The Bog

A profile on Alexander Conrad, the whole lot of SLU’s College Republicans, my damned self and the country at large.

We met at the Einstein’s Bagels in the Saint Louis University library. If I think about it now and try to assign some meaning to it, then I guess it was poetic in a way, meeting in a library. A sturdy collection of our cultural, academic and historical past that sat accumulating dust as dewy-eyed students gaze lowly at their flat computer screens. Not even glancing at the depth of knowledge that surrounds them. Perhaps it could be a metaphor for a larger contemporary societal movement, or just youthful idealism in general, or maybe I’m just talking about yellowed crumbling books and thrusting my own romantic idealism upon them. Though this is a college library, and what have colleges traditionally been for if not idealism and all that come with it. But really though, when I contacted Alexander Conrad—who goes by Alex for short—I just needed a quiet place to record our conversation.

He’s cordial. Called me “Mr. Trevino” in our emails despite us being the same age, then ended them with “sincerely, Alexander Conrad.” I told him he would recognize me by my jeans and baseball cap. 

It was all very tense, at first, for the obviously strange reasons of the modern day. I am a journalist and he is a Republican. If you are currently living and breathing you may have heard a thing or two about that and perhaps would have an opinion about it as well. For the two of us, Alex and I, both in our early 20s, our whole concept of media has been this jaded bog of word-twisting, double-crossing, trick-editing and intentional omission in order to extract some sort of pulled-off-the-shelf, predetermined “truth” for an audience—that is, whatever the “truth” is that such an audience should like to hear. All intent to set a target on some caricature that looked like him or looked like me to make us think we have an enemy in this fight. So generally speaking, a reporter asking to do a story on a club of College Republicans would sound like an easy hit, and it’s a bit tense, or at least I am. 

I wasn’t exactly nervous, but I was nervous that he was nervous. So when we met, our nerves kind of bundled up and fell out of us in the first few awkward minutes. He walked up. I said hello and made a joke that didn’t land. Offered to buy him coffee, but he didn’t drink coffee. So we quickly tucked away to our reserved quiet room and continued with the small talk.

I asked if I could record our conversation and took out my TASCAM omnidirectional digital microphone with stereo sound capabilities and an option for extra bass. He said yes, as long as he could record as well, and then pulled out his iPhone to open a pre-installed voice memo app. All of his apps were neatly organized into folders and properly labeled by their function. Boxes in boxes. But he couldn’t seem to find that one little black box and fumbled through his phone for a few minutes until he found the one, the one that would ensure mutually assured destruction should I quote something out of context. Which I have no intention of doing, but again, I don’t blame him for thinking I might.

I tried to get the ball rolling, “So, where are you from?” I said.

He said he’d hopped around between the Tennessee hills and Illinois flats, Chattanooga, DeKalb County and now the Belleville-O’Fallon area. “O’Fallon, Illinois, not O’Fallon, Missouri,” he clarifies, “You only make that mistake once,” he adds with a short muffled laugh under his mask. 

I commented about how Midwesterners are far too particular with what side of the river or state line they fall on (à la Kansas City). The half-joke landed this time. He laughed and I felt the ice begin to break. What followed was two full hours of verbal tennis. I had intended to set myself up as the brick wall in this scenario, though still somehow found myself feeling the need to careen into an off-handed return volley at times. 

We began to chat about politics, Libertarianism, Liberalism, Leftism, “isms” in general. The general state of things, politics, the economy, the pandemic, climate change, the coming winter. Snowden, Sanders, Biden, Trump, as well as Breonna Taylor, David Dorn and Thomas Sowell’s spectacular afro. Then onto Election Night, Election Week I clarify, mail-in ballots, the Red Mirage, the Blue Wave, Amy Coney Barret, Bush v. Gore, the recent social unrest and his theory for an impending civil war. Just light conversation. As well, overarching and undergirding it all, we agreed was the mind-numbing, head-spinning, blood-sucking, jaw-dropping, face-palming, fear-inducing media coverage of everything that had turned most Americans against one another as if our fellow compatriots were the cause for our miseries rather than the duopoly-minded politicians we elected and the capitalist oligarchs we did not. 

