Let me begin by asserting this may be my favorite post title to date. It’s origin is a recent juxtaposition of two books from entirely different genres, two best sellers that were written not quite two decades apart, which crossed paths in my personal reading list in the most serendipitous of ways: Hiding in Plain Sight by Sarah Kendzior, and Ten Days in the Hills by Jane Smiley.
Padding barefoot about my home in Lewes, Delaware, a bit more than a month ago and having just finished The Wings of the Dove, I decided I wanted to read something a bit less dramatic and more recent than Henry James (although not so recently written as to fall into the pile of contemporary novels that consist of rapid fire paragraphs, each of which is a sentence of no more than three clauses, which I find to be exceedingly banal … probably because I’m “old!“). I perused the books we’ve accumulated that guests can choose to read when they head to the beach or to the loft with a glass of wine in hand and pulled a novel from the shelf written by a Pulitzer winning novelist: Jane Smiley.
I have no idea where the copy of Ten Days in the Hills came from but as I read the first pages, I was struck by the similarity of the characters and the setting to what I recalled experiencing during my first life when for a few years, my then wife and I spent a week each summer at the home of her BFF in Beverly Hills, a remarkable woman who was then married to Peter Bart. I was well into the book when a neighbor, John, handed me his copy of Hiding in Plain Sight.
Along with millions of other Americans, John and I had been nearly shaken to our cores by Donald Trump, and Dr. Kendzior, John claimed, hit the proverbial nails on the head as to why our fears were well founded. Reading Hiding in Plain Sight answered many of the whys and wherefores about which I had been speculating over the previous five years, and it prompted me to write and post From Shining City to “Shithole?”
That post having been sent on its way into cyberspace, I returned to Ten Days in the Hills, which was set in 2003 during the week following the beginning of the Iraq War. Written, apparently, not long after that actual moment in time, Smiley captures conversation after conversation that will sound very familiar to advantaged Boomers because they will recall being a party to similar exchanges. One of them jarred me by addressing matters that are aligned with the details Kendzior provides that substantiate the claim of her subtitle: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America. The following is an excerpt of pre-coffee, morning “pillow talk” between Max and Elena, whose home in the Hills serves as the setting for the novel:
(Elena declares,) “It kills me that the sociopaths have taken over everything. I mean, okay, all through the eighties and nineties we had everyone screaming about how great the free market is, how wonderful it was that everything in the world was going to be defined by self-interest and monetary relations. There were going to be no regulations or sense of obligation, and people were to accept that they were tools of the economy, and the economy was to not to have any higher goal than expanding. And the economy was going to be the nation. I hate all these theories that you could get something for nothing, that aggregate selfishness somehow turns into a human society when, quite evidently, it does not. And then the voters did turn away from free-market capitalism. They did vote for a guy who cared about global warming, for example. But then the free-marketers stole it anyway, and in the process, they showed that they were as they had appeared all along, that they had no principles. The playing field was not level, there were no rules, and it was just like we always know the free market really was, not healthy competition, but dog-eat-dog. No, not dogs. Dogs have some sense of propriety. More like crocodile-eat-crocodile.
“But why do you care?” (Max) thought, we’re here, in this room. In this room things are fine.
“Because it’s not human.”
“It is human.”
“Then it’s not American.”
“It is American. Winning without caring is completely American. Do you know what a ‘knock-down, drag-out fight’ is?”
“I don’t know. A bad fight.”
“A knock-down, drag-out fight was a certain type of combat that people in frontier towns used to set up and wager on. Every sort of tactic was legal — including ear-biting, eye-gouging, tongue-biting, testicle-crushing. Men would fight, and other men would watch the mayhem and cheer it on. That was an American form of recreation. Genocide was American. Slavery was American. Witch-burning was American. What conservatives hate about liberals is that liberals repudiate cruelties that are truly American in the name of something larger or somehow alien. Conservatives don’t necessarily embrace those cruelties, but they don’t mind them, either, because they think they are natural and because they are American. Conservatives figure that, if Americans killed off the native population, then so be it, since Americans did it, it must be okay.”
“If Americans invade Iraq, then so be it, it must be okay because Americans are doing it.”
“Do you expect me to agree with that logic?”
