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.

America First, Then and Now

America first
Newspaper headline from the Great Crusade exhibit

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

– Karl Marx

If the America First mantra of Donald Trump sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The slogan was used by American isolationists to keep America neutral in the face of Nazi tyranny. But the theme, with its small and fearful sentiment, comes from an earlier war.

Woodrow Wilson invented the mantra in 1916, covering the country with America First posters in one of the first modern propaganda campaigns. He kept us out of war, he claimed at the time.

But America couldn’t deny its global responsibilities forever. It had to pick a side in the European conflict. When it did, Wilson needed a whole new propaganda campaign. This time, with the aim to mobilize a reluctant American public to enlist and fight the Hun.

Mass media such as posters, songs and shows drew upon the 1776 spirit, the myths of the American Revolution, to join a total war against the Kaiser. “Lafayette, we are here!” the cry went up, as millions of American soldiers went to save a Continent.

Relive this momentous era in The Great Crusade: World War I and the Legacy of the American Revolution, now on display at Anderson House, the beautiful home of the Cincinnati House on Embassy Row in Washington, DC. It’s a small exhibit – just a room – but looking at the America First headlines and the debates about this country’s role in the world – it feels incredibly timely, as if we’re repeating history that was settled a hundred years ago.

Anderson House ballroom
Ballroom at the Anderson House was designed for inaugural galas and diplomatic receptions

And when you’re done, explore the rest of Anderson House, a Florentine mansion just a couple blocks from Dupont Circle.  Built in 1905, this grand home belonged to Larz Anderson, a wealthy diplomat, and his wife, Isabel, an author and art collector. With its drawing rooms and galleries reminiscent of the salons of Europe, the house was designed to host inaugural balls and diplomatic receptions. Anderson House was to represent the USA to the rest of the world, standing as a confident expression of a country that repudiated the small and fearful philosophy of America First.

As Marx wrote, history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. We’re living through the farce. But remnants of other eras remind us that we’ve had these debates before – and won them. America is not the fearful, closed realm of Donald Trump but the confident, open and generous country represented by diplomat Larz Anderson, his art collector wife Isabel, and their glorious house on Massachusetts Avenue.

Letter from Washington: Protest Fatigue

a smattering of Trump supporters

The weather has gotten warm, mild May days segueing into June humidity. People still come to Washington to protest, nearly every weekend, but with diminished fervor, everyone waiting to see what happens next in the unfolding story of collusion between Trump and his Russian masters.

A rare event occurred on Saturday – a demonstration in favor of the President, a small band of supporters from Virginia, kids mostly, holding signs and shouting on Pennsylvania Avenue.

You had to really look for them, hidden amid the Segways and selfie sticks of summer tourists that crowd the plaza. Only the presence of TV cameras hinted at the presence of the Trump group, a gaggle of photographers encircling the small protest. At its peak, the Make America Great Again crowd mustered 50 people from the red state across the river.

It was a mostly white crowd, but not entirely. What struck me, however, was how many high school kids and preteens there were, as if MAGA was a form of youthful rebellion, sticking it to teachers and authority figures.

There were counter-protesters, people who had come down early for the March for Truth. They stood a respectful distance away, for the most part not interested in mixing it up with the Trump folks, confident in the strength of their numbers. The one flare-up I witnessed was when a 14-year-old Trump girl began shouting “Build the Wall!” at Trump opponents. “You’re everything that’s wrong with this country!” one responded.

Still, the day lacked the raw tension of Inauguration Day, when you felt that violence was imminent (and it was). The reason is that the Trump people have disappeared from the streets. Nearly every weekend, a massive march has filled the broad avenues of the capital – Women’s March, Immigration Ban Protest, LGBT Makeout Session, The March for Science, Climate March – driving Trump supporters underground. The only time you ever see a Trump hat in DC is when it’s perched on the head of a red state sophomore touring the monuments with a school group.

The March for Truth

The March for Truth, which was not a march but merely a rally under the Washington Monument, had an exhausted quality to it. “Protest is the new brunch!” a speaker announced as the crowd emerged from the under the shade of the cherry blossom trees, as if reporting for duty.

The era of the mass protest is over. By filling the streets with hundreds of thousands of people for weekends in a row, the point has been made: we outnumber you.

Now, it’s up to the institutions. The men and women in the Congress and the courts who are entrusted to preserve our precious democracy. We wait for former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony on Thursday. Our system of government was explicitly crafted by men like Hamilton, Jefferson and Washington to prevent the rule of a tyrant. We’ll see if our current leaders have a fraction of the courage that these great men displayed.

I Hate South of the Border

A post shared by Joe Flood (@joeflood) on

Ever wonder what America would look like if the South had won the Civil War?

