The congressman, the salamander, and me
I landed my dream job. Producer, BBC Television. It was settled then, I was going to spend the rest of my life in England, working for the BBC. So when the head of programming summoned me to meet with him, I felt a little knot in my stomach. This, I thought, will be either very good for me, or very bad. I was right.
“Congratulations Winter,” he said after I was ushered in. “It’s a big job, but you’re smart, you work very hard, you’ve made quite a name for yourself. However there is one thing you should understand before you accept our offer.”
Here it comes.
“What’s that, Sir John?”
“The one thing you need to understand young man is that you are a New Zealand fellow. And that means, I regret to say, that there is only so far you can go here in Great Britain.”
Your first instinct when somebody says something like that to you is to belt them right in the middle of their florid, gin-lined face. But then it occurs to you that this gentleman has gone out of his way to do you a favor. He wants to make sure you fully understand the rules of the game. His bloody game. You are a colonial. There is only so far you will go here.
So I choked back the rising anger. I said “thank you so much, I appreciate the advice, I’ll take it to heart,” and three months later I landed in Chicago to start a new life in the only country ever to be founded upon an idea, a place where pedigree doesn’t matter and difference is celebrated, a place where self-discovery is possible, no, where self-invention is possible, a place where life, liberty and (improbably) the pursuit of happiness were declared self-evident truths from the outset. I had 38 pounds sterling in my pocket. And I never looked back.
When it comes to contemplating the phenomenon of Donald Trump, there are really no surprises. I lived in New York City when he was Donny On The Make. Just as his life then was characterized by tabloid sensation, dubious partnerships, aggrieved employees, impulsive decision-making, self-promotion and financial chicanery, well, so is his presidency. Those that voted for him knew this going in. Here’s the thing: They didn’t care. As a candidate, Trump famously declared, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, O.K.? It’s, like, incredible.” Yes, it is. But it’s even more incredible that he could still get away with it. That’s the surprising, sorrowful thing about life in Trumplandia today.
Republicans — the Grand Old Party — have a deep hold on the instruments of political power. They control the Oval Office. They also hold the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. Thirty-three states have Republican governors, 32 state legislative chambers enjoy a Republican majority. But thanks to Trump, Democrats are giddy about their prospects in the mid-term elections later this year, on November 6. They are particularly excited about their chances of retaking the House of Representatives. That would give them a shot at blocking the Trump agenda. I think they could be making a big mistake. And anyway, winning the House of Representatives won’t solve the fundamental problem of a divided country.
Mid-terms are famously tricky for the party in power. But during the first year of Trump’s presidency, the Grand Old Party raked in $132 million, a fundraising record. And the GOP has spun the growing economy they inherited in their favor. In most political battles the wallet usually wins, even if the voter has to pull the lever with one hand and hold her nose with the other.
Yet Democrats are excited because despite the economy they currently hold a nine-point polling lead in generic mid-term ballots. Such a lead would historically translate to winning well more than the 24 seats the party needs to reclaim the House majority. But there’s a problem in that translation. Congressional districts in most states are designed by the party in power. And after the 2010 midterm Republican rout, when Democrats suffered their biggest House defeat since 1938, the GOP set to with an aggressive, data-driven redrawing of dozens of congressional districts. You will be astonished to learn that the new lines were drawn with nothing but the preservation of power in mind.
This is called “gerrymandering,” a portmanteau of Governor Gerry of Massachusetts, who in 1812 signed a redistricting bill that created a contorted voting district in the Boston area designed to perpetuate his hold on office, and the shape of the mythological salamander it was said to resemble. The gerrymander is a pernicious thing, for it robs the electoral system of genuine representational authenticity. As Arnold Schwarzenegger put it when he was Governor of Kalifornya, “because of gerrymandering, politicians pick their voters, not the other way around.” The singular achievement of his tenure was to terminate it. Voting districts in California are now verified and refined by a non-partisan electoral commission.
Big battleground states like Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina are so radically carved up in the GOPs favor, the Democrats would need an unprecedented generic wave amounting to at least 11 points to win more seats there. Absent that, pockets of anti-Trump intensity in particular electoral districts will result in high turnout numbers that merely manifest the intensity of opposition without making any numerical difference in seats won. Be sure to look at those states after the elections — Democrats could get more than 50% of the popular vote but still not win any additional seats in the House of Representatives.
If you ask me, the only way an 11-point wave can happen is if Trump’s core Make America Great Again supporters take his gun away from him when he pulls it out of its holster on Fifth Avenue. But so far, rather than reining him in, MAGAs are cheering him on. In some polling, their support for their guy has actually intensified.
What does that tell you?
It tells me that the very same argument of economic and social inequity that led to Trump’s improbable rise still resonates. I know this for sure because my brother-in-law happens to be the U.S. Congressman representing Maine’s second district. Maine is a huge state but most people live in a small, urban pocket on the southern coast. My brother-in-law, a conservative Republican, represents the rest. His is the largest congressional district (by geographic size) east of the Mississippi. The guy drives 200 miles to shake 50 hands. Sometimes I venture up there with him, just to keep him company. It’s the heart of dystopic Trumplandia. There’s been no work up there since the timber companies figured out that pine trees grew faster down in the Carolinas and headed south, taking the mills with them. No education, no prospects, no shot at the fabled American dream, left out, disdained, and forgotten by a political system that has ceased to produce for them, some seek relief by sucking on opiates, others opt for religious fundamentalism, but mainly they seek relief in the MAGA movement, in all its dark and vicious envies. At last, blame can be attached. We’re off the hook. It’s not our fault. No, an imagined elite is to blame, an elite comprised of uncaring establishment politicians and bureaucrats of the Deep State, together with their mouthpiece, the fake media.
