Confessions of a Surprise Left-Wing Activist

I

Today, I discovered that nine minutes is an interminable length of time. The protest organizer requested that we kneel for that length of time to remember George Floyd.

Well, I am an overweight, middle-aged, suburban dad who spent the last three months indoors. The sun beat down at a 93-degree clip, a typical Inland-Empire summer day. But I couldn’t be caught up short in my maiden protest. What left-wing activist pleads sensitive knee syndrome? And so, I knelt down, touched my knee to the ground, and immediately felt burning pavement. Fortunately, a quick glance confirmed that veteran protesters know to use their sign under their knee.

Take two. Now I’m resting on my hastily-constructed cardboard sign, which said “Bigotry is a disease of ignorance” in block sharpie-letters drawn by my wife. She is kneeling next to me, and next to her is my recently-graduated daughter. Nearly the entire crowd is masked, because that is the way of Antifa, or maybe COVID-19. It depends who you ask.

I spend a couple of minutes on my right knee, but my ballooning weight (remember, three months indoors), sensitive knees, searing heat, and lack of core muscle combine to make this task extremely difficult. I try both knees. Now they both hurt. Then I’m over to my left knee. This goes on for the entire nine minutes. I’m not sure I saw anyone else even move the entire time. By this point, three or four officers had come out of the station and knelt facing the crowd.

The nine-minute period ended and we stood up. Almost immediately, I drew heavy breaths and felt dizzy. A bit of nausea followed. I found some shade on the sidewalk and took a seat on the ground. Finished a bottle of water and a nice lady came by with another. After about ten minutes of rest, I stood up again. Speeches were given about the current state of America, the lives we were there to honor, and the importance of voting for change. We listened for a while, then walked the two miles home—I always forget about Uber. The last half-mile, we had to sit on Mountain Avenue while our daughter went and retrieved the car. While we sat on the curb, a car saw my wife’s “Black Lives Matter” sign in her lap and honked. Left-wing activism having drained us of energy, we ordered pizza for dinner.

II

Today’s five-mile walk paled in comparison to the road we travelled to get here. I grew up a principled, if somewhat idiosyncratic, conservative Republican near Venice Beach, California. This made me an outlier even more than 25 years ago, before California tilted heavily to the left. I wanted to study government with like-minded folk, and so I ended up at Claremont McKenna College, where I learned American political philosophy from the original source—the Federalist, Madison, Jefferson, and Lincoln.

I graduated, worked in Sacramento for a year, then went to law school. The less said about that the better, but I graduated and moved back to California—indeed, Claremont, where my wife and I met in college the first time round. By this point, we had three children, all girls, and in 2008 we excitedly watched as the then-unknown Sarah Palin gave her acceptance speech as the first female nominee on a Republican ticket.

Of course, history would bear out—perhaps in record time—that this was less a momentous occasion than an ill-considered act of desperation in a historically futile campaign. And this was also the first sign, to me, that something was not quite right with the Republican Party.

2010 with its thunderous Republican clapback followed, but still there was unease. Republican voters in several states—Delaware, Colorado, and Nevada to name just three—had purposely chosen extremist candidates for Senate races. This was senseless. Political parties exist to win elections. Outwardly, I celebrated big Republican wins that night, but something felt not right.

Then came Mike Huckabee’s gratuitous attack on Mitt Romney’s Mormon religion—my Mormon religion. My politics have always run more libertarian than the Southern Baptists would like, but I had always defended the coalition on the basis that it was necessary to win. I wondered if I was being played for the sap. Again, this did not feel right.

The right-wing came unhinged in 2012, threatened by Barack Obama’s potential reelection. Mitt Romney won the Republican nomination by default, or sheer exhaustion at the idea of a Newt Gingrich presidency, so voters took their frustrations out again in Senate primaries, nominating unhinged extremists like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock—in the latter case, over a six-term incumbent Republican senator—to run for red-state seats in Missouri and Indiana. Both lost their races by double-digits, only to turn around and blame Mitt Romney.

Well, at this point even a brainwashed ideologue knows this won’t do at all. After the election, I downloaded a form and changed my registration to Decline to State—the California phrase for “independent.” At least at this point, my conservatism would be my own, and not hijacked for madness.

