On Politics and Privilege

Michael Fisher
16 min readOct 28, 2016

It’s a warm night, the kind of October warmth that only graces great American cities in uncertain climate times.

Alongside my fellow urban prospectors, I bike home satisfied with the day’s work.

We ride up and down hills, across Market Street, past countless shops and cafes, through crosswalks well-accommodated to non-polluting vehicles, all of us glistening in the fading light of our particular modes of worldly striving.

Even with earbuds in my ears I feel part of something. The ritual of knowing I’m pedaling toward a more sustainable future, certainly. But something grander too.

Like most cyclists I am young, male, auspiciously helmeted. A high-end U-lock protrudes from the right pocket of my deftly rolled khaki pants. Once I trudged through snow in jeans that fit well over long underwear. Now I’ve learned to notice the cut of cotton above my ankles.

I don’t ride a used bike anymore. My current one is only mid-level expensive. But like my new shoulder strap bag and most of the clothes I wear, it gives off just the right air of understated affluence to qualify me as a hair above the less-endowed crowd.

Yes, I have arrived at a new level of comfort, an upper echelon of belonging in this city, which I never thought I would.

After months of getting by marginally, living in shared housing and never knowing which taquerias to eat at, I now rent my own studio apartment in a cool neighborhood a mere block from Whole Foods. I also have a cool job working with kids.

God, I’m cool.

After feeling dumb and shipwrecked, like I could never belong here, I’m finally able to impress people in the conversations that transpire after yoga classes or at the dinner parties I’m beginning to be invited to.

In other words, I have joined the ranks of those who can afford to mistake themselves as the products of meritocracy.

Unburdened, highly educated, and with the world as my oyster — or as my kale-almond butter smoothie, as it were — I am a single white man living in San Francisco.

* * *

It’s debate night, so after I get home and drop off my bike I walk to Bar San Pancho, a short jaunt from my new apartment.

To practice a little mindfulness on the way I listen to some calming piano music and try to notice my breathing. This doesn’t quite block out the street traffic or the less pleasant sights around me, but it’s better than unfiltered reality.

How I’ve come to love my earbuds and the practice of noticing my breath. Each delicate moment of lived experience is so delectable if you let it be, various teachers have told me.

I think they’re right and that I’m on to something until I begin to notice that my practice involves walking past people like so many storefronts. Insulated against their experience, I learn to focus more fully on my own.

Before the first debate I didn’t know where to go. I texted a few new friends to see if they were watching it and nothing stuck. I thought of finding a bar, but when I Googled “SF bars showing debate” on my iPhone, no reliable hits came up.

It felt like this was a litmus test of how well I’d come to know the city after five months living here, and I was at risk of failing. I had to find a bar, and I had to go there by myself to watch a historic debate. But if Google isn’t working how am I supposed to find anything?

Luckily, a day or so before the debate, I biked passed the San Pancho on 16th and Guerrero and noticed their ad above the bar.

I liked that I happened to look in the window while waiting for a light to change. It was so real life, so 20th century. It also perfectly embodied my experience of San Francisco thus far: anxiety and luck, looping in an endless cycle punctuated by progressive uplift.

In big pastel letters written on a chalk board, the ad mentioned the dates along with bingo, drink specials, and prizes. This worried me a little. But at this late stage I knew I could not afford to be too choosy.

* * *

The first debate at the San Pancho proved festive and serious in just the right doses. The staff distributed bingo cards, which poked fun at some of the more ridiculous Trumpisms. And the drink specials reached past the level of average satire.

Really there were two contenders, the bar seemed to be saying. The Combover, “a toxic but titillating” blend of rum, tequila, and vodka vs. the Pantsuit, “an upstanding” mix of rosé, strawberries, and lemon.

Judging by the number toxic blue slushies I saw, it seemed the Combover was winning this election. But I remained undaunted. To honor my palate and my sense of civic duty, which, it must be said, are disconcertingly intertwined, I proudly ordered a Pantsuit, mock-voting in San Francisco for the first time.

Before the debate began I was a little worried people would remain loud and boisterous, drowning out the main event. But as the two candidates entered the stage a muffled hum settled over the San Pancho.

She wore red, echoing the color of the Pantsuit in my hand. Watching her body language as she smiled and waved to the audience, I felt hopeful trepidation. Also a strange warmth, which I recognized, against some lingering reluctance, as genuine political loyalty.

Until very recently I never felt an ounce of love for Hillary Clinton. In early 2008, I volunteered for Obama ahead of the Nevada caucus, then cheered with the rest of my age demographic when Hillary’s effort to rout him finally caved in. This April I wrote-in as an independent for Bernie in New York, sharing the sense of my leftish friends that Hillary’s influence made the primaries more or less corrupt. I never flirted with Bernie-or-bust extremism; but I did consider not voting in California.

