Please Tread

“Where do you film those?”

That was the first thing every person would ask me about my web series. It didn’t matter how the conversation turned to “dontread1776” or who I was talking to, that person inevitably wanted to know more about where I filmed them. I spent the better part of 2016 pretending to be a severely conservative and clueless 30-year-old vlogger who lived at home with his parents. I filmed these webisodes, mostly, around my parents’ house in White Heath, Illinois. I did this because the setting fit the character, sure, but I always loved being outside as much as possible when I went home, anyway. I had no idea so many other people would be enchanted by the prairies as much as I was, and I’m grateful and pleased that they were (the scenery was indisputably the best part of my videos). But honestly, the main reason I filmed outside was because I didn’t know much about filming anything when I started, but I knew that if filmed daylight then it might look okay, and if I avoided wind and stayed close to the camera the audio would sound okay. Frankly, I learned a lot about production that I would not have learned otherwise had I not done the web series.

I learned a lot of other things, too.

When I started dontread1776 (pronounced “Don’t Tread”) I thought I knew what I was making fun of. I knew I wanted to satirize the act of vlogging as a whole. I thought there was a lot of comedy in the shoestring, DIY nature of people taking the time to make sure that the whole world knew exactly how they thought about something each week through silly little videos. In making a phony conservative blog, I also wanted to skewer the rampant paranoia that often gives way to online radicalization — i.e. another thing ISIS and the Tea Party have in common. I also thought that all of the above things led to really sloppy arguments that flailed a lot of facts which further perverted online discussions, so I wanted to showcase that, too. That’s why in all of my videos I referred to the 2nd Amendment as “The 2nd Commandment.” I was hoping to garner a decent-sized sincerely conservative following, for reasons I will go into later and I did okay with that I guess(about 300 sincere followers). I had a real good time doing all of this at first. Then Trump happened. Then he kept happening. Then he won.

For most of his life, Trump really was a gift to comedy. He was a desperate, quasi-celebrity with the worst hair in human history. To Trump’s somewhat credit, people have actually forgotten about how stupid his hair is because of all the stupid things he’s said and done. Much has been written already about Trump’s relationship to comedy, whether or not he’ll be good for it going forward. I haven’t had the energy to process that just yet myself. But I do know that, for me personally, the hardest part of making fun of a con-man presenting himself as the savior to the real America was that I was doing that myself. And I had thought people would eventually realize were kidding and then he showed me, definitely, that it didn’t really matter if they ever did.

I hope by now, most my friends and family back home are aware that they elected a con-man. I just want to remind these folks to remember what this man has said, from one con-man to another. And before you tune me out as another biased, liberal elitist, remember that I am one of you. And consider that I love you. And understand that the longer you’ve known me for, the more important it is for you to read this. Know that I carry so much of you around with me all the time. The discipline. The optimism. The humility. And I still have my FFA shirt. I know that many of you knew he was lying the whole time. You might not have ever liked the man personally, but you liked some of what he said. Because even if he wasn’t a leader (he is not) or a good Christian (he is not) at least this con-man would “stick up for Americanism over Globalism” or at the very least “drain the swamp.”

First, you should understand that Globalism is Americanism.Yes, it is sad when local communities lose part of their culture in the midst of a collective global thrust. It’s sad when it happens in an inner city neighborhood that gentrifies, and it is sad when it happens in a rural town that is rebuilding. But globalization is an outgrowth of the U.S. You were not losing your culture to globalism. Globalism is your culture. And frankly, it kind of works. Capitalism has brought standardization, sure, but it has also brought peace. McDonald’s is the worst, but two countries with McDonalds’ have never gone to war with each other. This is capitalism: efficiency and rationality are maximized, sometimes at the expense of uniqueness. The spread of entrepreneurship and free enterprise are the real reasons the real America is less white. And this is a good thing — even if that means more people “cheer for soccer teams.”

