Letter from Washington: The Grifter Economy

Jared is a spy

Why are Americans so unhappy?

We’re the richest, most powerful nation in history. Yet, individual Americans are staggeringly unhappy, according to a recent survey from the World Happiness Report:

Americans are unhappy, according to the report, an annual list ranking the overall happiness levels of 156 countries — and it’s only getting worse.

For the third year in a row, the U.S. has dropped in the ranking and now sits at No. 19, one spot lower than last year, according to the report produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a U.N. initiative. The top three spots this year were occupied by Finland, Denmark and Norway. At the bottom were Afghanistan, Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Researchers point to an “epidemic of addictions” as the cause. We’re a nation with an unhealthy relationship to food, booze, opioids and social media.

While we certainly should minimize the role of social media in our lives, our addictions are not a cause of unhappiness but a symptom a bigger disease: economic insecurity. We use drugs and social media to cope with dislocation for the same reason that the gin craze swept England in the 18th Century.

Americans of the right and left agree on one thing: the economy is rigged against them. And they’re right.

The college cheating scandal revealed how the rich have gamed the system for their benefit. It wasn’t enough for celebrities to be rich and famous, they had to pass on their elite benefits by bribing their way into top universities.

This isn’t an isolated incident, but a pattern across American life. Bankrupt a bank and you get a government bailout. But go broke due to a trip to the emergency room and you die on the street.

And it’s only going to get worse, with the Trump/Kushner crime family in the White House. They’ve worked the system for decades, using tax breaks and federal aid for personal enrichment. Watch the excellent A&E series on the family to learn how they’ve stiffed contractors, defaulted on loans and cheated their way to tax abatements and federal funds. They’re a family that grew rich by fleecing the American taxpayer.

The posters you see in DC are probably correct: Jared Kushner is a spy. Communicating by secret with the journalist-murdering Saudis, he’s pursuing his familial economic interests while flying on US government jets. Kushner knows that you use insider connections to scoop up ill-gotten wealth in the Grifter Economy.

Another emblematic figure of the Grifter Economy is Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos. She sold a beautiful lie to Baby Boomers who wanted to live forever, the promise of a device that could detect diseases with a single drop of blood. Everything about the story was a fraud, including her earthy voice. Hundreds of millions of dollars were lost in a fantasy, one that was only uncovered by the kind of dogged reporting of the kind that Trump, Kushner and the Saudis want to go away.

Before Trump became president, I wrote a novel about an American grifter: Don’t Mess Up My Block. I thought it was funny to imagine someone who took “fake it until you make it” as a guiding belief. In my book, Larry Christenson shaves his head, changes his name and reinvents himself as a management consultant, despite having no business experience. He then wreaks havoc across America in this parody of a self-help book.

Don’t Mess Up My Block was inspired by my experience seeing the destructive “solutions” that consultants sold organizations. A PowerPoint and some buzzwords and people got laid off, while the consultants went on to the next engagement, leaving the organization in tatters. It was a grift.

Little did I know that this kind of grift, and these kind of grifters, would take over America in 2016. Now we all must figure out a way to survive the Grifter Economy.

Do you want to make something or grift something? Making is hard; grifting is easy and far more profitable. Better to create a con (Make America Great Again) than to bring real value to the real world.

The Grifter Economy offers little for the hard-working and nothing for the honest. No wonder Americans are so unhappy.

Letter from Washington: The Cruelty is the Point

Nathan Phillips leads a dance at the Indigenous Peoples March
Nathan Phillips leads a dance at the Indigenous Peoples March before the MAGA teens showed up.

When video surfaced of Covington Catholic teens mocking a Native American at the Lincoln Memorial, I realized that I had missed the encounter by just a few minutes.

After work on Friday, I biked to the Lincoln Memorial desperate to see some sun after days of gloom.

At the memorial, I saw Native Americans (including Nathan Phillips) leading everyone in a giant dance with people holding hands in an ever-expanding circle. Pictured above, it was a beautiful moment seeing how everyone came together.

