An Interview With Jarret Middleton, author of Darkansas

Darkansas, the new novel by Jarret Middleton, has been getting a lot of hype. And deservedly so. It tells the story of Jordan, a country musician living in the shadow of his father, bluegrass legend Walker Bayne. A man who has made a lifetime of poor decisions, Jordan bounces between dive bars, accruing women and drinking himself to the brink of disaster. When he returns home to the Ozarks for his twin brother’s wedding, Jordan uncovers a dark vein in the Bayne family history: going back to the end of the Civil War, every generation of Bayne men have been twins―and one twin has always murdered their father. Praised by Donald Ray Pollock as “one of the best debuts of the year,” Middleton establishes himself as a novelist in good company with Brian Panowich and Smith Henderson, yet in a category all his own.

We met in a seedy bar along the Seattle waterfront whose clientele tends to run along the lines of dishonorably discharged merchant marines, those looking to stretch their five dollars until closing time, and those looking to take your five dollars right now.

Sean Beaudoin: So. Generational madness, patricide, murder, deviancy, subversion, the deep south, and rivers of booze. I take it life is good?

Jarret Middleton: Life is great! Current apocalypse-in-motion aside.

SB: What’s it like writing a novel set in the deep Ozarks while sitting in a porch in Seattle?

JM: Well as of today my truck is covered in ash and smoke from the wildfires has diffused the sky into a blood orange haze. I know I finished writing Darkansas some time ago now, but I feel as though we are increasingly entering the surreal, mythic world of the novel. Of course it’s how I have always seen and felt and experienced the world, but up until now I wasn’t sure how well it corresponded to objective reality. It was appropriate that the circular sigil on the hardcover jacket looked like the corona of the recent solar eclipse. The book came out right before the eclipse, so it felt right. I’m glad Twin Peaks just came back and blew everyone’s minds again, just as a reminder that there are larger forces at work. We may not be able to see them, but we can see their effects and it’s horrifying. As for the day-to-day of writing a novel so deeply rooted in a unique sense of place while not being in that place? Honestly, I just listened to bluegrass, drank whiskey, and picked my guitar while staring at the moon. That was enough to put me in the frame of mind of the Bayne clan, then I just took it from there.

SB: I see the term “Hillbilly Noir” tossed around quite a bit. How do you feel about that honorific?

JM: I interviewed Brian Panowich (Bull Mountain) a few years ago and he wore it as a badge of honor. He’s a bawdy super-friendly Georgian in a cowboy hat though, so it suits him. I guess it gets tossed around when people are talking about Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Bill, George Singleton, William Gay. That kind of thing. I get it, but that’s not where I’m at. I’m from Boston and call Seattle home. I eat salmon and drink Guinness in a scaly cap and sing Pogues songs. In a lot of ways it’s all the same thing, it doesn’t really matter. I never actually understood pigeon-holing writers based on where they’re from, as if it’s supposed to dictate their subject matter or the style of their prose. It’s the same as expecting race, gender, or class, or any other non-existent factor to recidivistically ground that writer’s work in something that people can identify with or easily relate to. That’s just market capitalism creating homogonous commodity forms for writers and their work and calling it difference. It’s all just more barriers that artists have to tear down. So, you know. Fuck that.

SB: You must have known people were going to compare Darkansas to Faulkner and O’Conner, which definitely lends it a literary cache, but I think it’s just as reminiscent of James Lee Burke and William Gay, not to mention Nick Cave and the bones of Johnny Cash. In other words, entertaining as hell.

JM: I’m humbled by any comparison to those giants, of course, and you’re right, it is as much in league with James Lee Burke, Smith Henderson, Wiley Cash, and so many more that are setting excellent dark or dramatic stories in the country. But for me, that is just where the story of Darkansas had to be told. In the Ozarks, in a cursed family of bluegrass musicians. My prose varies widely and if I’m not taking risks and challenging myself or asking possibly unanswerable or unknowable questions I get bored or worse, depressed, and don’t know what the hell I’m even doing anymore. So I try to stay out of the ditches to either side of the road and stay on the meandering path I am on, wherever it takes me. That’s why I’m not a ‘country noir’ writer. Or fine, I am a country noir writer, and a literary horror writer, and a surreal writer, and philosophical writer, and mystic writer. I’m whatever I choose to write about, because I’m a writer, and that’s what writers do.

The novel I’m writing now is about a young hockey player from New England who suffers a concussion from a brutal head hit and the post-concussion symptoms trigger a crisis that brings him face to face with existential despair. It’s pretty bleak, and it’s also the first fiction I’ve ever written that draws so closely from my own life. I’m also chipping away at a sprawling outline for a trilogy set on two fictional islands in the north Pacific where a savior falls from the sky into the ocean and it sets off an age-old prophecy that awakens the dead spirits across the islands. It’s called fiction. Like I said, labels are just market trash. They have nothing to do with beautiful naked eternal consciousness.

SB: Did you consider at all the pushback you might get for the scenes of violence and sex, or do you share my opinion that those are elemental aspects of the human condition, and books that try to avoid them as a matter of being slightly more anodyne (a fancy word for marketable) are doomed?

