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.

Unpresidented: Days of Rage and Rebirth on the Streets of DC

Unpresidented panel at FotoWeek
Mukul Ranjan, Chris Suspect and Joe Newman (seated, l to r)

If you get hit with tear gas, flush your eyes out with milk. Flashbang grenades make a lot of noise but aren’t harmful. The DC police are very professional but will lash out if they feel trapped. These are the things you learn at a FotoWeek panel. The subject was UnPresidented, a great photo book documenting the Trump inauguration protests.

Joe Newman organized some of D.C.’s top street photographers to document the contentious inauguration of Donald J. Trump, which was met with rioting, peaceful civil disobedience and one of the largest protest marches in U.S. history. The images from the three days of the inauguration — which included President Obama’s last full day in office, the day before the inauguration, and the massive Women’s March on Washington, the day after — were published in UnPresidented: The Inauguration of Donald J. Trump and the People’s Response.

Joining him for this panel discussion at the Mexican Cultural Institute were Chris Suspect and Mukul Ranjan, who documented a weekend of chaos on the streets of DC.

Protests in DC typically have a routine quality to them, a polite display of signs and chants. But the inauguration protests were different in size, scope and level of anger. I was on the streets and saw things I never expected to see in DC, like people getting punched and a limousine on fire.

But I was also witness to the start of something. Days of rage gave way to the inspiring spectacle of the Women’s March, the largest crowd I have ever seen, stretching from the Capitol to the White House and beyond. It was a nation finding its voice: The Resistance.

These momentous days of protest and and rebirth are captured brilliantly in UnPresidented.

Relive election night in Victory Party

In my short story Victory Party, which won the City Paper Fiction Competition, I portray a Washington shocked by the Trump victory – and one person who’s happy about the result.

Election 2016 was an event that traumatized the American psyche. I wasn’t the only person who processed this horror through fiction. A majority of the submissions to the City Paper contest concerned Trump, as I learned during a reading at Kramerbooks.

I assumed the worst was over. A horrible punch to the gut but then life in Washington would resume along the contours of previous experience. Trump would rise to the occasion and become a normal Republican like Bush.

I was wrong. Realized it during his American Carnage inauguration speech. Everything went downhill from there, a year of outrages culminating in the firing of James Comey. Now, we’ll be lucky to survive 2017 without Trump kicking off war on the Korean peninsula.

During the year, I wrote a novel – The Swamp. My fictional depiction of the Obama era seems quaint. The book presents a scenario I thought outlandish, in which a political groundswell demands that the nation’s capital be moved out of DC. Out of Washington, I called it. But this fictional future reads like a best-case scenario now.

Thinking back on my short story, Victory Party, what would my protagonist make of the past year? My ex-con Randy was happy, the Trump victory representing revenge upon the elite class, through he’s wise enough to know it won’t last. One year later, it hasn’t, and I imagine him trying to stay honorable in very dishonorable times.

We write to make sense of our times, trying to impose narrative on chaos. Washington wrote following the Trump victory. Washington continues to write as the nation unravels.

 

Letter from Washington: Things Fall Apart

The man who would be king

Every morning, I bike by the White House.

Blocked off from traffic, the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue is peaceful and calm. Just after dawn, I slowly pedal by, just me, a few joggers and the Secret Service. In the warm light of morning, the White House looks serene.

Inside, however, a President rages as a conspiracy is revealed.

A plot against America, carried out by the President’s campaign. If this was a season of House of Cards, it would strain credulity. Democrats and Republicans, while they have their differences, all believe in democracy – right?

No. Trump and his family colluded with Russia to win an election, gleefully aided by a Republican party willing to do anything to win.

At first glance, the scandal seems like a black comedy cooked up by the writers of Arrested Development, the Bluth family writ large, a global scheme to launder money and filled with bit players such as a George Popadapoulos, catfished by Russia into thinking he was meeting Putin’s niece. Funny, right?

But then you remember that this isn’t TV. It’s not HBO. It’s your country and the scandal is an attack on democracy, an act of collusion between a corrupt candidate and a Russian adversary eager to upend the global order.

Our external enemy (Putin) has joined with our internal one (red states) in an alliance to bring down the country that they hate: America.

Over the weekend, I watched Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. She too was cursed to live in interesting times, the 1970s, and used her talent to document the disorder she saw in brilliantly-written essays that reported on the decline. Combining a literary eye for detail with a pitiless examination of her personality, she captured what life was like when things fall apart.

