A Long, Sad Night in Washington, DC
Timothy Denevi Considers the Fate of the Republic
It’s 4:26 PM, and I’m sitting on a bench in Arlington Cemetery—on the hill overlooking the memorials to the Kennedy brothers: a place I’ve never before visited, even though I’ve lived nearby for almost a decade.
Fuck. What better starting point for an election-night jaunt through the capital of the Republic, Washington, DC, as to properly contemplate the end of this stinking, unceasing campaign—as fitting a climax to what’s arguably been the worst American summer since 1968?
To the west, in the direction of Virginia, the sun is going down. The city and its monuments catch the afternoon light—a Roman light, low-flung and autumnal. Brief. The moon cresting the Atlantic. It’s a 70-degree day, perhaps the nicest I’ve ever witnessed in Washington, DC—and to be clear, I’m a Californian through and through, someone whose arid coastal heart is not easily sated by the weather of this seaboard, which grows more intolerable with each passing year.
In a few hours the polls will be closing. A month ago it appeared certain that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election (over Donald fucking Trump!) in a landslide. Then, two weeks from the vote, everything tightened. Now we’re being told she’ll pull it out—the question is, by how much? Regardless, it appears that our recent national trauma—and there’s really no other word for it, let’s not split hairs—is finally concluding.
Up here on one of the few real hills in the entire metropolitan area, I can’t necessarily say I agree. Around me a pair of blue jays are screeching mercilessly. The sprinklers sound off in shuttering arcs. No wind. Also: a complete absence of all human dialogue. Suddenly the cemetery feels endless, obdurate—the last city in the known world—the trees and their shadows like terrifying corridors between this life and the next. At this moment the grounds are completely empty, as if in a dream. I’ve failed to realize that the whole place closes in less than a half-hour.
Which is perhaps why, as I sit here trying to prepare myself for the night ahead, I can’t help but feel a very specific and deep-seated degree of dread, one that I’ve only been able to voice recently, in the context of Donald Trump and his demagogic ascent.
I was hit by it for the first time as I was driving back to Maryland from Tennessee—coasting along the George Washington Parkway into DC after a full day of travel through the mountains and the piedmont—when, looking out the window to the East, I was struck by something that at first appeared to be a new kind of monument: it was the same color as the stone that makes up the Jefferson and Washington and Lincoln memorials, but in its strange position it appeared detached, ethereal—ascending the city and its seaboard—so that it took me a moment to understand exactly what I was seeing.
The daytime moon. Full and crested, marked by its familiar features—Tycho, Copernicus, the mare and their ancient basalt flood—but in the afternoon light it had a white-sand cast, like a coin bleached by the sun. And I understood then the nature of an association I must’ve always sensed, on some level: the daytime moon, astonishingly enough, is the exact same color as the monuments that define Washington, DC.
And just then I remembered that I’d seen this color before, when I was a teenager—a Latin student on vacation in Italy; at the time I was touring the ruins of the Roman forum with my father.
It’s something I’ve never forgotten—the association of the moon’s color with these monuments, as well as with the more ancient Roman ones—and as I sit here today. November 8th, 2016—gazing down on the monuments to the Kennedy brothers, both of whom suffered such violent deaths in political service—in the distance, the Capitol appears like bleached rock, the Lincoln Memorial a warmer tint, moonlit in the way the moon itself will soon be, as the afternoon fades and the evening comes on—I can’t help but make the next logical step, one that I find both natural and shocking:
Washington, DC is nothing like Rome. It’s a federal city built for a specific purpose: the commerce and continuation of our two-centuries-old government. In other words: the city I’m looking at now will never be ancient. It always be young… and then it will be gone—destroyed by forces that a feudal agrarian empire like Rome could never hope to imagine. What I’m talking about, drastically enough, is nuclear violence: at some point, in fifty or one hundred or five hundred years, this specific North American city will be hit by the one weapon we still can’t really define, in terms of light and heat, for the simple reason that the intersection of both remains inhuman—and always will be.
