Part faux Republican presidential campaign, part art project, with its candidate drawn from Greek mythology, Cassandra 2020 resists categorization. It has taken the form of community conversations, performance protest, video art, and guerilla sign-drops. It has been supported by a constant flux of contributors and co-creators, many of whom are also Quaker. It has sparked amusement, concern, scorn, joy, connection, and most importantly, curiosity.
But let me start at the beginning, or before the beginning. In its loosest form, Cassandra 2020 started out with my attempt to hitchhike across the country, accepting rides only from Trump supporters. I was trying both to understand them and probe any possible paradoxes that existed in their viewpoints.
Turning rides down from non-Trump-supporters, however, went against my number one rule of hitchhiking, which is to accept a ride from almost anybody. A day after I set out, I started accepting rides from whoever offered. Given my route through the South, though, I ended up riding with a number of Trump supporters anyway.
My longest rides came from three truckers: Philip, the Alabaman, who had very strong views on liberal Democrats being like hobbits (not in a good way); Daniel, a Chicano who hated Trump but didn’t believe in voting; and Ali, a Pakistani trucker who was grateful for the chance to live in America, even though his wife and family still live in Pakistan. My goals were primarily to listen and ask questions. In over thirty hours of conversations en route from Arizona to Alabama, I heard from a tapestry of America, albeit an entirely male one.
I asked what it meant to be American. The answer I heard again and again was “freedom.” But what freedom meant to people depended on their lived experience. As both an artist and a writer, I became interested in how particular words like “freedom” and “responsibility” can be nodes for understanding the complexities of experience in this country.
I developed a vague idea of wanting to put together an alternative Republican presidential campaign. I was thinking more combatively, though, wanting to push back against the injustices I saw being perpetrated by that party. Then I read a Rebecca Solnit essay in Men Explain Things to Me, the collection that is indirectly credited with introducing the term “mansplaining.” In the essay, Solnit explores the story of Cassandra, the Trojan princess who was cursed because she refused to have sex with the god Apollo. The curse put upon her was that no one would listen to her warnings. That didn’t work out too well for Troy, which burned to the ground when they refused to listen to her warnings about the Trojan Horse. The term “Cassandra” now generally refers to anyone whose warnings are ignored. And so, Cassandra, the Trojan Princess, was chosen by my initial collaborator and me to become a presidential candidate. Cassandra was the perfect representative to signify all the voices who weren’t being listened to: unhoused folks, incarcerated folks, young folks, people of color, scientists, and more. Rather than pushing back out of anger, Cassandra 2020 would be about listening.
We came up with a list of terms – including freedom and responsibility – and started interviewing people on video, asking for their reflections on these terms. Twenty states, a hundred interviews. We talked to people on the street and used our connections to set up additional interviews. We talked to people just out of jail and people who had dedicated their lives to environmental justice. We talked to Indigenous organizers and pastors and artists. My co-creator left the project, and for a while it seemed like the project might die. But we had talked to too many people for me to let that happen. There were too many perspectives to share. As we Quakers say, way opened, and I found the resolve to keep going.
I started editing video, weaving together the different perspectives. The goal was not to prove one point of view or another, but rather, to make a contemplative space for the viewer to sit with difference. Difference, after all, is one of the cornerstones of all that is good in the founding of this country. The idea of a pluralistic democratic society hinges upon the ability of its citizens to sit with and recognize each other as fellow citizens regardless of differences. During a time of extreme polarization, Cassandra 2020 sought to build bridges over political fault lines.
I built a team of new collaborators and began preparing for a public launch of the Cassandra website. I had a vision for a public performance to happen at the Republican National Convention, originally scheduled to be in Charlotte, North Carolina. Then, COVID happened. Many of the assumptions we had about our lives were called into question, the Cassandra project included. In those first months of chaos and confusion, I launched a series of Cassandra Conversations, in which a group got together over Zoom to reflect on the interview terms. Once a week, we met for an hour or so, using a Quaker worship-sharing format to speak out of silence. The format allowed the group to bring together diverse viewpoints, including Philip the trucker, the one who had driven me across the state of Texas. We might disagree with each other, but we could sit in silence after each person’s sharing and make space in our minds for appreciating the otherness and similarities of those who had shared. We met for twelve weeks, discussing the twelve terms of the project. And then, because we had built a significant community at that point, we kept meeting.
At the end of each week, we would hold another moment of silence, leaving space for a member of the group to share a leading for the next week’s topic. We trusted the collective wisdom of the group to guide our conversations forward. We made space for extremely personal sharing, spiritual sharing, sharing of joy, and sharing of sorrow. For a number of our members who were older and faced greatly restricted social outlets, these weekly Cassandra Conversations became an invaluable source of community. As Terry Howland of Pima Meeting said, “I think I’m going to stop, because life is getting busy again, but I keep finding my way back here.” After meeting every week for seven months, we have recently shifted to meeting monthly, acknowledging the busyness of people’s lives, while wanting also to continue honoring the community that we have built with each other.
The outward-facing component of the project, the Cassandra 2020 website, launched on August 26, 2020, with support from a number of dedicated Quaker organizers. We reached out to our Quaker networks, inviting Friends to watch the Cassandra launch video and enter into that questioning space with us. There was, of course, some confusion. Why a Republican? Why a presidential campaign? What did it mean? Such questioning was one of the goals of the project. What assumptions do we make about the nature of presidential campaigns?
By running a mythological character, we hoped to turn the nature of a typical presidential campaign on its head. There is no one candidate who can solve our problems. We have to solve them ourselves, by listening to each other. What assumptions have we accepted about the Republican party, a party that was founded with the purpose of ending slavery? We, as Quakers, are called to speak our truth, to make space for inclusion and compassion, inviting those who share different political beliefs to join us in discerning a more compassionate future, not just dwelling in our differences.
Friends can learn more about Cassandra 2020 at cassandra2020.com. We invite you to watch our videos, and we challenge you to continue these conversations across differences. Cassandra 2020 was never just my idea. It has always been growing and redirecting, based on the wisdom of all those who have participated in it. Thank you, George, Terry, Sabrina, Joseph, Elena, Rey, Maiya, Mom, Dad, Philip, Joan, and Doug, for joining me on this measure to listen and learn from each other.
Martin Krafft is an artist, writer, community organizer, and lifelong Friend. In recent years, he has served on the Peace and Social Concerns Committee Meeting at Pima Friends Meeting in Tucson (IMYM) and also attended Missoula Friends Meeting (NPYM).
Image above is from the video, “Introducing Cassandra 2020.”
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