In the last few months, ever since Donald Trump the Republican presidential candidate moved from abstraction to unnerving reality, there has been a spate of pieces about his rallies that follow a particular format: a white male writer, educated and successful, attends a Trump rally where he is shocked to find people who look like him but must be otherworldly creatures. The New Yorker, the New Republic, The Guardian, and other legacy media have published the now-familiar story.
The piece usually goes something like this: The writer attempts to capture his confusion by decoding these creatures who attend Trump rallies; he generally, ostensibly profoundly, notes something like the existence of “two Americas,” reassuring both reader and himself that he is not of this America. His America might be white, but it is not this kind of white, it does not revel in the baseness of anger, it appreciates multiculturalism and the correct Liberal values. It does this, in part, by depicting the unwashed hordes who attend Trump rallies with the delicacy of a Hieronymus Bosch painting: purposefully ugly caricatures whose bodies betray their lack of taste or correctness or education.
In these pieces, the enthusiastic Trump supporter is unaware of their gauche physicality, a clear contrast to the white, male writer who is keenly aware of his race, or at least, abstractly, what his race signifies. Take, for example, Stephen Marche’s iteration at The Guardian. In it, Marche is quick to establish that he is not of the hell he is about to enter, quite literally crossing a border to draw out the strained comparison:
You feel your whiteness properly at the American border. Most of the time being white is an absence of problems. The police don’t bother you so you don’t notice the police not bothering you. You get the job so you don’t notice not getting it. Your children are not confused with criminals. I live in downtown Toronto, in one of the most liberal neighborhoods in one of the most open cities in the world, where multiculturalism is the dominant civic value and the inert virtue of tolerance is the most prominent inheritance of the British empire [...]
At the border, Marche crosses with ease, his race and gender shield him from the “gruff bellied” border patrol agent who is “like a troll under a bridge in a fairytale,” a clunky foreshadowing of “angry and absurd men” he later finds at a Iowa Trump rally (“I’ve never been to a place as white as Iowa,” Marche later marvels).
Similarly, at a Trump rally in North Carolina, New Republic writer Jared Yates Sexton finds an “American Horror Story” of “boozy-eyed” foul-mouthed supporters. “On everybody’s lips were strange non-sequiturs of hate,” Sexton writes. At the New Yorker, a crowd in San Jose, California is depicted as snarling and menacing, they welcome Trump’s heated speech by “send[ing] forth a coarse blood roar”; a “blond bombshell” crassly strolls wearing a “low-cut blouse, giving the protesters a leisurely finger, blowing them kisses, patting one of her large breasts.” At a rally in Sacramento, Dave Eggers spends a few paragraphs on a couple “groping in the parking lot.”
This is usually when the writer insistently signals his own neutrality in the hellish scene of grotesque bodies and racial slurs. Sexton writes that he tries to “empathize” with Trump supporters, burnishing his credibility by reminding the reader that he’s the product of working-class midwestern America. Eggers ridiculously wears a NASCAR hat which he apparently believes to be the uniform of a certain kind of American. He describes attendees as “within the realm of reasonable.” Meanwhile, George Saunders, at the New Yorker, reminds us that he used to be a Republican enthralled by the clearly false notion that, as a white man, he was simply better. Saunders, too, understands that, at their heart, Trump supporters are not inherently bad (well, maybe they are), they’re just beholden to the anger. Anger is always omnipresent in these pieces, always amorphous, because practically everything is a tabula rasa for anger (poverty, race, immigration, the diminishing American dream, etc.). Saunders, by contrast, has risen above the smallness of his adolescence.
Violence is always part of the action described and yet, despite remarkable reoccurrence of violence—usually women of color, there to protest, are pushed or punched or physically intimidated—in the narrative arc of Trump rally reportage, violence is never the centerpiece.
In part, because these acts of violence, the reality of anger and hate directed at certain demographics of Americans, is secondary to the actual purposes of these pieces: namely, to capture the conscious awakening and subsequent mournfulness of the white, male writer. As writer Alyssa Harad said, these pieces, “reinforce the boundaries between Reasonable White Man and Slavering Poverty Horde.”
Indeed, in Trump rally reportage, the important writer positions himself as Virgil to the reader’s Dante, leading us through what’s treated as a foreign subculture, and ultimately to the right opinions. Those opinions, presented as a kind of rational conclusion drawn after delivering the reader from a hellish landscape of monstrous subhumans, are usually drawn from the very privileged position that he had previously acknowledged. At the New Yorker, Saunders writes:
From the beginning, America has been of two minds about the Other. One mind says, Be suspicious of it, dominate it, deport it, exploit it, enslave it, kill it as needed. The other mind denies that there can be any such thing as the Other, in the face of the claim that all are created equal.
The first mind has always held violence nearby, to use as needed, and that violence has infused everything we do—our entertainments, our sex, our schools, our ads, our jokes, our view of the earth itself, somehow even our food. It sends our young people abroad in heavy armor, fills public spaces with gunshots, drives people quietly insane in their homes.
I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail.
But I imagine it that way now.
The irony here is that the conclusions—the realization that there are two Americas, as well as the delusion that they’re are inherently separate from one another, complete with ideologies that never overlap—can only be drawn from the privilege that the white male writer previously disavowed (or, at least, acknowledged). Yet he is entirely unable to see it functioning in his ostensibly profound conclusions, the very ones he worked so hard to lead us to.
Saunders, like Eggers and Marche, is shocked to find that the American political discourse is driven by amorphous anger aimed at, more often than not, people of color. None of this would likely come as a shock to people of color who have been pushed or hit or yelled at. But then the protestors, too, are their own subculture, one which the writer has not yet decoded; not yet had revelations worth spilling thousands of words over.
Ultimately, it seems that the Trump rally reportage piece has no purpose other than to reaffirm the importance of a certain kind of writer and his observations. It tells us little about the motivation of Trump voters and reduces violence to vignettes in an obviously grotesque sea of inhumanity. Its sole purpose seems to be the belatedly obvious conclusions of the reporter. It is, in short, an affirmation to both the writer and a particular kind of reader that they are good and moral and correct. That they both, by the very nature of taste and comportment and liberal consciousness, have nothing in common with the otherworldly inhabitants of a Trump rally.
Art by Bobby Finger; Images via AP/Shutterstock.