The poll vaccine
Over the last few days, a passage from Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon has been rattling around in my head. It describes a patient at “The White Visitation,” a mental hospital in southern England that has been given over for the duration of the war to a strange mixture of psychological warfare operatives, clairvoyants, and occultists. See if you can figure out why I’ve been thinking about it:
At “The White Visitation” there’s a long-time schiz, you know, who believes that he is World War II. He gets no newspapers, refuses to listen to the wireless, but still, the day of the Normandy invasion somehow his temperature shot up to 104°. Now, as the pincers east and west continue their slow reflex contraction, he speaks of darkness invading his mind, of an attrition of self…The Rundstedt offensive perked him up though, gave him a new lease on life—“A beautiful Christmas gift,” he confessed to the residents of his ward, “it’s the season of birth, of fresh beginnings.” Whenever the rockets fall—those which are audible—he smiles, turns out to pace the ward, tears about to splash from the corners of his merry eyes, caught up in a ruddy high tonicity that can’t help cheering his fellow patients. His days are numbered. He’s to die on V-E Day.
In case it isn’t obvious, the patient is me, and the war is the election. There are times when it feels like I’m part of an experiment in which all of my vital organs have been hooked up to Nate Silver’s polling average—which sounds like a Black Mirror spec script that I should try to write. I go from seeking out my equivalent of the Watergate fix every few minutes to days when I need to restrict myself to checking the news just once in the morning and again at night. Even when I take a technology sabbath from election coverage, it doesn’t help: it’s usually the last thing that I think about before I fall asleep and the first thing that comes to mind when I wake up, and I’ve even started dreaming about it. (I’m pretty sure that I had a dream last night in which the charts on FiveThirtyEight came to life, like August Kekulé’s vision of the snake biting its own tail.) And the scary part is that I know I’m not alone. The emotional toll from this campaign is being shared by millions on both sides, and no matter what the result is, the lasting effects will be those of any kind of collective trauma. I think we’ve all felt the “attrition of self” of which Pynchon’s patient speaks—a sense that our private lives have been invaded by politics as never before, not because our civil liberties are threatened, but because we feel exposed in places that we normally reserve for the most personal parts of ourselves. For the sake of my own emotional health, I’ve had to set up psychological defenses over the last few months that I didn’t have before, and if Donald Trump wins, I can easily envision them as a way of life.
But maybe that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I’ve come to see this campaign season as a kind of vaccine that will prepare us to survive the next four years. If there’s one enduring legacy that I expect from this election, it’s that it will turn large sections of the population away from politics entirely as a means of achieving their goals. In the event of a Clinton victory, and the likelihood of a liberal Supreme Court that will persist for decades, I’d like to think that the pro-life movement would give up on its goal of overturning Roe v. Wade and focus on other ways of reducing the abortion rate as much as possible. (Increasing support for single and working mothers might be a good place to start.) A Trump presidency, by contrast, would force liberals to rethink their approaches to problems like climate change—and the fact that I’m even characterizing it as a “liberal” issue implies that we should have given up on the governmental angle a long time ago. Any attempt to address an existential threat like global warming that can be overturned by an incoming president isn’t an approach that seems likely to succeed over the long term. I’m not sure how a nongovernmental solution would look, but a president who has sworn to pull out of the Paris Agreement would at least invest that search with greater urgency. If nothing else, this election should remind us of the fragility of the political solutions that we’ve applied to the problems that mean the most to us, and how foolish it seems to entrust their success or failure to a binary moment like the one we’re facing now.
And this is why so many of us have found this election taking up residence in our bodies, like a bug that we’re hoping to shake. We’ve wired important parts of our own identities to impersonal forces, and we shouldn’t be surprised if we feel helpless and unhappy when the larger machine turns against us—while also remembering that there are men, women, and children who have more at stake in the outcome than just their hurt feelings. Immediately before the passage that I quoted above, Pynchon writes:
The War, the Empire, will expedite such barriers between our lives. The War needs to divide this way, and to subdivide, though its propaganda will always stress unity, alliance, pulling together. The War does not appear to want a folk-consciousness, not even of the sort the Germans have engineered, ein Volk ein Führer—it wants a machine of many separate parts, not oneness, but a complexity…Yet who can presume to say what the War wants, so vast and aloof is it…Perhaps the War isn’t even an awareness—not a life at all, really. There may be only some cruel, accidental resemblance to life.
Replace “the War” with “the Election,” and you end up with something that feels very close to where we are now. There does seem to be “some cruel, accidental resemblance to life” in the way that this campaign has followed its own narrative logic, but it has little to do with existence as lived on a human scale. Even if we end up feeling that we’ve won, it’s worth taking that lesson to heart. The alternative is an emotional life that is permanently hooked up to events outside its control. And that’s no way to live.