Other means

Early in the federal indictment of former President Trump that was released yesterday, special counsel Jack Smith admits that Trump, “like every American,” has the right to say whatever he wants about the 2020 presidential election—and even has the right to lie about it. But it was a crime, Smith asserts, for Trump to use lies to obstruct and distort the tallying and certifying of election results. Smith goes on to indict Trump for conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct the certification of presidential election results, and conspiracy to deprive Americans of their right to vote.

The distinction between lying that is free of legal consequences and lying in order to commit fraud and obstruction isn’t a terribly subtle one, but there are going to be people who will pretend they don’t understand it. If Trump has the right to lie to NBC News, they will ask, why doesn’t he also have the right to lie to Georgia’s Secretary of State about Georgia’s election results? So let’s get this out of the way: If I announce at my favorite local gay bar that Ryan Gosling and I have just gotten married, and I succeed in making all my friends jealous, I’m not committing a crime. But if Gosling and I file our taxes together, falsely claiming on the forms that we’re married, in an attempt to pay less tax than we would otherwise have to, it’s fraud. And it’s still fraud even if we don’t get away with it.

There are probably also going to be people who claim that Trump and his conspirators may not have been aware that the claims they were making were untrue. Smith’s indictment shivs that defense pretty brutally. In paragraph 30 (¶30) of the indictment, to take just one bald-faced example, John Eastman, aka “Co-Conspirator 2,” acknowledges in an email that he and Trump have learned that some of the allegations in a verification they have signed are “inaccurate” and that signing a new verification “with that knowledge (and incorporation by reference) would not be accurate”—and then he and Trump go ahead and put Trump’s signature on the new verification anyway.

Yesterday’s indictment isn’t as much fun to read as Smith’s earlier indictment of Trump for withholding classified security documents, partly because a more serious matter is at stake (national security secrets are important, but they’re not as important as the right to vote, and Trump seems to have been treating the secret documents as memorabilia, anyway, a motivation so entertainingly venal that it’s hard to treat the earlier matter with the gravity it deserves) and partly because the way Trump and his allies lied—over and over again, shamelessly—is exhausting. The catalog of their lies in Smith’s indictment is practically Homeric. They lie, are told they are lying, and then tell the same lie again. Remember the years we spent trying to argue in good faith with people who were repeating lies in bad faith? These are those people. “It’s all just conspiracy shit beamed down from the mothership,” (¶25) admits a senior advisor to the Trump campaign, in a private email, dismayed by his team’s repeated losses in court and exasperated that the team’s political strategy obliges him or her to pretend publicly to believe in repeatedly debunked claims.

The particular lie that pushed this senior advisor into venting was about election workers at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta. Giuliani (“Co-Conspirator 1”) told the lie to Georgia state senators on December 3, 2020 (¶21), the lie was publicly debunked by the Georgia secretary of state’s chief operating officer on December 4 (¶23), Georgia’s attorney general told Trump there was no evidence for the claim on December 8 (¶24), Giuliani told the lie again in a public hearing before a committee of Georgia’s state representatives on December 10 (¶26), Trump’s acting attorney general and acting deputy attorney general told Trump the actions at State Farm Arena had been “benign” on December 15 (¶27), Trump’s chief of staff told him the election tallying at State Farm Arena had been “exemplary” on December 22 (¶28), Trump nonetheless tweeted that Georgia’s election officials were “terrible people” who were hiding evidence of fraud on December 23 (¶28), Trump repeated the lie to his acting attorney general and acting deputy attorney general on December 27 (¶29), Trump signed a verification incorporating the lie on December 31 (¶30), and Trump repeated the lie one more time on January 2, 2021, to Georgia’s secretary of state, during the infamous conversation when Trump said he was looking to “find” 11,780 more votes (¶31).

After Giuliani told the lie in Georgia’s House of Representatives on December 10, “the two election workers received numerous death threats,” Smith observes (¶26). The identities of the people who made those death threats are very likely unknown, but almost certainly neither Trump nor any of his co-conspirators made the threats.

Why are they nonetheless part of Smith’s indictment? If the case ever reaches trial, Trump’s lawyers may try to argue that he shouldn’t be held responsible for threats made by a third party. But keep in mind the distinction that is the crux of the case, between lying for the sake of vanity or entertainment and lying in order to obstruct or impede the workings of democracy. A death threat is not an innocuous speech act. It is a promise to use violence. A public lie about a government employee or official, if a reasonable person would expect the lie to trigger death threats, is therefore a kind of force, applied on a government employee or official with respect to the performance of their duties. “An act of force to compel our enemy to do our will”: that’s Clausewitz’s first (if less famous) definition of war. With good reason, the laws in any well-ordered republic forbid acts of war between politicians and/or citizens. Hobbes writes, in Leviathan, that “because all signs of hatred, or contempt, provoke to fight, . . . we may . . . , for a law of nature, set down this precept, that no man by deed, word, countenance, or gesture, declare hatred, or contempt of another.” In a state of war, one isn’t necessarily bound by the laws of nature, Hobbes writes, and we don’t want to be living in a state of war.