JM: I anticipated it but that anticipation sits in a gigantic pile of things that I don’t give a shit about. Characters are necessarily flawed, sometimes deeply so, in order to create drama, tension, conflict, and resolution. Again, it’s called fiction. Not everything has to relate the world as-is. People are so condition to representation, it’s sickening. Not all prose has to be a self-help redemption story. Characters can be sexist, racist, classist, brutish, piggish, rapists, murderers, suicidal, any number of things, but that doesn’t mean the author is any of those things. Anyone who knows me knows I am a dyed-in-the-wool feminist with revolutionary politics. I came up on Angela Davis, Huey Newton, Stokley Carmichael, Marcus Garvey, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, John Dewey, Franz Fanon, Rosa Luxemburg, Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno, Judith Butler, Gilles Deleuze. Not that it should matter. I mean, for fuck’s sake, we’re in a battle for our bodies, minds, and spirits here. We’re up against the forces of death and our only weapons are creating art and love, which are the same thing. I prefer to spend my time in the shadows with deeply flawed people who are hurting and who need attention, care, and help. We’re all trying to heal, and talking about healing or criticizing healing is not the same thing as disinfecting and bandaging a wound and nursing ourselves back to health. A lot of the commentary out there is just ineffectual and inessential. Help or get out of the way.

SB: Give me five unexpected songs that would make a killer alternate-soundtrack for Darkansas.

JM: I did a soundtrack for the book over at Largehearted Boy, which you can check out here and immediately listen to on their jukebox.

SB: Any list with both Lucero and The Louvin Brothers is pure gold. Speaking of which, how many “Devil Went Down To Georgia” jokes have you pretended to smile through during interviews?

JM: A pretty good amount but Peter Geye did me a huge favor by starting his blurb for the book by saying, “The devil didn’t go down to Georgia, he went to Arkansas.” Really nipped that one in the bud.

SB: How come all the best books are about how, deep down, we are monstrous animals who have zero control of our fates?

JM: Because the excesses of capitalism and the imperial hegemony of western civilization and the false thought project of humanism that divorced humans from nature with catastrophic, soul-crushing consequences is now coming to an end. The old methods of exploitation and domination are giving way. The resulting crisis is revealing our animal nature, our territorial tribalism, and fight for resources, sure, but that is just animal conditioning. Underneath that, I think we’re starting to remember how we have survived on this planet for so long. Thankfully, we’re discovering the old bones of the archaic wisdom embedded deep within the collective unconscious of human memory, locked away in our DNA, that we know we are stardust, that we are divine, that we are free entities of love, that we emerge from and return to eternity.

SB: The perfect segue for Speed Round:

Directing a low-budget Darkansas: Tarkovsky or Polanski? Tarkovsky is god. Though if he directed it, it would definitely be over-budget, delayed for eight-years, subject to government censorship, and a portion of the cast and crew would die from radiation poisoning.


The Hartford Whalers should be: Back in Hartford. . . .or in Seattle, and keep the name (sorry Carolina).

Tacos with anything other than meat, cilantro, chopped onion, and hot sauce are called: Hipster nonsense.

John Lee Hooker, Bobby Blue Bland, or Johnny Walker Blue? The King of the Boogie deserves all the Johnny Walker Blue.

Score: 5 out of a possible 5.


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Excerpt : “Darkansas”

1976—the bear attack

Walker came home weary from two months of shows. It wasn’t raining, but it should have been. The RTS streamliner glided past a desolate park on the riverfront and coughed into the Little Rock depot. A cadre of hung over, homesick band mates who had spent every waking moment together for the past sixty days departed the bus without a word and found their own lone roads back, hoping home was still the way they left it.

Wind tumbled under electric clouds that followed Walker out of the city. He rolled down the window of his brown Eldorado and the pressure of the air bore through the pinprick in his damaged ear, sending a high-pitched siren straight to his brain. He drove the winding roads squinting one eye shut and struggling to keep the wheel straight until he pulled into his driveway. The wind blew debris across the lawn. When he came in through the downstairs, the house radiated stillness, all the more fragile by the anticipation of it being ruined. The walls in the corridor tilted and wavered, a sick feeling rose from his waist. Walker teetered on the bottom stair, suitcase and bag in hand, worried by what awaited him. He peeked into the nursery at Malcolm and Jordan before he went into the bedroom, where his wife Mercy stood by the far side of their bed.

“Leave ’em packed,” she said, eyeing his bags. Her black hair flowed around the knit of a charcoal shawl, voice worn from anger slowly turning into sorrow. Neither possessed the energy to plead, whether it was Mercy demanding repentance or Walker begging for forgiveness. He knew why she was upset. He could not convince her of what he had not done—change. To fight would only further insult her, and he kept his mouth shut. She suspected a girl he had in Atlanta, and she was right. They had played two shows through Georgia and Walker hadn’t call home for the better part of that week. What Mercy did not know was how the girl rode with them all the way to D.C., how they spent their time together getting high and lying strikingly still, not speaking or moving. She was backstage, in the bus, and rarely left his side. It was one of those things Walker could never say, because to say it was to be condemned.

Mercy knew Walker’s father Maurel was planning to bring him and Jacob on their annual hunting trip. The time away would give Mercy space to think and she told Walker that he should use the time to decide where he would go upon his return. They looked at each other, so far apart, farther than the dimensions of the room could have allowed.

“I love you, Mercy. You have to know that.” He fought his indefensible position as she turned away and cried. He looked down in shame, both bags still clutched in his hands. He hadn’t even set them down.


