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.”

Notebook: The Wilmington Coup of 1898

“City Limits,” my review-essay about a white supremacist coup that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, is published in the 27 April 2020 issue of The New Yorker. The online title is “What a White-Supremacist Coup Looks Like.”

What follows is a bibliographic supplement, crediting some of the sources I drew on. It probably won’t make much sense unless you read the review itself first!

As always, my first debt is to the book under review, David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, published by Atlantic Monthly Press. It’s the capstone to more than a century of attempts to bring the coup into America’s consciousness.

As I mention in my article, two of the earliest such attempts were novels by African Americans. Hanover; or, the Persecution of the Lowly was written by David Bryant Fulton, under the pen-name Jack Thorne, and was published in 1900. There’s an electronic text in the online archive Documenting the American South, though I found the scan in the Internet Archive easier to make sense of. (By the way, I’m mad at the Internet Archive right now for using the pandemic as a pretext for giving away the copyright of living authors, even though I appreciate their hosting of scans of 120-year-old books.) Hanover is a fascinating but unstable text. It opens by reprinting an Associated Press news story, and Fulton doesn’t seem to have been able to decide whether he wanted his book to be fiction or non-fiction. Sometimes a person appears in one chapter as himself, under his real name, and in another as a fictional character, under a pseudonym.

Intriguing side note #1: Fulton up-ends the late-19th-century literary conventions for dialect: uneducated black characters speak in dialect, as they often do in novels of the period, but so do some uneducated white ones. “Who ish mine frients?” asks a German grocer, for example, who, as it happens, sides with the blacks in Wilmington, since they’re his customers. The racist “poor white” Teck Pervis, who seems to be a fictionalized version of the real-life white supremacist Mike Dowling, is given a gerbilly, nasal way of speaking that reminded me of the satire of “white voice” in the recent movies Blackkklansman and Sorry to Bother You. Intriguing side note #2: Fulton hints that there’s something unorthodox about the gender identity of one of his characters, Uncle Guy, a dancer and clarinet soloist in a shoo-fly band that used to play during the black post-Christmas holiday known as Jonkonnu: “he was the embodiment of neatness, feminine in build—it seemed that nature intended to form a woman instead of a man,” Fulton writes.

Mounted albumen print of Alexander Manly, in the John Henry William Bonitz Papers #3865, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The second novel about Wilmington in 1898, Charles W. Chesnutt’s novel about Wilmington, The Marrow of Tradition, published in 1901, is better known today. There’s a Library of America volume for Chesnutt, and the Norton edition of Marrow has a great historical supplement in back. Chesnutt’s book has a more conventional novelistic shape and heft. It may conform a little too well to convention; the creaking is audible as the machinery of the love-plot grinds forward, and a child in peril is introduced to force the reconciliation of people who in real life would probably have been irreconcilable. Like Fulton, Chesnutt is at pains to give an accurate representation about the outrage that enveloped the Daily Record, the African American newspaper in Wilmington, after its editor, Alex Manly, breached taboo by writing about white women’s sexuality. In fact, sexual purity wasn’t the point, Chesnutt writes: “A peg was needed upon which to hang a coup d’état.” Instead of attempting a full representation of the racial violence that broke out in the city, Chesnutt draws an em dash and makes an aposiopesis: after noting that on the day of the massacre, armed whites challenged and searched every black they met on the street, he writes, “If he resisted any demand of those who halted him—but the records of the day are historical.” There are too many scholarly articles about Chesnutt to list here! Richard Yarborough compares Fulton’s and Chesnutt’s fictionalizations (and provides keys that identify the real-life figures behind the characters) in a chapter titled “Violence, Manhood, and Black Heroism,” in David S. Cecelski and Timothy B. Tyson, eds., Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy (University of North Carolina, 1998).

As I note in my article, the third book-length fictionalization of the coup was a white supremacist one, Thomas Dixon Jr.’s The Leopard’s Spots, published in 1902. It’s best-seller garbage, not to put to fine a point on it—a pure indulgence of resentment and grandiosity. Here’s a solid if dated article about it: Maxwell Bloomfield, “The Leopard’s Spots: A Study in Popular Racism,” American Quarterly 16 (1964): 387–401.