Which is a bit dramatic, to be sure. But seriously: what else are we supposed to deduce from a possible Donald Trump presidency than the very real reality of full-scale nuclear war: something that is bound to happen eventually—them’s the odds—and that, on a night like this, when the Republic itself is up for grabs, seems as probable as ever.
Cities like Washington, DC are not rebuilt. They are young and administrative. Planned. Temporary. I mean this in the modern sense: under the threat of the one capability we’ve taken all of human history to develop, they don’t stand much of a chance. And after the advent of such a catastrophe—in the wake of incandesce and radiation—this entire coastal basin, from the Maryland and Virginia watersheds to the hot, dirty bay that floods everything with its humidity, will be abandoned.
The monuments themselves will melt. Seriously. Sandstone doesn’t have a goddamn chance against cosmic heat. In the end—in the aftermath of this future desolation I can’t stop imagining, especially as I look out from Arlington a final time, past the Kennedys’ graves, toward the city and its commerce—the only thing left will be the moon itself: a relic devoid of association, its light thrown down across the absence of a city that might as well have never existed in the first place…
Well. I think it’s time to stop writing shit in cemeteries, to say the least. Besides, Arlington is now officially closed. Gotta head into the city. Cross the river. Skirt the Lincoln Memorial and loop the White House itself. The plan is to check out the new Trump Hotel, then make my way to the Anita Bond / DC Democrats Party at the Navy Yard where—god willing—we’ll be talking about electing the first woman president, as opposed to the heat at which limestone melts.
Is it okay to say here that I miss Bobby Kennedy, even though I was born more than a decade after his death? Let’s end this section on the words chiseled into his Arlington memorial:
“Aeschylus wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of god.”
2016 election! Surrounded by thousands of graves! At the Trump International Hotel I’m going to order a Mazel Tov Cocktail and pay in Euros. Those fuckers knew what this was.
* * * *
The catalogue of forms is endless: until every shape has found its city, new cities will continue to be born. When the forms exhaust their variety and come apart, the end of cities begins. In the last page of the atlas there is an outpouring of networks without beginning or end, cities in the shape of Los Angeles, in the shape of Kyoto-Osaka, without shape.
–Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
They walked with many others, toward the end drawn by faint music as if coming from the ancient river itself, the last river, the boatman waiting.
–James Salter, “Arlington”
Waiting, in a gradually reduced state of terror, it must have been, and exaltation, and desire, to see how death would slice the day.
–Alice Munro, “Half a Grapefruit”
* * * *
10:27 PM: I just left the Trump International Hotel bar on Pennsylvania Avenue. I refuse to recount what happened there—despite my copious notes, many conversations, and ridiculously priced drink. Though allow me to add that, in the end, as I fled the bar it took me 40 minutes to enter, I fell to the ground and started screaming FUCKKKKK—this was right after the latest Florida polls—until a police officer came over and shouted, “Hey, that’s enough!”
We made direct eye contact. This moment lasted for what seemed a very long time. She was maybe in her early thirties. I didn’t speak. Perhaps she realized, then, what was going on—the people I’d just seen, celebrating—and, after a glance on her part that was filled with what I can only describe as knowing compassion, she patted my back. And walked away.
Now I am camped, doomstruck and confused, at the Navy Yard party for councilmember Anita Bond, which also was meant to serve as a celebration point for DC Democrats, along with the Hillary for America crew.
The mood here—we’re at Gordon Biersch brewery—is bewilderingly resigned. I’m not sure if the many people in attendance still think we have a chance, or if they’ve given up.
A woman in the corner—she’s wearing a black dress that includes lovely leopard-print cuffs—has a notebook open with all the results written out. She’s perhaps 60, either an elected official or a lawyer; she’s the only person whose eyes convey, in my opinion, the true gravity of the situation.
Now there’s a series of speeches being made near the bar. “She’s gonna win! She’s gonna win!” someone is screaming. The mayor of DC, Muriel Bowser, takes the stage, trying to rally the crowd. She’s excited about Virginia and Colorado being called for Secretary Clinton. All eyes are on Michigan, she says, and North Carolina, and Florida.
She’s celebrating their congressional results, and also the DC vote for Statehood. Which I’m all for, to be sure. But the reality of a Donald Trump presidency makes these issues depressingly moot.
