Jul
05

Fear and loathing in Trumpmerica

By

George Saunders has a lengthy piece in the New Yorker based on months of up-close observation of the Trump phenomenon. Rally after rally of interviewing Trump supporters and Trump protesters. It’s a fascinating series of vignettes telling a tale of the simmering anger gripping much of America:

Where is all this anger coming from? It’s viral, and Trump is Typhoid Mary. Intellectually and emotionally weakened by years of steadily degraded public discourse, we are now two separate ideological countries, LeftLand and RightLand, speaking different languages, the lines between us down. Not only do our two subcountries reason differently; they draw upon non-intersecting data sets and access entirely different mythological systems. You and I approach a castle. One of us has watched only “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” the other only “Game of Thrones.” What is the meaning, to the collective “we,” of yon castle? We have no common basis from which to discuss it. You, the other knight, strike me as bafflingly ignorant, a little unmoored. In the old days, a liberal and a conservative (a “dove” and a “hawk,” say) got their data from one of three nightly news programs, a local paper, and a handful of national magazines, and were thus starting with the same basic facts (even if those facts were questionable, limited, or erroneous). Now each of us constructs a custom informational universe, wittingly (we choose to go to the sources that uphold our existing beliefs and thus flatter us) or unwittingly (our app algorithms do the driving for us). The data we get this way, pre-imprinted with spin and mythos, are intensely one-dimensional. (As a proud knight of LeftLand, I was interested to find that, in RightLand, Vince Foster has still been murdered, Dick Morris is a reliable source, kids are brainwashed “way to the left” by going to college, and Obama may yet be Muslim. I expect that my interviewees found some of my core beliefs equally jaw-dropping.)

Saunders documents the rallies he attended so we didn’t have to. Out of this, a fuller picture emerges of Trump supporters:

The Trump supporter comes out of the conservative tradition but is not a traditional conservative. He is less patient: something is bothering him and he wants it stopped now, by any means necessary. He seems less influenced by Goldwater and Reagan than by Fox News and reality TV, his understanding of history recent and selective; he is less religiously grounded and more willing, in his acceptance of Trump’s racist and misogynist excesses, to (let’s say) forgo the niceties.

[…]

In the broadest sense, the Trump supporter might be best understood as a guy who wakes up one day in a lively, crowded house full of people, from a dream in which he was the only one living there, and then mistakes the dream for the past: a better time, manageable and orderly, during which privilege and respect came to him naturally, and he had the whole place to himself.

It’s discouraging and creepy. But it’s the slow-motion train wreck you can’t look away from. Excerpts cannot do it justice.

Saunders explores the tendency of both left and right to argue by “partisan zinger.” When a Trump supporter tells him there are more people on public assistance under Obama than Bush, he is taken aback and skeptical. But no, after researching, it seems the factoid is accurate, just not particularly meaningful. The Trumpster was not right as much as “rightish.” But it’s the sort of talking point that throws you — well-known in opponents’ circles but unknown in yours. Don’t we all do this?

I should have gotten a degree in psychology.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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