Somewhere in Miami, away from the water, past the gleaming neon towers and diabetic Cuban coffees; rolling by the airport, the car lots, the garish waving flags, the double-chin liposuction billboards adjacent Wendy’s drive-thru; clicking through booming Reggaeton beats and end-times AM talk radio prophesy, witnessing and absorbing, enveloped and altered by, a real-world menagerie of caricature and stereotype and cliché – there I sat, in a cookie-cutter corporate building, in an office brimming with co-workers from different backgrounds, in a region that will perhaps be most affected by all that is being overshadowed, being permitted, and watched a former illegal-immigrant Latina give a wild-eyed nearly-screaming defense of voting for Donald Trump.
First as tragedy, then as farce. Although in the case of the current US election and its ramifications, perhaps it’s best read the other way around.
A joke gone not bad but rogue. Stepping in from the surreal, the impossible. Into legitimacy.
The normalization of the absurd. That’s what’s most troubling. A hundred years from now historians and social scientists will look back and examine what happened, and what they will find will be more nuanced and revealing than any easy explanations of racism and working class disenchantment.
Something else is going on here. I could see it in her eyes.
There was a buzz in the air as we pulled into the Las Vegas Cuban Cuisine family restaurant parking lot.
Two liberal Canadian dudes about to walk into a “Latinos for Trump” debate party.
I can’t believe we’re actually gonna to do this.
The options for our evening of debate watching were varied and cool-sounding, but somehow perfunctory: a hipster dive-bar debate shindig in the soon-to-be-gentrified Little Haiti neighborhood, likely teeming with tattoos and like-minded progressives; a sexy debate soiree at a chic South Beach waterfront hotel, surely abundant in eye-candy and diminished attention spans; or this, a peek behind the curtain, a chance to see firsthand the real people behind the car-crash enthralling phenomena that has dominated the world’s news for over a year, an opportunity to sit in the factory and watch the fodder willingly line up, seeing how the political sausage gets made.
Of course there was a risk of things getting weird, of us driving across town to a Miami suburb only to walk into one of those sad scenes, a party nobody showed up to, the host standing anxiously by his decorations and plastic bowls of Lays regular chips, looking out at a sparsely-filled room of dorky Cuban Republicans. But we had to go, not only as fun social experiment but as a way to see this thing for ourselves.
There is some charming notion of journalistic integrity compelling me to now say something measured, something denoting an impartial position, to assert that allowing one’s biases to form into firm opinion without full knowledge of both sides is no way to decide an election, a position, a way of life…But I’m not a journalist, I’m just a person, one born outside of this bubble, and I needed to understand who the hell could actually vote for this clown.
And so we walked in. Interlopers. Imposters. Entering the belly of the beast.
Such highly-anticipated events are often a letdown, think the second Matrix film or the first time you got laid. Much ado about nothing. You’re probably imagining a rally of red baseball-capped raging rednecks, burning Crooked Hillary effigies and wearing T-shirts of Obama in a Hitler stache. But instead see a family restaurant, tablecloths covered in plastic, walls painted beige, scattered with the haphazard and beguiling décor common to budget dining establishments – all converging on the world’s oldest big screen TV Jimi-rigged into some home speakers, the sound hollow and barely audible.
As we swung the doors open and strode in, we were immediately greeted by the host, not sulking by his punch bowl but spastic with excitement, agitation. It was him, the head of the Latinos For Trump southwestern South Miami chapter, or something, and this was his big night. No time for pleasantries, and no room in the main dining area. We were rushed to a table towards the back. The place was bumping!
And by bumping I mean kinda super weird. How does one accurately describe the unwilling foot soldiers of our time’s greatest evil? Remarkably, by their unremarkableness. To our right was a family of four, older parents, late-sixties, and two younger men, probably brothers. To our left a couple in their forties, seated shoulder to shoulder, hands on each other’s thighs. In front of us, wearing a worn but well-kept jacket and tie, a kindly-looking older man, with dark-rimmed glasses, who despite the stark contrast in appearance, reminded me of my grandfather.
This is how democracy ends, not with a bang or a race riot, but with slightly bizarro versions of ourselves.
The third Presidential debate went on, mostly as the other two encounters had. The Donald starting off “strong” by remembering the pleading backstage directives to control his urges, to try and mimic normal, but then soon breaking free of the shackles and re-embodying his extraordinary Saturday Night Live parody of himself. Basically another split-screened 90 minutes of Dangerously Delusional Blowhard vs Acceptably Competent Crony.
