You have heard my story before, from the thousands of progressives born and raised in rural America who were later reformed and pointed leftward in schools and cities, but who maintain a fascination with their childhood homes, and are eager to educate you, fellow liberal, about life on the other side. There are brilliant articles and brilliant books in the genre, and some not so brilliant. Since I’m treading pre-trodden ground, I won’t badger you with another round of glib insights from Trump country, but I will venture one timid spoiler: There is no redemption at the end.
The story always begins like so: I was home for Christmas, in a Republican part of the country, facing down a living, breathing, Trump voter.
My family happens to buck the traditional narrative by being mostly Democrat or uninterested, but I have one one brother who is defiantly neither, and he will serve as the villain of our tale. It won’t surprise you to learn that my negative interactions with this brother are the most stressful parts of my journeys home, and tend to fill me with anxiety long before I make the trip to far upstate New York. This year, I wasn’t expecting anything but the frustration and tension I’d come to dread, and that’s mostly what I got. But the night before we celebrated Christmas, I had an unexpected moment of empathy with my brother—a person with whom I had basically given up hope of establishing even the most tenuous political connection.
Before we get there, some background. Our dynamic fits the mold: I am the small-town boy with vaguely conservative ideas in my youth who got good grades, went to a good college, and became progressive almost overnight while witnessing the horror of the Iraq War from a dorm room at age 19—jogged to reality both by the senselessness of the endeavor and the callous AIM away messages (“bombs over Baghdad!!”) on my computer screen. Thus corrected, I lived in cities, supported Obama, supported Bernie Sanders, and reluctantly voted for Hillary Clinton. My brother, younger, followed a different but no less predictable path, and ended in a different but no less predictable place. To complete the well-worn tale, he shunned college, stayed in our small town, reveres the flag, and, in 2016, gave his full support to Donald Trump. Needless to say, he was overjoyed by the results of the election, while I was devastated.
These broad strokes are useful only insofar as we recognize how superficial they are—enough to tell a story, but not enough to form a true judgment of a person. It may be that we’re more similar than different. We’re both angry. We both know how to hurt the other with the unsparing precision that only a family member can muster, and we’ve both used that power in the past. We’re both prideful, and we both love each other in a way that will probably never see a meaningful expression because it is buried under the weight of so much pain and grievance and suspicion.
He is also an antagonist, and a damn good one—a trait which is a little rusty in my own 33-year-old repertoire, but not at all foreign. This year, my visit quickly took on a familiar rhythm—he would say something designed to make me angry, like: “Now that Trump’s president, I feel like I can do whatever I want.” Or, flashing me a look like I had been employed as Hillary’s personal speechwriter: “Looks like the deplorables won.” Or, much worse—use your imagination. At which point I would feel a flash of anger, suppress it quickly, and go back to enjoying the company of my other family members while he planned his next charm offensive. I learned long ago that striking back, using my own powers to wound him, only led to fights—sometimes physical, and always spoiling things for the entire family. Worse, they made me feel ludicrous and cheap for rising to the bait.
Now, every visit is a contest to see whether he can provoke me into lashing out before it’s time to flee home for another year. Lately, I’ve been “winning” these exhausting mental battles, both because I now have a wife that can sense my darkening mood and calm me down, and because he’s turned slightly less combative as he enters his young adulthood. But of course, there’s no real winner here—I dread the encounters beforehand, I suffer in the process, and the relief when I finally escape is matched, I imagine, by a kind of bitterness on his end. Even without the climactic fistfight, the whole thing is deeply unhealthy, and deeply tiring. There have been occasional signs that things are improving with time, but we are also drifting apart philosophically, and the 2016 election certainly didn’t help.
And yet, he still likes and wants to spend time with me, and we can still have interesting conversations, and I still feel a deep sympathy for him, and there are moments when it feels like we could be good friends—and these are only a few of the paradoxes I encounter each December. It was no surprise, then, that on the second day of our visit, he wanted to see a movie with me and my wife. And it’s no surprise that moments before leaving, he made some comment I can’t remember about Trump that irked me enough to tell him we weren’t going anymore, or that my wife reminded me to grin and bear it just before I said something really nasty, or that when he came out to the car, he was wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat. Which I let pass without comment.
We shared a giant tub of popcorn, we enjoyed Manchester By the Sea, and afterward, when he asked us to drive him to the Mobile gas station so he could purchase chewing tobacco and a $50 gift certificate for our Christmas president, he said something that should have horrified me.