We tell ourselves stories to live.

Joan Didion

The thing about the 70s is that no one knew how it would turn it out. As a kid, I remember seeing maps on the spread of communism, from Angola to Yugoslavia. The Russians were going to win – just look at the map. During the Carter era, we were stuck with a combination of inflation and stagnation that economists said couldn’t exist: stagflation. Or maybe another Ice Age was coming. Seemed plausible. Anything did back then, because we didn’t have a defining story, a vision of the future.

Like the 1970s, we’re in a hinge moment. The narrative of democracy has collapsed. A new era of tyrants has emerged, promising a revenge saga of blood and iron. To quote Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

In the evening, I return home past the White House. Tourists gather by the fence to snap photos, like they always have. This symbol of American democracy remains a powerful one, despite its current occupant.

And the strength of our story, the American story, endures, as it waits for a new storyteller, and a new vision of the future, to bring us together once again.

Letter from Washington: Disabled

Wheelchair-bound protesters return home
Wheelchair-bound protesters return home.

After pulling my calf, I’ve been biking even more than usual. Since it hurts to walk more than a block, I’ve been biking everywhere, door to door if I can, aiming to never let my feet touch the ground.

I was coming back from a happy hour for the Climate Ride. Cyclists did 208 miles over three days to raise money for climate change research. Once in Washington, they were greeted by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who insisted that climate change was a bipartisan issue and that there were Republicans who would be on their side, were it not for the pernicious influence of anonymously-funded PACs.

It was a sweaty day, unusual for the end of September, with temperatures in the 80s. The news has been filled with hurricanes, first Florida and then Puerto Rico, while Trump has tweeted slurs against NFL athletes.

After happy hour, I rode home as it got dark. Just off the National Mall, traffic was stopped.

Filtering up to the top of the queue, I saw why – a long stream of people in wheelchairs were rolling through the intersection. They were returning home to their hotel after demonstrating against the repeal of Obamacare. Imagine the level of commitment – and desperation – required to travel anywhere in a wheelchair, much less a strange city, to spend the day demonstrating against a government that wants to kill you.

The Metropolitan Police Department had blocked traffic so that these wheelchair-bound protesters could get home. Three cars were devoted to this purpose. The MPD has mastered this kind of rolling roadblock, gaining experience escorting the numerous anti-Trump demonstrations that have rocked the city.

A long silent moment passed as drivers, cyclists and pedestrians waited respectfully as the people in wheelchairs crossed the intersection. The protesters who came to Washington, the police protecting them, the people who waited – we represent the best of the country, while our leadership represents the worst.

Americans Will Believe Anything

Heather Heyer memorial
Heather Heyer memorial in Charlottesville, VA

Despite blackening the sky, the eclipse was not a transcendent moment for America. Within minutes of totality exiting the United States, we went back to business as usual, with a big chunk of this nation denying any fact they find to be inconvenient as “fake news.”

On the way back from North Carolina, I decided to stop in Charlottesville to see the Heather Heyer memorial. This anti-racist demonstrator was mowed down by a driver on a side street in the downtown of this beautiful Virginia city.

It’s chilling. She died just steps from the city’s pedestrian mall, on a narrow lane offering no escape from a driver with his foot on the gas. It was a deliberate act of murder from an extremist who hunted down protesters.

Heather Heyer died – but for what?

This week, Hillary Clinton emerged, hawking yet another autobiography. And worse – she endorsed a laughable web site, Verrit, which Jack Shafer memorably described as looking like North Korean agitprop. What’s different about this new site? It provided verified factoids, with their own Verrit code, enabling you to live in a Clinton-approved media bubble without any exposure to the messy real world.

Patronizing, clumsy and conflicted – it’s everything you hate about Hillary in a single site. This kind of top-down lecturing from our political betters (you will read what we want you to read) is why Hillary and her sycophants lost an election that should’ve been easily won.

This kind of appeal to authority no longer works in America. Kurt Andersen documents America’s slide into unreason in How America Lost Its Mind, a voluminous Atlantic article that comprehensively name-checks nearly political and cultural movement from the past fifty years, everything from chemtrails to Uri Geller.

Why are Americans so crazy?

The short answer is because we’re Americans—because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned.

