I thought he would win, until I didn't anymore. Christmas, 2015. I was going to the grocery store in Redding, California, where my family was living at the time. The town is largely suburban, largely Republican, largely white, and has two Walmarts. It is not the romanticized bombed-out Appalachian horror movie people like to imagine when they think of "Trump Country." If you're retired, it has a great view of the mountains. If you're my age, the lumber business left a long time ago. Trump campaigned in Redding.
As I drove downtown, I started seeing graffiti all over the place — in alleys, on street signs. It was Donald Trump's name with a swastika through it. I couldn't escape my gut reaction. People don't treat presidential candidates this way. They treat presidents this way. Outside of big cities, presidential candidates just don’t inspire these reactions this loud and this early. Usually, you can barely tell it’s election season at all until people put tarps on their swimming pools. Trump was making noise in a place where national politics rarely rises above a whisper, and the election was almost a year away.
Then came the primaries, and the cognitive dissonance of seeing Trump destroy 16 candidates who deserved it to subsequently become the presumptive Republican nominee for president. It felt familiar. It felt like Arnold Schwarzenegger all over again. A distraction, an impossibility, a farce, and then a primary election, one won fast and without ambiguity. I knew then.
Trump was an entertainer then. A perceptive one. He knew Fox News and talk radio had radicalized the American right, made them angry, made them feel like part of a club, made them feel victimized and powerless, given them the Immigrant Bogeyman and the Muslim Bogeyman to explain it, and he knew he had a shot with a personality campaign that played them in the ways their media was playing them. And if he didn’t know, then his eventual campaign CEO certainly did.
But then I forgot. Trump gave countless grotesque and manic speeches full of overlapping and contradictory lies and election promises that sounded like YouTube comments you start reading because they're insane and stop reading because you're pretty sure they're about to get anti-Semitic. His campaign was a burning junkyard. His own party hated his guts. He was talking openly about what he’d do after losing the race. And Hillary Clinton was so easy to visualize as president. She behaved exactly the way we expect a president to behave.
But Trump wasn't playing her game. He wasn't giving policy speeches. He didn't need facts or consistency, because he was playing rock concerts, pounding away at power chords. And it never stopped working. Myself, I just didn't want to see it anymore. I wanted to believe things were all right. I was too tired.
A week before Election Day, I called up my 24-year-old brother Gabe. He's the archetypal working-class white voter of 2016, a group that turned out in droves for Donald Trump. Gabe lives in a rural area, he didn't go to college, and when he was employed, he worked as a short-order cook and overnights at a warehouse. Liver disease just about killed him over the summer, and the best medical explanation for why he is alive is that when he was supposed to die, he didn't. Knowing him to be in tune with the disillusioned rural Trump voter, and conveniently unemployed, I asked him to get into a car with me and drive across the country, the whole length of Interstate 40, which parallels Route 66 until Oklahoma and goes from Barstow, California, to Wilmington, North Carolina, a distance of 2,555 miles. We were going to talk to people on the road about the election, and try to figure out what wreckage the Trump movement would leave behind.
After subjecting Gabe to a 14-hour bus ride, I picked him up a little before midnight on November 1. Morally opposed to buying any new clothing after the hospital stay, he was leaning against a gas pump at a Chevron station, digging a new hole in his belt with his pocketknife. He got in and I told him the travel itinerary: any place in Arizona we haven't heard of, anywhere with more than one song written about it, anywhere that looks like it has good barbecue — I don’t really believe in itineraries — and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. He shrugged, told me he just sold a guitar to a guy who insisted on being called "Coyote," and went to sleep.
We left town at daybreak. When we started the car, the election was a foregone conclusion. Hillary Clinton had won already. Everybody knew that. Everybody.
Seligman, Arizona: 6 Days Before the Election
"Hey, remember when you were in the liver ward in San Francisco when Bernie Sanders dropped out?" I asked, as we rolled through the desert toward Arizona.
"Shit no, I was on Dilaudid."
"So you were almost able to talk for a second, like barely loud enough to hear."
"Yeah, sounds like Dilaudid."
"This was the first thing you said. You said, I have to watch the news. So I turned it on, and your nurse came in. She told you, and this is what she actually said, she said she wanted Bernie Sanders to win because 'He's a kind man and women are bad leaders — they're too weak.' Said she never wanted to see a woman as president. Then you said 'It's gonna be Trump' and immediately passed out."
"Well, I was definitely on drugs," he said. "But I probably meant it at the time."
