A few days before the election a man stopped in at my parents’ house. They live in southwestern Ohio, a place that could represent the leading edge of the divide between our political-cultural tribes. Vandalism, fear of violence and accusations that anyone who voted Democratic, didn’t make it to church on Sunday, or drove a Japanese car wasn’t a real American have been a part of election-time since we moved to the neighborhood, just in time for Bush–Gore in 2000. My parents are mostly inured to it by now, but this man seemed to trouble my iron-eyed mother.
‘I respect how brave you are,’ he told her, indicating the Hillary sign in the yard, ‘And I wanted to let you know that if things get ugly, I’ll be there to help.’ He was trying to be neighborly, but it’s a strange kind of neighborliness when someone drops by to offer a gun in case of a purge.
For the past few months I’ve been living in a farmhouse on a rural route lined with trump signs and pumpkin patches – a depressed, almost entirely white, corridor of the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York. At one end of my road there’s a little village that attracts artists and social workers who first gave up hope of being able to buy a home in Boston or New York, then had to give up hope of being able to buy close to Boston or New York, and now compete amongst each other for the few, local part-time teaching gigs and social welfare positions in the county. At the other end is a town that’s not too different from the grim farm-and-factory towns from western New York through Pennsylvania and the upper Midwest that ended up turning the election – where life revolves around high-school football, hunting and a desultory competition for a few jobs in the service sector. They face each other like garrison towns, each with its own paraphernalia on the main drag announcing a tribal affiliation.
I’ve been shooting my little .22 varmint gun a lot recently, just as a stress release, and in the past few days someone over the hill has taken to answering my little bangs with the booms of a high-caliber rifle, an unnerving but distinct form of long-distance communication. The other day I came out at dusk to get firewood, and startled a couple young men in a pickup who must have thought I wasn’t home. One jumped in and they spun out on the gravel and took off. It’s possible that they were only trying to steal something. ‘You never know,’ the guy at the liquor store told me when I mentioned it. He’s been giving me tips to help with my sad marksmanship, and we talk politics, awkwardly. ‘I’m, like, 70 per cent pro-Trump,’ he said, ‘but the 100 per cent types, young guys without perspective, they might have just thought a house that looked like yours was a fair target.’
I watched the election with my sister, who teared up when she brought her two-year-old into the booth to vote for the person we all thought would be the first woman president. ‘We were not having a reality-based conversation,’ said John King, the ageless beefcake CNN turns to for electoral data, as the results came in. Looking at the months of polling against the reality of the election paints a bizarre, Borges-dystopian picture – the informational apparatus of the country built a totally false narrative on the back of false polls, which were in turn based on false assumptions about who would vote and in what numbers. Campaigns, foreign governments and regular people made decisions and planned in response to the stories told by people who were, it turns out, no better informed than the old guys drinking coffee at the gas station down the road from me. They were sure all along that Trump was going to win it, on the grounds that regular folks seemed to like him a lot, and regular folks were by definition a lot of people. Now, of course, everyone has a reason: it was a revolt against the elites, it was the rural vote, it was the DNC, it was the Russians, it was Hillary’s coolness, her voice, her failure to be Bernie Sanders.
‘All I know at the moment is that we’re a very polarized place,’ Charles Franklin, a pollster who has long been the genial head referee of Wisconsin politics, told me when I called him to ask what happened. Wisconsin, which was seen as perhaps the safest stone in Clinton’s blue wall of northern industrial states, ended up being the tipping point for Trump’s win. Franklin had Clinton up by six points. ‘It’s been like this since at least 2010,’ which was the year Wisconsin elected a hard line anti-union governor, and the year that the compromise-is-treason wing of the Republican Party came to power in Congress. Republicans during those years took deliberately divisive stands, stripping public employees of collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and Ohio, for example, and shutting down the Federal government, which forced everyone to choose a side, and hardened the political lines into roughly what they are today: minorities voting with white – and mostly urban – cultural inheritors of baby boom progressivism, lined up against a now-consistent majority of small-city, suburban and rural white people who embraced hard line reaction as an identity. ‘Tribalism is one word that comes to mind, but it’s not a rural-urban split exactly – it’s neighbors too. The separation is as much psychological as it is physical.’