On November 11, 2020, Trump disparaged a Philadelphia City Commissioner who had said there was no evidence of voter fraud in Philadelphia, and the commissioner and his family were sent death threats (¶42). And on January 6, 2021, famously, Trump tweeted that “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution,” and one minute later, the Secret Service felt obliged to evacuate Pence to a secure location. Rioters who broke into the Capitol that afternoon chanted, “Hang Mike Pence!” (¶111–13). If Trump knows anything about himself, and it may be the only thing about himself he knows, it is that he has a gift for summoning and directing the rage of his followers. It is his instinct in a crisis, almost a reflex. Words for him are instrumental, not representative. He knew what he was doing.

The prospect of violence recurs at two other moments in the indictment. On January 3, a deputy White House counsel warned Jeffrey Clark (“Co-Conspirator 4”) that if Trump were kept in power on the basis of false claims of voter fraud, there would be “riots in every major city in the United States.” Clark replied, “Well, . . . that’s why there’s an Insurrection Act.” Clark, in other words, looked forward to repressing with military force any protest of the power grab he and his conspirators were trying to effect.

In its legal specifics, the scheme to keep Trump in power depended on the theory that Pence had the authority to reject or return to the states their slates of legitimate electors. On January 4, John Eastman acknowledged to one of Trump’s senior advisors that no court was likely to back the theory, and the advisor warned Eastman that by drumming up public fury on the strength of a theory that could never be put into effect legally, Trump and his allies were “going to cause riots in the streets.” Eastman replied that it wouldn’t be the first moment in American history when violence was needed to protect the republic (¶94). Eastman, in other words, looked forward to bolstering with street violence a legal theory he conceded was unjustifiable.

Clark looked forward to putting down rioters, and Eastman looked forward to being backed by them, but both knew that through lies they were welcoming violence into politics. Clausewitz’s second, more famous definition of war is “a continuation of political activity by other means”—the implication being that politics has its own means. To maintain the rule of law, politicians who go beyond them must be kept out of politics, if not sent to jail.

A novelist visits the Trump Presidential Library

On Thursday, 8 June 2023, the Department of Justice indicted former President Donald Trump on charges of willful retention of national intelligence documents, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and lying to the FBI. On Friday, 9 June, the indictment was unsealed. Like many people curious about American politics, I printed out a PDF of the indictment on Friday night and read it a few times over the weekend. Here’s the DOJ’s own version, which has the photographs in color, if you’d like to read it and haven’t yet.

A lot of pixels have been toggled already over the political and legal ramifications, but I found myself thinking about a different angle: If Trump were a character in a novel, what would the scenes recounted in the indictment say about him? Some are quite vivid.

The genre of the indictment is odyssey: banker’s boxes full of presidential papers take a journey into exile, which ends, for some but far from all of them, in an eventual homecoming back into federal custody. Trump helped to pack the boxes in January 2021. When he left the White House, he had them moved to Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort. The indictment doesn’t say how many boxes there originally were, but I think I count eighty-one in the photo on page 10 of the indictment, which shows them stacked on the stage of a Mar-a-Lago ballroom (the first four rows seem to be two boxes high, and of these, the front row is eleven boxes across, the second row ten across, the third nine across, and the fourth seven across; at the very back of the stage, there also seems to be one stack of three boxes and another stack of four). According to the indictment, the boxes spent January, February, and March 2021 on the ballroom stage.

Why did Trump take so many papers with him when he left the White House? It seems doubtful he meant to read through them. He doesn’t seem like the sort of person who would want to come to a deeper understanding of the past he had just lived through. “He doesn’t really read anything,” said one of the intelligence officials who struggled to keep Trump informed while he was in office. I suspect that very few of the papers were written by him, or even written on by him, in his childlike black-marker all caps. The best that can be said is that the papers happened to him. Or that they constitute evidence of things that happened to him. In the photo on page 14 of the indictment, where a few of the banker’s boxes have spilled open, what’s visible are front pages of the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times; color print-outs of him speaking to the press on a tarmac; the print-out of a webpage with a headline that reads, in part, “honesty about security clearances” (a nice piece of sortes webiana; it could be this article); and a piece of paper redacted with a long black rectangle at the top that obscures what the DOJ calls “visible classified information.” The last document is the kind that has put Trump in legal jeopardy. According to the indictment, this particular one was labeled “Secret” and “Five Eyes,” was dated 4 October 2019, and was concerned with “military capabilities of a foreign country.” Out of 102 documents labeled Secret, Top Secret, and Confidential that the DOJ seized from Trump, the DOJ has itemized thirty-one that it is charging him with illegally retaining, and the DOJ has assigned this particular document the number 8. In an issue of his newsletter Pwnallthethings, Matt Tait has made educated guesses about the specific contents of the thirty-one documents listed in the indictment, though he hasn’t (yet) made headway with #8.