It would look a lot like South of the Border, the kitschy roadside attraction at the North Carolina-South Carolina border. A beloved landmark on I-95 for some, it’s an abomination for others (like me), its towering sombrero tower filling me with horror as it emerges on the horizon.

If Gettysburg had gone a different way, all of America would look like this – tacky, cheap and vaguely racist.

Sherman led his March to the Sea through South Carolina, famously offering Savannah, the birthplace of secession, as a gift to President Lincoln. General Sherman believed not just in defeating Southern armies, but destroying the Southern way of life by burning plantations and freeing slaves.

He didn’t do enough. More than a century later, vestiges of the Confederacy and its animating principles linger in city squares and the hearts of Trump supporters.

I long for a new Sherman to raze South of the Border. Consider it the ultimate highway beautification project. Let this vomit of technicolor along the interstate be replaced, even if it’s just with a simple welcome center, a recognition that South Carolina is just like every other state in the union.

Letter from Washington: Macron!

Saturday morning soccer

I’ve been to France a couple of times. It was my first real overseas trip. While England was interesting (I studied abroad there), it didn’t feel alien in the way that Paris did because I could speak the language.

In France, however, I had the experience of being immersed in a culture where I didn’t understand a word of what was going on around me. It’s an experience that every American should have because it makes you appreciate that the world is larger and more complex than you can possibly comprehend.

Fortunately, I was with a friend who spoke French. It was a feeling of agreeable helplessness, of being unable to even order in restaurants without my buddy translating for me. I knew the words for please, thank you and butter. And what more do you need in France?

We did all the tourist things – Eiffel Tower, Louvre, lunch in a brasserie – and everyone was lovely, maybe because I didn’t understand the blur of French around me.

My proudest moment came on the train back to Brussels. Speeding across the French countryside at 150 mph, I got up from my seat and went to order coffee unassisted:

Un café s’il vous plaît

Hearing me speak, the woman in the cafe instantly switched to English. She said my American accent was charming. Charmingly bad, I imagine.

But my biggest memory of France didn’t even happen there. It was 1998 when France won the World Cup. I went to Lucky Bar, after playing soccer that morning. Les Bleus won! Dancing broke out in the dingy bar, men still wearing cleats tangoing across the floor.

Later, I met my French-speaking friend at Au Pied de Cochon, a legendary French cafe in Georgetown. Open all night, it was where you went for steak and frites after everything else closed. Inside the bar, patrons were waving a huge tricolor and singing La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. And then everyone left, marching up the street to the French Embassy.

That’s what today feels like, with the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French Presidential Election. The French have done what we couldn’t – turn back to the destructive tide of populism.

To quote Churchill:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

James Buchanan – Worst President Ever?

Buchanan Memorial

Covered in green pollen and tucked in a corner of Meridian Hill Park, it’s a monument that attracts little attention. Dog walkers and runners pass by the bronze sculpture without a second glance. A seated figure, looking down, on a marble plinth.

It’s James Buchanan, the worst President ever, according to a new biography by Robert Strauss.

If you remember Buchanan at all, it’s for doing nothing as Southern states seceded from the union after Lincoln’s election. But you don’t become the worst President though sins of omission; you become the worst by making a series of terrible decisions. In four short years, Buchanan:

  • Lobbied for the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, believing that it would settle the issue of slavery. Instead, it spread the bacillus of this poison to the North, whose citizens now found themselves legally obligated to help slavers.
  • Failed to intervene during the Panic of 1857, an economic crash caused by Dred Scott, for it unsettled the issue of whether future states would be slave or free. Emigration to the west dropped, railroads failed and millions went broke.
  • Made a martyr out of John Brown by handing him over to Virginia to hang for his role in the Harpers Ferry raid.
  • Allowed Southern states to seize federal forts and armories after the election of Lincoln, arguing that while states had no right to secede from the Union he had no right to use force against them.

After the Civil War, Buchanan was condemned as a “doughface”, a Northerner with Southern sympathies. His photo hung in stores with “TRAITOR” written under it. In Worst. President. Ever., there’s a story, probably apocryphal, of Buchanan fretting in his Pennsylvania estate as Lee’s armies approached, finally realizing his misdeeds.

Buchanan has his defenders, however. John Updike examined the life of his fellow Pennsylvanian in Memories of the Ford Administration, a novel mixing fact and fiction, arguing that Buchanan and the malaise-filled 1970s were both misunderstood.

The life of Buchanan becomes relevant only when America faces a leadership crisis. Then, our thoughts turn back to history, to the worst possible outcome. By this point in his term, Buchanan had ushered in the Dred Scott decision, a very lawyerly interpretation of the Constitution that united anti-slavery forces. A deal was no longer possible. As Lincoln said in 1858:

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

The Buchanan Memorial remains, forgotten, overgrown, a convenient sleeping spot for the homeless. Worst President Ever, an ignominious title for James Buchanan and one that may soon be taken from him.

