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The New Americans

In a moment of anger, chaos, and disintegration, they gave us hope

David Samuels
February 02, 2021
Original image: Twitter
Original image: Twitter
Original image: Twitter
Original image: Twitter

Them GameStop and AMC boys. Te salutant! By now, every sentient American, meaning everyone not completely narcoticized by political propaganda and fear or by prescription drugs, is familiar with the basics of the story: A bunch of small investors, day trader types, banded together on a Reddit thread called WallStreetBets to drive up the prices of two stocks, GameStop and AMC, with the goal of profiting by bankrupting hedge funds that had taken massive short positions in those stocks. As the prices of both stocks increased, the hedge funds were forced to cover their bets, vomiting up billions of dollars to the kids who had banded together to play the markets just like the big boys do, the difference being that they had placed their bets in public, with full transparency, proclaiming the goal of sending AMC and GameStop stock, as they put it, to the moon.

That’s how the game of markets is played, and there is nothing wrong with it, in theory, unless of course you happen to work at AMC or GameStop, which are the companies that some of the big boys were trying to destroy through gamified short-selling. They also happen to be the kinds of companies that day traders on Reddit threads have fond feelings about, whether as consumers of video games and movies or as former or current employees. The particular target of the short squeeze was a fund called Melvin Capital, and as the short bets went south, Melvin had to explain to the people whose money it was investing—who included Mets owner Steve Cohen and the Chicago billionaire Ken Griffin—why billions of their dollars were now running into the sewers, a prospect that Cohen, Griffin, and their peers no doubt found alarming and no doubt also a bit humiliating. The math was so simple that any child, or unemployed day trader playing the market with the proceeds of their $600 government stimulus check, could understand it. As one tweeter named TSLA1Trillion who boasts the grand total of 83 Twitter followers put it: “Every 12 dollars up. Melvin loses 1 Billion! Game over at 175. $GME.”

Here, in other words, was Occupy Wall Street in action, but maybe a hundred times more effective: ordinary people protesting against the financialization of the U.S. economy by taking collective action to squeeze the short-sellers, saving companies they cared about and saving thousands of jobs belonging to the people who work at those companies, while forcing the suits to disgorge some part of the money they were making by treating the market like a giant video game and squeezing the life out of companies for profit. Give the money back to the people! And hats off to them boyz and girlz willing to show their faith in collective action by putting their measly day-trading accounts on the line. What a perfectly American act. What a demonstration of collective solidarity in action at a time of increasing social atomization and economic suffering, in the dead of winter, in the middle of a pandemic—why, I could just go on and on and on. ...

Not everyone saw it this way of course. There were the terrified hedge funders, including the rare few who actually despise the pump-and-dump approach to markets, and the government, which could imagine itself appeasing the mob by tossing the hedge funders to the sharks—not that old-fashioned hedging has been all that lucrative lately, with markets that are increasingly run by AI. Then there were the Upper West Side and Lower East Side lefties, who don’t know what to make of the internet exactly—except for the fact that Donald Trump lives there, and memes are racist. So if a bunch of day-trading weirdos on a Reddit thread doesn’t sound enough like “collective action” for your tastes, let me try and break it down for you, Susan. I too have noticed the absence of appropriate placards depicting Native Peoples and Chicano pride, the red banners with Karl Marx’s face printed on them or slogans in Spanish that recall the ancient glories of the fight against Franco during the Spanish Civil War, though being proudly “of the left,” I would also note the absence of other left things like putting working Americans first and freedom from state censorship and surveillance from what passes now for leftist discourse. So maybe we should agree that it’s confusing times all around, and leave the whole troubled and, let’s face it, at this point in history hopelessly debased and idiotic question of “the left” aside for now, and focus again on the main point.

One of the perennially frustrating things about “the people,” in their collective incarnation and also as individuals here in America, is that they are middle class at heart, which means that they tend to express themselves through things like buying stocks through free online trading accounts rather than by marching in the streets with banners and placards like they do in Venezuela and Cuba. They are also poorly educated about the revolutionary fashions of 75 and 100 years ago, and as a result tend to show little awareness of the slogans of the past, like “no pasaran!” Some people, and by some people I mean me, might see in this failure to endlessly repeat slogans from the past a good thing, given the reality of the past, which is fine enough as a closet for kids playing dress-up, but is not a very suitable guide for anyone interested in the American future.