I only know three people from Wisconsin. One is a highly-educated, half-Asian woman from Appleton who came to New York after college. She is devastated and almost speechless with shock right now, because the Wisconsin that went Trump is not the one she was raised to see. ‘I keep asking my dad how he can even walk around and look at those people,’ she said to me. The other two are Sean and Sandy Anderson, bumbling white gun lovers with high-Midwestern accents who have achieved a mild fame in this country for being two of the last holdouts when the FBI closed in on the standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in February. ‘There’s not going to be any choice but a shooting war if Hillary gets in,’ Sean said to me. ‘Because she’s an evil person with no morality and will destroy the Second Amendment, which is the source of all our liberty. She’s a tyrant and liberty demands rebellion against tyrants.’ That Sean’s a known extremist is a distraction from the fact that his worldview is shared by many of my or my parents’ neighbors. It’s not that far from what Trump has said himself. It’s hard now to watch as the media and the Democratic party belatedly realize that the other half of the country cannot really be considered a lunatic fringe.
Sean – and Trump’s – echo-chamber extremism is part of another trend the media failed to pick up on, which is that white people in America are becoming Southernized. By which I mean they’re acting and voting as though they were a threatened people. It’s now common to see Confederate flags for sale at fairs in New Hampshire, which is by definition a Yankee state. It’s possible even to notice a Southernization of rural accents in the north and the west, if you look for it. Country music, once described by Bill C. Malone, the great historian of the form, as ‘the music of Southern Whites,’ is now by far the most listened-to genre among white people of all ages and all income brackets, in all parts of the country. It now functions not as a ballad form but as a racially-coded set of signifiers (truck modifications and faded ball caps for the men; ‘baby blue’ eyes and tan lines for the women), with song after song about ‘how we do it’. Minorities don’t exist at all in country radio. That would be too complicated: the open insinuation of the genre is that there are people who get how ‘we’ do it, and that there are people who do not, who don’t constitute part of this ‘we’. I am a listener myself – and as a gun-owning white male with a jacked-up 4×4 truck who listens to pop country and sleeps under a 12-foot flag nailed to the wall, I’ve felt this tribal pull. And I’m scared of the power it can have.
This election made clear that white people in this country have begun to vote how Southern whites always have: as a bloc, for reasons of identity that they regard as inseparable from politics. Trump won all white people, of all classes and both genders, except for college-educated white women, whom he lost narrowly. I tend to think that many Trump voters are more driven by a sense of betrayal at how they’re seen by other whites than they are by pure racial animus: It’s astonishing how often in rural bars, on talk radio, or even via country music I’m accused of judging. ‘You probably think we’re all dumb rednecks,’ the guy at the bar says. ‘They think they know best,’ Rush Limbaugh screams. Even the men in country songs feel judged, especially so by ‘city’ women who wear black dresses and drive foreign cars. There’s a whole subgenre of the form that involves the unlikely scenario of a simple guy – an avatar for all simple guys – in baggy pants and a baseball cap, picking up a rich urban woman in his truck and having sex with her. ‘Let me show you how country feels,’ goes the nakedly rapey refrain of one of the most popular versions. Now Trump is the avatar in the pickup truck, and he’s going to fuck all of us.
It doesn’t really matter how many Trump voters are genuine racists: When you have a party that exists to look out for the interests of an economically dominant racial majority, that party is racist by definition, just as the Democratic party was in the South before the Civil Rights Movement. Parties like this forgive anything in their chieftains, they generate their own intellectual realities – because to a constituency that sees a party as a way of preserving their way of life against outsiders, power politics are far more important than policies. Losing power is to lose your way of life. This is the logic that the National Party in South Africa and the Ulster Unionist Party in Northern Ireland once used to perpetuate themselves. Trump has just reversed the logic: taking power is bringing that way of life back.
This has been building up for years. I was a teenager during both Bush elections, in the political madhouse that is a conservative section of Ohio, in the most important swing county of the most important swing state. We were accepted as neighbors, but we carried the faint odor of race-traitors. I’ve spent years trying and mostly failing to describe this feeling. Now I suppose lots of people understand it. My parents feel it sometimes, but have chosen to ignore it – they live where they live, and with their chickens in the backyard and their bluegrass jams they go like everyone else to the racist barber on the main drag. ‘Hop on up,’ he told me the last time I went to him. ‘We’re gonna have more fun than two black guys in a watermelon patch.’ This was hard to take, but my very sensitive, very left-wing, dad keeps going to him – I think on the simple premise of American political decency, the idea that just because the barber has views my dad thinks are awful doesn’t immediately make him an awful person. People in America have mostly stopped thinking this way. In both directions. I’ve always believed this feeling is built somewhere into the American political character, just as deeply as our racism is. Barack Obama is a shining, tragic example of it, which is part of why it’ll be so hard to see him forced to model that decency while he hands off power to a used car salesman. It was this sort of decency after Appomattox, long before we sold out Reconstruction and gave the South over to the Klan, which helped bring the Confederates back into the nation. Now their political heirs have won power, all of it. We must make them find decency.
Photograph © Jason Matthews