Chapter 16 - Agent of Evolution
January 2020 came in quite busy. For starters, I was organizing the Candidate storycatching sessions. Their one media guy would fly in from New York, join us Colorado locals and we would get at it.
Some of the other innovation network folks like Mike Brown hovered around so it felt like a new work family was developing. A welcome change from my isolation.
Matt was still working for Steep Fuse and the rumors that Willy Nelson’s company was going to buy them were still in play.
Jennifer continued to beat the bushes for clients. An old friend of hers who had a secret crystal mine was making noises about wanting to take the crystal sales from the mine more main stream, but there were a lot of internal issues with another partner that had to be ironed out.
Another company that showed promise for Jennifer was ReWIRE water.
They had an ionization process that produced some interesting energy and healing bottled waters. Jennifer continued to connect them with possible funding sources hoping something would emerge there for her.
TV Show Designs
We quickly got through the basics of the Candidate project storycatching. It led to designing and producing a test of the Candidate TV show design. It certainly was not like other reality shows. It was more of an unscripted competition. I felt we had to test the concept before committing to a pilot. I wasn’t sure that a competition between ordinary citizens that addressed a serious subject kike polarization could compete with the exploitation of the Bachelorette or the Duck Dynasty crazies.
I started looking at locations in and around the Boulder area to shoot the test and contacted some local improv groups to see if I could get my test contestants from them. The startup folks that were involved with the Candidate group said it would be no problem getting the funding for the test.
I was also still in the first phases with Marc Benjamin and his idea about exploring the severe “polarization” in the country. At times I wondered if there was a potential conflict of interest for me, but I decided to let both develop and see which one went to production first. This, as it turned out, was the right move. There were changes coming that none of us foresaw.
The BIG Story
The big cultural story of course was we were entering into the 2020 presidential election cycle. As I was coming off my year of cancer in 2019, I really started paying close attention to what was going on with our democracy.
We progressives had suffered through Trump and his enablers attempts to turn the clock back to some fantasy of a white, male dominated, god fearing “free market” state
When DT was elected we wondered what impact he could really have on our system of governance. It had sustained itself through serious challenges before including a civil war. We knew that bureaucracies had one good thing about them; they were slow to change no matter who was in office.
Most new presidents had their fantasies about what they thought they could change and then quickly realized there were limits about what they could really do in the time they had been given them by the electorate. Even Obama in 2008 with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress had a rude awakening about the possible pace of change he dubbed “Yes We Can.”
Having said that, DT and his minions in the three years leading up to 2020 did disrupt what we held as democratic norms. His campaign promises turned into a sort of warped alternative reality. It would become a meme for his base. When asked why they continued to support him in spite of scandals, they would reply… “Because he does what he promised he would do.” It didn’t seem to matter what the “do” was. Looking at his rural white working class base, the one thing you could say about them was ... they didn't feel LISTENED to. Democrats were directly to blame for that, submerged in their belief that Obama had marked some transition in America to a multi-cultured democracy. In some ways, it had only awakened those that felt disenfranchised.
Still as Trump continued to play to his base, I wondered how they would have felt if Obama had tried to consolidate power in the same way DT did. A din of outrage from those good white folk I suspect, yet as Trump proclaimed he had unlimited power, he built his narrative on four main themes that didn't seem to have much to do with them.
The Tax Cut
He had promised a tax cut. When it came it reduced the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% and mostly benefited the wealthy. It was predicted that because of this steep decrease in corporate taxes they would have more money to invest in new projects and create middle class jobs. In a sense, it was a version of the “trickle down” theory that Reagan promoted in the 1980’s.
This theory had been discredited in every way since then, but apparently that had been forgotten by his true believers. It was still an attractive fantasy for those that felt left out.
In my view, DT’s tax cut promise revealed one of the Democrats weaknesses. Obama and his administration had saved us from sliding into a depression in 2008-2009, but no one on Wall Street had been put in jail for their criminal investment schemes. Even though the US rebounded economically by 2012, many middle and lower class folks still never recovered from losing their homes or their jobs that were never coming back. DT’s supporters saw this elite wealthy Wall Street gang as part of some “deep state” that was out to deny them the American dream, or worse yet... give it to illegal immigrants.
In 2016, Trump had tapped into that grievance, particularly among middle class working class whites. The result of his tax cut was no different than Reagan. In effect, the rich got richer, but his supporters, even though they received little relief, stayed with him.
DT’s second “promise” was that he would do something about those undesirable immigrants of color that were attempting to become American citizens.
The US had struggled to create an effective immigration policy for years. On one hand, America was a land of immigrants that in its early days welcomed waves of immigrants from Europe and Asia. My family on my mother’s side had been one of them. They made the difficult month long crossing of the Atlantic Ocean with no more than a dream of a better life.
When they arrived they went right to work at low paying mill jobs or started small farms. The US literally increased it's posterity on the backs of this cheap labor force.
In the 2000’s the primary immigration wave was coming from Mexico, Central and South America. When compared to the days of past immigrants arriving, the US was now a very different place. It had a social safety net for the disadvantaged that my relatives could only dreamed about. Again, the western agricultural states got a cheap pool of labor as these new immigrants did the jobs that whites had long ago given up.
On the other hand, it was claimed by some that these immigrants, many illegal, were overwhelming our social safety nets. Food stamps, welfare etc. granted help to them. This triggered the ire of some American “taxpayers.” Why should we pay for helping individuals and families that were here illegally? Even under Obama, record numbers of illegals were deported, many to countries where they were persecuted by drug lords and corrupt governments on their return.
Trump put his own unique spin on the immigration issue. He stoked the fears of disenfranchised whites by claiming illegals were going to take their jobs and murder their families in their beds. It was a tried and true method of dictators to blame a particular population for the countries problems. In this case, his blustering rhetoric took two real world forms.
The southern border of the US with Mexico runs approximately 1954 miles from the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean along the southern borders of four states, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The US established a border patrol in 1924 for the expressed purpose of patrolling this vast expanse.
However, in spite of the billions of dollars spent over the years, the long, desolate southern border turned out to be impossible to control or close to illegals. In 2014, 500 million illegal crossings were documented, far more than the 350 million legal entries. And a population of 11.5 million illegals in the US was also growing, most having been in the US for more the 7 years. One of the first things Trump did was to expand and militarize the federal force assigned to root out such illegals.
You might ask why illegals were tolerated at all. The plain truth was the work of these illegals made a 350 billion dollar contribution to the US economy.
Even with all his rhetoric, DT employed illegals at his golf clubs and resorts. On the one hand you could brand them undesirables and on the other they made you a lot of money. And there was no enforcement against employers who knowing hired illegal workers so the problem was continually kicked down the road by both parties.
Trump’s brilliance (if you can call it that) was to pick a symbol to represent his promise to end the immigration of people of color. He proposed… A WALL. Literally, a wall like the one the Soviets had built between East and West Germany after the Second World War. Even though all the experts told him that this kind of barrier was a folly, he used it as an effective symbol to pump up his base. He even claimed Mexico would pay for it.
What a typical section of the southern border looks like…
What Trumps proposed WALL looked like…
Rational politicians, even some Republicans, scoffed and gave him a pittance of the funding he asked for to enact this crazy scheme. However, over the three years leading up to 2020, he and his financial cronies did some creative accounting and diverted millions of dollars from other Federal projects to this fantasy. This included military spending ear marked for real needs. This strategy was challenged by progressives in the courts with mixed results. The courts slowed Trump down some, but not altogether. This “questionable” repositioning of federal money would become a hallmark of the Trump administration. Trump had learned in his earlier life as a real estate developer that he could use delaying tactics in the courts to hold off his accusers while he did what he wanted.
However, by December 2020 only 423 miles of fence had been built (out of 1954 miles) and out of that all but nine miles replaced existing broken barriers that were already there. As with most things Trump, there was his grift and then there was his failed reality.
The other thing DT did about immigration was far more damaging. His administration developed a “no-tolerance” policy that stated any illegal caught crossing the border would be immediately prosecuted and sent back to their homelands. This drastically reduced the possibilities that immigrants could seek asylum for legitimate reasons. This included families with small children.
To be fair, there had been US immigration detention camps before, but nothing like the spectacle we witnessed in 2019. The scene that unfolded reminded some of the Nazi concentration camps. When members of Congress attempted to inspect these facilities, they were either denied entry or threatened with arrest for trespassing. I never understood how they let local law enforcement get away with that.
Again, a cry went up from Democrats, but other than public pressure bought by the media coverage, we learned again… once norms had been corrupted it was a complicated process to get them restored. The image that endured was “children in cages.” This was a particularly cruel part of the no tolerance policy. Children were separated from their parents never to be reunited.
This is what it looked like in 2020 America…
And in keeping with the corruption practiced by DT and his followers, some of these facilities were run by private companies with ties to the Trump family or were big donors to his campaign. We taxpayers paid them millions to carry out this dark program. The last insult was the haphazard way these programs was run. It turned out the DT program had no way of tracking what happened to the kids once they were separated from their parents. As of this writing, 600 children are still unaccounted for.
Drain the Swamp
The third DT campaign “promise” was his assault on the independence of Federal government agencies. He claimed with a populist zeal that he was going to drain the swamp in Washington. This was music to the ears of his base that had been ignored by Washington for years. What he really meant however, was that he would try to get Federal agencies to do his bidding, flaunting the constitution.
It is often said that it makes little difference who is president. In 2016, this excuse for voting for Trump was particularly attractive to independents that hated Hillary Clinton. The thought was… “Let’s give this guy a shot. We know what she will do.”
What this meme overlooked was where the impact of a President is most strongly felt. It was in the appointments he/she makes to run and staff important government agencies and departments.
The activities and policies of agencies like Justice, State, Defense, EPA, and Immigration etc. have far more impact on the lives of normal American’s than any bill passed through Congress. In the beginning, DT made some semi-reasoned choices to head these Federal agencies. Folks with actual experience in what the agency oversaw or regulated. Very quickly however these first picks were fired or resigned for failure to proclaim their loyalty to him personally.
The first of these enablers came to light at the beginning of the FBI's investigation into Russia's attempt to corrupt the 2016 election. DT picked Jeff Sessions as his attorney general, a kind of a cartoonish character often made fun of on Saturday Night Live.
His main qualification was that he was an early DT loyalist.
As Russian intervention in our 2016 election became a thing, Sessions recused himself because he had met with some of the Russian officials in question during the transition. DT was furious. He hounded Sessions until he resigned under duress. DT would later campaign against him in Alabama when Sessions ran for one of the states senate seats. He lost to a someone endorsed by Trump. A object lesson to all those who challenged Trumps loyalty oath.
Sessions was replaced by William Barr.
At first, Barr seemed like a decent choice. He had been AG under the first Bush administration. He was respected in legal circles, but it turned out he had a quirky reputation for his belief in the unlimited power of the presidency. He wrote a 18 page memo to Trump outlining his views. Of course, Trump loved it.
Barr's perspective would show up in spades when all the Justice Department investigations from there on out either pushed forward or didn’t based on how much they benefited Trump or could hurt him. DT had gotten his wish. His own private Justice Department to punish his opponents and reward his allies. Just like those dictators around the world he admired.
Not to belabor the point about Trumps questionable Federal Agency hires, but DT put a coal lobbyist in charge of the EPA. He went through a progression of oil company CEO’s and military generals as Secretary of States until even they were deemed not sufficient loyal. One of the early ones, Rex Tillerson called Trump… “dumber that a rock.”
He eventually settled on Mike Pompeo, a Trumplican Congressman with little international experience. Pompeo would do his bidding in our unprecedented withdrawal from the world stage. He also purged the State Department of competent civil servants that had served both Republican and Democratic presidents.
The overwhelming impact of all of this was the “gutting” of important agencies. Thousands of jobs went unfilled. In the middle of his first term DT started appointing “temporary” heads of these agencies because they did not require Congressional approval. Another end run around the norms of the system of checks and balances. Democrats had no effective response. Again, the theme of incompetence came up as these under experienced appointees made bone head moves, particularly when the Covid pandemic erupted.
The other big target that DT focused on in his quest for unlimited power was his unrelenting attacks against the media and his own intelligence agencies including the CIA, NSA and FBI. His answer for his base when confronted by a skeptical news media was that “they” were fake news. They were out to get him.
As many said, this was a page right out of the authoritarian playbook. If you can make your people question the free press you can control the narrative. In other words… just LIE when what is reported does not support your agenda. According to the latest reckoning .DT made over 35,000 false or misleading statements since he had been elected. A dubious record for a modern American President.
I always thought DT’s “fake news” claim was an odd thing considering that Fox News, the biggest Cable TV and radio news network became the propaganda wing of Trumps MAGA Republican party.
