As stories go, the 2016 presidential election was so full of ridiculous characters, outlandish scenes and sick jokes that it wouldn't pass as believable to a college fiction workshop. The national media for the most part played the role of the straight man, and after the final plot twist on November 8, spent much of the denouement wandering in a daze of post-mortem reporting, wondering how they could have missed the signs that Donald Trump — professional blowhard, proud liar, pathetic king of a tin empire — could have been carried into the White House by a wave of populist revolt. What do they want, and why?
But as any novelist worth his or her salt knows, you have to write the story that wants to be told, not the story you think you’re supposed to write.
Jared Yates Sexton, a creative writing professor at Georgia Southern University and the author of three books of fiction, is not your typical campaign trail correspondent. In a column for the literary journal Atticus Review, he reported what he saw on the ground in places like Murphysboro, Illinois, on his way to Iowa, and Charleston in the wake of Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine black Bible study participants at Emanuel AME Church, writing from the perspective of a politically liberal college professor living in the South, and raised and educated in conservative Heartland towns far outside of Amtrak’s Acela corridor.
What he witnessed was barely checked anger simmering in the communities he visited across the Midwest and South, from the “literally hungry, literally tired, and very pissed off” Bernie Sanders supporters in Marshalltown, Iowa, to conservative college students itching to “crack [the] fucking skulls” of a group of liberal protesters outside the December 2015 rally in South Carolina where Trump announced his intention to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. until the government could “figure out what the hell is going on.”
Sexton broke onto the national stage when a series of his tweets from a Trump rally in Greensboro, North Carolina, on June 14, 2016, went viral. Because he was sitting in the stands, not in the media bullpen, he could hear what Trump’s supporters were really saying in the company of their peers: racial slurs, gay slurs, vulgarities about Hillary Clinton, all delivered with gusto and acceptance.
He stayed on the trail of anger through the Republican and Democratic conventions and the subsequent face-off between Clinton and Trump, through death threats and vicious online trolling, and even through one memorable road trip with a young Republican, an experiment to see if there was a way for a divided America to begin to understand the opposing side.
His book-length account of the 2016 election, “The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage,” will be published by Counterpoint Press on Tuesday. For those who followed the election intensely, it’s a bit jarring to relive it so soon. In different hands, the reenactment could be unbearable, but with a novelist’s flair for the dramatic scene and evocative detail, Sexton expertly marries the quotidian tedium of the campaign trail (so many hotel room beers) and the outlandish circumstances of this particular election season with his astute observations about our polarized national condition.
I spoke with Sexton (who has contributed an essay on the politics of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” to Salon) by phone last week about anger, America and our divided reality. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
So how does a nice creative writing professor end up covering the presidential election like this?
Well, if I can put “a nice creative writing professor” on a business card, I’d be happy right now. Basically when this whole thing started, I was working on a novel. I was calling it at the time “We Make the Future” and it was about an Alex Jones-type conspiracy podcaster mogul and his producer who get caught up in a national conspiracy. It didn’t really work completely and I was getting very frustrated with it. I think I almost concocted this whole cover of the campaign thing as a way to not have to write it.
Then the Ferguson riots happened over [the 2014] summer. I’ve been following politics for a long time, but that was the first time that I really had an urge to go to the story. I was just feeling really antsy and anxious, like, “This is history happening and I want to be there for it.” Then the Charleston tragedy happened. I got in a car and I drove up there. I went to where Dylann Roof was from, a bunch of the places where he had been hanging out, and Mother Emanuel, where they were having all these memorials and celebrations. Black churches were set on fire in the South that summer. It was after the Confederate flag controversy. I drove around the South over a period of three or four days. I went to the churches, reporting on what it was like to be there and trying to contextualize the story.
Then I decided that I was going to start going to presidential campaign events. I’d gone out to Iowa and I saw [Martin] O’Malley. I saw [Chris] Christie. I saw [Bernie] Sanders in this very, very small UAW Hall. Then I saw Hillary Clinton and at that point I was like, “Well, I’m just going to throw myself into this. I’m going to take all of my free time. I’m going to take all of my extra money and I’m just going to go out and do this the best that I can.” That’s sort of how this thing got started.
Take us back to these two scenes in the book: December of 2015 and then the following June. You’re at Donald Trump campaign rallies. Did you notice a change between those two rallies, in the crowd or in Trump himself?
Yeah. Absolutely. In the December rally, which was in South Carolina, I think it was December 7, that was the night he announced his proposed Muslim ban aboard the USS Yorktown. When I went there, the crowd was angry in responding to what he was saying. But it kind of felt like a group of people who ended up in the same room and they were sort of shocked that they had other people like themselves there. I think that you had a lot of Trump supporters who — whether it was because of political correctness or progressivism — they had felt sort of punished. When they got in this room and they started realizing that Trump was saying these things and other people were supporting it [so] they started letting their anger out, they started letting their rage out.