Maybe Trump thought of the documents as trophies. That could be a powerful motivation for a personality like his. After all, what O. J. Simpson went to prison for, in the end, was not murder but the theft at gunpoint of pieces of memorabilia that he felt belonged to him.

Whatever the nature of Trump’s attachment to these papers, it’s safe to say that people close to Trump saw through it. By April 2021, some of the boxes had been put in Mar-a-Lago’s business center, and on 5 April 2021, according to the indictment, “Trump Employee 1” asked “Trump Employee 2,” believed to be a woman named Molly Michael, if it would be okay to move the boxes out.

“Woah!!” Molly Michael replied, using the internet’s preferred spelling. “Ok so potus specifically asked Walt for those boxes to be in the business center because they are his ‘papers.’ ”

Note the scare quotes. In another exchange later the same day with Trump Employee 1, Michael’s contempt for the “papers” is even more pronounced. When Trump Employee 1 asks if he can put into storage a few things stored in the business center that aren’t paper, Michael replies, “Yes, anything that’s not the beautiful mind paper boxes can definitely go to storage.”

“Beautiful mind paper boxes.” It has been suggested that she is alluding to a scene in the movie A Beautiful Mind in which the hero, a mathematician who has descended into schizophrenia, is revealed to have covered the walls of his study with newspaper clippings and connected them with dark lines while diagramming his conspiracy theories. But I think it’s more likely that she’s using the movie title as shorthand to refer to Trump’s habit of praising his own intellect; he has famously called himself as “a very stable genius” who has “a very good brain.” Michael could be deploying both possible meanings, of course. In any case, she’s not fooled.

I don’t think anyone is ever fooled by Trump. The Dunning-Kruger effect notwithstanding, I think even his ardent supporters know he isn’t literate or well informed about the world, and that his only accomplishments are in the dark sports of bullying, misleading, and emotional manipulation. They like it that he’s mediocre and seethes with grievance about it; that he wasn’t even able to live off an inheritance in a humane, damage-limited way; that despite being given great wealth and opportunity, he has remained small. The better to represent resentment with, my dear. The psychoanalyst Wilfrid Bion wrote about “the hatred of learning by experience,” that is, the wish that people harbor for magical, instant solutions, for shortcuts that bring the rewards of development without any of the tedium and effort that are customarily required: the dream of becoming rich by winning the lottery, of becoming strong by joining an armed militia, of becoming intelligent by having intelligence reports given to you. In Trump, the hatred of learning by experience had an impossible triumph. He wouldn’t mean the same thing if he had become the leader of the free world by working for it.

Trump’s supporters probably like it, therefore, that he doesn’t understand how the documents he collected function in a bureaucracy, and that he is willing and able to use his ignorance to distort the testimony that the documents do offer. For example, on page 15, the DOJ’s indictment quotes from a meeting at Trump’s Bedminster club on 21 July 2021 between Trump, a writer, a publisher, and two Trump staffers, one of whom, believed to be Margo Martin, recorded it. At the time of the meeting, Gen. Mark Milley, formerly chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, had recently told the press that during Trump’s last days in office, he had taken steps to stop any attempt by Trump to start a war. During the interview at Bedminster, Trump brandishes a plan to attack Iran that was prepared by the Defense Department, claiming that the plan was Milley’s and that the document detailing it proves that it was Milley not Trump who flirted with war. “This totally wins my case, you know,” Trump says. In fact, the plan had been drawn up earlier, when the chair of the joint chiefs was Joseph Dunford, and even if it had been produced under Milley’s chairmanship, it’s the responsibility of the Defense Department to draw up such contingency plans—there are almost certainly detailed plans for an invasion of Canada on a hard drive somewhere in the Pentagon at this very moment—and there’s nothing exceptional about the document itself. What’s exceptional is that it ended up in Trump’s hands, because that means that, while Trump was President, he asked to see it. In other words, if the document is evidence of anything, it’s evidence that Milley was right to be anxious that late in his regime, Trump might have been considering war. (This recorded conversation more or less proves the Justice Department’s case against Trump, by the way, because during it, Trump acknowledges that “This is secret information,” acknowledges that “as president I could have declassified it,” and acknowledges that “Now I can’t [declassify it], you know, but this is still a secret.” As the indictment drily comments, “At the time of this exchange, the writer, the publisher, and TRUMP’s two staff members did not have security clearances or any need-to-know any classified information about a plan of attack.”)

Though in this one instance, Trump seems to have tried to use a classified document as a political weapon, the primary meaning of the papers seems to have approached the sentimental. On 24 June 2021, Trump’s valet, Walt Nauta, texted Molly Michael two photos from the Mar-a-Lago storage room, showing banker’s boxes spilling their papers onto the floor. Two texts came from Michael’s phone in reply: “Oh no oh no” and “I’m sorry potus had my phone.”