And a respectful one. Non-natives watched the dance from a few feet away. When invited to join, they did so, the dance expanding outward to accommodate newcomers on the plaza in front of the Lincoln Memorial. A drum played and Phillips sang as I watched this impromptu community demonstrate how we are all one people. Lincoln would be proud.

With all the museums closed due to the Trump Shutdown, there’s not a lot to do in Washington. The outdoor monuments and memorials are some of the few things that are open. The tourists who took part in the Native American dance circle were happy to have this unique experience of a different culture in an iconic setting.

After I left, the Covington Catholic kids came along. While there are innumerable videos and Rashoman-like confusion, one thing is clear: the MAGA teens mocked Phillips. You can see and hear them laughing at him and doing tomahawk chants while surrounding him on the steps of the Lincoln. He’s one elderly man faced off against a sea of youths in Trump gear.

Ironically, they were in Washington for the March for Life. But rather than showing respect for the lives of others, they mocked a Native American elder.

Where were the parents? Supporting them. In the video, you can see the chaperones on the sidelines enjoying the humiliation.

The cruelty is the point is the theme of a great essay by Adam Serwer on the Trump movement. A party that believed in limited government now operates a gulag system across the Southwest for immigrant children.

The Covington Catholic kids chose to wear Trump hats to the March for Life. The purpose of the march was secondary. If any of these callow youth got a girl pregnant, their beliefs would change pretty quickly.

Rather, the march was an opportunity to show the power of the Trump movement in the nation’s capital. With their uniforms and crowds, it was meant to intimidate.

But Nathan Phillips didn’t back down, even as he was jeered. He stood up to hate.

Their behavior exposed, the Covington kids face online humiliation. It won’t last. Like other wealthy men, they won’t suffer for their transgressions.

Ironic that this confrontation occurred under the watchful eyes of Abraham Lincoln. He did more than just free the slaves. He freed all of us from an evil system that poisoned this country, crushing an earlier version of Make America Great Again.

But he is just marble now, his faith and goodness forgotten by a Republican Party that has embraced cruelty.

Letter from Washington: The Choice

U Street Metro

The second cop was serious.

I had been stopped within minutes of crossing the border, my rental car with out-of-state plates a magnet for Kansas police looking for drug smugglers from pot-friendly Colorado. The first set of officers were in a black SUV. I was speeding, as was everyone else that morning on I-70. The officer wasn’t even in a police uniform I recognized but, instead, clad in black from head to toe and wearing body armor, as if he was about to engage heavily armed terrorists on the burnt plains of western Kansas. He peered into my car and told me to slow down.

The second cop was alone. A state trooper. I had slowed down after the first encounter. This one said I had swerved in my lane.

“I’m just going to give you a warning,” he announced. “Where are you coming from by the way?”

“Colorado.”

“What you doing out there?” he asked, pretext blossoming in his mind.

“I went to bike around,” I said, pointing to my bike in the back. I had spent a couple days biking around Frisco and then visiting friends in Denver.

He chatted me up, asking about Frisco and sharing how he had visited there with his son for a baseball tournament. Then he took my license and returned to his car for a very long time.

A good ten minutes passed, more than enough time to write a warning. I realize now that he was watching me to see my reaction. Would I squirm? Toss something out of the car? Fidget nervously? I just sat there, wondering how long it would take me to get out of this flat state full of aggressive police.

Then he returned.

“You don’t have any drugs or guns in the car do you?” he asked.

“No.”

“Do you mind if I search your car?”

It’s a good thing that I’m from Washington, DC, and have dealt with security theater for years. I’ve removed my belt to go through metal detectors, been prodded by rent-a-cops in dimly lit lobbies and had a suspicious granola bar removed from my backpack at the Capitol. I’ve been yelled at by the Security Service for the crime of riding my bike in the street and ordered off the Ellipse during the government shutdown by the Park Police.

“Sure,” I said.

Leaning into my front seat, he zipped open my backpack and peered into it. Then he opened the backseat and did the same to my suitcase.

