Dispatches from the Swamp: The Babble in the Bubble


Washington, DC is a bubble. All capitol cities are. DC even looks like a bubble, ringed as it is by the Beltway (the 64-mile long asphalt ring of I-495). Yet the phrase “inside the beltway” is most commonly flung around by people who neither know nor care that more people live inside it than in the states of Wyoming and Vermont combined. By population (1.7 million), it’s the 39th largest state, ahead of Hawaii, Maine, and Idaho. A friend walked it recently, and it took him six days.

But then, to live in a bubble is our God-given right as Americans. The desire to live in a place with one’s own people and cultivate one’s own culture, unmolested by heretics, weirdos, or Presbyterians—this is how America began. The history of this country is people carving spaces where they could be safe, whether in Flushing, Queens or Jackson Heights or Harlem before all the white people started moving in or Salt Lake City or Dearborn or, god forbid, the suburbs. These bubbles aren’t part of the fabric of America, they are the fabric of America.

To the extent that America—that great big word that makes us all so anxious—exists at all, it exists as a vast and noisy sheet of bubble wrap.

I have always lived in a bubble. I grew up in the safest Jewish space of all: the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which is like the tiniest bubble inside a series of Matryoshka bubbles. This was the Jewish dream: a place where the Pakistani deli owner could provide a perfect bagel with shmear. I didn’t know a single really religious Christian; I didn’t hear someone actually say the words “I believe Jesus Christ is my lord and savior” until I was sixteen, and even now I still remember exactly where I was standing when I heard it. It was like meeting an alien.

At their best, bubbles give us room to be ourselves, to flourish. They become problems when we forget we live inside them, and assume our reality is everyone else’s, too. This is especially true on the Internet. One of the great challenges of living in an algorithm-driven world is that the walls of our Internet echo chambers become harder to see.

But there are bubbles, and then there are hermetically sealed sensory deprivation tanks. And it was from one of these that last week a tragic man emerged, blinking erratically in the klieg lights of CNN.

A few hours before polls closed in Alabama, Roy Moore’s spokesman, Ted Crockett, went on The Lead with Jake Tapper to patiently explain that all of the women accusing Roy Moore were liars, that Moore was certain to win the election, and that no one in Alabama believed the accusations.

The clip that went viral was only a minute long, but the full ten-minute interview is worth watching. Crockett is about as telegenic as a baked potato. For the duration of the interview his mouth hangs open—his mandible is slack from start to finish. His blink rate is triple Tapper’s. His tie is so tightly knotted that it’s as narrow and cylindrical as a tampon. Watching this man try to take on Jake Tapper is like watching Prince Philip challenge Channing Tatum to a dance-off. Someone’s going to get hurt.

At one point, Tapper names the leading Alabama Republicans who have said they believe the women accusing Moore: Governor Kay Ivey, Senator Richard Shelby, and Jeff Sessions.

“Jake,” says Crockett, “You can always cut a sheep out of the herd.”

“These aren’t sheep, these are shepherds,” says Tapper. Then he plays him the clip, which they have clearly been saving for this moment. It shows all three saying “I have no reason to disbelieve these women” (we will leave aside for now the insipid spinelessness of that phrase).

“That was three weeks ago,” Crockett says, with perfect conviction.

“Well, the Shelby interview was just two days ago on Sunday,” says Tapper.

“I know the Shelby interview,” he says, “I don’t get Shelby, okay? I just don’t get where he’s coming from. Nobody in Alabama does right now.”

“Nobody? You’re speaking for a lot of people,” says Tapper, who is no longer bothering to keep a straight face.

“And it won’t matter,” says Crockett, grinning in a childlike way, “Roy Moore’s gonna win the election tonight.”

From there Tapper proceeds to grill Crockett about whether or not Moore still believes homosexuality should be a crime. “Probably,” says Crockett, after insisting that American laws are biblically based. This is where Tapper begins to go from amused to angry.

“What should the punishment be, then?” asks Tapper. And right here is the first time we see the gears in Crockett’s head jam. He blinks twice, then looks to the right.

“Uh…” he stammers, “it’s just a sin, okay? That’s what it is.”

There is crosstalk, and Crockett gets worked up about how Americans are just “throwing out two, three thousand years of our history, just makin’ stuff up.” Crockett insists that we’ve strayed from biblical law, especially “up there in Washington.”

“We’ve got too many people up there just winging it,” he says, and without a trace of irony adds, “foolin’ with women they shouldn’t be foolin’ with.”

God alone knows how Tapper keeps from bursting out laughing. He just cocks his head to the side and rubs his chin. And then he twists the knife one last time. This is where the clip everyone saw begins. Tapper asks under what law it’s possible to forbid a Muslim from serving in Congress (as Moore has argued). This time Crockett is right there with an answer. He knows this one.

“Because you have to swear on the bible,” he says, as if explaining things to a child. “I’m an elected official, three terms. I had to swear on a bible. You have to swear on a bible to be an elected official in the United States of America.”

“You don’t actually have to swear on a Christian bible,” says Tapper, brow professionally furrowed. “You can swear on… anything, really. I don’t know if you knew that.”

“Ohhh no,” Crockett corrects him, “I swore on a bible; I’ve done it three times.”