The barrel of his hunting rifle stuck through the trees. Walker waited until the deer was so close he could see her hair twitch. The fawn searched around before lowering her nose in the grass, that was when Walker fired. The missed shot sent the skinny fawn bounding from sight. Jacob and Maurel poked fun at Walker for missing at close range. An hour later, Jacob hit a two point buck from over a hundred and fifty yards through cover. “Don’t worry,” Jacob taunted his brother. “I’ll let you dress it.”

Sheets of meat separated from knotted cartilage and rigid clefts of bone. Walker struggled through slippery viscous to make even cuts in the sinew. He got out the best meat first, hind legs and breast, stabbing into the body with a quiet jealously that he hid from Jacob and his father as they reclined on a felled log, smoking. He skinned the fine-haired pelt with precision, removed the last of the vitals, and tossed the sack in the dirt for the coyotes. He went down to the water and washed his bloody arms in a nearby creek.

Walker moped around the campsite, worried sick about losing Mercy forever. He did not say a word through dinner. Sloughing off his camp chair he sat in the dirt, sipping off a bottle and staring into the fire. Maurel took a seat behind him, patted his shoulder and told him, in a matter-of-fact way, to do everything possible in order to save the marriage.

“If you are stubborn,” Maurel said, “let it go. Whatever it is it’s doomed, anyhow. Chances are virtue ain’t on your side, so tell her she’s right. Even if she ain’t, tell her a thousand times. Ain’t nothing worth defending in this life. You’ll end up with all that pride, alone. If it’s your ways you’re worried about, change every last one of them. They’re not worth shit in the end.”

Walker kept his eye on the folding flames. Maurel pulled off the bottle and handed it back to his son, his expression dropping to the depths of his own painful past. “I never did that with your mother,” he said. “I could have talked more, only I never knew what to say. Still, I should have stayed and worked through it with her, would have been fairer to you and your brother. Instead, I left her at the first sign of struggle. Had to learn each lesson the hard way, I guess. Pretty soon, all’s that’s left is the truth staring you in the face, but it’s too late to fix what you done wrong, anyhow. Don’t take the path I did, son. Bring hell on yourself a hundred fold what anybody else could ever cause you.”

The deer and potatoes were softened by the whiskey. Maurel wished Walker a good night and Jacob turned in soon after that. Despite his drunken reverie, Walker stumbled to his feet and felt his way through the darkness to the shallow side of the river. He removed his boots and waded in until his jeans flooded with a cold swirl of water. The paper glow of his skin disappeared below the surface. He let the best and worst of him flow in the gentle current. He wished the convoluted way of things would peel from his skin and float discarded downstream. He prayed to God for a chance to start over. Black water below, black sky above. Walker floated in the weightless repetition of prayer until a scream came pouring over the hill. Walker swam to shore and ran up the bank soaking wet to discover Jacob frantic and the campsite torn apart.

He charged past the smoldering fire and debris and approached Maurel’s tent. The green fabric had been shredded and long strips of it dangled in the wind. Blood pooled in pockets and began to seep out. Jacob was on his knees fishing through the deflated folds of the tent. “God damn it, Walker, get over here and help me,” he yelled. Walker kneeled next to him, pulling back layers of nylon as Jacob crawled into the tent on his stomach and came out with Maurel writhing on his back, moaning and gasping for air.

“What the hell happened?” Walker asked.

Jacob leered as he held firm the bleeding side of Maurel’s head. “A bear,” he gasped. “Somebody left out the dinner scraps and wandered off. Where the hell were you?”

“I was swimming in the creek,” he said.

“You stupid son of a bitch. What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Shut up,” said Walker, a pit prying open his stomach. “What should we do?”

“The truck is two miles back that way.” Jacob waved his arm in what could have been any direction in the hills at night. “We’re going to have to carry him.”

They lifted him out of the tent and laid him on the ground. Walker pulled back torn clothing sopped with blood and did his best to identify his father’s wounds. He found deep cuts on his arms and abdomen and doused them with whiskey. Walker pried open Maurel’s teeth to let a stream of alcohol down his gullet. Maurel flailed one of his balled fists in an effort to hit Jacob. They managed to hold him still and bandage his wounded arm to the front of his chest with a ripped T-shirt. Jacob brandished a buck knife and cut swatches from the tent large enough to hold Maurel. He folded each tent pole in half and threaded them through slits he made in the fabric. grabbed their packs and Jacob slung the gun across his back. Then, they lifted together. Maurel’s weight sagged in the nylon strung between the two poles. Walker struggled to consult the compass that hung from his neck and set them on the path north, hoping they would come out somewhere near the truck.

The forest was uncompromisingly dark. Branches snapped at their arms. Trunks of pine wider than bodies emerged as though the darkness itself had created them. Maurel shifted erratically in his makeshift stretcher and tossed them off balance. They almost dropped him twice. Walker and Jacob tripped over rocks and lost footing on the soft ground, but they stayed on course.

Maurel flopped his head violently and groaned until he collapsed back into wayward unconsciousness. Maurel went in and out, from the blurred sway of Jacob’s back to the jungles of San Lo, carrying his companyman Billy Goat on a stretcher in the very same fashion. His unit was reversing their position from a bunker back to the deserted beachhead that had served as their landing point so PFC Herl could catch a medevac home. Herl never made it off that beach, and Maurel reckoned he would not make it out of those woods alive.

