A few weeks after Donald Trump was elected President I received a summons informing me that I was obligated “to serve as a petit juror duty for two days or one trial starting January 18.” I was annoyed — I wouldn’t be able to go to DC to protest the inauguration — and even paranoid. Were they targeting potential troublemakers? The reality was a lot more mundane.
Jury duty in Union County, New Jersey is a cattle call. Since they always send out four or five notices for every juror they need, the chances of your actually up sitting for a trial are pretty small. That doesn’t mean you can get out of it. Ignoring the summons means a contempt of court charge and a $500 dollar fine. The process goes something like this. You show up at 8 AM at the county courthouse in downtown Elizabeth, check in at the front desk, and wait in line for a court clerk to make up your ID card, and validate your parking tag. Then you wait some more. Eventually another clerk shows up, and leads you into a crowded jury lounge where you watch two orientation videos before being assigned to a judge, and sent upstairs to a courtroom. It’s about 9 AM. Relax. You have another eight hours to go. It’s going to be a long day.
Once inside the courtroom, you and about a hundred and fifty other people are given a long questionnaire – the judge only needs sixteen people, fourteen jurors and two alternatives – asking about prior jury service, whether or not you’ve ever been charged with a crime or have been the victim of a crime, if you believe in concepts like “innocent until proven guilty,” if you trust the police, and, most importantly of all, if sitting for a trial would cause you personal or financial hardship. Almost everybody pleads financial hardship. It’s excruciatingly, painfully dull. After two days listening to people talk about their upcoming job interviews, sick parents, sick children, doctors appointments, sick husbands, sick wives, and sales conferences that just couldn’t be missed, I was not only convinced that the judge deserved every penny he gets, but that he needed a raise.
I did not plead financial hardship. I wanted to sit for the trial. I thought I could learn something – it was a complex gangland murder case that would have lasted weeks – but since the questionnaire is designed to weed out anybody with strong ideological biases, I was quickly dismissed after I reported that I had been previously arrested at a political demonstration. Another man, someone from the opposite side of the political spectrum – he responded to the question about the credibility of police officers saying that he thought “anybody who doesn’t believe the police should just leave my country” – was excused just as quickly. To serve on a jury in Union County, New Jersey you have to be two things, a good, solid, bourgeois citizen and an ideological blank slate, basically the kind of person who “never talks about politics or religion.” The judge even asked about bumper stickers. “Run for the Cure” was acceptable. “No Blood for Oil” and “Gun Control Means Good Aim” were not.
The next morning, I got up early, grabbed my laptop, and ducked into a local coffee shop to follow the inauguration of the most ideologically right-wing president of my lifetime. Somehow the same country that values the dull, competent, and the apolitical had elected the racist, celebrity billionaire I had despised since the Central Park Jogger circus of the 1980s. I’m too ideologically extreme to serve on a jury, but the same man who once took out a full page ad in the New York Times calling for the execution of five innocent black teenagers falsely accused of raping a white woman will appoint the Attorney General. He will set the direction of the Supreme Court for the rest of my lifetime, and serve as the Commander in Chief of the most powerful military the world has ever seen.
I kept thinking about all those people at the Union County Courthouse who had pleaded financial hardship. If America looks like anything, it looks like those people. Not only did Donald Trump lose the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, the vast majority of the American people simply didn’t bother to vote. There’s a reason why the Union County judiciary has to threaten people with “contempt of court” charges and $500 dollars fines to get them to show up in downtown Elizabeth once every three years. Contrary to what the orientation videos tell you, serving on a jury doesn’t feel like the cornerstone of American democracy. It feels dull, oppressive, and intellectually unengaging. It’s a lot like voting. If the vast majority of criminal cases never come to trial, real political power lies, not in our elected representatives, but on Wall Street, in the military industrial complex, and with that small group of very wealthy men who control the economy. As Chris Hedges once remarked, it’s impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs. It’s impossible to vote for universal, single payer healthcare. As a result, most of us have become alienated from the political process. We brag about how we don’t talk about politics or religion. We worry about our resumes, our mortgages, and about sending our children to the right schools, not about trying to abolish poverty or creating a truly just society. We don’t study history. We don’t read the Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution. When asked to participate in the democratic process, most of us plead financial hardship. We have better things to do. We are a faceless, apolitical, amorphous mass.
For most of us, the election of a reality show demagogue to the Presidency will not significantly or immediately affect our lives. The United States is a complex, well-developed country with a disciplined workforce and a high level of education. A year from now things won’t feel much different. The economy won’t collapse. There won’t be a nuclear war. Donald Trump’s America will look a lot like Barack Obama’s America, but make no mistake. The clock is ticking. The foundation of what’s left of our civil society is beginning to erode.
As a New Jerseyan, I feel uniquely qualified to predict what’s going to happen. Back in 2009, we elected out own Donald Trump, a vulgar, loud-mouthed bully named Chris Christie. He managed to appeal, not only to wealthy, white suburbanites who wanted him to dismantle the state’s powerful teacher’s unions, but to the media, who fell for his colorful, Tony Soprano tough guy act. For a while, it didn’t matter. The New Jersey of 2010 did not look significantly different from the New Jersey of 2009. The New Jersey of 2011 did not feel significantly different from the New Jersey of 2010. We got so complacent that the Democratic Party never even got around to supporting their own candidate in 2013, and effectively conceded him the election. Hey, he put his arm around Barack Obama. So maybe he wasn’t so bad. But the clock was ticking. The foundation of our civil society was beginning to erode. Eight years later, the New Jersey of 2017 feels very different from the New Jersey of 2009. New Jersey Transit, once the nation’s best commuter line, is now one of the worst. Christie not only canceled the new tunnel under the Hudson River, and put the money into the general transportation fund, effectively cashing in the 401K for short term expenses, it didn’t even work. He had to raise the gas tax to the same level as it is in New York and Pennsylvania anyway. Unemployment levels are far above the national average. Thirty seven percent of the state is now considered “working poor.” New Jersey could have probably weathered one term of Chris Christie. It couldn’t weather two.
The silver lining in the dark cloud that is the election of Donald Trump is how the President is now so clearly our enemy we can’t fool ourselves anymore. Barack Obama tricked us into thinking he was our friend. Trump scowled his way through his own inauguration. A frog, if put into a pot of cold water that is slowly heated will eventually boil. A frog thrown right into a pot of already boiling water will jump out and survive. We’ve just been thrown into that pot of boiling water, and we know it. Let’s jump.