I’ve just wrapped up my shift at BurgerBoy and I don’t have much time before the weekly self-criticism session at town hall. This hour with my diary is precious, especially when I have to make a big decision. Writing used to be my job, but it’s so much more difficult after eight straight hours on my feet. It’s been more than a year since the disastrous 2024 election and I can’t overestimate how much I miss my old life.
But I shouldn’t complain. Some of my former colleagues from the newspaper have it so much worse. My editor, for instance, is picking tomatoes not far from here under the hot Florida sun, which isn’t easy for a 45-year-old with bad knees. One of our former White House pool reporters is at a nearby chicken-processing plant. The few times we’ve met for a cup of coffee, I can’t bear to look at her hands.
If I had a choice, I wouldn’t be slinging burgers and dumping shoestring potatoes into a fryer 55 hours a week, breathing in that oil-clogged air and barely keeping up with the lunchtime rush. But it’s not as physically demanding as working in the fields or chopping up chickens on a frigid factory floor.
We’ve been at these jobs for six months, which is how long the new Civilian Conservation Corps — a name borrowed from President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal but with none of the social-democratic content — has been up and running. At the newspaper, we all thought the new president was joking when he promised to revive the old Biden administration idea of a youth climate corps. Of course, he did so with a grim focus all his own and a new slogan that “everyone has to pitch in to make America great again!”
Left unsaid was the administration’s plan to deport millions of undocumented workers and plunge the country into a desperate labor crisis. What’s more, the president blocked all new immigrants from what he called “shithole countries” and somehow expected incoming Scandinavians to fill the vacuum, though Swedes and Norwegians were clearly uninterested in moving to America en masse to cut lawns and build skyscrapers at non-Scandinavian wages.
So, that left us, the former “expert class,” newly unemployed, to do the work.
“We’re going to send those reporters and other freeloaders down to the countryside to get a real education,” the president insisted when he signed the Civilian Conservation Corps into law. “This is the first step in really draining the swamp.”
After a lifetime dedicated to exposing the corruption, legislative double-dealing, and bureaucratic insanities of Washington, my journalistic colleagues and I never thought of ourselves as actual inhabitants of the swamp. We were the zoologists. We developed the taxonomies and performed the autopsies. So, we dutifully reported on the president’s speech, never thinking it applied to us.
It’s not as if we missed the early warning signs of this war on expertise: the reporters attacked during campaign rallies, the death threats against public health officials, the storming of school-board meetings. It’s just that we didn’t expect those rabid but scattered incidents to morph into an official presidential initiative after the 2024 elections.
On his first day in office, the president signaled his new policy by authorizing a memorial on the Capitol grounds to the “patriots” of January 6th and commissioning a statue of the QAnon shaman for the Rotunda. He then appointed people to his cabinet who not only lacked the expertise to manage their departments but were singularly devoted to destroying the bureaucracies beneath them, not to speak of the country itself. He put militia leaders in key Defense Department roles and similarly filled the courts with extremists more suited to playing reality-show judges than real life ones. In all of this, the president has been aided by a new crop of his very own legislators, men and women who know nothing about Congress and actively flouted its rules and traditions even as they made the MAGA caucus the dominant voting bloc.
We laughed bitterly as we reported on each of these acts of political surrealism. Soon enough, however, those laughs died in our throats.
The joke, we learned, was on us.
Bashing China, Emulating China
The president’s supporters started bringing up China during the protests following George Floyd’s murder in 2020 when activists began pulling down monuments to slaveholders and Confederate generals.
This was an American-style “Cultural Revolution,” right-wing pundits insisted, referring to the tumultuous period of Chinese history from 1965 to 1975 when young revolutionaries, encouraged by leader Mao Zedong, tortured and killed “reactionary” elements, destroyed cultural treasures, and fought for control of institutions like universities and factories. At the behest of the Communist Party, those Red Guards also supervised the expulsion of intellectuals and civil servants to the countryside for “reeducation.”
America’s racial-justice activists bore no resemblance to those Red Guards. Unlike the young Chinese radicals of the 1960s, America’s activists didn’t kill anyone or subject even the worst racists to beatings and public humiliations. They pressed their demands for the removal of statues through democratic channels.
With that false Cultural Revolution analogy, the president’s supporters were able to portray Democrats as communists, while they engaged in the kind of China-bashing they’d perfected on pandemic, trade, and security issues. Meanwhile, having learned just enough about the Cultural Revolution to advance their far-fetched comparisons, the president’s team also clearly gathered tips on what to do with intellectuals and other “running dog lackeys” of the “globalists.”