Andersen puts the American tendency to create our own beliefs in a historical context. It’s been with us from the start, with invented Thanksgiving myths and tall tales about George Washington.

We also have a rich tradition of con-men, Donald Trump just being the latest in a line which extends back to L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith and P.T. Barnum.

What Andersen misses is that Americans have good reason not to believe in American institutions. They’ve failed. American business has become parasitic, little more than Uber and AirBnB bros skimming value while employing only contractors. The American political class, as embodied by Hillary Clinton, has no core beliefs, other than getting elected (it’s her turn!). And our vast security state has given us endless war while failing to protect us from actual Nazis.

No room for racists

Posters reminiscent of World War II propaganda have emerged on the streets of DC. They are a call for resistance against Trumpism. The creator of this evocative art, Robert Russell, said:

In the the 1940s, America unified against an explicit and obvious enemy. In this case, the enemy is firmly entrenched in the White House. We’re inverting that message and saying the threat is right here, so look out.

But the posters do more than just target an incipient fascist. They remind us what Americans believe and what we’ve fought and died for – that we’re all created equal.

While Americans may hold their own idiosyncratic beliefs on the efficacy of vaccines or the possibility of alien life forms, this belief in democracy is a shared one and one that we must defend, whether we are Republican, Democrat or Independent.

America, Eclipsed

eclipse at totality

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.

Letter from Washington: Stranger than Fiction

crowd at Queen + Adam Levine

How do you write a novel in a time that’s stranger than fiction?

Queen + Adam Lambert came to Washington, DC. A friend had an extra ticket and graciously invited me. We sat in the upper reaches of the Verizon Center as Lambert and the group went through a fast-moving set, filled with the kind of lasers and stagecraft that’s expected from a band in 2017. It’s not enough just to be a musician, any more.

They played all the hits – Bohemian Rhapsody, Killer Queen and Another One Bits the Dust.

It was not the same. Lambert is not Freddie Mercury, something he would be the first to admit – and did admit – during a tribute to the late singer early in the show. Queen + Adam Lambert made me appreciate the genius of Freddie Mercury, a man with an unreproducible vocal range but also an awkward shyness that’s missing in the age of the polished pop star.

The Queen show took place during the short-lived Age of Mooch. The reign of Anthony Scaramucci as White House Communications Director was far too short, a rich comedic opportunity that was thrown away before the Mooch even received his Saturday Night Live parody.

“Scaramouche. Scaramouche. Will you do the fandango?” Imagine the possibilities – Scaramucci singing the Queen classic live from New York.

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” You can learn more about a nation from its artists than from politicians. Shakespeare does a better job explaining the English than some dry book of history.

But what happens if events progress faster than comedians, satirists and novelists can comprehend?  We barely had time to mock the Mooch before he disappeared.

I’ve written another novel: The Swamp. I started writing it a couple years ago, inspired by the tail end of the Obama administration. I wrote something I thought was outrageous – an errant drone lands on the White House, leading to the end of Washington as we know it.

After November 8, 2016, my idea didn’t seem so outlandish, as reality raced past the conception of the possible, devolving into a scenario that even the bleakest dystopianist would find implausible.

The problem with writing timely fiction is that times change. Does my novel The Swamp still make sense? After the election, I had to put aside the book and think about it.

I went on to write Victory Party, a short story that won the City Paper fiction contest. It’s another very timely work, for it concerns election night in DC and one person who’s happy about the result.

It’s a story that I wrote quickly and then ruthlessly cut, slowly paring away everything that was non-essential. I deleted exposition, explanations and any word that wasn’t necessary. It worked. “Joe Flood masterfully doles out information,” according to Mary Kay Zverloff (author of Man Alive!), who judged the competition.

So, I went back to my novel and I cut, reorganized and rewrote, aiming for clarity. Sections that I deleted went into a document called Remnants. Hurt less that way.

I also changed the title. My book was originally called Drone City, a title that I thought was clever. Drone City. DC.

I changed it to The Swamp, for the book is about the city that America has come to hate. My dark comedy follows swamp denizens – politicians, journalists, millennials – blindly chasing spoils, unaware that the world around them is about to turn upside down.

Trump, American Carnage, Spicey, Boy Scouts, Build the Wall, Russia, Deep State, Mooch – little of this makes any sense now and it will make even less so to future generations. It will be up to the artists, the legislators of our age, to explain the dark and confusing year of 2017.