In the evening prime time slots, “commentators” like Hannity and Carlson turned Fox into Trump TV. He always complained the “liberal” media was out to get him, notwithstanding this fact that he had his own network that was watched or listened to by half of the American population. This “liberal” bias news claim was made over and over again by him and his minions when anyone called him out on his crazy schemes. I never saw this story effectively challenged by even the most popular progressive cable news anchors when it was repeated on their programs by DT supporters. Again, progressives lost control of the narrative.
Equally dangerous if not more so, was DT’s distain for his own intelligence services when they disagreed with him on assessments of known enemies like Russia. From the very beginning of his unexpected ascension to the presidency, DT had made a point of disregarding the obvious evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. It was seen by him as a challenge to the legitimacy of his presidency. He even publically agreed with Putin at one of their summits that Russia had nothing to do with undermining the 2016 election.
Not in modern history, had a President ever taken the side of an adversary against his own intelligence services. He was also really sloppy about revealing security secrets to foreign ambassadors when they came to the White House..
The last campaign promise of DT’s campaign was symbolized by his assault on the US court system. He promised conservatives, particularly his fundementalist Christian base, that he would appoint Supreme and Appellate Court justices that would roll back progressive rulings on abortion, Obamacare etc.
Lead by Mitch McConnell, then the majority leader of the Senate, this process had begun in the last year of Obama’s presidency.
A vacancy on the Supreme Court had opened up 10 months before the 2016 election. McConnell refused to let Obama’s nomination come to the floor of the Senate for consideration because he said it was too close to the next election.
Progressives howled again, but Obama made a critical miscalculation when he did not take his case to the public. DT was extremely effective at rallying public opinion with his raucous events. Obama did not take this course in spite of his charisma. As a result Trump, through a set of circumstances that would emerge, named three right leaning Supreme Court judges, one 10 days before the 2020 election.
So… by January of 2020 all that had happened and more. As I try to describe it, I am barely scratching the surface. Trumps method of dealing with unfriendly media was to overwhelm reporters with so many issues they had trouble keeping up. As DT boasted, he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and his base would not care. This type of cult loyalty was not something that our governance “system” was used to dealing with. Many would point out that Nixon, the only modern president to resign the Presdiency, looked like a boy scout compared to Trump. In spite of the blue wave of 2018 when Democrats took back the House, it was a fair bet that Trump would get re-elected as an incumbent on the basis of a strong economy. The fact that his “to do” list was plunging America into a constitutional crisis did not seem to concern his followers or the right leaning media that repeated his lies.
All this was in play as New Year’s signaled the beginning of 2020. The only clue that Trump was about to make the fatal mistake of his presidency was hidden in the early reports of a virus in China that was out of control.
We went about the business of getting the Candidate project ready to be funded. Jennifer continued to monitor the new virus in China, dubbed Covid 19, as it rapidly closed down major Chinese cities and began to make its way into Europe.
Jenny’s research also uncovered the fact that the infectious disease task force that had been set up by the Obama administration to deal with the Ebola pandemic had been disbanded by Trump. One of many of the things he did quietly because Obama had something to do with it. In a sense our door was wide open for a new viral threat to enter the US and we now had clowns in charge of our response.
However, Covid 19 was not yet the biggest headline in early January. Trump had been caught on an audio tape of a phone call with the new Ukraine prime minister asking for help in gathering dirt on Joe Biden, his perceived opponent for the 2020. Biden’s son Hunter had been involved in a Ukrainian company, reportly getting paid $50,000 a month to be a symbolic presence on the board. Not a good look, but not illegal. This company was involved in energy production and had ties to the Russian intelligence service.
Normally, when a president is caught on tape doing something illegal like this it is a slam dunk, game over like it had eventually been for Nixon. His tapes revealed his participation in the Watergate cover up and ended his Presidency.
However, in a sign that we were not in Kansas anymore, the Republican leadership rallied around Trump and dedicated themselves with their majority in the Senate to defeat the impeachment charges brought against Trump by House Democrats. In interviews with network anchors Trump all but admitted he had asked for dirt in return for allowing US military aid to Ukraine to continue. This was of course highly illigal. A president cannot withhold funds that have been approved by Congress. In this case, they were helping Ukraine fight a growing border war with his close ally Russia.
In a strange first, DT railed on about people needing to actually listen to the tape. He said it showed his innocence even though in reality it revealed an impeachable offense. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain came to mind.
This was the beginning of a long and winding road of total Republican leadership capitulation to the Trump. They seemed afraid of losing their positions of power to a Trump backed challenger in Republican primaries. The Trumplikins, as we now called them, put their loyalty to DT above serving the American people.
This was only the beginning of the sur-reality show that became the 2020 presidential election. The Republican controlled Senate, without calling any witnesses or considering any evidence, absolved DT of any wrong doing in his first impeachment trial . You could make the arguement the fox was loose in the hen house.
This distorted “innocent” verdict combined with Attorney General Barr’s intentional miss handling of the Mueller Report in 2019, seemed to suggest that DT was invincible as long as his followers guarded the gates of his alternative reality.
One thing that would be revealed later is that Rob Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general that had gotten FBI director Jim Comey fired, quietly managed the Mueller investigation so that it never looked at Trumps financial dealings. DT had bragged of getting millions from Russian oligarchs in the mid-nineties. Was this why he would not confront Putin we wondered? Before he resigned, Rosenstein carefully created the public impression that some part of the Justice Department was looking into DT’s financial dealings. It turned out to be a well-crafted lie.
Climate change was also in the news again. Enormous fires in Australia burned millions of acres for months.
This previewed what would happen on the west coast of the US in September. The planets temperature was heating up and now the results of denying that fact were becoming very real.
Another tragic news flash was the helicopter crash that killed NBA star Kobe Bryan and six others including his young daughter.
What made this more than just celebrity news was that Bryan was part of a growing activism movement among black NBA and WNBA players.
They were speaking out to their millions of fans about racial injustice. This would become even more noticeable as tensions with police over their unjustified killings of blacks heated up during the summer. This crossover of professional sports into activism was a new wrinkle that would have an impact on America's culture war.
The last thing on my plate in January was my six month follow up with my cancer surgeon, Dr. Kim. All the tests after the 2019 surgery showed no additional cancer and he said again… see you in six months. Little did either of us realize at the time that this visit would be the last one we would do in person as the Covid Pandemic exploded in the US population. At the time I was ok with it, but as the pandemic pushed any normalcy further and further out into 2021 at best, I began to wonder if not having normal checkups would be a problem. I was feeling myself again, and certainly my new work was taking off, but this worry was always in the background unresolved.
In February, the first case of the Covid 19 virus in the US was confirmed.
Jennifer went into overdrive as we re-stocked out emergency supplies for six months, just about a second or two before the rush took place that emptied the shelves. We were heading into new uncharted territory.
I was still driving the Candidate project towards a test shoot in Colorado and was beginning to look at Richmond, VA as the city we would use for the American Lodestar competition. The AL project had advanced rapidly and I was on the phone a lot talking to Richmond school officials, the mayor’s office, and the Virginia film commission about shooting a test towards the end of March. Jennifer kept feeding me bulletins about new Covid cases in the Richmond area. At the time, four was a big number, but it still seemed possible to shoot at that point if we were careful.
Agent of Evolution
I titled this chapter “Agent of Evolution” because in the early part of 2020, I was experiencing something in my work that had been theoretical and now was beginning to become reality. We made some predictions about the future based on the data and stories we were collecting in our storycatching sessions, but we always said that everything could change IF... a big pandemic emerged, nuclear war broke out or the economy crashed for whatever reason. These “black swan” events were part of our potential future story as WHAT IFS. What was about to happen in America would bring the X factor of a worldwide pandemic into play in ways we had never experienced in our lifetimes. A truly evolutionary moment and it was not lost on me that the cause was a simple virus.
The Complex Web of Life
The earth and all its systems are a complex web of interacting systems. Beneath a the world filled with mammals, birds and fish and the main terrain and aquatic features, a microscopic world of bacteria and viruses existed.
We humans mostly saw bacteria and viruses as a cause of sickness. That was partially correct. They could certainly cause us problems. But viruses also played an important evolutionary role as well in life moving forward. Without them all life on the planet as we knew it would cease to exist.
The Kosmic job of a virus is to attach itself to a cell and “mutate” that cell into something new. Obviously, if that turns a cell cancerous that is a bad thing for the host. These new mutations also fight it out to be selected by evolution expanding outward as a permanent part of the new order. Without these "mutations" nothing would advance. Earth might have remained a caldron of fire and ice.
When the Covid 19 virus showed up, this deadly challenge revealed weaknesses in our systems of response… physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially, politically etc. We had said in our now and future work, America needed to re-invent itself to keep its democracy vibrant. Covid was potentially one very real change agent that could accelerate that evolutionary process. It forced us to adjust our view of pretty much everything we took for granted.
Anyone paying attention knew that whatever emerged on the other side of this Pandemic would not be the same as before. Everything about our health, economic, and education systems would be forever changed. What that meant at that point was anyone’s guess.
The Power of Personal Stories
With the emergence of Covid, Trump made the calculation (consciously or unconsciously) that any narrative that threatened his 2020 campaign message of a robust economy was either to be ignored or downplayed. In the first few months of the epidemic a series of conflicting messages emerged from the White House. Trump literally laughed the Covid 19 pandemic off as NO threat to the US. He praised and then demonized China’s response to virus. He said ALL was under control as late as April when it was revealed later that he knew how serious Covid was going to get in January and chose to ignore it. Alternative history is always an interesting thing to play with, but in this case, historians were going to have a field day with this WHAT IF.
WHAT IF Trump in his quest for imperial, centralized Presidential power had seen the virus as the perfect excuse to declare a national emergency and evoke martial law? WHAT IF he had mobilized a federal response that rivaled a emergency war time effort that elevated him to the HERO in chief that would save everyone?
Even though the impact of Covid could not have been totally stopped in any case, it could have been slowed down had he done his job. Thousands of people’s lives could have been saved. IF Trump had called on the American people to sacrifice in the short term to slow the spread of Covid, we would not be in this continuing crisis. The economy would have been less impacted, kids would have been back in school sooner and the opening up of business could have been done safely and sanely while a vaccine was sought.
Instead, he ridiculed the simplest forms of protection like wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands.
He held campaign events and rallies that became Covid super spreaders even at the White House. He continued mocking Covid 19 as a Democratic hoax even though eventually his wife, his family, his staff, his followers and he himself got sick.
I believe if DT could have re-imagined his re-election story to include stopping the pandemic, he would have been re-elected easily. Only three presidential incumbents in modern times did not get a second term. DT as the Pandemic HERO would have been unstoppable and there would have been no telling when he would have lifted the emergency powers he would have evoked.
Some say that villains often suffer karmic fates. They are undone by their own blind spots. Had Trump seen the Covid 19 pandemic as the opportunity it presented him to further consolidate his power, the rest of 2020 would have been very different. But as it was, his reality show was just getting started.
Dark Clouds Gather
February dawned and I was still pushing the Candidate and American Lodestar concepts towards live production shoots in Colorado and Richmond VA. I was drawn to both these projects because they promoted a form of grass roots activism that was the one thing DT couldn’t corrupt.
The American Lodestar project, in particular, was connecting me to interesting partners like the never-Trumpers of the Lincoln Project.
They were true conservatives as opposed to the radical right stance of DT and his MAGA followers. In some ways, Trumpism was exactly the opposite of true conservative thought. Conservatives always fought for less Federal governmental power. Trump mimicked those principles of individual freedom in his diatribes, but what he really wanted was ultimate Federal power to reside in him as president.
The impact of the Trump doctrine was to further divide America into warring tribes even as we should have been facing the looming Covid Pandemic together. How he would politicize COVID would be unprecedented. Even though there was some legitimate truth to the tribal grievances DT inflamed, Americans seemingly became more polarized with each other that any other time in our modern history. This opposition to each other included violent confrontations between trib as DT poured gas on the fire at his Mussolini like rallies.
One odd example of a distorted Trumpian proclamation took form in one of his State of Union messages. DT awarded the American Medal of Freedom to Russ Limbaugh, the radio talk host that was one of the chief architects of Trumps culture war of lies and misinformation. He died shortly there after.
The Medal of Freedom had always been given to those that made some important contribution to all Americans. In Trump world however, American’s were only those white citizens that pledged allegiance to him. As 2020 proceeded, these alternative views of reality would become even more pronounced, down right black comedy at times. As many have said… a country divided against itself...falls. I wondered, were we really in danger of falling?
Confusion in the Ranks
As much as DT distorted what it meant to be a Republican, Democrats still didn’t seem to get how deep these rural white tribal grievances went. They had ignored rural Americans for years. Who would or could stand up to Trump in a meaningful way became an overarching question as events unfolded.
