You have no reason not to trust me. In fact, I will probably turn out to be the most charming and appealing narrator of any work of short fiction you have ever encountered. For one thing, it’s nice that this whole thing is so meta. Don’t you think so? I know that I’m telling you my story right now; I know that I’m a character in a fictional work. I’m pleased to have you as my audience, and I would never want to abuse the trust between us. I’m not sneaking up behind you as you read this. I’m not slithering into your pocket, or coiling my way into your underpants. I’m not breathing on the back of your neck until it feels clammy. I don’t even have fantasies about doing that stuff. I’m not a liar, or a cheat, or someone who likes to play with your mind. There’s nothing scary, or unstable, or puckish, or mean-spirited about me. I’m not trolling you, and setting you up, and playing with your mind like you’re a drunk kitten.
Also, I am not in denial. About anything! I’m not! And you have to understand, I am not paranoid. You just think I’m paranoid. You just think there’s something wrong with me, you think maybe I’m funny in the head, like that guy in Poe’s story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” he was a major nutjob … but I’m not like that.
Maybe you’re thinking I’m a projection of your own mind – of your fears and anxieties. Maybe you think, as you’re reading this story, that you’re kind of looking into a fun-house mirror. Sure, the image is distorted – fat in some places, and weirdly elongated and skinny in others as you move your eyes down the page – but maybe you still catch a glimpse of yourself in my words, and it makes you uncomfortable? Maybe you’re thinking I’m a projection on the part of the author: something gimmicky and distasteful that she coughed up as a literary exercise?
But no. I exist. In my own right. Still, in a sense I need you, and I need the author in order to exist; this is an extremely meta, self-reflexive story, so you must know that I know that. So, then, obviously – why should I want to alienate either one of you? Why should I have contempt for you as you read this, or for the author as she is creating me? Why should I sneer at you, or at her? Why should I mock and laugh at either one of you? You, in particular, my darling reader? I like you, and I respect you. I don’t want you to feel unsettled, shifting in your seat under my Lacanian gaze. I’m your new best friend.
But – where is my plot? How can I keep you entertained, if I don’t tell you an actual story? You might stop reading. I’d better start soon, right?
Okay. So. A moderate Democratic voter, a Bernie supporter and a Trump supporter walk into a bar. The year is either 2016 or 2020. The three of them sit at the bar itself, not in a booth. You have to guess which one of them I am. Maybe I’m all three. Maybe I’m none of the above. Maybe I’m the bartender, mopping down the bar where someone spilled their pretentious, artisanal beer, and I’m thinking how I hate pretentious people, and as I hear snatches of the political discussion, I turn my head away so that these three yahoos don’t see me roll my eyes. I’m just an apolitical barkeep, but I have to listen to all kinds of nonsense, especially in an election year, especially as America has gotten scarier and darker and tenser, and everyone has started hissing and spitting at each other. (If it’s late 2020, we particularly don’t want them spitting, do we? Except metaphorically.)
But, I mean – the annoying part of my job has been going on for a long time, even before the world got toxic with political divisions. People come to a bartender like they’re showing their boo boos to their mommy; they love to tell me their stupid problems, and to ask me for wisdom like I’m the Oracle or a fortune cookie or their therapist or something, and I’m sick of it. I’m sick of laughing at their jokes, and nodding sympathetically at their problems, and selling them these overpriced brews.
Still – sometimes people who drink pretentious drinks tip better. And I don’t really see that I have a chance at a better job.
If it’s 2020, as I mentioned, it must be very early in the year, or our story must be set in a state that didn’t close down at first … or maybe we’re on some outdoor patio, under twinkle lights, and the bar is serving food now, as well as alcohol, and a bar from which the bartender serves drinks has been set up outside, and our three protagonists are sitting on stools that are distanced from each other, and the bartender is wearing a mask.