And then he let me go. Quite the clever little operation he had going – promise just a warning, watch to see if the suspect does anything suspicious and then ask to search the vehicle. How could you refuse?

If I had been an immigrant, a person of color or anything other than a white man with a spotless record, I’d be in jail right now. Guilty or not, he would’ve found a pretext.

A few days later, I was back in DC. Glad to be out of a car, I returned to my auto-free lifestyle, making my way around the city by foot, bike and, occasionally, by Metro.

Metro was a wonder a decade ago, an essential piece of the city that you just assumed would work and always be there. Now, neither guarantee is in place, as we’ve let this vital piece of infrastructure decay and collapse.

But, occasionally, you get glimpses of its past glory. Yesterday, there was a photo exhibit opening that I wanted to attend in Crystal City. It’s an easy bike ride, less than thirty minutes, but on Friday the skies opened up, a week’s worth of heat ending in monsoon rains.

I took the Metro, prepared for the worst of rush hour. But I waited less than a minute at Dupont Circle for a Red Line train. And no wait at L’Enfant Plaza, as I switched trains. The train emerged from a tunnel on a bridge over the Potomac, the skies dark, the 14th St Bridge bright with red taillights of Virginia-bound cars. A couple more stops and I was in the underground warren of Crystal City, as traffic in the city ground to a halt due to flooding. Returning home was equally easy.

Cities need subways. A nation’s capital especially needs one for the thousands of federal workers that rely on it every day. And god forbid there’s an actual emergency in Washington – you’re not evacuating the city on streets that gridlock during mere rain.

We’re told there’s no money for a working Metro. No money for health care. No help for the poor. That’s socialism.

But there’s plenty of money to patrol the wastelands of Kansas. Cash grants are available to outfit corn-fed yahoos with assault weapons, body armor and gas-guzzling SUVs. Federal funds flow out of Washington, where they are needed to fix the Metro, to the empty quarter of America.

It doesn’t have to be this way. To quote Barack Obama’s recent speech, the upcoming midterms offer us, “one of those pivotal moments when every one of us, as citizens of the United States, need to determine just who it is that we are.”

Are we a nation that jails immigrant children, punishes the poor and wastes billions on a vast security state or are we a people that invests in a future that we can all share? Find out on November 6.

The Power of Image: David Hogg at the White House Correspondents Dinner

David Hogg at the White House Correspondents Dinner

Last night, I took a photo: David Hogg at the White House Correspondents Dinner, pictured with Zion Kelly.

I’m a writer and a photographer. Living near the hotel, I thought I could get some photos of celebrities. But I arrived late and missed most of them.

With my Canon SL1 and a zoom lens, I captured this image of David and Zion posing on the red carpet. I was outside the glass doors of the hotel, standing in the driveway, near the spot where Reagan was shot in 1981. A small plaque marks the location.

Once home, I posted it to Twitter, thinking my followers would like it. I’m an admirer of the Parkland survivor. To be capable of speaking out after surviving a mass shooting – that is unimaginable to me. And that AR-15s should be banned is common sense.

The tweet took off, with hundreds of mentions occurring in my timeline, as my photo was retweeted, liked and shared.

And commented upon. 95% of those comments were positive, recognizing David as a powerful voice for common-sense gun control.

This same power terrifies Trump supporters. David is an “other” – a boy who doesn’t know his place. In response to my simple photo, they replied with hate, insults and conspiracy theories.

Because they’re weak. If the Trump movement was strong, then they wouldn’t need to attack David. Even an image of this teenager triggers them.

With their online hate, Trump supporters betray themselves, surrendering to their fear, hoping for a few moments of relief from self-loathing and the knowledge that the country is slipping away from them.

I didn’t respond to my critics. They’re beneath me.

My photo was enough, with more power than an army of online trolls. Let it go out into the world and inspire others to make their voices heard.

Hail Caesar! Three Books About Tyranny

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century

Three books about tyranny provide lessons for Americans about overcoming dark times.

