During this pandemic The Fabulous Wife has developed a habit of doomscrolling and sharing with me all the horrifying things she has learned. We were taking our morning walk — masked and keeping our distance from others, of course — when she asked, “Do you know what your president said today?”
“Stop there,” I replied irritably. I didn’t want to know. Nor did I appreciate the inference that he isn’t her president, but he is mine. Like it or not, he’s every American’s president.
Okay — I see how in a way that’s not true. He doesn’t see himself as every American’s president. He sees himself as president of the people who voted for him and are likely to vote for him again. At best he’s indifferent to those of us who aren’t his voters — and he’s seldom at his best.
This is unprecedented in my lifetime. Even highly partisan Republicans like Bush the Younger strove to represent all Americans and did not treat those who questioned them as enemies of the state. (Well, maybe Nixon did.) Obama, a reluctant partisan, risked his re-election prospects pushing through the Affordable Care Act, which benefited millions of less-educated white people — the heart of Trump’s base. But Trump castigates a majority of the population and his base loves it.
We’ve seen lots of theories about what motivates Trump voters. They’re racist. They’re sexist. They’re xenophobic. They’re poor or fearful of becoming poor. They no longer trust American institutions: government, finance, media. They feel they’ve lost control. They love owning the libs. They’re angry. They’re resentful. They’re stupid. They’re under-educated. They’re deplorable.
I sense that each of these describes a piece of the elephant, but not the whole.
I recently read Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 novel Exit West. It’s about a young man and woman brought together amid the violent collapse of their society — think Syria —who after surviving lethal danger magically escape to safety. (Never have I read a more moving paean to fluffy bathroom towels.) Not to spoil the story, but without the terror of civil war to bind them, the couple drifts apart. Sad? Yes. But space is not the only dimension we travel through. “We are all migrants through time,” Hamid observes.
And here — through characters named Saeed and Nadia, no less — I think Hamid has caught the essence of the MAGA mindset.
It’s one thing when you can’t name a single song by Drake or Katy Perry. It’s quite another when, over the course of your life, the government moves from promoting Main Street to Wall Street; the economy moves from an industrial base to a service base; and the dominant media move from broadcast to digital. Trumpists, uninvited or unable to make those tectonic cultural shifts, have been on Saeed and Nadia’s migration in reverse — without leaving their homes.
Trumpists feel estranged from modern society; beneath each MAGA cap there’s an aggrieved soul wailing “I want to turn back time!” (Even the young Trumpists I’ve encountered have a throwback quality, a subliminal nostalgia for a rightness that existed before their birth.) And they’re convinced that Trump is looking out for them, an impression he relentlessly reinforces, as I’ve seen this inauguration-eve message (“On the campaign I called it the forgotten man and the forgotten woman. Well, you’re not forgotten anymore”) repeated in his 2020 YouTube campaign ads.
Remember that old metaphor about life being a journey? Some people travel through time better than others. That doesn’t mean cranky time travelers are bad people. It just means they’re maladapted to the present — to the point where they’ll enthrall themselves to a nakedly authoritarian emperor and fail to grasp how much they have in common with the migrants through space they despise.