'Destruction of the Record Office, in Wilmington Yesterday,' undated clipping from unknown newspaper, in a Manly Family Scrapbook at the Cape Fear Museum of History and ScienceI’m going to jump ahead now to the scholars and other writers who recovered the historical memory. In The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina, 1894–1901, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1951, Helen G. Edmonds comes across as a patient, commonsensical person with a sly sense of humor; a reader imagines her armed with a small pick, chipping away steadily at white supremacist gunk that has hardened over the facts. In We Have Taken a City: Wilmington Racial Massacre and Coup of 1898, published by Fairleigh Dickinson Press in 1984, H. Leon Prather Sr. painted the conflict in brighter colors and with a looser hand, perhaps because he was writing after the civil rights movement. (Prather’s book seems to be out of print, but you can find used copies pretty easily.) There are a number of useful essays in the Democracy Betrayed anthology mentioned just above, especially Glenda E. Gilmore’s “Murder, Memory, and the Flight of the Incubus” and Michael Honey’s “Class, Race, and Power in the New South.” I’ve come to believe that for every important historical subject, there’s an indispensable dissertation that should have become an acclaimed book but for some reason never did. In this case, that dissertation is Jerome A. McDuffie’s “Politics in Wilmington and New Hanover County, North Carolina, 1865–1900: The Genesis of a Race Riot,” written for his 1979 degree at Kent State University. The novelist Philip Gerard reimagined the coup and massacre in his 1994 novel Cape Fear Rising (John F. Blair). In an essay titled “Revising the Revisionists,” published on the website the Rumpus, Gerard was interviewed about the role that his novel played in Wilmington’s recovery of its historical memory. The interviewer was one of his students, the novelist Johannes Lichtman (disclosure: a friend, after I raved about his novel Such Good Work in a newsletter last year). Gerard himself wrote about his research process and the ethical questions he wrestled with in “The Novelist of History: Using the Techniques of Fiction to Illuminate the Past,” North Carolina Literary Review, 2015. The original 2006 report of North Carolina’s official investigation into the coup is available for download; LeRae Sikes Umfleet streamlined and revised this report into the 2009 book A Day of Blood: The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot, published by the North Carolina Office of Archives and History. It’s copiously illustrated with maps and photos. Don’t be thrown by the format, which makes it look like a high school social studies workbook; it’s perhaps the most thorough treatment of the coup, even if Zucchino’s has a bit more narrative zing. Not long after North Carolina’s report was released in 2006, the Raleigh News & Observer published a reckoning with its own legacy of participation in the ordeal, “The Ghosts of 1898,” by Timothy B. Tyson.

'Gentlemen, Day of Race Riot, 1898,' Dr. Robert M. Fales Collection 602, New Hanover County Public Library A number of the primary sources unearthed by these scholars are now available online, thanks to several web projects. In 2007, the curator Nicholas Graham published “The 1898 Election in North Carolina,” an online exhibition for the University of North Carolina libraries, where you can find, for example, the Democratic Handbook 1898, which put in writing the party’s white supremacist platform that year, and racist political cartoons by Norman E. Jennett, also known as Sampson Huckleberry, that Josephus Daniels published in the Raleigh News & Observer, including the one of a black vampire that I mention in my article. For more on the cartoons, see Andrea Meryl Kirshenbaum’s article “The Vampire That Hovers Over North Carolina: Gender, White Supremacy, and the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898,” Southern Cultures (1998), and 
Rachel Marie-Crane Williams’s ” A War in Black and White: The Cartoons of Norman Ethre Jennett & the North Carolina Election of 1898,” Southern Cultures (2013).

Also in 2007, Karin L. Zipf put together the website “Politics of a Massacre: Discovering Wilmington 1898,” hosted by East Carolina University, where you can find in the bibliography section a scan of “The Story of the Wilmington Rebellion,” the perhaps somewhat inadvertently revealing pamphlet that the volunteer white supremacist historian Harry Hayden self-published in 1936, as well as a 1954 typescript by Hayden titled “The Wilmington Light Infantry Memorial,” about the state guard troops involved in the massacre and coup (the site’s internal link to Hayden’s history of the W.L.I. is broken, so use my link here). Zipf’s site also links to “A Statement of Facts Concerning the Bloody Riot in Wilmington, N. C. Of Interest to Every Citizen of the United States,” the Baptist preacher J. Allen Kirk’s narrative of hiding his wife and niece in a cemetery after the massacre and dodging lynchers as he fled Wilmington by train (though the text is hosted by UNC’s Documenting the American South).