Heavily marketed, The Storm Before the Storm is a book that I desperately wanted to like. This work of popular history about the end of the Roman Republic has so many parallels to our time – at least according to the sales copy – but the book itself is a tedious examination of the political issues before Rome became an empire. Praetors, consuls and legates come and go in a swirl of assemblies, riots and wars, a mix of similar-sounding names and titles adding to the confusion.

Rome wasn’t a democracy, but a republic, ruled by a narrow set of wealthy families jockeying for political power in a country grown wealthy from foreign conquest. The original 1%, they governed through a series of norms and traditions that became degraded with wealth and privilege. Citizenship was narrowly construed (even Italians outside Rome couldn’t be citizens) and the masses restless, seeking cheap grain for the cities and land for ex-soldiers. Failure to resolve these contradictions, and defend their sacred institutions, led to Caesar and the Roman Imperium.

Left unsatisfied by The Storm Before the Storm, when I saw Dictator sitting on a shelf at the beautiful new West End Library, I had to pick up another book about tyranny. This novel by Robert Harris, the last in a trilogy about ancient Rome, does a far better job at explaining Roman politics and the end of the Republic. His Cicero is a tragic, deeply flawed figure in a brutal age. The novel starts out beautifully, with Cicero on the run from his enemies, lucky to escape into exile. He’s lost everything. But, through his genius and dogged work, he regains his property, his stature and his reputation.

Caesar is a dangerous man who indulges Cicero – to a point. The orator, however, doesn’t know when to shut up, even after being warned by Caesar’s generals. Is this due to vanity or a genuine commitment to democratic institutions?

The most practical guide to our times is On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Early in this spare tome, Timothy Snyder, who has written extensively about the Nazi regime, makes this observation:

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands.

Germany was a democracy, just like us, yet they fell into catastrophe. Why? It’s not just “good men doing nothing”, it’s the systematic corruption of an entire society – the media, courts, even truth itself. On Tyranny is a guide to defending democratic institutions, and this slim little book provides practical advice on how to do so, drawn from the dark history of central Europe.

Are we Rome? Are we Germany? The founders of this country studied history, and books about tyranny, so as not to repeat the errors of the past. We would do so too, if we are to prevent tyranny in our time.

Letter from Washington: The Fascist Impulse

Kids protest gun violence in front of the White House

There they were, by the hundreds. Students from local high schools who had walked out of class to protest the Florida massacre. Streaming past the White House, they chanted, “Hey hey ho ho, the NRA has got to go!”

When I got home, Facebook told me this didn’t happen. They were paid actors, according to videos posted to the site, a vicious slur coming from the social network known for distributing disinformation during the last election.

Why not? their shareholders may ask. They can monetize the traffic, selling ads against the videos, the Republic be damned. A user is a user, whether they’re an American citizen, or Russian bot.

Twitter has at least done something, purging thousands of suspect accounts, as conservatives wail that they’ve lost followers, more concerned with social media fame than their role as unwitting (or perhaps witting) agents of a foreign power.

Unlike past tragedies, the nation is not moving on from Parkland. Trump held a listening session where he needed crib notes to remind himself to be human.

But the real fireworks came that night, at the CNN Town Hall, as students pilloried the politicians that had failed to protect them from assault rifles. Senator Marco Rubio appeared, thinking he could filibuster his way out of this mess. Instead, he was confronted with angry Floridians who demanded that he stop taking contributions from the NRA. He dodged, and the crowd roared in outrage.

Conservative commenters complained that the students were disrespectful. Days earlier, these kids watched their friends get slaughtered. That they had the composure to attend the town hall and ask questions is a tribute to their generation. Their strength and unity gives me hope for the future of this country.

But right-wing pundits online wouldn’t let go of the respect issue. The Trump movement is, at its core, a fascist impulse. Make America Great Again is about respecting your betters (old white people). Throwing aside American traditions, these so-called patriots forget that this country was founded by people with a healthy disrespect for authority. America is no place for kings, and the rowdy democracy demonstrated at the CNN Town Hall was restorative and inspiring.

