Letter from a Nation of Freemen

by Ed Simon

‘As a nation of freemen we will live forever, or die by suicide.’
-Abraham Lincoln, ‘Lyceum Address’ (1838)

Donald Trump enjoys putting his name on things, of this fact we all know. At the Trump International Hotel and Tower overlooking the Chicago river as it winds into Lake Michigan through a canyon of buildings made of glass and iron, of art deco and modernist skyscrapers, Trump’s name is rendered in massive, two-story tall silver letters. On the venerable, stolid, grey-stoned Old Post Office in America’s capital, mere blocks from the White House, and the man with the title of ‘President’ inscribed his name in tacky gold on the Trump International Hotel Washington DC. And of course in New York City, which both created Trump and whose values he most completely repudiates with his very existence, there is the assortment of monstrous eye-sores that bare his name, from the eponymous Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue which rises like an occult monolith blocks from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, to his hotel at Columbus Circle that appears as if it was a greasy bar of gold, a grotesque sculpture of a fractured world sitting in front of it, providing ample clues as to all which was to come. That’s not including all of the Ponzi and pyramid schemes he’s stuck his names on; the scams and ugly products from universities, to magazines, to bottled water, wine, and steaks.

‘Trump’ as a name stands for cheapness, tackiness, shoddiness and vanity; it’s associated with an aesthetic that confuses pomposity and glitter with taste. None of that matters. It’s all irrelevant. As are all of our anaemic coping mechanisms as we live under an increasingly authoritarian regime. Let’s ban from our diction all of the useless and lame shibboleths we deploy to demonstrate that we’re ‘Good Americans’, all of the Drumpfs and Trumpsters and Mango Mussolinis and Cheeto Hitlers. None of them are commensurate with the horror of the time which we live in now. At best they’re pressure valves; at worst they’re the bewitching narcotic of smugness. I’m indifferent to the reality of the fact that he’s a loud, gauche, gross, disgusting man (and no doubt, Trump is all of those things). But I no longer care that one of the major impulses in his life is to stamp that monosyllabic plosive of a name on all of real estate in America’s great cities (or in the capitals of belligerent foreign adversaries more than happy to send an illegal campaign contribution Trump’s way). Because the only thing he’s put his name on that I care about any more is the collection of assault weapons, handguns, and rifles organised into the word ‘TRUMP’ and tweeted by a white supremacist terrorist before he went out and killed twenty innocent people at an El Paso shopping mall.

Of that, I want the name ‘Trump’ to forever be affixed, after his buildings have been closed and turned into museums of Peace and Reconciliation, after everybody unfortunate enough to share his name has had theirs legally changed from the embarrassment, after the company which has his and his vampiric father’s name has been liquidated and the assets seized by the government in the work of rebuilding whatever is left after a year, or five, or perhaps ten. I want Trump’s name to most stand in for the violent nightmare enacted by his deranged followers. Experts call it ‘stochastic terrorism’, that is when public sentiment has been so perverted by those with the loudest proverbial microphones that violence is inevitable; it’s not the explicit arming and training of mass killers, but the winking and nodding go ahead to commit their atrocities, all while those in power can deny that they’re responsible. That the massacre at El Paso happened after weeks, months, and years of the president attacking whoever he feels like attacking, from elected representatives who are of the opposing party and who happen to be women of color, to the entire population of the largely African-American city of Baltimore, should be surprising to no one. Pundits who argue about whether Trump is a racist or not are as helpful as attending a debate about whether water is wet or not. They do a disservice to all Americans because of the bad faith of the ‘argument’. They obscure what it is that we actually face.

Of course, a cursory glance at internet message boards revels in this manufactured ambiguity, for online you’ll find a cavalcade of apologists, the ‘What About?’ brigade, the ‘Well, akshwaly…’ cavalry. To stare into the electronic abyss that is late capitalist discourse will show you millions of your fellow countrymen, who must understand that their beloved leader’s language leads to these atrocities, and in fact the inevitable logic of their own nihilistic worldview demands such crimes, disavowing any responsibility towards that which they secretly thrill towards. So you see conspiracy theories which blame an imaginary Antifa (which Senator Ted Cruz wants to label a ‘terrorist’ movement under federal guidelines) rather than the obvious reality that the killer and his (always a ‘his’) inevitable, cut-and-paste manifesto contains all of the right-wing buzzwords from ‘white genocide’ to ‘great replacement’, which have increasingly found a home in the ostensibly mainstream of Republican supporters.

And more than just an issue of gun control and sane regulation (which of course is what this is always, in part, about) the reality of what we’re facing is the following – the United States is currently in the midst of a not-so cold civil war, where Christian nationalist jihadis and white supremacists are targeting Americans at an ever increasing rate because the rhetoric emerging from the bully pulpit is encouraging them to do so. That the nativists, the xenophobes, the Nazis, the militiamen, the sovereign citizens, and all their fellow travellers in the right-wing news media from FOX to the Wall Street Journal salivate at the possibility of a civil war, or accuse the left of fermenting one is no need to avoid pointing out the obvious: that minorities and the left are being explicitly targeted by a growing and terrifying movement that has the tacit approval of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Nor should we ignore that this turn to naked fascism is an international affair, as obvious in Boris Johnson’s London, Viktor Orban’s Budapest, and Jair Bolsonaro’s Brasilia as much as Washington. We can debate the causes of this far-right turn, from neoliberalism to climate change, but what it forebodes is a dark struggle ahead. We must have hope, and we must work, to make our possibilities in the future brighter than our reality in the present. But as we enter into election season, nobody should think that this beast which commands so much of our attention will change anytime soon.

You can be killed in a school, a movie theatre, a shopping mall, a bar, a concert, a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a goddamn garlic festival. Because this is what it’s like living in America as the second decade of the new millennium draws to a close. If there are still Americans in the future on the other side of that divide, in a hopefully fairer, saner, better nation, please read this as a missive from foreign country. This is a civilian letter in this grim war, and what I’d tell all of you fortunate enough not to wake up everyday with push notification of a mass shooting in your neighbourhood is that in the United States we’re scared and scarred, jarred, anxious, frightened, and most of all exhausted. Nobody I know doesn’t have at least some low-level trauma over these things, nobody doesn’t consider that when they go out, they might find themselves in the midst of a massacre, everybody unconsciously examines exits and quickly formulates an escape plan should they begin to hear rounds fired off.

We all (or should) tell our loved ones that we love them, because America’s violent death toll makes it feel more like a country falling into disunion than a developed democracy. In America you flinch a bit more when somebody drops something; in America you eye your fellow citizens and wonder if their face betrays any evidence of what message boards they post to, what fascist ideology they’re absorbing. In America, on the day that 20 innocent people were murdered in El Paso, I outlined this essay in my mind, but was too tired to compose it before I went to bed. When I woke up, I saw that while I slept nine more people were killed in Dayton, Ohio.