The unified theory of Donald Trump
How could you? As an American living and travelling abroad, I have grown used to being at the pointy end of this question ever since we elected Donald Trump President, 10 months—even if it seems like a lifetime—ago.
It springs instantly to the lips of everyone who learns of my nationality for the first time. Friends who look more obviously American (that is, if they’re white, African-American or happen to be wearing a Stars-n-Stripes bandana), get asked that question from complete strangers in the street.
Variations include: What were you thinking? What’s wrong with you people? And… Are you Americans all out of your freakin’ minds?
However framed, the question is perfectly legitimate. For most people who have never lived in the US—and indeed, for many who have—it is mystifying how Americans elected as their leader a man so palpably unsuitable for the job, and the mystification has only deepened with each passing week as Trump has demonstrated his inadequacies over and over again.
And now that he has openly defended neo-Nazis and racists, the question is asked with a fully-italicized incredulity: How could you?
For a while, I found a fig leaf of an answer in the fact that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, won more of the popular vote. It wasn’t us Americans, I pleaded, but our flawed election system that allowed Trump to become president.
But that was not a satisfactory explanation, not for me and not for those who asked the question. No fig leaf can conceal the fact that nearly 63 million Americans did vote for Trump, and that he won 30 of the 51 states.
So I pointed my interlocutors to other mitigating circumstances, such as the growing dissatisfaction with government felt by so many Americans, which makes them easy prey to political crackpots and chisellers alike.
I encouraged them to read Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s searing memoir of white poverty in the American south. If you want to understand why southerners vote for politicians who openly espouse retrograde (or just plain ridiculous) ideas, I said, you’ll find the answer in Vance’s powerful account of growing up among those very voters.
But that, too, leaves the bewildered-by-Trump questioner with an incomplete picture. After all, the president won plenty of votes across socioeconomic strata, and throughout the country, not just in the impoverished parts of the south. Vance’s book is revealing, but I couldn’t pass it off as the Kaluza-Klein Theory to explain Trump’s victory last year.
Luckily for me, and for all Americans confronted by the question, Kurt Andersen has produced a unified-field theory that might just explain everything, in his new book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire (full disclosure: Andersen and I worked together on a 2011 reporting project for TIME Magazine, travelling across the North African countries wracked by the Arab Spring).
Andersen is a New York-based journalist and radio host, and is uniquely qualified to explain Trump, having covered his rise, fall, and rise again as one of the city’s most colourful and controversial figures. Andersen was co-founder of the now defunct Spy magazine, which kept close tabs on the real-estate tycoon in the 1990s.
It was Spy that coined the imperishable description of Trump that haunts him still: “Short-fingered vulgarian.”
But Fantasyland is not about Trump, although he features prominently in its closing pages. It is a superb telling of the history of the US, compellingly demonstrating that the country has ever been the crucible of strange ideas that have moved large numbers of people to make choices antithetical to their interests—sometimes fatally so. It has always been the playground of hucksters and charlatans, the kind who operate most profitably in the areas of business, politics, and faith—and occasionally, in the intersection of all three.
The American tendency to delusion, Andersen argues, began with Columbus, who could never acknowledge that (a) he didn’t find Asia, and (b) there was no gold in his “Indes”.
Because he believed he was right, and continued to believe, even when other explorers sailing west in his own lifetime had proved him wrong. This tendency to privilege conviction over certitude is a strain running through the 500-year history of the country, taking in the Salem Witch Trials, any number of gold rushes, and oddball religions like Mormonism and Scientology.
Other countries and peoples make peculiar choices, too—consider the success of bogus godmen in India, as we’ve been reminded the past few days. But what makes America unique in this regard, Andersen argues, is that it was “created by people resistant to reality checks and convinced they had special access to the truth, a place founded to enact grand fantasies”.
For an American reader, there’s not much consolation to be had from Andersen’s conclusions: we may be doomed to make dumb choices, and the outcome of these seems now to be overtaking the obvious benefits of a culture that always questions conventional wisdom. Trump will not be the last manifestation of our national nuttiness. But for a non-American, Fantasyland is as enjoyable as it is enlightening. I strongly recommend that you read it.
And then, for mercy’s sake, stop asking me that question!
Bobby Ghosh is the editor-in-chief of HT Digital Streams.
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