On Nov. 8, the American people will decide if Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the United States. This has been a bizarre election season, which has upset longstanding norms about American politics. Ultimately, as Election Day nears, the film comedy "Idiocracy" seems less like fiction and more like a prescient documentary. If the 2016 presidential campaign season is akin to a ridiculous satire come true, then who are its central players?
Republican Donald Trump is the star, a professional wrestler wannabe and reality TV show celebrity con man, who is an admitted sexual harasser and someone who has been championed by white supremacists and white nationalists. And he admires authoritarian leaders such as Vladimir Putin.
Democrat Hillary Clinton is a former first lady with decades of public service, including stints as a United States senator and secretary of state. She is eminently qualified to be president of the United States. Yet somehow, she is in a virtual tie with her unqualified opponent.
The American people have descended into warring tribes. Trump's racist white, angry older "working-class" voters see a man of great fame and power whose life they can vicariously experience as they give a proverbial (and in many cases) literal finger to "the system." If Trump wants to "drain the swamp" and burn down the house, they are eager to give him a lighter.
By comparison, Clinton's supporters are racially diverse, younger and more educated. They see in Clinton a stable and accomplished leader who will make history as the first woman to win the White House. These are political visions that are fundamentally in opposition to one another.
Is it possible to bridge these divides? How should we understand Trump's appeal to his supporters? Are they really that different from the rest of us? And should there be an exit ramp for Trump’s voters back into mainstream American society after Election Day? If so, what would it look like?
In an effort to make sense of this moment, I recently spoke with Jared Yates Sexton, a professor of creative writing at Georgia Southern University and the author of five books and collections of essays including "I am the Oil of the Engine of the World," "An End to All Things" and "The Hook and the Haymaker."
As a political correspondent, Sexton has spent the last year traveling across the United States to attend Trump rallies, spending several days speaking with his supporters at the Republican National Convention and trying to establish relationships with Republican voters online and in person with the goal of reaching across divides of ideology and party. Sexton has written about these experiences — which will form the basis of an upcoming book "Atticus on the Trail" — in a series of columns and articles for The New York Times and the New Republic such as "Donald Trump's Toxic Masculinity," "Donald Trump's Campaign Has Become a Cult," "American Horror Story" and "There Will be Blood."
Sexton is also in a unique position to understand the social ecosystem that spawned Trump's rise to power and the rabid support he receives from his voters in Rust Belt America. Sexton explained: "As the product of Linton, Indiana, a Midwestern town gutted by NAFTA and the son of a working-class family the American Dream left behind, I can, with some effort, put myself in a Trump voter’s shoes."
My conversation with Sexton has been edited for clarity and length.
You’ve spent months traveling to the Trump events. How do you reconcile your personal experiences with what we are getting from the news media?
At first we were looking at a narrative where Trump was sort of the voice of the oppressed and was coming out as the “outsider” candidate. What I ended up finding in my experience with Trump supporters and watching them in their comfort zone with each other was less that Trump was popular because he was an opposition candidate and more because he allowed these people to vent their frustration in a way that society had been forbidding them from doing out in the public arena. And the fact that he was able to feed that anger and give it back to them amplified how they felt and the offensiveness that they were more than happy to spew at these rallies and events.
I attended the Chicago rally. Like you, I have written extensively about Trump. But you’ve been tracking these rallies and going to them since the very beginning. How has their tenor and tone changed between the beginning and now, only a few days before Election Day?
They have definitely bitten off the Trump narrative and swallowed it whole. In the beginning it was this sort of fight against the political correctness and the forces of the left. When Hillary Clinton won it became a lot more focused on her so-called corruption and punishing her with jail or through other means.
I’m interested to hear what you have to say because I’ve noticed in your columns that there’s definitely an anger that’s present there towards the Trump movement. What do you think is happening with these people?
I think he’s a product of celebrity culture and racism. And these people have always been with us and they will always be with us. I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice when we pretend that this is something new.
Trump is just the culmination of at least 50 years of the Republican Party being the country’s largest white identity organization: their politics, their demographics, their narrative, their appeal, their use of racial invective. And so I don’t know if I’m angry per se; I think I’m just sort of resigned. And I’m disgusted at how the mainstream media enabled it. Where do we go next?
I agree with you. I feel the exact same way. I think that this has been largely the result of a fabricated narrative that the Republican Party has fed their voters for over 50 years now.