Consider for example the Spanish Civil War as depicted by George Orwell in his magnificent book of first-person reportage, Homage to Catalonia. If you haven’t read it, go out and buy a copy today—it’s easily Orwell the reporter’s best book, and on the line level, at least, his best-written book. In a nutshell, Orwell shows how the forces of Stalinist neoliberalism and totalitarian-evil, red-snitch culture ganged up together and then spent most of their revolutionary energy during the heroic fight against the Fascist Franco and his armies of ghouls identifying anarchists and social democrats and shooting them in the back of the neck. The product of this heroic strategy was of course that Franco won and “the left”—a term that Stalin coopted by executing his political enemies—lost. “No pasaran” only goes so far when you start thinking about Stalin and all those corpses. In Russia, of course, it was worse—much worse.

So, while WallStreetBets may not seem instantaneously simpatico to the black turtleneck and kaffiyeh set, the self-appointed heirs to the mantle of that famous New York Review of Books issue with the diagram of how to make a Molotov cocktail on the cover—remember how that went?—there’s the comfort at least of a reality there. Which is that when it comes to Occupying Wall Street, and socking it to the Man, and telling the Suits to step off the sidewalk, please make way for the real people. WallStreetBets is where it’s at.

And if you still don’t agree, join me in considering the alternatives. Janet Yellen, Joe Biden’s new secretary of the treasury, took more than $800,000 in, uh, speaking fees from Ken Griffin’s Citadel Capital, where Biden’s spokeswoman Jen Psaki’s brother works doing whatever hedge fund bros with big-time White House family connections do, and no doubt raking in those big fat bonus checks for which hedge funds are famous. So which side are you on?

It was all a con, which ended with strong-arm tactics by the government goons, and a karate chop to the back of the neck of the revolution.

Anyway, back to my boys—our heroes, and their epic battle last week against the hedge funders and the SEC, which aimed to shut down a spontaneous uprising of the indigenous people known as Americans. If you’re a normal American, what’s enraging, and by this point in our collective history entirely predictable, is what happened next. Ken Griffin and his buddies made whatever phone calls they made, to Janet Yellen and Jen Psaki or whoever, and in a matter of hours the SEC pulled the plug on the entire market.

The fix was in. Robinhood, the “free trading app” that the day traders were using to buy GameStop and AMC stock, egged on by Elon Musk, shut down trading, along with TD Ameritrade, and E*Trade, and nearly all the rest of the tools that supposedly level the playing field for ordinary investors—allowing the Wall Street cowboys to recoup at least some of their losses. How predictable was that, to anyone who has been paying attention to the forward, or backward, movement of American politics and the American economy, driven by the toxic combination of libertarianism and the neoliberal identitarian puppet show, and by the perversion of technologies whose creators, at least, seemed to believe in some version of human freedom.

It was all a con, which ended with strong-arm tactics by the government goons, and a karate chop to the back of the neck of the revolution. Robinhood, named after the guy who stole from the rich to give to the poor, turned out to be a device designed to gather information about day traders in real time and sell it to hedge funds, who in turn feed the data to their sophisticated market-modeling AI to predict the behavior of day traders. Neat trick, right? In other words, it was a scam, designed to hurt the very people it purported to help.

I have no idea whether Robinhood selling data about its day traders to hedge funds and then shutting down trading when its product—the day traders—turned on its clients is legal, because I’m not a lawyer. But it is pretty much par for the course for the technology-driven “blue stack” that after sucking the marrow out of the bones of the working economy, it now promises to bend the arc toward justice by, you know, gagging you and cutting off your trading account if you start making money. And, of course, smearing you as a racist or some other variety of subhuman, unfit for employment, and manifestly undeserving of access to speech and financial platforms that in reality represent public functions that have been turned over to private companies that have joined with a political vertical in a new, feudal-type American system founded on the pillars of state surveillance and corporate punishment.