Resentment is an awful force. “When you take the cork out of that bottle,” said Springsteen the day after Trump was elected, “you can never get it back in.” Trouble is, nobody is trying to put the cork back in. For the self-interested, resentment is too useful a political tool, and both Republicans and Democrats are hell bent on exploiting it within their respective narrative frames as they compete for power and a turn at the trough.
Republicans: Big government cannot save you
Democrats: Big business cannot save you
While they remain locked into the absurd religious dichotomy of Left vs. Right — archaic labels invented by the French National Assembly in 1789 for godsake — the country festers. It’s true. Our political thought system was invented by the French. In 1789. Maybe it’s time for an update in the way we approach what besets us as a nation? On healthcare, immigration, education, still no leadership from Congress and this president. On the cultural and social collapse that sees kids shooting each other, parents rejecting vaccinations, consumerism as a salve for personal emptiness, and widespread middle-class impoverishment, still no leadership from Congress and this president.
And that’s the point you see. There is precious little new thinking coming out of the Democratic Party as the midterms approach. The country faces three crises — a crisis of opportunity as labor markets stagnate, a crisis of solidarity as the social fabric disintegrates, and a crisis of authority as distrust in major institutions climbs. I’m left wondering if a Democratic win will make any real difference at all.
Meanwhile media is failing in its central duty to play objective referee. Fox News is in the tank for Trump, and it is common knowledge that he is influenced more by the opinionation of Hannity and his pals than the counsel of his own advisors. And the newspaper industry has suspended critical judgment completely and morphed into a collective-reverse-Pravda. In the vanguard are the New York Times and the Washington Post, each of which is enjoying trump-bumps in print and digital circulation that have bolstered their financial standing. None seem interested in seriously examining the circumstances that precipitated the dysfunction which marginalized the MAGAs in the first place. It is hard to decide which is more odious, Trump himself or the media outlets that have lined up so reflexively and viciously for or against him.
Bob Mueller is the outlier here. A decorated Vietnam war veteran and a Republican to boot, he quietly continues to go about his investigation into Russian collusion. But Trump is not just afraid of revelations of collusion. There will be of course, and they will reveal that he and his crew of mendicants are less venal than they are amateur, bumbling about on the world stage like loudmouth low-lifes without a clue. No, it’s not just evidence of collusion that terrifies Trump. It’s an unmasking that terrifies him the most. This, after all, is a guy with a desperate need for affirmation — but if he’s like a lot of real estate developers I’ve known, his empire is built on a flim-flam platform of debt and leverage. Despite his wealthy heritage, Trump is a man who has spent his life trying to create the illusion of extraordinary business acumen. He is terrified that people will discover that his empire is a crock, and that he is nowhere near as rich or accomplished as he has led you to believe. That’s why we’ve never seen his tax returns.
You could have guessed that if you had ever stayed in a Trump-branded hotel. I have. (This is what happens when you let the client make the arrangements) And while I tossed and turned on the over-stuffed bed it occurred to me that the real danger here is that this great country will become like the hotels with his name on them, so gaudy and tasteless they are perfect in their representation of…him. They are everything the vulgar Russian archetype thinks of when he thinks of life amongst the upper-crust. So god forbid, what if this wonderful country ends up like that, a country with a reputation for cheapness and self-gain over all else, a country with a comb-over, a bullshit artist, relentlessly mediocre, no longer aspirational, no longer a glorious idea in progress but a “B’ player, a player that talks a good game but never quite makes the grade? What a sorry prostitution that would be of the ideas and ideals that got us here, that got me here.
Republican politicians don’t yet care to recognize the long-term, corrosive damage this president is doing to our country. They’re too busy using him as cover while they prosecute their hoary ideological agenda. They have made the cynical calculation that there is more to be gained through acquiescence than censure. They reckon it’s Trump’s party now. When my brother-in-law was hounded by the Maine press seeking a comment on Trump’s latest imbroglio, he fled into the nearest Capitol bathroom. It happened to be a ladies’ room. The family had some fun with that. It has to be said, congressmen and women vow to serve the Constitution, not the presidency. The GOP’s failure to repudiate the president’s unbecoming behavior is further proof, as if it was needed, that for most politicians the only thing that really matters is the next election and how best to get positioned for it.
But if I am wrong about the midterms and by some chance the Democrats do succeed in taking back the House despite the gerrymander, many Republicans may no longer have the option of looking the other way. If only to protect their political viability you could see a stampede away from Trump. And a lame-duck, one-term president.
Either way, 2020, that’s the only election that matters now.
A print version of this post first appeared in North & South Magazine in New Zealand.
Peter is represented by The Garamond Agency, Washington, D.C.
Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org