In a recent New York Times editorial, a creative writing professor who drove five hours to attend the Trump rally in Greensboro, North Carolina, hypothesized that the Trump phenomenon is fueled by the collective desire of his fans for their own safe space.
(Leave it to an academic to link arguably the 21st century’s most and least progressive social movements: on one side, the paper-skinned, trigger-warned darlings of the institutional left, carving out free-speech-free zones on the quad and screaming down their liberal centrist elders, and on the other the yahoos hawking TRUMP THAT BITCH-branded merchandise to each other in the rustiest patches of the Rust Belt. But isn’t this precisely the sort of intellectual exercise Trump dismisses?)
His point was that the movement might actually have very little to do with the man himself. In Greensboro, he heard unchallenged vulgarities hurled at all the demographics you’d expect, witnessed people proudly unfurling their resentments, and saw sizable chunks of the audience tire of the ranting figure at the pulpit and leave in the middle. He scarcely heard the candidate’s name at all. In this light, the Trump show is primarily an excuse for adults to behave poorly in public. Looking at it like that doesn’t much tax the imagination.
With his tweeted outbursts (“Bad!” “Sad!”), surreal denunciations, lies of breathtaking audacity and sulking refusal to talk to mean girls, the Trump show has been less a campaign than a massively public temper tantrum. And it is easily the most colossally embarrassing thing that’s happened to America in my lifetime. I mean, it wins that race running away, and I paid attention to the Swift Boating of John Kerry and the Bush re-election. I paid attention for the Monicagate merry-go-round of hypocrisy, when the House Republicans, in a farcical round, couldn’t find a leader free of the taint of adultery, until finally settling on a “safe choice” who just happened to be a child-abuser and future embezzler. It’s so embarrassing that it’s more embarrassing than David Cameron’s recent oopsy you may have heard about.
I’m a native Texan and I watched Rick Perry run for president. My adopted state just passed HB2. Sarah Palin is. But the only thing I can ever conceive of being more embarrassing than Candidate Trump is President-Elect Trump.
We’re experiencing a moment in which America is essentially river dancing across the world stage while shitting itself.
One is never far removed from the aggrieved right when one is from Texas. Some of the earliest and most influential adults in my life were three Texan brothers, owners of an Austin coffee shop chain, who employed me for three-plus years from the age of fifteen. Two of them were political, one—Scott—extremely so, and it was a rare shift that didn’t entail being forced to listen to a cynical diatribe directed at the Clintons, at the loony left, at hippy environmentalists driving foul old cars.
Remember when the president was touring an African nation, all but engulfed in a human sea of outstretched arms, and someone fell and was getting trampled, and he, florid-faced and yelling, tried to disentangle the masses? Scott misinterpreted his reaction as one of racist panic and took unconcealed delight in the spectacle of the world’s most prominent democrat unhinged by terror at the presence and nearness of so many blacks. I was positive that it was deliberate, this misinterpretation, and I felt nauseous with hatred. The president was trying to save someone’s life—a black person’s life, as a matter of fact—and this asshole, through some horrible mean smallness of the heart, was alchemizing it into proof for all his horrible mean smallness.
In my Southern Baptist education I was taught that it’s an unforgivable sin to attribute God’s work to the devil.
(Though that’s evidence of smallness in me, too, that snarky sentence right there. An atheist dem browbeating a religious conservative with scripture is an act of cruelty for its own sake. It’s a way of saying, I’m so much better than you that look, I can whip you on your own terms—terms I don’t even pretend to accept. I’m stereotyping, to boot: Scott was no Christian.)
It’s a paradox that the governing philosophy founded on an aspirational ethos (that traditional structures be not atrophied and individual agency not stunted by the hand of government) is the one today most inclined to see the worst in people. For years Republicans have won the votes of people they’ve thrown under the bus by framing scapegoats for the violence. The welfare queens threw you under the bus. The inner city threw you under the bus. The Mexican rapists who took your jobs threw you under the bus. The non-believers, the worthless college students and the liberal media threw you under the bus. (Yes, somehow it is the fault of the liberal media.) Also the gays did it. Big government did it. “Activist” judges did it. The national debt that we’ve so diligently watered when it was our turn to hold the can (but never mind that) did it. The bleeding-heart-soft-on-crime democrats did it. Darwin did it. Actual science did it. And now, while you’re not paying attention, we’re going to slash food stamps while repealing the estate tax, so that Sam Walton’s great-great-great-great-great grandson never has to work a day in his life. Vote Republican!
