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“History is written by the winners, so it largely depends on who’s writing the history.”
—William Barr, US Attorney General
“The world has become a Mel Brooks movie, grown sentient and hostile.”
—Jon Bingham, ca. 2018
January 20, 2017. I traveled east on I-84 toward Gresham, Oregon, as dawn broke over the hills. Up ahead Mt. Hood loomed in the distance – a pointy dark void in the sunrise, like someone had carved out a space where the sun should be. I sipped coffee out of a travel mug and stared at nothing in particular. This is it, I thought. The last cup of coffee of the Obama administration.
That day I had come to Gresham High School to impersonate Crystal Hansen, English teacher, gone for reasons never specified in the sub notes. During my second hour class I managed to steal away to the teacher’s desk to take a peek at the inauguration ceremony on CNN. He had already been sworn in. Within the small muted square of the CNN livestream, Donald Trump, now 45th President of the United States, moved his lips inaudibly in front of the cameras, giving his inaugural address to the nation. What is he saying to us? I wondered, a question that would occupy my waking mind on and off for the next four years.
January-February, 2017. The days went by. I watched, transfixed, as White House press secretary Sean Spicer appeared on my television screen. I found myself wondering: who was Sean Spicer, and why was he so angry? What compelled him to berate members of the press like a middle-school principal? He told us, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,” an obvious falsehood. He told us, “The President’s tweets speak for themselves,” whatever that meant. He told us some things without even trying. There was the press conference in which he appeared at his podium with his American flag pin turned upside-down on his suit coat. People across the Internet and Twittersphere spent much of the day pondering its significance: what did this mean? Was he trying to tell us something vital about the state of the Republic? Was it a coded signal of distress? A cry for help? Nobody seemed to have a clue, least of all Spicer himself.
In some ways, the man seemed just as lost as the rest of us.
During a graduate-level English class I was taking at the time, we discussed Sean Spicer, both as a person and as a symbolic construct. “It’s interesting to see him come up against walls of discursive desire,” our instructor told us. “He’s someone who is not comfortable in his symbolic space.” This struck me immediately as true: Sean Spicer seemed to struggle almost daily with his role as a symbolic entity. What did it mean to be at home in one’s symbolic space? Was I at home in my own symbolic space? Were any of us? As a substitute teacher, I also found myself on shaky symbolic ground. My job was to show up at the appointed time, fulfill a bare minimum of my professional responsibilities, and disappear at the end of the day like nothing happened. Much like Spicer himself. There seemed to be something in his eyes that haunted me. A certain emptiness, a discomfort; something troubling him, perhaps, about his role in the administration.
At least, this was the story I wanted to believe.
I began to suspect, after a time, that this administration was suffering from a crisis of narrative. That it affected the press secretary in particular – the person responsible for explaining its actions to the rest of us – struck me as especially significant. Around this time I read an article online titled, “Sean Spicer’s 11 Worst Moments Since Becoming Trump’s Press Secretary,” featuring subheadings like, “The Time He Tweeted His Own Password,” “That Time He Staked the Claim That Donald Trump Doesn’t Own a Bathrobe,” and “The Time He Announced Donald Trump Was Going to Be His Own Housing Secretary.” All of it seemed to point to a weird meta-narrative developing around the White House in which the press secretary himself generated headlines rather than merely announcing them. Maybe this was simply the dawn of a new era, the first postmodern presidency. Maybe this is what the op-ed columns meant when they referred to “the new normal.”
March 2017. This “new normal” seemed to follow me throughout my day-to-day life, a sort of mood or general ambiance.In March, for example, I found myself at Milwaukie High School subbing for a Mr. Nathan Ware, whose classes consisted entirely of study hall. The room was cavernous and inexplicably huge, and seemed curiously shorn of the usual classroom decor – maps, student projects, motivational posters. Instead there were heavy cinder block walls painted white, and several pillars that ran floor to ceiling, spaced out at regular intervals. The ventilation system blew cold frigid air, whistling absurdly through some trick of the airflow like a cliche “wasteland” scene on a movie set. There were no windows.
“What happened to Mr. Ware?” a student asked. “He must be really sick, huh?”
“No, he’s fine,” I replied. “He’s just at a golf tournament.” I pointed to a space with “boys golf” scrawled in black pen. “It’s right here on the calendar.”
He looked skeptical. “Ok… But you’d tell us if he like, you know, died, right?”
“Well yeah,” I said. “I have no reason to believe that any harm has come to Mr. Ware at this time. But if I hear anything I’ll let you know.”
He nodded, returned to his seat and proceeded to stare at nothing in particular for the rest of the hour. The air vent whistled softly in the void. I was sure Mr. Ware was alive and well, but I had no way to verify this. My job was simply to deliver the official message to the students on behalf of the school: Mr. Ware is alive and well. Now do your homework. It wasn’t a press conference, exactly. But I did get the word out.