Somehow, probably because I’m easily swayed by soaring rhetoric, the Convention shifted my opinions. After I saw Bernie address the Democrats, then watched Obama’s speech on YouTube a few days later, I decided I had to vote for Hillary. Not because she’s an ideal candidate, but because in this election she represents the forces of good against evil.

Feeling a rush of writerly activism the following weekend, I sent a long letter to my Republican relatives in Louisiana, hoping to sway them with a cleverly disguised conservative argument.

“I wish there were a better alternative to Trump, but there isn’t,” I wrote.

I had considered staying home on election day, but after watching Obama’s speech I decided I have to vote for Hillary Clinton. Not because I want to, but because I have to stay loyal to the American political tradition. This is what I owe to the country that’s done so much to make me the person I am.

I think one of the best things Obama said at the end of his speech is that our democracy is as strong as we want it to be, that its strength comes from the ability of people of goodwill to unite even when — especially when — they disagree.

This message embodies what is best in the American political tradition, and there is only one candidate who seems to grasp it. It’s true that Obama spoke at his party’s national convention to endorse its nominee for President. But the reasons to support Hillary Clinton in this election transcend the level of party politics.

I don’t know how any of you feel about Trump, or how you plan to vote in November. But to my mind he represents some of the darkest, most negative forces in our political culture. He must be stopped.

It is fair to interpret Trump as a charismatic narcissist not unlike Adolph Hitler, and there are significant parallels in their rhetoric and their ideas. This should be concerning to anyone who understands and values what America is and what it has stood for historically.

Like Hitler, Trump encourages people to be irrational. By manipulating facts, exploiting fear, and attempting to turn the country against itself, Trump has poisoned reasonable debate and threatened to reduce the level of discourse to that of reality TV.

I think the most accurate and charitable description one can offer is that he is a demagogue. Demagogues have appeared and attempted to gain power throughout American history, and like his forbears, Trump is precisely what the Founding Fathers worried about.

Instead of striving to unite us, he plays games, calls names, and pretends he has the power to solve all the world’s problems. As Hillary Clinton said quite rightly in her speech the other night, “no Donald, you don’t.”

The president of the United States is not and ought not to be a dictator.

If we find ourselves wanting to elect someone who represents himself as a dictator, we ought to question our patriotism.

I have never been a fan of Hillary Clinton, but I think the President is right when he says — like many reasonable Republicans — that the choice in this election is clear.

Please let me know if you disagree and why. I think it’s important to talk about this election, and to try to do so in a way that is reasonable and respectful of differences. Practicing this kind of engagement is, and always has been, what makes America great. Sustaining the tradition is also the only way to remain true to it.

* * *

My purpose was to appeal to unity, in effect to bring us all together around the candidate I support for president. What ensued, however, was a series of increasingly bitter email exchanges that highlighted deep divisions within our family.

The main division seemed to be cultural and geographic. Those who lived outside Louisiana were horrified by Trump; those who lived in the state were deeply distrustful of Clinton. Around we whirled for a week or more, unable to resolve a basic difference of worldview.

I’m still not sure I know precisely what that difference is, or what deeper fault line it rests on. At a certain point we stopped talking about politics and went back to living our own lives. Geography serves as a convenient curtain in this regard. Especially when people decide it’s better to stop trying to understand each other and just live more comfortably at a distance.

Two months later, at the San Pancho during the first debate, I found myself in more agreeable company. Watching Hillary unload her steady flow of good zingers and reasonable rebuttals after every Trump misstep, my fellow patrons and I were floored.

Looking around the bar and listening to its patterns of applause, it was clear there was very little difference in the room. A feeling of solidarity ran strong, but it was the solidarity of the like-minded.

As I listened to a chorus of female voices cheering the first woman nominee for president, a woman who stood there augustly opposing a brute and a con-man, defending her simple-yet-profound adage that “America is great because it’s good,” I felt more patriotic than I had since writing my Louisiana letter.

Clinton is a flawed representative of what we should hope for, I still tell myself. But after investigating some of my own closet misogyny, I’ve come around to the view that she’ll hold down the fort competently, if not more successfully than her predecessor.

The best of the American political tradition, which Obama speaks for so eloquently, is evident in her poise. It speaks through the rhythm of her solemnity, and in addition to much else this makes her fit to be the next inheritor of its legacy.

* * *

The first debate was fun to watch because she seemed to demolish Trump so totally. Or maybe his idiocy was revealed so fully that it seemed an immutable law (written somewhere) that he could never be elected president.