In 2012, the Cape Fear Museum of Science and History shared on Flickr a set of images related to the Wilmington coup, including a four-page letter that Caroline “Carrie” Sadgwar Manly, widow of the Daily Record newspaper editor Alexander Manly, wrote to her children in 1954, describing how her late husband escaped from Wilmington after white supremacists made one of his editorials the pretext for a massacre. The museum later shared on its own website a scrapbook of newspaper clippings given by the Manly family.

A couple of other primary sources: I quote a Democratic newspaperman who recalled in his memoirs that the whites in Wilmington had prepared for the coup six to twelve months prior to pulling it off. His name was Thomas Clawson, and the typescript of his memoir is available in the online finding aid to his papers at the University of North Carolina. I also quote a Populist who joked that everyone believed the rumors of a black uprising except those who invented it; his name was Benjamin F. Keith, and his memoirs, published in 1922, are online at the Internet Archive.

Between 2015 and 2019, the Third Person Project, founded by the writers and history buffs John Jeremiah Sullivan, Joel Finsel, and Trey Morehouse, recruited a group of eighth graders to track down as many surviving copies of Manly’s Daily Record as they could find. Thanks to their detective work, seven issues are now online at the website Digital NC, which is hosted by the Cape Fear Museum, UNC–Chapel Hill, and the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The Third Person Project went on to hunt through other surviving 19th-century newspapers for articles and squibs that had been reprinted from Manly’s Daily, and then put together what they call a “Remnants Issue” of these shored-up fragments. Sullivan (disclosure: another friend, in this case of long standing) also wrote about the Wilmington coup in his recent New Yorker profile of the folk singer Rhiannon Giddens.

Last but not least, the story of the revival of awareness of the coup and massacre in Wilmington today is traced by Lichtman in the article linked above, and also in Melton Alonza McLaurin’s article “Commemorating Wilmington’s Racial Violence of 1898: From Individual to Collective Memory,” Southern Cultures (2000).

Would fiscal stimulus during a pandemic cause inflation?

I’ll start by noting that over the past couple of decades, it has proved far less necessary to worry about inflation than most economists have long thought. Economists used to believe in something called the Phillips curve, for example, which asserted that the odds of inflation rise as the rate of unemployment descends. They even used to believe that they could use the Phillips curve to make predictions. The last half decade of low, low unemployment and low, low inflation has trashed that faith. Median wages have only begun to inch up in real terms very recently, and these days many economists believe that the US economy could make profitable and noninflationary use of even more fiscal stimulus than it has received. There’s been a fair amount of fiscal stimulus under Trump; deficit spending has soared in a way that Republicans would never have permitted under a Democratic President, and yet all the indicators have toddled happily along nonetheless. The Fed is so far from worrying about inflation these days that its great fear of late seems to be that it has kept interest rates so low for so long that if it needs to add fiscal stimulus by monetary means, there’s not much lower it can go.

All of this is by way of saying, it’s a little perverse at the moment for me to even raise the specter of inflation, and I know it. Let me explain what made me think to ask the question.

In the 1970s, Keynesian economics failed to explain the combination of high unemployment and high inflation that became known as “stagflation.” This intellectual failure gave a policy opening to Friedman’s monetarism and, a decade later, to Thatcher and Reagan’s neoliberalism. Did Keynesianism fail because its premises were wrong, as Friedman and other advocates of shrinking the government asserted, or because the Keynesians were misreading the economic signals at the time? This is a big debate among economists. Among the most striking economic signal in the 1970s were the spikes in the real price of oil. Looking through the decade’s numbers, I’ve been impressed by the fact that real food prices seemed to spike in tandem with real oil prices, which makes sense, given that modern agriculture is driven by fossil fuel, via fertilizer and farm machinery. In other words, during the 1970s, two costs that an average working person could not forgo, food and fuel, both rose relative to the prices of other goods, leaving workers with less to spend on any other category, and as Keynes showed, the spending of people with less income is far more crucial to the strength of the economy than the spending of those at the top. This leads me to wonder, in my amateur, I’m-only-a-novelist-playing-at-economics way, if an economic crisis caused by a sudden rise in the cost of core goods might be different in kind from an economic crisis caused by a collapse in demand. Maybe the right remedy for one might not be beneficial for the other?

There’s a suggestion of this in an endnote to Binyamin Appelbaum’s new book, The Economists’ Hour. Appelbaum believes that Keynesianism can be reconciled with the conditions of the 1970s:

Stagflation can be explained in a Keynesian framework, but the explanation was not well understood at the time. The gist is that higher oil prices forced people to reduce consumption of oil, or of other goods, which increased unemployment. The United States responded with an economic stimulus, driving up inflation. Why was the stimulus ineffective? The original problem was a decline in the supply of oil, so pumping money into the system drove up prices. It was a demand-side response to a supply-side problem. Nations that refrained from stimulating their economies, including Germany and Switzerland, experienced an economic downturn but did not experience higher inflation.