Let’s freeze the camera here. There have been so few moments of joy this year, so let us take a minute to settle in and consider this man. For he has all the appurtenances of a man. He has the ears and combed hair of a man, and the doughy chin. He has the suit and tie. He has the unearned confidence. He slaps his cards down with the cockiness of a poker player revealing a royal flush: Muslims can’t hold office because they can’t swear on a bible, it’s that simple. He doesn’t make the rules. Checkmate, Jake Tapper. Ted looks proud of himself—he has stumbled in this interview, but he has nailed this answer, because he knows that this is law. He has made this argument successfully so many times before that his cadence is practiced and assured. He has said it at work, in church, in bars. “I’ve got nothing against them, that’s just the way it is,” he has shrugged. “If they don’t like it they can go home.” He has said it to his family, patiently explaining to his children how America is a Christian nation, with biblical laws, as his parents taught him. And every time, everyone around him has nodded earnestly and said “mm-hmm, Ted, that’s the truth.”

I get this, a little. It’s scary to disagree with the people we rely on for support. We risk fracturing the bubble that keeps us safe—and for what? Telling Uncle Dave he’s a racist probably won’t make Uncle Dave any less racist, but it will definitely ruin Christmas dinner. I’m no different. I’m terrified of disagreeing with people on Twitter. If I do, I just keep my mouth shut—especially if they have more followers. (And they usually do. I haven’t even read “Cat Person,” okay? I have no opinions about “Cat Person.” I’m just glad people are talking about short fiction). It’s just not worth it.

But what I’m saying is that I get how in this moment Ted Crockett, three-time Shelby County Commissioner, and the spokesman for the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and current GOP candidate for the US Senate, is as certain of the truth of his statement as he is of his love for his own children.

And now unfreeze the camera. Watch his face as Jake Tapper says, “I’m sure you’ve picked a bible, but the law is not that you have to swear on a Christian bible. That is not the law.”

Reader, I want you to try something. Let your jaw hang open. Stare out into the distance. Count down seven full seconds. Appreciate how long a time that is. Now imagine how long it must have felt to Ted Crockett, as he stared into the dark mirror of the camera lens. Seven seconds is how long he sits there, mouth open. You can almost see the little puffs of smoke as one by one the circuits in his brain go pff.

Ted tries to recover. Like the bad guy at the end of a kung fu movie who keeps staggering to his feet, astonished at his defeat, blood in his mouth, to lurch forward with one more sluggish, ill-advised punch, he burbles something about how the President swore on the bible, but Tapper puts him out of his misery. If Ted’s hometown newspaper had any decency at all—or if there still is a hometown newspaper—it would have run an obituary.

Within an hour, Ted went from man to meme. The videos adding “The Sound of Silence” or the credits theme from Curb were as inevitable as stories six months after an Olympics lamenting the disuse of an Olympic stadium. I watched it half a dozen times (and another dozen for this dispatch), and it’s funny every time.

Yet once we’re done laughing (which we can do now that Jones has won) we should ask how this is possible, for a grown man—an important man—to believe something so troglodytic. I think it’s because he knows it the same way that he knows that no one in Alabama cares what Richard Shelby thinks or believes the women who say his boss molested them as children: because no one in his life thinks any different. Because it has literally never occurred to him that America might not be exactly what he imagines it to be. He believes it is this way because he believes it should be this way, because people in the place where he lives have sealed themselves into a bubble where America resembles America as they believe it should be: Christian, white, and conservative. It is a biosphere, sterile of foreign or secular or ethnic influence. Nor is this restricted to conservative America. The same purity can be found in wealthy liberal enclaves in California, where as recently as 2014 ritzy LA schools had vaccination rates on par with South Sudan.

Every American believes the place he lives is the “Real America.” As a New Yorker, I believe it. My Missourian relatives believe it. Californians who don’t vaccinate their kids believe it. Ted Crockett’s people believe it. This promiscuity is the genius of America, and the thing that makes us so terribly unsatisfied with it. How can all of us be laying claim to the same country? How can that country possibly hold together? No wonder every generation has been convinced that it’s all coming unglued.

That’s what I like about the swamp: none of us in this legally ambiguous administrative zone can fool ourselves into thinking it’s the “real America.” In part because we don’t have the same rights as real Americans who have Congresspeople to disappoint them. This is a bubble, to be sure—for one thing, it has the highest median income of any city in the country—but as bubbles go, it’s more permeable, and more prone to shock, than just about anywhere else. Every four years someone new moves in, flings all the old people out of power, and brings in new ones. Sometimes these people are good. Sometimes these people are very, very bad. But the city holds—sometimes with white knuckles and gritted teeth and WhatsApp groups with names like THIS IS FINE, but it holds.

And this year the bad people have gone and done something terribly, terribly stupid. They’ve burst our bubbles, and made us flood together. They’ve made Americans who have always felt safe feel threatened, and Americans who never felt safe feel rage. That’s how Doug Jones won, and how they got clobbered in Virginia. Now they are about to pass a tax bill that will become the most hated piece of major legislation in the last thirty years. They can repeal a lot of things, but they can’t repeal the flood. Sooner or later, the dam’s going to burst.

Samuel Ashworth's fiction, essays, and criticism have been published in Barrelhouse, Catapult, Hazlitt, Nylon, the TLS, Roads & Kingdoms, and many others. He is currently working on a novel about the life and death of a chef, told through his autopsy. Find him being overenthusiastic on Twitter at @samuelashworth. More from this author →