There’s a lot about this QAnon stuff and other Trump conspiracies that I can’t understand. And a lot that I probably don’t want to understand, because to study it long enough to begin to comprehend might be risking being mentally poisoned myself.
But just because I won’t go spelunking into Satan’s asshole to understand everything about these folks, doesn’t mean I can’t understand any of what they’re getting out of it.
Reading and listening to journalists who are in touch with people who are organizing on the far right, I’ve been thinking back to one of the happiest times in my own life.
About 20 years ago, I learned that a developer was going to tear down the ugly old green house next to the greystone my wife and I were living in, and replace it with a modern condo building.
This was the house. We lived in the building to the left.
It occurred to me that the house, as shabby as it looked, was pretty old and maybe historic. It popped into my head to shamble down to the alderman’s office to ask him if he could give the thing a stay of execution while I did some research, just to make sure the place wasn’t, like, the last remaining example of a pre-Chicago-Fire farmhouse, or something like that.
To my surprise, the alderman said yes: He’d put a hold on the demolition permit for long enough for me to research the house.
That decision altered my life for a year or two, and also kind of forever.
I plunged into the research—original research, that took me to the Recorder of Deeds in the basement of City Hall, to special collections departments of libraries all over town, to the Chicago Historical Society, to the Polish Museum of Chicago, and back around to all those places all over again to compare new findings to my first findings!
I was a man transformed, feverish. In newspaper stories and city directories not seen by human eyes in more than a century, learning huge amounts, a poignant historic novel coming to life in my mind, all set in the 19th and 20th century of a neighborhood where I lived!
Meanwhile, I began to reach out for political support to my neighbors, who had regarded me, to the extent they knew me at all, as a “yuppie,” as young gentrifiers were then known—but who instantly signed my petitions and devoted themselves to the cause of “saving” this house. In reality, my neighbors were more interested in sticking it to the developer, and all developers, who were tearing down great old buildings all over the place, and replacing them with the tacky town houses that were driving the property values up. I was with them on that, too.
Meanwhile, I was also getting connected with another rich community—the Chicago “preservationists,” who had been long derided by my Polish neighbors as effete “florists and hairdressers,” more concerned about buildings than people. But these were also historians and intellectuals and experienced activists, who knew their Chicago history, and they welcomed this young firebrand with open arms.
When I did discover the building was in fact one of maybe a dozen oldest standing structures in Chicago—it was built in 1858 and survived the fire in 1871—I got the attention of the whole town. I wrote a cover story in the Chicago Reader newspaper. I was interviewed on WGN Sunday morning radio. The protests I organized in front of the house were covered on local TV news.
Now I was part of a movement, and it was one of the most exciting times of my goddamn life. My wife was involved, and lots of my friends. And I made new friends—like the legendary Bill Lavicka, who had a plan to move the house to a different lot in the neighborhood, and save it that way. I met a million people during that time, many of whom are still friends today.
It was all a ton of work, all unpaid—more than you can imagine. Along the way, some of my friends thought I’d lost my mind. When I told a college buddy from Ohio that I was going door to door trying to raise support for saving the house, he laughed, “You’ve become the neighborhood asshole!” My own father said, “You’re saving the world’s ugliest house!” And there were disagreements, including a rift between me and Lavicka that made a newspaper article, when the house eventually came down, in the heartbreaking end. And this abomination went up.
But the rewards were so many that I get a happy feeling thinking back twenty years later. Among them:
• A feeling of agency. This little ole Ohio feller presented at a big landmarks hearing at City Hall, and people down there took many meetings with me and Lavicka, not because they wanted to—because they had to. At one point, I got a handwritten note from Mayor Richard M. Daley, thanking me for my work on the house, which thanks to my discovery of the original builder, was now known as the Huntley House.
• A sense that my gifts—writing, researching, speaking, relating to people—were needed and appreciated and praised. Hadn’t always felt that way at work, hadn’t always felt that way at home. Meanwhile, I was finding new talents that I didn’t know I had.
• A building feeling, a gathering feeling, of a new community of which I felt an important part. Was saving this ugly-ass house the very most important thing any of us could have been doing with our lives during the first two years of this century? I spent two years arguing yes, but in fact, it didn’t matter—we all connected over it, and in some cases we connected pretty deeply. And your scorn only deepened our commitment to the cause, however hopeless or misguided, and to one another, however ragtag.
• The exhilaration of adolescent rebellion, after many consecutive adult years of mortgage-making corporate compliance.
• A singular common bonfire, onto which many of us could pile our grievances—against shitty buildings, greedy developers, Chicago philistines, piggish politicians—and yuppie fucks! (Which I was suddenly now not one of, because yuppie fucks do not neighborhood movements lead.) Pile your grievances, watch them burn, and bask in the warmth and glow of a shared sense of virtue.
• And during those years, life was interesting. Not amusing. Not fun. Not fulfilling. Interesting: A public battle between good and evil, with you and all your buddies on one side, and a bunch of greedy, atavistic monsters on the other. Strategic thinking, power plays, bluffing, hustling, shouting, whispering, winning or losing.
I became a Chicagoan permanently during that time. I became a leader during that time. I learned how to build a community during that time—and that building communities is the most meaningful thing in the world to do. (I do it for a living now.)
Have you ever had a time like that in your life? If you haven’t yet, I hope you do, someday.
And I sincerely hope that the cause that animates you isn’t QAnon, or anything like that. This is truly weird and sick cult stuff that makes me shudder when I think of it. Its dynamics will not play themselves out peacefully, like a Quixotic community preservationist protest. I find myself conjuring a Jonestown ending, on a national scale.
But goddamn if I can’t understand the appeal of being part of a struggle, for a lot of people who have lived most of their lives feeling not part of much at all.
My dad fought in World War II. Whenever we drove past the VFW bar, he would say he felt sorry for the guys drinking in there, trading 40-year-old stories about the winter in the winter in the Ardennes and the women in Paris. But he understood it: “That was the most interesting time of their lives.”
That must be true of these QAnon folks and other hard-core Trump people, too.
And they’re not going to give it up easy.