My question is whether a COVID-19 pandemic, if it does break out in America (this coming fall if not this spring or summer), might be more like the 1970s oil crisis than like the 2009 financial crisis. In America, as in all industrialized economies, the bulk of the economy long ago shifted away from manufacturing to service. But during a pandemic, the supply of services is bound to contract, as people stay home from work because of either illness or fear of illness. And if services end up suffering a supply-side shock—if there are suddenly far fewer people offering services—will pouring money into the economy help? (Pouring in money is what a number of policy makers are now contemplating.) If far fewer people are healthy or brave enough to cut your hair, babysit your children, or deliver your groceries, because they’re all sheltering in place in their homes, won’t juicing the economy merely drive up the price of these services, without doing much to increase the number of people available to perform them?

I’m offering this only as speculation. I may have misunderstood some of the economic fundamentals here; for example, in the gig economy we have now, all those haircutters, babysitters, and grocery deliverers will probably be abruptly without income during a pandemic, and maybe the demand-side shock caused by their loss of income will cancel out any supply-side shock caused by their sudden withdrawal of services, and so they’ll need to get some new money in their wallets after all. Or it may be the case that the underlying capacity of the economy to absorb more stimulus is still simply greater than any compromise of that capacity that might be inflicted by the pandemic’s shock to the supply of services.

UPDATE, 6:20pm: I just discovered that Appelbaum himself raised more or less exactly this issue, more cogently, in an online op-ed at the New York Times a few days ago:

Cutting rates is not an effective antidote for the coronavirus. Lower interest rates increase economic growth by driving up demand, while the disruptions caused by the spread of the virus are reducing the supply of goods. Cutting rates won’t address that “supply shock.” It won’t hasten the return of Chinese workers to factories, or speed ships across the Pacific.

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.

Working-class heroes

In the 26 August 2019 issue of The New Yorker, in an article titled “State of the Unions,” I review two new books on labor, Steven Greenhouse’s Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor and Emily Guendelsberger’s On the Clock: How Low-Wage Work Drives America Insane. Please check it out!

A few source notes: Very helpful to me in writing the review were Jake Rosenfeld’s wonky deep dive into union data, What Unions No Longer Do (2014), Nelson Lichtenstein’s humane and insightful State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (revised ed., 2013), and Greenhouse’s earlier collection of war stories, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker (2008). I also drew on Philip Dray’s There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America (2010), Joseph A. McCartin’s Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America (2011), and Kirstin Downey’s The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins—Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage (2009).

Most of the statistics in my review came from the books named above, with a few exceptions: In estimating that the proportion of union members in the labor force dropped from 12.2 percent in 1920 to 7.5 percent in 1930, I drew on Joshua L. Rosenbloom’s data, “Union membership: 1880–1999,” presented as table Ba4783 in Historical Statistics of the United States, Millennial Edition On Line, edited by Susan B. Carter, Scott Sigmund Gartner, Michael R. Haines, Alan L. Olmstead, Richard Sutch, and Gavin Wright (Cambridge, 2006) and on David R. Weir and Susan B. Carter’s data, “Labor force, employment, and unemployment: 1890–1990,” presented as table Ba470 in the same online sourcebook. In estimating that the proportion dropped from 35 percent in 1954 to 10.5 percent in 2018, I drew on Gerald Mayer’s Union Membership Trends in the United States (Congressional Research Service, 2004), p. 22, table a1, and on Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson’s Union Membership and Coverage Database from the Current Population Survey. In calculating the rate of strikes per decade, I drew on the data in the Bureau of Labor Statistics chart “Annual work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers, 1947-2018.”

The researchers, mentioned at the end of my article, who found a link between children’s having union parents and earning more later in life were Richard Freeman, Eunice Han, David Madland, and Brendan V. Duke in their working paper, “How Does Declining Unionism Affect the American Middle Class and Intergenerational Mobility?” (2015, NBER 21638). The researchers who found that right-to-work laws suppress voter turnout and Democratic vote share were James Feigenbaum, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, and Vanessa Williamson in their working paper “From the Bargaining Table to the Ballot Box: Political Effects of Right to Work Laws” (2018, NBER 24259).