“Did you see that guy who came in toward the end of the movie?”
Yes, I remembered—he was the custodian, young, chubby, brown of skin, harmless, wheeling a garbage can, and he had entered before the credits and stood by the entrance, waiting for the movie to end so he could pick up our garbage.
“I almost grabbed my gun. I don’t like when people walk in like that.”
For some reason, in the moment, the words didn’t seem as shocking as they would later. I didn’t even realize he had a gun, though I knew from Facebook that he’d managed to procure a concealed carry permit, but it didn’t really bother me. It might be that I was so conditioned to avoiding a fight that nothing could throw me.
“I’m glad you held back,” I said, but he didn’t laugh—he looked aggrieved, thinking of the man that he called “a little bit off.” Under direct questioning, he told me he always carried a gun, and that it made him nervous to see someone just walk in like that, and that he’d be ready if a terrorist decide to strike, whether it was a movie theater or a gas station or wherever.
Now, part of this was surely bluster designed to either test or impress me, but there was sincerity too, and in that sincerity was madness. Yet it was a kind of madness that has become banal, because it’s so common—this is the logic we see every day from our conservative friends and family, those would-be “good guys with a gun” who mask their deep-seated fears with this odd bravado. They go about the world armed because they’re going to be the next hero that foils an attack, but they never realize that the fear and paranoia attending this worldview is eating at their brains, driving them to a kind of functional insanity that will ruin them long before a jihadist ever will.
I tried out a few arguments on him, but only half-heartedly—there’s no winning these debates, and I’m too fatigued to try—and then we lapsed into silence. Which is when I had my own mini-revelation—that point of empathy I warned you about. I’ll warn you, it’s not much, but here it is anyway: I’m beset by the same paranoia.
I don’t carry a gun, but in the back of my mind I live with the same fantasies. I have always preferred to see movies on a weekday afternoon to avoid the big crowds, but lately these off hours have seemed more appealing because they’re undoubtedly less attractive to a shooter, whether it’s an aspiring jihadist or a tormented white boy pissed off that he’s never had sex. Each time someone enters a movie theater late, I have the same ludicrous thought as my brother—gunman. I come to my senses quickly, and I understand the long odds of ever encountering this kind of violence, but my brain lands there anyway, in an almost involuntary way.
We are not so unalike, I thought, watching him glower in the passenger seat…at least in our neuroses.
In stories like these, you are used to what comes next. I, the writer, view our shared fear as a point of empathy—that tenuous connection I was so desperate to find—upon which I base my hope for the future. Later, my brother and I share some minor but poignant moment of mutual understanding in which we discover common ground as siblings, which of course represents the possibility, at least, of reconciliation for a polarized America. And we all pat ourselves on the back for seeing past the gridlock into an imaginary future of…what? Who knows? And it ends with a platitude: No matter what, we’re still family.
But in 2016, that type of conclusion is not just facile; it’s plain wrong. Yes, the thing we share—the only thing, it seems—is our fear. A fear which was born on Sept. 11, and cultivated carefully in the years that followed. I’ve come to believe that more than anything else, this fear—which we were ill-suited to handle as a nation, having imagined ourselves invincible—represents a national pathology that will eventually eat us from the inside. It is not a fear to be admired, or to rally around, and it’s certainly not a fear to nourish, as we’ve done for 15 years. It’s a fear that threatens our existence, and it’s in our reactions to the fear that Americans differ so greatly—creating a chasm of ideology that looks, at least to me, permanent.
The concept of terror has pierced our sense of security, and we all have to reckon with the new reality. The difference between us comes in that reaction—do we conclude, as I have, that it’s both wiser and more accurate to see these attacks as worrisome but statistically insignificant (you are more likely to be crushed to death by a piece of furniture in your house than die at the hands of a terrorist, and yet we don’t debate burning our nation’s couches), and gear our response toward a foreign policy that will reduce them over time, without blowing our collective tops on each new occasion, thereby exacerbating the problem? Or do we let our fear transform into outrage as we thirst for the satisfying destruction of a nebulous enemy who can never be thoroughly and decisively destroyed, and who—in a paradox that it’s our curse not to understand—only gathers strength from our fury?