We tended to agree on things like that even if I found myself biting my tongue at other particular moments, the impassioned young liberal I am. Most importantly, though, we agreed that things had needed a shaking up and, love him or hate him, Trump had certainly shook things up.

It was around an hour into the conversation that I found myself staring at Alex’s undershirt. He was wearing a navy blue short sleeve button-up, unbuttoned so that I could see the red t-shirt underneath with a picture of a flag-bearing, horse-mounted soldier and big white block letters captioning the image, “-INGED HUS-” I couldn’t make out the letters curtained on either side so my squirrel brain tried to fill in the word puzzle itself. DINGED HUSQVARNA? SINGED HUSKY HAIRS? CRINGED HUSTLEDADDY? I couldn’t tell, but it certainly pulled away my attention on a handful of occasions as our conversation shifted away from the particulars.

“I think being a conservative, you can come off as kind of an asshole,” he said. 

I had asked him if he felt the need to speak his mind a lot on campus or to share his opinion when he heard something he disagreed with, like what I had been feeling the need to do during our conversation. He said he didn’t feel the need to “dismantle SJWs” like he had when he was a teenager, pumping himself up with Steven Crowder or Ben Shapiro videos in a never-ending YouTube playlist cascade of snowflake tears.

He says what really needs to happen is open discussion and for people to get their facts straight, but ultimately, he concedes that there hasn’t been a lot of dialogue coming from either side. That’s why he said he was so excited to see that people become politically active in the past few months, noting especially the large turnout for the vigil for Breonna Taylor at SLU’s Clock Tower.

“I think a lot of those people, for the first time doing [something political], are going to be more open to having their minds changed, or,” he admitted with a bit of his own bias showing, “just being more open to considering the conservative side.” 

He disavowed whoever had scrawled “TRUMP 2020” and “DAVID DORN” in Sharpie all over Taylor’s memorial, calling it, “unhelpful to the conversation.” He even attended Breonna Taylor’s vigil himself, agreeing it was a tragedy, though also remarking that he happened to disagree with some of the views put forward as facts by the litany of student speakers. But Alex held his tongue there as he often does. He didn’t feel it was his place to play fact-checker, or seek out a gotcha moment. He’s playing the long game.

“I personally think that the more politically informed you are, the more conservative you become,” he told me before paraphrasing Churchill, “If you’re young and conservative, you have no heart, but if you grow up and you’re still a liberal then you have no brain.” 

It’s a famous quote. I’d heard it before. Once mentioned it to a liberal girlfriend of mine who replied back with another famous quote from the movie the Dark Knight, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Alex and I chatted for a bit longer about Internet culture, anarcho-capitalism and the cheesy Sylvester Stallone flick, “Demolition Man, set in a 21st century where the free-market neoliberalism of the late 90’s gave way to a sickly-sweet utopic megalopolis where “now all restaurants are Taco Bell.” We laughed and agreed that was too far. I found that we agreed more than we disagreed. And I must say, if you are reading into his opinions based on whatever diet of news you are currently on, don’t. His thoughts are more varied, nuanced and pragmatic than you might think, but we have no time to break down one politically savvy 20-something’s opinion of the world. In fact, we barely have time to break down mine.

So after two hours we both stood up to leave and I finally asked about his t-shirt. He opened it up and I read, “…THEN THE WINGED HUSSARS ARRIVED.” I didn’t know what that meant either. He told me it’s the chorus from a song by the Swedish heavy metal band Sabaton. The song gets memed around in certain Reddit forums for its overly dramatic retelling of the Siege of Vienna in 1683. Each verse relates the hopeless circumstances of the Viennese citizens and soldiers until they are saved by a deus ex machina moment. Then the Winged Hussars arrived! Two weeks into the battle, the mounted Polish Hussars engaged in the largest ever cavalry charge in military history. 18,000 stampeding armored horsemen turned the tide of the battle and drove out the invading Ottomans from the gates of Western Europe. Breaking the siege. Saving Vienna. Preserving Western Culture as we know it. 