“Oh no oh no”: an immediate, almost instinctual response. Was the injury inflicted on Trump by the sight of the spilled papers so sharp that he forgot whose phone he was holding? Or maybe he’s just in the habit of casually overwriting the identity of those around him. In the second text, Michael distances herself from the expression of dismay that Trump sent through her phone. She wants it to be clear to Nauta that she, at least, knows it’s not a tragedy if a box neglected in a storeroom has tipped over. Solicitude for things is embarrassing, especially when the things are being used to prop up vanity. Or maybe what’s embarrassing is when vanity so baldly takes a place in the psyche that should be reserved for emotions felt for people. In a text exchange reported on page 23 of the indictment, a “Trump family member,” probably Trump’s wife, Melania, also shows little patience with Trump’s investment in the boxes. “Not sure how many he wants to take on Friday on the plane,” this family member writes on 30 May 2022. “We will NOT have a room for them. Plane will be full with luggage.” The papers are just stuff, to the people around Trump. In a kind of self-defense, his intimates deny the papers have any larger import.

They know he doesn’t understand the papers, that the papers have no meaning for him beyond the greatness he thinks they reflect on him. In January 2022, Trump returned 15 boxes of papers to the National Archives, which, after the archivists found classified material in the boxes, triggered the DOJ’s investigation—and if you’re keeping score, left about 66 boxes in his keeping. Between 23 May 2022 and 2 June 2022, Nauta moved roughly 64 boxes from the Mar-a-Lago storage room to the rooms in Mar-a-Lago where Trump and his family live, at Trump’s request. Then, at around lunchtime on 2 June, Nauta and another employee returned 30 boxes to the storage room, in anticipation of a visit from “Trump attorney 1,” who has been identified as Evan Corcoran, who was arriving that afternoon to look through the boxes for government documents marked as classified, in response to a subpoena from the Department of Justice.

For the DOJ’s purposes, what’s telling here is that 34 boxes were withheld from Corcoran, deliberately and at Trump’s direction, so that Corcoran was never able to inspect them. For an understanding of Trump’s relationship to the papers, however, it’s perhaps also telling that Trump thought he could meaningfully sort through so many boxes in just a few days. Of the 64 boxes brought to Trump before Corcoran’s visit, 50 were brought to him on 30 May, and 11 on 1 June. In less than three days, therefore—and he probably didn’t spend the entirety of any of the three workdays on the task—Trump made a meaningful selection from more than sixty boxes of papers? On what basis? If he had been scanning only for security markings, maybe he could have grabbed most of the papers so marked, but if that had been his goal, why not let Corcoran see everything? No, Trump’s time with the papers was more personal. “I don’t want anybody looking, I don’t want anybody looking through my boxes, I really don’t, I don’t want you looking through my boxes,” Trump told Corcoran, according to Corcoran’s notes. What kind of selection was Trump making? Was he deciding which pages he could bear to surrender? There’s a hint here that he felt some mystical connection to the papers. During an earlier sorting, in January 2022, in advance of Trump’s surrender of fifteen boxes to the National Archives, Nauta seems to have helped Trump with the sorting; toward the end of the process, Nauta had to ask a colleague for “new box covers,” explaining that “They have too much writing on them…I marked too much.” The markings probably had to do with the contents of each box; it’s possible that the markings made it dangerously obvious that Trump and Nauta knew they were playing with classified material. In late May and early June, however, Trump seems to have done his sifting alone. Maybe his work was sped up by his having previously worked through the boxes with Nauta in January. Still, not even a crackerjack professional archivist at the top of his game could process more than sixty banker’s boxes of paper in less than three days. At best what Trump was doing, I suspect, was childish magic. A sorting by touching: one for me, one for them.

The odyssey of Trump’s papers doesn’t come to a neat conclusion. The indictment reports that on 3 June 2022, “NAUTA and others loaded several of TRUMP’s boxes along with other items on aircraft that flew TRUMP and his family north for the summer.” Presumably these boxes contained the papers most precious to Trump. Had these boxes returned south by the time the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago on 8 August 2022? At the time of the raid, Trump was in the New York area. If the precious papers were with him then, they would have escaped the FBI’s trawl. Perhaps they were seized by the FBI in a search of a Trump property in New York or New Jersey that hasn’t yet been reported. But they might still be in his hands.

Swimming in the undertow

My first inkling that Trump was where something had gone badly wrong in the American psyche came in the fall of 2015, when Peter and I went to a bar in Williamsburg to hear a friend read a short story. The emcee took a turn at the microphone himself, as his reward for having organized the literary evening, but instead of reading a story or poem, he read aloud from one of Trump’s ghost-written books. The choice of text was meant to be a joke, I think. A few sentences would have conveyed the gist: the book was horrible, and obvious in its horribleness, and representative in its horribleness of the person whose name was on the cover. The emcee, however, read for what felt like an hour.

It was excruciating. If the point was that we Brooklyn literary hipsters were superior to someone like Trump, and knew better than to be taken in by him, why was the emcee reading so many of his words? And why were we listening? I couldn’t figure out what was going on or what the emcee was getting out of it. He seemed to be in the grip of something, and we were in his grip. It was all happening under the sign of irony, but irony wasn’t the right word exactly. In retrospect I should have taken warning; at the time, of course, I just wanted it to be over.