Early on in the current administration, “expertise” became the new Communism, with doctorates as suspect as Party membership cards. Scientists who insisted on “promoting the false religion” of climate change found themselves without funding and then without jobs. Witch-hunting committees were established to pin all the failures of the last several decades — the pandemic, the trade deficit, the immigration “crisis” — on the expert class, their attacks becoming the cornerstone for a new, all-American version of class warfare.
The discrediting of experts and their ouster from positions of authority allowed the president’s supporters to move into the recently vacated positions. Credentials now being unnecessary, they became university professors, top officials in federal agencies, and newspaper pundits. The newly created Civilian Conservation Corps became the “solution” to the “problem” of the newly dispossessed expert class. The president introduced it as a “big, beautiful job retraining program.” In reality, the CCC was little different from the vagrancy laws of an earlier era that press-ganged the poor into prison labor.
We initially thought this revamped Civilian Conservation Corps would be voluntary and somehow, despite our reportorial skills, failed to grasp how the machinery of coercion was being constructed behind the scenes. Soon enough, though, with the assistance of its deep-pocketed financial supporters, the government began orchestrating hostile takeovers of media outlets critical of government policy — just as the right-wing government of Viktor Orbán had done in Hungary. School boards, newly dominated by Three Percenters, Family Firsters, and other presidential allies, changed the rules of employment to oust superintendents, principals, and teachers. A coordinated attack on the “Deep State” purged “radicals” from civil service jobs. Laws were passed to make union organizing essentially illegal.
There were some scattered demonstrations against the CCC registrations. The Corps, however, was initially popular at the polls — a reflection of how much anger had built up against the “experts,” the “functionaries,” and all the teachers who were supposedly pushing “critical race theory” in their classrooms. The same people who vociferously attacked vaccine mandates as government overreach had no problem with a new federal agency registering 5% of the population for “job retraining” and “employment relocation.”
Even with pandemic travel restrictions still in place throughout much of the world, the wealthy and famous critics of the president managed to leave the country. A few eccentrics disappeared into the internal exile of mountain shacks and survivalist shelters. The rest of us, with our wishful thinking and slender means, were caught up in the dragnet.
Good, honest work, the president promised as part of the CCC. Well, I’m not in a concentration camp and I can just about live within my stipend as long as I eat most of my meals at BurgerBoy. (The grilled chicken sandwich with avocado isn’t bad.) It’s the first time in my life that I’m grateful to be unmarried and childless. Many of my former colleagues have to pull double or even triple shifts to feed their families on the meager CCC pay.
I can get by. But I’m really worried about what comes next.
Once a week, as a requirement of the CCC system, we “volunteers” gather in a town hall committee room to report on our “progress” at work and confess any “crimes” of “action, intent, or thought.” Over time, the 25 of us in this mid-sized town in central Florida have found a way to get through the proceedings in a relatively speedy three hours.
Actually, there’s even some truth to the self-criticisms I make. With important exceptions, we in the media did largely ignore the plight of working America, the people we now labor alongside in fast-food restaurants, on road-construction crews, and at hotel-cleaning services. We never truly grasped the difficulty of making a living at such unlivable wages. Nor did we understand the challenges of the jobs themselves until our new colleagues had to teach us repeatedly how to avoid burning ourselves at a fryer or pick tomatoes fast enough to make a decent piece rate.
Perhaps most importantly, we failed to understand the justifiable anger of the working class at how, in recent decades, this country’s economy had skewed so wildly in favor of the wealthy, a tipping of the playing field abetted by the political mainstream. I suppose there’s some poetic justice in sending us on these “assignments” to see how the other 95% live.
But last week, just as I was getting used to those self-criticism sessions, the rules changed. That’s when Karen, the local CCC director (who’d previously headed up the president’s reelection campaign in this town), informed us of a new directive from the administration.
“Saboteurs have infiltrated the CCC,” Karen told us solemnly. “We need to weed out and punish them.”
She painted a picture of wrecked factories and uprooted seedlings on farms. The “resistance” was apparently attempting to undermine “our president’s super-great plans and this has to stop.”
Therefore, Karen needed us to rat on our fellow “volunteers.”
There are four of us — an astrophysicist, a classics professor, a nutritionist, and me — embedded with the local BurgerBoy staff. We four like each other well enough, though I find it difficult to put up with how slowly the astrophysicist assembles the burger orders and I bristle at the little jokes the classicist cracks under her breath in Greek and Latin. After some initial suspiciousness, we now get along with the local staff, too. When Aishah, the longest-serving employee, lobbied for higher wages, we supported her campaign even though the salary increases don’t apply to us.