Walker heard his father’s muttering and thought either the shock was wearing off or that a far worse condition was beginning to take hold. His arms had grown tired. He counted the rhythm of their steps to occupy his mind and returned to Maurel’s confessionary words earlier by the campfire. Never would he have believed that his father harbored any remorse for his upbringing or for the years of attrition to which he subjected their mother. He may not have raised them right, but by hell he raised them. There they were carrying him through the woods. That was more than some could say. He spoke a prayer in his head. Whether or not he and Mercy saw this through, he prayed that his infant sons would do for him what he was doing now for his father. In a lot of ways, that would be enough.

His heart sank at the reminder of what he was going home to, leaving Mercy the way he had. He deserved to suffer her ire as long as it meant that he still had a chance. Walker avoided looking at his dear father torn open before him and railed against the unthinkable conspiracy between chance and fate, born of his own stupidity, trailing off in search of one lousy moment to himself. Well, he sure found it, he cursed. The walk took longer than either of them had hoped. Faced with the possibility that Maurel might not survive, Walker admitted that mending the wreckage with Mercy and truly being there for the boys might be the only chance he had left at a family. Walker let a sob escape, one he regretted as Jacob turned his head.

“Enough,” Jacob snapped. “Already before I hear you crying I can feel your end back there sagging under the weight. Pick it up, God damn it. You’ve got the rest of your life to be sad.”

They trudged over an embankment that brought them up to level ground. Walker guessed they were clear of the deep woods and after a few hundred yards Jacob’s sweaty head was refreshed by a draft of wind that barreled up the clearing of a desolate road. When the silhouette of Jacob’s Bronco emerged on the shoulder, they quickened their pace. It took more than an hour to drive the path out of the hills through the valley, the nearest hospital another forty minutes beyond that. Walker climbed in the backseat to hold Maurel as he contorted in pain. He had lost a lot of blood, his pale skin cold to Walker’s touch. He held Maurel’s hand and felt his grip grow loose. He yelled up to Jacob that the situation was not looking too good. Jacob hunched over the wheel and drove as fast as he could.

They were ten minutes from the highway when Maurel seized. Walker watched the road from the back when the bones in his fingers were smashed together in his father’s last desperate grasp. His jeaned legs kicked against glass and steel. Jacob kept the wheel straight as his seat bucked from behind. He yelled for Walker to do something, so Walker reached into the backseat and held Maurel’s head and tilted back his chin so he wouldn’t choke. He was certain if he stuck his fingers in past gnashing teeth he would lose them. He held Maurel and kept him from falling off the seat when, just like that, a switch was flipped. Maurel stopped fighting and relaxed back onto the seat, every joint and muscle letting go all at once. The urgency to make it to the hospital expired with Walker’s last hope that his father would survive. The least he could do for his father, he reasoned, was provide one final act of mercy. “Don’t go to the hospital,” he told Jacob. “Just go home.”

Walker climbed on top of his father’s twisted body. Maurel’s eyes bulged through the ceiling of the truck and Walker caressed the side of his face, humming a song. The singing soothed him and he glared around, sure the music was coming from another world. Walker hushed him and continued singing as he tightened his grip until the veins in his neck grew thick and desperate. Maurel arched his ribs, heaving under the weight. Walker pressed harder until the last tremors shook through his limbs, then sat back, breathing heavily. As the truck sped towards civilization, Walker gathered himself, then slid both lids over his father’s eyes and whispered goodbye.


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Donald Trump: The Man in America’s Mirror

i. Orwell, Again (Obviously)

Even before the Reality TV circus American politics and, by extension, American life, degenerated into late last year, George Orwell was the go-to guy for so many writers and thinkers. His observations on everything from class to work (and the inexorable connections between the two), to literature and, yes, politics, has often helped inform and explain how things could become, or how they’ve always been.

This has less to do with the critical laziness that declared him our ultimate quote machine and seer of modern existence (it’s amusing to think how many, particularly in the political sphere, have invoked him without reading much if any of his work; like with Shakespeare, why bother to read the books when the aphorisms are readymade?). Rather, it’s for the simplest and rarest of reasons: Orwell was the real deal, a peripatetic and curious theorist, a philosopher one could claim, never mind the color of their collar. Not content to report from afar, he needed to put himself in the mix, as a dishwasher, a soldier, an officer; a sort of restless cylinder distilling the truths and deceptions of the 20th Century. Simply put, there was never anyone quite like him, and this, above all, is why he matters. It’s why he’ll endure; his work is not timeless so much as incapable of aging. This, regrettably, is in no small part because humanity persistently proves the most cynical and saturnine prognosticators somehow uninspired. (Especially here in the United States.)

Still, for both indolent and obsessed, the embarrassment of riches contained in his last two works, Animal Farm and 1984, tends to suffice, sui generis source code. It’s somewhat ironic that of his writings, these two have arguably aged most poorly. Not because what he depicted was improbable, but history has shown them to be, remarkably, almost trivial. We look at the spectacles of Mr. Jones’ farm and our textbooks and think: Been there, done that. After the successive outrages of dictatorships beneath us and across the pond, the mendacity of totalitarian impulses inevitably worked its way west. Between The Patriot Act and color-coded terror alerts after 9/11, it was like life imitating artless farce. (Think about Hitler, in theory; in actuality: virtually everything he did and said is risible, ludicrous, embarrassing. The mistake we’ve made trying to get a handle on him is not what skills or charms he ostensibly brought to the table, but the fact that millions of angry, credulous citizens enabled it, clamored for it. His repellant genius was in knowing precisely what thirst he was quenching.)


ii. Are We Not Entertained?