We got to Seligman at about sundown. Only a few hundred people live there, and it's known primarily as a popular Route 66 tourist spot. It's full of nostalgic kitsch. You got your burger stands, ice cream places, motels, drive-ins, hand-drawn signs, restored old cars, American flags, the usual. Feels old there. Pulling into a gas station at the edge of town, I saw a man with a Make America Great Again hat across the street, leaning against a van, with a dog beside him. He was holding up a sign that said "NEED GAS." I approached him. Let's call him Rick.
I told him who I was, and he broke the ice by asking if I was one of Clinton's spies, out to get him with "something in my boot." I assured Rick I had no gun, not even in my glove compartment. He laughed. Then I asked who he thought would win the election.
"You know what? I believe this, I really believe this, man. I believe Trump's gonna landslide it. All these polls are just a crock of shit. You know how many Hillary signs I've seen? Now look, I came from Santa Maria, California. And I didn't just take the interstate, I zigged and zagged all through the country, OK, all the way to Boston, and I saw two Hillary signs, in Pennsylvania. And the rallies that Trump is giving, OK, you got 30,000 people, and everybody's all excited. Hillary, if she goes right now to L.A., or Iowa, or Pittsburgh, people stay home. She doesn't attract crowds."
I asked why he was zigzagging.
"I'm retired. I got all the time in the world. I throw my clock away. I go, I leave, I do it on my own time, and fuck the world. I'm sixty-five, OK? I'm not one of the millennials. Millennials don't know good America, when America was prosperous. I came from the manufacturing boom. And it used to be like this. I went out to Wyoming in the '70s and I got a job, and a guy gave me shit and dropped this big wrench off the derrick and almost killed me and he stood up there laughing. What did I do? I flip him off, I says fuck you, I went across the street and got a better paying job just like that. You could do that. And you guys, you don't know. Guys your age have to work at McDonald's, then they have to work at the Goodwill, then they gotta go and peddle some drugs or whatever, they gotta have two or three jobs just to pay the rent."
A couple truckers came over to give him some money and compliment his adorable dog, the glue that holds this particular brand of hustle together. After they walked off, I asked Rick why he thought Trump would bring jobs back.
"Because he's such a successful businessman," he said, before digressing about how going bankrupt repeatedly is part of being a good businessman, because the system is designed for you to fail and bankruptcy is proof of perseverance. "I said to myself, if he's that successful, will he bring the industry back and make us prosper again? Buddy, listen to him," he said, getting quiet and excited like he was telling Charlie he had the golden ticket, " he says yeah!"
I said goodbye and rounded up Gabe and hit the road. I kept thinking, yeah, the guy was right that a bunch of millennials have terrible jobs, that the manufacturing comeback myth is tempting, but — come on, man. Come on. That shit about jobs growing on trees wasn't even true when it was true. A black guy couldn't just stroll into Wyoming and get a good job and say fuck you and get another good job. A woman couldn't do that. Hell, a withdrawn and anxious kid with glasses probably couldn't do that. Not everybody is Captain Macho Aggro Fuck The World. And it's easy for you to zigzag the country and bomb around Route 66 reminiscing about American prosperity, but you know who never got to do that? Any black people.
Amarillo, Texas: 4 Days Before the Election
"Oh yeah, I saw the white light."
"No, I did. It was a typical white light, a foggy bunch of glare because your brain is over-processing light from your surroundings. You get a white light and also these auditory hallucinations you pull from your memory. I heard Scotty when he was a baby, and the dog barking. There was an entrance, like a spider web, that you could just walk through. But I didn't go."
"Did somebody call you back?"
"No, the drugs just wore off. It was drugs that saved me. Not you. Drugs."
We pulled into the GOP headquarters in Amarillo. Gabe stayed in the car, because he “couldn’t get paid enough for this,” and I went inside. The place was a tiny little office in a strip mall, and they had a cardboard cutout of John Wayne standing behind a cardboard cutout of Donald Trump. The sweet old lady at the front desk took a moment to marvel at the cutouts. "I like the Duke standing behind the Donald. Says don't mess with him … Oh, I sure hope he gets in. I love the Donald. He needs a miracle and I'm praying for it," she said, to nobody in particular.
The sweet old lady introduced me to a volunteer who didn't mind talking, whom I'll call Linda. Linda said something ominous that I shouldn't have ignored.