Inside the aircraft carrier they were hanging on every word. It was obvious they were angry at any protestors who were there. Then afterwards they actually were threatening other protestors. They were talking about getting their guns and shooting them. I actually had one guy tell me that this old — I think it was an anti-aircraft gun or something along those lines — he pointed at it and basically insinuated that he wanted to use it to kill these protestors.
Then by the time I went to the rally in June, it wasn’t a surprise anymore. I think it had the beginnings of what you would call a movement and you had these people in the same space who knew that they were now safe to say [out loud] the things that they might have said [to themselves] in the past, the things that they thought the culture sort of frowned on. At that point it wasn’t just them feeding off of Trump. They were feeding off of each other.
I think that’s sort of where that movement took off. It wasn’t just him winning primaries. It was that Trump wasn’t even the focus of it anymore. It was his supporters starting to feel free in how they felt and who they were.
Trump became a sort of screen for them to project upon, how they wished they could be in public?
I’ve had a lot of people ask me, “Well, how can they listen to this buffoon?” and "How can they take him seriously?" The honest truth of it is Trump doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what he does, or what he says, or what laws he tries to enact or what he says on Twitter. It’s simply that these people now have an avatar.
It’s like being the fan of a sports team, right? Let’s go back to Ray Rice, the running back who got in trouble for assaulting his [then-fiancée]. He played for the Baltimore Ravens. If you were to get in the mind of a Baltimore Ravens fan, Ray Rice could beat his girlfriend on a camera and [some fans] would say, “Well, that’s not the Ravens,” right? They still support their team.
Trump became a sort of a team that these people could join. The most bizarre thing about it is he’s one of the most outlandish and large personalities, probably in American history. But it has very little to do with him. It has to do with a lot of people who feel like they didn’t have a leader. They didn’t have a rallying point. I think Trump presented that to them. It’s much less about the man and much more about the opportunity.
It's like Trump is his own party. There are some Republicans who are treating Trump as an aberration, but they're still going to vote party line and back the Republican. Trump supporters, though, a critical mass of them were not just excited about him because he was the Republican nominee, right?
Right. The Republican Party is not one party. The Republican Party is a group of people who on one hand believe in free market and international interventionism. They have basically manipulated a group of people who have now become Trump voters because these Trump voters — some people would call them populists, some would call them the working class right-wing — [the GOP has] done such a good job in terms of their own propaganda and in terms of their own marketing of the party that they’ve actually created the schism in the party where you have a group of people who really aren’t Republicans [philosophically], but culturally they are. The Republicans have undercut Democrats in terms of getting populist Midwestern and Southern voters who used to be Democrats, and they’ve done it using cultural wedges. But these people are not Republicans, right? They’re a different party who just happen to be under this label that doesn’t really fit anymore. I think we’re actually watching the Republican Party split like it was always going to, right before our eyes.
And yet the media continues to project of the bulk of Trump's support onto that so-called “white working class,” which many of us have responded to with a bit of an arched eyebrow. No matter what the research says about income levels or geographic locations of Trump voters, publications still want to go dig into a dying factory town in Michigan and figure out what’s wrong with The Donald Trump Voter, because it's puzzling to journalists, the idea that this guy was going to come in and save a bunch of laid-off factory workers when he's actually the guy they would have hated if he was their boss. And yet he became their champion.
I actually think this is the key to beating Trump. I think the Democratic strategy against Trump was completely flawed. At the heart of the Democratic strategy now, it’s about progressivism. And we’re talking about cultural progressivism, we’re not talking specifically about economic progressivism. You have Democrats who are like, “Oh my God, can you believe Trump said this? Can you believe Trump acts like this? He’s so offensive, he’s so awful.” Really, what would have gotten some of those Trump voters [to vote Democrat] is if they would have portrayed him as what he is, which is a billionaire internationalist who has used and abused workers for forever and is basically the person who would have sold off factories for spare parts. I think that that’s what would have reached a lot of people.
My family is Trump's base. They can see a Trump coming a mile away, right? But when you show pictures of him eating KFC and you make fun of him for it, or you talk about how he doesn’t have class, or says these offensive things, what you’re actually doing is you’re amplifying the working class characteristics that sort of complete the illusion for Trump's voters.
Now that he is president, his critics are also saying he has no fundamental integrity, that he lies or he doesn't know what's going on in his government, or some combination of the two. And that he's boorish, unpresidential, he called the White House a dump. And then by and large the response from the Trump support corner is, “Who cares? He makes liberals mad and that’s fun.” Is that where we are in our discourse?