“No, but I expect you to recognize that it is ineradicable, that it’s the price you pay for living here.”
“You aren’t offended?”
“I am offended, but I’m not surprised. You seem surprised or shocked.”
“Well, I don’t know that I am. I don’t think I’m naïve. But the death and destruction that comes from that sort of logic seems so pointless. If you can foresee the waste, then why suffer it?”
(And two pages later, Elena asserts …)
“But remorse isn’t what I’m trying to avoid. The destruction of the country is what I’m trying to avoid.”
“But do countries get destroyed? Germany and Russia aren’t destroyed. Hitler lasted twelve years, Stalin lasted about thirty or so, and Communism itself only lasted about seventy years. Milosevic lasted a few years. In Iran, it’s been twenty-five years, but I heard that the younger generation doesn’t pay much attention to the Islamic revolution anyway. Yes, there may be a political convulsion, but the country and most of the people outlast it.”
But we aren’t a country like that. We are a country based on a certain set of ideas about how things are done–how governing is done and how wars are fought, and how the private and the public sectors limit each other’s power. If those ideas are destroyed, then there is no country. There is no ‘United States,’ there’s only something else, like non-Canadian North America. ‘England’ and ‘France’ are countries. ‘The United States’ is an abstraction about how to accommodate diversity and unity at the same time. When one faction seizes power and ignores everyone else and just adopts a try-and-stop-me sort of attitude, then the whole system is put at risk. I don’t see how they don’t understand that.”
“(Conservatives) don’t understand it because they don’t care. Or because they see the country as being based on being special or making it economically, or being victorious, or some sort of social Darwinism. Maybe it’s just tribal. For liberals, the question is between right and wrong, but for conservatives, the question is between me-and-mine and not-me-and-not-mine. And anyway, the way the government is supposed to work has often been used as a fig leaf for simply getting what you want. What do you think the motto ‘Don’t tread on me’ was all about? Independence came first, and trying to organize came second. Not being told what to do is the first and foremost American value, not checks and balances. But I see that as our salvation as well as our danger. Are they able to tell you what to do? Are they able to tell me what to do? Are they able to tell anyone at the offices of that magazine you read, The Nation, what to do? No, they are not. Don’t tread on me. Even if the government ends up being entirely corrupted, millions and millions of people will still adhere to the ‘Don’t tread on me’ principle …”
And now back to the thesis of my post title: encountering Ten Days and Hiding in Plain Sight was not the result of my searching for reads that would address philosophical matters that were of pressing interest to me–after all, reading is usually my escape drug of choice–but in a matter of a few days, I encountered two books that are in some ways significantly, conceptually related while having no discernible causal connection, i.e. synchronicity. Smiley’s “fiction” has provided me with an understanding as to why millions of Americans have been and remain emotionally susceptible to what is represented by the term Trumpism. Max’s great insight for me is that America’s foundational First Value (explicitly delineated in The Declaration of Independence) is ‘Don’t tread on me.” All of the values that are the foundation of The Constitution are but a distant, collective second to America’s First Value.
Kendzior’s astute academic rigor and her personal interpretations have provided an understanding of the systemic foundation–the Iron Triangle–that is eroding the American Dream: the amalgamation of international organized crime, complicit kleptocrats (autocrats who use their power to steal their nation’s wealth), and international billionaires. International criminals, kleptocrats, and billionaires (and individuals like Vladimir Putin who are all three) are not driven by liberal or conservative, Republican of Democrat, or competing economic ideologies; they are driven by only one thing: personal greed. And that greed is going to crush (or has already crushed) folks like you and me because too many millions of us still believe that the mere existence of the Rule of Law will protect us.
So, there you have it. Not for the first time in my life, I have benefitted from the mysterious synchronicity of random readings, and but a few days ago, I stumbled onto another read that corroborates Max’s insinuation about the cruelty of conservations, a guest essay in the New York Times: The Cruel Logic of the Republican Party, Before and After Trump. There it is again—that wonderful, mysterious synchronicity.
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(The featured image is a combination of two photos the blogger took of the covers of the two books referenced in this post. No copyright infringement is intended by their use, nor is there an intent on the part of the blogger to monetize the use of the image in this post.)