The Monthly : 2018-12-01

FRONT PAGE : 25 : 25

FRONT PAGE

losing the plot and positions in state legislatur­es as well. They are really thousands of elections, with tens of thousands of candidates, if you count the micro-contests for county commission­ers or sheriffs, and take place over hefty stretches of time and distance. While the Senate seats and congressio­nal districts competed over are clearly demarcated, the regions they form together are ill-defined, as though ordained by someone waving vaguely at a map. It all adds up to fuzzy logic. I spent the campaign in the Sun Belt, a place that tells a story about the American present (imperfect) and the American future (conditiona­l). The expanse between Florida and California below the 36th parallel (give or take Virginia) was once poor, whitish and rural, and is en route to being wealthy, diverse and urban. The sources of this change are sometimes obscure and prosaic (one of the key catalysts, boringly enough, was the invention of air-conditioni­ng), but the Sun Belt has the added value of not being the Midwest. Like any reporter who also covered the 2016 election, this trip was partly penance for Getting It Wrong, but I wasn’t going to make another pilgrimage to Pennsylvan­ia or Ohio, some of the most journalist­ically over-explored terrain on earth. The Midwest’s formerly industrial Rust Belt has become in a one-sided profession­al match, without so much as a folding chair to swing. I revolted against the instinct that a “Tree. Rope. Journalist” slogan on a dead-eyed good old boy’s T-shirt was a garbled cry for help. What started as anthropolo­gy ended up as cryptozool­ogy, a fruitless search for the one mythical mountain man who could explain it all. If this kind of pandering – a dance with strangers – is so important, is the negative version allowed? Can I give my eyewitness testimony? I’ve spent many months talking to hundreds of Trump supporters, all over the United States, and by tour’s end thought them more ignorant, prejudiced and malicious than I did at the beginning. (I’m not talking about Republican voters, who often offer caveats and ballot-box habit as mitigation.) But supporters … after a while, I was frankly reluctant to talk to them. “The deep state, OK,” I would say, my notebook opening up like an abyss. Is that admissible, in this festival of anecdotes? Experience in the “real world” doesn’t dislodge the impression that Trumpism is driven by racism. It cements it. Trumpism does what it says on the tin, and part of the unpleasant­ness comes from repetition and recognitio­n. If you’ve been to the Balkans or the Middle Trump By tour’s end I thought Trump supporters more ignorant, prejudiced and malicious than I did at the beginning. the American media’s sociologic­al G-spot. (Another mundane explanatio­n: these places are driving distance from New York City.) “The polls were wrong” has become Donald Trump’s retrospect­ive motto, post 2016. Like most phrases in the word cloud that fugs this presidency, it is an untruth. The polls were more accurate in 2016 than they were in 2012, and predicted the popular vote precisely. What was wrong was the interpreta­tion of those polls. Punditry tended to interpret a 1 per cent chance, or a 20 per cent chance, as a zero per cent chance of winning. Handicappi­ng a victor who had made a taped confession of sexual assault turned out to be hard. Instead, this was taken as final proof that the media are effete libtards who decant their experience through layers of bias and abstractio­n, instead of feeling things in their gut, the way a man does. Among the many sorrows that came out of this Pandora’s box was a lot of second-guessing. Civil society (or what was left of it) decided to seek the wisdom of fools instead of sages, and ship college graduates out to understand Trump supporters in, well, Pennsylvan­ia. This approach expended its usefulness quickly, and from the beginning felt inauthenti­c. This time I avoided Trump rallies. I don’t mind trash talk, or people who hate the media (they’re often right), but I wasn’t going to stand in a cattle pen acting as a prop, or be cast as the heel East, you will be familiar with the style of trapdoored conversati­on that takes place when rumour is the informatio­nal gold standard. You are speaking with a seemingly ordinary, often affable stranger, investing rapport, and suddenly the talk jacknifes and spills irretrieva­bly into a ravine of batshit conspiracy. It happens so seamlessly, sometimes in the course of a single sentence, or a derailing train of thought, that there is no real way to prepare for it. The topic transition­s from sport or all the rain we’ve been having to the protocols of the globalists, without even an alteration in tone. If this happens often enough, it is demeaning, and if it happens nationwide, you start to fret about the future of the country involved. This is not quite the default experience in the rural United States, but it’s close. There was a time (it concluded not long ago) when I would pay assiduous attention during these diatribes, believing they had some kernel of importance. Revising that was painful, and over the course of this campaign I found my profession­al curiosity diminishin­g, a sensation I had never experience­d before. It was not the violations of truth – those were bearable. It was the persistent indication­s that the people speaking with me (or, more often, at me) didn’t really believe what they were saying at all. If they were over the age of 70, poly-medicated and watched Fox News, they were basically mentally unstable, and would 23

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