A new speaker: “Thank you all for your activism on behalf of our body politic.” More talk about Statehood.
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton has taken the mic. “Barack Obama did everything for us,” she says.
“Sure did.” The woman in the leopard cuffs replies.
Norton says: “When the night is over, we will no longer be saying Secretary Clinton, we will be no longer saying my friend Hillary, we will be saying, Madam President.” All eyes turn back to TVs. More Statehood talk.
Suddenly phones are ringing loudly—a sense of despair I haven’t felt since my analogue days: that terrifying call in the middle of the night on your home line—and I catch a glimpse of people walking off with their hands over their faces.
Now a minister takes the floor. “Let’s bow our heads and close our eyes as we ask our blessing on the District of Columbia,” he says. “We bless all these leaders who are standing here today! We pray that statehood is a reality. And God, we ask you earnestly and as humbly as we know how: allow Hilary Clinton to be called Madam President. We thank you right now, in Jesus’s name, Amen.”
I cheer wildly. Loudly. Usually, my first impulse in these situations is to shout something like: “You know they killed Jesus too!” or, simply, “Romans!” As a longtime atheist, I’m pretty much done with these kinds of whisky-warm embraces of faith—but listen: Jesus Creeping God! If there were a priest in this tavern I’d be begging for forgiveness.
When is hyperbole founded?
When is paranoia a logical response?
Earlier today, walking back from Arlington Cemetery—crossing the river toward the Lincoln Memorial, a sight that never ceases to amaze me—I couldn’t help but imagine what Trump wants with his presidency… and by extension, with the way in which we’ll someday remember him, culturally.
Don’t get me wrong, this line of thought was born out of all that apocalyptic/nuclear-war bullshit I figured was more cathartic than anything else… but at this point, with the reality setting in, I’m beginning to lose all perspective.
Instead, as a way to address Trump’s often baffling motivation, please allow me to offer a prose-poem/list essay as to get it all out as quickly as possible.
From my notes:
THIS IS WHAT TRUMP WANTS
A monument to himself
The largest in history
Hands ten times the size of god
A chin even Mussolini would kiss
Something to dwarf the city itself
A monument without continuity
Not that this is surprising
But what I find strange—terrifying!—
Is the impulse behind his desire
The drive beneath his monument-lust
Listen: Donald Trump really believes that this impulse—
His desire to erase others so that he might be remembered—
is a decent, good, American impulse
He thinks he—and by extension, his monument—will represent
What we all should be constantly striving for
He is—from his monument/mind/perspective—the very incarnation
Of the American Dream
But the problem is that he’s never considered
What it really means
To offer something for nothing
Instead he’s convinced millions of Americans
Of the very issue the American Dream has always failed to account for:
NOTHING IN THIS LIFE COMES FOR FREE
Earlier, when I left Arlington Cemetery, this logic felt melancholic but essentially logical. Despite my apocalysm, the American Republic still made sense. It was something that the best of us had died for—so the narrative goes—and when you stand at JFK’s flame for the first time, which I did, its oily tongue struck repeatedly by the wind, you could just for the slightest moment feel better: sacrifice, I told myself, is exactly what justice depends on. Yes, this sort of sacrifice might mean going to jail in Alabama. Or being beaten by police in East Los Angeles. Or having your head blown clean through in a Dallas motorcade—or your chest shot out in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen in 1968—Jesus FUCKING Christ!—so that, in the end, your death is transmuted into nothing short of a martyr’s: you are made powerless, personless—a participant in a narrative over which you can no longer control.
On the TV: more terrible projections from CNN. The Dow Jones falling 500 points. I’ve just spoken at length with the woman I mentioned earlier—in her black dress and subtle leopard-cuffs—and I’ve learned that her name is Dr. Viola Bradford. She’s 68; she marched in the civil righst movement in Alabama, wrote essays as a young woman that were published in the Washington Post; eventually she became a journalist, a community organizer, a professor, a staff member in multiple Democratic administrations, a minister—and next year she’ll be retiring to work on the memoir of her life. “I marched with Dr. King as an eight year old!” she told me.