Mitt Romney talked a lot about American Exceptionalism. It’s honestly a pretty great term. Please understand that supporting globalism actually strengthens this exceptionalism. The fact that the rest of the world wants to become like us — what we stand for and how we live — proves this exceptionalism. We are the exception to the rule: America is the country that everyone wants to be like and be in. People don’t want to be like us because of our military or our freedom or wealth or our Sunday Night Football with Carrie Underwood. There are other free, wealthy nations in the world. What is truly exceptional about America is our generosity and diversity. There is a long tradition of our giving, from the Marshall Plan to George W. Bush’s work in Africa that shows America’s exceptional kindness. And our brand of multiculturalism has not always been perfect, and it certainly isn’t now, but at least we were the place that celebrated, cherished, and advertised that it was the great melting pot. We have always been welcoming — that is American Exceptionalism.

Secondly, if you wanted to blow it up all up, congratulations. That will likely happen now that a mistrust in our institutions has been irrevocably affirmed by last week’s ballot. I do not say that because of the Trump protesters’ discontent. I do not say that because of the state of America’s middle class. I say that because it seems like you figured that if the government was failing you, then you might as well install a failed platform and candidate and government to fail everyone else, too. By asking someone to destroy the institutions that were designed to protect you, rather than choosing someone to rebuild them (even if she was “corrupt”), then you have given into the basic, self-destructive fantasy that has always led the socially disillusioned and economically disenfranchised to choose fascism as its means of suicide.

America should be a democracy, where we don’t try to blow things up but build them together. And America was supposed to be about hope and faith and trust and sacrifice and yes, empathy — not about fear and frustration. I wish we could all be part of this together, rather than you worrying that you had to keep it for yourself, taking your ball and going home, even if that meant ruining everything else. You cheered Hillary losing, and Jeb losing, and everyone else losing for that matter, even though you knew that ultimately it meant the country lost. A lot of people have said this already, but this is why to many of us 11/9 felt like a 9/11 we did to ourselves.

The “policies” you chose (likely coming from the cronies the con-man installs around himself) will not help you. De-regulation will likely mean more lost houses and more lost jobs. College and job training may never be affordable. And refusing to acknowledge Climate Change will ruin the greatest resource we have: our ability to grow things. For good measure, everything that happened in Syria is the outgrowth of a famine that was caused by a drought…that was caused by climate change. Climate change is real, and by blowing it all up, we are un-doing all of the progress we’ve made and treaties we’ve signed to build a sustainable economy and future. This will backfire.

You cannot reject Globalism without rejecting America. And you cannot drain the swamp without flooding the plains.

Those are the facts. But there will never be facts again. We are all in our silos for good now. There may have never been ultimate truths or objective realities, but we now know that there will never be things we can agree on our sources we can all trust again. I wanted to quote Adorno earlier when referencing the self-destructive fantasy of fascism, but it would have rendered my argument moot to so many merely because he was a leftist. Just because someone disagrees with your politically does not mean she is wrong, but that is how it will be going forward. When Trump keeps ObamaCare, people will say they always loved the “Affordable Care Act.” When Trump backtracks on his pledge and takes a vacation to play golf, they will be glad he’s taking some time off from his stressful job. When he doesn’t get that wall built, people will say it was all just an opening bid for his negotiations. Some of these hypocrisies are par for the course for partisan politics, but it has gotten worse now that we only trust news from our own news sources. Sadly, this goes for both sides. Like someone who no longer recognizes any of the players on his sports team but cheers for the team anyway, we are just cheering for clothes.

Oddly, this hasn’t stopped people from quoting the “facts.” When I referred to the 2nd Amendment as the 2nd Commandment in my videos, no one ever commented on it except for liberals who were thrilled to correct me. As a troll, it was funny to me. But does that show the smugness of liberalism? Does it show liberals enjoy calling conservatives stupid? Maybe. But I don’t know: I’ve seen plenty of conservatives post links to articles when they jump into comment sections, just like anyone else. Maybe the 2nd Commandment/Amendment thing showed that conservatives don’t care about details as much as they do about feelings, and they could tell I was impassioned and they agreed with that passion because it was about guns. That could explain why people loved the Trump rallies so much and don’t seem too concerned about having to hold him to the promises he made at them. I don’t know, I think this goes both ways, too. Liberals have looked the other way when the facts didn’t add up with their feelings. Obama could be trusted with the incomprehensible authority of drone warfare because we felt like we could trust him. And now that Trump has the power to kill anyone with a button, those chickens are coming home to roost. Liberals have been too sensitive, and conservatives too paranoid. Those roles will likely switch now that the ruling party has as well. If anything, all this shows that politics have become poison, and the subtext of every political discussion has become “you are stupid if you disagree with me.” Maybe that’s why almost 50% of Americans didn’t even bother to vote (either that or voter restriction laws).