Democrats were conflicted about who would lead them in the 2020 election. What at first seemed like a strong possibility they could unseat DT as a result of his failure to combat the Covid Pandemic, was negatively impacted when no Democratic candidates initially stood out.
There was a lot of talent to be sure, even younger talent, but in the beginning primaries Bernie Sanders emerged as the leader. Biden in the beginning seemed handicapped by his age and his mild manner. He seemed like he was four years beyond his prime. Bernie was full of vinegar as he bellowed at Trump, but he was also handicapped by his leftist leaning policies that were not attractive to independents that had supported Trump in 2016.
The Democratic debates were awkward affairs featuring as many as 10 candidates at a time.
This left everybody searching for a 2 minute sound bite that would play the next day in the news. Even the attacks that were made on Bernie and eventually Biden seemed staged and lacking any energy. The news media played up the divisions between more moderate Democratic candidates like Biden and more leftist candidates like Sanders.
Even billionaire Michael Bloomberg waited in the wings with unlimited cash to spend on his candidacy if a leader didn’t emerge. His campaign saturated the air waves with campaign spots, but his seeming attempt to “buy” the nomination put a lot of people off and ended the first night he joined the democratic debates and got his head handed to him by Senator Elizabeth Warren. He did promise to spend whatever it took to defeat Trump, so that was something.
Trump made the most of what seemed to be Democratic Party disarray. Obama had shown up again at one point only to remind us we had no one with his charisma running this time. Even with DT’s disastrous response to the Covid pandemic, the polls in February showed the race closer than it should have been and all of us began having nightmares that somehow DT would get re-elected.
You Never Know
Biden was reeling as he headed into the South Carolina primary. He had really underperformed so far. South Carolina was his first test to see if black voters would support him more than they had Hillary. His team knew it was make or break.
In the background, something mysterious happened. Jim Clayburn, the powerful South Carolina polititican was pondering his endorsement.
He was on the fence as many were. Bernie did not seem plausible, but Biden seemed uninspired. As he told the story later, a confidant came to him and said he had to declare loudly for Biden if Democrats were going to have a chance of beating Trump. He did so, and a ground swell of black support, particularly among black women gave him an overwhelming victory in South Carolina. Biden seemed to find new life and his momentum propelled him through the next set of primaries and almost overnight he became the leading Democratic candidate for President.
In March, Trump finally declared a state of national emergency as the Covid pandemic began to explode in the US population. His next move however was to off load the response to the states and then not provide any Federal guidance or funding to support it. He particularly targeted blue progressive states, as he threatened to withhold Covid funding and supplies if they didn’t support him. The politicization of the Pandemic had started. Trump convinced 40% of the American people that the Democrats were using the Covid Pandemic to unseat him. They were told not to worry about it. That would prove deadly.
One result was States ended up competing in the global marketplace against the US government to purchase the PPP supplies they needed to combat the pandemic. In some cases state shipments were intercepted by Federal authorities with no explanation. It was like something out of a mafia movie.
At the time there were also lots of draconian predictions that Trump wanted to collapse the American democratic system into fascist state using the pandemic as the catalyst. Advisors like Steve Bannon were very open about their desire to get rid of the Federal government altogether or at the very least reduce the public’s confidence in their system of governance. Historically, when a populous loses faith in their elected officials, a “strong man” will arise promising to restore order. Hitler in Nazi Germany, Italy’s Mussolini and the Imperial Japanese were often used as examples.
There was however a unique twist to DT’s attempted power grab. It came rapped in the American flag. DT and his enablers claimed to be saving democracy for white people by marginalizing populations of color and anyone else that challenged his self-declared authority. This included carefully orchestrated voter suppression efforts in progressive and black communities as the presidential election loomed. Trump supporters, like Lindsey Graham, campaigned on his promise to protect the American way of life. What he meant was the “white” way of life.
Thieves of State
About that time I saw an interview with a news reporter named Sarah Chayes. She had spent years in Afghanistan trying understand why the country had been de-stabilized for so long. She got access to all factions and even became something of an activist trying to solve basic issues like education. She included all parties in her solutions, including the Taliban and the US supported war lords. She wrote a book about her experience that influenced me entitled: "Thieves of State," why corruption threatens global security.
What she discovered was that the aim of a “kleptocratic ” system, as she dubbed it, was not to completely dominate a nation as fascist or communist rulers try to do, but rather completely control it through loose agreements between three forces, corrupt government officials, large corporations and the military. In a sense, it was a right leaning version of the progressive “deep state” Trump claimed was trying to take him down.
In this case however, the uniting force was not political views, but money, power and control. The real deep state included a variety of political positions with one aim. Maintain control of the culture while throwing just enough crumbs to the populace to keep them pacified. A kleptocratic system was “transactional” at its heart.
As Trump would put it “the art of the deal.” In Trumps case the “corrupt deal.” It was much like a mafia style system, where the bosses did not need to take over the government… but instead relied on corrupt political officials on thier payroll to protect them. A kleptocratic system could seemingly promote the interests of democracy and at the same time control the flow of financial transactions so that they mostly benefited the top heavy power structure. That’s what made it so hard to get your hands around.
Another feature of kelptocratic systems is that the main players often change. “Gang wars” often brake out between factions. This was what Sarah was talking about when she suggested kelptocracy threatened global security. No one in a kelptogratic system trusts anyone else. Alliances are betrayed in a moment. The resulting destabilization of the system can lead to unpredictable outcomes. For the first time I began to see this narrative playing out in many of our films, television series and video games about the future. We called it “corporate feudalism” and the version that DT seemed to be pushing was one draped in red, white and blue.
Later in the year more dangerous klepocratic thinking came into play when 126 Republican members of the House and 18 state attorney generals signed on to a nuisance lawsuit out of Texas that was attempting establish red legislators have final says over election results in four swing states.
Their theory of the case was they would give DT a second term by having him elected by loyal state legislators instead of the voters. The Trumplicans would claim massive voter fraud and negate the results of the peoples votes. Then they would throw it into the state legislator controlled by them and they would vote to give the States electional votes to Trump. The Supreme Court quashed the law suit, but it didn’t stop the rumblings that capitalism and all its benefits did not necessarily need a democratic system to thrive. China was such an example of a highly innovative nation state that totally dominated and controlled their people.
The lock down news came suddenly as Covid cases exploded across the US, even though DT said he had it all handled. March 15th was the day, Jennifer and I made the decision to not see anyone until the rate of infections got better. We were in the highest risk group by age and prior health conditions. For us at first it was not that big a change other than all shopping would have to be done on-line or in curb side deliveries. The number of Amazon boxes and Whole Food Market bags grew on our porch.
All items coming into the house had to be sprayed with alcohol before we touched them. There was lots of cultural hysteria occurring as no one had ever been though a pandemic like this one before.
I had been in isolation most of 2019 as a result of my two major surgeries, so technically not much changed at first for me. However, the lock down put an end to me doing live production shoots. It also did something else. These new conditions made people nervous about the future. Potential funding for the Candidate project and others in the wings evaporated. Fortunately, Marc and I had a ZOOM based plan B to shoot the American Lodestar test with improv actors stepping in for real Richmond citizens. I was excited about figuring out how to do it remotely and thankful that I was still working. Many were not.
My live storycatching convening’s also came to an end. For a while we thought about doing them remotely, but most of our potential participants had been rocked by this unprecedented change and any thoughts of their predicting their future would have to wait until we all saw how the Pandemic played out. I think in the back of my mind I was thinking by fall we would be past the worst of it and could begin live gatherings again.
In rapid succession, Matt lost his job as Steep Fuse. In some ways we were thankful he would not be working in close quarters with young people that did not seem as concerned as we were about getting sick. Jennifer’s potential projects also went into hiatus as funding dried up. The other result was that the production family that was gathering around the Candidate concept scattered in all directions. Whatever might have been dissipated and left me isolated again.
In April – US had the highest Covid death rate in the world. Trump fiddled in denial. Biden continued his march towards becoming the Democrats presidential candidate. Biden would initially make the choice to campaign virtually from the basement in his home and then later at car rallies. Strange days indeed.
His initial polls in the battle ground states compared to Trump looked promising, but Hilary’s polls had also looked good and we knew where that ended up Progressives were worried based on what happened in 2016 that the polls wouldn’t mean anything again.
In a sign that these we not normal times, the Pentagon released images of UFO sightings for the first time that suggested aliens might exist.
Against the backdrop of the pandemic spreading and the economy contracting, no one noticed.
DNA is Thicker
Brother Bruce started organizing zoom calls with the eight of us Pinger/Riordan cousins. Since our mothers memorial it was the first time we all had talked. The calls mostly began as catch up, but quickly morphed into reporting on locked down life. In was interesting to hear a variety of related DNA perspectives, different yet familiar all the same.
I also worked with a new client. Ammortal was a startup in the health and wellness space. They were designing personalized healing chambers that featured transformational tech that Jennifer and I were familiar with that used sound waves, visuals, vibrations etc. They also were developing an app whose purpose was to gather data on participant health choices to inform the development of AI health intelligence two years out.
The goal of the AI program was to create an integrated view of a person’s health and wellbeing out of all the data it was given. AI programs were tireless in identifying patterns of behavior and suggested treatments. It was a piece of the future of healing yet, I was concerned that Ammortal y would develop a New Age brand, which in my book was not the future.
Their storycatching sessions revealed many things that helped me define what I meant by a narrative that was aligned with the future. When we emerged from the Pandemic everyones future story would be different. The trick was to align your product or service with those new narratives. They also had an interest in “gamifying” participant’s interaction with the app. The AI piece and the gamification aspects that we explored would influence me later in the year as I took the Story Studio work to the next level.
US reported 61,000 Covid deaths at the end of April.
In May – The Bill Barr brand of justice began to reveal itself. He had distracted everyone from the true findings of the Mueller report, now he was initiating investigations into topics that Trump railed on about that were inspired by conspiracy theories on the far right.
He flew all over the world on our dime to gather “evidence” that Obama administration officials and the FBI had tried to “spy” on Trumps campaign. Instead of following up on the legitmate concerns about Russian interference in the 2016 election, he began to spout half-truths that in time would gut the reputation of the Justice Departments independence from Trumps White House. Experienced, principled prosecutors resigned in protest. This was only the beginning of this trend as the election year played out.
Trump had in effect corrupted the major agencies of the US government to do his bidding. He was brazenly open about rewarding his supporters and using the power of the US government to punish his adversaries. It started to feel like we were living in a third world country.
This got further politicalized by the killing of George Flood by the police in Minneapolis.
Under Trump, the Justice Department folks that believed the police should be a force used to "control" the populous ramped up the militarization of city, state and federal police forces until it was hard to tell them apart from assault troops. This trend would continue as mysterious “secret police” were deployed against the wishes of the states to “put down” racial justice protests that exploded across the country that summer. Protesters were literally being pulled into unmarked vans and disappeared.
On a somewhat higher plane, SpaceX, Elon Musk’s private space venture flew its first two human astronauts to the International Space Station.
This was a milestone in the “privatization” of space exploration. NASA seemed to embrace this new partnership whole heartedly. Although Space X had staggering success, it raised the specter that the colonization of Mars and asteroids could become commercial undertakings rather than government research missions. The history of private corporations colonizing new lands on Earth was not pretty. Musk was a kind of new Howard Hughes type, but demonstrated his contempt for any limitations government would try to impose on him, like the safety of his workers during the Pandemic the government insisted on. There were also some strange, drug fueled social media posts that got him in trouble with the Securities Exchange Administration.
Richmond on Fire
As a result of Covid exploding in Richmond, I ended up having to re-write the American Lodestar project three times to take into account the impacts of the Covid shutdown on elementary schools and the black lives matter protests. In some ways, we could not have picked a city that was more in the center of these cultural uprisings.
This made the show potentially very real, but also put me right in the middle of the reality of what happens to low income families when a crisis hits. The suffering I was seeing felt like the true underbelly of American life. In all our complaints about the lockdown, I felt we had been extremely lucky so far.
In a fun distraction, a UK writer contacted me about doing an article on the "Wilderness America" album we had done in the mid-seventies for the benefit of seven environmental organizations. His curiosity soon expanded to my entire music career and my transition into the interactive entertainment business. His article read like a strange bio from another life. Guess I was old enough now to be considered “retro.”
US reports 103,781 Covid deaths at the end of May.
In June the protests continued. In addition to witnessing the militarization of America’s police forces another trend arose. The question on everyone’s mind as the Black Lives Matter protests exploded in cities all over the country… “Was it enough this time to make a difference.”
Certainly the progressive community awoke as a result of the sustained protests but what about the rest of America.
Liberals started making noises about reforms, but the other question on the table was… “What was the end game or goal of the protests?” We had already witnessed the demonstrations get violent at night as anarchists used the gatherings as cover to light America on fire.