 

Letter from Washington: Lotus Flowers

bee coming in to land on lotus flower

The lotus flowers are blooming, a sea of pink flowers emerging from the primordial muck of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. It’s an impressive sight, for the flowers are as big as plates, rising from lilies on massive stalks.

I biked to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens – the only national park devoted to water-loving plants – early Sunday morning. The wetland is right off the new Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. The park service was prepared for crowds, even crowds of cyclists, for they set up a long row of bike racks for the two-wheeled. Despite the early hour, the ponds were busy with photographers angling for the perfect shot and tourists taking selfies with pink lotus flowers.

Looking at the exotic blooms against a backdrop of overwhelming green, with insects buzzing everywhere and humidity pouring off the shallow pools crowded with lily pads, Washington has never felt more like a swamp.

One of my friends was arrested recently, flying in from Arkansas for the privilege. She was protesting TrumpCare. In addition to spending a day in jail, she was mocked online, Trump supporters and other trolls doubting whether the people in wheelchairs crowding the hallways of Capitol Hill were really sick.

“Never read the comments” is one of the cardinal truths of our age.

There’s been much hand-wringing in the media about the need to understand Trump supporters. What motivates them? What do they believe? Why do they stick with him?

I tried my hand in understanding the phenomena in Victory Party, my short story in the City Paper, imagining who might be happy about the unexpected election result.

Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter. There’s a hard core of people who will believe anything – that’s another one of the cardinal truths of our age.  They cannot be persuaded, despite evidence of Russian collusion from Trump’s own family. They will follow Trump to the end, even if it ends in resignation and defeat.

The Resistance is winning. Despite control of both houses of Congress, all of Trump’s plans have collapsed in disgrace. He does not know how to craft legislation or mobilize support for a bill. His ideas are so slapdash and badly formed that even Republicans reject them, especially when confronted with scores of the sick being arrested outside their offices.

Washington may be a swamp but occasionally it produces programs that ordinary people really value. Programs that save lives, like Obamacare. Like a lotus flower emerging from a dank pond, the underside of the program may look terrible, a morass of slime and waste, but after seeing it in person, how could you take it away from others?

The swamp is not going to be drained. While not pretty, Americans depend on it, an appreciation that has been forced on them by their President.

Letter from Washington: Erased from History

With TrumpCare, you won't be covered
Protester at the old Post Office

Following the election of Donald Trump, I was not discouraged. I wasn’t even particularly interested, as if I was watching a TV show featuring a car wreck rather than actually living through one. I even a wrote a short story that appeared in the City Paper, Victory Party, that was sympathetic to the misguided wishes of Trump supporters.

Once in office, I assumed Trump would be a new and better man, cognizant of history and burdened with global responsibilities.

We know how that worked out.

His derangement is such a weird outlier in American history that our system doesn’t know how to respond. What do you do if the king is mad? It’s a problem more out of Shakespeare than anything written in the Constitution.

Engulfed by scandal, a rational man would resign. A rational party would step in and force him to do so, like the Republicans did during Watergate.

Instead, Washington is powerless, the will of one man dragging the country into a political abyss from which both parties, and the country as a whole, will be irrevocably changed.

Not even six months in office and Trump recently held his first reelection fundraiser. Shamelessly, it was held at the Old Post Office, a historic building that he’s trimmed with gold and slapped his name on, the Emoluments Clause be damned.

On the street, a few dozen protesters, their focus being on the repeal of Obamacare and its replacement with the rump plan of Trumpcare.

There were two Trump supporters. The first, a homeless man who revived from his drug-induced stupor to stagger across the sidewalk and demand that we respect the President. The second, a tourist who shouted her love for Trump before her husband led her away.

The Presidential motorcade drove by, as if the protesters and supporters didn’t exist, their cries rising up to an empty sky, the interloper slipping into the grand old building that belongs to the public.

I took a few photos of the motorcade. I could see the Presidential seal but not Trump himself. I deleted the photos. Didn’t want them.

In ancient Rome, some rulers were so awful that their reigns were erased from history. Nobody wanted to remember them. Their temples were destroyed. Their burial places hidden. Their names scratched off monuments.

When this ends, and it will end, there will be a similar effort. If America had an undo button, we would hit it. Instead, we will try to pretend that this never happened, like the ex-wife nobody talks about or the house guest that stayed too long.

Of course, we won’t forget – nor should we, this hard lesson in democracy.