The kids demonstrated how you deal with Trump and his ilk: you relentlessly attack. You stay focused on the core issue (banning assault weapons) and force opponents to fight on your terms. You don’t take any shit, in other words.

After the election, liberal friends of mine tried to understand and empathize with the other side. That time is over. We all know what Trump and Republicans want now: a totalitarian state where dissent is suppressed in the name of authority. The party of Lincoln has become a fascist cult of personality enthralled by fake news. It must be destroyed if democracy is going to survive.

The kids have shown us how it’s done. Powerless, but speaking truth to power, from the streets of DC to a brightly lit town hall in Florida, enduring the endurable to build a better nation.

They’re coming to Washington next month to March for Our Lives. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice

Donald Trump may demonize refugees but it’s impossible to look at a suffering person and not feel compassion.

That’s why photography is so important and why the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies recently hosted a panel of photojournalists and an accompanying photo exhibit.

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice examined the impact of photojournalism and creative storytelling on policy.

But when we say policy, what really mean is people. Immigration is a policy; seeing a photo of a child saying goodbye to a deported father is heartbreaking reality.

After the photographers presented the work, a large part of the discussion centered around how to share their photos with the wider world. The set of people willing to go to JHU on a weeknight for a talk on social justice and photography is self-limiting. It was an audience sympathetic to the plight of the dispossessed.

But in an era when people can select their own reality, how do you break through the Fox News bubble?  In his work, Salwan Georges depicts a view rarely seen on network news – the Arab community of Dearborn, Michigan. These are Americans who have given their children in service to this country but their stories are rarely told. Salwan had touching photos of imams at work, not just providing religious instruction, but visiting with their congregants and even arranging marriages, a portrayal of the Muslim faith that never reaches conservative media.

Bridging this gap requires reaching out. It means that photographers and advocates must invite not just the familiar universe of liberals but also other groups, such as churches and veterans. None could look at 15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice and go away unmoved.

The Johns Hopkins photography panel was just the first of several to occur this year, leading up to Focus On the Story, a new photography festival, coming this summer.

Michael Wolff: The Biographer the President Deserves

Sold out of Fire and Fury at Kramerbooks

There’s a tendency to think that people at the top of large organizations are smarter than you. After all, they’ve made it to the top. They must brilliant people guided by devoted staff and working within a well-organized system.

The truth is more like the moment Dorothy peeks behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz – it’s all chaos, a sham of smoke and mirrors aimed at concealing the very human weakness of the person in charge, as Michael Wolff’s reveals in Fire and Fury, his takedown of the Trump administration.

I’ve worked in communications for major organizations in Washington, DC. Everywhere, it’s the same – you may have smart staffers, and a process designed to to prevent embarrassing mistakes, but the work is driven by the whims of The Boss. If he (and it’s almost always a he), wants to put out a press release announcing his birthday, then one is produced.

I read Michael Wolff’s book Burn Rate back in the 90s. This was the era of Silicon Alley, when New York dotcoms aspired to be the next Excite or Yahoo. Wolff, a journalist, founded a company and then proceeded to burn through VC cash before walking away from the wreckage. The book mocks Internet pioneers and the industry.

He’s a loathsome character, with the attitude of a con artist putting one over on the rubes. In this case, the marks are his employees, who he stiffs, and investors, who lose their money. There’s a scene at the end of the book (and it’s very novelistic) where he succeeds at unloading the remains of his business on someone else though his media company is little more than a Filemaker database, a feat that Wolff gleefully recounts.

Whenever I’d see his name in the media, I’d think, “Ugh, that guy.” After burning Internet bridges, he went on to excoriate Rupert Murdoch and other billionaire/tyrants, his villainous headshot atop gossipy columns in Vanity Fair and other publications.

A simple Google search would’ve revealed all this.