I’ve thought back to the night many times in the past four years. It came to mind most recently when I was reading The Oppermanns, a remarkably lucid novel by Lion Feuchtwanger set in, and written in, 1933. The book, recently reprinted by the British feminist press Persephone Books, describes the lives of four Jewish siblings in Berlin, owners and managers of a chain of furniture stores, as they try to adjust to the rise of Hitler, referred to in the text only as “the Leader” or as “the author of the book called Mein Kampf.”

About a third of the way in, one of the siblings, Gustav Oppermann, who’s a bachelor and a bit of a playboy, in a bibliophile kind of way, is visited by a friend, Alfred François, the rector of an elite high school where two of Gustav’s nephews are students. One nephew has recently had a run-in with a new teacher, who happens to be a Nazi, and the rector wants Gustav to persuade his nephew to apologize. It has become dangerous to make Nazi enemies, and François intuits that he won’t be able to continue protecting Gustav’s nephew indefinitely. Once Gustav hears the story, however, and realizes that his nephew was in the right, he refuses to intervene, as a matter of principle, and the rector amiably gives up. After all, he doesn’t really want Gustav’s nephew to knuckle under. Having tried their best, to no avail, he and Gustav retire with relief to Gustav’s library, to chat about books. They are the most erudite characters in the novel, and Feuchtwanger pokes gentle fun at their erudition: the rector is said to be writing a book about the influence of the ancient Greek hexameter on an 18th-century German poet, and Gustav, to be writing a biography of a philo-Semite playwright from the same period. As a slightly perverse hobby, Gustav collects editions of the infamous anti-Semitic tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, then back in the zeitgeist, thanks to the rise of Nazism. After showing off his newest copy of the Protocols, Gustav picks up Mein Kampf and starts to “read some particularly juicy passages to his friend.”

Rector François covered his ears. He did not want to listen to the incorrect, distorted German of the book. Gustav spoke to him soothingly. On account of his repugnance for the style, he had evidently missed the comic quality of the content. He refused to be dissuaded from quoting a few passages.

Gustav proceeds to read aloud a few samples of Hitler’s name-calling, allegations, and conspiracy theories. “Rector François, disgusted as he was, had to laugh over this accumulation of nonsense,” Oppermann writes.

I felt the edge of this passage’s irony rather keenly.

I’ve been trying to stay logged out of Twitter, so I don’t know whether this week we’re making fun of people who see analogies between Trumpism and Nazism, or making fun of people who resist such analogies. In either case, I admit that as I read The Oppermanns, the analogies seemed to draw themselves. A character insists to himself that he still loves his country, despite what it has become. A character discovers, to his chagrin, that even people dear to him would rather minimize the new outrages to decency than see them for what they are (“It was disgusting to read the papers and disgusting to hear the row the Nationalists made. But who took that seriously?”), and that even people who are hurt by the new regime quickly accept their injury as part of a new status quo (“It was an old story that the Nationalists were dirty dogs. There was no need for anyone to come and tell them that”). What little I know of Q-Anon sounds very silly, but you would probably laugh over the claims in the Protocols of Zion, too, if, like François, Gustav, and (in 1933) Feuchtwanger, you didn’t know what they led to.

After a while, exhausted by my pessimism, I started to check my analogical bent by telling myself that it makes a difference that Trump does not have a paramilitary force at his command, independent of government control, as Hitler did, and that the misguided anarchists of our day have broken shop windows and mau-maued outdoor diners but have not yet given white supremacists the pretext that they are looking for—that is, our anarchists have not yet burned down the American equivalent of the Reichstag. And then I learned this week that a teenage white supremacist Trump supporter, responding to a call for law and order on Facebook, gunned down three protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, killing two of them, and that the shootings were later characterized by several pro-Trump TV pundits as a natural response to the protests in Kenosha, which the pundits saw as civic breakdown. So now the threat of attacks from vigilantes is indeed part of our political reality, and so is disingenuous justification of such attacks, and I have to fall back on consoling myself with the thought that the white supremacist in this case was a volunteer, not part of an organized militia. At least so far as we currently know. (A more sturdy consolation is that the American communities of color dog-whistled about and gaslit by Trump and the Trumpists are much more numerous, and therefore much less vulnerable, than Germany’s Jewish citizens were in 1933, when they comprised less than one percent of that country’s population.)

There’s a minor character in The Oppermanns named Friedrich Wilhelm Gutwetter who might be a portrait of Martin Heidegger. (Of course it’s possible that Feuchtwanger didn’t mean the reference to be that specific; there were no doubt many quisling intellectuals at the time.) At the opening of the novel, Gutwetter is a harmless-seeming, starry-eyed writer who happens to be fashionably pessimistic about the prospects of Western civilization. Since he’s oblivious to mere worldly concerns, it’s convenient that he is supported financially by Gustav Oppermann, who believes in his genius. When Gustav goes into exile, Gutwetter regrets his patron’s decision to leave with a curiously intense indignation, telling a mutual friend,

This country is about to give birth to a great new type of humanity. We have the enormous luck to be present at the birth of this gigantic embryo and to hear the first babblings of the noble monster. And our friend Gustav goes and runs away because one of the outcries of this nation in travail is offensive to his ears?

