How to Defend Democracy from Itself: On Steve Erickson’s “American Stutter, 2019–2021”
By Charles TaylorJuly 16, 2022
American Stutter, 2019–2021 by Steve Erickson
You can debate that proposal as strategy or dismiss it as punk provocation — which it was. But the exhaled puffs of disgust that bloomed throughout the audience showed that Nugent had hit on an unwelcome truth. Amid people publicly celebrating their own humanitarianism, Nugent had had the bad taste, as well as the intelligence, to say that, sooner or later, fighting fascists requires making choices that our liberal-humanist principles wouldn’t be able to countenance.
American Stutter, 2019–2021, novelist Steve Erickson’s journal of our ongoing plague year — the everything-at-once-all-the-time mash-up of election, pandemic, and still-unresolved attempted coup — springs from a clarifying rage that not only scorns right-wing perfidy but also looks askance at liberal good intentions (and their too-often ether-brained descendants, progressive good intentions). In Erickson’s view, liberal humanism is just not up to the job of preventing America from becoming a democracy in name only. His voice in this book is simultaneously that of a soldier exhorting his fellow combatants to get off their asses and rush with him into enemy fire, and of a disillusioned man wiping the dirt off his hands as he walks away from the grave of American democracy. It is hopeful and fierce and already grieving.
The national apocalypse that, over the course of Erickson’s 10 novels, has always fluttered close enough for us to feel the beating of its wings, has here at last taken shape. In Erickson’s Shadowbahn (2016), huge sections of America have seceded and now call themselves Disunion. In American Stutter, that’s happened long before we come to the event that ends the book — a cohort of white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, and other assorted thugs and yahoos, cheered on by a defeated president and aided by Republican congressmen, storming the Capitol to capture and possibly kill the vice president, the speaker of the House, and any other presumed turncoat they could lay their hands on, with the goal of overturning a presidential election. January 6 was, Erickson recognizes, the inevitable acting out of something that had already happened:
In Fox’s America proudly I’m a traitor b/c in my America humbly I’m a patriot. Both halves of the country betray each other — we’re a nation of traitors & I remain the Patriot of Elsewhere, where my America blasphemes theirs, where my America spits in the face of theirs, where my America is heresy to theirs of the white blood & swinging bullyboys & the are-you-now-or-have-you-ever-been, of auction-block shackles & Black backs latticed with scars, of the Salem stench & the Jesus of “Come to me the little children so I can lock you away in your loveless cage.” I hate their America in the name of my America of the eternal pursuit & memory’s mystic chord & our natures’ better angels & the promise God loves no matter how often we break it. The American civil war goes on. Don’t yet lay down your arms.
The postmodern preference for ironic distance makes the fervid tone of that passage easy to dismiss. But it really should take your breath away. It’s as much oratory as writing, aiming for the heavens, taking in as much of our history as it can, our past national disgraces and our never-washed-away national sins, and saying that what we’re battling in “trumpism” (always lower-case for Erickson) are the McCarthyites and the slavers and all the Lost Cause yahoos still looking to honor their great-great-great-granddaddy’s service.
It’s here that journalistic ethics compels me to mention that Steve is a friend of mine. If you think that somehow compromises my judgment, get in touch and I’ll direct you to friends and editors who can tell you exactly how much trouble I have saying what I think. I would also point out that the necessity, the vitality, the unsparing clarity of American Stutter is exactly what you will not get by following journalistic ethics — at least as they have been practiced in the US over the last six years.
By now it should be obvious that the one undeniable victory of trumpism is that it has colonized our consciousness, forced us to accept its repeated violation of norms as the norm. Just one week after Trump’s election, the expatriate Russian journalist Masha Gessen warned that “[i]nstitutions will not save you.” Yet we continue to act as if they will. A Republican congressman posts a video of himself murdering a Democratic congresswoman. Is he arrested for making a threat? No. He is censured by the House (though most of his party votes against the resolution), which he can then claim as a badge of honor because he has no belief in the rules or ethics of the body he belongs to. Hours after the mob storms the Capitol, 147 Republican senators and congressmen vote not to accept the results of the election, thus standing up for the beliefs of the people who, a short time before, had sought to murder Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi. Are proceedings begun to remove them for posing a seditious threat to the republic, perhaps using the 14th Amendment? No. And still they occupy their seats.