It’s turned into a sport. At the end of a sporting event you either win or you lose. People throw around the term “zero sum” but it’s not about zero sum, it’s about identity. If you are a Patriots fan and you’re pissing off Colts fans, you don’t care if Tom Brady cheated. You’re just happy the Colts fans are miserable. What you’re actually doing is you’re elevating yourself via your fanhood and living through these idols. It doesn’t matter [to a fan] if Trump lies — if he pisses off people, [the fans] win.
I think on the left and the right it is turned into a competition between the two about who puts points on the scoreboard, and I think that’s the environment where Trump thrives. That’s the environment where, of course, Donald Trump can become president.
When it comes to policy that matters, though, people are pushing back. We saw that in the response to repealing and replacing Obamacare: Republicans in Congress went home to their districts and were basically hiding from angry constituents. Can a presidential candidate regain control of the narrative away from spectacle and gather support for where we all could meet in the middle, which is maybe that everyone wants a good job, everyone wants access to equal opportunities, everyone wants to be able to go to the doctor and not have it bankrupt them?
I think that that’s the million-dollar question. What is missing, particularly in Democratic politics, that keeps them from being able to harness this? A lot of people are going to have arguments about identity politics. Other people are going to have arguments about populism in terms of economics. You see it as well as I do: Every single day is a re-litigation of Sanders vs. Clinton.
Those are the two distinct poles in the Democratic Party, which in all honesty is probably two or three separate parties underneath the same umbrella.
You have arguments about progressivism versus neoliberalism and identity politics versus populism. I think the simple answer is that you have to try and help everybody. I finally feel like the two parties have started to carve up the American populace and they’re like, “If we’re going to get to 260 [electoral votes], here are the votes that we need. We need X percentage of this group of people.” When you start going about it with that sort of a targeted mindset, when you’re playing politics as some sort of math equation, I think you start losing the idea that a president is supposed to be the president of the entire country, and they should be helping literally everyone without having to play these sort of favorites in games.
I think it’s the measured strategy that has now sort of been overtaken in politics, which has hampered the Democrats and certainly the Republicans, until Trump came along, because there is no measured strategy with him.
How does somebody convince Americans that he or she is talking to all Americans at once when America doesn’t have that one cohesive national identity?
We’re not living in an environment where you can get everybody. The landslides of Reagan are gone.
But I'll tell you who I think did the absolute best job, and that’s Barack Obama. There were large parts of the country that particularly disliked him and even saw him as the Antichrist. But you also have groups of people in especially the Midwest, and even the South, who actually heard what Obama was saying because he spoke very well to working class people, because of course he grew up in an environment that was reminiscent of theirs. He won Indiana in 2008. I think when you look at that you realize that you can sort of straddle those fault lines, [even though] you’re not going to win everybody.
I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from what he did, as opposed to carving up the electorate and saying, “Well, there’s no chance we’re going to win over here, so let’s just focus our energies there.” I think that strategy, that cynicism, really hurts the Democrats.
And now there's more bitter fighting between the Bernie Sanders progressive wing and the Democratic party establishment over the 2020 contenders they've been floating, like Deval Patrick, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, who are perceived as being not progressive enough.
I was on the Bernie Sanders trail a little bit, particularly at the Democratic National Convention. What I saw was, again, two or three different parties inside the Democratic Party. I think we’re going more towards a user-focused country. I think we’re moving away from a shared society and we’re moving more towards what people are personally interested in and personally passionate about. We’re going to see a lot of issue voters and because we have a lot of issue voters I think that we’re going to have people like the Sanders group that I saw that basically were only going to vote Democrat if [the nominee] was Bernie Sanders. Immediately as soon as Bernie lost the nomination they either went to Jill Stein or they basically declared themselves non-voters. I think we’re going to see this re-litigation for a very long time because quite frankly, Democrats, the only thing that they nearly like as much as going after Donald Trump is fighting each other.
They’re such a large umbrella, but there’s so much fighting over who gets to be under the umbrella now that it’s really hard to see unity, particularly going into 2020. I couldn’t tell you, right now, what the Democratic strategy is.
Let’s go back to anger. It's a dominant emotion right now in America. The anger breeds bitterness, and then the bitterness breeds contempt. There’s so much contempt now; people aren’t OK to just disagree anymore. And there's also a level of contempt for government that results in, for example, many Trump voters not seeming to care if he is a disaster of epic proportions, because in a post-Nixon political world they have no expectations of the president's integrity whatsoever. How do we bridge that, if so many Americans think all politicians are corrupt, that they’re all crooks, so what does it matter if Donald Trump lies?
Because I grew up in the Midwest, I heard a lot of people talk about Pete Rose. When he got banned from baseball, what I heard was, “Well, he just got caught doing what everybody else does.” Which of course is what people said about Nixon. I’ve heard people say about the idea of Trump colluding with Russia, “Well, he just got caught doing what other people do.” It's incredible.