But something else rankled, even as GOP national politics were starting to schism. All the conservatives I knew, IRL (as the kids say), were psychopaths. And not just political psychopaths, like supporting public beheadings (though they probably did), but what Hunter S. Thompson used to call “greedheads.” They were white and male, universally convinced of nothing but their own inherent greatness, and considered society’s existence solely a means to the end of their success. Thus, it became apparent that “conservatism” didn’t function as an ideology as much as a justification for inelegant Social Darwinism. Put another way, if conservatism were a Twilight Zone episode, it would be the one with the psychotic little boy wishing his family into the cornfield when they don’t please him. Madison didn’t cover that part in Federalist #10.

III

Against this backdrop, Donald Trump’s rise makes all the sense in the world. His sole purpose in life is to breed conflict, because when he “wins” he is great, and everyone else loses, so they are not. And since Republicans have no ideas and their anti-government ideology releases them from the burdens of governance, this is now the Republican worldview. The man has met the moment. When Republicans insist they want to Make America Great Again, what they mean is “put us in charge, because we are convinced we are great.”

Hence, the only character trait Republicans remotely care about is the blind and rootless self-confidence, usually (though not always) found in white males of a certain age (ok boomer), unleashed for political combat. Their candidates aren’t accountants, businessmen, or lawyers, even if they look it at first glance; they’re warped gladiators dizzy from one-too-many helmet shots. Love, empathy, tolerance, pain, pleasure, philosophy, ideas, independent thought—these are all irrelevances, if not abject weaknesses. Extremist candidates won Republican primaries precisely because they promised Republican voters all the combat they could want. Trump then weaponized it through his fluke victory. The Fight Club came online.

This dog-bites-dog-bites-dog-bites-the-first-dog-again ethos explains everything about the Trump White House and, now, its fascistic menace. To lay the tracks, Trump first turned Republican impulses in on themselves, creating a White House resembling the island in “Lord of the Flies.” Every few weeks, a new version of Piggy is tied to a stake and ritually sacrificed to the MAGA-chanting hordes, spear tips tinged with blood. This gruesome spectacle has displaced governance, but Trump satisfies the crowd’s lusts—maybe too literally. The 2020 Republican National Convention slogan may as well be “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?”

Of course, if this were just a matter of internal Republican crusades, this piece need not exist. If Republicans want to treat each other like characters in a gory season of Dexter, that’s their choice. But now there are two circumstances that make this everyone’s problem.

The first is not a person at all—COVID-19. The details of Trump’s failures on this subject are for an entirely different piece. What is relevant here is that after 100,000 people died, Trump’s response was simply to declare victory, on whose terms nobody knows. But it is no accident that Trump’s apologists repeatedly use the phrase “pre-existing health conditions” to rationalize the dead. They weren’t suited for pandemic combat. Then, when polls suggested that senior citizens were offended at being characterized as cannon fodder by Trump and his allies, they shifted their focus to China in a dangerous political and economic game of Pin the Tail on the Scapegoat.

The campaign against China is probably not dead, but it is mothballed—at least for a while—as Trump now confronts his second adversary of 2020. On May 25, a Minneapolis police officer handcuffed a 46-year-old African-American man, George Floyd, and knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The details are tragic. After pleading “I can’t breathe” and calling for his mother, Mr. Floyd died under the officer’s knee. He was dead four minutes before the officer rose. Three officers stood and watched the entire time.

To most people of goodwill, this is a terrible injustice. We feel something is not right.

For Republicans, however, the message is far more mixed. On a primal level, it looks like combat, and it looks like victory. Thus, their calculations are far more complicated. The question is not whether George Floyd was human, or had rights, or whether police reform must follow. The story doesn’t matter, only the fight. The question is simply what Republicans must say and do in order to win this particular round of political combat. Normal Republicans believed this to be a short-term political problem, and calculated that the usual denunciations would be sufficient to end it.

But outside Trump’s window, loud and angry protesters challenged his authority. They came to Trump’s arena to challenge the greatest Republican gladiator of them all. The man who vanquished Hillary—and her e-mails!—by negative 2.6% of the vote. And then, the reports came in: Trump was hauled off to his bunker by Secret Service agents, while Republican voters waited vainly for their champion to face the Antifa mob.

