Our horror movie era marches on. / Tumblr

Norms Follow Function

Sorting through the derangements of the Trump age

Our horror movie era marches on. / Tumblr
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Time feels all wounds. The same can’t be said for us—it’s just not the way we’re wired. Human bodies were made to forget. Maybe it’s for the best. It would be too much for us to remember everything, for all pain to remain ever-present. But the price of forgetting, of course, is forgetting that we’ve forgotten.

I generally hate it when others recite the old adage to me about time healing all wounds. I resist this empty reassurance because it does nothing in the moment to alleviate my pain, but also because I know that, eventually, at some point in time that isn’t this one, it will prove to be true. I know that I can look forward to a time when I’ll be able to look back and forget what I’m looking back at. I can anticipate the day when I will have shed enough skins that the person I am now, feeling all this pain, will be just a flaky husk on the floor.

And I hate it. The very thought of it now fills me with petulant dread—a sad, childish longing for something I haven’t even lost yet. But why? Isn’t this the whole point? Isn’t the virtue of time that it helps us forget the things we wish we could un-feel on our own, but can’t? Sure. But, given all that’s at stake, it feels pretty cruel to talk about this as a matter of “virtue.” Time is chemotherapy: it heals the wounds causing us pain by killing the tissue that feels it. The whole treatment is mercilessly unforgiving.

The time cure erases what it’s like to be you at any given moment—to have these concerns, to think these things, to feel this way, before you don’t anymore. It wipes out your sense of being in the present, a singular pulse of complex temporality, a passing cloud in the impossible now. It steals from us the feeling of excitement and flutter from our most proud and cherished moments, the joyful, ineffable comfort of resting somewhere warm with someone you love. The best we can do afterward is say that we remember having felt these feelings before time killed them. And the steady slaughter plods on. Time kills and kills more of you until, eventually, at the end of it all, you realize that you’re the cancer it’s trying to get rid of.

Politics Minus Identity

I know this may come across as excessively, even self-indulgently despondent. Just bear with me for a minute. Because meditating on the casual ruination of our most integral sense of self is the best way I can think of to explain what it really means to live in the age of Trump. And I think that, underneath heaps of anger and fear, people will know what I’m talking about.

During the year since Donald Trump was elected president, I’ve found myself trying to compartmentalize and rationalize my fears, in a rather enfeebled parody of internal priority-setting. What exactly are you afraid of? More war? Nuclear war? More poverty and pain? More chances for the oligarchs to rob the country in broad daylight? More deportations? More families broken apart? More intolerance and persecution? More bigoted wolves coming out from their hiding places? More state repression? More police murdering more of us, brandishing more of their shiny military equipment? More Flints? More Standing Rocks? More Hurricane Harveys, Irmas, and Marias? More what? What are you afraid of? Are these credible fears, or are you just buying into the media-fear-factory bullshit? Do these fears actually have anything to do with Trump? Or are you pretending that he’s the cause of so many horrible things because, deep down, you know these problems have been around for a long time, but you were just too much of a self-absorbed shit to notice?

I wouldn’t exactly call this a coping mechanism; it pretty much always makes me feel worse. It helps me “put things in perspective,” sure, but that’s kind of the problem. People who urge it on you don’t ever tell you this, but perspective can be a horrifying thing. The more I sift through and carefully catalogue my own fears in the Trump era, the more I begin to sense the dead glow of the thing that’s terrorizing so many of us. What starts to slowly lurch into view is something that’s so palpably obvious, so upfront and immediate, that we hardly ever see it. And maybe that, too, like being programmed to forget, is for the best–because seeing is grieving.

It’s hard to name or even describe the source of this gnawing self-dread.

It’s hard to name or even describe the source of this gnawing self-dread, but one analogy has always made the most sense to me. In the cobwebbed archive of stuff I still haven’t forgotten, the single closest equivalent to the thing that scares me now is that core fearful element in all those sci-fi and horror flicks where some foreign thing infects and overtakes the human hosts, absorbing them, subsuming them, turning them into something else. Something like them, but different. Someone squatting in their skin.

