The Petulant Class and Writing in Trump’s Aggrieved Shadow

LeCarre.LegacyJohn Le Carre’s new novel, A Legacy of Spies—his 24th!—is due out September 5th; and I can’t wait. I’ve read a number of reviews, and they only make me more eager to get my hands on it. When summing up, the reviews I’ve read talk a good deal about how Le Carre’s books fit into and inform our popular understanding of the Cold War—and how this latest goes back over that ground to assess what it is, and what we gained, if anything. Ned Resnikoff’s piece in ThinkProgress is superb.blog.ThinkProgress

On the one hand, during the Cold War, the “enemy” is implacable, inscrutable, and ruthless. On the other, we have to confront what we become in opposing it. As the head of the Circus, Control, notes to Alec Leamus in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: “I mean, you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?” Le Carre’s work evokes a world that’s not about good vs. evil, or light vs. dark, but about those who toil in the penumbra. Legacy examines what we did, why we did it, and whether we gained anything by it.

Which brings us to today, and the forces we confront. Oliver Sachs has said the object is always “to write–intelligently, creatively, evocatively–about what it’s like living in the world at this time.”

So what is it like to write now, post Cold War, when the world is atomized, hued rather than shaded, and (for all its bluster) nuanced?

Today, we see the growth of authoritarianism even among nations with a democratic pedigree and wonder how, why? Edward Luce’s book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, has much to say on this point. Harry Cheadle interviews Luce in Vice (from May).blog.vice.collapse

Though he doesn’t use the term in the interview, Luce describes what political scientists call “constitutional order” breaking down across the world, not just in the US, and not merely with regard to standards and tenets of the Constitution, but in the myriad ways people express and uphold their understanding of right and wrong, of what can and can’t be done. The rhetoric and actions, the divisions between left and right become ever more stark and severe. Hostility reigns. The ideal of moderation or compromise—even just getting along—seems increasingly problematic. Those taking sides feel that normal politics—that which constituted their understanding of how the world works—has failed, and they must win absolutely. How did we get here? We got here the way we get anywhere: one step at a time.

I started this literary journey some 20 years ago. When I first fully understood the workings of the Electoral College, I found it disturbing, ripe for mischief. The broad outlines of a conspiracy to upend the supposed result quickly took form. But who would do such a thing? I asked myself.

Even twenty years ago, those with wealth, position and power saw that the then-current constitutional order didn’t allow them to do what they wanted, and they grew impatient. They’d tried buying candidates, tried influencing elections, but the constitutional order was too diffuse (or too robust). Then, they tried motivating and mobilizing discontent from outside the parties in groups the parties had to address. This was movement politics of a kind, but only insofar as it articulated opposition. Those in the various movements weren’t a political party, so there was no ideology at work, only a petulant, reactionary reflex. This opposition meant that a group who could stoke the sense of aggrievement needed only to demonstrate their agreement in order to subvert order and exercise control. They can’t command a majority, but as the only seeming power in amongst the squabbling, they would be able to issue central directives beneficial to them and have them executed—an authoritarianism without ideas.

I won’t claim I saw all of this twenty years ago, but I worried about what I saw (and see) happening, and I wrote about it. I wanted to examine how a well-heeled, anti-democratic force might rise to power. Faithless Elector was the product.

Over the years, some 40 agents and editors rejected Faithless Elector. Those who were kind enough to write something more than “thank you, no, this is not right for us” (one had a rubber stamp which said just that) praised the writing, the characters, but all said something like “too obscure,” or “too improbable,” or “no one knows anything about the Electoral College, much less how it could be manipulated.” It isn’t obscure now; they know now. And the petulant class is closer to cementing its power.

This is the world we’re in now, the world writers must intelligently, creatively, evocatively confront. It’s the world my characters inhabit. It’s the world Imogen Trager and Duncan Calder push back against. In Faithless Elector, Calder tumbles to the fact that the conspirators can’t be from within either major party; in Dark Network, Imogen grows concerned about what the extra-judicial methods she uses to expose the conspirators and collaborators means for her own principals.

