative futurism, trying to learn from the living masters of this curious field. Now I’m starting to see other things out there that I had thought too implausible when I put them in the world of the book, like the marriage of capital and military force. I am still digesting this astonishing passage in the Maureen Dowd profile of Palantir founder Peter Thiel, where Thiel shows her a picture on his phone of him, the the President-elect, and Erik Prince of Blackwater, together at a celebratory costume party at the home of one of the other plutocratic mega-donors. It’s not hard to imagine them conspiring to realize a Randian fever dream corporate state, complete with privatized military and intelligence forces. Maybe Rollerball nailed it after all, with its corporate dictatorship of 2018.
To paraphrase the sensei, dystopia is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. Ask the people out there in the back 40 of Trumplandia, who voted the way they did because they know they got their unfair share of it.
One of the main reasons I wrote this book was to search for what kinds of better futures might lie on the other side of our dystopias. I don’t know that I figured that out, though I hopefully wrote an entertaining story that helps promote the idea of inventing sunnier tomorrows. But art as protest is no substitute for actual protest, and last night’s march was the real deal, an authentic expression of community and solidarity among an incredibly diverse group of people. Today’s will be even more so, actualizing a future that we know is coming. There may be some dark struggles ahead, ones that will make the grim Zeitgeist of the GWOT seem tame by comparison, but I am pretty sure the people I saw out there last night, and all their kin in other cities, have the stuff to win the day. It shouldn’t be that hard to cross the Mason-Dixon lines of the mind incubated by the algorithms of advertisers, and reach across the chasms that divide this weekend in search of some new permutation of union.