But I think there’s a part of me, especially because I have family members who would be and are Trump supporters, I try and have a moment of empathy for them to understand why they are the way they are. And why they feel the way they do. And although I think it’s awful and it needs to be stamped out, I also think that there’s bloom somewhere to meet them on different grounds where it’s not such a combative enterprise.
You actually took a cross-country car ride with a Republican voter who is undecided about Trump. What are these people like when we actually engage with them? Because our society is segregated politically and socially and racially, I don’t know any Trump supporters. So I’m very curious as to what they’re actually like as people.
Obviously, not all of his supporters are working-class people; they’re not “toothless hillbillies” — all of those things. There are a lot of affluent people, who are supporting Trump for either, free enterprise reasons or personal wealth or taxes — and yes because of racism and prejudice, too.
But the people at the heart of Trumpism are these working-class people who feel like they have been impacted by globalization. I think that these are the people [whom] the media has done an incredible disservice to. And if we’re going to be frank, I think these are the kinds of people that I think a dialogue can be opened with because in essence we can talk more with them about economics than we could social issues or racism.
But I will say that, from my experiences being around Trump supporters, whether or not it was the person I took a road trip with or my own personal family, they all state that it does come from a place where they are tired of “politics as usual.”
Is Trump just a hero to his followers? Do they actually believe that they, too, could be Trump one day? Or is he just an avatar for their hate and their rage, and he’s going to wreck the system and that’s what they want to do by proxy?
I think what they like is this willingness to say offensive things and not apologize for them.
There is a recent piece in the Harvard Business Review which outlines how to provide an “exit ramp” for Trump supporters after the election so that we can have some reconciliation as a country. Do we “let them back in” to mainstream society, so to speak?
I do not think that Republicans are going to suddenly develop a conscience because we reach out to them, and we try and find some sort of common ground. I think it’s politically expedient and advantageous for them to use this anger and to stoke it. Even though it has now burnt them and basically burnt down their entire house.
I am much more of the mind again that this should be more of a person to person, sort of reaching out. This goes back to something you said about how you don’t know any Trump supporters. I also barely know any Trump supporters so I know that I’ve been guilty of it, too.
When we unfriend them on Facebook or we unfollow them on Twitter or engage in a flame war with them and we have an argument and it fizzles out, we never talk to one another anymore. I think that we have made a mistake of making politics a sport and a national sport.
I have colleagues who have told me that, “Man, I had no idea that this person I work with and who I’m friends with on Facebook is a Donald Trump supporter and then they start sending me all these links which are mostly lies. What should I do?” What advice would you give them?
There is no way to counteract echo chambers. Or selective inoculation of how people get their information if there is not a dissenting voice. When it comes to co-workers, friends, family, I think that you totally should tell them that you do not agree with what they’re saying.
Give them a reason to respond but to not take it personal even though it may very well be personal — because the problem is that the moment that we shut these people out, the moment that we exile them from our lives, the only thing that we do is we add strength to their echo chamber. If we can allow ourselves to be a voice, a dissenting voice that they at least trust, it will at least implant a seed of doubt.
Here’s a provocative question. Is it unreasonable to expect people of color, Muslims, women and the other groups Trump has slurred and insulted to show charity and forgiveness towards Trump’s supporters? I feel like this is something that white folks — men in particular — need to figure out.
I would say, yes, it is unreasonable. And I think that’s why a large part of this responsibility falls on the white friends and relatives of these people. Quite frankly, I’m not going to sit here and tell these communities to turn the other cheek on acts of racism or they have to engage in communication with these people because, quite frankly, they shouldn’t have to. And it’s not their responsibility to educate these people.
This is one of those places where it falls on the white community. I think it falls on the friends and families and neighbors of people, particularly white, racist, sexist, xenophobics. I think it falls on them to do this work, to do this charity.
As we look forward to Election Day who do you think is going to win? Do you think the concerns about violence are exaggerated?
I’m not so sure that we’re going to see a lot of those incidents on Election Day. I assume there will be incidents though. I assume that you [have spent], you know, some time on right-wing Twitter or right-wing Facebook the same as I have — they are gearing up for it. What I’m really concerned about is the violence after the election. But I do think Clinton will win this. What about you?
I think she wins. I think the violence on Election Day is probably exaggerated. But I do think the wheels are in motion. You have a lot of very dangerous people who the mainstream media does not have access to, just waiting for the right moment. And I think you are going to see Timothy McVeigh types in the near future. Something very, very bad is going to happen.
We were very much in danger of being asleep at the wheel because we are afraid to admit what the actual problem here is. These are not people we’re going to be able to reach nor should we try.