Inviting this devious miscreant into the White House is the greatest act of communications malpractice this century. Instead of warning staff not to talk to this unreliable scribe, Sarah Sanders allowed this New York creature to observe the Trumpian chaos from a comfy couch. He’s a journalist who specializes in ripping apart media figures – what did they think he was doing there?

As Drew Margary in GQ writes, it takes a rat to catch a rat. Promising a nice book, and then writing a nasty one, Wolff worked the long con to perfection. For a change, Trump was the one being tricked.

Unethical, self-absorbed and steeped in the values of the billionaire elite, Wolff is the biographer that Trump deserves.

Letter from Washington: Endgame

Protest in support of the CFPB

Never a good sign when there are people picketing the office. I started a contractor gig at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently. Monday morning, I was greeted by protesters in front of the brutalist home of the agency a block from the White House.

But they were in support of the CFPB, not opposing it. The Director had left the week before and had tried to appoint one of his deputies as Acting Director. The Trump administration had countermanded this order and sent over Mick Mulvaney, the OMB Director, to run the CFPB. He arrived Monday morning with donuts.

Outside, the media asked, “Who’s in charge?” Inside, there was no confusion: Mulvaney, because the agency’s General Counsel said so. Americans have an admirable belief in the rule of law, even when it harms their interests.

Mulvaney settled into the executive suite with a small team (including his own Jonah – life imitates VEEP) and immediately put a hold on all activities. Innocuous communications work, like the type I was hired to do, will be allowed to continue but Mulvaney will put a stop to enforcement actions, such as penalizing Wells Fargo for creating fake accounts and bilking consumers.

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren came to protest on Tuesday, trailing the largest media contingent I have ever seen. Presidential, I would describe it, a scrum of reporters, TV crews and giddy supporters so chaotic that I couldn’t hear anything she said about the agency she helped to found.

Inside, we were instructed not to talk to reporters. I would gladly talk to reporters, if I knew anything. We work for the people. They have a right to know.

Inside, the line was: Mulvaney will change us, but we’ll change him too. CFPB is staffed by relentless, Obama-era optimists.

Lincoln weeps for the nation

Thursday night, I went for a run, ending up in front of Lincoln, dead and forgotten in his memorial. Republicans, what happened to you? The Great Emancipator freed people from bondage while today’s GOP works to put consumers in debt traps, provide tax breaks for the wealthy and collude with Russia to destroy democracy.

Just before starting the CFPB gig, I finished reading A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, which takes Abe off his pedestal, revealing his early life as a scrambling politician. Born poor, he worked for the common man, trying to bring canals and railroads to the frontier, always on the side of farmers and tradesmen, believing that government worked for the people.

If Lincoln awoke today, he would be appalled, recognizing in today’s GOP the exploitative planter class that he destroyed during the Civil War. For abandoning the beliefs of Lincoln in favor of a charlatan, Republicans have disgraced themselves for eternity.

The week continued with the chaos typical of the Trump regime, with rumors of Tillerson being forced out at State and a nightmare of a tax bill being forced through the Senate.

Then, a Friday morning bombshell: Flynn pleads guilty! The odious former National Security Advisor made a deal with the Special Prosecutor, who is working through the Trump administration, as if he were rolling up a Mafia family.

Because Trump can’t stop tweeting, even on the weekends, he had to comment on Saturday about Flynn, seeming to incriminate himself in obstruction of justice.

How does this end? Nixon had the decency to resign. A member of the Greatest Generation, he left office to preserve the country (and his party).

Donald Trump, the ultimate representation of the crass and selfish Baby Boom Generation, lacks the honor of Nixon. A con artist, draft dodger and rapist, he will not surrender office willingly.

As justice draws near, I see three possible endgames:

1. Trump fires Mueller. The country is thrown into chaos. 2018 is a year of mass demonstrations and widespread resistance until the midterm elections. Then, with a crushing Democratic majority, Trump is impeached.

2. Trump is charged with obstruction of justice, but Republicans refuse to impeach. Again, widespread domestic chaos hopefully ending with a Democratic majority.