There seemed there was little effort among the legitimate protestors to address this. The violence gave Trump and his supporters a perfect story to stoke the fears of middle America. I thought they should end the protests when it got dark so that anything that happened after that was not blamed on them. Nothing that happens after dark in this type of hyper charged environment was ever good anyway.
However, in a typical progressive stance, nothing was said or adjusted in the protestor’s tactics for fear of being tagged as supporting racism. It was not clear to me what these extraordinary expressions of outrage really would accomplish.
To make matters worse, a slogan emerged on the nightly news that claimed to be the battle cry of the protests. “Defund the Police” became a controversial catch phase as progressive leaders scrambled to explain to middle America that defund did not mean getting rid of the police. The damage however was already done.
It was a bit of a shit show, as the more radical spokespeople trumpeted this slogan. It gave Trump the perfect battle cry to discredit the protests and potentially influence the 2020 election. I just wondered why progressives seem to get in their own way sometimes.
The energy of the BLM protests was impressive in many ways, including young whites joining the marches, but there seemed to be no real leadership that could turn this energy into a movement that might make the difference this time. Instead we got window dressing responses from corporations who canceled brands some claimed had racial overtones, like Aunt Jemima pancakes and Uncle Bens rice.
Liberals fell all over themselves to proclaim their support for finally addressing racism in America, but very little seemed to happen. Eventually Covid stopped everything. In my view, the lack of tactics rendered the protests interesting, but another futile dead end.
One example of this progressive reality show was the takeover of the Capital Hill section in Seattle by protesters, mostly white.
Protestors blocked off a six block area and proclaimed it a no police zone. We had lived in the Northwest for five years and knew the Capital Hill neighborhood well. It had always being at the cultural edge of radical thought. The look of the occupiers of this “Peoples Republic” however reminded me of my “freak” days in the late sixties. The protestors prided themselves on not having any centralized decision making process.
As the weeks went by, crimes erupted in the zone that normally the police would have dealt with, but what we saw instead was interviews with occupiers who looked and talked like poster children for Trumps fear campaigns. The occupation finally collapsed from the garbage that was literally uncollected.
I am not saying I had any magic answers and certainly in our day of youthful protests we were unorganized, but gradually, tactics did arise that eventually led to President Johnson choosing not to run again, ending the Vietnam War and getting people of color the right to vote.
In my now and future work there were community organizing methods being developed based on a new future narrative, but it didn’t seem that any of that was getting to the streets. The protestors were lacking a narrative that a majority of Americans could support and as a result the protests in my thinking were pretty much neutralized, with the exception of their impact on the 2020 election. The protests did energize people to vote, so that was one positive thing, but I thought IF we really wanted to re-imagine American democracy we would have to do better.
Another chapter of “you just can’t write this stuff” took place surrounding Trumps first live rally after a period of Covid lock down. He was determined to get out on the road again and soak in the adoration of his followers. So in spite of warnings by health officials his campaign planned an unmasked, non-socially distanced event in Tulsa Oklahoma.
Tulsa historically was known for infamous episodes of violent actions against communities of color. One was infamously called the “Tulsa Massacre.” In that one a white mob literally burned dowa a black community because is was too successful.
The location of this first rally in Tulsa was at first blush an uneducated choice by someone like Trump that didn’t read history or as some said, a dog whistle for his racist audience?
Trump claimed a million people had signed up for an event. The venue had a capacity of 18,000 people. They even set up an outside stage for the expected overflow. As the night of the rally arrived it was apparent that very few people had shown up. All told in the end about 7,000 true believers. Lots of empty seats.
There was more police than rally goers. Trumps people blamed the low attendance on the fear of Covid promoted by the liberal media. Not without its truth I suspect.
It turned out the real reason for the low attendance was much more interesting. In the preceding years the KA-POP music/dance movement had emerged from South Korea.
Asian groups had always had a following for their commercial, sometimes gaudy imitations of western music trends. There certainly had been some strange Asian versions of "Green Eyed Lady." KA-POP on the other hand was its own original thing. Their audiences counted in the millions because of some very clever social media tactics.
KA-POP stars were making billions of dollars. A dark side of the KA-POP movement was that it was hardly kind to its artists. South Korean kids were picked at a young age by powerful KA-POP studios who then trained them to dance and sing under brutal conditions for years. Stories had emerged about failed KA-POP artists committing suicide.
Yet, some of the most successful artists seemed to have developed some social awareness. They told their fans to give money to worthy causes and spoke out about injustice. There was nothing centrally organized about this effort. KA-POP fan networks were extremely de-centralized. However, something could go viral in this matrix of smaller networks that huge numbers of individuals would respond to.
In Trumps case, it was revealed that KA-POP fans decided to register for tickets to Tulsa rally but never intended showing up. Now, this was not exactly a protest move, but more prankster in nature. KA-POP fans responded to the idea because they thought it was fun and would embarrassed a puffed up Trump. The result was exactly that as the news media ran hilarious stories about the debacule.
Observers said that in the end it was fun, but not effective. I disagreed. Not only were 2/3 thirds of the seats in the arena empty, but Trumps controversial campaign manager who had been the "genius" behind Trumps social media disinformation campaigns in 2016 was fired and later arrested for some strange drug fueled behavior. A testimony to the quality of Trumps choices. The Trump campaign was never the same.
This type of embarrassment or public shaming was an interesting tactic that seemed legal and effective. It got me thinking about how you could create similar "public service" actions targeted at those that obstructed America’s attempt to re-invent itself. In a sense it seemed you could “gamify” activism.
The US reported 126,000 Covid deaths at the end of June although infections seem to be slowing down for the summer.
In July the surreal hits just kept coming as we watched from the confines of our lock down TV rooms. One story concerned Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire financial advisor to the rich and famous. He was charged in New York with sex trafficking involving some minors. The New York state indictment was actually a follow up to a similar charge that had been brought against him in 2018 in Miami. There Epstein was allowed to plead to a lesser state count, in spite of multiple female witnesses. In that case, he got only 13 months of a very generous work furlough arrangement that allowed him to work and meet people in his fancy downtown offices.
What made Epstein’s case even more interesting was that his network of contacts, clientele and party guests included notables like Prince Albert of UK royalty, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Clinton and other showbiz and celebrity movers and shakers. And of course Trump.
The prosecutor in the original Miami case was a man named Alex Acosta. Acosta, in spite of a 53 page federal indictment in the Miami case, let Epstein off with the lesser state charge. Acosta went on to become Trump’s Labor Secretary and when confronted with the odd sentencing that allowed Epstein to continue his abuse, he remained defiant and did not resign.
The New York case nailed Epstein and some of his female recruiters. Epstein ended up in the horrific Metropolitan Correctional Center denied bail. What was revealed in the filing was Epstein’s vast empire of sex trafficking included hubs in his New York mansion, his private island in the Caribbean, his Palm Beach “beachhouse” and his isolated estate in New Mexico. A real dark Life Styles of the Rich and Famous.
Celebrities in the showbiz and business worlds that were identified as being at one of Epstein’s gatherings contorted themselves to find their distance from the scandal. While awaiting trial and amid speculation Epstein might turn states evidence and name names, he died mysteriously in his cell by hanging. How dark lords can fall sometimes.
Epstein’s story turned out to be just one in a new normal around Trump world. 20 advisors and appointees in the White House and in his campaign got charged with multiple crimes. Some went to prison. More would of if Barr had not intervened in their cases on behalf of Trump. The list included Paul Manaford, Roger Stone, Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, Michael Cohen etc. Bannon ended up being charged for defrauding Trump voters who gave money to the "wall" project. A sucker born every minute you might say.
The kelptocratic state of corruption surrounding Trump surpassed any modern president. And these criminals didn't include the multitude of Trump folks that were forced to resign from their positions because of strange conflicts of interest. It was the Wild West along the Potemic.
Adding insult to injury, Trump issued a series of pardons for some of his advisors later in the year, rewarding those that kept their mouths shut about his involvement in criminal activities. As a result, there are some that suggested the broad pardon powers of the President need to be looked at again. Other Presidents, both Republican and Democrat had issued controversial pardons before, but none had pardoned individuals that were their potential co-conspirators in crime.
Covid cases and deaths continued, but seemed to slow in the summer months. The heated arguments about how to safely open up businesses and schools continued in both red and blue states. In spite of the lack of testing or contact tracing, multiple Governors, in an act reminiscent of the emperor’s new clothes fable, continued to open up as if the Covid Pandemic had ended. Red states did it recklessly as they parroted Trumps hoax messaging. Even some Blue states, under pressure from the business community, continued to relax their standards of isolation.
One indication of where we were headed was the White House annoucement that feom now on hospitals were no longer to report their Covid numbers to the CDC as they always had. They were now supposed to send this critical information about COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths to a different federal database controlled by the White House. This allowed for the reporting numbers to be manipulated if they did not fit the White House line. There were also rumors that individual states like Florida intentionally under reported their case counts to align with DT’s narrative that he had everything under control. Truth in reporting was under attack across the board.
And the oddest thing was that Trumps followers claimed simple safety measures like mask wearing, social distancing and contact tracing were an attack on their “freedom.” Even though it was in the best interest of everyone’s health to heed these minimal safety measures, the country divided into alternative realities.
Even as Covid slamed red states that originally had low case numbers, this narrative about personal freedom continued to find traction with Trump supporters.
It was a spin off of the “don’t trust big government” meme preached by far right conspiracy groups. It would be like after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the American populace initially responded to the challenge correctly and then a month later decides they can’t be bothered, even though the Nazi’s and the Imperial Japanese are conquering the world.
One cultural difference between World War II and now was the emergence of right leaning Cable TV networks like Fox News and radio talk show networks. These red media organizations encouraged approximately 50% of the public to support and promote the alternative reality that Trump was spinning. This included resisting efforts to keep them safe and healthy. Fox News audiences for example were bombarded with stories and data that was misleading, if not outright lies. This disinformation seriously undermined THE TRUTH about the pandemic, as opposed to Trumps false narratives.
While it was true we treasured our freedom of speech, you also can’t yell fire in a crowded theater. What seemed to be getting lost in Trumps storytelling was that America had always managed a sort of creative tension concerning individual vs. collective rights. Yes, we wanted to do as we liked, but the constitution also said that you could not put your neighbors at risk. Any great nation had to have collective principals as well as safe guarding reasonable individual freedoms. That’s why the Constitution begins with the phase… “We the People.” not… “Me the People”
America seemed divided along tribal lines unlike any time other than before the civil war. This new alternative “fact” universe was something right out of the dictators play book. It stipulated that if you can convince enough of the populace to lose trust in their institutions and their neighbors, you had taken the first dangerous step towards a kelptocratic state controlled from the top. In the seeming chaos a kelptocratic despot offers to make it all go away.
As a registered independent, I found myself horrified by the stories of the right and the left. The polarization of “truth” was paralyzing any attempt to come together to combat the Covid crisis and its impact on the economy. My desire to contribute to an alternative to the dystopian narrative we seemed to be living into became much more important to me. It seemed like the only way out of the mess. What would it take for reasoned individuals on both sides of the political spectrum to engage with each other based on a set of common facts?
I worked away during the summer on expanding the repository of intelligence on my eovintell.tv web portal that would eventually influence Story Studio taking its next step. I continued to wonder if there was one last “big idea” that would emerge for me in my elder hood. There certainly was no shortage of stories in the cultural transition we were going through now accelerated by the Covid pandemic.
In August corruption cases continued to be brought against Trump allies. Even the infamous National Rifle Association was convicted for illigal use of donated funds that were funneled instead to NRA directors. The GRIFT again.
This was a theme that also included the Trump Inaugural Ball committee. Millions of dollars had been donated by individuals and organizations for the Inaugural week festivities. Half of that amount just seemed to disappear into mysterious LLC’s that later would be revealed to be run by Trump family members. Still not one of them was held accountable.
I wish I could say this was the bottom of the corruption bucket as Trump and his family made the most of their financial opportunities on the taxpayer’s dime, but it would continue unabated, sometimes right out in the open, as we headed towards Election Day.
The Peoples House
The park across from the White House, once again, became the home of massive Black lives Matter protests like the anti-war protests of the sixties. Someone painted “BLM” on the street just down from the White House. Trump continued to spin his fear based sound bites of radical leftist protestors, but what he did next, even toped his greatest hits chart.
Trump and William Barr called in some of their mysterious, no name, para-military police and forcibly pushed the protestors out of the park with batons, plastic pellet guns and tear gas. It was said Trump was considering activating US army forces to control America’s streets. This was against the Constitution.
It was an attack by the American right to peacefully assemble. While the news media filmed the ensuing chaos, Trump emerged from the White House flanked by secret service, William Barr, Mark Espy and representatives of the military dressed in uniform.