At the San Pancho, it felt like we had already won. We laughed and exchanged knowing looks. We ordered more Combovers and Pantsuits. I left the bar confident that no one could possibly think Trump did well. Yet how deceived the like-mind can be.

I had to be reminded of the tiny bubble I live in by NPR the next morning. Other people, at different bars, elsewhere in the country, people I don’t understand and may not want to, thought Trump did great. By some mysterious logic, a few even proclaimed him the winner of the debate.

“How is this possible?” people in New York and L.A. and San Francisco keep asking themselves.

Even after the revelations that emerged two weeks later, many Americans still defend Trump. Listening to them — they typically appear in my life in brief morning segments before I turn off the radio and burn some incense so I can meditate — I feel sick. But maybe my nausea is a different symptom than I think it is.

It seems natural to feel dismayed by Trump supporters’ lack of critical faculties. It feels right to oppose their decrepit vision of America. Yet beneath the self-righteousness of those of us who pontificate from the coasts lies a serious crime of omission.

Like those we condemn, we are guilty of the same self-misunderstanding. On his charade of a TV show, “Real Time,” for example, Bill Maher satisfies himself and some portion of the electorate with the shallow charge that most Americans are stupid. This is his explanation for Trump, etc. And what a simple explanation it is.

As he smirks into the HBO cameras, admiring his bigotry, which he, like Trump, conveniently calls political honesty, Maher misses the fact that he is actively deepening the divide he claims to want to help heal.

This is a spirit of condescension underwritten by profound, undeserved privilege. And it is just as dangerous as the forces that unleashed Trump. In fact, they are two sides of the same unrecognized coin.

Some Americans are part of a thriving cultural elite, while others are watching their prospects decline. The scope of difference between them has grown so vast that neither side can see the other clearly anymore. And why should they? Each is equally invested in winning.

* * *

I missed the second debate because it conflicted with a new class I’m taking on Sunday nights called Free Your Chakras.

For a moment I considered skipping it, but I didn’t want to miss opening my second chakra. I needed the chanting, the group self-expression, the feel of other peoples’ hands on my heart as we gaze into each others’ eyes, channeling goodwill.

This is the kind of healing education everyone deserves. But where I live it’s only available to people who can afford it.

Because I missed the middle installment, the last debate felt even more flush with significance. I put the date on my calendar and looked forward to ordering food when I arrived at the San Pancho. Last time the taco specials had caught my eye.

Along with another Pantsuit I ordered a plate of chicken tacos with an interesting-sounding cream sauce, plus an order of chips and salsa and guacamole.

A friend was meeting me this time, and I was feeling magnanimous (and self-serving). Yet immediately after placing my order, the bartender informed me that I would need to find another place to sit. The empty seats I was standing between at the bar were already taken. And I was about to receive a lot of food.

These are the problems of the less-deceived.

* * *

I look around and see that all the tables behind the bar are taken. Turning a little frantic in my self-concern I decide to get strategic.

Scanning the tables, I see an open space on one corner where a woman sits alone. Maybe I could ask to impose. I will have to impose on someone when my plate of tacos and basket of chips arrive. So why not her?

“Two baskets?” I ask the bartender, double-checking when the food appears. I’m beginning to feel like a tourist again.

“Yes,” he says. I ordered chips and salsa and guacamole. This was the last debate, after all.

With a surplus of Mexican comfort food gathered up in both arms, I move calmly and purposefully across the bar to ask the woman if I can join her.

It will be tricky to inform her that another person will be arriving soon, and that he might take up space, too, so I don’t mention him yet.

“Can I, do you mind?” I ask, setting down my chips to stake a modest claim.

Almost immediately she is warm and inviting.

“Thank you so much!” I say more enthusiastically than I mean.

I feel I have to lay the gratitude on extra thick to prepare her for the further news. But the look on her face tells me this is unnecessary.

“No worries,” she says crisply. “I’m German. We’re socialists. That’s why we took in 120,000 refugees and you only took in 20,000.”

Touché. Not only is she generous but she’s contentious. In my experience this kind of tartness is rare in San Francisco, where proprietary sentiment and conversational efficiency run strong. Maybe it is a German thing.

We get to talking and she makes a joke about how I must be a Trump supporter.

“Of course,” I say. “I think he’s really the most rational choice, and I’ve considered the issues very carefully. I feel there’s no vagueness or ambiguity about anything. I have had complete and total certainty from the beginning, and I feel very comfortable with my confidence about everything.”

I try to bring this little ruse to a close, feeling my grip slipping.

“So, what brings you here?” I ask.

It turns out she’s an academic too — but before she can tell me what she studies I mention my PhD. Lately I’ve noticed how unfailingly this little detail deposits itself in my conversations with new people, usually at moments when status is up for consideration.