This normalization of the traitorous and illegal and just plain monstrous has extended into journalism. I don’t only mean the hacks, like The New York Times’s former executive editor Dean Baquet, who didn’t think it was a good idea to use the word racist when Trump tweeted at four congresswomen of color to go back were they came from. Or like NPR’s Michael Oreskes who didn’t think it was responsible journalism to use the word “lie” to describe something The Washington Post tallied Trump doing 30,573 times during his presidency. Even the good reporters who have never stopped working to document the stench of Trump (and the GOP that dares not displease him), who have made the case that the Trumps are New York City’s unacknowledged organized crime family, who see the unprecedented levels of vulgarity, boorishness, open racism, open corruption, open lawbreaking, open treason, all still seem to believe that the Fourth Estate is the one institution exempt from Gessen’s maxim. Journalists cover Trump and the GOP and the trumpvolk within the familiar context of adversarial democratic politics when what we are clearly seeing is an attempt to overthrow democracy and establish a white-nationalist state. Journalists and pundits have spent endless column inches and airtime claiming that what we were seeing was unprecedented and then proceeding to cover it all as if this were just one more presidential administration, just one more political movement.
Of course, to write anything like this in almost any newspaper, to say it on almost any network, would for most journalists be a violation of what Hunter S. Thompson called the “pompous waffle” of objectivity. But what happens when objectivity results in a refusal to acknowledge what’s visible to anyone who has eyes to see? When no bombs are falling and no bullets are flying, the rational journalistic mind may believe it’s overdramatizing to report as if the country were at war. January 6 and the continuing attempt by the GOP to minimize it, excuse it, deny it should have ended that hesitation. We are in a war and that’s how journalists should be operating. We need an Albert Camus clandestinely editing a new Combat, a Resistance paper for our time, but instead we have the gutless caution of journalism-school ethics.
American Stutter shows that it took an American novelist who has always measured the state of the republic from the farthest reaches of his imagination — one not bound by the stifling niceties of journalism — simply to look at our current predicament and see it clearly. Time and again, Erickson cuts through what isn’t being said. On the morning that Trump finally leaves the White House, Erickson imagines “INTERPOL seizing him on the other end of an international flight & hauling him off to the Hague.” He knows that won’t happen. But it says something about the timid state of our current public discourse that we are not even discussing whether it should happen. Sure, we talk about whether Trump will be indicted and jailed. And also about whether he will be nominated again in 2024. But we don’t talk about whether a commander-in-chief who caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens by lying about the seriousness of an approaching pandemic should be brought before a military tribunal and, if found guilty, sentenced accordingly. Nor do we talk about the other things that could land a national leader in front of such a tribunal, such as (to name just two random offenses) revealing classified information to Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador in the Oval Office and doing nothing about Putin setting a bounty on American soldiers in Afghanistan. Given what has happened to other leaders who have callously killed off their citizens or corruptly betrayed their countries in the same way — e.g., a gas station in Milan; a brick wall in Bucharest — the tribunal scenario at least operates according to the rule of law.
Given this reticence to name things for what they are, it’s no surprise that American Stutter is being independently published. Publishers apparently thought the “ferocity” of the book would put off readers. It’s hard not to read it and think of A. J. Liebling’s famous remark, in 1944, that Occupied France was “the only great nation with a completely uncensored press today.” Erickson writes in a state of bracing freedom, even when the subject is himself. He has always been self-deprecating: self-portraits as a disappointed and bitter writer turn up in several of his novels. The family he wrote about in his 2012 novel These Dreams of You (which captures the simultaneous optimism and dread of the Obama years as nothing else has) was clearly his own, and the young brother and sister in Shadowbahn were based on his own son and daughter. In American Stutter, that family is collapsing. Erickson’s marriage of 27 years ends, and he finds himself moving into the role of caretaker for his beloved mother, in her 90s, a lifelong conservative who now, to his dismay, has become a Trump supporter. The personal and political intersect here in distressing ways. Trump’s tweet about those congresswomen going back where they came from leaves Erickson in no doubt that the remark extends to Americans like his daughter, adopted from Africa when she was two.