"I think it's going to be a very surprising election. I have been absolutely amazed at the number of people that have come in that said, 'I've always voted Democrat, but I need a Trump sign,' or 'I'm 40 years old and I've never voted before, but I'm all in for Trump.'"
Linda then ushered me into a back office, where I met an old man named Terry, farmer stock, who was missing about half of his index finger. He didn't really like Trump, because he didn't like personality politics (good instinct). Basically, he told me, he just wanted conservative Supreme Court judges. That's all he cared about, which is true of many Republicans. Then he, too, told me something ominous.
"The people that come in here wanting merchandise and telling how they support Trump is completely different from anybody that's ever been here before. There's been hundreds come in here and I've seen three men with ties on. It's common everyday people that are fed up with the people running the parties, running the country, that just do what they please."
I ignored the signs.
Memphis, Tennessee: 3 Days Before the Election
Otis Redding. Sam & Dave. Booker T. and the M.G.'s. Rufus Thomas. Isaac Hayes. Memphis Minnie. Howlin' Wolf. Jerry Lee Lewis. Johnny Cash. Elvis Presley. If Americans can be proud of anything anymore, we can be proud of the music that came out of Memphis. The sounds produced in this city deserve to outlast civilization.
I was on Beale Street on a Saturday night, the election was three days away, and I was looking for people who wanted to talk politics. But Beale Street was a Hard Rock Café and an ocean of frat boys, so I wandered out on Main Street, where fewer people were drinking.
There I met a guy named George, who was leaning against the side of the Arcade Restaurant. His night was over and he was waiting to go home. I introduced myself and we started talking about how Trump plays with the white working class.
"Trump connects with the common people, but how is he connecting with the common people?" asked George. "Just because you are connecting does not validate you. Is the connect true, is it from the heart, is it love, is it kindness, is it from understanding their needs, or is it utility for you? Is it to gain more wealth for you or is it for the whole? And if it is for the whole, how is it for the whole, and how will it affect our children?"
He sighed and looked at the sidewalk.
"It's a catastrophe. We already got the division, but it's getting worse. It's not just about black and white anymore. It's about I get you before you get me. Where is the heart? That's the bottom line. Where is your heart? Because when all is said and done, God looks at the intent of your heart."
Then we got to talking about meanness.
"Trump's mean because he knows it works. People always respond to meanness. It's always flesh against spirit. People draw off that. Because there's always enough tension. People are already upset. But if they're responding to that, where are they really hurting? Money can't fix that. Money can't fix a man's soul."
I walked to the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray, a volunteer for the George Wallace presidential campaign. A middle-aged black man was sitting across the street, taking a break from packing his car. I introduced myself. He said his friends called him King, and he believed Trump would win.
"I think Trump don't care about nobody. I definitely don't think he care about black people. When a black man can get hit in the face at his rally and the police grab him and slam him like he the one hit himself in the face, I think that pretty much explains it," he said, wearily.
He was leaving town, he said, giving up on Memphis.
"Shit, man, whatever gonna happen to this country and this world, man, it can only be Biblical. Nobody cares about humanity here, it's all about the money. Too much hate. This national conversation. It's not real. They don't see the murder and mayhem. I don't understand how you can be blind to that. How can you be blind? I just really want to get the fuck away from everybody."
I asked if anything has gotten better since MLK.
"Hell no. This is Babylon. This is it, right here. You can do wrong in this country, you can kill a person for their ethnic group and nothing can be done to you, if you are the right ethnicity."
I asked if he had any optimism left.
"Shit. You asking a man who ready for God to come do what He do. Do I pray for it every day? No, I love living. But I'm ready for it, man. I don't even want my kids to have kids. By the time they get old enough, who knows what kind of world they gonna be living in. If they're not going with the masses, they'll be persecuted, trod upon. And if my grandkids ain't strong like me? I ain't afraid to die, but what if my grandkids are afraid to die? God, come on. Let's get this over with."
I said thanks and left. "One thing for sure," King said in the distance, "the next world gonna be a whole lot better than this one."
Wilmington, North Carolina: Election Day
"I mean, I used to like Trump," said Gabe. "He was funny and he kicked ass at making Jeb Bush cry. He stomped on Jeb five hundred times more than he needed to. He hated phonies in suits. I hate phonies in suits. Bulldozer mode was hilarious, and you could get drunk off it. But it turned out he was an asshole to everybody, not just Jeb, which wound up also being his only policy position somehow."
