Dispatches from the Swamp: Storm’s Coming

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August is supposed to be the dead month here in DC. Congress is on recess, and everyone’s boss is on vacation. Parking spaces abound, and every time you step out of your apartment there is a stillness in the air, a blunt thick boring heat that seems to stifle sound and ambition. Half your friends are gone. For those who stick around, it’s a respite: you can work on side projects, whittle your inbox down to zero, then leave by six and go sit on a friend’s rooftop with a bottle of bodega rosé and watch the sun go down over the Monument. As long as Washington has been a district, August has been the dead month. But of course, there are no dead months anymore. There aren’t even dead days.

Or at least, that’s how it feels. Because now, every week is a year long. This week someone said to me, “DC must be a really crazy place to be right now.” But it’s not. Nothing’s happening, because no one’s here. Even the West Wing has emptied out for long-planned renovations. Things everywhere else have gone bugfuck, but it’s all happening off campus. Congresspeople are hiding, the putative President has completely walled himself up in his marble-walled Eisengard, and here in DC, the only thing that’s left to do is our jobs. Paper gets moved, acting office directors sign off cautiously. Emails are sent, and away messages reply. The machinery of the swamp chugs slowly, as if stunned by the heat and humidity.

“Honestly,” a friend who works for a federal agency told me, “all we’re doing this month is the same thing the rest of you are: sitting there with Twitter open, refreshing over and over, trying to figure out what the fuck is going to happen next.”

And then there’s Twitter.

The thing about Twitter is that no one who uses it needs an explanation of why it is the worst. It is an endlessly self-renewing bonfire of outrage and confusion, and in order to sustain that bonfire it converts bullshit into fuel in a way that makes the 24-hour news cycle look prim and ascetic. As Erin Gloria Ryan tweeted the day after Charlottesville, “Twitter is great because it makes you feel like you are always right in the middle of the worst thing currently happening in the world.” Even when nothing much is happening, that is its purpose: to swing like the flaming eye of Sauron onto whatever fresh outrage it can find, and direct the dread orc-legions of Mordor to converge on it.

We are all orcs, in this simile.

But in the aftermath of something genuinely traumatic like the twin horrors of Charlottesville and then the press conference, we forget our mistrust of Twitter and hang onto it like Nicholas Cage clinging to the top of the careening fire truck at the end of Con Air. It’s all we have, and that includes people who work for the government. Let’s be clear: civil servants don’t receive some top-secret email blast from the NSA giving them the straight dope on whatever’s going on—even the NSA was checking Twitter during Charlottesville, and they found out about the press conference the same way everyone else did, and with the same gathering horror everyone else did.

Twitter isn’t the real world, but neither is the District (even in an administrative sense DC exists in a weird liminal space), which is why the two of them are so perfect for each other. In a city where perception and image matter gravely, the existence of a common pool of knowledge means that the whole city is attuned to the same frequency. We’re all reading the same narrative. When on Wednesday, Steve Bannon (who was removed a half hour after I drafted this paragraph) decided to pull an only-slightly-less-coked-out Scaramucci, everyone in the city knew within hours, and the next day, something in the mood here had shifted. Asia watchers in particular were relieved, since what he said about military confrontation with North Korea being impossible was the only intelligent thing the administration has said thus far.

But if Twitter stays on one topic too long without fresh meat, at a certain point it becomes an ourobouros, the snake devouring its own tail, with popular tweets and articles swerving back around comet-like into your feed, setting off new implosions of frustration and pain. It gets to the point where the most important data in the tweet is the timestamp. 16m: Oh shit I was in the shower what happened? 8h: Old news. 22h: Did the person retweeting this wake up from a coma? An actual month and date: When I want a history lesson I’ll ask for it, grandpa.

“May you live in interesting times” is frequently invoked as a Chinese or Yiddish curse; it is neither, but it’s a lethal curse all the same. Living through historical moments is almost invariably terrifying. You do not want to live in a year that students will have to memorize decades from now; these years (1066, 1776, 1789, 1861, 1914) are almost uniformly slaughterhouses. But this feels like one of those years. We are living through History with a capital H. Everything is happening all the time, and it’s impossible to keep up, and it’s impossible to get anything done while trying to keep up.

A few days ago, Solange deleted her Twitter on the grounds that she’d had it with “racist ugly ass fuck bois who reek of citronella.” So say we all, Solange. But it’s easier said than done.

As Andrew Sullivan pointed out back in February, when the fever was only just beginning, the whole point of a stable democracy is that it allows citizens not to follow politics obsessively. We can’t afford that privilege anymore, as much as we wish we could. Instead we’re so punch-drunk that we don’t even remember what it’s like to be able to tune political news out. Or as my mother says, “We’re now spending our lives obsessing over people we wouldn’t want to so much as share a taxi with.” We’re all addicts now, we’re all Nic Cage on the top of the fire truck. After the press conference on Tuesday I stopped even pretending to work on what I was writing and just gave myself over to Twitter. I kept checking back, repeatedly clicking “view new tweets,” because maybe something happened. And maybe this is me being overly optimistic, but as macabre as it was, as much as I felt like a rubbernecker on the highway, it felt an act of hope, too—hope instantiated with every click, hope renewed again and again, indefatigably. Maybe something happened.

But of course, this is DC in August. Nothing is going to happen—not yet. Across the country, in New York, in Charlottesville, in Durham and Baltimore, things are happening: protests rage, politicians poke their heads up to make statements (only twenty-eight of 292 Republicans, as of this writing), statues are hauled down or removed in the dead of night. The whirling vortices of social media whirl onward, consuming everything they touch.

I was out of the country for all of July doing research in France. For sixteen of those blessed days I was off Twitter. And then I relapsed. One morning in Lyon I logged on, and I experience something I’d never seen on Twitter before.

Silence.

Whole minutes went by without a new tweet, minutes unrolling into quarter hours, even half hours. I’d refresh, and there’d be nothing new. Thirty-two whole minutes went by, not a single new tweet. It was the middle of the night in America. Even California had all gone to bed. It was as if I could hear the whole country breathing softly, softly, together. Finally, the sleepless eye had closed.

Here in the swamp, there’s the same eerie quiet. We go to work, have meetings, hold goodbye happy hours for departing interns. And when you leave work and step out into the street, everyone moves slowly, as if swimming through the humidity. The air is shimmering with the soft sure voltage of an impending storm. We’re waiting, submerged in the murky water, trying to stay cool. We know things move slowly here, but when they do move, they move decisively. So we’re saving our strength, gathering information, waiting for the heat to break. Because September’s coming. And September is a whole different story.


Samuel Ashworth's fiction, essays, and criticism have been published in Barrelhouse (Spring 2017), Catapult, the TLS, Roads & Kingdoms, and The Brooklyn Rail. An MFA student in fiction at George Mason University, he's currently working on a novel about the life and death of a chef, told through his autopsy. Find him being overenthusiastic about stuff on twitter at @samuelashworth. More from this author →