In Search of America
The great American road trip has always struck me as a deeply romantic idea. It is perhaps best captured by Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, which was published just months before he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Travels chronicles Steinbeck’s journey through the American countryside. We meet sleepy New England towns, sweeping Great Plains, majestic national parks, and the expansive deserts of the Southwest. Steinbeck’s conversations with ordinary Americans are depicted in his distinctly earnest and humanistic voice, a trademark of his writing. So when the opportunity arose to fashion a minor road trip out of the residency interview trail, I jumped. My route took me through the Midwest, with a plan of traversing the Badlands of South Dakota and ending in the Black Hills; blizzard conditions in that state cut my trip short after Minneapolis.
Travels‘ subtitle is “In Search of America,” and my road trip, brief though it was, had more resonance and urgency in the wake of the election. I would be driving through Trump terrain, formerly reliably Democratic voting areas that have gained renewed national attention in mainstream political and media circles. Our institutions have been labeled as out-of-touch with America’s heartland, overwhelmed by coastal urban elites. I’ve balked at the tenor of this talk–it grants undue deference to the heartland, feeding into tired and false narratives that this is the “real” America, that rural life is somehow more wholesome and virtuous than coastal urban life. While the political and media establishment may be physically located in cities, they advance a narrative that is carefully contrived to appeal to middle America.
The Midwest is not known for sprawling landscapes, but beauty abounds. Appalachia in autumn boasts hundreds of shades of auburn that rival a Monet painting. Towering factory spires reaching into the skies of Mansfield, Ohio. Desolate frostbitten farmlands in Indiana lie on either side of picturesque Hoffman Lake, where residents of a campground drink coffee under a flaming sunrise. Chicago’s skyline from the 31st Street Beach on Lake Michigan, without another human being in sight. Rolling hills and dairy farms awash in the pink Wisconsin sunset. The ruins of Minneapolis flour mills on the banks of the Mississippi.
Also dotting the Midwestern countryside are Trump signs, many of them homemade, by the dozens. In Berwick, Pennsylvania, a graphic design store advertises Trump merchandise–Trump lawn signs! Trump t-shirts! Trump flags! Life-sized cardboard cutouts of Trump! Above a hateful sign reading “Trump That Bitch!” another says “Closed Sundays.” At church, I suppose. Even in President Obama’s hometown, just blocks from Grant Park where he delivered his election night speech in 2008, a towering hotel emblazoned with the word “Trump” casts a nefarious shadow on the street below.
A Return to Normalcy
Following presidential elections, political and media institutions take a few predictable steps of realignment. They pile on the loser and circle around the victor–everything the winning campaign did is retroactively labeled as genius!, and a portrait of the loser depicts him/her as hopeless, hapless, or both. The nation is called upon to rally around the winner, kiss his (it has regrettably always been his) ring, and return to normalcy.
This is not normal.
This concept cannot be lost over the next four years, though I fear that it will be. The press is woefully unprepared to cover the incoming president, who has built his candidacy on demagoguery, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and misogyny. He embraces conspiracies and trades in lies. These elements, long a part of our national political underbelly, have never been elevated to the Presidency.
This is not normal.
Politics and Policy
One narrative that has gained traction, most notably by President Obama himself, is that Trump is ultimately pragmatic and non-ideological. After all, the vast majority of his candidacy was driven by rhetoric, and we know very little about the policies a President Trump would actually be able to pursue.
This strikes me as weak sauce. Let’s set aside for a moment that such a policy-ignorant candidate was able to evade any meaningful press scrutiny. If Trump is truly policy-free, then ostensibly the policies of his circle take on added significance. I see little cause for comfort. Mike Pence has made his name in radical conservative politics, with extreme positions on abortion, LGBT rights, climate change, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees birthright citizenship. Jeff Sessions has historically opposed civil rights. Tom Price doubts whether any woman in America has unmet health care needs. Mike Flynn has openly advanced homophobia. And lest we forget, Steve Bannon is a white nationalist. At a minimum, Trump will function as a very effective smokescreen for these figures to enact their agenda.