DT walked along his cleared path through the chaos to the small historical church not far from the White House. It had been boarded up since the protests began.
Trump stood in front of this historic Church and raised a bible and tried to say something over the din.
However, he was drowned out and left holding the bible (upside down) as he signaled for Barr and the military officers to stand with him in a show of authoritarian power. This reality show stunt ended with DT walking back to the White House.
It was yet another bizarre display of his thirst for public displays of power. Later, the Defense Secretary and some of the military generals in attendance apologized for allowing themselves to be included in the stunt. They claimed that they were not aware of what Trump was going to ask of them.
We keep saying you just can’t right this stuff. If it wasn’t so dangerous to our democracy, it might have even been funny. You still wonder who the advisor(s) were that encouraged him to do it. Or was he really just winging it on his own, totally unfettered, confident that he had the votes to win another term.
West Coast on Fire
The impacts of climate change in the US came back in spades, reminding us again of the perils of the planet heating up. Multiple massive forest fires broke out in California, Oregon and Washington. This was not helped by the drought that left tinder dry forests and range land. Fires started by unprecedented lighting strikes (we had seen this movie) grew into walls of flames .
One impact of Covid that you would never think of as it is related to the fires was that most of California’s inmate populations had been let out because of Covid contamination in prison facilities. This meant there were far fewer fire fighters because prison inmates made up a sizeable portion of the forest fighting corp.
Crews just tried to protect structures with no hope of containing the onslaught until it burnt itself out or the weather changed.
Rats Begin Exiting a Sinking Ship
Kelly Ann Conway resigned in what was a sign of things to come. Her job as the White House disinformation spin maven was no longer entertaining in the midst of a very real Pandemic. She was one of the first players to jump ship from the Trump show apparently reading some writing on the wall.
Covid case numbers and deaths began to tick up again, particularly in southern states. The relaxing of Covid precautions during the summer lull seemed to be responsible for the increase. What was the surprise? Red and Blue states continued to act on a false narrative about opening up businesses without proper testing and tracing, and the populace (even in Boulder) seemingly was tired of the most simple health precautions. As a result the predicted fall “surge” was on its way.
The increasing direness of the Pandemic and DT’s continued lack of meaningful Federal leadership produced an unexpected bonus for Joe Biden’s candidacy. He had been originally seen as a low energy candidate to the point of boredom, but now his steadiness and calm adult reactions to the challenges we faced seemed just the thing the country needed in this moment. In a twist of fate after three and half years of DT’s reality sh…t show, a calm, experienced adult became desirable.
The Democrats had their convention first and pioneered a new virtual format that was actually more compelling than the usual convention madness.
This was indicative of trends we were seeing across the board. The virus was mutating “business as usual” to more creative, novel expressions. The Republicans tried to follow suit, but Trumps insistence on a packed unmasked, non-socially distanced hall was blocked from taking place in North Carolina by the Governor. When they tried to take the convention on short notice to Florida it just lost all its energy. Once again we saw the incompetence of DT’s operatives.
Much of the other story of 2020 was the Pandemics impact on the economy. Very quickly the number of unemployed had risen to unheard of numbers since the great depression. However, some businesses, particularly those with a virtual solution like Zoom or Amazon prospered.
Business was never better for them, in spite of claims that Zoom misled their customers about the security of their platform and Amazon warehouse workers got sick with Covid. Amazon countered that news story by running commercials featuring smiling workers thanking Amazon for employing them.
Anyone looking at the patterns could already see the world that would emerge after the pandemic subsided would be different. Just how different and who the winners and losers were going to be was unknown. I was determined to have the Story Studio work land on the bright side of that future.
Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, became the first individual to have a personal worth of over 200 billion. He also was pumping some of those billions into his space enterprise that rivaled Musk’s Space X, but was focused on a different goal.
Bezos had decided that Earth humans needed a Plan B in case we didn’t change our dystopian story. He decided that colonizing and mining asteroids had more possibilities than trying to establish human colonies on Mars like Musk wanted.
This “safe room” B plan mentality was common among the rich particularly the new high tech mavens. They invested in future doomsday bunkers where they hoped they could ride out the apocalypse. Cultural commentators like Doug Rushcoff were hired by these billionaires to advise them on whether their security forces needed to be robotic rather than humans that could betray them. We had seen this movie. It never worked out well for anybody.
Last Bezos note. In a scandal sheet expose, Jeff was caught with a Hollywood mistress.
His wife of many years divorced him. In an interesting twist of fate her divorce settlement awarded her billions which she promptly donated to worthwhile causes in very large amounts. This wealth that had been created by the questionable Amazon business practices was now being used for worthwhile purposes. Go figure.
As summer came to a close I also had an interesting uptick in the results of my research into stories about the now and future. I was always curious about any story that might hold clues to how some expert thought we could get from where we were currently to something more generative. These scenarios usually ran the gamut from dark meltdowns and recovery to AI driven solutions. Some of these stories masqueraded as Sci-Fi novels, but many were written by authors with real intelligence and data about future possibilities. I had been struggling for a while to flesh out the third storycatching phase that had to do with aligning the subject of the session with the now and future narrative as opposed to the one we were leaving behind.
My inquiry got tweaked in a good way by some research I was doing on AI news readers. At the Story Studio, we went through the news by hand. WE pulled out developments we thought were a part of the now and the future or some resistance to America re-inventing itself. We archived the results into topics.
AI Can Read!
It turns out that one of the things early AI could do was read on-line articles, collect the data contained in them based on key words and concepts, sort this data into buckets of inquiry and most importantly identify trends or patterns that were emerging cross discipline. We reasoned those patterns might hold some clue of how we could begin to lean towards the more generative culture we desired and were working towards. The use of an AI news reader was a big ah-ha discovery and rapidly shaped the next level of the Story Studio work.
I was also struck by the fact that many of the experts that influenced me were suggesting the current Internet platform was not the future. As a result of the big tech firms rolling out free utilities for years like search engines or social platforms, they had not paid enough attention to security protocols. In their rush to collect unprecedented amounts of personal data, companies launched new beta offerings before they have been properly tested for bugs that could be exploited by hackers.
2020 was filled with never ending stories of monumental “hacks” in which millions of individuals and companies had their data stolen. The future according to the people I listened to was encamped on decentralized crypto-platforms. These platforms did not reside on the “surface” net. They were located on the “deep” net. You could only get there IF you had the proper encrypted pass codes.
These crypto platforms also did not store the communities’ data on centralized servers that could be breached in one location. They spread the data across vast decentralized networks of nodes. If one node got compromised, it could be isolated ensuring the overall network’s data was still secure. This innovation was changing how we would communicate, conduct transactions and protect our personal data from the big Tech vacuum cleaners and the prying eyes of the powers that be.
As a result of this finding, I upgraded my personal on-line security. I used search engines that did not log any search results. I used a VPN to disguise my IP address when I was exploring anything I wanted to keep private. And I began having confidential conversations with colleagues using an encrypted communications app called Signal. I had no idea where this was all headed, but the future was beginning to show itself and that would have a profound effect on what I would do in the fall.
History is Made
Biden picked Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate.
This was historic. The first time a black, Asian woman has been selected for the second highest office in the land, a heartbeat away from the presidency. During the primaries Harris had not been one of our favorites. She was obviously smart and well spoken with lots of experience on the Senate foreign affairs committee, but when her campaign struggled, she had taken some calculated cheap shots at Biden that seemed small and petty.
Our view of her changed when we heard her accept the nomination. She seemed strong, but compassionate. The moment did not seem too big for her. Like Obama had done with Biden, he had promised her unprecedented access to leading attempts to address the many challenges we faced. We thought the fact that she had a hard nosed prosecutor in her boded well for her calling out Trumps lies and letting Biden look more presidential. It was a history making moment to be sure, but in this mercurial election season who knew if she would help Biden get elected.
In September – The leaves changed and as the colors announced the coming of fall, many of the traditional pass times like pro and college sports were severely impacted by the Pandemic. MLB, the NFL, NBA and college football had to navigate new territory as they tried to figure out a way to stage the World Series, the NBA playoffs and the NFL and college football seasons in the middle of a pandemic. Millions of dollars would be lost IF the powers at be could not find a way to conduct athletic contests while keeping the players and the fans safe.
Major League Baseball suspended their season in March and eventually decided to come back in the late summer with a much shortened schedule with no fans present in the ballparks.
The TV networks attempted to recreate the energy of fans in the stands by piping in pre-recorded crowd noise and reactions. It was surreal. They also placed cardboard placards of fans faces in the first rows of the stadium that were picked up by the television cameras covering the action on the diamond.
The NBA did a similar thing but slightly upscaled. They tried at first to keep going, but teams kept coming down with Covid. They shortened the season and decided to stage the playoffs in one secure, Covid safe location. It meant teams would not leave the bubble for weeks. Players and staff were housed in “Covid” proofed hotels and the arenas did not have any real fans at courtside. The NBA did their own version of the MLB fan placards by installing television screens in the courtside seats that allowed fans to send in videos of them rooting their favorites on. As I said, other worldly.
Both shortened seasons benefited veteran players. In the normal grind of a full season, older players were more susceptible to injuries. In this shortened season and playoffs, the veterans were healthy and rested and that benefited teams like the LA Lakers with older superstars like LeBron James. The Lakers ended up winning the title with an *asterisk.
MLB did not fare as well. Lots of games were canceled or moved because players and coaches got sick. Eventually, there was a kind of fall playoff with the World Series staged in one stadium that had supposedly been cleaned of Covid. A very small number of fans were allowed to attend.
I watched my hated LA Dodgers win their first World Series since 1988 in this setting. During the final game, the Covid test results for one of the Dodgers best player’s came back positive. He was taken off the field in the 7th inning, but not before he had made an important contribution to the Dodgers being ahead. Just when were his test results first known I wondered? After the Dodgers won and they celebrated, this player came back on the field over the objections of security and was hugging his fellow players. Brain dead, but it was the Dodgers so what do you expect.
Football was a different matter. At first the NFL said they would hold shortened training camps, but play a full schedule in stadiums around the country. This was a nightmare for Covid security. Even if fans were not in the stands, the players and team staff would be exposed to all sorts of situations while traveling.
Some teams got hit hard and had to delay or cancel games. Star players were missing some of the time if they tested positive or were quarantined. The quality of the competition in the games was impacted some, but the NFL kept pushing. As I write this, they are planning a full playoff and Super Bowl in January.
College football was a different story. Pro athletes were paid a lot of money and could opt out (some did) if they did not feel comfortable playing with Covid around. College athletes however were not paid and were governed by the Universities they attended. The colleges made millions off their play and likenesses, but none of that went to the players. At first, major conferences like the Big Ten and the Pac 12 canceled the seasons. However, other major conferences like the SEC and ACC decided to play. That put pressure on the others until they finally gave in and planned very short seasons leading to conference championships and national playoffs.
Another interesting phenomenon of college football were parents of scholarship players accusing the Universities of impacting their kids chances of making a lot of money in the NFL by canceling the season. Even though their kids would be put in harm’s way they still argued for the seasons to proceed. I understand that some college athletes are only in college to “try out” for the NFL, but it was interesting that parents would put their kids at risk to follow that potential dream. It never made any sense to me. IF the 2020 season was cancelled, their kids could come back the next year bigger, stronger and more mature. It didn’t seem like they would be losing anything, but what did I know. Money talks…
Attempting to play a shortened schedule in the middle of the Pandemic numbers spiked resulting in many games being cancelled, some at the last minute because players or coaches tested positive. Some top teams ended up playing only 5 games instead of 12 and there was some question about what the ratings would mean if teams were not playing the same number of games or not competing against rival opponents that normally helped determine the ratings.
As I write this the College playoffs are proceeding with the understanding that a playoff game could be canceled at the last minute. What this means we will see.
For all of us fans, our fall sports expectations were majorly impacted by these weird seasons. We experienced withdrawal symptoms, but it gave me some perspective on how sports at all levels had become a huge distraction from what was happening in the real world. Not sure if that was a good or bad thing.
The real world and the imagined world of Trump continued regardless. On September 18th, just six weeks before the election a progressive nightmare occured when Ruth Ginsburg, one of our champions on the Supreme Count died after a lengthy chronic illness.
Ginsburg was a giant and represented the fourth seat on the progressive wing of the court. Her presence had impacted important rulings when the 4/4 tie between conservatives and progressives was occasionally broken by John Roberts in favor of progressive positions. In another sense, the reverence that Ginsburg enjoyed came back to haunt her and us. She knew that she was sick for a long time. She would go into the hospital and then make a miraculous recovery. Why she didn't step down when Obama was president turned out to be a tragic mistake that will haunt America for years to come.