But this is what I do know to be a real, indisputable fact: when we liberals told you Donald Trump was racist and you should not support him, we were not being smug. We were not being sensitive. We were right. And we were being serious because we had listened to our disadvantaged friends and family and we learned why they were so scared by his words and his supporters’ actions. That, not politics per usual, is why we told you he was a racist candidate.

And you knew we were right. Because why else did you react so defensively; why else did you take our critiques so personally? You heeded us so much so that you voted the racist into office.

In the 1800s, when slavery became an issue and people started saying “maybe it is wrong to own people,” the institution actually expanded. Compromise after compromise led to more slave territories. Then the Dred Scott decision effectively (and it was effective: read Taney’s decision if you want to see a perfectly sickening argument for racism) declared that even if a slave escaped to a free state, he was a still a slave, so technically slavery exists throughout the whole country. Lincoln had hoped the institution would die out on its own if it had been left alone (perhaps starting the tradition that the best policy to deal with race issues in America is to ignore race issues in America). But slavery did not die out on its own: it had to be extinguished. First, it expanded because abolitionists said it was wrong, then we had a Civil War because we elected a president who had the audacity to say slavery was wrong but he would not interfere with it where it was. No one ever looks back on abolitionists and said they were “too sensitive” or “too coddled” or “had their PC panties in a bunch.” No one said they were spoiled by participation trophies. We look back and say they were right: it was the secessionists who were taking things too personally. And now the grandsons of slave owners will try to say their grandfathers didn’t own slaves. Just like, hopefully, your grandchildren will try to say you did not vote for the racist.

And we weren’t totally wrong when we called the others racists who came before this one. Even if they were less racist than the con-man, they were still exacerbating systems of white supremacy. Just because they used a dog whistle and the con-man used a bullhorn doesn’t mean you had a right to tune out the bullhorn. I saw this firsthand. All the “textbook racism” things I said my viewers laughed at, giddily. One of my goals for dontread1776’s comedy was to bring the subtext of these attitudes to light so that people would have to confront them. Turns out they confronted them, and they were glad someone else would finally say it for them. In fact, the more racist my character became, and the more this character admitted that Trump and his supporters were racists, the more my videos were shared.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History Podcast dedicated an entire episode to satire. In it, he talked a lot about Stephen Colbert’s show. I wouldn’t dare to compare myself to that guy, but Gladwell said that the show worked as comedy but failed as activism. Even after extolling Stephen Colbert and the Colbert Report Gladwell concludes “But if you think he’s somehow winning you’re an ideological battle: you’re wrong.” The show worked as a comedy because both sides of the aisle thought it was funny, but it failed at activism because it turns out your brain only has the energy to parse something once, not twice to first decide if something is funny and then decide why it is funny. Gladwell then cites this conclusion, taken from a study of the effects of the old TV show “All in the Family”

All such findings seem to suggest that the program is more than likely reinforcing prejudice and racism than combating it.”

This was a turning point for me. It affected my work a lot more than I should admit, because I’m still a big believer in comedy as activism. The line between those things has skewed so severely recently. I love Seth Meyers and I think he’s the best in the game, but you always know where he stands and that didn’t used to be the standard with comics. A few weeks ago his show made a very funny, very self-referential joke that his “Closer Look” segments replaced all punchlines with left-wing propaganda. It was a funny joke, and I think that strategy works really well for his show, but I didn’t want my personal liberal ideology to be easily parsed in my videos because I wanted Don’t Tread to have a sincere conservative following. I thought if both sides considered it to be funny it could be more subversive and help undermine Trump’s backwards views even more. I wanted into the conservative silos, the way a Daily Show segment would never make it in (even though they were doing way better comedy than I was). That’s why I wanted to knock down the walls and reach new people and get those people to think. I still hope I did that, but after seeing how my videos were shared and how the election turned out, I am not so sure.