Which brings us to Trumped in the U.S.A., circa 2017.

Just like the man with the funny mustache, a grandstanding, solipsistic and soulless imbecile like Donald Trump could never be taken seriously unless a country didn’t take itself seriously. That’s both diagnosis and epitaph for the circumstances making the improbability (the impossibility) of President Trump our unique national nightmare.

How can—or should—we grapple with the fact that the right wing has made its bacon for decades castigating virtually everything Trump represents? Hollywood, immorality, gambling, infidelity, insufficient fealty (and/or downright sacrilege) regarding all-things-military, wild and easily disprovable boasts (in this regard making him the anti-Al Gore). For starters.

And speaking of Al “Internet” Gore, perhaps it’s as simple as this: politics aside, he played well on T.V.

Something more is at play, obviously. Yes, white racial antipathy is a YUGE factor. To argue otherwise, at this point, is both delusional and dangerous. Scarily, thought, it goes far beyond folks being whipped into a self-abnegating fury by Fox News. It’s the 21st Century, and we’re obliged to wonder: are the better angels of these folks’ natures being corrupted or, at long last, did the right cult of personality disorder finally reinforce the things they want and need to hear?

The hollowness of the Christian right is now irrevocably laid bare, as they don their MAGA hats in support of a man representing practically everything Jesus denounced.

And yes, there’s no question that as actors, athletes and even “Fake Media” outlets print money at unprecedented rates while red states insist on electing people opposed to living wages, Trump can be seen as the symptom, not the disease.

Still, it’s a combination of resentment, rage and denial that make anyone, whoever they are and wherever they live, able to suspend disbelief to the extent that they still, after eight months, support President* Trump.

Sure, we could talk about the undeniable Russian collusion, the unconscionable decisions James Comey made, or the myriad mistakes the Clinton campaign is begrudgingly beginning to acknowledge—none of which should ever let the obstreperous Bernie Bros off the hook. We certainly must contemplate the havoc right-wing media has wrought, a decades-long work in progress which, in hindsight, makes Trump seem almost inevitable. And despite the imperfect storm of factors that contributed to Trump’s win*, the fact remains: it should never have been close. So, even if we come to discover every worst-case scenario and fear is true—that votes were rigged, Russians did their worst, that God Herself made it so—we must grapple with the depressing fact that even Trump probably never realized how incomparably he appealed to every horrific instinct simmering just beneath the surface of America’s cauldron.

Just because there are plentiful reasons to explain how and why Trump happened, it doesn’t mean we should accept it. Or worse, resign ourselves to it. Indeed, as more evidence of the mendacity, cynicism and malpractice (both political and journalistic) pours in, we are presented with an opportunity. And therein lies a sliver of hope for these very ominous times.


iii.                On Tramps and Trump

Revisiting Orwell’s first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, I wasn’t prepared for the shock of recognition that occurred in the latter pages. With his laudable compulsion to be involved in his reporting, the author spends several months as a dishwasher in Paris, and then living amongst the tramps in London. In a scene that could have been written today (In Paris, London or especially America), Orwell complains about the mindless waste of food he witnessed while working in one of the charity kitchens. His companion—a veteran of the rough roads—manages to astound a writer celebrated for not being easily astonished.

“They have to (throw away the extra food),” he said. “If they made these places too comfortable, you’d have all the scum of the country flocking to them. It’s only the bad food as keeps all that scum away. These here tramps are too lazy to work, that’s all that’s wrong with them. You don’t want to go encouraging them. They’re scum.”

I produced arguments to prove him wrong, but he would not listen. He kept repeating:

“You don’t want to have any pity on these here tramps—scum, they are. You don’t want to judge them by the same standards as men like you and me. They’re scum, just scum.”

…I imagine there are quite a lot of tramps who thank God they are not tramps.

Sound like sentiment we’ve heard once or twice these recent months, as unemployed “patriots” in opioid-infested states clamor for their “big, beautiful” wall?

The cynic might inquire: same as it ever was?

Maybe. But this passage serves as a necessary reminder: the cancer (which is, take your pick: anti-patriotic, anti-reason and most definitely anti-Christian, all three labels Republican branding has brazenly co-opted for decades) metastasized long before a slum lord scion became Tweeter-in-chief.

If there’s any silver lining in Trump’s curious and untenable ascendency, it’s that this monster of our making is no longer operating under cover of darkness, abetted by propaganda and innuendo. It’s out in the open and, for once, some of the (literally) torch-carrying villagers are chasing him, not because he’s a monster but rather a perverse Pied Piper.

Of course it’s depressing that, post-Katrina and Wall Street meltdown, this seemingly ceaseless reminder is even necessary. Race, resentment and political malpractice, again, aside, we are seeing how the GOP rolls when they’re obliged to do something aside from obstructing. Trump’s victory* proved we still hadn’t learned. Does this mean we are not capable of a course correction?

