The Fat Pants Presidency
I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of living under this atmospheric condition, imposed by House Democrats, that I call We Can’t Impeach the Authoritarian President for Actions That Are Impeachable (We Just Can’t).
The literary metaphor this impasse brings to mind is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, a novel in which the protagonist butler fails to act for the entirety of the narrative. You wait for the something that you feel has to be coming, but, no—he just scrapes away his masters’ crumbs as an older and older man. The story ends up being about his being exactly how he is and nothing more—a fate the Democrats are toying with.
Our current Remains of the Day started when Pelosi told the Washington Post that she didn’t think the nation “should go down that path” in regard to Donald Trump and impeachment because “he’s just not worth it.” The phrase seemed the coordinating dinnerware to her State of the Union clap. Democrats who still manage to have hope tried to convince themselves of some elaborate political strategy buttressing the phrasing and the timing. To me, however, “He’s just not worth it” indicated yet another wrong detour away from democracy.
Though I didn’t hear Pelosi speak the words, I imagined them issued with a sigh of inconvenience you’d imagine coming from white, upper-middle-class Californians who hire everything out. The phrase reminded me of those no-expiration-date ads explaining why you would pay more for L’Oreal products at the drugstore: “Because you’re worth it.” L’Oreal is all about YOU and your needs and desires; impeaching a would-be dictator is time-consuming, distracting you from the real priority of your own life.
The rationale “He’s just not worth it” seems at one with a decades-long development in American culture that I believe has weakened our democracy—this compulsion to degrade anything that has historically been deemed fuss-worthy or even simply attention-worthy, to submerge it in an everydayness, to take it down one notch and then another and another until it becomes just something else Alexa does for you. Perversely, this defenestration of civic ritual (looking at you, voting) has come to be perceived as democracy in action.
A couple decades before the internet and social media, American life started becoming less public, leading one to believe that everything fun was happening elsewhere. As least that’s how the world seemed when I was old enough to pay attention.
I vaguely remember a time when middle- and working-class people dressed up and went places in the small city of my youth. Church on Sunday was 90% of it, but people put on their “Sundays” for weddings, christenings, and funerals. Couples got dolled up for “functions” at the Kiwanis Club, the Knights of Columbus, the Rotary Club, or The Shriners and the Masonic Lodge. Fathers put on a tie to drink with their wives at the American Legion. Couples would get a sitter; the ladies pulled on girdles and blew the dust off their outdated clutch bags that struck even my young eyes as incongruous with their husbands’ leisure suits. To my hometown and thousands like it across the country, dressing up was worth it. It gave value to your place within a community.
But then something began to change between the advent of HBO and that of MTV. In that window between 1972 and 1981, much of American civic life started not being worth it for the Rotarian generation—and outwardly (or at least to me) it seemed that the reason was that no one wanted the fuss of dressing up. You couldn’t really blame women for being tired of hitching up a girdle, but without the familiar format of dress-and-girdle, many were lost in a fashion wilderness, choosing pantsuits that looked like McDonald’s uniforms or else opting out of the Shriners hoo-ha altogether.
I realize I am mixing up effect with cause (people stopped going to church; people lost manufacturing jobs and didn’t feel like being involved in civic clubs; people stopped bowling because their company league went bust), but this national retreat from the civic sphere was concomitant with (1) Americans’ desire to “feel more comfortable” at all times and (2) their getting fatter because acceptable styles of dress allowed for it. Polyester in the seventies, spandex in the eighties, and Lycra in the nineties aided and abetted this development.
Everyone’s mothers and grandmothers suddenly began wearing ensembles of stretchy pants and “big tops” in their orbital excursions to the mall and the big-box grocery stores. They begged off going to fancy events because they were too fat for their old-school department store dresses. And if they absolutely had to dress up, they wore their same stretchy pants but with big tops adorned by Lurex and sequins, topped off with dangly earrings.
It always seemed so sad to me, this generational retreat among the middle- and working class into the stretch-pants domain of family room, La-Z-Boy, elaborate cable packages, and of course the clicker. Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” seemed the ideal tribute to this national posture of plopping on the couch. These were the Roseanne’s living room years, the Maury Povich years. Americans would get off the couch only once every 365 days to go to Disney World—and these were older people who didn’t even have children with them. At Disney World, their clothing choices were affirmed at the get-go in the Goofy parking lot.
But then sometime during the late Clinton years, the stretchy-pants-and-big-tops set started venturing out again, beyond their discount direct flights to Orlando. Now, however, they were going to different kinds of places than fifteen years earlier—not to church or the Kiwanis but to manifestations of consumerism as social function. The Cheesecake Factory to celebrate nothing in particular with a trolley full of desserts, bus trips to resort-style gambling destinations.
The loss of this middle-class value—holding civic events with such respect that you would dress up more than for everyday—may seem trivial compared to holding the president accountable for his actions. But these behaviors seem cut from the same bolt. They represent an unbridgeable chasm of effort.
This ever-evolving freedom from what we perceive as social obligations (again: looking at you, voting) never ceases to be celebrated as a break from the constraints of the past. Forty years ago it was dressing up that wasn’t worth it; today it’s looking up (from your phone) that’s not worth it—not worth it for a nation of individual interests.
Pelosi’s waving away the rule of law only exacerbates the public disengagement from public life that corporate capitalism and the Republican Party have been conniving to achieve for decades, destroying core American values deceitfully in the name of core American values.
As Masha Gessen recently wrote in the New Yorker, Pelosi and Democratic allies seem to think that out-trolling the President at his own despicable game is preferable to a failed impeachment attempt: “Failure, in other words, is unacceptable, but this—the flagrant dysfunction, the trivialization of all that used to be politics, the spectacle of daily national shame—is acceptable. Trump will be gone someday, but the possibilities that Trumpism has created will remain.”
It seems somehow appropriate that our Come as You Are nation has taken a turn away from total comfort to embrace the shapeshifting illusions of Spanx, men as well as women. We’re still fat, but now we body-armor the flab when we dress up, go out, and ignore the president’s assaults on democracy—thus coming full circle with the Rotarian girdles. Because we’re worth it. §