by Dave Maier
On the afternoon of Election Day, I was in the local library doing a particularly nasty jigsaw puzzle (I like to do them at the library, because they have such big tables there that you can spread out as much as you want), and I happened to overhear a conversation among a man and two women, all strangers. All three were thirty-somethings with children (as became clear). The guy had been working at his laptop when the women, whom he knew, came in, and soon he was regaling them with a story of his morning spent dealing with this and that. He told it well, and was very engaging and likable, and his audience responded appropriately. They did not strike me as in any way deplorable (except possibly that they were talking loudly in the library).
I say this because, even before one of the women (later on in the conversation) said something like “I like the way he tells it like it is!”, I found myself with no doubt whatsoever that these were Trump supporters. In the aftermath of that disaster (by which I was not nearly as surprised as some, possibly because of this incident in the library), I have been wondering what to think about those on the winning side. I haven’t come to any conclusions, and clearly there are a number of different reasons one might have voted red this year; but if anyone needs more disjointed post-election ramblings, you’ve come to the right place. No doubt they say more about me than about the world; in any case, that’s all I’ll be good for for a while. Best of luck to anyone else trying to figure it out for themselves as well.
Why did I believe, or how did I know, that the by-librarians-unaccountably-unshushed trio were Trumpians, even before it was confirmed? They had not been discussing politics or culture or anything close to it; the guy’s mother couldn’t start her car, and the globalist elite was not apparently at fault. I think it was just their manner: they seemed somehow to revel in their just-ordinary-folks unpretentiousness, even though socio-economically they were clearly upwardly mobile middle-class citizens of our fairly upscale community rather than the economically stressed white working class we keep hearing about. I found myself with an uncanny impression that if they knew me they would regard me as perversely elitist, quite independently of my views themselves. Indeed I do regard the main appeal of Trumpism to otherwise non-deplorable people as a celebration of (what they perceive as) “ordinary” life and a salutary rejection of what in contrast is perversely unordinary. The latter need not be the obvious things; in fact I feel sure that if I were merely black or gay or Muslim or Latino, rather than white and straight and weird, they would be perfectly okay with me. But who knows?
For some perspective on this, let’s look at some other data points that have been bouncing around my head in the last week.
Last year I watched the Turkish film Winter Sleep [*Spoiler Alert*]. The film’s main character, Aydin, is an actor and intellectual who has retired to the mountains where he runs a hotel for tourists and writes his magnum opus, a history of Turkish theater. His much younger wife, Nihal, is clearly also intelligent, but feels stifled by what she sees as her husband’s arrogance and condescension toward her, as if only he were doing important work. For instance, he has belittled her charity work as a mere hobby, and one which will do no real good, as she would see if she understood these things as he does, being more worldly and experienced as he is, yada yada yada. After an argument, he makes things worse when, in what started out as a way to make up to her, he gives her a great deal of cash as a donation to her charity. Unfortunately, in so doing he cannot resist giving her as well a great deal of condescending advice about what to do with it, compounding his original error, and remaining entirely oblivious to her mounting resentment throughout this painful scene.
In addition to the hotel, Aydin owns some of the surrounding land, and has a number of tenants, some of them very poor. One of them is an imam, Hamdi, and his pathetic loser brother Ismail, for whom the imam must fairly regularly intercede with Aydin, most often about the rent. The latest development in this ongoing debacle is that Ismail’s son Ilyas has for some reason thrown a rock at Aydin’s car (at the beginning of the film) and broken its window. Anyway (skipping ahead a bit), late in the film Nihal pays a visit to Hamdi and Ilyas, and, moved by their plight (I forgot to mention that little Ilyas is sick), resolves to help them. When she gives them the entire wad of cash Aydin gave her for her charity, Hamdi is overwhelmed by her generosity – while we of course recognize the spite behind it: Nihal is too intimidated by Aydin simply to throw the cash in his face, but too resentful to use it for what he gave it to her for. This act of “kindness” allows her to kill two birds with one stone.
But then Ismail returns. His wreck of a life, mostly but not entirely due to his own shortcomings, as he himself recognizes as well as anyone, has made him bitter beyond words. What the pampered Nihal cannot do (Aydin is right about that much, at least), Ismail has no problem doing: right in front of her horrified eyes, he tosses the cash – a small fortune, enough to help sick Ilyas and put the entire family back onto its feet – into the fire. What makes this scene so devastating is that while we know where that money came from and why Nihal is giving it away, Ismail does not, and yet he sees the self-serving nature of her act anyway. In fact it’s all he sees, and the only way he knows to express to her his contempt of both her and himself is an act of supreme self-destruction, as well as that of his son (who set this whole thing in motion with his own act of defiance). You know the saying fiat justitia, ruat caelum [let there be justice though the heavens fall]? F*ck that, Ismail is saying: ruat caelum, full stop. Justitia has left the building.
We may not think of poisonous self-hatred as being a distinguishing mark of Trumpians – surely most are not so far gone as that – but the resulting perversely self-destructive lashing out at, well, everyone else does seem all too familiar.
When I was in eighth grade, they didn’t open the school doors until right before school began, so we had to wait outside. The entrances were segregated by gender: the girls were at the top of the hill and the boys at the bottom. Naturally most of the boys were running up and down the hill and playing rather than just standing around, and one game involved a particular structural feature of the school building. The boys’ entrance was at ground level, most of the way down the hiil, but there was another door coming up out of the gym, with steps leading up to ground level. This formed a well, or as we called it, a “pit”, with railings around the back and side.