After Trump got to name his “third” judge, that left the court in a 6-3 split in favor of the right.
I remember thinking… “We just can’t catch a break.” Was democracy really going down in the US? DT had already appointed two right leaning judges, one of them Brett Kavanagh, who was a train wreck of incompetence.
Any fantasy that Mitch McConnell would wait until after the 2020 election to consider another nominee evaporated when he and Trump started naming potential candidates before Ginsburg’s body was in the ground.
In another unprecedented transgression against the norms of the court, McConnell, the very one that had denied Obama his nominee because it was 10 months before the 2016 election, cheerfully ramped up an expedited process that would culminate with his new member of the court appointed just days before the 2020 election. And the Democrats did nothing about it except whine.
Thumps nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, did not turn out to be a super star. She could barely answer questions about the law in her abbreviated conformation process. She had also been a member of some strange, almost cult like ultra-right groups and had publicly questioned court rulings on abortion and the Affordable Care Act. It didn’t seem to matter to Republicans. We began calling her the “handmaiden,” a female archetype in male dominated societies.
One last notation before I leave this. As I began to look at the history of the court, three of the justices including John Roberts, Brett Cavanaugh and Barrett had all been important legal players on the Republican team that got GW Bush elected by 526 votes in Florida in 2000. That election had been decided for the first time in American history by the Supreme Court. They just stopped all the recounts and named GW the winner.
Conspiracy theories abounded, but does it seem like too much of a coincidence that there was this connection? Was someone being rewarded for their work in getting the Supreme Court to decide the 2000 election in Bushes favor? Did they want to do that again?
As opposed to DT’s first nomination of Neil Gorsuch, who at least had recognized legal credentials, Cavanaugh and Barrett were neo-con amateurs pushed forward by the Federalist Society, a super right leaning cabal on a mission to appoint conservative judges to appellate and Supreme Court benches. Democrats for years had tried to play catchup with this deep red state scheme to no avail.
The silver lining in all this for me was that it highlighted the Federalist Society as something to look into AND it set the stage for the larger conversation about whether the court needed to be reformed.
By most measures the Supreme Cour had become politicized, the opposite of the founder’s intentions. It also started me looking at the record of the Roberts court. Although much attention had been paid to abortion issues, health care and gay rights, it looked at first blush that the real leanings of the Roberts court were toward corporate power over individuals and unions. If we were headed towards corporate feudalism that alignment would be interesting footnote.
I had always been a fan of rational, incremental change. I had argued with my more rabid progressive friends that sudden systematic change (like a revolution) never turned out well for anyone in the short term. But as the unprecedented assault on our democracy by Trump and his neophytes continued, I started to wonder if what we needed was a complete re-invention of democracy in America. What had been revealed in 2020 was that many of the norms that we thought were protections against system abuse by a potential authoritarian like Trump did not turn out to be very useful in checking his power grabs.
In the book “Collapse” by Jared Diamond, he wrote about why successful societies collapse. His research showed it was because the people lost their will to deal with the next set of challenges. They couldn’t seem to muster the very attitude that had made them great to address what was newly emerging. In our case it was a black swan pandemic that was severely impacting our economy, our health system, our schools etc. Historically, when there was a lack of response to these new challenges, innovation and influence go elsewhere and the country loses influence. Certainly, you could see that happening to the US in the world. China was rushing to fill the gap. We're they really the future?
I began to see that both the right and the left were playing in an old story. They were stuck demanding solutions from positions that were no longer relevant. They needed to re-invent their narratives. This was right at the heart of what we at the Story Studio were trying to do. Create a cultural narrative that opposed the dystopian one we were imagining in our films, television, video games and DT’s alternative reality show.
Side light on the status of the game business
In September, Microsoft agreed to buy ZeniMax Media, a holding company that included Bethesda Softworks and their subsidiaries for $7.5 billion. It was the biggest and most expensive takeover in the history of the video game industry. In my drive to discover how we progressive storytellers could have more influence in the mainstream conversation, I began circling back to my days of designing games and on-line interactive engagements. It seemed, in the newly minted concept of “gamification” there were some clues about how to engage the potential audience about serious topics in more significant ways. This hunch would grow as the fall progressed.
Some other September notations
The first presidential debate was held between Trump and Biden. Trump tried to go ballistic with his dominator archetype that had been so effective in his debates with Hillary Clinton. Biden had trouble finishing a sentence without Trump interrupting.
The “moderators” made a weak attempt to rein him in, but were not successful. What was revealed however, was an incumbent president that was almost childlike in his rantings, distortions of the truth and flat out lies. His appearing unstable played right into the question of whether he was fit to be President. When Biden did get a chance to say something he looked and sounded calm and more presidential. That was not lost on anyone, particularly independents that once again were going to skew towards one candidate or the other and decide the 2020 outcome.
Trump also continued his dark rhetoric directed at women, particularly women of color. This would be a major factor in him losing support in the suburbs. He apparently could not help himself. His story of what made him a winner would not let any new intelligence in, even if it meant he would lose.
As much as my storycatcher loved to engage with the action, I was also tiring of the endless Trump bashing in the lead up to the election. The polls were telling us there were not many who had not made a decision, so I wondered why some of my favorite progressive commentators asked the same questions over and over again as if by this time we couldn’t predict what DT would do next and why.
As I pondered this I went back to 2017 when there had been some initial questions about why progressive cable networks were dedicating so much time to covering DT’s lies and distortions. And in their very progressive need to try to “balance” the playing field, they would let DT mouth pieces spout his lies unchallenged.
The head of CNN at the time, when asked why they gave DT so much coverage, had sort of joked that “Trump was good for business.” In that attempt at humor there was some truth as well. As much as we looked at Fox News and complained about the right leaning dog whistles they utilized to attract huge white audiences, I found myself tiring of our folks doing the same thing with Trump. I seriously cut back my viewing, reasoning that whatever was going to happen on November 3rd was already decided. I found my nervous system relaxed. I changed my story for what it was worth. However, something in October would get me watching again.
At the end of September, the US reported over 200,000 Covid deaths. It was the beginning of the dreaded second wave.
My disconnect from cable TV news ended. I was going to bed that night and I happened to see a headline flash across my screen just as I was closing my open I-Pad. I had to read it a number of times to make sure it said what I thought it did. Trump had tested positive for Covid.
Although it was late, we lit up CNN immediately and watched into the night as the speculation spun in. In the back of our progressive minds, there was always this dark thought that if something happened to Trump that wouldn’t be all bad. Well, here it was. At his age and weight he was a poster child that might be seriously impacted by getting the virus.
After the first news flash however the story went haywire as things have a tendency to do around DT. It was said that Trump had been taken to the Walter Reed because of an abundance of caution after testing positive for Covid, but there were also stories about him having to be on oxygen. Not normally a good sign. Nothing was confirmed. In fact, conflicting stories were issued by the White House. Big surprise.
We waited for the doctors briefings, but like everything else around Trump they turned into non-denials/denials.
Supposedly serious physicians could not bring themselves to give direct answers to the press about his condition. With slightly crooked smiles and a wink they seemed to be reading from Trump’s playbook. Pence was apparently told to stand by, which is a normal procedure when a President is compromised, but then even Pence denied he had been asked. Who was in charge might be a question you could ponder.
As the story was going sideways, I have a thought that this was some DT desperate sympathy play five weeks before an election because he was behind in the battle ground states. In keeping with Trumps “everything is a show” he would script a crisis where he would appear to get sick and then miraculously recover proving two points. How strong he was… a favorite selfie of his… and/or Covid was not that serious a threat as he had maintained all along.
While we are pondering the what/ifs he then proceeded to his next story point. He had himself chauffeured around the hospital grounds in his presidential limo by the secret service.
He waved to his supporters outside the hospital, all the while his secret service agents were all packed in a very tight closed space with someone that claimed to be sick. Later in the year, it would be revealed that 130 Secret Service personnel assigned to the White House and Trump rallies had gotten Covid. It gave a whole new meaning to taking a bullet for the President. Did anyone with some backbone ever say NO!
Speculation says he was to be in the hospital for a while, even though DT’s press office would not even confirm the date he tested positive. He had debated Biden in an open auditorium two weeks prior to this night. We found out later that the tests that were supposed to ensure each candidate was free of Covid before the debate were NOT mandatory. There wasno evidence Trump took any test before arriving. Was he trying to get Biden sick we wondered? And what lemming was in charge of the debate that would think that was OK. It seemed sometimes everyone was hypnotized by Clown Trump.
What seemed to have a kernel of truth in it was that DT was treated with an exotic experimental cocktail of virus suppressants. DT made a remarkable “recovery” and proclaimed he has found the “cure” for Covid. He further boosted it will be available to everyone soon. Of course, all that was a lie.
He went home to the White House and in a staged moment reminiscent of the dictator Mussolini in the 40’s, he appeared on the second story portico of the White House and dramatically removed his mask. What a four day news cycle. Perfect reality TV.
However Trump had played us, there was truth to the fact that at least 20 White House staff got sick with Covid after the not so social distanced gathering celebrating Amy “Handmaiden” Barrett’s accession to the Supreme Court.
The list included lots of DT’s closest advisors. Kayleigh McEnamy his misinformation press secretary, Stephen Miller the architect of the children in cages program, Bill Stepien, DT’s campaign manager and 9 others. All from one non-masked event that the entire health community warned Trump not to have.
You would think as other DT supporters like Chris Christie and Trumps wife Melanie also got sick from the wide open White House events, there would be some change in DT’s stance. What happened instead was he doubled down and announced more super spreader campaign events as he attempted to barnstorm his way into a second term. Eventually, Trump’s arrogant twit of a son Don Jr, Rudy Giuliani, and Republican members of Congress, all Covid deniers, get virused and still DT’s story did not change. It turn out to be his fatal flaw.
There are other disturbing developments as well that were a direct result of Trump demonizing anyone who opposed him about his Covid response or election fraud claims. Gretchen Whitmer, the Governor of Michigan, an outspoken critic of Trumps, became a target of a kidnapping plot by 13 men from the militia group Wolverine Watchmen. Fortunately the plot was busted by the FBI.
The plan called for them to take her at the capital and kill her. Trump said nothing public about it. I’m thinking to myself. Just wonder if these fully armed, white militia were BLACK. They would have been in jail or worse in a heartbeat. It raised the question, did the white militia’s have allies in law enforcement as some suspected?
The volume of threats that had begun to emerge around the country at Trumps urging, escalated as those targeted were not just blue state officials, but red state election officials that pushed back on his story that the election was rigged if he didn't win. Although most reasoned people would say it had reached dangerous levels, Trump and his followers continued to ramp up the attacks. If this was a movie it would seem the US was turning into a third world country.
Another pre-election theme that actually began during the late summer was DT’s ranting against mail in ballots. He claimed they were susceptible to voter fraud.
Although, there was no historical evidence that this was true, DT’s constant barrage against mail in ballots, took an even more bizarre turn. Trump appointed a big campaign donor of his to be the new acting head of the USPS service. This guy has no experience running a post office, let alone the national USPS.
Republicans had rattled on for years about the failure of the USPS as if it was supposed to make a profit off of selling stamps. Although it was a government agency like any other, this did not stop the right’s attempt to privatize it like they had with voting machine suppliers.
Not long after DT’s new appointment took charge, whistle blowers inside the USPS revealed that this guy had ordered the removal of automated sorting machines in primarily Democratic black districts. This resulted in a noticeable slowdown of the mail, prompting states to have to amend their regulations about when mail in ballots could be received. In red states some crackpot regulations were also passed about when mail in votes were to be counted. The effect of this would show up on election night.
Normally, you want mail in votes counted before Election Day to save time getting to the final results. But in this case Republicans insisted on not letting any mail in ballots be counted before Election Day. This impacted the election night results in a couple of key battle ground states. In the end, the sorting machines were literally destroyed and progressives were forced to put out a warning to voters to not send mail in ballots through the normal mail service, but deliver them directly to their elections office.
Other red states enacted other voter suppression measures like the removal of all mail boxes in blue districts or having only one drop off box per county. All this was designed to suppress the blue vote. The Trumplicans clearly didn’t think they could win on the issues, so suppressing progressive voters was their only hope. We all worried it might make a difference in a close race.
Blowing in the Wind
On the weather front, the fall Hurricane season produced an unprecedented 10 storms of sufficient magnitude that did serious damage in the Gulf States. The MAGA right still denied climate change in spite of these states being full of their voters.
Protesters in Portland, Oregon, toppled the statue of former President Theodore Roosevelt and President Abraham Lincoln on Indigenous Peoples' Day. This was a supposed response to Lincoln's execution of 38 Native Americans and Roosevelt's opinion that America would be better without Native Americans. To me these actions seemed miss-targeted. They did not represent any tactical strategy that would finally bring about justice for tribal folks. With everything else going on that was seriously impacting the country, the expression of old grievances in this way seem to be a mis-guided distraction.