An attempt to smear the day traders as anti-Semites, which spread widely across social media, was given added fuel by a fake CNN article, in which pranksters claimed that WSB had purportedly chose the U.N.-approved “Holocaust Remembrance Day” of Jan. 27 to mount their assault on Melvin Capital, a firm owned by a Jewish banker. The point of the defensive meme was that the claim was nonsensical. Anti-Semitizing the distributed assault on the hedgies was not meant to identify real anti-Semitism, of course, or protect its victims from harm, but to use a legitimately frightening phenomenon as cover, allowing powerful people to break their own rules in order to squelch the normies—and get their money back.

While the dank meme battles surrounding the trading war may have been confusing to outsiders, they at least offered a break from the blatant idiocy of “the Russians are after us!” mantra of the past four years—until that, too, proved irresistible. Jimmy Kimmel, a talk-show host who delivers his jokes like someone is banging him over the head with a shoe, explained the whole sheboggle by informing his slo-minded television viewers that it was Russkie disrupters after all! For those who enjoy being inducted into mental slavery by an idiot, Jimmy Kimmel Live! is the show for you.

Then there are those who would rather forgo the head pats, and speak the truth, like my man Elon Musk, who became a hero to the day traders by tweeting a single word followed by not one but two exclamation points: “Gamestonk!!” What Musk was doing, the cunning devil, was cheering the day traders on. He was showing his allegiance to and identification with their cause by creating a meme, in real time, right there on social media—“stonk” being a kind of portmanteau of “stop” and “stock” and “stomp,” which tells the story of what happened, with the “n” serving as the key note of adolescent retardation that signifies allegiance to the meme-creator aesthetic. Stonk!

My fellow Americans! Elon Musk is a man with a distinctive scent. He believes in freedom and the future, unlike Jeff Bezos, who also builds rocket ships to the moon, but openly desires to enslave you, and is in business with the CIA. Elon Musk dreams big. He builds things. He bores tunnels through bedrock, and sends rockets into space, and eventually, I am sure of it, to Mars. Grok that. And if anyone gets left behind, they’ll grow their own food and drink their pee like Matt Damon until Elon Musk goes to Mars in person and rescues him or her, I’ll bet money on it.

Elon Musk makes dreams come true. The dream of electric cars stalled out in the ’70s, at the height of the new environmental consciousness, when millions of people really did unite to save the earth. For decades after that, though, good people were content to whine and blame the Big Three automakers for killing the electric-car dream, forcing us to destroy the environment and fight deadly, pointless Middle East wars while large holes opened up in the ozone layer, promising a future of climate change and deadly floods, uninhabitable deserts and mass migrations of tens of millions of people unable to find water, battering at the doors of wealthy nations, which would either crumble or become fascistic police states, mowing down waves of poor, dark-skinned people at their gates with machine guns.

Far out, right? That was the future, though—and it was pointless to fight it, except by making documentary films, those classy halfway houses between reality and the movies born out of the politically circumcised dreams of trust-fund kids from Swarthmore and Brown who move upstate and suck goats. Oh, climate change is coming—and meanwhile, safe on our organic farms, let us pity the poor Indians, as depicted in my latest documentary film, which was financed by a consortium of my parents and their friends under the brand name of Tentshow Pictures, registered as a private corporation in Wilmington, Delaware. Look at me, Ma—I’m making deals at Sundance!

So, fine. Elon Musk is a con artist, his stock is overpriced, Teslas are cars for rich people, etc., etc., etc. So what? What great American builder and promoter of industry wasn’t at least half a con artist and a flimflam man? The future is a place that doesn’t exist yet, that’s the definition of the word. Imagining the future, and making plans for the future, and building stuff to go there, is inherently a speculative act. Whether the speculation is well-founded is a question that responsible investors must ask themselves when trying to compute the likely future return on their investment (ROI). If you ask Jim Cramer and other commentators who have been relentlessly negative about Tesla’s stock, the answer is that Musk is an erratic weirdo. That is their opinion, and by law they are welcome to it.