Taken together, the books—Faithless Elector, Dark Network and Consent of the Governed—aren’t meant as prophecy. And it’s not that the conflict is coming, but that it’s here, and we’ve very nearly lost. My work is about ordinary people risking their lives, toiling to uphold and preserve the constitutional order.

 James McCrone is the author of Faithless Elector, a suspense-thriller. Publishers Weekly calls it a “fast-moving topical thriller.”  Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.” Kirkus Review says it’s “A gripping and intelligently executed political drama.” The second Imogen Trager novel, Dark Network, will be available October 20.

Faithless Elector, by James McCrone is available through Amazon.
If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center.  
Support independent bookstores!  They support writers.

 

Paying Attention

“People need to be reminded more than they need instruction.”
-Samuel Johnson

The Faithless Elector stories shine a glaring light on complacency by homing in on people working frantically to preserve and protect the weakest, most vulnerable aspects of our democracy–the Electoral College, legislative oversight, an independent judiciary.

Samuel Johnson’s quote, above, might also extend to vigilance in politics. [He didn’t get everything right about politics, by the way, nor the Americas for that matter: see Taxation No Tyranny (1775)].  

Like housework, politics is never finished; and it is precisely when things seem to be going reasonably well that we let our collective guard down, stop paying attention.

Faithless Elector, which debuted in March, 2016, is a taut thriller about stealing the presidential election.  Its central premise concerns the latent weaknesses and possibility for abuse inherent in the Electoral College system.  The precise machinations envisioned in the book have not come to pass (thankfully!), but the larger issues raised by the story remain.  Those same weaknesses remain latent and prone to mischief…and there are others, as we are seeing almost daily.

Faithless Elector, and the second book in the series, Dark Network (on sale Oct. 20!) were never narrowly about political parties or merely the weakness(es) of the Electoral College; but rather, the precarious vulnerability of our democracy and its potential impotency in the face of decisive, ruthless, well-heeled interests.

“Governments are instituted among Men,” the Declaration of Independence reads, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”.  The Faithless Elector series stares unblinking at the forces arrayed to thwart and negate that consent. Taken together, they are the stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

I’m gratified that readers (see Amazon reviews) and independent reviewers have picked up on these broader themes of political accountability and personal responsibility, of the necessity for “ordinary” people to participate in the life of their nation.

To take just three examples:

  • Book Viral Review: “Taut and well-paced, but for readers reading between the lines it also works on a moral level.” (emphasis mine)
  • “The pleasure of Faithless Elector lies not just its smooth evocative prose, but in the author’s justified confidence that good writing can make chases through recognizable locales sufficiently exciting without a Navy SEAL or a terrorist plot.” Review, Plattsburgh Press-Republican
  • Publishers Weekly Review: “A fast-moving topical thriller…Surprising twists…add up to a highly suspenseful read.”

The series has never been about the rightness or fitness of one party or another.  Parties are, after all, at least responsible and responsive to their constituents; and ideally, when a party no longer has our consent, they are voted out.  The series is about what can happen when a tiny group seeks extra-democratic means to take control for their own benefit.  In that way, the books may be more prophetic than even I imagined.  You should see for yourself.

 James McCrone is the author of Faithless Elector, a suspense-thriller, Publishers Weekly calls it a “fast-moving topical thriller.”  Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.” Kirkus Review says it’s “A gripping and intelligently executed political drama.” The sequel, Dark Network, will be available October 20.

Faithless Elector, by James McCrone is available through Amazon.
If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center

Faithless Electors and Constitutional scrutiny could see the end of the Electoral College

Scholars have long held that Electors are independent decision-makers, and that the state laws enacted to force them to vote with the plurality in their state would fail a Constitutional challenge.  There is no mention of the current system we have all come to know in the Constitution.

538-div2 buttonThese state laws have stood for years because until now, no one had standing to bring a case.

Until Wednesday, August 15, 2017.

In Colorado, in Washington State and elsewhere, electors were fined, replaced or both for flouting the laws in their respective states.  On Wednesday, Harvard professor, Lawrence Lessig, on behalf of two members of Colorado’s Electoral College filed suit claiming voter intimidation against them by the Colorado Secretary of State; and they have filed their suit in U.S. District Court in Colorado.