We talked about social justice, and previous administrations, and the future of the Republic. She’s still watching closely as the younger operative around her check their phones and laugh nervously.
Now the Dow Jones is down 700 points. Now CNN reads: BREAKING NEWS, FL, MI, NC, NH, PA, WI TOO EARLY TO CALL. Screams of “No!” Cries for pens. Demands for better math.
Someone is screaming: “Marco Rubio won?! What?”
Someone else: “So there’s not ice cream at the moment but, there will be?”
Someone else: “Just look at all those red states! They’re everywhere!”
Someone else: “If he wins any other—ohhh fuck.”
* * * *
It’s 11:50 PM, and I’m so caught up in text messages with panicked friends that the act of writing has become impossible. Though there’s still a pertinent story I’d like to tell:
Last week, I happened to be in Iowa City—I was speaking at the Witching Hour Festival: a celebration of creative works across genres—and for the keynote, a member of the Russian band Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina, talked at length about the murder, intimidation, and the silencing of journalists under Putin’s regime. She said what we thought she might say—it can happen here, in Iowa, in America—but we were artists from all over the US, and the feeling, as we left the theater afterward, was one of trepidation. “White people gonna finally go to jail if Trump wins,” someone said to me. Another: “If you don’t suffer under an unjust regime then you’re implicated in their crimes.”
But—this is the truth—nobody really thought it would actually come about. And what Alyokhina was saying—clearly, in retrospect—was simple enough: Privilege is a form of assumption.
How do we define courage? I could tell you, right here, that I’ve recently heard a rumor about Donald Trump: he likes to catch wild foxes, suffocate them slowly, look them in the eyes, and then, after grabbing them by their foxtails, devour with his vampire-teeth every last inch of bone, ligament, hair, nail, and organ—because HE’S YUUGE, YOU CAN DO WHATEVER YOU WANT WHEN YOU’RE PRESIDENT, GRAB THEM BY THEIR FOX-PUSSY! Etc… This is extreme, and remember, I’m just telling you about a rumor a heard, but listen: I could also say that Donald Trump is a known pederast. Is this a rumor too? Sure. Also: it’s true.
Things at Gordon Biersch are getting desperate. New vote counts from CNN. Afterwards, I find myself yelling at a nearby table of Washington, DC councilmembers, staffers, and operatives (including Dr. Bradford, who is not amused): “Let’s go throw Mazel Tov cocktails at the FBI building! Who’s with me! FUCK YOU JAMES COMEY! I HOPE THEY COME FOR YOU FIRST!”
* * * *
They’re accompanied by a well-dressed man with a bulldog mug, one J. Edgar Hoover. What’s the nation’s number one G-Man doing with these crumbums? […] Fame and secrecy are the high and the low ends of the same fascination, the static crackle of some libidinous thing in the world, and Edgar responds to people who have access to this energy […] the shadow facts made real.
–Don Delillo, Underworld
The American people today are tired of disorder, disruption and disrespect for law. America wants to come back to the law as a way of life […] our national heritage as a law-abiding people, is being reversed […] The trend of permissiveness in this country, a trend which Edgar Hoover fought against all his life, a trend which had dangerously eroded.
–Richard Nixon’s 1972 eulogy for J. Edgar Hoover (quoted from Ernesto B. Vigil’s Crusade for Justice)
Edgar loves this stuff. Edgar, Jedgar. Admit it—you love it. It causes a bristling of his body hair. Skeletons with wispy dicks. The dead beating kettledrums. The sackcloth dead slitting a pilgrim’s throat […] And he thinks of a lonely tower standing on the Kazakh Test Site, the tower armed with the bomb, and he can almost hear the wind blowing across the Central Asian steppes, out where the enemy lives in long coats and fur caps, speaking that old weighted language of theirs, liturgical and grave. What secret history are they writing?
