The Levee Breaks

Thoughts about the future on the morning of the election

by James Kaelan

It’s election day, 6:43am. I returned to Los Angeles last night after a week in the woods just west of Seattle. Our one-room cottage stood adjacent to a horse barn and a three-bay carport full of diesel trucks. The key we used to unlock our door was decorated with an American flag and a screaming eagle. “You don’t have to wear your mask here,” our host told us one morning astraddle an idling four-wheeler, a white cockatoo perched on her shoulder. “I’m not too worried about the Wu flu.”

On 98.9 The Bull, a SeaTac country station, a candidate for the Washington State House was running attack spots against the incumbent. “Jim’s opponent wants to defund the police,” says the ad’s narrator. “She thinks that when someone breaks into your house, you shouldn’t call the cops. You should just try to understand the criminal’s motivations. Not Jim. He believes in law and order.”

A couple years ago I made a film about a couple — the Reynolds — who moves from Los Angeles to San Bernardino. Carly supported Hillary Clinton. Billy didn’t vote. The Reynolds’ new neighbors — Ron and Sarah McVee — voted for Trump. One day Billy and Carly come home to discover that someone has jimmied open their side gate, popped out the screen of a downstairs window they left open, and stole Billy’s laptop. Billy tells Carly he’ll file a police report. Instead he goes and talks to Ron. “‘Well, Bill,’” Ron says in his best Obama voice, “‘you gotta look at the root causes of poverty. It’s not the Mexican’s fault he robbed your house. It’s not the terrorist’s fault he blew up the Twin Towers. He’s just trying to express himself.’ It’s fucking miserable, man.”

We called our film America the Beautiful. And we’d made it to try and understand how a reasonable man could get radicalized. We had very little money, and we were trying to ride the wave of current events, so I would write during the week and we’d film on the weekends. If we’d shot on a standard schedule, principal photography would’ve taken ten days. But we kept the portal open for two months.

We hid Ron’s MAGA hat in our closet when we weren’t using it, but you could feel its energy throbbing like a heart behind the closed door. Products from the alt-right dimension began slipping over into my timeline. I keep a screenshot of where their algorithm served me an ad for INFOWARS brand Caveman True Paleo Formula protein shakes beside an article titled “Hillary Clinton Looks Back in Anger.”

I’ve spent most of this year trying to read the tea leaves. In February I published a prediction essay in which I tried to imagine the outcome of the election. Trump would either win or ignore the fact that he’d lost, I reasoned. In the latter case, depending on the margin of his loss, Trump would either refuse to leave the White House (close contest); or abscond to Mar-a-Lago (clear Biden win) and encourage Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and whatever other Southern legislatures were feeling salty, to declare that they were the real United States, and that the rest of the country had actually seceded from them.

I can’t tell if my prognostication seems more or less prescient this morning than it did last winter. One of the most destabilizing things about this period in American history is that in order to make some sense of the chaos, you come up with narratives that help you feel like you can predict the future. Maybe, like me, you’ve been telling yourself a story about an impending Civil War II. And maybe, like me, sometimes you realize you actually want it to happen just so you can remind everyone that you saw it coming. Or maybe you tell yourself that, after today, the world is finally going to go back to normal. But then, in your darkest hours, you remember there’s no normal to go back to. Trump isn’t the first American tyrant. He’s just the first tyrant oppressing you.

A civil war might start today. Or Biden might win in a landslide and reunite the country. Depending on what corner of Twitter you lurk in, one (or both) of those outcomes probably sounds absurd. There’s a tremendous amount of energy built up behind this election. The levee will break today. No one knows who will drown, or what the landscape will look like when the floodwaters subside.

When we stand on the rubble of that broken dam next year and gaze around the valley, what will we see? Smoke? Concertina wire? Or will people be stringing up their Christmas lights?

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