The legal wrangling will be interesting, but if the Supreme Court (and make no mistake, that’s where this is all now heading) were to rule that Electors were independent actors and decision-makers in their own right, we might see the end of the Electoral College in the United States.

blogpic.COIndy.FE files suit“Whether you agree that they have a constitutional right to vote how they want or not, this election has opened up the door, and it’s really important for the Supreme Court to clarify what the rule is,” [professor] Lessig says. “We don’t want to get another close election and have this uncertainty affect the actual results. Either way the court ought to clarify, and our hope is this we’ll have a vehicle to give them a chance to do that.” (full story here, in The Colorado Independent)

James McCrone is the author of the suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector, and Dark Network (on sale Oct. 20). Publishers Weekly calls Faithless Elector a “fast-moving topical thriller.”  Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.”  Kirkus Reviews says it’s “a gripping and intelligently executed political drama.”

The sequel, Dark Network, is coming in October 20, 2017.

Faithless Elector, by James McCrone is available NOW through Amazon.
If you live in Philadelphia, pick up your copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center.  
Support independent bookstores!  They support authors.

Truths the Headlines Don’t Have Time for

“We shall find such men, we shall find them in every country. We shall not need to bribe them. They will come of their own accord. Ambition and delusion, party squabbles and self-seeking arrogance will drive them.”

I don’t write with headlines in mind. There are no winking, sneaky caricatures of real people in my books. The stories I write are themselves gripping and bleak enough, and fiction can get at truths the headlines don’t have time for. Through narrative, stories and character fiction reveals truth.

The books I write are not about Trump per se. He is a symptom, or better, a marker pointing to a deeper, deadly disease. The books are pacy thrillers.  I’ve chosen that medium to write about what afflicts us, striving to make sense and, as Oliver Sachs would have it, “to write–intelligently, creatively, evocatively–about what it’s like living in the world at this time.”

In between preparations for my book launch for the second Imogen Trager novel, Dark Network, I’ve been working on the third book, called Consent of the Governed (coming summer 2018). This third book focuses on the broader dark network conspiracy and how the conspirators came to be. I began sketching the third book’s outlines when I sat down to write Dark Network in April of 2016.

Those outlines—about nihilist, nativist, totalitarian forces dividing and subverting democracy—were in place long before the November election. As I began to write Consent in February of this year, they were even more in evidence, though I naively worried my conspiracy would seem a little over the top.

Consent title page pic.pngTo write the book, and for my own insight, I’ve been reading the “playbooks” and tactics of totalitarians, like the Nazi’s, the Stasi, Stalin; and they are chillingly informative. These are not nightstand reading. And once again, as events in the real world, from Breitbart to Brexit, to Charlottesville, to wherever the serpent raises its head next outstrip what I have on the page, the truth behind the headlines, the how-and-why, nevertheless remains crucial. People have died. There may be more.

The most chilling work I’ve come across in my research is Hermann Rauschning’s Hitler Speaks: The Voice of Destruction, from which the quote above comes. Currently, I have it as my epigram for the book, along with Prussian Field Marshall, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder’s “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” To be fair, von Moltke was writing in the mid-Nineteenth Century, and he was speaking specifically about battle, and the need to give decision-making authority to officers in the field during battle.

Taken together, however, the two quotes are my touchstone for who these conspirators are—opportunists. They sow mistrust, hatred, division and anarchy, and draw in the effective, opportunistic nihilists. It’s very like what we’re seeing today. The key is not that there’s some grand vision.  It’s a smash-and-grab, a nihilistic plunge into a species of anarchy in which self-dealing authority can consistently divide and rule.

Rauschning was an “early adopter” of Nazism who became disillusioned with it. But being in at the beginning—and then being dismissed—gave him a unique perspective. And it’s one that can be instructive now.

It’s crucial to remember that Hitler never won a majority. He was Chancellor of a coalition government. He came to power by stealth, political maneuvering, naïve collusion and outright murder. The Reichstag fire in February of 1933, was a terrorist act perpetrated by his own men, but successfully blamed on leftists. The furor over the destruction of the parliament assembly building allowed Hitler and the Nazi’s to seize full control. He used that control to cow the press, destroy the labor unions and stoke anti-Semitism. And despite the rhetoric (now and then) the power grab wasn’t for the volk. It was for whoever could grab the most and hold on to it.