So now, the Republican Party’s politics-cum-combat has become all-too chillingly real. Trump followed his self-imposed humiliation—under normal circumstances, this bunker visit would be far less notable—with his infamous threats to attack Americans with military force. If the Republican mobs want combat, he’ll give it to them. Meanwhile, Trump’s few remaining functionaries manipulate his impulsiveness and failures of judgment in their familiar and tiresome internal kabuki combat. But this time, the winner decides where to point the tanks.

This all played out in extraordinary detail today as we marched. Defense Secretary Mark Esper took public his disagreements with Trump’s threats, followed by various veiled White House threats and counter-leaks for and against Esper, capped by a thunderous, Nazi-Germany-invoking denunciation from former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who had said at least half-a-dozen times that honor would prevent him from ever issuing such a statement. Mattis’s reward, of course, was finding himself the target of our modern Eye of Sauron—Trump’s mendacious Twitter feed. And the cycle of bloodlust continues. While the tanks wait for their orders.

IV

I was once talking to a Republican about the movie “Moneyball,” based on the pioneering Michael Lewis book about baseball’s statistical revolution. This was long after the book’s ideas had taken hold and the debate about its methodologies was over. I explained how artfully the movie had incorporated the book’s lessons—particularly those about recognizing and exploiting value discovered in new places and manifesting in unexpected ways. I explained that it was an example of changing an entire closed eco-system just by looking at a problem a way no one had looked at it before. He looked at me dully and responded, “But the A’s didn’t win in the playoffs. Who cares about a story where they don’t win at the end?”

V

At around 12:30 p.m.—just after lunch—I received an email about a local protest in Claremont. The email was well-meaning, but simply stated the matter as a fact—protest at 2, followed by sewing class and muffins at 6. My immediate thought was to dismiss it as someone else’s to-do, but on further reflection could think of no reason that was actually true. Trying to work, but turning this around in my head, I came out of the bedroom-turned-home office sponsored by COVID-19, and tentatively said to my wife, “You know there’s a protest in Claremont today.” It turns out she had received the same email and we were on the same wavelength.

Each of us had a sign. Mine was the aforementioned quote from Thomas Jefferson, which I realized afterward might not be the best source of material for a Black Lives Matter protest rally. My wife went with “Black Lives Matter,” which was pertinent and, more importantly, non-controversial in context. My daughter’s sign said “There is no such thing as neutral,” an interesting choice given that this was nearly word-for-word what I told myself when I became a Democrat last year.

But even armed with signs and sunscreen, I worried about silly things. Would it just be the three of us and a couple of kids with dogs? Would we be welcome, given our relative privilege and dubious political background? Will people point and stare? Do protesters get a grade at the end? Would I pass? Perhaps most importantly, would there be a run on the police station, after which we would make a break for it, yelling “CHEESE IT, IT’S THE FUZZ?”

Of course, these meanderings were all ludicrous, the brain’s efforts to impede new experience. We arrived at the appointed meeting place with hundreds of other people. They were of all races, creeds, colors, and—I assume—religions (or none at all). The march was fervent and peaceful. Families with children came out to wave at the marchers and show support. Others joined us on the route. Walkers set up with water to prevent what happened to me. Somewhat surprisingly, I heard not a single swear word, except from the vehicle on Indian Hill playing a rap song whose title was, I can only deduce, “F&$# Donald Trump.” No quibbling with that sentiment here.

Only when we arrived at the police station three miles later did I realize I had not changed my shoes—I was wearing my all-purpose loafers. My feet were blistered, but worse, what a suburban warrior move. Antifa doesn’t wear Eccos.

We gathered in front of the station, and police heads bobbed over the roof, reminiscent of Monty Python’s silly French guards. I half expected them to ask us whether we were English ken-nig-its.

Then we knelt and then, really, for the first time, I understood why I was there and what lesson I should take from the experience.

Nine minutes kneeling in the street is uncomfortable. It hurt and it was hot. Minneapolis registered a high of 78 degrees on May 25–I do not know if that is hot enough to make the street burn, but I considered the question. I also felt uncomfortable and supine. It is not in my nature to kneel. It is not in my nature to bow or bend. Indeed, when I was a conservative, I learned that this was natural to the human condition, and that it was the right of then-British subjects to claim the natural rights of man when their circumstances required them to bend before a mistreating king. Perhaps this should matter now more than it does.

