Updated: Jul 6
As Edmund Morgan once wrote, quoted by Howard Zinn for his "People’s History", the American Revolution “was generally a struggle for office and power between members of an upper class: the new against the established."
Despite our elementary-school mythology, the birth of this country was barely a proud struggle for freedom from an oppressor, and certainly not one to elevate any dispossessed lower class. A group of wealthy colonial businessmen and merchants — our Founding Fathers — coveted rich Loyalists’ land holdings, so they staged a revolution to appropriate them.
With this new land, the Fathers made themselves exorbitantly rich, and gave enough extra territory to small farmers to amass a stable base of support. Most meaningful “upward mobility” was serving the stability and continuation of a capitalist state: it was “nouveau riche” merchant families in cities like our own Boston who stood to benefit, not the working masses.
This, of course, is awful. America was born out of large-scale death purely for the profits of the overclass, using the poor as expendable pawns on the battlefield and not even enriching them with the spoils afterward. Poor white males were conscripted into revolutionary militias and forced to fight in a war that did nothing for them.
The war was equally inconsequential for America’s innumerable slaves and poor women, and actively detrimental to the Native Americans, whose conquest and murder was enabled by the end of British oversight. The closest thing to a redeeming quality, the only way we can grapple with the reality of our nation, is by realizing that it’s at least sort of funny.
Our pantheon of national gods powdered their wigs, thought bloodletting was medically effective and wore breeches outdoors in July. They waged a war of independence just to keep the same fundamental economic order and copied the homework of the very country they separated from, codifying pretty similar Enlightenment inalienable rights and representative legislatures.
These were the people who fled Philadelphia to reconvene in Princeton, New Jersey because 400 drunk soldiers assembled outside Continental Congress headquarters to shake their fists. Now, the Charlie Kirks and Lin-Manuel Mirandas of the world try to rehabilitate their image.
250 years on, the American Experiment has continued its creators’s tradition, still putting hilariously weird, stupid, and anemic members of a moneyed upper class into power.
In 2016, Donald Trump, famous as a caricature of the American rich entrepreneur, a person with no political experience, somehow swung the Republican nomination. The Democrats, for their part, chose the intensely unlikeable Hillary Clinton.
She was the perfect foil for him. Hilldog was a rigid, unfeeling “establishment” type who got pneumonia two months before Election Day, told you to Pokemon Go To The Polls and just chilled in Cedar Rapids. The Democrats didn’t want to promise meaningful material change, much less nominate a more enjoyable person, so they lost. They struck out in tee-ball.
His ascendance to the presidency is even funnier if you remind yourself who Donald Trump is. He is like our Founders in his stupidity, wealth and affluent background, yes, but he is unique in his naked narcissism and association with America’s sickening pop culture. His constant presence in the news has made us numb, so we must give ourselves “jamais vu.”
Remember: Donald Trump from the bad TV shows and books was the president for four years. Donald Trump, who starred in a McDonald’s commercial with Grimace, was “leader of the free world.” During his four years in the White House, he served a spread of fast-food cheeseburgers to guests and used the office to promote Goya’s brand of bean products. He was president, and his portrait will therefore hang alongside the nation’s “great statesmen.”
That being said, as shameful as it is that the Democrats lost, Hillary wasn’t a huge diversion from their existing brand of politics, even though she was obviously less inspiring than Obama. And besides, Trump was so stupid and crass that it seemed like a layup. They saw Trump’s base of rabid supporters, but also skewered him on late-night TV and fact-checked his debate lies. We, like Nate Silver, were pretty confident Hillary was gonna take it anyway.
Trump’s 2016 victory was thus a tragedy, even in the Classical sense. The DNC was punished for its “hamartia,” with Hillary falling Icarus-like into an ocean of shame and scorn. She still poked her head out for a book deal, and the DNC didn’t actually learn anything from the whole ordeal, but they were dealt a Sophoclean punishment nonetheless.
Maybe getting “overheated” at the aforementioned 9/11 service melted the wax in her wings. There was even an element of perverse catharsis in the whole ordeal, since Trump displayed America’s suppressed racism and consumerism in full force.
However, Hegel said that all great historical facts occur twice, and Marx famously adds in The Eighteenth Brumaire that they happen “first as tragedy, the second time as farce.” As it always does, history has now proven Marx right. In February of this year — the Before Times — the farce began with the Byzantine workings of the Iowa caucus.