They’ve been around forever, sometimes on ascendance, sometimes in decline, but always there. We would do well to remember that they don’t always come in such blatant, disgusting pageantry.

I highly recommend:
The Last Days of Adolph Hitler, Hugh Trevor-Roper
ISBN 978-0-330-49060-3

-and-

Hitler Speaks, A Series of Political Conversations with Adolph Hitler on his Real Aims, Hermann Rauschning (called The Voice of Destruction in Britain)
ISBN 978-1-162-93491-4

James McCrone is the author of the suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector, and Dark Network (on sale Oct. 20). Publishers Weekly calls Faithless Elector a “fast-moving topical thriller.”  Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.”  Kirkus Reviews says it’s “a gripping and intelligently executed political drama.”

The sequel, Dark Network, is coming in October 20, 2017.

Faithless Elector, by James McCrone is available NOW through Amazon.
If you live in Philadelphia, pick up your copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center.  
Support independent bookstores!  They support authors.

 

 

 

 

Writing in the Trump era

When evil is also stupid, what are we left to work with?

There’s been a great deal of concern about what it means to create in Trump’s America, from shock at the impending de-funding of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to a recent piece in New Republic, “Is Trump Ruining Book Sales?” which ominously intones, “in a world where reality has become stranger than fiction, actual books are no longer selling.”  Many books, they add, that were “released in the wake of the Trump election were written with a very different understanding of the world than the one we have now.”NewRep.Trump ruins lit

To this discussion, though he beat New Republic to the punch by three months or so, I would add Glenn David Gold’s “Writing (and not writing) during a political maelstrom” (LA-Times), who writes about the difficulties the thriller author Ross Thomas had writing during an earlier era.  Thomas wasn’t sucked into Facebook or Twitter (this was the ‘eighties), but by the radio, which despite his best efforts stole his focus and attention.

RossThomas.author

Ross Thomas

Thomas’s lament, however, will sound familiar to any writer today:  “He said that every morning he sat down at the typewriter and he told himself he wasn’t going to listen to [the Iran-Contra hearings], but the radio beckoned, and he turned it on, and he fell into them so completely he couldn’t work. Every. Single. Day.”  Worse, Thomas went on to say, “if [my] characters had conspired like this, they would have had a sense of wit about them that none of the clowns in Iran-Contra actually had. The actual level of deceit, venality, self-righteousness, collusion, the real-world consequences of doctrinaire actions, and the deep, unaware stupidity of it all were so far beyond anything [I] could make up.”

As I stare at the bleak landscape that stretches before us for (perhaps) another three and a half years, I’ve lamented this very thing.  My two thrillers (a third is on the way) are about a conspiracy to steal the presidency. The conspirators in Faithless Elector and the upcoming Dark Network deal in deceit, machiavellian deals and murder to achieve their goal.  I have also felt “knee-capped” by reality, to use Thomas’s vivid expression–so much so I almost feel like I should apologize to readers for the deadly efficiency and lean plausibility of my conspiracy.

Despite this dreary outlook, I stand in hope.  Tom Clancy famously said that “the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.”  And even in the depths of his writerly depression, Thomas seems to know this, and offers us all hope when he touches on the notion of fictional wit and elan.  A writer today, like Thomas before us, looks aghast at the bungling intrigue of the past six months and laments the lack of vision.  When evil is also stupid, what are we left with?

Gold hints at the ability of stories to make meaning, but I disagree with his final thoughts on the subject when he says, “Fiction has to be our consolation prize. Inherently lesser than reality, always behind the times.” I would say fiction and reality are not in competition.  Fiction is not well-crafted journalism; nor is it history.  I would stop short of saying fiction should strive to be prophetic, but it can and should weave meaning about where we are and where we’re going, even if the precise things we write about don’t come to pass.

