In these unhappy times, one should at least be thankful for the wealth of political groups available to be mocked, and despised, and possibly mocked again (for good measure) by members of the elitist media. Yet if the partisans and precepts of the carrot scrunge president have, since the election, acquired the kind of seriousness that threatens to mix your humor with their horror, their counterparts so far remain as untarnished as they are unused. The blind hypocrisies of liberal America—most recently unearthed in that Pepsi ad—retain their full unserious potency. They’ve had it at least since the 1920s and Dorothy Parker’s sublime, if understated, ‘Arrangement in Black and White’.
Enter Lionel Shriver, the American writer perhaps most notable for her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin (which won the Orange Prize in 2005), and her controversial speech on cultural appropriation. Her newest short story, Making America Great Again, takes place during a BYOD (“Bring You Own Dinner”) dinner party in a three-story brownstone in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Enough of a whiff, I’m sure, to provoke a slight cringe in anyone with even a cursory experience of these kinds of settings.
Dina, a recent transplant from Wisconsin, was invited to the event after meeting her host Patrice, “an organiser of five-borough cycling tours and a volunteer charity worker,” at a Pilates class. Though it’s obvious she still has a little trouble adjusting to her new home (in one of the story’s many delicious phrases, Shriver describes her as “barbarically punctual”), it is rather the fact that she voted for Trump—revealed some two-thirds of the way in—that sets her violently apart from everyone else around the table.
To get an idea of how, or why, the satire in this story is so effective, one should realize that the political arguments presented throughout are made to sound ridiculous. As anyone who’s attended any social gathering within the past year will know, conversations are now endowed with the ability to switch from perfect mundanity to the monstrous presidency in no time, and this one is far from exempt (“really, what else could they talk about, Brexit?” Shriver’s narrator asks at some point). Explored as a back and forth between the participants is the usual anti-Trump case, of which the reader gets to sample the full spectrum: from entirely valid points—“the assault on the media, the judiciary, and the electoral process”— to flippant remarks imitative of late-night comedians—“he [Bannon] looks like a roadkill.”
Yet, despite the fundamental veracity of their position, it is the politically correct (pun not completely intended) who end up seeming the most unpleasant. Shriver has, as Christopher Hitchens once wrote of the aforementioned Dorothy Parker, “deadly perfect-pitch eavesdropping and cold contempt for prejudice.” This manifests itself in two ways.
The first is that this group of otherwise admirable individuals (in which every profession from “immigration lawyer” to “psychotherapist for transitioning transgender children” is represented) is remarkably unserious, to the point of condescension, about its own political ideals. Not only are they laughably doom-laden about the Trump presidency (“I wake in a state of unremitting dread” says one, though he is soon outplayed by another: “I can’t believe we’re still alive”), but they take protest precisely the way those with no skin in the game—or no understanding of the game—would take it:
“‘Rallies and marches are still mostly about making ourselves feel better,’ Courtney said.
‘Well, Jesus Christ, what’s wrong with feeling better?’ Bradford said.”
Which leads inevitably to the second point: the dinner party’s politics are entirely hypocritical. Nothing, perhaps, illustrates this better than the fact the whole group turns to berating Dina and Middle America (for lack of a better term) mere minutes after describing Trump as “the soul of intolerance […] a racist, an Islamophobe […] a trans-phobe, a homophobe.”
“‘That’s where we need the walls. Along the east and west coasts, to sequester the morons in the middle—’
‘You and yours did this to us—’”
What these reveal, besides the indeed pitch-perfect portrayal of what Leon Trotsky once called, in one of his better days, “radical tourists,” is a contradiction that stands at the heart of East Coast liberalism. Its supposed tolerance doesn’t exactly extend to those who disagree with it. And though of course one should never expect a rigorous politic to be too lenient with intolerance, this disregard ensures liberals remain blind to what should have been an obvious conclusion: they bear heavy responsibility for Trump’s election.
Regardless of Shriver’s actual politics, or the rapid-fire point-making within the story itself, it is a pleasure to rediscover just how potent satire can be when it sounds so right.