Letter from Washington: A War We Must Win

Greetings, comrades! Glory!
Greetings, comrades! Glory!

There was a moment during a recent demonstration. A crowd had gathered outside the White House to protest immigration policy. Standing in front of a chain-link fence, a young Honduran woman described fleeing the violence in her country. She loved America for saving the lives of her children. People applauded, including a 94-year old Holocaust survivor who had insisted on attending the demonstration. Stooped over, her eyes flickered with life.

At the edge of the crowd, a middle-aged couple approached, the female half in a Make America Great Again hat. They saw the demonstrators protesting Trump’s treatment of refugees. The woman snuck into the crowd and made a mocking peace sign so that her husband could get a picture. They laughed.

My friend Pippa is conducting dinners with Trump supporters. She feels that if only we all knew each other a little better, it would be easier to get along. Results have been disappointing. Breaking bread doesn’t change political opinions.

I was not a political person until this year. Living in DC, I had the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill. I declined, feeling it to be a waste of time, disliking the passion people brought to even the simplest of issues. A pragmatist at heart, I voted for Republicans and Democrats, always seeking the candidate who would do the least harm.

But Trump is different, representing an assault on democratic institutions, something that every American should oppose. Evidence is growing that he colluded with Russia, part of a Putin strategy to use fake news and select leaking to influence the 2016 election. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Secretary General of NATO, warned:

“It is Russia’s aim to undermine the political cohesion in Western institutions.”

Putin seeks is to divide and weaken the West, to discredit democracy itself and restore the old Soviet Union. He wants to end the Pax Americana that has kept the world free of global wars for more seventy years. It’s a dangerous moment, as America wavers, the prospect of a new wave of conflict on the horizon. A global war would mean the end of the connected world that we know and enjoy.

Encouraging these end times is a selfish con man, Donald Trump, a dupe who is willing to go along with Putin’s schemes and court international disorder if it will benefit his family of grifters.

Trump’s supporters have told me that he can do whatever he wants, because he is the President. They’re willing to throw away the Constitution and their own hard-won democratic rights in pursuit of vengeance against people like me. “We suffered under Obama. Now it’s your turn,” I’m told.

After the election, I was ambivalent. I even wrote an award-winning short story about my mixed feelings, Victory Party, in which a waiter receives the election news with something approaching happiness.

But since Trump’s American Carnage speech (“That was some weird shit,” George W. Bush), it’s clear what he and his supporters want: revenge. They don’t want to build a new America; they want to punish America and are willing to work with the Russians to do so.

“Since when are you a liberal?” a friend of mine jokingly asked me. I’m liberal in the classical sense, as someone who believes in free speech and free markets. I believe in the West, in freedom from tyrants under a system where every person is equal before the law. That marks me as an enemy of the state, at least this state, for Trump and his supporters seek to turn this country into a soft dictatorship, Putin light, where an autocrat makes all the decisions, without the pesky impediments of the Constitution.

“There was a very serious effort made by Mr. Putin and his government, his organization, to interfere in major ways with our basic, fundamental democratic processes. In some quarters that would be considered an act of war.”

Who said that? Dick Cheney.

The war began last year, when Trump’s entourage colluded with Russia to subvert the election. It’s a war against democracy itself – and one that we weren’t even aware that we were fighting until recently.

No amount of gentle conversations around a candle-lit dinner table will budge the hate and envy in the hearts of Trump partisans. Sorry, Pippa! No accommodation is possible with people who would collaborate with a foreign power to snuff out democracy in America.

Trump and his Russian backers declared war on America during the last election. It’s a war that will be fought in the streets, courts, legislatures and media. The majority of the country voted against Trump. We did not choose this war. But it’s one that we must win.

Southern Monuments

Confederate War Memorial in Sylva, NC
Confederate War Memorial in Sylva, NC

Monuments tell the story of a people. Overlooking the town of Sylva, North Carolina, stands a Confederate War Memorial. The statue was erected in 1915, at the height of Jim Crow in the South. Bands played and dignitaries came from as far away as Asheville. The copper soldier stands guard atop a stone base in front of the courthouse, with a commanding view of the town below. Inscribed on the monument reads:

Back (west), plaque: TO OUR VALIANT FATHERS:- / CHAMPIONS OF RECONCILIATION WITH / JUSTICE, OF UNION WITH MANHOOD, / OF PEACE WITH HONOR; THEY FOUGHT / WITH FAITHFULNESS, LABORED WITH / CHEERFULNESS, AND SUFFERED IN SILENCE. / TO OUR HEROIC MOTHERS:- / SPARTAN IN DEVOTION, TEUTON IN / SACRIFICE, IN PATIENCE SUPERIOR TO EITHER / AND IN MODESTY AND GRACE / MATCHLESS AMONG WOMANKIND.
Front (east), plinth: 1861 CSA 1865
Front (east), base: OUR HEROES / OF THE CONFEDERACY

If you read Cold Mountain (or saw the movie), then you know that the people who lived on the slopes of the Blue Ridge were reluctant participants in the Civil War, for the conflict brought nothing but chaos, murder and starvation to this remote corner of North Carolina. It took decades to recover. Northern money brought the region back, as Sylva became a manufacturing center, its paper mill belching white smoke into the valley up until the present day.