Gutwetter’s obliviousness to worldly matters, the reader senses, is starting to acquire an edge of intentionality. Gutwetter brings himself to accept Gustav’s exile to the extent of asking if he may borrow books from the library that Gustav has had to leave behind. Of course Gustav says yes. Before long Gutwetter succeeds in working his ideas about the new era’s new man into print, and soon he is enjoying a popularity that he believes to be world-historical:

He was not surprised that history had now, at last, made his, the poet’s, vision come true. The Nationalists, however, were surprised to find such a voice as his raised on their behalf. Almost all scholars, almost all artists of any standing, had turned their backs on the Nationalists. What a bit of luck it was that a great writer should now suddenly come forward to espouse their cause!

Feuchtwanger also makes an intriguing attempt to fathom the economics of fascism. He imagines that the Oppermanns have a less-successful rival in furniture-making, Heinrich Wels Junior, “a hard-working, reliable, slow-thinking man” whose error, in business strategy, is that he persists in having his employees craft tables and chairs by hand. By standardizing the designs of their furniture and by producing them more cheaply in factories, the Oppermanns have long been able to undercut his prices. “Had the recognition of solid merit died out in Germany?” Wels asks, aggrievedly. Well, no, Feuchtwanger explains; it’s just that most consumers care more about price. When Nazism comes along, Wels embraces it because “it freely expressed what Heinrich Wels had long secretly felt, namely that the Jewish firms with their cut-price methods were responsible for Germany’s decline.” After the Nazis put a higher tax on goods from the Jewish firm’s larger stores, Wels is able to come a little closer to competing with the Oppermanns on price—close enough that the new social stigma associated with buying from Jews is sometimes able to make up the difference.

A disconcerting aspect of The Oppermanns is that its moral universe seems continuous with ours—it’s a world in which people envy their neighbors’ apartments, and have mixed feelings about some of the poems in the national literary canon, and in which teenagers jockey for a chance to drive the family car—and incommensurate with that described in such Holocaust literature as Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. And yet one world turned into the other. Feuchtwanger is aware that the Nazis were setting up concentration camps, and even arranges for one of his characters to be imprisoned in one, but he doesn’t understand the full human meaning of such an institution; no one at the time could have. The book takes on an extratextual pathos; the reader realizes, that in 1933 Feuchtwanger couldn’t imagine that expropriations, beatings, humiliations, exile, and assassinations weren’t as bad as it could get.

An afterthought: While reading Jamelle Bouie’s roundup of the rightwing pundits who are acclaiming Kyle Rittenhouse for killing protesters in Kenosha, a link to which I have added above, I realized that the Rittenhouse story has a more specific parallel in The Oppermanns: When a teenager in Alfred François’s school, stirred up the new Nazi teacher’s fiery rhetoric, stabs to death a journalist who has made fun of Hitler’s writing style, Nazi pundits extenuate and even praise the murder in terms very much like those that Tucker Carlson, Ann Coulter, and others have used to justify Rittenhouse’s killings: “It soon turned out that [Rittersteg] was no scoundrel but a hero. The Nationalist newspapers published his photograph. They pointed out that, although the young man’s deed could not be unconditionally approved of, it was nevertheless easy to understand that a German youth would be aroused to do violence on account of the dead man’s dastardly assertions.”

Letter from my sofa

Over breakfast, Peter looked up from the paper to tell me that the New York Times has a word for what I do all day: “doomsurfing.” The trouble is that it’s hard to look away from a threat. Over the last few years, I have had bouts of being able to stay off social media that have lasted sometimes for months at a time, but in danger my instinct is to look at the danger, and after being stuck in the apartment for a week and a half, I can’t resist even a polluted conduit to friends and acquaintances. To judge by anguished emails from friends, I’m not the only person with this affliction. I suspect that writers are by inclination unusually susceptible to it.

“I need you to be on the team,” Peter said to me, an hour or two ago, when I interrupted his workday to tell him that Trump was bound to fire Fauci in a few days, if an interview that Fauci gave to Science magazine is any indication. Peter was repeating a sentence that I, insufferably, had said to him a few days earlier, when it had been his turn to spiral into anxiety. Another thing I’ve been hearing, in emails and in conversations with fellow dog walkers, is that longterm couples are having fights. Monogamy isn’t a strong enough word for the new cohabitation. On Saturday, Peter and I had a tiff because I wanted to take a long bike ride, and he felt he ought to go on it with me even though he’s not a fan of outer-borough biking. Halfway down Coney Island Avenue, we arrived the hard way at the realization that if we’re with each other 24/7, there’s no need for us to treat weekends as a special province of togetherness; it’s okay to do our own things.