Across Tennessee and into North Carolina, we went to agricultural communities and truck stops and Waffle Houses, we went to the lonely houses off the highway, and there were Trump/Pence yard signs everywhere, and nobody wanted to talk to us. It was a pattern I saw all year. Some rural Trump supporters were loud, but lots of them were dead quiet. They said nothing, they talked to nobody, they just voted.
I talked to Gabe a lot about the desperation of small towns, the isolation and anxiety lurking in the countryside. We agreed it had felt hopeless for us, two kids at the edge of town by the railroad tracks, that it felt like we were dying sometimes, even when we weren't just yet. There weren't good jobs for us, and the city was prohibitively expensive, there were psychic gates around it. And we watched our local businesses close, we watched meth and heroin creep in as the jobs left, and it crushed our spirit.
That's real. That suffering is real. But it's not the only suffering in this country. And it's not just that suffering that made Trump successful, not even close. Yes, there were hopeless people in small towns who were screaming inside and voted Trump. But there were plenty of assholes with two new trucks and a boat in the driveway and Confederate flag bumper stickers who voted for him too. There were people who voted for him because they hated black people or gay people or Mexicans or Muslims, often without ever meeting one, people who can watch a black man get murdered by a cop and think the black man, you know, probably did some shit the news didn't talk about.
Trump empowered lots of monstrous people, and he didn't have to do that. A man who "calls it like he sees it" could have said, "If you're scared of black people and Muslims, if you think white America is really under attack, you're sick and you need to figure out your life." That’s a pretty easy sentence to say. The words are all short. You can be a populist without getting real quiet when the KKK endorses you.
Quiet prevailed on Election Day in Wilmington, North Carolina. I talked to a bunch of young folks and a few of them sardonically alluded to a Donald Trump With Nuclear Codes, but a bunch of them didn't care that much and didn't talk that much. Some of them never learned anything about Trump besides the fact that he's funny. Politics is a leisure activity to a lot of this country, and that must change. Actions have consequences. Joke votes count too.
As it got dark, me and my brother decamped to the one bar that was carrying the election. We settled in for a comfortable Clinton win and an early night. But things changed. North Carolina was going Trump. Florida was going Trump. The color started leaving the face of every news anchor with a soul. "Can you believe this shit? Are you seeing this shit? I can't believe this shit," a man said to his cell phone.
We called our friends. We called our family. Everything we thought we knew was turning upside down. We raced back to the hotel toward a TV we could hear. As we wound through the hallways, we heard the news coming through every single door. People were glued to their TVs. This wasn't a social occasion. This was like the O.J. Simpson chase. It's something you watch, and don't believe, and never forget because you never fully believe.
My brother was shaking when Trump gave his victory speech.
"I no longer have any confidence that I made it out of the hospital."
The Next Day:
"So I was in the tattoo parlor," Gabe told me, showing off his new tattoo that proved he didn't die, "and there were these two dudes getting line work done. One guy says, 'You voted for him too? No shit! So did I!' and the other guy goes, 'I guess nobody was gonna talk about it until after.'"
Maybe that's why the polls didn't see it coming, I suggested. Maybe silence was the code. Maybe "I ain't got an opinion on the election" meant "I'm voting for Trump to see what happens."
President Trump is a sickness, but he's not a new sickness. He's part of a sickness that's been with our country forever. America was founded on slavery and mass murder. America has always been full of racism and sexism and ordained murder and fear and hate. What we see today is the ascendance of someone who ran toward those impulses instead of away from them.
What we do about him and his followers is simple. We start fighting, every single day. We fight for the protection of the people in America who are in danger now. We make them seen and make them heard. We fight for our hearts. We don't shake hands with evil and permit compromise. And we don't tell anybody that anything will be all right, because there's no reason to believe it will be. We have to remember that in the scope of history, slavery ended five seconds ago. Black people got the right to vote five seconds ago. Women got the right to vote five seconds ago. And we should all be scared right now. All human progress is bitterly fought for and viciously contested, and Donald Trump has the capacity to upend decades of it. He can burn this country down. He is dumb enough and he is tyrannical enough to try it if that's what he thinks his ego needs. On January 20, 2017, he will get his chance. And I won't say anything else, because Gil Scott-Heron said it better. Let's get to work.
“ And now it's winter
Winter in America
Yes and all of the healers have been killed
Or sent away, yeah
But the people know, the people know
Winter in America
And ain't nobody fighting
'Cause nobody knows what to save
Save your soul, Lord knows
From Winter in America.”