I was in Sylva for a job at interview at Western Carolina University. I’ve been coming to the region for twenty years, ever since friends moved here from Florida – a very common story. The mountains are filled with Floridians retiring from Florida to North Carolina.

Trump supporters are proud of a map colored red, all those counties away from the coasts voting for a new kind of war against the federal government.

All-Gender Restroom

But the red states are red just barely. In Asheville, which went for Clinton, restaurants and coffee shops make a point in identifying their bathrooms as “all-gender,” appalled by their legislature’s bumbling efforts to regulate toilets.

The cities and towns are blue, while the rural areas are red. A man who worked in a remote valley said that people just assumed that he voted for Trump. After all, he was in his 60s and white. But he didn’t. Old enough to remember segregation, he recognized wrong then and he recognized it now.

“We fought the civil war once already,” he told me, not interested in another red versus blue battle.

I-26 east of Johnson City

On the way home, I took I-26 from Asheville, NC, to Johnson City, TN, a four-lane highway soaring over the Eastern Continental Divide and down into the green valleys of Tennessee. It’s a monument to the genius of American construction, with passages blasted through granite and tons of concrete used to create ramps and bridges, allowing me to drive 70 mph over mountains that formed an impassable barrier during the Civil War.

I nearly had the road to myself, just me and a few other drivers enjoying the monumental views of the Blue Ridge. Where other generations valued segregation and identity, this generation values progress, as memorialized in the monuments that they build. Rather than crafting fictional depictions of a lost cause, they’re connecting cities with highways.

During my interview, I kept being asked professors and university staff, “What’s going on in DC?” Even in the mountains, people recognized that calamity in the nation’s capital would eventually touch their lives. Research depends on grants from the government. Retirees can only afford to live in these red counties with Social Security. The federal government battles the opioid epidemic that plagues trailer parks in the hollows. And highways like I-26 are only possible due to the largess of the federal government. Progress is only possible due to the federal government.

But the federal government is a monument that some would tear down upon themselves, happier to live among the rubble of a destroyed system. Like those who precipitated the Civil War, they would rather see the country burn.

A great America is only possible with a great American government. If you truly want to make America great again, then you need to make the federal government great again. It’s the monument that we all depend upon – and one that we build together.

Letter from Washington: We Don’t Need Any Stinking Credentials!

IMG_1931

We’re winning. That was my thought watching a dozen women make out in front of the Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. A right-wing blog called the protest “sparsely attended.” Which was true. Participants were outnumbered by a crowd of viewers, which included photographers, police, tourists, friends and security guards.

But the protest was just one of a dozen that took place in Washington, DC, over a very mild President’s Day Weekend. Or, as it was called here, Not My President’s Day Weekend.

Despite the small size, there was a joy in the LGBT Makeout Against Trump protest that would overwhelm even the most bigoted heart. Protesters distributed mints and gum to the crowd. Funny signs were shared. Selfies were taken, as the thump of Nicki Minaj reached up the face of the Old Post Office.

My anaconda, don’t

My anaconda, don’t

Security guards delicately looked away as women grinded on the other side of the barricade. Two men paused in front of the Trump sign. And kissed, as the cameras whirred, recording their contribution to the resistance.

The interesting stuff always happens on the margins of these protests. In the middle, you have a hard core of organizers and participants – the people who make the signs and lead the chants. Surrounding them are supporters, friends and media. Beyond them, you find people passing by, drawn in by the noise and excitement.

And there’s always one or two who come to yell at the crowd, like Canute trying to hold back the waves. During the Muslim Ban March, there was a woman who shouted at the streaming throngs from her balcony, filled with desperate madness and fear, yelling until she went hoarse.

The LGBT dance party was no exception, one middle-aged man giving a young AU student a hard time. Her offense? Trying to interview him. She was a journalism major and was seeking opposing opinions for her video. “Where are your credentials? I need your credentials!” he kept demanding of the blonde girl, his face full of aggro.

But, if the election of Donald J. Trump has taught us anything, is that no credentials are needed. His election has inspired millions of people to do things they previously thought unthinkable – writing their member of Congress, organizing rallies and even making out in the street. You don’t credentials to be a journalist. Or a protester. Or the President. That’s what truly makes America great.