Last week, when the mayor finally got around to advising people to stay in, I had the idea of writing a post on this blog that was going to say, Hey, guys, as a writer, I’ve been living the social distancing life for years, persisting for days and days without talking to anyone but husband and dog, and I think I should warn you. I didn’t, though, because the warning was just going to be depressing, namely, that after a few days of not seeing anyone but your significant other, you start to wonder what the point of your existence is, and to take irregularly timed naps, and to swing out into distant extravagances of mood. When you share physical space with groups of other people, you use them to keep your balance, and they use you to keep theirs, without anyone even necessarily being conscious of the use. A significant other goes a long way toward helping keep one’s balance but not far enough. One seems to need contact with a number of people sufficiently large to allow one to touch a kind of impersonality in person form. Joining a Cross Fit gym last fall helped give me this kind of regular challenging contact with other people, in a group that was structured but not controlled, but the city closed all gyms last Monday. I was probably the only person in New York City who sympathized with Mayor De Blasio’s profligate decision to go for one last workout. Online classes have been enjoyable but not quite the same. The separate physical space of the class provided a social affordance for slightly antisocial impulses, like showing off and competitiveness, a permission not quite extended when one is watching and repeating the movements from inside one’s domestic space. Over the years, I learned to recognize the early warning signs of too much isolation: irritability, weepiness, paranoid thinking. This tweet is really about me and it pisses me off and omg I think I’m going to cry! Now that I’ve shared what I know about the hazards of social distance, you see why I didn’t want to tell you: I don’t have a remedy. My remedy was always: you’re getting both squirrelly and dour, Caleb, which means it’s time to make plans to meet other people face-to-face. This weekend everybody suddenly seemed to be using the telephone again; maybe the phone will be a resource, and I for one am willing to give teleconferencing a try. But it’s possible that we’re all just going to have to suffer for a while, in separate cells. That’s going to suck.

We are social animals. Even in our isolations, everyone seems to be taking the same steps further into isolation at roughly the same time. There was the day when the directive to stay home made it hard to find alternate side parking because everyone was home and was on the spot to zip into the available parking spots. And then there was the day when it was easy, because everyone with a country house had absconded to it. “Love ya!” a neighbor shouted to me, yesterday morning, as she took the stairs instead of sharing the elevator with me, because yesterday was the day that everyone decided not to share the elevator anymore. It was also the day that strangers became wary of petting our dog. Just as a couple of days before was the day when it became not optional but required to wipe down the grocery cart handle.

I should end this post by making it clear that I understand sheltering in place to be as necessary as it is difficult. A friend who’s a young doctor, running a COVID-19 unit at a hospital in the city, wrote to me in an email yesterday: “Please do be very careful—I know that anecdote is not data and that I’m seeing precisely the worst cases, but I’ve just seen far too many intubations of otherwise healthy people over the past couple weeks, including some younger than me.” Another friend relays that a doctor-friend of his called last night to say that work in a hospital now feels like service in wartime. Confinement to the sofa may be durance vile, but it is the least that those of us not on the front lines can do.

Letter from the spices aisle

There was plenty of food to buy and there were few people shopping for it at Wegmans yesterday morning, which was probably about right for ten A.M. on a normal Friday. At the entrance, a policeman in uniform was standing in front of the citrus display, but he mostly seemed to be checking his phone. Am I overreacting? I wondered. I was at a grocery store instead of at my desk because I had thought that this wasn’t going to be a normal morning. Over breakfast, I had seen a tweet in my feed of empty shelves in Hokkaido, Japan, where a state of emergency had recently been declared on account of the coronavirus pandemic. Stores there had sold out of all paper products. I knew what happens to milk and bread at New York City grocery stores when there’s a rumor of a snowstorm, and had figured I had better sacrifice my hours for writing, which are never all that productive anyway.

I had a long shopping list. It didn’t make sense not to do the shopping for the week as well as for the apocalypse. I had instructed myself only to buy things that we regularly do eat and use. Oatmeal, farro—neither of which I could find, and I was too shy to ask, though Peter tells me that Wegmans does have both, the oatmeal we like apparently located in the “British” section of an ethnic foods aisle—canned beans, lentils. An exception: tunafish. In the early years of our relationship, Peter and I ate far too many servings of a dish we ended up calling “tunabeans” and now we almost never eat tuna from a can. But cans of tuna seemed very much like the sort of thing one eats at the end of the world. We joke a lot about how we’ll probably have to eat catfood in our old age, for example. I bought two.

Would two be enough? I wasn’t sure what I was planning for, exactly. Sheltering in place during some kind of general lockdown? Sweating out at home our own cases of coronavirus? (Would that even be legal?) I added a couple of cans of chicken noodle soup, which we allow our otherwise vegeta- and pescatarian selves to eat when we have respiratory ailments. But two cans of soup wouldn’t be enough if either of us actually did get sick. On the other hand, we weren’t sick yet. Maybe because it was hard to believe I was really buying groceries for a plague, I only seemed able to do it halfheartedly.