* * * *
When Robert Kennedy found out that his brother had been murdered in Dallas he nearly lost his mind. He didn’t. But nearly—and understandably. Later he became a senator, campaigned for civil rights, and ran for president himself—only to be murdered, four years later, on the night he won the 1968 California primary. I remember sitting in high-school history class—this was two decades ago, at my all-boys Jesuit Prep—and suddenly, on the bulbous TV screen in front of me, I was being shown a film about Bobby Kennedy. He was speaking in Indianapolis, on April 4th, 1968. He’d just learned of the death of Martin Luther King. He announced it to the crowd. “I have some very sad news for all of you,” he said. “Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight.” Screams, shrieks. Disbelief in its truest form. But Kennedy kept speaking. “In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are, and what direction we want to move in.”
And then he went on to articulate, extemporaneously, the speech that would be inscribed on the memorial I visited for the very first time today—a speech that continues out from its opening Aeschylus quote:
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness; but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
Now at the bar at the Navy Yard we’re waiting for the announcement that Donald Trump has won Michigan; he’s up too many votes, it appears, for things to go another way. People are leaving. The news is imminent.
On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow sounds like she’s just watched a video of tanks rolling toward the very studio from which she’s broadcasting. She’s talking about Donald Trump’s decision to be “gracious” in his upcoming acceptance speech.
Dr. Bradford is the only one left in the bar alongside me. We’re talking about social activism: when she was in Alabama in the early 1960s, and later when she was at the University of Arizona, she went through workshops on social resistance: in the process she learned how to use her legal rights to oppose an unjust government. “It’ll take a long time,” she said. “This generation doesn’t understand how much you have to risk.” We’re still holding out hope for Hillary, but not really. “It’s close,” Dr. Bradford says. Her tally in her notebook is still open on her table. “I was a student leader at the University of Arizona in 1968,” she says. We try to be optimistic: perhaps a new generation of Americans will learn what it’s like to sacrifice their personal well-being in the service of others. Don’t get me wrong: I love talking about the 1960s, and social justice—and also the New Testament—especially in regards to the sayings and actions of Jesus (she is an ordained minister, after all)—even though, for the past twenty years, I’ve considered myself an atheist. I tell her this fact, and she smiles. “As long as you agree that the way Jesus treated people was the right way,” she says, “that’s what matters.”
I do agree. But it makes nothing better, this conversation—how could it?
The perspective I’m trying to avoid arrives, now, in the form of a question: If America has been an apartheid state for over two centuries—manipulating, murdering, and legally oppressing part of the population in service of those who already hold power—how is this latest development any different… except that, in addition to people of color, it also throws into jeopardy the stability and privilege of another class—white folks, especially men—the very segment of the population that, by all accounts, constituted the driving force that ushered in this new terrifying reality in the first place?
* * * *
It’s 2:29 AM. Donald Trump—President Donald Trump—is about to take the stage. He’s won Wisconsin. Florida. Ohio. He’s up almost three points nationally. Corey Lewandowski is strutting around the CNN stage like some sort of finger-pointing weasel-bird who’s been eating Adderall in the manner that rapists tend to consume tic-tacs. His pupils are the size of copper coins. He’s talking about hypocrisy, and truth—and, because his candidate is winning, everyone else on stage agrees with him.
New York Times Alert: DONALD TRUMP HAS BEEN ELECTED PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.
I’ve decided to wait up for Trump’s speech. Because, sometimes, you need to glimpse the shape of your fate—something that, in this case, will soon arrive in the form of a fat, old, toady, orange-haired demon who, like all hungry ghosts, happens to boast an enormous mouth and very skinny neck.
BREAKING NEWS: Hillary Clinton has called Trump and conceded the election. It’s time for the Republican celebration. Mike Pence, esteemed Syrian Legate to the Eastern Provinces and soon-to-be Vice President, is walking toward the stage as if in full battle armor, the heads of bothersome Samaritans tethered like trophies to his cape. “This is a historic night,” he says. “SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI! The American people have spoken. It’s almost hard for me to express.”
“I’m deeply grateful to the American people,” Pence says in perfect Latin.
To which I shout: “FUCK YOU JAMES COMEY!”
“It is my high Roman honor and distinct divine privilege to introduce to you the new emperor, god of this world and the next, cherished child of the sun and reigning overlord of all the moon’s many mountains, DONALD J TRUMP!”