If you can’t tell if something is serious or not, does that make it bad comedy? I don’t know. But plenty of people share Onion articles sincerely, and that doesn’t mean the articles were bad. I admit that in a lot of my videos, I could have made better comedy by making clearer comedy. But if you couldn’t tell it was a joke, there was always the username to give you a clue: “dontread1776” i.e. “don’t read.” There were also obvious boners such as when I filmed a 9/11 memorial looking at the Chicago skyline instead of NYC (“The skyline’s changed so much, it’s almost as if I’m looking at an entirely different city.”). People liked that video a lot. But like I said earlier, the stupider and more racist I made the character, the more those videos got shared, sincerely, by the exact people who supported Donald Trump. That is not a coincidence.

In the end, I believe that people knew my character was racist. They knew he was saying that they were racist. And they decided to double-down on the racism anyway. I guess they like being racist — I mean, it always has benefited “us,” so what if that came at the expense of “them?”

And the con-man has said he will be the president for all of “us.” Maybe so. But the truth is that he lost his job at NBC for saying racist things about Mexicans and then he got elected President for those same racist things he said about Mexicans. I guess you could argue that happened because most of America didn’t think he was racist, it was only the uptight-elitists in New York City who fired him from NBC. Because, you know, long ago these big city liberals stopped looking like the folks in middle America. Or at least, that’s how it seems on the surface. Remember: “coastal elites” are often times just the best and brightest that Middle America had to offer (see Hollowing Out or even the more recent The Hillbilly Elegy). By that logic, Trump himself is a New York City liberal, with soft, painted hands, and should not have earned middle America’s trust the way he did. But again, that is only a surface level view of things. Trump is, after all, just another white person who has never lived anywhere but his hometown. It seems their common mistrust of outsiders has bound him and his supporters together.

Make no mistake. We are divided now.

Perhaps not as divided as we have been in the past, but more divided than we have been recently. And those who divided us will say that this was the fault of the Black Guy. The first African American president who incited violence and disorder because he dared to acknowledge that America still had race problems, who refused to act as a one-dimensional success story to assuage white America’s guilt over slavery and Jim Crow. He refused to cajole them that “racism is over because we have a black President: if he can make it, nobody else has an excuse.” What did Obama do instead? He merely refused to stay silent in the face of police overreach and discrimination. He calmly and reasonably acknowledged that African Americans are unfair victims of discrimination and still face challenges. He was temperate, and the racists rebelled; and that should sound exactly like what happened to Lincoln, by the way. Meanwhile, Trump has been sued twice for housing discrimination by the Department of Justice for refusing to rent to black people. Further, “the New Jersey Casino Control Commission fined the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino $200,000 in 1992 because managers would remove African-American card dealers at the request of a certain big-spending gambler.” Not to mention he’s been endorsed by the KKK. And though he claims the liberals protesting his Presidency are out of line and being paid by media elites, he took out a full-page ad in 4 NYC newspapers asking for mob justice for the Central Park Five, 5 African Americans wrongly accused of raping and murdering a jogger in Central Park. They have since been exonerated, but Trump still thinks they’re guilty. I didn’t even mention what he’s said about Mexicans or Muslims, and I didn’t even start on the hate that occurred at his rallies and since he’s been elected. But sure, you will say it was not the con-man who divided the country: it was the black president who acknowledged there were still some fissures. And if it wasn’t Obama, then maybe it was the media who divided us. After all, they were the ones who dared to tell us about all the hateful things the con-man and his supporters said and did.

We told you all this, but you have looked past what we said. Maybe because you didn’t trust our “facts.” Maybe because we were “smug.” But now, you have justified the violence that the con-man and his supporters have brought by saying things like

“There are many true bigots in this country and they fall on both sides.”

“Well remember he needed to keep his base energized and motivated”

Both of these things cannot be true: either there are bigots on both sides or the bigots are part of the base. We all know it is more of the latter: ever since the Civil Rights Act (which even Reagan opposed), Republicans tacitly understood that the racists would join their ranks, exclusively. They knew this. They built their base with this hateful support, tucked away, never to be spoken of but always to be relied on when needed. And when the right got a candidate who actually acknowledged that these racists were a big part of their coalition, they all un-endorsed him…and then re-endorsed him…or unsupported him or whatever political gymnastics they needed to do to not actually do anything to offend this deplorable part of their base.