For my part, I’ve never been particularly afraid of hellish latex movie monsters. But I remember being frightened to the point of tears watching characters on screen fumble with utter terror before the prospect that, at any point, they could lose themselves, they could have their very being ripped away from them. Like Elizabeth Driscoll in Invasion of the Body Snatchers when she says, “Matthew, I’ve lived in this city all my life—somehow today I felt everything had changed. People were different . . . Today everything seemed the same but it wasn’t. It was a nightmare.” Like the nameless man who throws himself on their car moments later, screaming for help, shouting, “You’re next! You’re in danger!” right before he’s chased off screen and swallowed up by the thing he is so desperately afraid of. Their souls squeak like panicked mice with nowhere to go, shivering, alone, pleading to an empty universe that they be allowed to hold onto who they are, to not lose what they finally realize to be an incredibly fragile humanity that they have taken for granted their whole life—the spark of free will, their aspirations, irrational desires, idiosyncrasies, goofy habits, their self-possession. Their faces ripple with the cosmic horror of helplessness. Please don’t take me away from myself. Please. And then you see them again in the next scene, or someone who looks like them—someone else—and they’re fine, calm. They tell you they’re happy. They don’t even know what you’re talking about when you remind them of the unbearable terror they previously expressed. You’re being silly, they say. You should join them. It’s bliss.

The theme of surrendered self-control running through all these fictions seems peculiarly suited to our present, deeply predatory historical moment. It’s such an old and well-worn trope, but it has only gained currency in our collective cultural subconscious as we grapple with the weird, ongoing desiccation of our common world. Like zombies rising from the grave, the rotted corpses of ideas like permanent austerity, neoliberal globalization, and trickle-down economics have become permanently enshrined in our taken-for-granted vision of political order. It doesn’t seem to be an accident, then, that our popcult fantasies teem with the specter of real-world zombie takeovers—together with the orgiastic nostalgia for Nordic monarchial rivalries, dismally existential space operas, and any other brand of carnage aimed squarely at the fiction of coherent human selfhood. As Hollywood launched one failed bid at resuscitated action herodom after another all through the last summer, the only bona fide blockbuster involved a subterranean, flesh-eating, killer clown (basically Donald Trump in greasepaint).

Of course, the genre of stories about alien Others infiltrating and transforming and dispossessing the rest of us is filled with different twists on the ultimate justification for these forced metamorphoses: to build a better race of rational beings; to save humankind from itself; to enslave us; to use us and our tissue for the good of some other organism; etc. But these are always secondary. The true horror, the thing that would give me nightmares as a kid, and the reason I still wake up screaming sometimes, is the crushing weight of losing who you are now. It’s feeling the breath of the barren abyss, the black place where you are dissolved, and you cease to be what you are, right now. Your soul squeaks like a panicked mouse, begging not to die.

And then, in the next scene, you’re fine, calm. You’re someone else. You don’t even think about trying to remember what had you so scared before. You’ve forgotten it, and you’ve forgotten that you’ve forgotten it. Time heals all wounds.

Strangers in a Strange Land

Please understand: It’s not that I “fear change” itself, or that I think there’s some political value in spouting masturbatory, Byronic laments about the cruel passage of time. In the months since Trump was elected, I’ve simply become far more aware of how little choice we have when it comes to resisting the process by which our own protean selves are taken away from us and turned into something else. And this process, I believe, is simultaneously one of the hardest things to account for and one of the greatest sources of our fears in these harrowing times.