The moderate Democrat is whining at the Bernie supporter and the Trump supporter. It’s actually funny – the moderate Democrat seems madder at the Bernie supporter than at the Trump supporter! The moderate Democrat is yelling about how Hillary beat Bernie in the primaries by almost four million votes, but Bernie gave the false impression that Hillary “stole” the nomination from him, and he never conceded properly or graciously, and he gave the impression that she got the nomination by cutting a backroom deal with delegates and super-delegates. But Hillary didn’t do that, the moderate Democrat insists, that’s what Bernie himself was trying to do! And Trump and Putin amplified this false narrative of Bernie’s, Bernie was their tool, and the media were equally misogynist and got played by Trump and Putin, and they amplified the false narrative also. Notice – it could be 2020, but the moderate Democrat is still whining and yelling at the Bernie supporter over this. Even if it’s four years later, she still has issues. Let’s call her Carla. Carla is still going on and on about how the Bernie people threw a tantrum all over the 2016 Democratic Convention, and were rude to John Lewis and Elijah Cummings for no reason, and how the booing, chanting Bernie people helped elect Donald Trump! (You see – if this story is set in 2016, it’s the end of the year, and the election has already taken place.) And Carla says she will never forgive it!
The Bernie supporter tells her to blow it out her ear. Let’s call him Trent. Trent tells Carla how he hates all moderate, middle-of-the-road, safe, bland Democrats, who let the Republicans get away with crashing the economy in 2008, who let the big banks off the hook – none of those criminals went to jail. Trent hates all the institutional Democrats like wooden Gore and wooden Kerry and wooden Biden and slippery Bill and Hillary Clinton, and even charismatic Barack Obama – all those inside-the-Beltway bureaucratic Democrats who are in bed with big banks and in bed with the Republicans and who think like Republicans, and enable what they do, and distanced themselves from Occupy, and who wink at Republican wars of choice, overseas, and keep them going. MOR Democrats who give us crap like NAFTA, which destroys the lives of American workers, and who preach comfortably about incremental change, when what we need is a revolution! Trent will never support a compromiser and a technocrat. Trent wants to smash the whole corrupt system!
Carla says yeah, but what if you smash it and we don’t get to build anything new? What if we’re just standing around, forever, in the rubble where once there was a system – an admittedly flawed, but possibly reformable system –
And once again, Trent tells her where she can put that kind of incremental change.
Then, the Trump supporter speaks up. He has ordered a normal beer – he’s not into this artisanal shit. His name is John. John says he agrees with Trent that Bernie is in some ways a lot easier to take than Hillary and Biden and all those elitist Establishment Democrats who have run things forever, and who have a canned answer for every question, tested with focus groups, and who have forgotten about ordinary Americans.
Carla says to John: You’ve been programmed by the Russians to say that – the Russians and the Trump people pushed the idea of Bernie on social media to weaken support for the mainstream Democratic candidate. And John laughs at her, and says there are no Russians hiding under the bed doing anything wrong, you’re crazy, you believe what you read in the lamestream media. If it’s 2020, not 2016, he adds that she has TDS and yells “No collusion!” for good measure. John says he likes how bold and uncensored and raw Trump is, how he says whatever he’s thinking. He says things other people only think, ‘cause they’re afraid to say those things out loud. It’s like a breath of fresh air. Donald Trump is not a politician, and he doesn’t talk like one.
Carla says no, he’s a game show host and a sociopath, and a bigot, and the head of a fake university, and a fake charity, and he’s a sexual predator, and you think it’s fine because you’ve chosen to be stupid. But when smart people choose to be stupid, there are really bad outcomes. She doesn’t really think that Trent and John are all that smart, but she knows they both see her as a snooty elitist and she doesn’t want to sound like one and prove their point. Plus, she has known other people that she really did, once, think were smart, on the left and the right, and they now talk like either John or Trent, or some combination thereof … She feels like she’s trapped in a horror movie – some version of “Who Goes There?” with a changeling monster or Thing replacing trusted friends, one after another, as it prepares to kill you, or some film where lots of people you know and respect get sucked into a cult, or mill around like zombies in a trance-like state … so when she says smart people are choosing to be stupid, it’s kind of from the heart.
