It became a commonplace last summer for political commentators to exclaim that they did not know some portion of the American electorate, hence that they did not know some portion of their own country, America. Some lamented (or pretended to lament) this irrefutable development, as if it were simply a hazard of being educated or knowledgeable in a country so big and benighted. Others ventured out into what they called “Trump country” and “RightLand” and “the heart of the Tea Party.” They described their time on this alien planet as a “through-the-looking-glass experience” (Roger Cohen, the New York Times), or bemoaned their discovery that “we are now two separate ideological countries” (George Saunders, the New Yorker). In the introduction to the lengthiest production of the season, Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, the Berkeley-based sociologist conjured an “empathy wall” that stood between her and the Southern voters she met and interviewed. Thankfully, Hochschild had moved around a lot as the daughter of a Foreign Service officer: such experience, she related, had come in handy when she attempted to make inroads into the “foreign country” of rural Louisiana.
What these writers found on the other side of their empathy walls depended on the brand of binoculars they brought from home. Some concluded that the inhabitants of RightLand were reactionaries fearful of change; others that they were casualties of the global economy confused about their true interests; and others still that they were renegades in revolt against liberal condescension.
The accuracy of the conclusions didn’t much matter—after all, Hillary was ahead in the polls. What mattered, insofar as a given entry wished to take its place among the genre’s exemplars, was that the author refrain from ever questioning the premise that America had now to be considered as (at least) two distinct populations: populations that spoke different languages, listened to different radio stations and harbored irreconcilable assumptions about what made their country great. With this granted, or assumed, the suspense consisted in seeing how this particular journalist, academic or New York Times columnist, deploying her finely trained capacity for empathy and deductive reasoning, would manage to twist some new drop of insight out of what had become, by the end of the summer, a deadeningly dry tale.
Once Trump was elected, the tone of the think pieces changed but their central conceit remained. What had been a subject of benign, if fervid, intellectual curiosity was suddenly, as the editor of the East Coast’s preeminent lifestyle magazine put it just after 1 a.m. on November 9th, cause for “revulsion and profound anxiety.” The world, it was proclaimed, had been made unsafe by democracy, but we could at least take comfort from the knowledge that the New Yorker who would ascend to the White House was “not our president.” He belonged rather to that other tribe, the one that roamed outside the train window, behind the strip malls, over the smoke stacks, in the midst of the megachurches. Now it is “those of us on the liberal left,” Hochschild said, deftly repurposing her title for the altered post-election zeitgeist, “who are strangers in our own land.”
Internal to the setup of the election-year travelogues was the familiar idea that certain groups of Americans have more in common with Parisians than they do with Pennsylvanians. Simple facts—facts right in front of us and therefore apparently impossible to see—have always challenged this tempting hypothesis, and when the exit polls came in they offered more trouble for it still. Plenty has already been said about the countless Rust Belt voters who, after helping to re-elect Barack Obama in 2012, presumably declared dual citizenship by breaking for Trump four years later. Less has been mentioned about another cross-cultural phenomenon just as obvious: the tremendous fascination that the new president holds for supposedly uncomprehending liberals.
After the election many criticized the news networks for having given so much “free media” to the Republican nominee, but this could not help doubling as a form of self-criticism. When CBS CEO Les Moonves said Trump was “damn good” for business, he was merely stating the obvious: Americans—and not just conservative or “non-college educated” ones—could not get enough of Trump. Overall, ad revenue for the three political news networks climbed 26 percent compared to the last election year in 2012. Raising its viewership by 36 percent from 2015, Fox leapfrogged ESPN to become, for the first time, the most-watched cable network in 2016. CNN (77 percent) and the left-leaning MSNBC (87 percent!) experienced even larger percentage increases. This is not because either devoted themselves to the careful examination of the candidates’ policy papers. A Buzzfeed report in July 2015 found that MSNBC had covered Trump even more disproportionately than the other networks, with its anchors uttering his name over four hundred times in a single week (CNN came in second at 340).
Viewership does not imply endorsement, and doubtless many had complicated reasons for tuning in to the daily soap opera. But the breadth of the fascination over two long years suggests it does not take some special exertion for those of us who live in cities or on the coasts to comprehend Trump’s appeal. Of course we already knew this from our social-media feeds, crammed as they were with running chronicles of Trump’s daily crimes and misdemeanors, video clips from his latest campaign stop, and close readings of his most recent outburst on Twitter. (Did we require such information in order to make up our minds about the candidate?)