This is our essential division, and of course it doesn’t have to be seen through the lens of terror—immigration would do just fine—but it seems to be the most compelling story in our minds, and the one that best illustrates the contrast between us.
Think of the idiom, “the terrorists have won,” which was so over-used in the days and years after 9/11 that it quickly, and rightly, became a joke—a rhetorical catch-all, much like “thanks, Obama!”, with which to label every minor societal grievance. But let’s revive it now to ask a simple question: What would it mean for terrorists to “win”?
Surely none of us, “terrorists” included, believe they’ll mount a massive military campaign, storm American soil, and triumphantly raise the ISIS flag (or whatever) over the White House. Instead, the end game of terrorism has to be smaller, and subtler. The goal is not military victory, but the planting of a seed that will flourish with time and bring on the kind of internal strife that destroys us from the inside. We will be torn apart not by foreign forces, but by ourselves, and the origin of this internal conflict will be the problem I laid out above: The reaction to violence.
As Americans choose how to react—a pretty even split, as it turns out, quite disastrously—the way we view each other has been marred by hatred, and our differences have been exaggerated with time. Fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, we have to recognize an unpleasant truth: Terrorism has become such an entrenched part of the national psyche—despite being a very peripheral problem, still—that it has captured our collective imagination and driven a wedge between us based on how we handle its mere existence. It’s a wedge that our politicians have successfully exploited—the most effective tool since abortion and gay marriage for making poor white people forget that powerful Republicans are their economic enemies—and that has seeped into our lives in the most destructive ways imaginable.
I have tried screaming my truth to my brother, and others—that by demonizing Muslims, supporting isolationist immigration policies, and electing a demagogue like Donald Trump, we are only playing into the hands of radical extremists. Our own radical drift provides fodder for anti-Americanism, both the rhetorical kind and the active, bombs-and-soldiers kind. ISIS shows videos of Donald Trump to their recruits; we are filling their ranks because we can’t deal with terrorism rationally. We are playing into their hands.
And, of course, I have convinced nobody who wasn’t already convinced.
It’s not that my brother can’t understand this line of reasoning. He is not stupid, and I don’t believe that all of Trump’s voters were slavering maniacs incapable of complex thought. It’s that he doesn’t want to understand. The horror of a so-called “post-truth” society is the byproduct of a second, but no less important, national failure. Yes, a key facet of terrorism’s success is that half of America can’t understand how it actually works, and are doomed to contribute to (and enhance) the destructive impulse with reactionary politics.
But the rest of us have also failed to make them see. Maybe it’s a failure of persuasion, or maybe processing this kind of scary information in a sensible way—which would include accepting the occasional act of terrorism without going crazy, and which feels too much like defeat to conservatives—is beyond us. Whatever the cause, we have clearly blundered in our unstated mission of coming to a healthy consensus. Instead, we turned on each other, over and over, in accelerating betrayals that culminated with the election of Trump—a man who has finally torn us apart for good, and set us at each other’s throats like dogs.
Let’s put a fine point on it. What do we believe, in our worst moments, when we succumb to stereotypical thinking about the other side? We on the left think they are hyper-masculine dupes, education-fearing, flag-worshipping pigs hellbent on destroying America, even while praising it to the heavens, because they can’t process complex thoughts and would prefer to believe in a simple myth being hand-fed to them by the same politicians who stole their livelihoods. They on the right believe we are soft, over-schooled, capitulating cowards who are ready to take their guns and kill their babies and empower a welfare state that only benefits racial minorities and illegal immigrants and turn the straight white male into an endangered species, all while presenting a serious danger to American military dominance with concessionary foreign policy.
This perceived cultural gap is not new—there are great books about this, too—but 2016 was the year that it became codified and irreversible. This is the impending victory of terrorism—since 9/11, it has changed how we think. They—whoever “they” are —have pitted us against each other brilliantly (“two Americas” was always bullshit until opportunistic politicians and entertainers masquerading as newsmen made it true), and those early seeds have finally borne fruit after being nourished by our failure to cope with a dark reality.
For all the language of perseverance and unification that followed that strange morning 15 years ago, the truth is that we have failed, appallingly, to meet the real psychological threat at our doorstep. We have seen the enemy, but we have not seen it clearly. We have been played—tragically and thoroughly. It is in this failure, and in the dawning of an era of mutual mistrust, that we can begin to see the self-loathing end of the American experiment.