3. Trump goes to war against North Korea to distract from the Mueller probe. Like World War I, a regional conflict spirals into a global catastrophe, leaving millions dead and the end of the US as a superpower.

I hope to be proven wrong but if 2017 has taught us anything is that each week brings ever-growing chaos and peril, as American democracy comes under sustained attack from without and within. It’s up to us to resist.

America, Eclipsed

eclipse at totality

A version of this essay was included in Chasing the Great American Eclipse, a beautiful photo book that documented the 2017 eclipse.

It was the Great American Eclipse, a continent-spanning solar event that would bring squabbling America together, if only briefly. And, who knows, the sight of forces much bigger than ourselves – the sun blocked out by the moon – might even cause people to put aside their prejudices and unite as one.

Novels are full of epiphanies, life-changing moments when characters realize the folly of their ways.

But real life rarely has those moments for most people never give up their guiding principles, no matter how misguided.

With friends near the path of the eclipse, I was determined to experience this unique event. Totality would occur just a few miles from their home in Waynesville, NC.

The morning of the eclipse, my friends demurred, seeing traffic backed up on the highway, afraid that they would be caught in a historic traffic jam rather than history. But me, familiar with gridlocked DC, was unfazed, reasoning it couldn’t any worse than the Beltway on any day at any time.

It wasn’t. I reached the campus of Western Carolina University with hours to spare. WCU was in the zone of totality and I had my friend’s parking pass so I could park on the closed campus.

The biggest problem I encountered was getting something to eat. It was the first day of classes at WCU and students were lined up everywhere for lunch.

Slowly, the sun diminished. By the time I finished my sandwich, it was as if the solar orb had been turned down by a dimmer switch, the light fading to the point that I no longer needed sunglasses.

Students watch the eclipse at WCU

Crowds in purple (WCU’s color) filled the center of campus, near the clock tower. Scientists from WCU provided color commentary while students lined up for eclipse glasses and moonpies. I settled into the grass and waited for the show.

Minutes before the eclipse I saw people heading indoors, bags of food in hand, choosing to miss this magical moment. It’s curious but there were some in the path of the eclipse who wouldn’t even look outside, annoyed at the impertinence of the sun. A friend’s mother couldn’t be bothered with it, thinking it all to be overrated. Fake News!

But on the packed campus at WCU, the crowd sighed as clouds washed over the golden orb. Apps were checked, as students counted down the moment to totality and willed the clouds to part.

the crescent of the sun during the eclipse

The moon ate the sun, until just a shining crescent remained, screened by the wispy cumulus. It was beautiful but there was more to come.

Seconds before totality, the offending cloud drifted off and the campus broke into relieved applause.

Then the sun was extinguished, disappearing, all but the sharp platinum ring of the corona. Students cheered, as if rooting for their favorite team. Eclipse glasses were removed. People stood and embraced, a rising tumult echoing off the mountains.

Seated on the grass, lens pointed upwards, I snapped photo after photo in happy disbelief.

It was night on campus, the clock tower lit up against the dark sky, stars visible in the blackness but light lingering in the west, like sunset on a strange world.

the sun returneth

After a minute of star-speckled darkness, the sun broke free from the moon’s grip. Another round of applause then everyone got up to leave, the sky still strangely dim.

Traffic going back was bad but moved steadily over Balsam Gap. My friends in Waynesville had seen a lot – like shadow bands and the mountain across the valley go dark – but had not experienced totality. An eclipse is like being pregnant. It’s either 100% or nothing.

The next night, Trump gave a speech so unhinged that commentators began seriously wondering about his sanity. The Mad King.

The eclipse did not fix America. It was not a transcendent moment that brought people together. No one questioned their beliefs following the cosmic occurrence. Despite science predicting the eclipse’s exact path across the United States, there are those who still cry “Fake news!” at any fact that they find disagreeable.

The Great American Eclipse will not usher in the Age of Aquarius. Instead, it’s an ominous portent that the ancients would recognize, heralding a time of troubles for the nation. May it just last a moment, exiting quickly and returning light and reason to the country.