On the left, the politically correct fever that had gripped some also seemed to nullify any potential discussions between conservatives and progressives before they started. As a progressive, I thought that racial justice for blacks, Latinos and Native Americans was way overdue, but like the “defund the police” meme, I thought if we wanted real system change minorities would have to get the support of about 40% of the white population. These off-target attacks on American progressive heroes, in my view, played into Trumps insistence that anyone that cared about racial justice was a radical.
In the last part of 2020, everything was primed to arrive in the same moment. As we awaited the election, people were already making holiday travel plans in spite of the massive spike in Covid infections. It’s like they didn't watch the news. (Some didn't) Increased Covid deaths were not a story many want to hear, yet folks traveling during the holidays all but ensured that December and January numbers were going to be grim.
As I continued to live the Covid story, I still wondered if Americans had just gotten too lazy and entitled to really do the right thing in the short term, even if it meant some sacrificing of their normal routine. How could anyone not care about their health, their family’s health and the health of their neighbors? Particularly, when this indifference contributed to extending the financial troubles that all but the rich were experiencing. I went back to Jared Diamonds point about a culture losing its will to do what is necessary and reflected on whether that’s what was going on here.
As the election was almost upon us I wondered if Trump won again what the progressive media were going to report? Would they meekly chronicle DT’s continuing attempt to end democracy in America or would they drum up a call to arms to defend democracy in a similar way to how Fox News functioned on the right. I really didn’t expect in my lifetime to be part of a second cultural transition (first one being the 60’s) or that I would be wondering if America would survive as a flawed but well-intentioned democracy. It had gotten that bizarre.
Someone said Covid did not care whether you were a Republican or Democrat. At the end of October the United States surpassed eight million cases of COVID-19, signaling the predicted fall surge had arrived.
Election Day 2020
On November 3rd the long awaited 2020 Presidential election took place. This particular election was unusual in that it was taking place in the middle of a Pandemic and many did not want to go to voting centers in person. There was a huge increase in requests for mail in ballots and the early voting in some states seemed to indicate a record turnout.
Trump had continued his attack on mail in ballots except in states like Florida where they favored him. As we tuned in early evening to see how the votes were starting to total up, I felt a great anxiety. Trumplicans in red states were doing everything they could to suppress the Democrats vote or worse.
The first feeling I had. unlike 2016, was the early trends seem to be holding to the poll estimates. The night that Clinton lost I had a bad feeling right from the beginning. The nightmare unfolded piece by piece particularly in the battle ground states that Hillary ignored. DT was declared the new president by midnight.
That night in 2016 we turned the TV off and went to bed shaking our heads. How was this possible? What America would elect a man that had clearly shown his disregard for democracy throughout his campaign? He had clearly lost all three debates by declaring things like he was not sure he would abide by the result if he lost. Yet, it had happened.
The 2020 results that rolled in early in the evening were skewed by when states counted different kinds of ballots. Some states had counted mail in votes first and then the day of votes. Others counted the day of votes first and then the mail in’s. We had been warned that the patterns of voting might be misleading early on depending on which votes were tallied first. We were also told we would not have a definite answer for a few days because mail in votes in battle ground states were counted last.
At first these predicted anomalies surfaced. Biden was way ahead in red states like Ohio and North Carolina. He was also way behind in battleground states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. We had been told by the pollsters that Florida would go Trump. When it did early somehow it didn’t concern me. The massive county by county analysis kept pointing to positive signs for Biden.
Around 11PM trends began changing as mail in ballots in potentially blue states were beginning to be counted, as were the same day votes in red states. The numbers began to reverse themselves. In Texas where there had been some hope that Democrats could turn it, Biden’s early lead evaporated and he ended up losing the state by 4%. Same in Ohio. However, in the key battle ground states that Trump needed to win, his early leads disappeared dramatically as more mail in votes were counted. We went to bed that night saying we would have to wait and see.
Over the next four days mail in votes continued to be counted in key states. Every time new numbers came in, Biden looked better. He was even winning by slim margins in normally red states like Arizona and Georgia. A trend was developing that caused Fox News on November 7th to call Pennsylvania and Nevada for Biden declaring him the new president.
On the night of the election and during the four days that followed Trump had tweeted he had won the election big and that any other result would be because of voter fraud. His campaign even called Fox News and complained that they had no right to call Arizona for Biden. They claimed the red wave was still to come. Although a red wave did push back some, it was not enough and Biden won 306 electoral votes to DT”s 232. It was exactly the same total Trump had won in 2016 declaring his victory a landslide.
It was awhile before the logic of Trumps tweets became clear. He declared the night of the election he had won the battleground states because he had big margins early on. This was true at that time. However, as the mail in votes were counted in those states over the next few days he eventually lost all of them. Trumps line was that all votes counted after his totals were on the plus side around midnight were fraudulent. As expected, legions of DT’s lawyers fanned out into the key states to file election fraud lawsuits. In some states like Wisconsin and Georgia where Biden’s win was about 10,000 votes, recounts were demanded.
In spite of Trumps insistence he had won, all the major networks and news services declared Biden the overwhelming winner on November 7th. As predicted, voter turnout was way up. Almost 150 million folks voted. Biden eventually got over 80 million votes (biggest ever) to Trumps 73 million. (The second biggest ever)
Trumps vote number would become something to look at as analysts started evaluating the down ballot races. It turned out the prediction that Democrats would take back control of the Senate did not materialize on election night. Lots of Democrat challengers with a shot to win, didn’t. Likewise in the House where Democrats were supposed to easily maintain their majority, they unexpectedly lost a number of seats they had gained in 2018 and ended up with a much tighter margin. In the down state ballot races, Republicans won big as well.
This “mixed” result would be the subject of much analysis about its meaning going forward. At first blush, it looked like many had voted against Trump, but for Republicans down ballot. 2020 had become a personal referendum on DT’s failure. This only infuriated him further.
Normally, when the cable and broadcast networks call an election, particularly when there is such a clear result, the loser (Trump) would acknowledge his defeat and the transition would begin. But these were hardly normal times, and DT was hardly a normal incumbent. He was about to take his anti-constitutional rhetoric to a whole new level.
Digging into what was REALLY happening
When the lock down started in mid-March it interrupted much of what I had planned for the year. Even though the American Lodestar project and several other clients continued, the middle to long term goals of gathering enough intelligence on what was really happening in the now and future slowed down. It meant not just cancelling scheduled live storycatching sessions in Hollywood, New York and the Bay Area but delaying any further analysis of what was playing out until we knew more. I suspected we might start up again in the New Year, IF Covid had been managed. A big IF considering Trumps response or lack of one.
Diving Deeper - Some Patterns Emerge
This lull did allow me to really dig into what I already had in the archive. These were stories and analysis from over five years of interviewing global thought leaders on some piece of the now and the future work they were involved in. The raw stories were something to consider, but early on I noticed two interesting patterns.
They all started their descriptions of their work with the phase… “here is what seems to happening with X (the economy, politics, culture wars etc.) and here’s what is actually happening” with X from my perspective. There seemed to be a layer of stories they rolled out first, some imagined and some intentional, and then there were deeper stories, some between the proverbial lines, that they suspected were actually what was happening.
What seemed to be missing from the seems to be happening stories was all the novel thought and matrix bending that folks on the bleeding edge were engaged in. These patterns had not yet aligned with the mainstream. This difference between what seemed to be happening and what was actually happening I called… “our secret stories.”
Humans have hidden their secret stories from the others around them since we all first started reflecting on our existence. We humans learn early on NOT to express everything that is our hearts and minds. That type of vulnerability can feel unstable. So, we voice a particular version of our existence in that moment, and leave the rest unexpressed. Artists WILL sometimes bake their secret stories into a painting, story or poem. In that case its up to us in the audience to discover what's between their lines.
Across all the disciplines I was wading into, the folks I was talking to were digging deeply into the secret stories they believed would contribute something to expanding our intelligence on the planet. It was sometimes easier to see these patterns by looking back, but in my work, the space between the old descriptions of what was so and the new expressions of what could emerge were happening in real time. It was from this perspective I believed the value of what I was gathering would start to reveal itself as to the nature of the changes underway.
It Rains, it Pours
This period was also filled with more personal openings that filled in greater parts of my current map of now and future possibilities. The download was intense, sometimes disturbing my sleep as it always had before when new stories were arriving. But as result, the work we were doing at Story Studio now had a defined map for expanding outward. Instead of vaguely saying we were creating an alternative narrative to the dystopian one we were living into, there was now a real structure to our inquiry. Particularly, as I brought my gamification background back into the mix, the fog cleared and I could sense a big potential endeavor on the horizon that was similar to my past downloads of music or interactive entertainment.
The second pattern I saw in my current archive was one that I had identified before. In all the people I was interviewing there was one thing they all expressed. They were not getting enough traction in the mainstream culture for their novel contributions. They were not having the influence they wanted in the cultural conversation.
That was something I really starting digging into in earnest. Since I had taken on the mission of doing my part to "save the world," I had done documentary films and television, I had created community web portals, and I had produced web programing and on-line teachings for the future pioneers I resonated with. I loved exploring new interactive technologies like VR that could move one from an intellectual understanding of something to an experiential knowing of it. In the personal development marketplace we did attract a sizeable audience, but I felt we were preaching to the choir. My leaving Integral Life was my attempt to seek a larger audience for what I was chronicling. Big jumps in the “how” of that were coming.
After the Election
Any fantasy that November 3rd would bring a “blue wave” that would stabilize democracy America evaporated in the mixed election results. The two tribal narratives that had been reinforced during the election were still very much alive. Even though Trump lost, 73 million people voted for him in spite of his failure to lead during the pandemic and the subsequent economic meltdown. After the election, he continued to fume that he had been robbed by the leftist deep state. Even though his legal challenges presented NO evidence of voter fraud, even though each recount actually increased Biden’s lead... DT continued to promote his alternative reality show. The disappointing news was that Republican leadership continued to indulge him. They did not recognize Biden as the winner until the Electoral College certified the results in December. Even then, individual congressmen and senators continued to spin Trump’s big lie.
As a result, Biden’s transition was delayed by a Trump appointed civil servant for 6 weeks. The sh…t show continued and who knew what DT would try to do before he vacated the White House on January 20th. He seemed to be dialing up a scorched earth approach that would leave the country in deep crisis as Biden and Harris took office. Fortunately, Biden and his very experienced team of advisors had seen this all before. Biden regularly spoke to the American people sounding like a real president versus Clown Trump ranting on Twitter.
The fallout continued as Trump supporters took to the street in large numbers under the banner of “Stop the Steal.” A sizeable portion of the population seemed to be buying his voting fraud story as Fox News personalities continued to hammer the lie in prime time.
Trump also began a series of “revenge” firings of his appointees who would not repeat his election fantasy. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who had been a Trump true believer, was removed, as well as other high ranking Pentagon officials. They were replaced with Trumplian amateurs who would further delay Biden getting important intelligence and military briefings on the current state of our forces.
DT also publicly fired Chris Krebs on Twitter. Chris was the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. He had made the mistake of issuing a statement that there was no voter fraud. Krebs had been the one shining light in our attempt to protect the election from foreign interference and domestic corruption. DT’s followers still did not believe a word of it.
All the norms that had been adhered to by every modern presidential loser were ignored by Trump for some warped conspiracy that had absolutely no basis in fact. Many experienced military, intelligence and political experts said DT’s refusal to acknowledge his loss was also a danger to national security. Trump didn’t seem to care. In addition, Trump showed no desire to continue to be president. As he ranted about his betrayal, he was silent on the growing Covid Pandemic surge or the miserable shape of the economy.
In the circles of the rich, Elon Musk overtook Bill Gates to become the second richest person in the world, with a net worth of $127.9 billion, behind only Jeff Bezos.
Biden continued to announce his cabinet choices with history making picks of women and people of color. The left wing of the Democratic Party wasted no time demanding that their politically correct cabinet suggestions be approved. Divisions in the Democratic ranks already threatened to crack the alliance that defeated Trump, just at the moment that solidarity was most needed.
Our work on an alternative to the dystopian future that Trump and his true believers kept promoting was no longer theoretical. As much as the election of Biden/Harris would allow us to catch our breath and hopefully repair some of the damage DT had done to our democratic process, the real fight was just beginning.
Neither the MAGA Republicans or the Biden Democrats had a story that could unite enough of the tribes in America to get to work on the considerable challenges that had been put on hold with DT’s election. We had been scrambling for four years to protect democratic norms. My work with my collaborators focused on the secret stories that needed to be popularized and a method of telling those stories that engaged audiences beyond our true believers.
