As twilight descends on the campaign trail, as we cross the boundary of the sordid saga of the New Hampshire primary, there are far fewer questions than there are answers. The romantic and naïve await this newfound lucidity, expecting to grow strong in their understanding, only to discover that ignorance is the mellifluous drink ending in enlightenment’s brutal hangover. In the vacuous state of unknowing, no absurdity is too tasteless to be dismissed as an impossibility; but in the cold and paralyzing limits of knowledge, each idea must be measured against itself before it can be so much as considered. Soon we will find ourselves so restricted, denied the opportunity to create a brighter future and compelled to reconstruct the unappealing past.
The only mystery is why anyone persists in struggling against the ineluctable. Why do people fight against that which they know they can’t halt? I’m not speaking of the fight for values, a fight which will be taken up, time and time again, even when those values appear to face an omnipotent threat. I’m speaking of the fight for transfiguration, the fight to force something to become what it is not. Tulsi Gabbard and her millions of supporters may be undertaking such a hopeless cause in fighting to reform the Democratic Party, to reverse its destructive and exploitative tendencies and transform it unto an agency of good. This desperate crusade against reality is especially common in politics, a field which surely wouldn’t exist if circumstances weren’t so brutally bleak.
Brighter and bolder critics than I have asked if politics is not the ritualistic manifestation of cynical madness. Are we encouraged, even coerced, to participate in the political game, lest we spend our collective energies on something more productive? Never has the implacable self-importance of American politicians been more aggressive: the political media relentlessly insists on the historical gravity of every word produced and every gesture performed, in Washington or in its digital mirror. Politics has always been synonymous with exploitation, but only in a culture as rigidly insulated as ours are people capable of believing in the process, even of praising it and its every feature, no matter how preposterous. Only in such a ridiculous culture can one find inspiration in something as outlandish as Deval Patrick’s presidential campaign.
The trouble with Patrick’s candidacy is not its impractical chance of success; unlike the decadent commentators in the corporate press, I would never discourage anyone from running for office on the basis of my arbitrary skepticism. The trouble is Patrick’s own dishonesty in running—or, to be more accurate, the nature of his dishonesty in running. Patrick is an uncommonly intelligent man, and he is perfectly aware, much more so than his most contemptuous critic, that he doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the Democrat Party nomination, much less the presidency. Even so, there is nothing inherently wrong with running: Gabbard recognizes the obstacles facing her, just as Ron Paul did several years ago, and like Paul, she is running, not to win, but to send a needed message of anti-imperialism, a message that is more accessible to the timid masses once it is delivered by a mainstream figure. Patrick is running to send a message, too, but his message is an advertisement for his own minor brand.
In the Trumpish Age, which is also the post-Weinstein epoch, Washington is the new Hollywood, and politics is the new celebrity. Each American has become, or is expected to become, a political scientist and philosopher, educated by a freshly politicized but bizarrely bipartisan pop culture. In the modern climate, there are myriad incentives to enter the ubiquitous political realm, incentives which are completely divorced from ideological commitment. As a cultural-industrial enterprise, Washington is far more accessible than Hollywood: anyone can create a website such as this or a YouTube channel such as mine, and if the last five years have taught us anything, it is that anyone can, and maybe even should, run for president.
Enter Deval Patrick, the former governor of the Bay State and a (former?) emissary of Bain Capital, who commenced his presidential campaign only after the unruly, overgrown field was believed to have finally settled. From the start, every corporate commentator warned that his efforts, no matter how spirited, would prove to be far too little, far too late. There isn’t any other reason why Patrick should be unappealing to the establishment, not while as he praises the impotent inertia of centrism, an impediment which allegedly won him Barack Obama’s silent endorsement. Patrick’s tardiness in entering the race may be all that stands between him and the presidential nod of the Democratic Party, but stand it does, and with so many mechanisms in place to limit the battle to the institutional heavyweights, why has Patrick bothered rising to his feet? Does he sincerely believe he is capable of a historic primary upset, or does he have some ulterior motive?
Hitherto, his candidacy has been a punchline. By speaking his name, one conveys the gluttony of this primary season, the disorienting excess of the fusillade: there can be no sharper illustration of the overload of candidates than the image of Patrick throwing his shopworn hat into the ring. Yet, hasn’t he achieved a countercultural notoriety, a state of anti-fame, precisely through his untimely entry? I met Michael Tracey at a Tulsi Gabbard rally on New Year’s Eve, and when I said I asked most of the presidential candidates about Julian Assange, his one question was: “Did you ask Deval Patrick?” At that moment, I recognized Patrick’s success in his fight for popular recognition: in an overcrowded room, he had carved out his own niche, not by being an irrelevant candidate, but by being the irrelevant candidate. Unorthodox curiosity surrounds him, just as, in the NFL, a reserved interest pertains to the final player chosen in the draft.