The anger that resonates through this book is not entirely reserved for the right. Erickson records the disgust of watching those months before the Black voters of South Carolina saved the republic by putting Biden on the path to the nomination, the disgust of watching debates in which Democratic candidates reflexively stumped for open borders and Medicare for all, both vote losers, while Biden, almost alone, realized that the only issue confronting the nation was defeating Trump, that nothing else would be possible without that. The progressives who refused to recognize that fact, who were in effect advancing their own version of white supremacism by ignoring the devastating effect the Trump administration was having and would have on the most vulnerable, come in for special and deserved loathing:
Constant is the horseshit from white self-styled “radicals” that there’s no difference between a flawed Democratic Party & an increasingly neo-fascist Republican Party. With the South Carolina primary looming, I suspect African Americans still see a difference. I suspect immigrants still see a difference, patients without health care see a difference, those serious about saving the planet see a difference.
For a while I couldn’t understand why some wouldn’t grasp this till I realized they don’t want to. It pleases their neuroses — in the way Trump pleases the neuroses of his supporters — to believe there’s no difference between Trump & any Democratic candidate except Bernie. It’s “idealism” disguising vanity disguising complicity. You’d think a truly progressive base would find four more years of Trump motivating enough. At the moment, however, AOC Syndrome takes over Democrats in the spirit of the young activist who unseated a powerful ten-term Democrat in a safe seat for not being sufficiently progressive. In the face of trumpism Democrats focus their ire not on Trump but other Democrats. Vexed by the inconvenience of math — by which the more members of Congress there are with Ds next to their names, whatever their ideological shadings, then the more that Democrats control the national agenda, the more that Democrats control congressional committees, the more judges they appoint — some progressives dismiss it altogether …
Objections are raised to the notion of Biden as a “restoration candidate” because, it’s argued by some, 2016 wasn’t that hot and who’d want to restore it? Taking all things into account, I suggest here as tactfully as possible that anyone who doesn’t think 2016 was better than 2020 is … how to put it? employing the most precise language I can, something that contributes to a general elevation of the national discussion … oh, yeah: the stupidest fucking person on earth. “Electability” has become the latest dirty word in progressive conversations because it’s taken as code for white guys, when in fact this year it’s code for suburban white women & African American guys who didn’t turn out last time. The contention that electability is a specious argument is made on behalf of candidates for whom there’s no electability argument to be made in the first place …
No matter whom the ferocity of this book is directed at, it strikes the reader (and maybe those of us who are writers more so) that it was produced at a time when it felt almost impossible to produce anything. Too much happens too fast to process, events make words seem dead and false before we’ve finished writing a sentence. “I get another [email] from a friend that sounds for all the world like a suicide note,” Erickson writes. “Marriages implode, friendships […] it’s all I can do to write anything anymore.”
I opened this piece by talking about how confronting fascism leaves us with choices that often don’t jibe with our liberal humanism. The challenge of American Stutter comes down to a simple question: if it is necessary to muster this level of sustained, articulate anger just to capture our present-day reality, what will it take to do something about it? A large part of the answer is that we are going to have stop bemoaning our current division as a bad thing. This is what Erickson writes the day after Biden is declared the winner:
Now under the new President & Vice-President, it’s up to all of us to heed what Biden has said and leave aside rancor & bitterness, heal the nation & show some generosity of spirit. We need to learn how to listen to each other. With malice toward none & charity for … oh screw this. Fuck your feelings, trumptards. When Trump concedes, or when one of these Republican hacks offers Biden a simple congratulations, I’ll drag my magnanimity out from the bottom drawer of my soul. Till then, little kids in cages still won’t see their parents again.
This is, I think, the hardest realization of this book. If those of us who claim to oppose trumpism have spent six years insisting that it does not represent the America we want to exist, then we can’t reconcile with it, any more than, whatever the failures of denazification, Germany after World War II should have reconciled with the Nazis.
So, what do we do? How do we live in a country with the 74 million-plus people who voted for Trump? We start by acknowledging the truth that, despite that number, they are still a minority. Their views on immigration and gun control and abortion rights and higher taxes for the rich — despite the insistence of the political press on calling these things controversial — are not shared by a majority of Americans. Then, we start taking the steps to make what political power they do hold correspond to the numbers they represent. It is not — the cravenness of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to the contrary — outside the realm of possibility to think that we could get a new Voting Rights Act that would cripple the right’s ability to rig elections through redistricting. Nor is it unthinkable that a Democratic Senate majority could abolish the filibuster. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact may make that sop to the rights of slave states, the Electoral College, unnecessary by mandating that state electors vote for the winner of the national popular vote. It has currently been passed in states whose electoral votes total 195. Passing it in additional states whose electoral votes add up to 75 would make the EC moot.