Oh, but I’m speaking so broadly, so anecdotally, with such a desultory lack of precision, and now I’m cursing myself for every logical pitfall, and every spurious leap. Our problems don’t stem universally from 9/11, of course. I blame neoliberalism, and the isolating effects of capitalism—specifically the deleterious economic results—for laying the groundwork. The argument I adhere to is elucidated nicely here, and even that feels very skim-the-surface. Maybe this entire essay is an unhelpful act of reductionism, a messy label applied improperly to a complex problem. But there’s no time to say everything, so I’m trying to say the one thing that feels the most resonant, the most pressing, the most terrifying.
John Jeremiah Sullivan, a master of humanizing the Trump-leaning parts of America—in a way that contains not an ounce of condescension, a rare feat among left-leaning writers at cosmopolitan magazines—could not remove himself from the fear and hatred that divides us the day after the election. In the Paris Review, he wrote about watching his fellow travelers in an airport terminal the next morning:
Most interesting in the gate area was to watch folks watching one another. It was clear from people’s expressions and from something in the furtiveness of their glances that a lot of us were thinking, “Are you one of them? Did you do this to us?” And the Trump people, or the ones I profiled as Trump’s, were maybe thinking, “Are you giving me a look because you think I voted for him? Up yours! This is America. You can’t guilt me for voting my conscience.” I can’t prove that they were thinking those things, but I wasn’t wrong. I found myself looking at two men in particular. They had on camouflage baseball caps, one’s arms were covered in aged tattoos, and they were whispering to each other, making each other laugh. They were the kind of guys I typically look at fondly, when I see them in public, with thoughts along the lines of, “Ha … if my New York friends were here, they’d be looking at these guys and thinking they’re such rednecks and stupid and whatnot, but I’ve known people like that all my life, and they have a magical way of turning into funny, weird, compassionate individuals when you talk with them.” It’s one of my most strongly held beliefs and has been for my whole adult life, that we don’t really see each other when we observe from a distance, that you have to get close to know anything at all and even then often don’t know. This morning I looked at them with hatred. I can’t believe I’ve written the word, but there’s no other for the feeling.
If Sullivan can’t remove himself from this animosity, even in the short term, then who can?
And more pressingly, what are we supposed to do about it? On the terrific progressive political podcast “Chapo Trap House,” co-host Matt Christman recently mocked the generic advice that leftists need to get out of “the bubble” and proselytize to Trump voters:
“I never understand what that’s supposed to mean. Are they genuinely saying you should go amongst the people…you should be like the Narodniks, the fucking populists in czarist Russia and like go to the mirs and talk to the peasants, that kind of thin? That seems incredibly condescending to me. Especially if the unsaid assumption is that you can talk people out of their beliefs through your amazing rhetorical skills and logic and shit like that. Because I honestly don’t think there’s anything more condescending about saying “fuck those fucking reactionary hillbilly dipshits” than saying “no, I can talk them out of it! I watched every episode of The West Wing!” I mean, my God…but that’s what’s undergirding all these fantasies of reaching out to people who didn’t vote the way you wanted them to on some sort of retail basis…part of it is the self-congratulatory idea that you are somehow fucking brilliant enough to talk people out of their beliefs.”
Virgil Texas, another co-host, named this the “Sorkin Delusion,” which is perfect, and which also underlines the futility we’re facing in 2016—we are so completely polarized that there is no more common ground. And I’ve lately felt nothing but disgust at these naive calls to become a kind of progressive missionary.
There is one solution, of course—a broad coalition based on economic populism, spearheaded by a Bernie Sanders-like figure who can unmake the (correct) image of Democrats as heartless, free trade neoliberals who could care less about the plight of the American working class of any race. For this to work, it would require the Democrats to cede the cold heart of the party, it would require widespread political action like nothing this country has seen in decades, it would require Trump voters to ignore the appealing siren song of racial demagoguery, and it would require a reduction in our respective bone-deep insecurity and fear of one another—none of which seem imminent. Or even possible.
Unlike many of my fellow progressives, I knew Donald Trump would win. I was talked out of my certainty at various points along the way by smarter people, but I never lost my sense that despite all the reassurances and the favorable polls and the calls to sanity, we were living in a nightmare, and like any good nightmare, the worst outcome inevitably must come true. If you are being pursued by a monster at the start of your dream, one of two things will happen: You will wake up, or you will end in the monster’s clutches. Since waking up was not an option in 2016, the only logical conclusion was the one we witnessed on election night.