Football was on my mind as I arrived at a house party for Deval Patrick on Sunday, January 5th. I was joined by Christy Dopf, my friend and associate, with whom, the night before, I watched what might have been Tom Brady’s last game in New England. The imminence of his involuntary exit from the coliseum called to mind the impending finish to my own misadventures on the campaign trail, in particular the end of my time beseeching the candidates to defend Julian Assange. Soon, I will attend my last rally and ask my unpopular question for the final time, and while I’ll be thankful to hear no more platitudinous speeches, I have to wonder what will fill my weekend hours, what I can do to convince myself that I’m still useful. Perhaps it was in preparation for my own retirement that I encouraged Dopf to ask Patrick about Assange: if the moment is fleeting, then it’s the least I can do to share it.
This was the scene of the Michael Bennet house party that I had attended one month before. It was pretty unlikely that I’d be recognized, now that my hair had been cut and Dopf was apt to distract the other guests with her beauty. Nonetheless, I had a dreadful sense of ill-being, which might have even reached the depth of compunction, for entering the home of a couple who were clearly Blue No Matter Who, mingling with the loyal Democrats, and finally, exposing Patrick as an unworthy candidate, should he happen to go sideways in his answer. They couldn’t blame me after opening their home to the public, it is true, but the intimacy inherent to the occasion stopped me from being quite so clinical about it.
Dopf shared my trepidation, remarking on the difficulty of maintaining political objectivity in an environment such as this. “It’s a little nerve-wracking,” she later told me, “going into somebody’s home and putting a candidate on the spot, especially when the homeowner is a hardcore Democrat who has hosted so many hardcore Democrats, and you’re one of the only people asking those hard questions. That feels more like you’re intruding on someone’s personal space and the potential for backlash would be greater for you in that environment than in a traditional venue, like a town hall.”
The venue might have been unorthodox, at least for someone who was unaccustomed to pursuing politicians from one corner of New Hampshire to the next, but Patrick’s speech was anything but unique. “I’m different from the other candidates,” he told us, “because they have ideas, but I have results.” Every governor makes the same claim, distinguishing himself from the lowly legislators whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs, but Patrick’s record is truly singular; he just didn’t tell any of us about it. Patrick served under Bill Clinton as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, using his power to exonerate the FBI in the murder of a woman and her teenage son. In his tenure as Governor of Massachusetts, the state’s laboratory technicians were notorious for stealing illegal drugs, a problem which, as we already noted, was prominent throughout Kamala Harris’s reign in California. Nowadays, it is hard to imagine humans behaving any differently when they are trusted with narcotics, but ignorance is the mellifluous drink ending in enlightenment’s . . . Oh, wait, we already did this.
The attendees of the house party were commensurably amnesiac. None said a word about Patrick’s legacy of incorrigible incompetence and deliberate corruption, and like almost every Democrat to stump in the Trumpish Age, he focused more on the salient and superficial tenor of our discourse than he did on any legislative vision. We were as clueless on arrival as we were upon exit as to the design of Patrick’s ideology, though the ethereal insignificance of his shapeless agenda exhausted itself only when he fielded Dopf’s question about Julian Assange.
Patrick was the second candidate, and the second in a row, to plead ignorance on this subject, and this is the one reaction for which I was unprepared when I started pestering the candidates. This is not an obscure controversy; this is a federal case, pursued for the last decade, encompassing several unforgettable scandals. Even if Patrick were telling the truth, and there is no reason to believe that he is, why should we respect, let alone defer executive power to, this benighted man? As my friend and associate Plucille observes, we wouldn’t accept such naivete on the subject of foreign affairs, so why should he be forgiven for his ignorance of the case against Assange?
By exposing his own nescience, Patrick completes his ineffectual cycle, moving from irrelevance to anti-irrelevance and returning to a state of plain irrelevance. He is so intellectually insipid that no one was stirred by his meaningless answer, or even by Dopf’s antedating question. “If anybody was upset with me,” she said, “I didn’t observe it, and no one expressed a distaste for my question.” How could anyone find her question distasteful when a rally for Deval Patrick lacks taste, when a rally of this sort is predicated on the absence of taste, on the absence of a definitive trait? Vapidity, even garish vacuousness, permeates every corporate campaign, although the colorless carnival hit its anticlimactic nadir only now, in Patrick’s perfunctory pinwheeling. Did we achieve anything in asking him this question? Did he accomplish anything in failing to respond?
Well, there is some good news: we have taken one step towards the grand finale, towards the day when, at long last, we can stop attending these ridiculous rallies and retire from the embarrassing circus. In other words, we are one step closer to the last crusty spot at the bottom of the barrel, the spot in question being Tom “Tom 2020” Steyer.
To be concluded.