Beyond that, though, it gets trickier, though it’s clear we need to pack the Supreme Court to offset the destruction of the nakedly partisan right-wing cabal and what it now stands ready to bring about. And, if we believe that democracy means the will of the majority, then Senate seats need to be assigned by population and not by state. There is no rational or democratic reason why the will of half-a-million people in Wyoming should carry the same weight as that of almost 40 million Californians.
As a liberal, it shames me to admit the obvious: that liberals are woefully unsuited to upholding liberalism. Part of the problem, I think, is that we tend to believe that we somehow betray the liberal values of compassion and social justice if anyone proposes hardball tactics to maintain them. Which is why liberals are suckers for the political hara-kari they applauded when Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” Imagine the impact if, after those words, she had taken a pause and added, “and we lose.” Liberals go all fuzzy when they hear words like healing and reconciliation. But nothing good has ever come about in America by reconciling with evil and corruption. What would America look like today, what would the history of the last 157 years have been like, if Reconstruction hadn’t been gutted by the Compromise of 1876? What would our last six years have been like if Gerald Ford hadn’t pardoned Richard Nixon and the Watergate prosecutors had decided that a president could be indicted?
What we need now is a Sherman’s March of the spirit. Among some progressives and afropessimists, it’s fashionable to believe that the Civil Rights years didn’t accomplish much because racism has never left us. (Ta-Nehisi Coates has made a career out of this claim.) It’s certainly undeniable, as the political success of Donald Trump has shown, that a revanchist Confederacy is still powerful enough to seize the presidency, with the assistance of racist excresences like the Electoral College, and bold enough to mount an attempted coup. But one thing the Civil Rights movement did accomplish is that it told racists they were still free to think what they wanted but that the law was not going to uphold their prejudice and that speaking their beliefs was now unwelcome in most spheres of public life. This is the shame we need to unapologetically revive and rain down fiercely on the trumpists.
Yet even as I write this, it feels too reasonable to me — false, unsatisfying. Because what I long for, really, is for them to be vanquished, not just marginalized but destroyed. As the Confederacy once was, and as the Nazis were. And even that wish may be a sign of how Trump has transformed us: he has robbed us of the impulse to temper justice with mercy. My capacity for mercy is almost gone. Every news account I read of some January 6 rioter being given a sentence of a few months for trespassing or destruction of private property hardens my soul a little more. I’m sick of seeing some credulous reporter asking how it’s possible that good people could be caught up in rioting and beating police officers and pissing and shitting in the Capitol and screaming for the blood of Pence and Pelosi. I’ll tell you how. Because they never were good people. They were barbarous, cretinous, racist sons of bitches to begin with, and the people around them either didn’t care or were too stupid to notice. I don’t care that some of them, seeking leniency from a judge, claim now to be ashamed. I want them all charged with sedition, not some rinky-dink trespassing rap, and then tossed into prison where they will be prevented from poisoning the republic for as many years as we can legally hold them.
For me, it was the experience of hitting 60 and wondering what my country is going to choose to be in the time I’m still here to see it. But also, it’s thinking of the people we’ve lost in the last few years, people like John Lewis, who lived good and important lives and died knowing this miserable traitor was their president and the spiritual descendants of the racist rabble Lewis fought had once more become a dominant force in American life.
The title of American Stutter comes from the speech impediment Erickson shares with Joe Biden. But there’s no hesitation in the book’s language or its thought. And there’s no invitation to smug self-satisfaction in the way Erickson lays out our current reality. He has nothing to offer but hard choices with no guarantee of victory. In his introduction to the journalism Albert Camus did at Combat, the American scholar David Carroll described the central question Camus posed this way: “It is not just how to defend democracy from its totalitarian enemies but also how to defend democracy from itself.” The horror that American Stutter looks squarely in the face is the possibility that American democracy and American totalitarianism may become the same thing.
Charles Taylor is the author of Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s. He lives in New York.
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