Watching my dark instincts come true was like a living affirmation of what the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis called “the power of nightmares.” He was speaking of the way in which governments control us through propaganda, and I was thinking of the inevitability, at this point in history, of dark outcomes, but it seems to me that there is a strong connection between the two: Tell us a story long enough, and you will create a world in which that story comes true.
My reaction to Trump’s victory, I’m ashamed to admit, was appallingly selfish. I didn’t cry—I still haven’t cried—and my first thought was not for the groups of people who will likely suffer most under the new regime. Instead, I was overwhelmed by a powerful wave of anxiety, and it was all for me. Like almost every other left-leaning political writer in America, I have written negative words about Trump, and just as I knew that he would win, I knew in the aftermath of his victory that the worst possible future would bloom, eventually. At some point in the next eight years, if I didn’t flee at the right moment and to the right place, I understood in my gut that—after all the more important writers were dealt with—I would be imprisoned or killed by an increasingly fascist regime.
And I also knew that this was an absurd and selfish fear, based in paranoia rather than reality. I knew it was improbable, and that I shouldn’t say it out loud. And yet, I still know today that I’m right. Whether it comes to pass or not, I am in the grip of an ongoing nightmare, and the fact that I can’t rule it out says to me that, yes, one day soon we’ll have our very own brownshirts, and our first chilling signs of a purge, and one dark day after that, the knock will come at my door. You scoff at this, but you also scoffed at Trump becoming president, and it turns out our scoffing is as impotent as our rage. And I wonder, if you asked him about it today, would he rule it out totally, or would he simply shrug and smile and let the implication linger: If you’re scared, maybe it’s because you should be.
I bring this up not to assault you with my dark fantasies, but to emphasize the conflict at the heart of our political reality. If my time comes, will people like my brother rise up in protest? Or will they rationalize that I deserved it? Or will it be too late to matter either way? And, for God’s sake, let’s get past Shane Ryan’s selfish derangements and on to those who are actually in imminent danger, be they Muslims or Latinos or LGBT or women or, hell, the planet itself. Even if the average Trump voter didn’t consider them when voting, isn’t that any better? Is the father who loves his gay son but voted for Trump for financial reasons truly free of responsibility for the fate of his child? How are we supposed to conceive of people who could be so callous as to not think of the safety of their fellow man when the danger was so clear, so breathtakingly explicit?
It brings to mind a twist on an old joke: What do you call hatred and cruelty by omission? A: Hatred and cruelty.
Here’s what I’m really asking: How can we conclude that they don’t hate us? And if they hate us, how can we not hate them back?
There are two prevalent instincts operating beneath the surface of America in 2016, shared by the masses, and I don’t think we should ignore either one.
We’ve tackled the first—that America is on the decline, and that, however long it takes, we’re witnessing the denouement. You will find this belief across the political spectrum, and it’s sad, and it’s insecure, and the truth of it may be inevitable. History is a pendulum, and it only stands to reason that just as a place like America emerges at one point in time, so must it collapse at another. We have begun to accept it as fact that we’re living in that second phase, and a feeling of hopelessness pervades.
The second is more abstract, but equally destabilizing—the sense that what we’re witnessing is somehow unreal. Part of this stems from the “post-truth” problem, but it goes deeper. There’s a reason Merriam-Webster picked “surreal” as its word of the year, and that reason speaks to a growing belief that what we see can’t possibly be true. There are philosophical underpinnings to the idea that we may be living in a fake reality, but on a more basic level, this “uncanny valley” sensation arises from the very real fear that we can’t escape the circus—Trump is a showman, but the show is no longer confined to our televisions. It now runs the world, with the same reckless energy, and there are enough of us who have lost the separation between entertainment and politics that we’ve slipped past sobriety and accountability and into chaos. We don’t know where we go from here, but we know that we can’t control it.
Perhaps I’m only cynical, and a recovery is just around the corner. But the happy ending is a particularly American delusion, and I don’t see any evidence for it. Instead, I see a nation that is less of a democratic republic, and more of terminal patient eaten up by the cancer of hatred and fear—an ugly creature, that will reap destruction to the moment of its death, and that may be mean enough to take the entire world with it. This is 2016: We are at each other’s throats, and we can’t let go.