American Horror Story
I went backstage at the biggest political show on earth- and found America telling stories about itself.
“America is great because America is good.”- Hillary Clinton.
“We dream of a brand new start-
But we dream in the dark, for the most part.”
— Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton.
When I was a child, I always half-suspected that America wasn’t real. It had to be made up. It was too good and too simple a story to make sense in the everyday world of bus stops and breakfast cereals and adults who invariably let you down.
Living and sometimes working here as a grown-up has not changed my opinion. Right now, backstage at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, I can see the story being written in real time.
I’m writing this from the sopping wet-media refugee tent behind the perimeter, as the Star Spangled Banner echoes from a television screen somewhere out of sight. I’ve spent the past ten days having my eyes dazzled backstage at the biggest show on earth. The American political machine is trying to pilot its next season. Last week we had ten thousand terrifying Republicans going for a straight up tits-teeth-and-ammo exhibition, peddling fear and flag-waggery with a promise to rain down terrible vengeance on everything that irritates you. Like your immigrant neighbors. Like women who get above themselves. Like having to mind your manners.
This week it’s the Democrats, with their tired-looking cast-members repeating lines that sounded hokey the first time in between guest appearances by beloved celebrities all hoping the networks won’t cancel. They’ve got the script and they’ve got the stars, but they’re still trying to find the right narrative arc, because the American public’s disbelief is rapidly losing suspension. This is not politics, not as I know it at home. This is something else. This is pantomime.
There is a certain look that I’ve been sharing with other visiting foreign journalists this week and it is just that — a look, sometimes with the hands spread in a horrified half shrug, because sometimes there are just no words, even when there have to be, you know, because that’s how we make rent.
How to possibly express the choreographed insanity of this brassy, breadless circus? How are we meant to actually communicate like human beings when we are trapped here, sweating on the floor of the dream factory as they hand out buttons and baseball caps plastered with empty slogans? It reminds me, more than anything else, of a music festival, down to the overpriced snacks, the complicated entry system, the constant impression that the weather is trying to kill you, and the way that normal rules are suspended as we pretend, briefly, that another world is possible. Specifically, world where the political process is simple and unsaleable, and strong leaders can change things for the better. A world where hope is feasible and our votes matter and we all go, as Philip Larkin once said, down the long slide to happiness, endlessly.
This is not how it’s done in Britain. Have you seen our politicians? George Osborne looks like he’s lied for so long his two faces can’t stand to be on the same head anymore and are frantically pulling apart. Boris Johnson is what would happen if you took Donald Trump out of the oven too early and left him to rot on an English lawn.
Then there’s our conferences. In Britain, party conferences are square, airless affairs in seaside towns where squashed-looking people in suits eat warm quiche at the back of policy roundtables and protesters get rained on outside. I have been to a number of these things, and their version of putting on a show usually comes down to parties in a local restaurant with the occasional glass of free buck’s fizz and bitchy political correspondents smoking outside, hoping the Deputy Leader will put in an appearance, or maybe, if we’re lucky, Tony Robinson off Time Team.
In America, by contrast, party is a verb.
American politicians know that they are in showbusiness and generally have the terrifying teeth and hair to prove it, although a few of them get to be character actors. The conventions are the press matinee. Sequins, sparkles, wild promises, your favourite celebrities, pizza costs seven dollars a slice, the stadium is lit, balloons fall like platitudes from the rafters, the camera zooms in on the delegates weeping with joy.
It’s all designed to make you feel good. The question is -what kind of good do you want to feel?
Donald Trump makes you feel good like a line of cocaine or an adulterous orgasm makes you feel good. His puffed-up pridemongering appeals to the cowed, craving animal inside every citizen that wants to vote for cake today and fuck the other guy. Why? Because it feels good, and because so little else does.
But the Democrats? They make you feel good.
They make you feel worthy, and pure, and moral, or at least like you could be all those things if you tried. They make you feel like you’re a good person for trying. They make you feel like liberalism is a position that makes sense. Everyone wants to believe that they are a good person. Americans want to believe it more, perhaps, than the rest of us, because their nation has done and continues to do some very bad things both in the world and to its own people in the name of a dream that is still a nightmare for millions.
