From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
The Widening Gyre
by Tom Bissell
America used to be the well-meaning but erratic guy who arrives at a party already drunk and proceeds to down three bourbons, tell an arguably racist joke, shove a waiter, and end up vomit-crying in the bathroom while his appalled friends pat him on the back and tell him it’ll be okay. We got away with the geopolitical equivalent of this behavior for more than a century, and it worked out for us, mostly, though less so for everyone else. Today, however, America is the guy who arrives at an AA meeting twenty minutes late, high on meth, waving around a loaded antique Luger, all while his stripper girlfriend sits outside in a 1986 Dodge Caravan, hashtagging her latest Instagram post #blessed.
It’s not too late to change this. We can ensure, at the very least, the rebanishing of Donald J. Trump to ribbon-cuttings for luxury high-rises that won’t get built and signings for books he didn’t write. But after that we’ll have to do the hard thing, which is accept that Trump is not an aberration of the American character but its pornographically erumpent apotheosis. As I write these words, 40 percent of my fellow Americans maintain their support for the president and his policies — his turning and turning effect on the widening American gyre. As most sensitive, sensible people are currently asking themselves: How in the sweet name of Christ is this possible?
I hail from the American heartland. Most of my extended family voted for Trump, as did probably 80 percent of the people I was close to growing up. Current pollster orthodoxy holds that Trump was propelled into this calamitous presidency by the benighted souls of Forgotten America, which is to say the America I grew up in. It’s not like this is wrong: Delta County, Michigan, in which I’m still registered to vote, went for Trump 69 to 24 percent. I’m told by those who’ve studied the issue that Forgotten Americans experienced the Obama era as a long, painful gauntlet of demographic anxiety and alienation from their own culture. I hear laments on liberal podcasts about how the Democratic Party, or the Left generally, ignored Forgotten Americans at its own electoral peril — and is now reaping a whirlwind of neglect. But then I hear other, less patient commentators proclaim that most Forgotten Americans are rancid bigots anyway, so to hell with them.
Needless to say, the complicated sociological phenomenon of Trumpism is not likely to be explained, much less solved, by a single equation. But the night Trump won, I sat there, in a North Dakota hotel room, blinking at my computer screen with one memory in my head, the elucidatory power of which has only grown over the last year. It was 1997 and I was twenty-three years old. I had just climbed into a taxicab in the former Soviet Union — Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to be precise — and found myself staring at a lovingly framed picture of Josef Stalin on the dashboard. The driver, an ethnic Russian, was quite old, so I knew he’d likely grown up in the shadow of the Great Terror, wherein tens of millions of innocent Soviets were rounded up and sent to the gulag (if they were lucky) or unceremoniously executed (if they were not). This shameful chapter of history, as well as Stalin’s complicity with it, was widely known within the Soviet Union by the 1960s and openly discussed by the 1990s.
I was just learning Russian, and because I liked to practice my language skills with new people, but also because I wondered how any human being could publicly idolize Stalin, I asked the old man about the portrait. He said a bunch of things I didn’t understand, but one thing I understood perfectly: “Yes, he did bad things. But he made us feel strong.”
The former-Soviet world of the 1990s was filled with millions of confused, angry people, most of them stripped of the certainties of an ideology and identity they’d spent their lives inhabiting. There would be no Vladimir Putin today without those confused, angry people reaching back in search of vanished strength. White America generally, but rural white America specifically, believes it is facing an equally existential threat. It’s not, obviously, but everything from freely available opioids to the bloviation of Sean Hannity to the insectoid hivewar of Facebook exacerbates the grave cultural danger they believe they’re in. Our fellow Americans thus reached back into the fog and found their hands around the unlikely savior of Donald J. Trump. Yes, he does bad things. They know that. But he makes them feel strong.
Frightened, angry people are not known for making sensible choices. With the election of Donald Trump, millions of Americans made what is arguably the least sensible choice in our nation’s electoral history. We could choose to yell at them for that, shame them, or even fight them, and maybe that’s what they deserve. But what we deserve as Americans — what we all deserve — is not a future of kakistocracy, Great Leader personality cults, and blood-and-soil nativism, but rather the continuation of the idea we were all once taught to believe in: a tolerant, generous, diverse nation founded upon ideals it has not always lived up to.
Right now, those ideals have never been more imperiled — or more relevant. Many Trump supporters know they’ve done something indefensible in electing him, but our pain and confusion make it all worth it. But the rest of them, the non-nihilists (or “non-deplorables,” if you will), they’re looking for something to believe in, just like the rest of us. They want a future for their children, just like the rest of us. If we who oppose Trump are not, in every way, better than Trump — more forgiving, more friendly, more generous, more welcoming, more humble, more circumspect about what we cannot hope to know — he will win. If his supporters can look at our side and see nothing but anger and resentment, he will win. I don’t mean he wins the next election cycle, though he well might. I mean he’ll finally succeed in creating a vacuum of hope and goodwill, which is all it takes for authoritarian longing to flourish. And then his final perversion of America will be complete.
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Tom Bissell is the author of nine books, including Apostle, Magic Hours, and (with Greg Sestero) The Disaster Artist.