A similar story could be told about so much of the culturally charged “evidence” in what has become a de rigueur ritual of election-year taxonomy. In 2004 George W. Bush’s chances were said to hinge on the “Nascar voter,” a hick with a taste for carnage who was pitted against those who knew to draw the line at the rolling concussion protocol known internationally as “American football.” Last year the mindlessness and vulgarity of the Trump voter was daily condemned by those who spend their weekends playing Candy Crush and marveling at “high-concept” rape and pillage vehicles like Game of Thrones and Westworld. The point is not that we should all be equally ashamed: as those shows themselves set out to demonstrate, a taste for violent pleasures is hardly unique to any particular demographic or time period. The advantage of living in the country that invented demolition derby and the Hollywood Western is that you can safely drop the pretense of having evolved beyond them.
Of course the truly definitive differences between our two Americas are supposed to inhere in something deeper than taste. The liberal left might even admit its occasional attraction to cathartic domestic pastimes—who doesn’t love a gambling weekend in Vegas!—so long as they can be safely separated from the retrograde prejudices of those for whom such activities (so we hear) are habitual. Hence the high psychological stakes for those ensconced in the comfortable neighborhoods of Chicago or Los Angeles, cities persisting in a condition of de facto apartheid, in denouncing the irredeemable racism of Southern whites. Likewise the urban parents paying $30,000 per year to keep their children out of unruly public schools, who lecture suburbanites on the necessary tradeoffs between diversity and security. From college campuses duly cleansed of challenges to enlightened liberalism, the children of those parents will one day inveigh against the intolerance of the evangelicals.
A popular interpretation of the 2016 election holds that it disproved our outgoing president’s vision, first articulated in his famous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and reiterated in his farewell address this January, of an America that was, in fact and not just in aspiration, one country. And there is little question that the special ugliness of the contest between Trump and Clinton was due in part to the fact that both candidates—aided by the latest filtering algorithms and poll-based targeting techniques—opposed their preferred version of America to the one they disparaged as inauthentic or deplorable. But a more plausible, if less comfortable, way of interpreting what happened in 2016 is to say that it exposed those features of the American character that Obama had been too hopeful, or too prudent, to identify.
Indeed, the comparisons drawn, in recent months, between America’s new president and right-wing populists in Europe, such as France’s Marine Le Pen and Germany’s Frauke Petry, only sharpen the outlines of Trump’s distinctive brand of Americana. Le Pen and Petry are ideologues with views many consider extreme and dangerous, but they look and act like politicians of a fairly conventional kind. Trump has no ideas whatsoever, ignores every convention of political self-presentation and is a proud member of World Wrestling Entertainment’s Hall of Fame. Having announced his candidacy from the lobby of his gold-plated Manhattan tower—a fitting symbol of the “vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty” to which he had, Gatsby-like, devoted his existence—he embraced a persona that was part Benjamin Franklin, part P. T. Barnum and part Oprah. On stage, he combines elements from our hallowed national traditions: vaudeville, battle rap, the coach’s hokey halftime exhortation. To the supplicants waiting in the cold outside his campaign rallies in Des Moines, IA, Manheim, PA and Roanoke, VA, he seemed to resemble one of those itinerant preachers whom Tocqueville encountered “in all the states of the Union” during the Great Awakening, “peddl[ing] the divine word from place to place.”1
It is hard to imagine Trump’s performance charming Europeans, yet in America it made him mesmerizing—and then it made him president.
We did not need the 2016 election to know we lived in a divided country. Since its inception, America has been on the brink of being torn apart by its differences—and national elections have often served as referendums on the divergent attitudes toward race, religion and government power that once precipitated a civil war. Trump’s presidency poses a unique threat because he treats these divisions as opportunities to be exploited rather than obstacles to be overcome: his promise to return the government to “the people” is explicitly a promise to return it to his people. But that strategy can succeed only if the rest of us choose to be complicit in it. One way we become complicit is by indulging, above and beyond our experience of the things that differentiate us, in a flattering fantasy of them.
Acknowledging the familiarity of Trump’s appeal does not mean ceasing to struggle against his agenda (such as one can be discerned), or being naïve about the sinister potential of his presidency. Nor does it require of any of us that we renounce our commitments to pluralism, social justice or HBO. It might encourage us to trade a hollow moralism, aimed always at that “other” America that has not yet learned the right manners, for a recognition that our new president is a product of forces and feelings with deep roots in both our history and ourselves.
At times in that history there have been populations compelled, by law or by force, to suffer under the authority of a president they could credibly claim was not theirs. But to declare today that we bear no responsibility for the elected leaders of our democracy would be merely laughable were it not, in this case, so potentially self-destructive. This land has always been strange, but we are not strangers to it: Donald Trump could be the president of no people besides ours.