Trump arrives on stage. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” he says, “Complicated business.”
Me: AHAHAHAHAHA Stop.
“It’s about us!” he beams. He mentions that he’s just received a concession call from Secretary Clinton.
“She’s so tired, but she fought very hard. She’s worked over a long period of time. In service for us. We owe her a debt for all the meals she’s cooked and the naps she’s taken. Low energy!”
He’s looking directly at the camera: “I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, this is so important to me.”
And: “As I’ve said from the beginning: I did nothing wrong. Your pussies should not have been standing there.”
And: “No one loves women more than me.”
And: “Working together, we’ll begin the task of renewing the American Dream.”
“Tremendous potential,” he crows.
“Gonna be a beautiful thing.”
“Every single American is gonna have a chance to renew his—or her—potential.”
“We will put million of our people to work.”
“We will have great, great relationships.”
“America will no longer settle for anything less than the best.”
“We’re going to dream of things for our country, and beautiful things.”
“I wanna thank my parents.”
“They should all be on this stage, but that’s okay.”
Also: “I want to give a very special thanks to our former mayor and future ambassador to Iran, Rudy Giuliani.”
And: “Chris Christie, guess what, you’re the new viceroy to China!”
And: “Hey, I’m forgetting someone. Dracula! Come out here baby. Life ain’t eternal if it don’t flow through you!”
Now he’s pointing to a person of color: “Hey Ben Carson! BENNNNNNIE! Rip my heart out and feed it to General Kellogg, will you? You old surgeon, we’re gonna live forever. Hey. I’m talking about you, Henry Kissinger! We are dancing and we will never die!”
He motions wildly off stage. “This final shout-out is to Secretariat, best horse ever: you never shoulda euthanized yourself, old friend: I really could’ve used you in the Department of Agriculture!”
Gesturing at the press: “Remember: I hate every ape I see—from Chimpan-a to Chimpan-zee!”
And: “Hey Secret Service, NO COUPS!”
It’s time for the closing remarks:
“I promise you I will not let you down.”
“I look very forward to being your president.”
“And after two years I’ll be on my way back to my home planet—am I kidding, am I? Suspense!”
“It’s my honor.”
“I love this country. It let’s me do whatever I want because I’m famous!”
Walking off stage now: “Hey Pence—bring me my motherfucking tic-tacs!”
* * * *
And now, for your enjoyment, let us bask in the glory of Donald Trump’s favorite song, one that I also happen to adore—Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones!
NO YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT
YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT
YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT
But if you try sometimes, you find—AMERICA—you get what you need
I went down to the demonstration
To get my fair share of abuse
I said words gonna vent my frustration
If they don’t we gonna blow every fuse!
In the meantime, I’ll see you all at the Chelsea Drug Store…
* * * *
A uranium atom—any uranium atom—has ninety-two protons: spheres bunched up in its nucleus. In there, too, like so much additional caviar, are many neutrons—a hundred and forty-six neutrons in an atom of U238 (92+146 =238), and a hundred and forty-three neutrons in an atom of U235. Separating these two sisters, these two isotopes, was one of the hardest things human beings have ever tried to learn how to do.
–John McPhee, The Curve of Binding Energy
Then the war was just two valleys over, but still they didn’t worry, and then it was in the very next valley, but even so, no one could imagine its actually intruding into their quiet lives. But one day a car suddenly careered into the village’s central square, four young men in militia uniforms leaping out, purposefully crossing the square, seeming to single out a particular house and cornering tis occupant, whereupon the leader of the militiamen hustled back off to their car and sped off. As Van Cleef subsequently recounted the incident for me, “They left behind them a village almost evenly divided. Those under fifty years of age had been horrified by the seeming randomness of the act, while those over fifty realized, with perhaps even greater horror, that the young man who’d just been killed was the son of a man who, back during the partisan struggles of the Second World War, happened to have killed the uncle of the kid who’d just done the killing. And the older villagers immediately realized, with absolute clarity, that if this was now possible everything was going to be possible.”
–Lawrence Weschler, “Vermeer in Bosina”