Trump’s extreme policies may be subject to Democratic opposition, but his politics will continue to reign free. The rhetorical significance of the Presidency and its role as a symbol of the country’s journey are vastly unappreciated; the Obama years are a testament to that effect. The legacy of our society’s traumatic racial history was by no means resolved during President Obama’s tenure, nor could it have been. But his very presence in the Oval Office was arguably the most powerful symbol of racial progress and the possibility of reconciliation since the 1960s. And, it has been widely reported that for the Obama camp, 2012 was a more critical election than 2008–not just because of the policy stakes, but because it was imperative that the first black president not be seen as a one-off or a fluke. Hillary Clinton’s ascendancy to the White House would have been a powerful symbol of feminist achievement. Never before, in recent memory, has the United States been so close to fulfilling an ideal and so dramatically and publicly fallen short.
…the more they stay the same
In observing conservative political activity over the past eight years, Trump’s rise seems retrospectively inevitable. This recent article in The Atlantic is instructive. Author Vann Newkirk II applies Newton’s Third Law, pointing out that the tide of racial progress in America has always been met by a strong reactionary opposition. Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets, and Trump is the necessary outcome of the decades of racialized politics in America. The “welfare queen” and “strapping young buck,” the fictionalized narrative of the black community as drug-addled, violent, and morally bankrupt, and the fundamental questioning of the legitimacy of the first African-American president–all tropes that have been actively advanced by conservative politicians and institutions. Buttressing the racialized politics is a regime of racialized policies–most notably the War on Drugs, a discriminatory criminal justice system, and the systematic erosion of voting rights.
The Democratic Party has now been called upon to abandon identity liberalism and refocus on the white working class voters who voted for Trump. The nature of these arguments should be cause for concern for anybody who values racial justice, and it draws the wrong lessons from the Democratic defeat in 2016.
Despite the newfound attention from reporters and public officials, the economic impacts of deindustrialization and globalization are nothing new. Over the last forty years, these forces, compounded by one of the thinnest social safety nets in the developed world, have led to an untenable level of income inequality in the United States.
Racial bias is nothing new either, and it has dictated public response to these economic trends. African-American communities were among the first to be affected by the dual forces of deindustrialization, yet our national response was not a call for empathy or political change. Again, black Americans were devalued–their problems were their own fault, the product of drug abuse, immorality, laziness. The prescription–personal responsibility, not government assistance. Now that the devastation has enveloped white America, economic reform is suddenly a priority. Moral and cultural arguments are nowhere to be found.
The double standard would be troubling enough if it weren’t for the pervasive pattern of scapegoating that has defined conservative politics for the last thirty years. Instead of supporting the white working class by bolstering the welfare state, conservatives have redirected white anger against African-Americans, women, Hispanics, Muslims, and LGBT Americans through the “culture wars.” This political narrative has proven so effective that it was embraced by Bill Clinton and the DLC movement in the 1990s. Combine this tradition with the unprecedented bigotry of the Trump campaign, and the increased emphasis on white working class priorities should worry all minorities.
Most of all, the dismissal of identity politics ignores the fundamental link between politics and policy. Words and symbols matter. They define culture. The hatred exploited by the Trump campaign has unearthed racists, xenophobes, sexists, and anti-Semites, and hate crimes are on the rise. A diverse society cannot sustain itself without a basic degree of mutual respect. Ignoring or otherwise downplaying this reality reflects the ambivalence–the indifference–that has obstructed social justice and enabled retrenchment at every juncture.
Set in Stone
I never made it to Mount Rushmore. Winter weather precluded that part of my trip. Just a few hours northeast of the Black Hills, where Lincoln’s chiseled visage enshrines the principles of dignity and respect for all persons, Standing Rock protesters have been subjected to water cannons, dogs, and brutality reminiscent of police reaction to the civil rights movement. It is a jarring juxtaposition.
The American story has been defined by contradictions such as this. Our society is predicated upon dual narratives of rugged individualism and E pluribus unum. It is codified not simply by the ideal of “a more perfect union,” but by a relentless and eternal pursuit of that ideal. It’s a road trip, measured by the distance between the American dream and the American reality.
We just need to be better drivers.