The revelers began pouring into Brian Nocioni’s* 2nd-floor Brooklyn walk- up at half past 7 on election night, clutching bottles of cabernet and artisanal ales, expecting to exult in a Democrat–however flawed–occupying the White House for at least another four years. Born and bred in New York City, Nocioni–known to practically everyone as “Noch”–and his fiancee, Maria, greeted their guests with a spread that included tequila, tabbouleh, and burritos representing cuisine from countries that Donald Trump insulted during the campaign. As the early results appeared on the television screen, the mood was light, airy, buoyant: glasses clinked, high-fives exchanged, confidence rising like blue-chip stocks in a bull market.
“Florida is looking good,” said one guest. “My friend at the White House says we’re up in there,” said another.
By 9 pm, however, worry had set in as it became increasingly clear that Hillary Clinton was in trouble. Equal parts bon vivant and organic intellectual, the 30-year-old Noch tried to diffuse the darkening mood by morphing into a partisan hype man–sort of a hybrid Italian Flava Flav and Democratic central committeeman –playing Kendrick Lamar’s hip-hop anthem “Alright,” imploring the nearly 5 dozen people shoehorned like parishioners in his apartment to keep the faith, and warning that no matter who won, people of conscience would have their work cut out for them, organizing for change.
But by midnight, it was all over but the shouting. “I’m gonna get out of here,” said the last guest despairingly, finishing his beer with a kind of theatrical flourish and leaving Noch staring in disbelief at the unthinkable horror unspooling across his television screen while Maria cleaned furiously, as though possessed. Having to go to work the next morning, Noch crawled into bed shortly after 1 am, followed by Maria a few minutes later. The silence, big and wide like a river, estranged the couple for what seemed like an eternity, when suddenly, Maria began to cry, softly at first, and then louder, until finally she was heaving, her wails punctuating the stillness of the room like an aria of grief and pain. “They’ll never let a woman be president” she wept, clutching Noch’s shirt.
As he wiped the sleep from his eyes the following morning, his phone rang. It was his Dad, a lawyer and lifelong Republican, but from the party’s more moderate wing. He had refused to vote for Donald Trump. “The people have spoken,” his father said, “and now they will suffer.”
This election was not Noch’s first rodeo; he spent his 20s teaching in inner-city schools, mentoring the child of undocumented immigrants, working on Capitol Hill and in Africa, and forming a solar system of friends that seemed to span the breadth and width of the known world, from Cairo to Kampala, Watts to Westchester County.
But like the country itself, Noch woke up November 9 a changed man, almost like some comic-book superhero who had been at once disfigured and energized by some freakish, traumatic accident. And so when he returned to his apartment after a day on the job at a liberal Midtown think-tank, Noch, a devoted Catholic, sat down to his laptop, and began typing out a letter, to New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, beseeching the cardinal to unite the church against the rising tide of racism and xenophobia.
“I’ve never felt this way before in my life, “ Noch wrote me on Facebook the day following the election, “simultaneously distraught and empowered. The part of the scripture that keeps coming back to my mind right now is that the time has come to set aside childish things. My country is in grave peril. I have the intelligence and the network to fight back.”
What is happening to the body politic in the United States is similar to what happens to a human body when it’s been infected with the virus that causes AIDS. The medical professionals who treat and study HIV say that most people will, immediately upon infection, come down with the worst flu of their life, lasting for a period of two weeks. The term for this is seroconversion, meaning that the good blood coursing through your veins is turning bad, and the body becomes weak, sick, feverish during this interregnum.
Trump’s election represents the potentially-fatal infection that the U.S. body politic’s weakened immune system cannot fight off. It’s difficult to say exactly when the country was infected;it’s been engaging in politically risky behavior at least since the late 1960s when the Golden Industrial Age ended, and Richard Nixon codified George Wallace’s tribalism as a coherent political strategy. But certainly, by the early 80s, when HIV was first beginning to spread, the U.S. was sickened, its once robust democratic impulses emaciated and atrophied.
The result is November 8, and a dystopian state, that is unable to respond to its most urgent threats. The people want peace, they get war; the people want jobs, they get lectures; they want an affordable, single-payer health care system and receive instead an insurance cartel with hardly any investment in their patient’s physical well-being.
“If the Republican party had been healthy it could’ve stopped someone like Trump from getting the nomination,” Noch said. “For my generation this is going to be the hardest fight of our lives and it is going to take all of us, all of civil society, working together to repel this infection.”
Whether Trump turns out to be Hitler or Wallace or Huey Long, two things are clear, if either history or math is any indication: the United States is on the verge of a catastrophic collapse, both politically and economically; and secondly, the U.S, has been asleep for so long, that it is perhaps less equipped than any Empire in history to cope with its fatal illness.
This is the beginning of an occasional series in which The Valley will bring you up to speed on the state of an Empire in its twilight, explain what has brought the most formidable economic and military superpower in history to a tragic end, how much darker the days ahead might be, and just how a nation of immigrants can rally, reinvent itself, and redeem its betrayal of a world which it was entrusted to lead.
For now, the most vexing problem that confronts the U.S. is not, with all apologies to Franklin D. Roosevelt, fear, precisely, but rather the ignorance and anger produced by it.
To carry the HIV metaphor to its logical conclusion, friends of the late dancer Rudolf Nureyev say the celebrated Russian dancer lived in denial after he was diagnosed with the virus, carrying on with business as usual.
He suffered horribly in his last days.
*Name changed at request of interviewee.