I bought a couple of boxes of tissues, even though I’m a handkerchief person, and as I put them in my cart, in my head I wrote a joke, which I later shared on Twitter, about how I was going to use them in a few weeks as currency, the way packs of cigarettes used to be traded in the gulag archipelago. Shopping in extremis seems to put me in mind of the Warsaw Pact. When I lived in Prague, decades ago, while Czechoslovakia was in a ditch between communism and capitalism, there were rolling, unpredictable shortages because farmers and other producers of goods were hoarding in anticipation of being able to get better prices once the new world order arrived. For a long time there were no potatoes; at one point, there was a run (as it were) on toilet paper, and on paper generally. Having been triggered by the Hokkaido tweet, I bought four rolls, and two of paper towels, in addition to the tissues. For years after Prague, I remained neurotic about keeping a stocked pantry, and about having candles and matches in a drawer somewhere in case the power went out. Half a dozen years ago I even made Verizon give us a backup battery when they insisted on replacing the good old-fashioned copper cable to our landline with a fiber optic one, which doesn’t transmit electricity. The phone company has a power system independent of Con Edison’s, and Verizon’s “update” was going to disconnect us from it. Now this backup battery is so old that it beeps an announcement of its death every few months, but as with most modern applicances, if you unplug it and then plug it back in, it resets and you get a little more life out of it. Just before leaving for the grocery store, in fact, it had been beeping and I had unplugged it anew.

When I started this essay, I thought I knew where it was going, but now I’m not sure.

When I got home, I saw out the window that our neighbors across the way have put up a Gadsden flag. That’s the yellow one with the snake asking not to be trodden. When I was a child, it was just a historical curiosity—I think it was around a fair amount during the bicentennial—but now it seems so dire. Last fall, when I visited my father, who lives in rural Texas, I was struck by how many houses in the state are flying “Trump 2020” flags. I don’t think I had ever seen flags for a political campaign before. Yard signs and bumper stickers, but not flags. And the presidential election was then still a year away! It suggested a shift in the kind of allegiance people were expressing. My parents both often tell me that I don’t understand what support for Trump is like in their part of the country now, and they’re probably right.

I put the groceries away, ate lunch, tried to do a little work. Later in the afternoon, on my bike on the way to Cross Fit, I decided I should write an essay about how shopping for a plague is reminding me of having lived once before in a society that was in crisis, but then I had been young and the disorder had seemed like an adventure and a challenge—like a story that I was visiting rather than one that I was described by. And Wegmans had been so calm! Maybe after all I was the one carrying around the anxiety about being able to provide in an emergency, perhaps on account of still being a writer, which doesn’t quite add up to a living. We still needed oatmeal and farro. There was a Whole Foods on the way back from Cross Fit, and after class, I stopped there on my bike ride home.

At Whole Foods, though I knew where to find the oatmeal we liked, there wasn’t any. “It’s getting pretty cleared out,” said an employee, when I asked if they really didn’t have that brand in stock. They still had another brand that we don’t like quite as much, so I took two bags of it. Then took another three, because we have oatmeal every morning. Would five be enough? There were still a few bags of farro; I took them. The only cans of beans still left were lesser-known varieties, but I already had enough beans. Most of the pasta shelves were empty. Maybe people who shop at Whole Foods are more avid news consumers than people who shop at Wegmans? Or maybe the mood of the city had changed over the course of the day? In which case perhaps it hadn’t actually been crazy of me to have gone to the store in the morning. I got in line with my few items, but while waiting, I started to feel anxious. Did I really have everything we needed? Had I gotten enough tunafish?

I went back. “We need QR codes for all of these,” one employee was saying to another, gesturing at empty shelves where cans of beans had been. “They just declared a state of emergency in California,” another employee volunteered. “The whole state?” I asked, shocked. “I don’t know because I haven’t had time to look into it,” he replied. (In fact, so far only a few counties in Califonia have declared emergencies.) I got more tunafish—four cans, this time. There were still two small boxes (not cans, this was Whole Foods) of chicken soup on the shelf, and they seemed to be the last ones. I took them, too. Before I left the aisle I remembered that we needed whole coriander, not for the apocalypse but just for our regular lives. Whole Foods doesn’t have whole coriander, only ground coriander, and I knew this, but “Walk Away, Renee” had started to play on the store loudspeakers, and Peter had told me last week that one of the members of the Left Banke had died recently, so I stood in front of the spices for a while as if to verify that they didn’t have whole coriander and it occurred to me while I was standing there trying to hold it together that this wasn’t going to be the first plague I had lived through, actually, even though this one looked like it was going to move a lot faster, and I suddenly had the feeling that I had had one night during Hurricane Sandy when I was scrolling through Twitter and came across a video of a Con Ed transformer exploding down by the East River—a feeling that everything was coming apart and that maybe it was going to be too much for me. I was fine, though, I knew. Peter and I were in good health (and even if we came down with coronavirus, we’d almost certainly be fine), and I was shopping for things like farro and steel-cut oatmeal. I was living in the richest country in the world. It’s just a sad song, I told myself.

On the ride home it occurred to me that if Trump loses in the fall, then by this time next year he won’t be President. In fact he won’t have been President for five weeks. This might not happen, of course, but it was pleasant to think about.