But something was different. This time, when Donald gratuitously refused to answer a tough question and instead just said ISIS over and over until his 2 minutes were up, what did I hear instead of my usual whimpers of despair and slow-leak dissipation of faith in humanity?
All around me, they cheered. Or clapped. Or slowly nodded and looked around at each other in approval.
No matter what he said.
And suddenly, I saw.
That family with the elderly parents, now posing together for a selfie in front of the TV – and how the mother, arms around her kids, was proudly smiling in front of a man who tweets shit about women being fat pigs.
The couple sitting hand-in-hand – and how every Trump zinger and barking interruption needed to be translated into Spanish for his apparently newly-landed Latina girlfriend, editing out for his mate the part of the transcript where her immigration status and cultural identity have been used to stoke fear and nationalistic xenophobia.
The kind grandfatherly fellow alone at the table – and how he nodded solemnly at every populist button-pushing one-liner, apparently unable to forget Cuba, to let go of what he lost, to disentangle himself from this new team, this identity, and see that this strongman was not so dissimilar from one he once had to escape.
We sat there, my friend and I, amidst all this apparent normalcy and felt an intense uncomfortableness. We didn’t chat with our neighbors, didn’t even really speak to each other.
This apprehension wasn’t born of any sort of looming physical menace, but from the knowledge, now real and with a familiar face, that if you can accept this, if whatever self-centered motivation is so strong that you can make up a reasoned room for this guy inside yourself…well, then, perhaps you are capable of anything.
Living just a few short miles north of the border, the United States has always been a huge part of my life. Family vacations, road trips, and broadcasting on the ABC and NBC feeds from Vermont and upstate New York, occasionally interrupted by campaign ads for a dashing young Bernie Sanders running for Senate — the TV shows, movies, sports, and general ethos that helped shape my childhood.
Driving through your average Canadian town you would be hard-pressed not to think you were driving through your average American town. Everything is the same.
Yet somehow it isn’t.
And this is where I will do my best not to have this turn into an America-bashing piece, which is suuuper tempting but not that useful. Instead I would like this to be an inquiry. There have been volumes already written on the Trump phenomenon, endless hours of radio and television, interviews and analysis. What is driving this? What is motivating them? Great stuff delivered by worthy commentators. But the problem with these portraits and attempted elucidations on the “Trump voter”, is that they’re really just examining the same old Republican supporters that come out for every election.
The Evangelical or otherwise religion-enthused, the white working class, the southerner, the usurped, nostalgic for a time when they and people who looked more like them had more of the pie.
The sample group hasn’t changed. It’s the same people who voted for Romney, McCain, Bush and every other dude who wasn’t a Democrat. What we hear as motivation from Trump supporters are the same grievances, the same fears as have always driven this portion of the electorate.
But what is different is the proposal.
What has changed is the candidate.
I can say with a high degree of confidence that if Donald Trump tried to run for office up in Canada he would get about 5% of the general election vote. Seriously, this is a verified number +/- 1% within the margin of error taken from a survey of what I know about things.
Now there is definitely a higher percentage of Canadians that may be enticed by this sort of rhetoric, that support some of these right-leaning themes (we did just finish 9 years of Conservative federal government), yet despite whatever strong political preferences a conservative Canadian may hold, very very few would actually support this quality of candidate. In the end, common sense would, umm, trump any diverting ideological urge.
So our societies are overwhelmingly similar, with related languages and trade and popular culture. We have the same strip malls and traffic jams, the same non-white immigrants and “hoodied thugs”, the same stagnant economy and loss of jobs to China – yet something so incongruous can happen? We would laugh him out of the building before he got anywhere near legitimacy but somewhere between 45%-55% of American voters will support a candidate who is, by any sane measure, an inarguable and dangerous joke.
Across the Western world people are getting left behind economically, becoming disenchanted with their politics, and feeling like they don’t quite belong in their nation’s new multi-colored landscape. But only in America could Trump be possible.
This whole thing seems like it was planned by some higher power. Tired of seeing one of its favorite children consistently leading itself astray, disheartened by the extreme polarization and inequality threatening things on a global scale – the benevolent figure intervenes.