After nodding and congratulating me as if I just graduated from college, she offers a wry fist bump.

Not being American, she says, faux-awkwardly, she’s not sure if they’re still cool.

“Oh, they’re still cool,” I say smiling, hoping we can move past this as soon as possible.

“So what do you study?”

With an air of ease I have begun to recognize as distinct to the Bay Area, she tells me she’s a researcher at UC Berkeley. She did her doctorate there and now she studies the role of rhetoric and ideology in American politics. She’s also German, she reminds me, so she finds Trump particularly interesting.

“Oh yeah,” I say, turning my head the way I do when I want to seem professorial. “I think he’s the closest we’ve come to genuine fascism in this country.”

She agrees, of course. We each nod at each others’ insight with polite gravity.

In the midst of this slight lull I turn and see that there are two other people now standing at our table. One of them, a tall bearded man, has a large camera on his shoulder, which I immediately associate with cable television. The younger woman next to him is apparently a reporter.

“This is the German TV crew that’s here to interview me,” my UC Berkeley colleague says.

“Oh, how exciting!” I exclaim a little too loudly, feeling my sense of self-importance rising.

This could only happen in New York or L.A. or San Francisco. I am so lucky to be here, and yet it does not seem random. The statistical likelihood is something we could analyze together.

My friend arrives. I tell him about the chips and salsa and guacamole and the story of finding the table and the German TV crew.

It all feels so cool, so fitting for the historic occasion. But I don’t want to make too big a deal of it. I am satisfied just standing here, drinking my Pantsuit and stuffing my face with chips and salsa and guacamole I supposedly bought for both of us.

I eat so quickly that my drink is nearing empty sooner than I expected. This becomes another logistical problem to solve. The bar is crowded now, and there are less than twenty minutes before the debate starts. But I can get away with it. How could I not?

My mind slips back into strategic mode. If I were at the DMV, I would find a way to cut in line. At the San Pancho I elbow my way to the front of the bar and order another drink.

Yes, I can taste it. A beer this time to balance out all the sugar. I wonder what they have on tap?

I wait impatiently for the bartender to take my order. How irritating that they only have two people working the bar. Didn’t they know it would be crowded tonight?

Finally she takes my order. A beer, yes. Dos Equis on tap. A nice accompaniment to the chips and salsa and guacamole. Important to stock up. I’ll need my undivided attention soon.

As I watch the bartender fill a pitcher I wonder if she misheard my order. I wanted a single beer, not a pitcher.

Goddammit. I can’t drink all that myself. I’ll have to tell her. I’ll have to send it back.

Then it dawns on me: this could work to my advantage. I could use this accident to demonstrate my care and consideration for others. I could be the guy who brings his friends a pitcher by surprise.

What a great gesture. I’ll ask for four glasses.

But there was no miscommunication. I receive a single glass of Dos Equis, which doesn’t taste as good as I thought it would.

Finding my way back to our table through an even denser throng, I set my glass down next to the chips.

Feigning concern, I ask the German woman if she needs a drink. I hope she doesn’t notice that I just returned from the bar with one for myself.

“No,” she says. “I need to stay sober for the interview.”

A little surprising, since she’s German and all. But on a dime she changes her mind.

“Did you get that beer for me?” she asks.


“No, I didn’t,” I admit. “But do you want it? Please, take it.”

It’s the right thing to do, proprietary training be damned.

I can afford to part with my little security blanket. I can afford to practice some actual sharing, the way socialists do. The way former Bernie Sanders supporters are supposed to.

“Are you sure?” she asks, clearly wanting the beer.

“Yes, please,” I insist. I want her to enjoy it, and not just because she’s the reason I have a table to stand and eat my chips at. This transactional logic crosses my mind against my effort to suppress it.

“Well, you put a drink in front of a German and they can’t refuse,” she says.

She takes a long swig of the beer. As I watch her I’m already thinking of ways to get another drink, reconsidering that a second Pantsuit would be most ideal.

Then she tells me about a new development, something I missed while away from our table.

“They want to interview you,” she says.


Instantly, I am very pleased and not at all surprised.

Picking up another tortilla chip, I feel this sequence was preordained. I belong in these kinds of situations. I sensed the camera’s approach as soon as I walked into the bar.

I’m a little drunk now. I look up at the TV screen and see that the debate is about to begin. Soon I’ll make my debut on German television. Whatever I say, it doesn’t matter. I will have a good life no matter who wins this election.

The sun sets softly over the bar’s high windows.

This, I know, is as good as it gets.



Michael Fisher

Writer, teacher, recovering academic. After finishing my PhD in American history, I moved to San Francisco in 2016. This blog tells the story.