One game, if that’s what you want to call it, involved taking someone’s hat or something and throwing it down into the pit; when that person went down the steps to retrieve it, the thieves would gather around the railings and shout and laugh. I never did this, but based on who did what to whom, I would say that this was mostly or all in good fun: you would take your friend’s hat and yell bantering insults down into the pit at him, and then he got his “revenge” later on, when the roles would be reversed. It was partly a way to show those social bonds – you wouldn’t take just anyone’s things and yell at them; that’s just not how the game was played.
Or so it seemed. A further development was that when you were leaning over the railing and tormenting your victim with abuse and/or banter, you would spit down into the pit, so they couldn’t simply retrieve their property too quickly. If they were quick they could dodge the missiles, but sometimes someone did get hit. Even so, this was not a big deal, as there were usually only a few people hanging over the pit at any one time. As I mentioned, it was generally a small group of friends playing around this way to pass the time before the doors opened, with most of the other kids running around on the hill.
One fine day, though, one big kid – not my friend, but not an enemy or bully, as far as I knew – grabbed my books from me and threw them down into the pit. He then turned, and yelled for all to hear (as not very many people had seen him) “We got Maier’s books!” With a roar I can hear to this day, the entire hill descended on the pit en masse and sent great gobs of spit onto the books at the bottom of the pit, the boys pushing each other out of the way in order to do so. I started down the steps, but the rain of spit did not abate and I was forced simply to watch. After what was probably a minute or so, the bell rang, and everyone left (allowing those in the back to get their own gobs in before they too left). I picked up my books – they were covered with spit by this time – and started to wipe them off on the grass. While I was doing this, the second bell rang, making me late for class. I burst into tears. The assistant principal, having been summoned by one of my actual friends, told me not to cry (thanks for the tip, guy) and tried ineffectually to assign blame, but no one was ever punished (just as well in my view).
My therapist, if I had one, would surely see this incident as causing my sense of alienation from at least self-consciously “ordinary” people (if not actual “ordinary” people by my lights). Even at the time, I recognized on some level that this wasn’t the universal persecution it may have looked like. Most of these guys didn’t know me at all, or if they did, it was most likely just as the smart guy. (I did dress funny back then, admittedly – I remember a particular pair of pants that no one should ever have worn, ever – but so did a lot of people, given that it was 1975.) While it’s natural to see their actions as expressive of contempt for perceived elites, I also don’t think that they really gave it much thought, and indeed probably forgot about it right away. They did it because everyone else did it, for the momentary fun of it. So I guess I wouldn’t read too much into it.
Yet it is the casual nature of that cruelty which makes it chilling, where more conscious hatred is merely frightening. It reminds me of the scorpion's appeal to his own nature in the parable of the scorpion and the frog, or of the rapist in the film Boys Don't Cry, who, after raping Hilary Swank's character, transgender (pre-op FTM) Brandon, continues to casually address him as “little dude”, as if the rape were simply what one does naturally when one finds out that one of one's male acquaintances has a pussy. Do Trumpists hate casually, by nature, or are they conscious that that's what they're doing?
When I was an undergrad at Swarthmore, I met this guy HB in my German class. He had been sort of a hippie in high school, but over the time I knew him he morphed into something quite different. He stopped smoking pot (but kept drinking alcohol), he joined the jock frat and took up lacrosse, and began to manifest a keener interest in his German heritage. There is of course nothing wrong with any of that; but then things took a darker turn. Once a Pink Floyd fan, he decided that he really hated their recent album The Wall because “it made fun of the idea of the Final Solution” (a comment, I should admit, that he may have sort of disavowed later, but this was only the most extreme of many such he made at the time). Far from identifying, as he did once, with what Roger Waters calls “bleeding hearts and artists”, HB now worried that all such people want to do is to “tear down” and “undermine” (i.e. perversely, for the sake of undermining).
Still nothing too alarming, except for the Final Solution comment. But then he took it farther. As you may know, Blue Jeans Day is a typically conceptual sort of LGBT activist thing. On this day, everyone is supposed to wear blue jeans to mark the occasion. The point – a good one, it seems to me, and well worth noting – is that since a lot of people wear blue jeans anyway, you can’t tell whether someone wearing blue jeans on Blue Jeans Day is marking the occasion or not – just as, in most cases, you can’t tell someone’s sexual orientation by looking. Naturally you don’t have to wear blue jeans that day if you don’t want to (as I myself did not, either because my sole pair were in the wash, or because I just forgot, I don’t remember). But this was not enough for HB and his frat buddies. Not only did they all wear three-piece suits that day, HB set fire to a pair of blue jeans in front of the dining hall. I can still hear him and the other frat boys giggling at people’s shocked reaction. Some people wanted him expelled, and there was a lot of discussion about whether setting fire to something counted as free speech, hate speech, or no speech at all, but I don’t remember anything happening to him except a lot of talk.
Since then, if the alumni magazine can be believed, HB has joined the Army, gone to medical school, married, and become an Army doctor. Possibly his professional success indicates that he has matured as well. Still, unless he’s undergone another radical change, I’d say he’d be a reliable Republican vote no matter what, even if he sees through Trump. It’s precisely that sophomoric urge to outrage “elite” opinion, though, that Trump has exploited so masterfully, which is why this sticks in my mind.
Where does this leave us? If I figure it out, I'll let you know. In any case, God help us all.