We are overwhelmed by the chaos of trying to fight so many moving targets at once. High-profile threats include newer, ever more deadly mass shootings; the splintered demons of far-right groups, each with its own name and symbols, sprouting up everywhere; repeated, dramatic attempts to strip millions of their healthcare; increased frequency and devastation of natural disasters. More chronic—but still shocking—upheavals in the landscape of public life accumulate with a near-daily fury: hate crimes on college and university campuses across the country; rampant government corruption; the never-ending stream of regressive overhauls of governmental agencies we were previously comfortable ignoring; Trump and his lackeys lying constantly and comfortably to the American people; the Muslim Ban; the border wall; pulling out of the Paris Agreement; escalating tensions with North Korea via Twitter. Insidious shifts in the official conduct of governance, meanwhile, remind us that the derangement of our norms is actually a central mission of the federal bureaucracy. Two of the more Orwellian such projects are the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity (a.k.a. the voter fraud commission Trump assembled to soothe his bruised ego after losing the popular vote) and the Justice Department’s Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, which, like the voter fraud commission, has elevated a racist urban legend into an organizing principle of law enforcement. More informally, there are the Department of Homeland Security’s plans to monitor immigrants’ social media activity; the Department of Justice’s brutal repression of inauguration protestors; Trump’s drive to stack the National Labor Relations Board with union-busters; the War on Drugs 2.0. And all of this, as we well know, is only a snippet of the total picture.

Change is all the things you don’t notice.

But even if we could draft a comprehensive list of all the nefarious forces we are trying to fight at this very moment, we’d still be in the same position. We would still be failing to confront that fearsome alien menace–that thing whose presence we can never quite locate, but whose traces are carved on us every time we take something for granted now that used to horrify us, every time we forget to remember what it used to be like before. This, I think, was the source of all the tremendous, but largely futile urgency when pundits and acquaintances alike, stretching back to the primaries, continually stressed the need to resist “normalizing” the things Trump and his fiendish followers say and do. This is not normal! they shouted, pleading to an empty universe. Don’t let it become normal. Please. Those pleading souls are different now. We all are. Everyone is someone else. The chaotic mass of villains and crises is one thing, but the natural tendency of our bodies and minds to adapt to chaos over time is another. To resist the Trump era’s steady enclosure of our political reality means confronting the likelihood that tomorrow you may no longer be the kind of person who would be able to, or even want to.

Of course, we still very much experience, almost on a daily basis, the shock, disgust and anxiety of living in the Trump age. We try to remain “present” and aware of what’s happening. We haven’t yet succumbed to the full undertow of blissful obliviousness. But obliviousness isn’t a thing you can always ward off. Oblivious people don’t know they’re oblivious, or what they’re oblivious to. That’s kind of the whole point. And we are, all of us, generally oblivious to change. In fact, you could say obliviousness is the engine of change. Change is all the things you don’t notice. It creeps in through the cracks we don’t see, leaving us little choice. It overtakes you when you least expect it—exactly when you’re oblivious to it. Then one day you look up and you’re someone else—someone like who you were before, but different.

Things Fall Apart

When you’re growing up, the solidity of things in the adult world is both comforting and almost unbearable. Everything, from the way people drive cars to the operations of big, cold office buildings, from whatever secret ceremonies take place at PTA meetings to the seamless succession of TV programs, from the stuff in your pediatrician’s magical cabinets to Government with a capital “G”—all of it comprises the circuitry of a domineering world whose codes are so powerfully official and universally recognized by all the older people. It’s impossible for me to pinpoint when and how I became fluent in these codes, because it doesn’t happen at once, and you generally don’t know that you’re doing it, but I remember a time when I was intimidated by the towering scale of the whole alien system. Since then, I’ve moved through the circuitry, just like everyone else. I’ve learned more and more about how it works, I’ve experienced many frustrating moments when something in the system breaks down or doesn’t function how I was led to believe it should. I’ve criticized countless parts of the system, including people whose greed or viciousness or stupidity is either overlooked or accepted by it. On my better days, I consider myself to be quite a sophisticated student of the system. But only in the age of Trump have I started to see the horrifying fragility of it all.  

For so many, confronting the mere existence of a Trump presidency means trying to compute how the system they knew and were a part of could produce such a seemingly abnormal result. It’s in these moments that we can begin to see how, in all the ways we go about our daily business, we routinely perform that same kind of childish belief in the solidity and integrity of the system that makes life normal for us: the talismanic faith that lets us go to bed every night unthinkingly confident that what was there today will be there tomorrow. And, if only in these brief moments of despair, it’s revealed what meager materials actually hold “the normal” together.