In any event, it became clear in that nine-minute span why the Republican Party’s combat tactics can’t co-exist with the evolving Black Lives Matter movement. What Republicans regard now as their governing credo—few winners and many losers—must sound to African-Americans like subjugation all over again. Even if one gave Trump the benefit of the doubt and assumed that his actions have no racial motivation (which, good luck on that argument), could anyone begrudge African-Americans their confusion, particularly when they’ve suffered at society’s hands for so long already? Indeed, were Republican Darwinism a relay race, African-Americans would no doubt start several hundred yards behind, running on their knees the whole way. For them, kneeling must be resting—and yet, it is uncomfortable. It hurts and it is hot. This is not fair.

And now, into this reality, Donald Trump threatens to hurl military weaponry at Americans, which is really a euphemism for African-Americans? Well, sure. Because to Trump, the story doesn’t matter. The lessons don’t matter. The pain doesn’t matter. The injustice doesn’t matter. What matters is that “they” lose in the end.

And who is “they?” The tanks await their orders.

I only came away with sore knees. They will get better. My fellow protesters know their injuries probably won’t, because Republicans demand there be losers. Or, more specifically, that they be losers.

Shopping list: One set of kneepads. Tennis shoes. Insoles. Better sign. It’s going to be a long walk to November.

12 thoughts on “Confessions of a Surprise Left-Wing Activist

  1. “For Republicans, however, the message is far more mixed. On a primal level, it looks like combat, and it looks like victory. Thus, their calculations are far more complicated.”

    This quote really resonates for me. How should society react to the murder of Floyd? That depends, did looting take place afterwards? Watching conservatives struggle with this “ex post facto” logic in real time is surreal. They can’t know how to feel or what to believe until this plays out so they can concoct a backwards reconciliation and patch up the cognitive dissonance they’ve been living in since embracing Trumpism with open arms. That is, those that have some little amount of conscience to even bother.

  2. Anything I say will sound mundane after you, Steve. You are an excellent writer. Wish you had a larger audience.

  3. I read this three times. Excellent writing Steve. You need to write books! They would be best sellers.

  4. I was raised a true blue democrat and my single mom (dad died when I was 5) raised us 6 kids to be good, work hard, value education and respect all kinds of people and their beliefs. I always believed that it was important for republicans and democrats to balance each other and respect one another. When Trump became president, I was in shock that people supported his divisive ideology. I knew he was crazy but how could there be so many others? My heart breaks more each day with every news story of the ripping apart of America’s moral fiber. How can this be? Why do the republicans still support him? So many sleepless nights worrying about America’s moral compass.

  5. Nicely done, Steve. Your journey is similar to mine but I cannot make the leap into the arms of Nancy Pelosi, Planned Parenthood, and Marxism. I landed into libertarianism. Both parties, their candidates and platforms are rife with decay, immorality, nepotism, and a lack of vision. We need a fresh voice in this country.

    1. The situation is dire. There are those like George Will who reject Trumpism out of hand but think the Republican Party will emerge out of it once he is gone. As much as I respect George Will, I just can’t agree with that conclusion, because it ignores the entire psychological aspect of what Trump has unleashed on Republicans and conservatives. No matter my personal views—and I realize that my experience with conservatives may not have been as uniquely awful as others’, but there we are—I think we need a vibrant and effective party system as a check and balance. Indeed, one of my basic objections to Trumpism in general is that it so ineffectual it simply can’t carry out that implied duty. I do believe that November will bring a humiliating, nearly existential, and well-deserved loss. So to put a bow on all this, to the extent I have settled on my path, I respect others who choose different paths that ultimately get us to the same place—a contested politics free of the corrosive effects of Trump, Trumpism, and his bad-faith followers. But, at the same time we must free ourselves of those things, and the right will have to police itself. And I guess maybe that’s what I doubt can be done.

  6. Thanks for a cogent, thoughtful, insightful piece which carefully articulates how we arrived at this moment. I’m glad to know you’re a fellow Claremonter. From whom did you and your wife get the announcement about the protest? I’d like to be on that email list.

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