In the time between the releases of George Saunders’ 2013 short story collection, Tenth Of December, and the author’s debut novel, Lincoln In The Bardo (due in 2017), readers have had to look elsewhere to get their daily satirical doses of hope in the face of hopelessness, protagonists trapped by inescapable circumstances, and dispatches from corporate-controlled dystopia. The most desperate have simply turned their attentions to the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, a bewildering hurricane of rage and rhetoric that also feels like the type of thing that leads to the various worlds depicted in Saunders’ fiction.
The author turns his gaze on the most bewildering storm in that hurricane—Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency—in a new nonfiction piece for The New Yorker, “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” Featuring no direct contact with the candidate (who’d do a great job playing the unintentionally malevolent, “I know what’s best for you” laboratory supervisor in a Saunders story), “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” embarks on a cross-country travelogue to better understand the “Make America Great Again” crowd. Along the way, Saunders meets Trump supporters and Trump protestors alike, their dialogues about immigration policy and healthcare reform starting out reasonable before breaking down due to lack of common ground or supporting evidence. Dipping into his big bag of CamelCaps and parenthetical asides, the author describes the United States circa 2016 as a nation divided into RightLand and LeftLand, with a diagnosis for how we got here:
In the old days, a liberal and a conservative (a “dove” and a “hawk,” say) got their data from one of three nightly news programs, a local paper, and a handful of national magazines, and were thus starting with the same basic facts (even if those facts were questionable, limited, or erroneous). Now each of us constructs a custom informational universe, wittingly (we choose to go to the sources that uphold our existing beliefs and thus flatter us) or unwittingly (our app algorithms do the driving for us). The data we get this way, pre-imprinted with spin and mythos, are intensely one-dimensional. (As a proud knight of LeftLand, I was interested to find that, in RightLand, Vince Foster has still been murdered, Dick Morris is a reliable source, kids are brainwashed “way to the left” by going to college, and Obama may yet be Muslim. I expect that my interviewees found some of my core beliefs equally jaw-dropping.)
Saunders’ thoughtfulness aside, he brings back some anecdotes ripe for rubbernecking, too: The guy who shouts at protestors “Hey, I’m not paying for your shit, I’m not paying for your college, so you go to Hell, go to work, go to Hell, suck a dick.” within earshot of cookie-hawking Girl Scouts; the fella in Phoenix who trolls Trumpies by joining their ranks then chants “Make. America. White. Again” into a megaphone. An unspoken debate with Norman Mailer creates a throughline, quotes from the New Journalism pioneer popping up here and there to create context for Donald J. Trump’s big political moment. Any conclusions drawn have less to do with the character of the crowds lining up for Trump’s rallies, and more to do with the climate and culture that made the rallies possible. It’s a long read, but stick with it all the way to the devastating kicker, a poignant twist of the knife from a writer who usually prefers endings that aren’t endings. [The New Yorker]