In this short time, Trump and his enablers have managed to reveal that the structure of our political and social systems is not nearly as solid as we always assumed it was. From the day that Trump announced his candidacy, we have born witness to, and participated in, the spectacle of an entertaining monster clashing with the rules of a system we took for granted. Whether we were excited or disgusted, every new stage of the election showed to us the brittleness of the seemingly ironclad reasons politicians in America “just don’t do” certain things or cross certain lines. A partial roster of such trespasses from the ’16 campaign trail would include, but is by no means limited to: talking about your dick during a presidential debate; criticizing POWs for getting captured; not immediately rejecting the endorsement of the KKK; not pledging to support your party’s nominee or the election’s eventual outcome should it not go your way; mocking disabled people; threatening to imprison your opponents if you win; bragging about sexual assault; egging on racist attacks at rallies; etc, ad nauseum.

By the once-accepted rules of political decorum, such offenses were unthinkable—but then, suddenly, they weren’t anymore. The system had no means for making them unthinkable again, and neither did we. As all this shamelessness and bigotry unspooled before our eyes, we kept looking nervously around as if for direction from some offstage arbiter of propriety—waiting, in essence, for the system to do its business and expel the abnormalities. But, again and again, we discovered, to our further horror, that the system is only as strong as the norms that justify its current shape.

Put another way: politics is what you can get away with. We’re now living through the consequences of people—powerful people, regular people—figuring out that they can get away with far more than what they used to think was possible. And the system we live and participate in has already absorbed this shift into itself, it has already begun to rearrange itself, and us. We don’t have much choice. It’s not possible to go back to living in a world in which the normative boundaries of such fragile things—things like etiquette, decency, mainstream acceptance—have not already been revealed to be as porous as they are.

Our horror today stems as much from Trump’s capacity to bring about disastrous changes from the office of the president as it does from our incapacity to resist the changes to ourselves that occur just from living through the age of Trump. The institutional protections that, in our prior political fantasias, marked the boundaries of the permissible and the tolerable, won’t magically return intact if and when we break free from Trumpism’s amnesiac hold. It’s suicidal to wait for things, or ourselves, to “go back to normal.” The grinding work of making it out the other end requires urgent, concerted, repeated, communal attempts to maintain the memories we can’t afford to lose and the conventions that make life, as we know it right now, livable—to keep them present in the ways we treat each other, before they, too, take leave of our senses.

Persuasion of the Body Snatchers

I can’t remember all the things I’ve forgotten. I can’t recall what it was like to be all the persons I’ve been but am no longer. Over the last year, I’ve tried to rifle through artifacts from my past—notes, marginalia, pictures, old commercials, conversations, hard drives, articles, etc.—in the hopes of stitching together some kind of patchwork portrait of the changes I’ve undergone and of the norms that were once so abnormal to us. Because to meet the needs of our political future means that we have to find some way to confront, not repress, the ruthless nature of change. We have to find some way to build consistency and maintain community between the ephemeral now and the to-come, lest we arrive in the future having forgotten what it was our past selves wanted to hold onto.

