“Tell us a story, Clay.” Brigit forced a smile, but we could all feel the incessant chitter of invisible insect feet dancing the Charleston inside our skulls. It wasn’t as bad on the Puget Sound, but the nearer we drew to the Straits of San Juan de Fuca, the more we felt the dreadful onset of unavoidable madness. The stories helped. Helped to quell the insistence of the alien noises. Helped still the turmoil.
“It’s my turn, eh? What story would you like to hear? I think I remember some old Twain. Who wants to hear me recount the Incredible Tale of the Celebrated… um… Frog of Some Sort of Calevaras County?”
Anika had her feet widely planted at the wheel. “I don’t want an old make-believe story. Tell us something true.”
Clay smirked. “Something ‘true’ you say?”
“That’s not a problem, is it?”
“Not a problem, no. I can tell you a story, but you’ll have to work the truth of it out for yourself. You think you can handle that?”
Anika squared her thin, ebony shoulders. “Try me.”
“As you all know. the former nation of Mexico split into several constituent territories after the end of things. Sonora, Chihuahua, and Coahuila joined with the Texas Alliance prior to the rise of the cultists. You know about them, right?” Anika shuddered. I glared at Clay, but he was grimly unperturbed. “Well, around the cratered ruins of Mexico City, the remnants of the old government survived. San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato, Michocan, Puebla, Guerrero, and a couple of other states kept the federal government intact.” He paused to draw in a dramatic breath of sea air. “For a while.”
I was intrigued. My early days after the bombs fell found me scouring the Gulf Coast for salvage, and some of my forays had taken me into Mexican waters. But it had never occurred to me to keep abreast of the political machinations ashore.
“You see, interim Presidente Felipe Buteñas, duly elected following the emergency protocols detailed in the Mexican Constitution, was a deeply ambitious man.”
“Pfft. Aren’t they all?”
“Yes, Brigit. Generally speaking, politicians are ambitious. It is in their nature. And politics gives the ambitious something to do. It is normally a more or less felicitous arrangement.”
“But not this time?” I hazarded a guess.
“Right. Not this time. This time, Buteñas aimed to seize power. And here’s how he did it.”
The wind shifted direction just enough for Anika to order a tack. Watching our little makeshift crew so masterfully manage the rigging brought a tiny little smile to my heart. How far we’d come.
“Things were a mess. Everywhere. Mexico had balkanized, losing huge chunks of territory to the militant Texans. All the major cities were pulverized, and unlike up north, the nuclear bombardment had been a series of ground bursts, which means that the radioactive fallout was much more intense and long-lived than up here. But even at the beginning of his tenure, Buteñas was already laying the foundations for his power grab.”
“That’s awfully long-sighted of him.” My willing suspension of disbelief was starting to slip. Politicians are creatures of fashion, changing their minds as the winds of popular opinion shift.
“Perhaps. But a good long con is all but invisible until it’s too late.” He had shifted over to the windward side during the tack and now rummaged through the ice chest for beer. “All he really had to do was shift his rhetoric just a tiny bit. And it all seemed so natural, given the popular disapproval of the previous regime.”
“Calderón was unpopular?” Brigit seemed surprised by the news.
“Anyone would be unpopular after being pelted by nuclear ordinance out of nowhere. All Buteñas had to do was to lay the blame for the sorry state of affairs on his predecessor, and here’s the important part, also on the opposition party. Speech after speech, he would rail against the mendacity, truculence, obstinacy, and foolishness of the party. And since he didn’t specify that he was only talking about politicians in the other party, anyone listening might come to the conclusion that he was mocking basically half of the population.”
“I don’t get it. How do you seize power by making fun of your people?”
“An excellent question, Anika. Here’s how. Over his four year tenure, politics simply became more and more divided. Buteñas kept the illusion of respectability by faithfully honoring the basic requirements of his office, but while that was happening, deep rifts in public opinion were taking hold. Mexican voters became increasingly polarized. Buteñas’s rhetoric did exactly what it was supposed to do: anger half the country, appease the other half. It’s really not that hard a trick. All you need is a bit of righteous anger, a keen ability to strategically gloat, and a decent sense of how to prick your enemies’ sense of self-worth. He was pretty much just a pick-up artist, but with a fancier job title.”
“You didn’t answer my question, Clay. How do you seize power that way?”
“Patience. Because that’s the wildest part. All he had to do when it was time for the next general election was to gently suggest to one of his pick-up artist friends to run for office… here’s the important bit… on the opposition ticket. He needed to find the biggest, loudest, blusteriest, most pompous jackaninny he could locate, gently suggest to him that it might be in the country’s best interest that he run for office, and the next step would be underway. And as far as the incumbent party, well, if he could get one of his sketchy cabinet members to run knowing full well that there might be some extremely serious criminal allegations pending against him, so much the better.”
“Wow, this story is starting to sound really stupid, Clay.” Brigit couldn’t hide the warmth and affection in her voice as she delivered her kindly insult.
“Yeah, that’s exactly right. It was brash, stupid, reckless. You might even call it audacious. But sure as frogs gonna hop, when the bumptious clown who had infiltrated the opposition party cinched the nomination, moderate voters started making noises in the direction of asserting emergency powers. And then the general election rolled around. The incumbent nominee was arrested on charges of high treason, and” Clay paused to hold his hands out for effect, “with great reluctance, Buteñas declared the election results void. He remained in office ‘pending a new election’.”
“Let me guess, that new election never happened.” I was getting the impression that he was cribbing from the Star Wars universe.
“Right. The Presidency was all but imperial anyway. The Mexican legislature hadn’t declared a war in over 85 years, despite sending troops all over hell and gone to support the Americans. And regulatory agencies had pretty much taken over their day to day operations. The legislature had single-digit approval ratings, so voters were happy to see that most august pit of vipers disbanded. And there you go. That’s how you get an emperor in a constitutional republic.”
“Oh Clay, you have the best imagination. What a story.”
“Thanks, Anika. It’ll be your turn next. Think up something good.”