But John picks up on how she’s really a condescending elite looking down on him, and he calls her out on it. He says he hates smug people who are patronizing and politically correct and think they know everything. He tells her that he does his own research – while she just repeats what she hears on CNN. She says no, I read newspapers that employ actual fact-checkers, and you just see things pop up in your social media feed that trolls plant, and the algorithm sends that stuff your way to feed your lunacy, and you feel so smart and special for doing that kind of “research,” and the rest of what you say you get from FOX and Trump’s twitter feed.
John says oh, good for you, you’re so special, you read papers and watch shows with actual “fact-checkers,” a lot of good it did you when you thought Hillary would win, when all the media you trust and respect said she would win, and, by the way, you just said your fabulous mainstream media is “misogynist,” and they got played by Bernie and Trump and Putin, so don’t you think you should get your stories straight?
Carla looks all upset, as he says this. Her face gets taken over by the frowniest of frowns. And she says: Well, the newspapers and channels I follow aren’t perfect, there’s a lot I don’t like about them, but they’re better than nothing, they’re better than the lies you –
Fake news! John cuts her off.
Following them is better than living in the world of your mass delusion and programming and lies, she insists. And she turns to Trent. And you, she says – you’re just as programmed, and you follow your leader just as blindly. He’s just another shouty, swaggering, macho old guy with a big ego and a lot of empty slogans –
Trent tells her to lay off Bernie. He’s irritated by her needling, and by the vibe coming off of her that Bernie is sexist and that Trent himself is therefore sexist, and not enough of an opponent of racism, and that Trent is somehow implicated in what Donald Trump says and does. He tells her that it’s the fault of the incremental moderates in positions of power in the Democratic Party that Trump happened. Trump is a symptom, not a cause. Trump demonstrates how sick most people are of business as usual – sick of broken promises from Democrats, and how they ignore the things that are making people’s lives lousy. Trent tells Carla: you don’t get anywhere by rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
John pats Trent on the back approvingly, and offers to buy him a drink, and Trent says: don’t get me wrong. I think Trump is disgusting. He’s a Nazi and a racist and a predator. But having Trump around shows people what’s really going on. You need to see how bad things can get – it’s a wake-up call. You lift up the rock and you see what’s really underneath, all the disgusting creatures scurrying around, and you ignored that they were under there before, and now you can’t. Now you can give it all a good cleaning.
Yeah, says Carla, either that – or all the disgusting creatures take over, and you’ve enabled them and handed them the reins of power, forever and ever …
John takes back his offer of a drink. He tells Trent: You know, you’re just as self-righteous as she is. You hate America just as much as she does. You want open borders, just like her. You’re just as blinded by the MSM. You’re just as precious, and elitist, and full of it, and you congratulate yourself just as much for all of the virtue signaling you do. The problem with you Bernie Bros is you want to outlaw cows and guns, and you want to enable the lazy people who don’t want to work, and you’re a bunch of goddamn commies. John thinks about how Russia was bad back in the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s when they were commies. Now, they’re Christians, and capitalists, and they support our NRA, and they believe that marriage is for a man and a woman, and that Muslims that want to blow us all up need to be stopped, and it’s better if they’re working with Trump than if the commies and the traitors take over. John is sick of illegals (it triggers snowflakes so much when they hear that term!) taking the jobs of real Americans, and he is sick of liberals coddling our crime-infested inner cities. The Russians are probably not helping Trump, but if they are, what the hell. John is fine with it.