I remember laughing with my brothers as we tried to figure out how a computer mouse works. I remember asking what Krispy Kreme was after seeing cars lined up at all hours of the day when one first opened up in Southern California. I remember being blissfully oblivious to the bipedal machinery carrying me confidently to the gym an hour before I tore my ACL, MCL, and meniscus. I remember my parents calling us into their bedroom on 9/11. I remember processing the reality of black smoke rising from the North Tower as my mom explained that “they” thought a plane had crashed into it by accident, and I remember her screaming 5 minutes later, at the exact moment the entire country realized it wasn’t an accident. I remember being outraged with all my friends when Facebook changed its interface in 2008; now, I have to trawl through the internet to find screen shots that can remind me of what the old layout even looked like. I know they covered many other subjects, but, for the life of me, I can’t remember what nightly news-satire shows filled their time slots with before they transitioned into covering stories related to Donald Trump and his cabinet every day. I remember rushing to my boom-box to hit record when a new song came on the radio (I had blank tapes all queued up in the tape deck). I remember how difficult it was to memorize direct quotes from past presidents for school plays, and how the dense, ornamental language just confirmed that there was so much about the adult world I didn’t understand. But, even though I’m perpetually disgusted by it, I can’t remember exactly when I stopped being shocked that the traditionally polished oratory of the president had been replaced by outbursts like, “You know what uranium is, right? This thing called nuclear weapons like lots of things are done with uranium including some bad things.”

I can’t remember when it became easy for me to stop thinking about how the president’s family members are both playing key roles in the government and using those roles to bolster the profits of their private businesses. I remember being a condescending, staunch conservative in high school (now I’m the red sheep of the family). I remember the Monica Lewinsky scandal being on my parents’ TV all the time. I remember Bill Clinton progressively admitting to more things when he couldn’t escape the evidence journalists dredged up, just like I remember watching tapes of Reagan squirming when being asked about the Iran-Contra deal. I don’t know exactly when and how we collectively adjusted to the idea that the president and his staff could just evade these scenarios by repeatedly lying and attacking journalists themselves. Nor can I identify any one thing that would explain how and why people thought it was comical to have one of those former staff members do a bit at the Emmy’s “poking fun” at his role in the constant lying that’s just become the norm in the White House. I remember thinking hybrid cars would never last. I remember how it seemed like the whole world was ripping on George W. Bush for butchering the pronunciation of Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas. I remember not batting an eye when Trump referred to the nonexistent country of “Nambia” in front of the U.N. General Assembly. I can’t remember at what point it stopped being weird to me that newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post were regularly releasing articles that directly contradicted each other because I, like everyone else, had just accepted that the goal of news today is to provide a platform for a plurality of opinions on the same subject.

I can’t remember what it felt like to not have chronic back pain. I can remember older folks infecting us with their anxiety.

I can’t fully recall what it was like to not have the constant, low-grade suspicion of the people around me I’ve had since the 2016 election. I can’t remember what it felt like to not have chronic back pain. I can remember older folks infecting us with their anxiety after the Columbine massacre, but there’s really no way to describe how or when that widespread fear and panic gave way to the tepid sadness, defensiveness, and quick abstraction that immediately follows mass shootings today, even when they involve the cold-blooded murder of twenty first-grade children.

It’s impossible to mark the moment (if there ever was one) when the very concept of white nationalism and neo-Nazism had been dulled and recycled through our symbolic air-conditioning system so much that white men marching with torches through a university campus and chanting “Jews Will Not Replace Us” was unspectacular enough to become just another piece of news in the endless content stream. I wasn’t alive when policemen murdered four student-protestors at Kent State, but I remember relatives telling me about the national uproar when news of the massacre spread. I remember few people knowing or caring about Scout Schultz, a student at Georgia Tech who was shot and killed by police in September 2017. I remember thinking people who agreed with Marx were dummies. I remember hating Dostoevsky when I first read him. I remember what it was like to not know how I was going to pay for my next meal. I remember the layout of local strip malls filled with stores that no longer exist.

This seems to be the only way I can explain, albeit tangentially, what it means to confront the helpless horror of change in our present moment. Spilling these fragments out is the best way I can think of to communicate how important it is for us to help each other hang onto ourselves as the vanishing bulwarks of selfhood and normalcy are continuously exposed in their full and terrible fragility. It’s the only way I can find hope in anticipation of individual and collective openings in ourselves that are, as of this writing, still unthinkable—and that will remain unthinkable, until they aren’t anymore.

Maximillian Alvarez is a dual-PhD candidate and graduate student instructor in the departments of History and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. He received his BA and graduated with honors from the University of Chicago in 2009.

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