From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
Imagine If You Can the Death of the Prison House
by Kevin Killian
“That Donald Trump became president is the most unimaginable thing that has ever happened in my life,” declared American satirist Fran Lebowitz from the stage of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre when I went to see her recently. “People say, ‘He earned a billion dollars,’” she quoted, with a heavy accent on the word earned. A beat, while the enormity of the paradox sunk in. “Nobody ever earned a billion dollars,” she shouted. “People earn ten dollars an hour. When you hear people talking about a billion dollars, every one of them dollars was stolen.”
I should back up. Righteous baby boomers like myself used to quiz our parents about the rise of Hitler, trying to find out how such a thing could occur without mass protest. I feel sorry now for my parents, whom I troubled with my scorn, because they didn’t have any answers. People were doing their jobs—they didn’t know—nobody could have known. That was the gist of it. We young ones were all like, “What on earth do you mean nobody noticed?”
In retrospect, under a similar challenge to democracy, the answers that eluded me come clear. Trump was elected—and I now expect Hitler was, too—to help a tiny slice of super-wealthy corporations slide all the money there is up to the top. The art was all in distraction, the disruption of attention. I don’t know whom Hitler owed his rise to, but if there were billionaires involved the little people would never know it.
In her prop chair Fran Lebowitz wriggled, as if warming to her theme. She was speaking to a house peppered with Berkeley liberals, people who had voted for both Clintons, who had given Obama eight years. “Billionaires should be forbidden from holding public office,” she announced. The lady behind me cried, “Throw them all in jail!” Beside her a stone-cold judge intoned, “They shall be put to death.”
The privatization of every square foot on earth and the premium of ever more desperate labor forces, cheaper than the ones we had before are the neoliberal techniques that produced the catastrophe of Trump: a steady, if sometimes obscure, progression from Hitler to Reagan, Clinton, and Obama, to Trump. We ask ourselves how the grand New Deal passions of racial equality and support for the working class were so speedily trampled over, reduced to the status of jokes. Because it was in the interest of a few oligarchs, the ones who hold the future of the world in their hands today, for it to happen. At this rate the planet won’t last long.
Maybe it was always in the cards that the United States should forget it was planned, by some lights, to be a good place. Can I even publish my hopes for armed revolution here? We should get rid of Trump because of all the acts of sedition he has committed, and continues to commit daily. Every syllable he speaks, every round of golf he plays, every combover is an action to bring down the system of government we once thought we understood. Let’s dispose of him by any means necessary, like he was some kind of word virus.
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Kevin Killian is a poet, novelist, playwright, and editor. His most recent book is Tony Greene Era.