There isn’t much we can sabotage here at BurgerBoy, unless you consider over-salted fries and poorly mixed shakes acts of resistance. Even if we managed to shut down the whole place, the town would hardly grind to a halt. Customers would just migrate to the fried chicken joint where three other CCC “volunteers” work.
In fact, we’ve all pulled together. Thanks to the nutritionist, we’ve made a few fixes to improve the taste and quality of the food and I’ve rewritten the descriptions of the meals to make them sound more appealing. Aishah suggested changes to better meet local needs around hours of operation and family discounts. Our restaurant is now making money instead of consistently losing it.
Even as we’ve turned our BurgerBoy around, however, the rest of the country is failing, big time. The economy is a mess, despite all the conscript labor working to keep supply chains functioning. The shelves are only half-full at the local supermarket. Prices are skyrocketing. Yet another wave of Covid-19 has filled the local hospital’s ICU to the brim in a now officially maskless, vaccine-mandate-less country, which only aggravates the labor shortage.
The new administration needs scapegoats.
Of course, the fears of sabotage are not completely unfounded. There’s resistance all right. It’s just not coming from us.
It started with a customer who overheard the former classics professor calling the chocolate shake theobroma — “food of the Gods” in Greek. The rest of us groaned, as usual.
“Hey,” the customer whispered to the professor over the counter. “That’s Greek, isn’t it?”
The professor, decked out in her BurgerBoy apron and cap, was all smiles. “That’s right.”
“I’m looking for a tutor for my girl,” the woman said. “Are you available?”
That’s when we first found out about how upset the locals had become over the changes in the schools. Almost everyone in town has been grumbling about the incompetence of the new teachers and the principal’s refusal to meet with any but the wealthiest of the parents. According to local gossip, the students aren’t learning a thing. As word of mouth spread and more customers began asking about our hidden specialties, my CCC colleagues started moonlighting.
And that was just the beginning. We soon found out from our customers that the healthcare system was falling apart because of a lack of competent administrators and dedicated public health officials. Social Security checks and Medicare benefits have been delayed because the federal bureaucracy has shrunk to near invisibility. Even with the addition of CCCers, there still aren’t enough pickers for the crops or enough experienced kill-room operators for the slaughterhouses.
Who needs saboteurs when the system set up by the new government is sabotaging itself? The leaders implemented their new laws on behalf of the People. But the actual people are beginning to have second thoughts.
I know this nightmare won’t end overnight. China’s Cultural Revolution stretched on for nearly a decade and resulted in as many as two million dead. Our now-captive media doesn’t report on the growing violence in this country, but we’ve heard rumors about mobs attacking a courageous podcaster in Georgia and vigilantes targeting a lone abortion provider in Texas. Things might get a lot worse before they get better.
Still, this former reporter needs to decide what part he’s going to play in dealing with autocratic rule in our town and the country at large.
Until now, I haven’t gotten any moonlighting gigs. It speaks volumes about my employability when a professor of dead languages gets more requests for tutoring than I do. But today, one of our customers, a secretary in Town Hall, passed me an envelope. She’d heard I was a journalist, so she took the risk of giving me this information.
According to the documents she slipped me, Karen has been siphoning off money meant for public infrastructure like roads and bridges into meeting her own private infrastructure needs like a remodeled kitchen, a new sports car, and a luxury sailboat. The envelope contains bank records, store receipts, and full-color photos that nail it all down.
So, Karen wants us to rat on saboteurs? I’ve got just the answer: if I have enough courage to confront her or somehow get this information written up and into the world. After all, she has the power to get me reassigned to a coal mine in West Virginia or a prison in South Carolina, if she wants.
I don’t know much about China’s Cultural Revolution, but I do know this: when Communist Party official Deng Xiaoping returned from cleaning out pig pens in the countryside, he didn’t just work to reverse the Cultural Revolution. When he became premier, he began a thorough transformation of the Chinese system.
I’m not a fan of a lot that has happened in China since, but I do know that we, too, need a thorough transformation here in America. If I ever survive the wrath of Karen and make it out of this BurgerBoy, that’s going to be my life’s mission. To exit this current mess, America needs its experts, but it also needs its pickers and cleaners and burger-flippers making livable wages and participating in rebuilding our country.
Drawing on our different skills, we turned around our little BurgerBoy. One day maybe we can bring our all-in-it-together revolution to the rest of this polarized, violent, desperately unequal, and ultimately failing country.
TomDispatch, February 9, 2022