April 2017. I stood outside Gresham High School in the rain, surrounded by staff and students. The fire alarm blared through the parking lot, across the neighborhood, signifying an emergency, a fire, an existential threat to the school. This was not a planned drill. The students’ work, as well as my teaching materials and my own coursework, had been left behind, possibly burning to ashes at that very moment. The students stood around in groups, huddled loosely with their classmates and largely indifferent to what was happening inside. So far, at least, the school remained intact. But my own students were nowhere to be seen. In the distance I could see a few students casually stroll out of the parking lot, drifting off to parts unknown with nobody moving in to stop them. More joined in, one or two at a time, out through the fence, into the town of Gresham, to the gas station, the pizza parlor, the Mexican restaurant across the street whose name I could never remember. They moved through the crosswalk, off the edge of the parking lot and into the day. I looked out across Gresham, past the monolithic boxy shapes of the school grounds, the blacktop, the old brick building possibly burning down where we stood, the chain-link fence surrounding the perimeter. All of it felt significant, somehow, in a way I couldn’t really explain.
The sirens in the distance grew louder. The traffic remained largely oblivious as it droned on along Division Street. The rest of us stood around and waited, trying to figure out what it all meant. It wasn’t easy to tell. There was still no official word yet from the administration.
May–June, 2017. The printer whirred to life. I watched a single sheet of paper move through the rollers of the machine, heavy with ink.
The face of Sean Spicer stared back at me.
This was my “Garden Spicer”: newly printed and endlessly replicated through the wonders of modern technology.
According to a piece in the Washington Post, shortly after the president fired James Comey – director of the FBI and leading the investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia – Spicer attempted to evade reporters’ questions by hiding in the bushes outside of the White House press office. Soon after, the “Garden Spicer” began making its rounds online: a downloadable PDF image of the press secretary’s face for display in – or among – the bushes. I began seeing them here and there, in the lawns of my neighborhood, left by parties unknown. And now I had one too. I took it down to the bushes at the end of my street and gently placed him there, half-obscured by the foliage, as the sun set over the houses of Portland. I think of him even now: Sean Spicer, White House Press Secretary. Sean Spicer, wishing only to hide from the press, to disappear into the bushes, into a maze of hedges where no camera could penetrate. It isn’t so hard to imagine. Spicer had, in that moment, transcended his physical form. He had become a two-dimensional paper cutout of himself, an endlessly-replicated symbolic construct that signified whatever it was he had come to signify. Perhaps returning him to the grass and shrubs was the most humane thing we could do: to let him disappear into the American landscape, to depart as air as Walt Whitman intended. Perhaps he would at last be one with the land and people – accepted, forgiven, reabsorbed into the lawns of our nation.
Sean Spicer is gone now, of course – replaced briefly by Anthony Scaramucci, the White House Communications Director who lasted ten days in the position, followed by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who lasted longer, then Stephanie Grisham, who never held an actual briefing, and finally Kayleigh McEnany, who remains with us still. But Sean Spicer is the only one I can recall with any clarity, even though all that I know of him has been beamed down from telecom satellites in outer space. Perhaps Sean’s crisis of narrative, his unease with the symbolic role he played within the administration, had become my own, as well.
Not long after, I listened to a Democracy Now! podcast featuring writer and activist Naomi Klein. “Trump is not playing by the rules of politics,” she said,
“He’s playing by the rules of branding. … The game changer for him was The Apprentice. That’s when he realized he could enter the stratosphere of the superbrands. … He was about building up the Trump name and then selling it and leasing it in as many different ways as possible.”
And so it goes. Trump – the name, the logo, the corporate brand – no longer signifies a person so much as an abstract entity leasing the Trump name to others. There is Trump cologne, Trump golf courses, Trump natural spring water, the Trump Home Furniture Collection, Trump-brand steaks, a line of Trump menswear, and the much-maligned “Trump University,” now closed for good. I think of Trump Tower, rising out of the cityscape of New York, gleaming in the sunlight. I think of the Trump logo, replicated on buildings across the world, a symbol for something now impossible to define. Maybe by now the Trump name has come to mean whatever we want it to mean. I look back at these scenes and wonder where this leaves us now, in the year 2020, as we head into campaign season amid numerous crises, both real and self-inflicted. I ask myself where it all fits in the symbolic universe I inhabit. It’s hard to say. I really have no idea at this time.
January 20, 2017. 10:55 pm. The city was restless. In the distance I could hear the drone of police helicopters and a voice shouting through a megaphone at the protesters gathered in downtown Portland. Outside the bar I found my bike and unchained it from the corral. On the way home the lights shone across the Willamette like constellations, to all appearances the same as it ever was. But something seemed to have shifted in the past 24 hours. The world felt different, somehow, in a way that was difficult to describe. What was it? I saw the usual graffiti along Eastbank Esplanade, flying past in jagged script and spray-painted onto the cement. Some of it spelled out words and aliases, some merely symbols that I could not decipher. I wondered what it meant. I found myself unable to interpret any of it, and I wondered if this, too, meant something.
Overhead the traffic roared across the concrete overpass like a river, ancient and timeless, winding its course through the city. I told myself that today was just another day in Portland, that nothing had really changed. It will all make sense tomorrow, I thought, as I made my way through the winding streets of my city, to sleep it off, whatever it was.
Kevin Hadsell is a writer and teacher living near Portland, Oregon, teaching dual-credit English and social studies at Metro East Web Academy. He has published with McSweeneys Internet Tendency, The Portland State Vanguard, and Euphemism, an online literary journal, and holds an MA in English from Portland State University.