(Regarding malpractice, Obama in particular, and the Democratic party in general, own their fair share of the blame: they had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a forceful, irrefutable case for the efficacy of government and policies that used to be both uncontroversial and bipartisan. To insist that Obama counted on some collective accord just as Trump has instigated a cultural cacophony is at once accurate yet insufficient. Unreasonable hopes, naïveté and overconfidence allowed an imploded ideology to rise, and rally.

There’s plenty of tragedy and dark humor regarding what could have been. The pertinent issue is whether Democrats can, finally (for once?) organize, unify and convert this calamity into…change we can believe in? It’s hardly hyperbole to insist we’re at a threshold moment.)

Books and careers will be created describing how 2016 happened, but if we’re not able to excise this tumor, Trump will endure as preview instead of apotheosis.

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Robert E. Lee: Worst American of All Time

ROBERT E. LEE was the finest military mind of his generation. First in his class at West Point. Brilliant, charismatic, influential.

Among his many admirers? Abraham Lincoln, who asked Lee to head the Union army’s defense of Washington on April 18, 1860.

Despite being a Virginian, Lee was a patriot first and foremost. “Secession is anarchy,” he wrote. Or so Lincoln was led to believe.

Not only did Lee refuse the post; two days later, he resigned from the Union army, instead commanding the Confederate forces.

Although he did not believe in secession and was not crazy about slavery, Lee considered it a breach of honor to fight against his fellow Virginians.

In school, we are taught that there was something noble about this decision. In fact, Lee’s actions were both cowardly and morally bankrupt.

If he didn’t want to fight other Virginians, Lee could have resigned and sat the war out. THAT would have been the “honorable” move.

Instead, Lee not only deprived the North of his services, but gave himself fully to the enemies of the Union.

This is like a German general saying, in ’39, “I hate Hitler, and concentration camps are evil, but I won’t kill Germans so I’ll lead the Nazi army into Poland.”

The Civil War lasted as long as it did because the North had the numbers, but the South had vastly better leadership. The Union had nincompoops; the South had Lee.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that had Lee remained in the Union army, the war would have been over much, much sooner.

Perhaps the Confederates, seeing a Virginian general on the Union side of the field, may have lost the will to fight.

The bloodiest battles were fought in 1862 and 1863; with Lee at the Union helm, perhaps these would have been averted completely.

Some 750,000 Americans were casualties of the Civil War, more than all other wars combined.

Lee commanded Confederate troops at Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, Antietam, and the Battle of the Wilderness. Five battles, 150,ooo casualties.

If Lee heads the Union army, the war ends in half the time, and some 375,000 lives are saved.

Maybe Sherman does not burn Atlanta. Maybe Lincoln is not assassinated, easing the process of Reconstruction.

As it stands, by my reckoning, Lee is responsible for 375,000 dead Americans. That’s bin Laden times 100, and then 100,000 more.

This is the moral weakling, the traitor to his country, whom Trump equates with Washington and Jefferson.

Enough blood has been spilled to satisfy his sense of “honor.” Robert E. Lee deserves no more.

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Trump: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Part 3)

IN 2016 WE ELECTED A TWITTER TROLL TO BE PRESIDENT. Trump got the job, just barely, by belittling his opponents, lying, making false promises, and generally running the dirtiest campaign in modern American political history. The self-described billionaire didn’t so much win outright, as so tarnish his opponents as to suppress voter turnout. On the night of the general election, millions of voters were so exhausted by the nearly two-year long slog that they either didn’t bother to vote, or else if they did, left the top of their ballots blank. In Michigan, for example, where Trump won by 13,107 votes, or just 0.3 percent, 87,810 people decided that “none of the above” was the best possible option.

Since Trump’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked a marked increase in the number of hate crimes and domestic terrorist events, while the Council on American-Islamic Relations recently announced a 91 percent increase in anti-Muslim activities. The alt-right, a cleaned-up reboot of white supremacy once existing only on the fringes of society, is now mainstream and even counts several of its adherents among the president’s inner circle. We’ve already had a Republican candidate for office, now a member of the House of Representatives, physically attack a reporter on the eve of a special election in Montana, and we’ve been witness to a mass shooting directed at lawmakers in Alexandria, Virginia.

Donald Trump promised to make America great again, but increasingly, with every new outrage, tweet, and act of violence, the nation appears to be instead sinking to the lowest possible depths.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve taken a look at how Trump might be a potential good for liberal politics and how he might be bad for America’s standing in the world. Today, in the last of this three-part series, we examine how the 45th President of the United States is making this country an ugly place.

Donald Trump did not invent bullying or racism or bigotry, but he’s arguably been hate’s biggest booster since George Wallace ran for president in 1964. A gifted know-nothing, suckled at the teat of Roger Ailes’ “news” division and mentored by the likes of dirty trickster Roger Stone and McCarthy attorney Roy Cohn, Trump started his political career with racist claims that Barack Obama was not an American citizen and opened his campaign by declaring Mexicans “murderers and rapists.” On the campaign trail, he encouraged violence against protesters, vilified Muslims, mocked veterans and the disabled, and labelled the media “fake news.” Encouraged by Trump’s bile, many of his core supporters, who had likely suppressed their own ignorant hatful views their entire lives, responded in kind.