Up in his/her lab, fingers stained with orange dye #5, he/she booms, sorta biblically: “My friends, for too long have you allowed ego and braggadocio to take hold. Too much “biggest this”, too many “greatest nation in the world” that. Yes I have blessed you, but not only you, so enough with that already. You have believed your own hype, swallowed it whole. You can indeed be great, but without the need to be better than someone else. Of course capitalism is awesome, I’m no socialist, but it has crept into spiritualism, into those places meant for something else, and that frail human need to see an Other has been catalyzed by your desperate need for more, and this wicked new invasive species has ingrained itself so deeply that you now see adversaries everywhere, even in the mirror. Things are getting crazy, very toxic. Congress can’t function, news is no longer news, people are philibustering everything. It’s a mess.
“So I’ll make it easy for you. Here is a pompous ass-clown reality-star douchebag so obviously terrible that it borders on ridiculous. He will be overtly racist and narcissistic. He will insult women, the disabled, war veterans. He will start Twitter fights with foreign leaders and the Pope. Threaten to sue anybody who says anything remotely uncomplimentary. He will encourage violence and conspiracy and use textbook populist button-pushing to divide you by race and religion, pitting citizens against one another, all in a blatantly selfish plan to raise himself to power.
“I know, it’s starting to look like I may have gone a bit overboard with this guy, over-salted the pasta, made what I’m trying to do here a bit too obvious. But better safe than sorry, can’t mess this one up, the ice caps are fucking melting.”
And yet it’s happening. The impossible is now standing at the podium looking out at crowds of millions, one step away from hearing yes sir, Mr. President, sir.
How could this be? What could make tens of millions, many of them quite educated and with little or no economic hardship, betray what must be their better judgment?
This question, in various incarnations, has troubled me for years.
American mythology is strong. A propaganda like no other. A symbol of what might be, of can be had. It has helped shape the modern world, brought us out from black and white. But what does it do to a person to live amidst the constant call of all this potential (and ultimately unattainable) greatness?
Does a lifetime of promised liberty and pursuit of happiness eventually lead to bitterness and resentment when the only frontier ahead of you is the daily traffic jam? Does the constant romanticization of individualism and cowboy pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps toughness lead to cynicism and contempt when you realize that you’re just the same mortal consumer as the next guy?
For my co-worker, back in the office by the airport, one of the most kindhearted and hardworking people I have ever met, it was lazy immigrants getting shit for free that made her do it, made her crossover from simply preferring Republican ideals to ignoring what she knew in her heart to be right.
The fact that she was a new immigrant herself, that her husband had been illegal until he married her, that she once had to turn to government help when between jobs, that Trump was using her to create fear, would be a horrible role model for her little girl, and all the other disqualifying absurdities – none of it mattered. The harshness of her life’s reality, seen in increasing predominance over what had been expected, was potent enough to overshadow all reason.
She was promised a dream and it wasn’t working out.
Falling from a great height hurts. Falling from such stature without ever having reached it stings even more.
A dangerous brew has been boiling. A national origin-story based on “making it”, mixed with a constructed and prideful sense of Us, as a separate and often superior entity from Them.
It’s everywhere. A lifetime of God Bless America and American Exceptionalism and Leader of the Free World. A media and culture forever sprinkled with waving flags and geocentric self-regard. A hell-yeah awesomeness that you just can’t find anywhere else but in the good ol’ US of A.
I’ve been raised with this, all of us have to some degree. But I was always able to step away. Back to a place whose heights, although perhaps not as gloriously high, were high enough, and whose drop was compassionately less steep, bottom floor more elevated, better able to absorb the inevitable fall, help you land and go forward with both feet on the ground.
It’s the slightest of differences. An ambient sense of support, the absence of perpetual competition. Without these reassuring social subtleties things can be very harsh; causing us to feel angry, ashamed, eager to blame; making one susceptible to fear, attracted to ideology, partisanship, extremism.
No longer a leader, but a mirror. That’s what America has become. The excesses acting as example, making everything easier to see, the metaphors so big and bright and bulging, giving us a chance for perspective, introspection.
One hopes that these are the turbulent final cries, the last gasps as new pushes over old. The dark before the dawn, and all that.
It’s sometimes tough to see things that way, what with all this ancient ugliness still so readily available and in such alarming numbers. But still we continue to look, unable to turn our gaze, enthralled by your all-encompassing gravity and funhouse reflections, checking in, taking inventory, hoping to see that we are somehow still on the right path.
Jason Najum, November 2016