To me, though, the bottom line looks something like this. Elon Musk has built over a million electric cars or whatever the number is, cool cars that real people pay real money for and want to drive, while the number of cars that you and your friends have built, or successfully mandated must be built by someone else by the year 2035 in the State of California is ... zero. Or some number like that. Let’s call it ... Zero. No cars.

I salute Elon Musk, because, man, let’s face it, he did what everyone said was impossible, and now every automaker on earth is following his lead, trying to out-compete his little Tesla, which these days can sure hold a charge. I wish him a thousand million more successes with solar panels, batteries that can hold a charge for months, rockets to Mars, the whole shebang. Elon Musk is a great American, just like Dave Portnoy and the fellowship of WallStreetBets. They’re great Americans because they believe in the future, and build things, and join together to preserve their rights against the wealthy and the powerful.

Which is why, of course, the week that the SEC and Robinhood pulled the plug on WallStreetBets, the U.S. Justice Department announced a new investigation of Musk’s SpaceX company, for allegedly discriminating in its hiring practices against a “non-US national.” Think about that for a moment. How is it in my interest, or your interest, exactly, for a company, especially a company whose stock in trade is proprietary advanced rocket technology, to hire foreign citizens for jobs here in America? Why would the American government dedicate its vast resources to make that happen?

The answer is, I don’t know. But it feels wrong—almost like someone reached out to find the first legal tool at hand to try to punish Elon Musk for interfering with the businesses of people whose bets are being covered by the U.S. government. For using “memes” on the internet! There must be something wrong with that.

In fact, last week the U.S. Justice Department seemed to have a whole hive of bees in its bonnet about “memes,” sending FBI agents to drag a Middlebury College graduate and low-level political grifter-type named Douglass Mackey out of bed in Florida, taking him away in handcuffs for the crime of “creating memes” during the 2016 election that were ostensibly “designed to deprive individuals of their constitutional right to vote.” In addition to “creating memes” intended to “influence” voters against Hillary Clinton, Mackey had encouraged the circulation of text messages purporting to encourage Clinton supporters to “text” their vote to text number: 59925. According to the indictment, at least 4,900 unique telephone numbers texted a reply.

Missing from the Justice Department indictment—which was based on U.S. criminal code Statute 18, Section 241, which prohibits “conspir[ing] to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States”—was any demonstration that Mackey had, aside from being a creep, unlawfully influenced even a single person to vote or not vote for anyone—let alone oppressed, intimidated, threatened or injured any voter. Mackey’s crime, in other words, was engaging in constitutionally protected speech.

So sorry, but shutting down markets to protect billionaires, engaging in obviously vindictive prosecutions of wealthy and successful people who refuse to toe a party line, and charging distasteful but legally protected provocateurs with 5-year-old speech crimes are not symptoms of a healthy society. Nor is it healthy to spend your time making “lists” of enemies who must be thrown off of speech platforms and denied employment or the right to rent property because of their presumed or actual political viewpoints. The suggestion that these actions are somehow legal because they are being taken by “private companies” plainly flies in the face of the last 50 years of American constitutional law, whose thrust has been to expand state protection for individual rights, including the rights of individuals with unpopular views. Smarty-pants law professors who like to claim that political or religious beliefs are not “protected categories” under U.S. civil rights law should read the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which was expressly written to protect free speech and other individual liberties from state tyranny. Instead of using their degrees to spout ahistorical bullshit in the guise of “scholarship” and “expertise,” they should admit that they reject the concept of individual rights and freedoms in favor of the concept of using state power and state-regulated corporate power to punish people they disagree with or don’t like. Which is the kind of slavish lawyering that goes over great in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, but not so well in places where free people aspire to lead free lives.

It is not healthy or normal to keep a standing army in the middle of Washington, D.C., even in the middle of a pandemic, or after a bunch of addled freaks wandered through the Capitol dressed up in coonskin caps with horns on them and fondled Nancy Pelosi’s mail. It is even less healthy to label tens of millions of people as domestic terrorists—and to refocus the failed Washington, D.C., surveillance and counterterrorism industry born out of the ugly and unconstitutional “Global War on Terror” against the half of America whose candidate just lost an election. That’s the way the game is played in Kenya and Venezuela, not here.