Now, with the full, albeit dysfunctional, executive apparatus at his back, Trump’s demented hate-speak and real world ignorance has morphed into government policy. Anti-Muslim bigotry has become a travel ban. Nativism has turned to an attack on legal immigration. Racism is now measured in American tax dollars, appropriated to pay for a southern border wall. Homophobia and sexism are being institutionalized with a trans ban in the military and the lifting of workplace protections for gays and lesbians. In recent months funding has been diverted from investigations of domestic terror groups like the Ku Klux Klan in favor of foreign extremists, despite the fact that most acts of mass violence perpetrated in the United States have been at the hands of Americans. And while Trump threatens trade war with China and nuclear war with North Korea, he has yet to say one unkind word about fellow bigot Vladimir Putin.

It’s telling that Trump chose “America First” as his rallying cry. The term harkens back to the America First Committee, which opposed American participation in World War II. At its height members of the AFC included future presidents and supreme court justices, and spanned the political spectrum, but the organization has a dark legacy. Among the AFC’s leadership were several prominent anti-Semites, most notably the aviator and Nazi admirer Charles Lindbergh, who in a speech in 1941, proclaimed, “Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.” He added, “Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.” The term “America First” has been resurrected many times since, most notably by Pat Buchanan, who also has been accused of anti-Semitism and has repeatedly called World War II “unnecessary.”

Some of his backers might dismiss Trump’s hate-speak as hyperbole or charged political rhetoric or “Trump being Trump,” but traditionally the office of the president has set the tone for the country. This is why, despite war, economic instability, and terrorism, the last five presidents all endeavored to strike a unifying tone. Reagan, Bush, Clinton, W. Bush, and Obama each understood that for a diverse society to function and thrive, all its disparate factions had to buy into a unified concept of America. Through his ignorance and hate, Donald Trump threatens to permanently cripple that unity.

In the appendix to his revolutionary treatise, Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” What he meant is that no matter the obstacles, no matter the strength of the forces of the opposition, ordinary people have the capacity to change global events and even the trajectory of history. We’ve unleashed the forces of darkness, but it’s not yet too late.

Let’s get to work.

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Trump: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Part 2)

DONALD TRUMP MIGHT END THE WORLD. The scenario goes something like this: feeling backed into a corner by an increasingly hostile Congress and an aggressive Russia investigation, Trump may heed the advice of the nationalists within his inner circle and launch a preemptive attack on North Korea, likely as an attempt to ride a patriotic wave to higher approvals. The war that would follow would certainly involve a nuclear exchange on some scale and would likely cost millions of lives, along with the devastation of several major cities, some of them American. As commander-in-chief, under the War Powers Act, the president has full authority to wage war, even thermonuclear war, without Congressional authorization for up to 90 days. The conflict with Pyongyang would likely end within hours, and the potential for events to spiral out of control from there run high.

It’s called the fog of war. During armed conflict confusion abounds and the potential for chaos increases. Even the best organized administrations have blundered the United States into unintended conflict and the Trump White House is as far from organized as one could possibly get. Without adequate communication and diplomacy, a regional conflict has the potential to spiral out into a full-scale global nuclear war.

Last week I wrote about the good that the Trump administration may potentially bring: a rebirth of liberal politics, a dismantling of the imperial presidency, the collapse of neo-conservatism. This week I continue the examination of Trump’s potential impacts on American life and culture, by looking at the bad.

Let’s take thermonuclear war off the table. Despite the very real fact that America’s command and control apparatus is designed so that the president has complete authority to bring about the apocalypse should he choose, let us consider how else Donald Trump is changing the country and the world for the worse.

In the nearly seven months since his inauguration, despite a whole host of failures and missteps, Donald Trump has stayed true to one important campaign promise: America first. He has pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement, made commitments to slash international aid, questioned the validity of NATO, imposed a Muslim travel ban, promised to halve the amount of legal immigrants into the country, praised dictators the world over, and pulled back on America’s commitment to democracy building. In short, Donald Trump has made it his mission to relinquish America’s status as the leader of the global community.

If you listen to Trump speak, when he says that NATO members need to pay their fair share or that Americans have committed crimes just as bad as Russian dictators, what he’s saying is that the United States is no different than any other country in the world. We are like everyone else. And while inherently that may be true, it serves as a stunning reversal of the concept of American Exceptionalism, a doctrine that has driven American foreign policy for the better part of a century.

The United States has not always done the right thing. Throughout the Cold War we propped up dictators and started wars without merit all in an attempt to defeat what Ronald Reagan called “the evil empire.” But for everything we did wrong we did plenty right in turn. For the last seventy-five years the United States has been the most important champion of democracy and human rights the world over. American support, often measured in dollars, has swelled the number of democracies from a couple dozen in 1945 to well over a hundred today. American might has also stood as a check against the aggressive aspirations of regional strongmen and large international players.

This American-centric international order did not come about by chance. It was built from out of the ashes of the Second World War, as it was generally accepted that the United States was the only democracy on the globe wealthy enough, strong enough, and stable enough to lead. While Americans would bear the brunt of the cost, they would set the global agenda and steer the ship of state.

Unfortunately, Donald Trump doesn’t understand any of this. Why would he? Egomaniacs seldom comprehend sacrifice. Through his self-centered, America First policy, Donald Trump is doing more to undo America’s status as the world’s superpower than Vladimir Putin could ever hope. Increasingly Europe is looking inward, Central and South America are feeling isolated, and China, a totalitarian state, is emerging as the planet’s new center of power.