The song and the t-shirt are silly. Memes really. But they make me recall a quote from the early 20th century German philosopher-historian Oswald Spengler; “In the end, it’s always a column of soldiers that saves civilization.”

On Oct. 15, a full week after our conversation, I had yet to talk with Alex Conrad again. This was not without attempt. In that time, I had sent him an email, a text and even tried to call despite my generation’s general aversion to such form of communication. But no response. 

I replayed the end of our interview in my head. We had exchanged numbers, he told me he would get back to me with some other College Republicans to talk to, and we exited the library to go our separate ways. Banal stuff really.

Short inklings of suspicion arose. My idle mind tried to fill in the gaps. 

That Wednesday, after finishing the above account of our encounter, my cursor blinked steadily before the blank page. I was unable to write anything further and so sent another line out to the number he had given me in hopes of reeling in something, anything.

“Hey man, everything alright? I hate to push but I do have a deadline on all of this, so I just need to know if you’re willing/able to help me out.”

A few minutes later I got a text from a different number.

“This is Antonio how can I help”

I didn’t recognize the name or number, but took the likely scam bait out of boredom and curiosity. “Antonio” told me he was a realtor down in Texas and asked if I was trying to buy a house. I said no. So he asked why I had sent him those two previous text messages. 

“Two previous messages?” I thought.

He then sent me a screenshot of the two messages from my phone number. And there in pixilated glory were the very same texts I had tried to send to Alex Conrad over the past week.

I sucked my teeth and shook my head. Grimaced and blew a spout of steam out my nose, cursing myself for ever expecting any good to come of this. He had given me a fake number. Of that much I was sure. He knowingly met with and deluded me into the thought that I might ever hope to write this story. Perhaps he had even conspired with the other Republicans ahead of time. Smug bastards. 

The conspiracy against journalists was alive and well, and so in response to the confirmation of my purveyed reality I began to feel a type of disregard for the man that nearly qualified as hatred, though certainly as contempt. Surely, Alex had been right about one thing, conservatives didn’t just come across as, but were truly, wholeheartedly, unequivocally assholes. 

Basket of damn trust fund babies and low-down, racist hick deplorables. Assholes. All of them. And then they went and ruined red hats for everybody too just to top it all off. Assholes.

I sat at my desk the rest of that afternoon. No. Not at my desk, but in the bog. Not sitting, but stewing in it all. How warm the waters felt. How inviting, comforting even, to sink into her mud. To feel nuance melt away. To vindicate reality with circumstance. 

Peaty-fumed hallucinations. Nothing to do but engage in fantasies of mind, to conjure up fictitious arguments and to fancifully call bullshit while the proof lay there heaping and stinking in front of me. Mental fan-fiction to the nth degree. The kind that glorified my ego and smeared whatever tenuous image I had had of Alexander Conrad and the College Republicans before. 

That evening as I sat, still stewing, typing away, attempting to figure out how to fix this story, the last flecks of daylight pecked through my window shades and poked my eyes with their harsh, fading light. As I readjusted myself, my email notification dinged. Alex Conrad had finally responded.

Hi Michael,

I apologize for the delay. I had a bit of a Covid scare, and things sort of got away from me (the tests came back negative). I can give you H—–’s phone number, but L—– has said that she doesn’t want to do an interview. H—–’s number is 314-***-****.

-Alex Conrad

By my best estimate, I fucked up. After a quick scroll, I saw that I already had two saved contacts with old numbers saved under the name “Alex Conrad.” Probably something rolled over from when this had been my father’s phone years ago. I tried to rinse the muck from myself. Foolhardiness makes for wonderful antagonization and even greater humiliation. 

To be clear, nothing happened and I never told him anything about anything. I contacted the people he turned me on to and they were great. I even wrote them into the story once, but the thing dragged. If you asked me to name a moment that summed up this mess in which we’ve all found ourselves, 2020 in a fucking nutshell, I’d tell you about that moment. Something about that in-between moment.

How perfectly arranged the new visage. How primed the insults. How comfortable a bog to slip into. Damn. How easy it was to feel some kind of way.