To go back to the idea of the bitterness and the contempt, I grew up in a very, very small town in southern Indiana, and so my family, the ones who are now Trump voters for the most part, they grew up in their own bubble. They didn’t get outside that town very much. They were mostly around homogenous white culture. They were all of the same economic status. They all basically were the same religion, give or take. Now, we also have our own bubbles that we can create. When we look at other people who are outside of our bubble, all we see is our reality and if they have an opinion different from ours, how do we explain their difference of opinion? Do we say, well they have a different bubble? Or do we say well they obviously have bad intentions at heart?
I think there’s a lot of racism that has led to Trump voters voting for Trump, but I also understand what leads them down that path, right? I’m not excusing their behavior, but I know why they’re going down that path. I know how they formulate their worldview, and a lot of it comes back to economics and people not wanting to admit that they’ve either failed or that the system has failed them.
On the left and the right people want to believe of each other that they’re inherently evil, because otherwise, how do they support the people that they do? I don't know how that gets solved. I’ve had a lot of people ask me how I think this plays out or what I think the future looks like. The unfortunate truth of it is I really don’t know once the genie is out the bottle how we go back to a shared society. It feels like every new invention and every new development is leading more and more towards a personalized, customizable reality and I don’t really know how a society that we’re supposed to share works if that’s how every development leads.
We might be moving to the point where we’re not necessarily going to have politics the way we always have. We obviously don’t have reality like we used to have, and we’re moving more towards this existence where we’re defining our own reality.
I think there are some people who really enjoy the fact that Donald Trump reminds them of Nixon. I think we talk about it all the time. We try to make him into Nixon or Reagan, depending on if you support him or not. I think you have a lot of people in this big moment of change who are fighting tooth and nail to keep hold of the past and not progress into some sort of future incarnation, [but also] I think it’s really hard for us to look at the future and understand what politics is going to look like in the next few years.
What form would a non-dystopian vision of that political future take? Right now all I see is a charred landscape. Are we in a weird, in-between tadpole stage that will evolve into something that works?
Have you been seeing the Mark Zuckerberg photos, of him out in Nevada, [other places across] the country? He’s learning how to be, like, a real American, right?
It’s like he’s a bit of an alien.
I think there’s a very real possibility that we’re going to see people begin to retreat from public life. I’m one of those people who believes that when artificial reality gets presented we might as well start saying goodbye to our neighbors. In essence, you have a lot of people who now basically view the world through the lens of their phone, or their TVs or their laptops, and that’s basically like an outside reality that they can tailor.
I think Trump is going to be one of the last big personalities that we’re going to have because quite frankly it’s exhausting, right? I mean day by day by day, I think it’s exhausting for everybody. I think we’re going to move away from personality politics.
Or we might move towards it. Who knows? We might have The Rock as our next president.
For the record, I will not let myself laugh at that idea.
Who the hell knows, right? We’re either, I think, going to move towards the idea of presidents and politicians as bigger personalities, as opposed to actual agents of governance, or we’re going to move to the point where we have technocrats like Mark Zuckerberg who run the space on algorithms.
Can it all be delivered and directed algorithmically, though? I feel like there still has to be some human element to all of this, right?
What we’re talking about right now, whether or not it moves towards personality or it moves towards, I guess, automation, whichever of those it is, they both frighten the hell out of me. I’m not really comfortable with either one, but I can’t imagine us going back to past politics now.
We’re living in a post-Trump world and he’s broken the mold. Why would any politician now admit fault? Why would any politician admit that they lied, or were wrong, or made a mistake? You don’t get punished for it. If you don’t get punished for it, how do you have an objective reality? If you don’t have an objective reality, how do you have a shared society? Down the road I have no idea what that looks like, but it really does feel like it’s not going to look like this.
That’s really bleak. What about some of the reforms that people have suggested post-2016, like abolishing the Electoral College? Why are we still so reliant on a two-party system when we don’t really only have two parties? What about partisan gerrymandering, can we fix that to be more equitable? These are three elements that are human-made, that are American, and there are other models out there. Do you think any of those reforms are possible?
I feel like those are the ways that we make actual progress. Removing Citizens United, too, but again, that’s not really something you can put on a ballot. I think the big things that could actually make a change are governmental reform, congressional reform, the end of gerrymandering. The Electoral College is not just outdated, it’s almost criminal in how it works. These are things I think that could make a big difference. I think what we don’t know yet is how the millennial generation is going to imprint themselves on the process when they fully come of age.
I really don’t think that millennials are going to be comfortable either being a Republican or a Democrat. The more that I talk to younger voters, the more that it starts to feel like they don’t enjoy labels; they much more enjoy defining themselves. So I think we’re going to see the two-party system be challenged and that’s where we might see some changes.
But this current iteration of Congress and government, they are completely allergic to reforming themselves. Now it’s going to be a matter of how the next group [approaches reform]. If they make those changes I think we might see some improvements, but I think the system is pretty ingrained at this point.