For Dontread1776, I did my best to seriously inhabit conservative arguments, understanding that the people who believed things like “let’s cut welfare” believed those things because they actually thought the lack of a safety net would help poor people more than the presence of one. There were plenty in those beliefs to make fun of, but once it was unclear whether or not Trump or his followers believed we should cut welfare because that would help poor people more, or believed we should cut welfare because of some more sinister reason, it was impossible. I kept hoping the con-man in charge of all this could not be serious. Maybe the con-man really was just pandering to the racists to expand his base, hinting at the sinister justifications just to entice folks. But then he won, and the stakes for his rhetoric went up. It is worth noting that the New York Times thought Hitler was just joking about all the anti-Semitic things he said before getting elected.

That’s why, frankly, it does not matter anymore if the con-man was serious or not. Now this portion of the base, regardless of its size, is empowered, and has a con-man at the front who has validated their views and even supported their actions (and hired a white supremacist as his chief strategist). Also, when you remember that Trump promised to pay the legal fees to anyone who beat up his protesters you see that we don’t need to fear the con-man so much as anyone who now feels the con-man endorsed his or her hate. Just look at Day One in Trump’s America.

Sadly, these events are just the surface. What might be worse than the people who commit all these hate crimes are the people who excuse it and look the other way. These apologists say the reports of hate are overblown, or worse, things like this.

It is clear now that they excuse this hate because of their own resentments, prejudices, and hatred. It’s not hard for me to remember all the people I knew growing up who were a little too mad that O.J. was acquitted. Or the the folks I know who still loathe Jesse Jackson for intervening when only the black students in a brawl were expelled. These are the folks who believe racism is only owning slaves or saying the N-word. Now they have a new cause: denying the hatred that Trump has spread. After last Tuesday’s results, these deniers are the truly the silent majority. But though they are silent, their resentment is palpable now. At the very least, those folks saw what Trump was inspiring and were okay with it. And at worst, they are bigots, too — just too cowardly to come forward.

A true leader would have called on these hateful people, empowered by Trump, to knock it off (before having to be goaded into reluctantly half-doing it by Leslie Stahl). Even if he thought the violence was coming from both sides, he would have called his side off first. He would have said “Let us lead by example here.” Instead, he revealed himself again to be a petty celebrity, falsely claiming that there are racists on both sides. Then, again, he named a white supremacist his chief strategist. Hopefully his denouncement has not come too late, before we see trickle down racism many feared. Do not argue that this coming from both sides. Do not say that whites are being discriminated against. That is the not racism. How do I know that? Because the victims of racism have told me that. Only the oppressed get to define what oppression is. If you are thinking “Oh! So because I’m a white male that means I cannot say anything?” Yes, that is what that means. Maybe now you can try listening and asking questions. Racism is dependent on power. It’s a justification the powerful use to suppress the unpowerful. Don’t point to me that “13% of African Americans voted for Trump” or “30% of Hispanic Americans voted for Trump” or the fact that Trump is “friends with Ben Carson” as proof Trump is not racist. You don’t get to say why someone who is oppressed would choose to endorse his oppression. All of this is besides my point: you are the racists and this is what you have done.

Because it became “us” versus “them” to you. You thought you were losing your country to an Other. Turns out you were losing it to yourself. And there is no economic success that could heal this, even if it was even possible. Add all the tariffs you want, destroy everything about free-trade and these jobs will still not come back. They have been automated, and unless you destroy technology, which might be the next “them” the “us” is versus, they will not come back. I suppose we have already destroyed social progress, we might as well destroy technological progress, too.

Was this all too bleak? Maybe. But it was no bleaker than what the con-man has already said. The difference is that I am telling the truth.

I was planning to finish my web series after the election no matter what. Now I am not so sure. It feels like there could be more use for it now more than ever, but the whole thing makes me so sad and bleak and frustrated and it’s hard to wring comedy out of that. Right now, I am not sure how to get through to people, but that will not stop from trying in the future. Regardless…I love you and I will carry you with me. I never thought I wanted to make fun of you. Now I am not so sure.