So, as I said earlier, as you try to figure out who the narrator of this short story is – maybe I’m the bartender listening to these three clowns sounding off and talking past each other, while trying not to let them know how annoying and ridiculous I think all three of them are. Or, maybe I’m Carla. After all, she’s female and the author of this story is female. And, as I launched into this anecdote, this story within the story, I had Carla sound off first, right? So, maybe I’m Carla and I’m telling you, in the first person, but sounding like I’m telling the story about the bar in the third person, about a situation I found myself in, either in 2016 or 2020. Maybe I’m Carla, and my heart got lifted up at the idea of a woman as President, and I find Bernie people and Trump people equally crazy, almost interchangeable: each a set of loonies following a bellowing populist father figure demagogue, each happy to believe lies, and be jerks online, and to toss out everything valuable in America’s past, and to wreck our potential and our future, like careless children.
Or, maybe I’m Trent, caught in between lifeless, uninspiring, do-nothing windbag Democrats who coddle the wealthy, and loony Trump people out to make us a fascist state and do away with civil rights. Maybe, if I’m Trent, I feel a little guilty that I supported Bernie in 2016, and I’m defensive about it, and that’s why I’m hiding my identity behind this foliage of words and shifting identities. Maybe I found Hillary dreary and distasteful, and the thought of her and payday-lender-loving Debbie Wasserman Schultz and their attitude toward Bernie makes my blood pressure spike, but I forced myself to vote for Hillary in the end – or, if I didn’t, if I stayed home or voted for Jill Stein, it was because I knew Hillary would definitely win my state or definitely would not win my state – or, I thought I knew … but I was kind of freaked out by the outcome of the 2016 election … and it left me with a fractured view of reality and of the body politic, and that’s why I’m not telling you directly that I’m Trent.
Or maybe I’m John. Maybe I’m fucking with the bunch of you, all of you elitist assholes, reading your arty “literary” magazine, all you Bernie and AOC and Hillary and Biden and Kamala people, all you candy-assed, self-satisfied, entitled, self-proclaimed intellectuals and guardians of virtue. Maybe I’m not your new best friend at all. Maybe I really am trolling you by telling you this story, and you deserve to be trolled, you deserve to be gas-lighted, you deserve all the dents I can put into your smug, self-righteous certainty.
I could be any of these characters, or the barkeep … or, I could be a guy in the corner, nursing a Guinness, keeping to myself and watching the proceedings. I’m not bored and annoyed like the bartender. I observe these three blind mice sitting and drinking and arguing like they are rodents in a laboratory experiment that I’m running. I’m sort of sad and sort of amused and sort of detached as I watch and listen. Each of these fools seems to think that some sort of objective reality exists, and that right and wrong exist, and that there are coherent reasons to believe in “us” and “them,” and there are logical choices to make. It’s all an illusion.
This is a time for mind games. The three blind mice are playing mind games with themselves and with each other. As you read this story, maybe I’m playing mind games with you – but maybe you’re just playing them with yourself. Don’t get too worked up about it. Don’t go blaming an unnamed fictional character for your confusion. “Literature” cannot save you from the voices in your head. There is no difference between news and propaganda now. There is no difference between social media and reliable sources and entertainment and reality and fact and fiction and traitors and patriots and insiders and outsiders and sanity and insanity and villains and heroes and science and magic and progressives and reactionaries and black and white. We are Making America Great Again, we are becoming a failed state, the pandemic will never end, it will end in two weeks, we should fight it, we should resign ourselves to death, we are safeguarding the Constitution, we are blowing huge, gaping holes in it, we are living in a dystopia, the universe is absurd, all sense is crumbling into nonsense, all history that appeared to be moving us forward is sliding us backwards into an abyss, all morals and standards and truisms have melted into the air like a mirage in the desert, and we are left with entropy, nihilism and self-negating solipsism. Believe me, I’m lying to you. Trust me, you have no idea whether you can trust me. I am sincerely insincere. I am trolling you passionately. I am consciously delusional, and proud to be shameful. Listen to me, as I go: jibber, jibber, jibber, jibber, jibber, jibber ….