Culture

There Will Be No Civil War Today

John Podesta, chairman of the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, addresses the crowd at Clinton’s election night rally in New York, November 9, 2016. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
We human beings are suckers for drama.

I am writing this on Friday. It will be published at 6:30 a.m. Sunday. You probably will see it later in the day, maybe with your morning coffee, maybe after church. I am going to make a prediction, which is something that I do not often do. Look out your window. If necessary, go out on the porch and look up and down the street. Crane the old neck. I’ll bet — I’d bet almost anything — that you do not see tanks in the street, riots, fires burning, or federal troops and law-enforcement agents running around. I’ll bet you don’t see anything like that on television, either.

“Do you know about Q Anon?”

Roll back the tape a couple of weeks. There’s a guy here with whom I am transacting some business. He’s a pretty buttoned-down businessman, well-dressed, confident, Rolex on his wrist, conservative. There’s a substantial amount of money changing hands, at least for me. We have some friends in common. Normal, apparently well-adjusted, tax-paying, decent enough guy.

“Everything he’s said is coming true.”

Q is the narrator of “The Storm,” the right-wing Internet conspiracy theory du jour. Q claims to be a high-level government operative acting on orders directly from the president, who apparently wants members of certain bonkers online communities to have a little inside information about a covert domestic intelligence and military operation currently under way. All that investigation of President Trump and his campaign’s footsie-playing with the Russians is, the story goes, a cover for the real investigation, which is into — here Sean Hannity will come to rapt attention — Hillary Rodham Clinton’s ties to the Russians. It is, as Paris Martineau put it in New York, a presidential “counter-coup against the deep state.” The story further insists that the Clintons (and the Saudi cabal with which they are allied) are aware of this, and are planning to stage violent riots from coast to coast in order to prevent their shadow government from being taken apart.

That’s supposed to kick off today, March 11, with the arrest of John Podesta.

As I write this, John Podesta is a free man. I predict that this condition will endure until at least Sunday.

We human beings — and I think we male human beings in particular — are suckers for drama. We may roll our eyes at the little interpersonal and domestic squabbles denoted by the term “drama” in the vernacular of 2018 (the expression already is feeling dated) but we have a taste for the grander kind, the drama that provides Aristotelian catharsis. From Dungeons & Dragons and the other role-playing games popular when I was growing up in the Eighties to today’s first-person shooters, from formulaic action movies to even more formulaic pornography, the unquiet minds of our quiet times long for tension and resolution, for tales of endurance unto victory.

“Isn’t this an odd time for a remake of Death Wish?” a correspondent asks. The video-game movies make sense, “but who can connect with the Bronson figure in this safe and boring day and age?” My correspondent is a Caribbean woman who has lived in the United States for many years but who apparently still hasn’t quite figured us out. A revenge fantasy in which a conservative white guy finally grown sick of it all goes on a cathartic and racially tinged killing spree: How has it taken this long for a remake of Death Wish? I’m surprised we haven’t seen Falling Down Two: This Time It’s Personal.

The conspiracy theory performs several literary tasks at once. It is a just-so story, explaining how seemingly inexplicable things came to be. It is like a classical Greco-Roman myth in that it explains the human condition and the national condition at the same time, understanding each in the context of the other. (Of course Rome suffers from civil war: How could the descendants of Romulus and Remus, themselves the descendants of Mars, escape fraternal conflict?) The conspiracy theory is immersive entertainment, like a role-playing game, and it functions as an audience-participant narrative game, like telling tall tales. As with the Dozens, the African-American insult game, it is not always entirely clear how seriously the participants are taking things. I haven’t heard of anybody canceling their brunch plans for this Sunday out of fear of civil unrest.

It may end up being the case that, a generation hence, historians look back on our era the way my friend does: safe and boring. The great conflict of the 20th century — the conflict between liberal democracy and totalitarian nationalism in its German and Russian expressions — came to a close, the new millennium arrived, and . . . not much happened. There was a horrifying terrorist attack in the United States, a country that had not known such violence on its own soil, and a financial crisis a few years later. As a result, airport security got a little crazy and certain economic trends, not all of them broadly celebrated, were deepened or accelerated. But life remained, for the most part, safe and boring. The American people perceived that there was so little at stake in the political realm that they began selecting presidents as cultural totems: Barack Obama, the first black president, and then, in reaction, Donald Trump, the complicatedly blond game-show host and sneering nationalist who was, on the issues, not terribly different from George W. Bush (who was into steel tariffs before they were cool) or Barack Obama, who spent some time trying to channel Theodore Roosevelt and gave dopey speeches about economic nationalism. Perhaps they will marvel that we seemed so excited by it all, that some of the leaders of our discourse — not just conspiracy-theory trolls such as Q but mainstream figures such as Sean Hannity and Jamelle Bouie — were convinced that we were on the verge of civil war, widespread unrest, a Nazi-style police state, or worse. But back when Grover Cleveland was taking on James Blaine, everybody thought that was a pretty big deal, too. But who today remembers the Mulligan letters? The Mugwumps? “Rum, Romanism, and rebellion?” Only the nerds.

(Rum, Romanism, and rebellion sounds like a pretty good party platform to me. But, as I said, I’m writing this on a Friday. And it’s Lent.)

It may end up being the case that, a generation hence, historians look back on our era the way my friend does: safe and boring.

But don’t try to tell anybody that these are not especially consequential times. You’ll have an easier time convincing them that there’s an occult coup under way and that the Trump administration is preparing to strike back — today, Sunday — against it by running in John Podesta. (Even if they sometimes mistake John Podesta for conservative Trump critic John Podhoretz.) If there isn’t some secret cabal pulling the strings behind the scenes, then that means that we are — God, no! — responsible for the state of our own lives and, corporately, for the state of the union. If things are as they seem and got here in the ordinary way, then blame will fall as the rain does on the just and the unjust alike. The conspiracy theory– and there are many versions of it; Occupy Wall Street was simply a conspiracy theory encamped — gives us release from that. We need the drama, because we need the release. We need catharsis.

The Greek word from which the English catharsis is derived refers to a medicinal purging: Catharsis is just the thing you need if you’re full of it, and there never has been a people so full of it as Homo Americanus in the Trump epoch.

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