America is still, fundamentally, a nation of puritans. That’s why this convention feels, at every stage, like a cross between a rock concert and a church revival. America is soaked in the language and practice of religion and wants to believe in its own goodness — in right as well as might. The signs handed out to delegates on Day One of the DNC said “Love Trumps Hate”. On Day Two, they said “Do The Most Good”. Most of the taglines could have been lifted from the Bible — the Good News version, not the King James. The Democrats are still pushing the Gospels on a suspicious, skeptical congregation that’s starting to lose faith in the hereafter. The Republicans, meanwhile, have run rabid and are reading straight from Revelations.
Of course, like every story in the religious mode, American presidential politics is a fairytale.
It’s fairytale designed—like all fairytales—to tell lost, frightened children that darkness can be overcome if they are well-behaved and listen to their elders. It’s a fairytale not just because no nation has a monopoly on morality, but because nation states themselves have never been the vector of human goodness and never will be. America The Brave is a bedtime story, the kind you tell to scared kids who know full well that the monsters are real. But for a moment there, I still wanted Obama to tuck me in.
President Barack Obama is a man put on this earth to make incremental social change exciting. I saw him speak last night on a ten-foot television screen across a bar filled with tired reporters from all over the world, and I found myself remembering what it meant, in 2008, watching the lifestream from a filthy front room in Turnpike Lane, to believe—in that vague, childlike way—in hope. Hope without affect, a thing with feathers but no bones. I felt my heart twitch under my ribs. I felt proud to be an American citizen. It took me ten full minutes to remember that I wasn’t one.
This is not practical politics. This is pure pageantry, pure mythmaking in a nation that has always survived by singing a song of itself. A nation of three hundred million souls and half a billion guns torn apart by violence and uncertainty, held together by pomp and circumstance and precious little else. What is on show at the conventions is very different from the politics that exist, day to day, month to month, as a material force in people’s material lives. The conventions are a bubble universe where we all, press and public and PR people and random rain-soaked flunkies, try to float on suspension-strings of disbelief. We know we’re being lied to. Those complaining about the lies have missed the point.
Of course the Democrats are lying to you, and of course that hurts more than the brazen untruthiness of Trump and his trashcan-fire rhetoric. What did you expect? What’s happening is here is more than just lies. What speaker after party-faithful speaker is doing, as they take the stage with the rosy-cheeks of actors carved in wood and worked by levers, is telling stories. Functionally, it’s the same thing, but telling stories is a larger and stranger thing than lying, in the way that war is a larger and stranger thing than murder.
Lying is wrong, but party politics is a project of public mythmaking and manipulation so enormous that it crushes the concept of falsehood. In the writer’s room of US politics, the scriptwriters have move beyond lies to the management of truth, the creation of a master story that can explain all the other stories, sweep them up, make us want to turn the page, knowing we can never truly choose our own adventure.
So here it is. Here’s the story the Democrats are selling. They cannot persuade America, or the world, that liberalism is plausible, that change will come in a way that makes a meaningful difference to millions of lives; what they are offering, in practical terms, is the vestige of democracy against the certainty of dictatorship. They are offering things not getting quite so much worse quite so fast. That’s a hard sell. Here’s how they’re going to spin it. Here’s the question on the table for American voters that will decide the fate of the world in the next decade.
What sort of person are you? Would you rather feel good, or do good? Can you swallow your pride, humble yourself and vote for the lesser evil?
People need something to believe in. Believing you can be a better person isn’t the worst option of the many on offer right now. Particularly as belief is, in its own way, a sort of magic. You can believe things so hard and so desperately that they come halfway true.
Hillary Clinton is not offering you a vision of a better future. She is offering you a vision of yourself as a better person, a person who can turn their face away from swivel-eyed, silent-screaming evil, a person who can vote to humble themselves like good parishoners before the altar of liberal equivocation and the drag-end of the American dream. As visions go, it’s viscerally disappointing. I know you wanted more. We all did. But the alternative is fear in the dark, and a horror story whose win conditions can only be negotiated downwards.
When I was a child, I thought America was made up. Now I know it for sure. I’ve been to the haunted house where hundreds of millions of ordinary people scream in dark corners for a story worth believing, clinging to what W.H. Auden called the “euphoric dream” of everyday redemption — “Lest we should see where we are, lost in a haunted wood, children afraid of the night, who have never been happy or good.”
America has never been happy, or good. But if it stops believing that it can be, the whole damn world is going to suffer.