Finally it’s Trump—Trump, the tasteless outsider, Trump, the reader of the National Enquirer—who has the grapes to call the kettle black: It’s our leaders, folks. They’re stupid.
Now we’ve come to the part of the blogpost where I once again reference an early Louis C.K. bit:
There’s an early Louis C.K. bit about how stupid is the one thing you can’t get away with. People respect the crazy man and shower praise on the disabled, but if you’re stupid, people hate you: “What are you, stupid? Shut up, you stupid shit!”
There has always been this sneering element among the luminaries of the far right—particularly of the AM radio set, which has none-too-gradually infiltrated the ecosystems of the heretofore not batshit insane. Though generally an exemplar of the field, Rush Limbaugh’s aborted foray into SportsCenter was not representative: Sean Hannity made the transition from the low bandwidth to the big screen; Glenn Beck’s blessing is courted by mainstream Republicans; and the guy who invites guests to come and be yelled at to shut up in front of a national audience, Bill O’Reilly, adopted his entire persona from the spectrum. The sneer is, to me anyway, as emblematic of the right as the frothy latte is of the left. It denotes a way of being in the world that is adversarial, dominating, incurious and intolerant. In a word: illiberal. In Trump, the sneer has reached its apotheosis.
Remember that Ainsley Hayes episode of West Wing where she takes Josh to task for not liking the people who oppose him on gun control? It isn’t that he doesn’t like the guns, is her point: it’s that he doesn’t like the people. And since we’re all Americans here and all in this together, we need to at least, and always, like each other.
Maybe this is what Obama was thinking of when he referred to the show as a “liberal fantasy.”
I want to like the people on the other side, but I often don’t think this is possible. Besides the litany of policy conflicts, there are vast, yawning aesthetic differences to overcome. I just don’t feel like mustering the energy to try and bridge gaps with someone wearing a pin that says KFC HILLARY SPECIAL: 2 FAT THIGHS, 2 SMALL BREASTS, LEFT WING. (Yes, that exists. I’m sorry.)
We should at least like some of the same things, though. We should at least appreciate, in common, a few of the tenets that make us Americans. For instance: religious freedom. For instance: the right to due process. For instance: a tradition of transparency in electoral politics. For instance: a respect for those who’ve served their country. For instance: the importance of a free and watchdog press.
But the people who gather in the toxic safe space around the Donald to vent their spleens against everyone guilty of throwing them under the bus don’t care about those things. Not really. Not with their feet. When they cheer their candidate’s proposal to impose religious tests on immigrants, when they embrace his enthusiasm for torture and his disdain for the Miranda rights, when they forgive the Braggart of Braggarts’ hilarious refusal to release his tax returns, when they permit him to castigate prisoners of war for having been dumb enough to get caught, and when they remain indifferent as he punishes each institution that has the temerity to truthfully report his actions, they as much as sing out their contempt for American values.
If they’re citizens of anything, it’s television.
The thing about stupidity is that it’s irreversible. Ignorance you can stamp out. This is one of the things my office-neighbor, Mr Mashburn, is always reminding me of. “On your way to stamp out ignorance?” he’ll ask me when I’m going to class. “You know it,” I’ll say. And in class, day after day, quarter after quarter, waves of ignorance break against the bulwark of education. Mr Mashburn’s been doing it for a whole career. He’s about to retire. In fact, he might have just attended his final graduation ceremony. It was an odd one.
The honor guard came out with the flag and their rifles and their funny cadence, and right after we sang “America the Beautiful” they departed in their funny, halting way. Said Mashburn in his sonorous southern barritone, sotto voce on the stage, “That might be a bit premature.” Which was accurate, because next we were lead in the Pledge of Allegiance: a whole auditorium of people with their hands on their hearts, staring at the faculty with their hands on their hearts, pledging allegiance to a flag that wasn’t there—or, pledging allegiance to each other.
When you call someone stupid, you dehumanize them. You say: there’s no rescuing you, you aren’t even worth the effort. It isn’t a coincidence that the same campaign that says “Don’t let the back door hit you on the way out” to people threatening emigration in the event of a Trump victory has laid its foundation on calling people stupid.
They say that contempt is the one emotion a marriage can’t survive. In this analogy, the flag is the ring we all wear to signify our marriage to each other.
I want to stomp and cry and call them stupid, too. But if I did, I’d be helping to drag the flag from the room. And my concern is that, once it’s gone, we won’t get it back.