I went to college in a pristine picket-fence suburb, just west of Chicago. The campus itself embodied many of the qualities upper middle-class Americans expect from the four or five years they, or their children, will spend assimilating to life away from home. Naturally that included a climbing wall, and the surrounding environs offered a picturesque vision of life on the grid. Sure, you needed a car to get almost anywhere, and five miles on a main thoroughfare could take 45 minutes. But well designed homes, neatly maintained yards and close proximity to parks and forest preserves gave the impression that the tradeoff was worth it—at least for some.
Having grown up in a small town in rural Wisconsin, campus life was lively enough, but the suburbs made me feel like I was trapped in a massive cage. The one saving grace was a Metra line that bordered the college, readily ushering us into the urban heartbeat of the Midwest. I grew up visiting Chicago frequently enough to feel at home in the usual visiting quarters—museums, stadiums, the lakefront and a corner office overlooking Daley Plaza where my aunt worked. But the trips in were usually a direct path from the woods, rivers and cornfields that animated my youth, to the radiant reflection of high-rise glass and deeply shaded streets, so I gave little thought to the sprawl we’d traversed.
After four years of suburban life, I became intimately familiar with that space between the country and the city. In the early 21st century these were the battlegrounds where Democrats and Republicans fought for the coveted vote of college-educated moms; and where national magazines sent reporters to piece together the same biannual article on what to make of red and blue America.
Stuck in the middle, my college—founded by Evangelical abolitionists—took advantage of its proximity to Chicago for both educational experiences and service opportunities. There were groups who volunteered at homeless shelters, soup kitchens, prisons and halfway houses. Urban theory courses would essentially travel the same path from the classroom, always with a spoken or unspoken desire to make things better.
But even if you were immersed in burgeoning urban nonprofits, or happened to write what could be construed as a brilliant term paper on rooftop farming or post-modern models of urban development, you’d be a fool not to notice your own ignorance and futility. Those of us who ventured into the city’s more troubled sectors always had a way out. Those who lived there, we knew, almost certainly did not. I’ll never forget the defeated look on the face of a friend returning from field research on the South Side, when he said, “It’s like we’re just going on a trip to see the animals at the zoo.” At first I cringed, but as he immediately explained, this was not a personal affirmation of dehumanizing language or stereotypes. Rather, it was an attempt to come to terms with the fact that, for whatever victories America could claim over some forms of racism, our culture was still willing and able to treat large populations of fellow citizens as less than human. For those of us who’d been educated on hasty declarations that the civil rights movement atoned for America’s cardinal sin, our experiences in the city revealed how much work still needed to be done.
In recent months those words have echoed in my mind. But where the memory was once isolated to the plight of the urban poor, my frame of reference has now caught up with years of rural dilapidation and agricultural wreckage in towns like the one I grew up in. Today, driving through rural Wisconsin can evoke the same feelings a once liberal-arts undergraduate had going in to the city. And if the red state/blue state thought piece was once a novel experiment, the 2016 exposé of “the Trump supporter” became the conceptual vessel into which many with advanced degrees deposited their collective angst. Just as the old stereotype of the“inner city” depicted those neighborhoods as zoos, Politico, Slate, and the New York Times’s reportage from “Trump’s America” read like anthropological dispatches from the jungle.
Who are these pale creatures? What language do they speak (if any)? How do they gather food, form communities and raise children? And can it really be that Walmart plays a large role in the answer to each of these questions?
To a staggering degree the painful answer—as my hometown bears witness to—is yes. But, more than anything, what the “Trump’s America” reporting revealed was how systematically the people I grew up with have been dismissed as a knuckle-dragging horde. Like the plight of the urban poor, this American underclass—out in the American jungle—is of little concern to my new neighbors in Madison, the state’s capital; a place where the elite bemoan the evils of racial and economic inequality as they safely retreat to the comfort of their conceptually walled-off neighborhoods.
On election night those walls suddenly didn’t feel so secure, as it became clear that the mysterious creatures were strong enough to elect their supposed champion. All the reliable metrics that were designed to ensure unchecked human progress were undone in the blink of an eye, and the handwringing began. Only hours later those who ridiculed jungle-folk for wanting their country back took to the streets to pronounce, “Not My President.” In the months that followed, the pundits who ridiculed Trump’s accusation of a rigged election would fill news cycles with the exact same complaint.
How ironic that we so quickly become what we despise. And yet—as has been widely opined since the election—we’re now so insular that it’s hard to even see what that is.
Growing up, I spent hours studying America’s founders and founding documents, woke up early to watch Brian Lamb’s morning interview on C-SPAN, and tracked the careers of congressional representatives like they were baseball players. I guess I was a political news junkie before the category even existed. While my parents never sugarcoated our country’s riddled past, they did cultivate a deep affection for it, encouraging us to read Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, W. E. B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr. as conversation partners in a grand experiment. When we traveled to Washington, D.C. as a family I was proud to be a part of a messed-up people that had managed, despite its faults, to achieve some measure of beauty and justice. Presidential inaugurations could bring me to tears, even when my preferred candidate lost.
My affection for and desire to understand our peculiar national project hasn’t waned, but the shrill partisan echo chamber that’s emerged in the last two decades has often made me feel isolated or estranged—feelings now so commonly voiced across the political spectrum that it’s hard to restate them and not feel like a cliché. If there is something tragic for me in this inauguration, in comparison to those I witnessed growing up, it has less to do with Trump’s vulgarity, personality or potential policies than with the lost sense of shared interest that his election represents—and with the way that celebrity (in whatever form, employed for whatever purpose) seems to be the only currency that merits our collective attention.
If the currency of Trump’s presidency ushers in a national apocalypse as some are suggesting, it will only be symptomatic of the larger dynamics that brought him to power: our own acceptance of vulgarity, the breakdown of trust in American institutions, the ravaging of its urban and rural spaces, and the voices on the left and right that continue to foreclose on freedom of speech and assembly, or seek to abolish the (supposedly antiquated) Electoral College, if it will ensure the silence of their political opponents.
Undoubtedly, this is a trying time in our nation’s history. But fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the tumult of his own day by asking Americans to “choose between chaos or community.” Chaos is fairly easy to come by: it requires nothing more than pursuing our narrow self-interest, regardless of the costs. Community is harder: it requires a capacious enough idea of self-interest to include caring for others, as well as a kind of humility that is foreign to both President Trump, and to many of those who despise him and his voters. Today, the choice is still ours.