Register Wednesday | January 20 | 2021
State of Disunion Dorothy Lange, "A very blue eagle" (1936) via Library of Congress.

State of Disunion

After moving back home to the States, Kelli María Korducki tries to settle into the feeling of never being settled.

On the Friday after Election Tuesday, the editor-in-chief of the magazine where I work in New York asked that we hold off on publishing a story I’d assigned the day before. It was about a phenomenon called “anticipatory anxiety” which, as the name suggests, is the anxiety we feel when we’re waiting for something to happen.

That “something,” in this case, was for the state of Pennsylvania to announce the recipient of its twenty Electoral College votes—a game-maker in 2020’s close contest. And on Friday morning, after two and a half excruciating days, it suddenly seemed that the call was imminent. Overnight, the political zeitgeist tilted away from the vise-grip of ambiguity. Biden had almost certainly won.

I didn’t foresee the produced-by-Darren-Star-like scene that would, the following morning, confirm the happy prediction: a literal, impromptu chorus of cheers throughout the streets of Brooklyn, immediately followed by the city-wide deployment of YG and Nipsey Hussle’s 2016 anthem, “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump),” and a solid day of partying.

What I did anticipate was the brevity of this shared relief. So much remained to be seen, to be known. To be waited for, with expectations adjusted for the reliable—at least it’s become reliable—heartbreak of life in America. Would there be violent far-right protests? A coup? Would my increasingly MAGA uncle finally exhaust my capacity to forgive or forget?

Anticipatory anxiety may have lifted for the moment, but I knew—we all knew—that it would be back. The experience of living in Trump’s America, and perhaps America at all, is one of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Except, you never run out of shoes.

I rescheduled the story for a few days later.

I moved to New York for work and for love, during the final breaths of the Obama administration, after eleven years and four months in Canada and a successful bid for permanent residency in my adopted home. I never wanted to return to “the States,” as I’d come to call it—a term that I read as a distinctly Canadian appellation and that, when I first landed in Toronto from Wisconsin at eighteen, struck me as quaint. Much as San Francisco natives don’t say “San Fran,” I’ve never heard an American refer to “the States.” But if you don’t particularly care for the place where you’re from, hearing it recast through someone else’s nickname lets you try on fresh subjectivity. And this one really did the trick.

I’d adopted “the States” without thinking, yet it felt like a stand. Somehow, this gentle Canadianism seemed like an act of protest against the grandstanding myopia of “America,” a sneaky middle finger at the you-know-who-I-am presumptuousness implied by “US.” “The States,” in contrast, just says “a bunch of states.” Florida, New York, Texas, California, and the rest. It’s vague, almost dismissive. I remain delighted by how few states most Canadians I’ve met can name.

Now, almost five years since uprooting my Canadian rescue cats from the land of their birth to return, with reluctance, to mine, “the States” carries deeper significance. Post-election, its lack of precision feels less folksy than it does apt.

The 2016 election wasn’t the first broadly recognized indication of “two Americas,” a euphemism for the nation’s sharp rural/urban, conservative/liberal, overtly racist/institutionally racist divide. But while these ideological tensions were well established, 2016 may have been a wake-up call as to the tenuous American consensus on basic reality. Four years later, the left-of-centre electorate was equipped with a clearer indication of what we were up against—that is, how much we couldn’t possibly know about what to expect.

The US remains, as it ever was, an amorphous patchwork of quasi-nations made indistinguishable only by the insistence of their unity. On its face, Maine doesn’t look much like Arkansas, which doesn’t look much like Wisconsin. They are different, yet the same, in that they’re bound by a shared premise of a unity defined by disunion. It’s a vision of nationhood divorced from togetherness—a contradiction in terms.

The American ethos of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” as enshrined in the constitution, has come to mean the assurance of being left to fend for yourself. Give nothing and expect the same in return, in spades. Or, maybe, it’s the other way around: “We’ve gotten nothing, so don’t ask us to give so much as a damn.”

I returned to the United States just in time to see Donald Trump elected—in retrospect, a four-year dry run for the chaos of this third of November. I was here for the family separation crisis at the southern US border; If they don’t want to be separated from their kids, they shouldn’t break the law, reasoned the administration. For the torch-wielding white nationalists who marched on Charlottesville, all but cheered on by the president himself.

Trump made it okay to say the thing you couldn’t say, to say it out loud. But the thing has always been there, just beneath the surface.

The numbing horrors of the last four years continue to blend with the uncertainties of late-capitalist precarity to amplify long-standing sins that predate either. The US is haunted by the ghosts of its troubled history, a state built on stolen land made profitable by enslaved labourers whose descendants, in turn, are the most consistently disenfranchised demographic of voters to this day. 

(The Electoral College—the very institution that allowed for a “close call” election, despite a disparity of 5 million votes between candidates—is itself a vestige of an American slave-holding south. Contemporary scholars believe that the Electoral College was put into place back in 1789 to appease southern slaveholding states, where a huge percentage of the population could not vote because they were enslaved. This electoral anachronism is why winning a handful of “swing” states, like the one I grew up in, usually seals the deal for a candidate.) 

To survive in America today, one must choose whether to cultivate indifference, to throw oneself into movement politics, or to embrace a kind of uneasy resignation to hoping for incremental change. That, or to go all in on the bandwagon of least resistance (case in point: aforementioned uncle). But the waiting is always there, and the uncertainty over what comes next. Anxiety and anticipation.

The US was destined for Trump, or someone just like him. His presidency did not invent American plutocracy, its white ethnonationalist streak, nor its longstanding democratic loop-holes; Trump merely exploited them.

But what was an inevitability for the US could happen anywhere. Democracy is a chore of collective faith. Without the collective, all you have is a prayer.

Kelli María Korducki is a journalist and editor based in New York City. She is the author of Hard To Do: The Surprising, Feminist History of Breaking Up, published by Coach House Books.