And we’re left exactly where we’ve always been, striving to make sense and trying “to write–intelligently, creatively, evocatively–about what it’s like living in the world at this time” (Oliver Sachs).  That’s the meaning good stories offer, and those will rise to the top.

 

Here is an LA Review of Books retrospective on Ross Thomas, by Woody Haut (August, 2013) “Are the Fools in Town Still on Our Side“.  Excellent reading.  My nightstand stack just got a lot bigger.

James McCrone is the author of the suspense-thrillers, Faithless ElectorDark Network and the forthcoming Consent of the Governed. Publishers Weekly calls Faithless Elector a “fast-moving topical thriller.” Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.”

Dark Network, is on-sale October 20.JMc-author2.2017

Faithless Elector is available through Amazon.
If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center.  Follow this blog, and like James’s FB page.

 

Dark Network “sitings”

I took advantage of a visit to metro DC  for a friend’s 50th birthday celebration (and many more, Joel!) to do some location scouting for my upcoming novel, Dark Network, (available October 20!) the second Imogen Trager novel and follow up to Faithless Elector

Lansburgh Park

Lansburgh Park

I’m not from DC, and I’ve never lived there, but my wife and I have good friends there, and we visit often.  Nevertheless, siting places for clandestine meetings, udon noodles and murder was a problem.

The first half of Faithless Elector was situated primarily in Seattle, which I know well, having lived there for over 20 years.  Though I now live in Philadelphia, I have intimate knowledge of the University of Washington campus, the Pike Place Market and the Arboretum.  For the first book, I used Google Streetview to refresh my memory of a place, or to calculate distances.  It worked pretty well.

But for the meetings and mayhem in Dark Network, I was forced to rely almost entirely on Google Streetview to find, establish and describe the locations.  I was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked when I was finally able to do research on the ground.

Rock Creek Park

Rock Creek Park

There were six sites I used in and around DC that I found using Streetview.  I was able to get to four of them. While visiting them suggested some tweaks and local color I hadn’t contemplated before, I did not have to abandon any of them.

The parking lot in Bethesda, MD, (yes, I know–another parking garage!) is as spooky as I thought/hoped it would be.  The ‘drops’ my conspirators use in Rock Creek and Lansburgh Parks work very well.  At no point, fortunately, did I get to a site and think “Oh, no! There’s a security camera right there.”  Even better, I was able to confirm that there was a camera right where I wanted it…which I had first seen on Streeview.

blog.cameraIn fact, one area near the DC Armory is even better than I had hoped!

Dark Network is available for sale October 20, 2017.

When it’s finally out, I’ll be very interested to hear from DC-area readers about whether the sites I’ve chosen ‘work’ for them.

James McCrone is the author of the suspense-thrillers, Faithless Elector, and Dark Network. Publishers Weekly calls Faithless Elector a “fast-moving topical thriller.”  Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.”
Dark Network, is on-sale October 20.

Faithless Elector, by James McCrone is available through Amazon.
If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at 
Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center.  Follow this blog, and like James’s FB page.

Faithless Elector penalties upheld…for now

[Originally published 2017.03.16]
The fines leveled against the four Washington State Faithless Electors issued by the Washington State secretary of state, have been upheld on appeal by a state judge, the Seattle Times 
reports.


Washington State first put the Faithless Elector laws into place after Mike Padden, a Republican Elector back in 1976, voted for Ronald Reagan instead of his party’s candidate Gerald Ford.  Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 7.28.15 PM

Many states have such laws.  Most think they would not stand constitutional scrutiny. Indeed, the judge in the case seems to say as much when he notes that he doesn’t have the authority to rule on the plaintiffs’ argument that the Constitution doesn’t give the state the power to punish electors for contrary votes, but that they could argue the constitutionality of the law on appeal.

 

It has long been held by those who study US elections (see Professor Robert Alexander‘s response, right) that electors were free agents.

 

People on either side of the issues concerning the Electoral College concede that as conceived–and written–in Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution, electors are independent actors.  It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will agree.

 

This is the first election where fines have been leveled against electors.  Thus far, no one has had to appeal a fine levied by a state against a faithless elector, so no one had “standing” to bring a case, and the question has never come before the Supreme Court.  It may now.