The repressive turn of neoliberalism and its fusion with the security bureaucracy is real, and it is ugly—as symbolized by the the appearance of its avatar, Joe Biden, in his black sunglasses and black mask, leaking mummy dust. America’s new president, whose administration features more or less the exact same cast of political operatives working in nearly the same jobs they held in Barack Obama’s White House, like one of those TV shows where the entire cast is gathered with the exception of the main star—is it still Roseanne without Roseanne? Is the whole thing a setup for her return in season two?—is supported by a retinue of handlers who write press releases about his dog that are printed verbatim in America’s bankrupt “newspapers.” By bankrupt, I mean that they abandoned their ordinary readers years ago in order to become megaphones for billionaires and their political power verticals and security bureaucrats yanking each other’s chains while stomping on the individual rights and liberties of every American citizen—you included. Yes, fuck Donald Trump 100 times over—but Joe Biden and the politics he represents are even more dead on arrival than Trump was. As a vision for America’s political future, it’s like electing Ronald Reagan for a third term after he began interrupting cabinet meetings by calling for Mommy.

Of course, the smart boys have an answer for all this. In a year or two, Biden will be safely tucked away somewhere, and the power baton will be passed on to Kamala Harris, a corporate handmaiden from California who was the choice of 4% of voters in the Democratic primaries. Slathering her up with gobs of social media Vaseline and appointing her stepdaughter Ella to a job as a beautiful IMG supermodel is unlikely to make Harris look any better than Biden, though—especially when she expresses her empathy for voters in the ruined districts of America by telling them to find new jobs “reclaiming abandoned land mines.” Yes, it’s all Afghanistan out there anyway in flyover country. Suck it, Billy—and keep yelling at the TV about the black helicopters arriving and your daughter going lez, until the next truckload of Oxycontin arrives at the Sunshine Clinic.

This kind of corrupt, cynical, zero-sum politics is a weeping, pus-filled carbuncle on the face of Mother America. It’s ugly, but it’s old news. It says nothing about the American future. Americans have been through this cycle of collapse and rebirth before, at least five times in their short history as a people by my own count, and each time something utterly new and amazeballs was born, which suggested new horizons, new ways of speaking and creating, new machines and new art, new shapes and forms of expression for the promise of infinite possibility that is the American birthright—the definition of what it means to be an American. Hopefully, the new America will be a more equitable and inclusive place than the old Americas, while also being freer. It may fall flat on its face, or come apart in violence that sets brother against brother. It will always be half-cracked. But it might also take us to the moon.

The American idea is about starting over. It’s about burning the bridges to the corruption of the old world and being reborn as free men, only to find that the corruption is inside us, too.

The American idea has its own specific rhythms and manias, but in the end it is not tied to the physical landscape or the history of the American continent, which is something that both “the left” and “the right” routinely get wrong. Americans need an America, but really any place will do. American history is contingent in a way that French history or Italian history is not, because American culture is the product of historical contingency as it evolved within a set framework of ideas, which are the ultimate foundation of the whole enterprise.

Who cares where Iowa is? American music is neither Black nor white, or Appalachian, or Scots-Irish, or Yiddish, even though it took its inflections from all those traditions and places. It’s American. The sound of Chuck Berry is the sound of a train rushing full speed down the tracks and blowing its whistle. That’s what he heard. It’s not the sound of the past, it’s the sound of what is, which is why cramped little snitch-brains are trying so desperately to destroy it, in order to make way for their cosplay revolution—the revolution of Amazon, the CIA, and the oligarchs. They’re conformists through and through. They know what freedom smells like, and they hate it, instinctively.

Hold the line! I put my faith in WallStreetBets. I put my faith in Bitcoin. I put my faith in Elon Musk and Dave Portnoy, and in all Americans who understand that what was wrong with Donald Trump is the same thing that is wrong with Joe Biden, except seen through the other end of the lens. What will make change possible are the same technologies that led us into this mess—this time, putting privacy and freedom first. The New Americans will build the New America.

The American creed is as true as it always was: The system is rotten, because the foundations on which it was built are rotten. Let’s build something new.

To the moon, Alice, to the moon!

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.