It’s enough that the weird caucus rules require coin flips to decide some votes, but 2020’s was made more insane by a new mobile app commissioned by the Iowa Democratic Party. The app’s developers, fittingly named Shadow, Inc., had proudly worked with the Obama campaign, Apple, the DNC and Google prior to this job.
Some election officials had next to no training with the app beforehand, and the delay in the results made it clear. Buttigieg and Sanders both declared victory in the aftermath, and Buttigieg’s declaration — ”Iowa, you have shocked the nation!” — is now a Twitter punchline in the context of any election-rigging.
What’s more, even though Bernie was cheated out of Iowa, his strong showing and later Nevada win brought out the best unhinged reactions from MSNBC guests. Chris Matthews had visions of socialists publicly executing him in Central Park one night, and after Nevada he compared Sanders’s victory to the Nazi invasion of France. Clinton apparatchik James Carville fit Bernie into his Russiagate fantasy, while Nicole Wallace suggested his campaign was trained in “dark arts.” Their tears were delicious.
This initial strong showing from Bernie of course did not last, but it forced the DNC’s coalescence around Joe Biden, which introduced a new character to the farce. Finally, the stage was set for the slow-motion trainwreck that we watched from April to November. For Biden’s part, he went around the campaign trail slinging antique insults at people.
In an argument with one Iowa voter, he punctuated his speech with “Get your words straight, Jack” and “listen, fat.” We also cannot forget about his heated debate with a factory worker where he told him not to “be a horse’s ass.” There was also a real old-guy sensibility in his long-winded stories about his Scranton heritage, eventually shortened to a boomer metonym for class conflict between “Toledo and Park Avenue.”
The crown jewel of all of this, of course, was the Corn Pop clip unearthed from 2017, in which Biden detailed his 1962 fight with a fearsome Wilmington gang leader, who he kicked out of a public pool for not wearing a bathing cap. You can’t make this stuff up.
Trump’s lead-up to the debates and election was interesting in its own way. In media appearances, it seemed that the “magic” of 2016 was gone, with him complaining about things at every step.
In a 60 Minutes interview from October, he interjected in almost every answer about how unfairly he was being treated by the host. In his Newtown rally, he complained at length about his treatment in the media, and assured his supporters that even though he definitely does enjoy being president, it’s “not a question of enjoyment.”
The Lil Pump endorsement was also an amazing highlight that we haven’t discussed enough; the artist made a cameo appearance at a Michigan rally, after which Trump said, “I appreciate it. That’s very nice. Big star, big star. That’s very impressive.”
Outside of rallies and interviews, the funniest thing was easily him getting COVID-19. The virus was an unmitigated failure for his administration that killed his own voter base, and he also fell ill with it during the campaign! He looked painfully short-of-breath during one photoshoot after he was released from the hospital and originally planned to tear open his shirt like Superman to demonstrate his health.
However, the absurdity didn’t really come into full view until the debates. On one half of the screen, Trump talked with all his classic mannerisms: the hand gestures, the interspersed judgments about how beautiful and successful things are, the oscillating tones of voice. One the other we saw Biden: attempted “straight-shooter” demeanor, senile blind spots, old-guy turns of phrase. For kids of our age, the disgust on social media seemed universal.
Whenever a presidential debate went on, people were eager to disavow both candidates on aesthetic level, threatening to move to Canada. Watching both candidates’ brains decay in real time was impossible to ignore and brought the grotesquery of this country into full view.
This ran right up into the actual election, protracted by mail-in ballots into a four-day run from Tuesday to Saturday. There was revelry in the streets when Biden was finally declared the winner on Saturday morning, but the entire ordeal was an anticlimax.
Four years of Trump ended in his defeat, but it was dragged out into a crawl by the confluence of a mismanaged pandemic with our miserably outdated electoral system. Instead of watching a knight stand sword in hand above his vanquished foe, we saw two anemic old men slap-box until one fell asleep.
The whole spectacle was a recipe for disillusionment. It made me realize that this is what America is. This is what we pledged allegiance to. This was the justification for slaughter in Abu Ghraib, Nogeun-ri and My Lai.
This is what we celebrate with tickertape parades multiple times a year. This is what our textbooks write hagiographies about. This is what we immortalize in bronze and marble. A country that will only let you choose one of two geriatrics in suits who hate you as its next president.
Nick Speranza (CAS '24) is from Villanova, Penn. He majors in history and German.