In December we began to see the impact of over 1.2 million Americans a day traveling by air over the long Thanksgiving weekend. That did not include the millions that drove or took a train to visit their family and friends over the holiday. This after the CDC begged Americans to stay home to reduce the infection rates of the current surge.
In some random comments, some said they felt it was their civic duty to stay home and not add to the current surge of Covid cases. Others said they either felt the danger of traveling was overstated or they just HAD see their family for Thanksgiving. They were tired of being isolated.
Even though we’d had a change of heart about who was going to govern the country, the culture war between the seemingly alternative versions of reality continued unabated. I sometimes wondered IF people were actually still paying attention to the rising numbers of Covid cases and deaths. I know that when I wanted to find out what was happening in the Boulder/Denver corridor I had to work my way through messy public health sites to get accurate/up to date numbers. The only public announcement on television I had seen from the state was in October when the hospital capacity had dwindled and the state predicted that for every 20 people you came in contact with, 1 of them was infected.
This was one of the impacts of the fracturing of the media landscape into competing cable news voices and social media platforms. We as a populous did not share a common source of facts any more. We lived in our tribal bubbles that took some biased position on the crisis. If this was the way America would decline in prominence it wouldn’t come from any sudden, outside attack. It would be a slow collapse of anyone caring enough to fight for our Democracy. I didn't think prior generations couldn’t have imagined it.
South Hampton Circle
In our household the long term effects of being locked down was hitting each of us differently. I longed to be in production again and not creating in isolation. Jennifer needed to find clients, but most were confused about what they were going to do next given the conflicting narratives. Matt suffered the most. He had no money save some unemployment. He had few friends but he really had not created a life after drugs he liked, so he started to self-medicate again which led to crisis moments whe EMT’s had to be called to aid him. The neighbors must have wondered what was happening with all the ambulances and police cars.
I felt really dis-empowered to help him. He was an adult now, and on numerous occasions he had refused any help with his health or job hunting. He just dug himself deeper into his darkened room. (Reminded me of my youth) Jennifer was stuck between trying to help him and setting boundaries on his behavior if he was going to live with us. The boundaries got crossed a lot without consequences. I understood her reluctance to throw him out on his own, but I felt if we didn’t start doing something different he would become a danger to himself and others again.
See You in Court
Trumps legal beagles had failed to convince any court they had any evidence to back up Trumps delusion of massive voter fraud. The MAGA right’s holiday gift however was a corrupt Texas Attorney General filing a law suit against four of the battleground states, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia. It demanded they re-do their state elections, even though all four had already certified for Biden and had gone through multiple re-counts after that. The Texas case had no standing in law. One state cannot tell another to re-do their election because they don’t like the results. The remedy that the law suit was seeking was to throw out the certified votes and let the Republican legislators in those states give their electors to Trump for a second term.
It was just another wacko play with no legal basis and would have been a joke had not 18 attorney generals in red states and 128 Republican House members signed on. This was way beyond the pale. Elected officials were now basically arguing for a legislative coup against the rightful winner of the election.
To suggest that partisan legislators could ignore the will of their people and install Trump as president by decree was pure authoritarian playbook. The law suit had no chance of winning and the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against it, but STILL I wondered if this was a preview of what might happen in subsequent elections. As much as we wanted to believe our democratic norms had held up against this authoritarian onslaught, what would have happened if the election had been close and Trump and his followers only had to overturn one state instead of many? There was obviously a lot of non-partisan work to do to ensure this would not happen again.
Following the Supreme Courts quashing of the law suit, Allen West, Chairman of the Republican Party of Texas said… “Perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of RED states that will abide by the Constitution." Some interpreted this to mean secession from the United States. It was said as casually as if he was acknowledging the warmth of the holiday season.
One of those suito-fantasies was the imagined State of Jefferson in Northern California and Southern Oregon. It suggested a succession of parts of both states. It had its own flag and elected officials that supported it.
To all that fantasize about a civil war, read your history. Our original North/South civil war killed more Americans than our dead from all our other wars combined.
The result was that the union was preserved, but the damage to the American experiment continued to resonate right up to and including the latest resistance to calls for racial justice, income equality and climate mitigation.
Besides, these imagined separate nations divided into red and blue states would never be able to compete with world beater nations like China. What had been US global influence would be reduced with no real say in the future. War always sounds great… simple, clear, but war was usually advocated by those that have not been in the horrors of combat. It would be interesting to see in 2021 how this Trumpian “insurrection” played out.
As we got closer to Christmas William Barr resigned. There was speculation that Barr, one of Trumps most ardent supporters and collaborators, would not go along with what DT wanted to do in the time he had left in office. That included issuing hundreds of pardons to murderers, con-artists, and political allies of Trump who could hurt him if they talked. Still no word on whether he would issue blanket pardons for his family and himself. The only reason one seeks a pardon for past activities or future ones, was that they had broken the law. In Trumps family and the remaining White House aides that was pretty much everyone.
The other issue looming as the Xmas star returned after 800 years…
…was the absence of another Covid/Economic relief package. Democrats had passed multiple aid bills over the summer, but the Republicans, particularly Senate leader McConnell, said the American people had gotten enough free handouts. This despite the unprecedented food lines that were showing up all across the nation.
The other excuse Republicans used for not passing another Covid aid package was that it would increase the national deficit. It was interesting that when the Republicans passed a 1.7 trillion dollar tax cut for the rich, there was not one mention of its impact on the deficit, but when it came time to give some aid to middle class and poor families suddenly it was an issue. This divide between economic classes was one of challenges that had to be addressed going forward.
I keep saying Republicans in all these stories, but in reality these elite right wingers were MAGA Trumplicans. True conservatives that I worked with were appalled at the lack of compassion these MAGA folks had for those that were suffering from the pandemic and the stalled economy.
McConnell when asked why he was against more relief for those that were suffering said “I won’t give money to rich socialists.” That was how far from the truth we had strayed. That he could say that and not evoke an emphatic push back was telling. To me it was equivalent of the French Queen telling starving peasants, “Let them eat cake.” This was the stuff of revolutions, but people like DT and McConnell didn’t seem to be aware of the lessons of history.
The final big story of the year was the arrival of two Covid vaccines. Trump had bragged that he alone was responsible for “Operation Warp Speed,” the unprecedented effort to develop a Covid vaccine. Billions were liberally given out to big Pharmaceuticals companies. People were so desperate for help there was very little oversight of this massive windfall for Big Pharma. They would also make millions in the roll out.
Fortunately, advances in vaccine research aided by AI enhanced testing shortened the timetable and two vaccines emerged that seemed to have high levels of effectiveness. That was IF we were willing to forgo the normal testing that happens over a year or two that determines whether the vaccine prevented people that got it from continuing to spread the virus and how long the vaccine was effective. We were used to measles or flu vaccines that had been tested for years. If you got a flu shot for example, you could be certain it would last a year. Here, we had no idea.
The other issue that arose was officially identified by the news media as the anti-vax movement. A significant number of parents before Covid hit were questioning whether they should have their children vaccinated. This was a subject Jennifer knew well. We saw it as another false choice dilemma. The argument was framed as you either supported vaccination or not. The real issue was far more complex.
Modern pharmaceutical companies made a lot of money on vaccines. They also didn't have a great track record for taking responsibility if something went wrong. For years modern medicine had over prescribed medications. The big boys even kept doctors on attractive incentive plans to write the scripts. The opioid epidemic was one result. The trust level about these new Covid assurances was mixed.
Over the years, single disease vaccines had been combined together for financial reasons into big “includes all” shots. They also put other chemicals in the blend that helped keep them stabilized. Doctors were still giving these big blasts to infants all at once, and there was some evidence that some children were getting autism as a result.
This had started as a backwater conversation that had grown into a major cultural argument. Although, modern medicine is a god send for treating most illnesses, there was also a certain arrogance among doctors about having their decisions questioned. Anyone that has advocated for someone in the hospital knows the current system is so specialized, that one hand often does not know what the other is doing. The real issue was not getting vaccinated or not, but getting vaccinated in a way that did not impact the infants or adults immune system as a result of multiple vaccines included in one dose.
This issue raised its head again as potential Covid vaccines were being rushed into use. It also was fueled by the right’s endless tome of don’t trust the Federal government. Medical experts on TV dismissed the dangers even as they acknowledged they didn’t know much about how these new Covid vaccines would play out. Obviously, in a crisis some of this conversation was mute, but it would remain to be seen if the cure in some cases was worse than the sickness.
The other issue about vaccines concerned their distribution. The Trump administration had been secretive about their plans to do the unprecedented rollout to over 300 million Americans. The Covid Taskforce headed by Pence had stopped having press conferences in the summer because they had no truthful answers for reporters’ questions.
And Trump made it clear he did not believe in following the science if it contradicted one of his self-serving agendas. This impression was not helped when Trump sidelined the only scientists on the task force the nation trusted, replacing them with medical quacks he had seen on Fox.
The particular story that got lots of play was the “herd” immunity theory. Trump had picked a doctor whose specialty was doing MRI’s of patents skulls to be his mouth piece. This guy knew nothing about infectious disease and even his Stanford University credentials were questioned by medical people who knew him.
Yet, here he was at the White House press briefing making an argument to let the virus run, infect everyone and eventually develop herd immunity in the process. The only issue was that to reach the 75% or higher herd immunity, millions would have to die. He was eventually discredited and run off the task force, but the peoples trust level, no matter what they believed, was not high. This is one of the issues of a cultural environment that is intentionally muddied by those seeking absolute power. No one trusts anyone. Not a formula for effective action or collaboration.
Millions of doses of two different vaccines did show up before the holidays. Trump claimed 20 million people would be vaccinated by the end of the year. There was also an effort to prioritize who got the vaccines first. Obviously, front line medical responders needed the help. They had sacrificed their own safety to administer to the sick. A good number had died as a result. The second group were older folks in rest homes that had been ground zero for big Covid outbreaks.
This all made sense, but the Trump task force would not say in detail how they were going to do it. What emerged in the first days is that vaccines were shipped to the states based on some unknown calculation of need. At that point the Fed’s washed their hands of it. When problems began to show up, Trumplicans blamed the states. This was right out of Trumps playbook of incompetence. As a result, instead of 20 million vaccinated by years end the number was closer to 4 million.
There were also unconfirmed stories about millions of doses sitting in warehouses while some state allotments were cut back. Trumps people made lame excuses abut why this was happening. There was also the expected abuse of the priorities. The Fed guidelines were so vague that reports of people jumping the line surfaced. One sidelight was interesting. In the name of bolstering the public’s confidence in vaccines, Washington politicians rushed to get theirs. This included Trump supporters that continued to be critical of legitimate scientists. In a kelpocratic system, confusion was the desired condition.
As all this played out on cable news, the download I was receiving about a potential map of future work increased. I was waking up in the middle of the night, or taking a shower, and thoughts would pour into my head about some novel, new piece of it. When I had originally raised funds for Story Studio, I had always intended to do a second round when our development direction was clear. Up until now, it had all been a somewhat vague idea about continuing to convene storycatching sessions and create media that would promote the results. I wanted the data we were collecting to have more influence but the actual path was not clear.
Now, the “gamification” idea that had begun to surface in the early fall, came screaming full force. Even the test I was doing for American Lodestar was an unscripted TV competition. Here is a test of the Episode 3 show design we did using actors over Zoom. The real show would feature actual people in Richmond, Virginia.
I reasoned that instead of doing what we had for ten years, creating documentary films, web programming etc. we could have much more influence if we took the information we wanted to promote and make a game/competition out of it, rewarding the winners.
The American Lodestar TV competition was one idea, but I began to think about crypto-gaming platforms as being ideal space for creating virtual activist communities. Part of this was driven by the narratives of Sci-fi novels about digital realms that overlaid our reality. In truth, these ideas were not just fiction anymore. For example, 1 million Japanese young men were not coming out of their rooms anymore. They were living their lives, communicating, transacting, even having sex in virtual realms. I wasn’t wild about that development, but I was right at home in designing metaverse gaming environments that promoted actions that could lead to a more generative world. In a sense, we would “gamify” activism.
This approach was also informed by advances in game engine/graphic technology. These advances in creating movie quality real time environments were not just changing the game world, but film/TV production as well. Many production houses were now using advanced gaming engines like Unreal 5 to create digital environments for their television series.
A real time digital 3D environment created using the Unreal 5 graphic engine
The old days of using “green screen” techniques like Game of Thrones on the left was supplanted by new LED wall technologies on the right that played “live” B roll of locations behind actors on a sound stage.
As 2020 came to a close, we let out a collective sigh of relief having ducked a bullet by defeating Trump, learning to more effectively respond to the pandemic and continuing to engage with the thought... it will never be the same again. In spite of everything seeming to be on hold, in actuality the world and our lives were moving forward in ways that could not yet be predicted.