More so, Trump reinforces the stereotype of the Ugly American. He is loud, boorish, and supremely ignorant. He is a manifestation of everything our enemies think of us, and everything inherently wrong with us, and serves only to drive others away from our cause. When Donald Trump questions the legitimacy of our electoral system or our democracy in an attempt to sooth his own ego, he is giving ammunition to anti-democratic forces the world over because in the eyes of much of the world America is synonymous with democracy. And for whatever else, it’s America’s power and image that have kept the peace.

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Trump: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Part 1)

FOR THOSE OF US PAYING ATTENTION, the first seven months of the Trump presidency (a phrase I still can’t speak without gagging), have felt more like seven decades. Every day, it seems, the commander-in-chief of the United States makes a move to worsen the lives of the people he’s meant to serve, whether that be by pulling out of the Paris Agreement, promoting hate and intolerance, or endangering global trade. The Russia scandal alone, breathlessly covered by our own Greg Olear, has already outpaced Teapot Dome and Watergate in its scope and criminality. Yesterday Trump proposed banning transgender people from serving in the military; today his collaborators in Congress may very well strip healthcare from millions of Americans.

But beyond policy Trump has had major impacts as well, not only on the daily lives of citizens and noncitizens alike, but on the coalitions that have dominated American politics for decades, the office and power of the executive, and America as both an idea and a culture. Although it’s still difficult to see how Trump’s tenure, assuming we survive him, will impact the nation long-term, we can at least begin to examine some of the immediate effects he is having on the nation he rules.

Over the next three weeks let’s look at the good, the bad, and the ugly wrought by Donald Trump. And let’s begin with the good.

Before Donald Trump, liberalism was the politics of complacency. Although major progress was made on gay rights, healthcare, and energy independence, President Obama and his allies failed to move the needle on some of the major planks of the liberal agenda. In many ways things got worse.

Under Obama, incarceration rates skyrocketed, as did police militarization, as did wealth inequality. For its part in the 2008 financial crisis, Wall Street got a slap on the wrist. A weakened American foreign policy, traumatized by years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, allowed for the emergence of a more aggressive Russia and the birth of the Islamic State.

While some worked tirelessly to push progressive causes, the great majority of the Left sat on its hands. As long as we had a smart, decent Democrat in office there was no reason to protest, or complain, or even to engage.

Since the 2016 election, things have changed and in dramatic ways. People who had never before thought of voting, much less participating, are taking to the streets. The ACLU, the DNC, and various anti-Trump groups have announced record donations. FOX, weakened by sex scandal and clear pro-Trump bias, has dropped in the ratings to fall behind CNN and MSNBC. The New York Times and Washington Post, recently in financial straits, are seeing huge spikes in subscriptions, both in digital and print. People are paying attention. And with every misstep by the White House, new alliances are being formed and a new liberal coalition is growing.

Trumpland may have won the battle, but the Left may yet win the war. In fact, Donald Trump may be the most important member the Resistance has, for he serves as the opposition’s most galvanizing recruitment tool.

Consider: would anyone have guessed a year ago that George Will, David Brooks, and Glenn Beck would stand on the same side as Bill Maher, Rachel Maddow, and Michael Moore? Even now, even now, Trump is trying his hardest to recruit his own Attorney General to our cause.

And while Trump grows the organized opposition against him, his totalitarian tendencies have sparked a long-overdue discussion about the limits of executive power.

When this nation was founded, some of its architects, most notably John Adams, saw the office of the president as that of a king, demanding complete respect and sublimation. Others, however, Adams’ great rival Thomas Jefferson chief among them, believed that a powerful chief executive was a threat to the very institution of democracy. In fact, Jefferson famously stripped the office of much of its pomp and circumstance, much to the bewilderment of visiting foreign emissaries. For the first several decades of the nation’s existence real power lay with Congress, and it wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln that things first began to change. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson each expanded the powers of the executive further and further to the point that today the president has the literal power to end the world should he choose.

Donald Trump is not a stable man. Growing evidence of collusion with a foreign power, ignorance, or contempt for the rule of law, and demonstrated lack of impulse control, have all led to a re-examination of the powers of the presidency. Even now, in a time of intense partisanship not seen since the 1850s, the House of Representatives voted 419 to 3 to impose new sanctions on Russia, which President Trump would not be able to overturn.

Although the Russia sanctions bill has hit a snag in recent days, this unique moment of bipartisanship should not be taken lightly. It is only the first salvo at the imperial presidency, a major rebuke of executive power that will only become more limited the more Trump oversteps.

And here we come to the final, perhaps greatest irony. The more Trump rails against the Left and aligns himself to conservatism, the more he risks diminishing the power and influence of the Right.

Trump, more than anyone else, knows the importance of branding. He made his (yet to be determined) fortune by cultivating his image as a great builder and a business genius. But with every passing day, with each new crazy 8am tweet, with every firing, and every overly long, awkward handshake, Trump reveals himself as the oafish, know-nothing fraud that he is. And that image will stay with the Grand Old Party for a generation or more, depending on the damage he leaves.

The Republican party is fast losing its opportunity to disassociate themselves from Trump, and if they don’t act soon, they will go down with him. Cue political realignment. Cue the Newer Deal. Cue a liberal supermajority in 2020.

It may be very difficult to see it most days, but Donald Trump may just be the greatest thing to happen to progressive politics since the advent of the eight-hour day.

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