News & Politics

White Man's Pathology: Deep Inside the Popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders

A writer enters the fray with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in Iowa and gets a view of the campaign trail from the perspective of his whiteness.

Trump supporters.
Photo Credit: Scott Morgan/Reuters

The border

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, so if you squint you can pretend the ancient categories are dissipating into a haze of enlightenment and intermarriage.

Not at the border.

My son’s Guyanese-Canadian teacher and the Muslim Milton scholar I went to high school with and the Sikh writer I squabble about Harold Innis with and my Ishmaeli accountant, we can all be good little Torontonians of the middle class, deflecting the differences we have been trained to respect. But in a car in the carbon monoxide-infused queue waiting to enter Detroit, their beings diverge drastically from mine.

I am white. They are not. They are vulnerable. I am not.

Here’s the thing: I like the guards at the American border. They’re always friendly with me, decent, even enjoyable company. At the booth in between the never-was of Windsor and the has-been of Detroit, the officer I happened to draw had a gruff belly and the mysterious air of intentional inscrutability, like a troll under a bridge in a fairytale.

“Where are you headed?” he asked.

“Burlington, Iowa.”

“Why would anyone ever choose to go to Burlington, Iowa?” he asked philosophically. 

“I’m going to see Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.” Then, because it did seem to require an explanation: “They’re giving rallies within a couple of days of each other.”

“Why would anyone ever choose to go see Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders?”

I didn’t argue, because it was the border, but I could have said that the police chief of Birmingham estimated that 30,000 people showed up in Alabama to see Donald Trump in August and that in Dallas, he had filled the American Airlines Center, and that his counterpart, Bernie Sanders, has generated equally unprecedented numbers – vastly more than Barack Obama drew at comparable moments in the 2008 campaign.

“I’m curious,” I said instead.

At this point he asked me to roll down my window. But it was all fine. Like I said, I’m white.

For people who love to dwell in contradictions, the US is the greatest country in the world: the land of the free built on slavery, the country of law and order where everyone is entitled to a gun, a place of unimpeded progress where they cling to backwardness out of sheer stubbornness. And into this glorious morass, a new contradiction has recently announced itself: the white people, the privileged Americans, the ones who had the least to fear from the powers that be, the ones with the surest paths to brighter futures, the ones who are by every metric one of the most fortunate groups in the history of the world, were starting to dying off in shocking numbers.

The Case and Deaton report, Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century, describes an increased death rate for middle-aged American whites “comparable to lives lost in the US Aids epidemic”. This spike in mortality is unique to white Americans – not to be found among other ethnic groups in the United States or any other white population in the developed world, a mysterious plague of despair.

In one way, it was easy to account for all this white American death – “drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis”, according to the report. It was not so easy to account for the accounting. Why were middle-aged white Americans drinking and drugging and shooting themselves to death? The explanations on offer were pre-prepared, fully plugged into confirmation bias: it was the economy or it was demography or it was godlessness or it was religion or it was the breakdown of the family or it was the persistence of antique values or it was the lack of social programs or it was the dependence on social programs.

Case and Deaton call it “an epidemic of pain”. Fine. What does that mean?

On the I-94, you do find yourself asking: what the fuck is wrong with these people? I mean, aside from the rapid decline of the middle class obviously. And the rise of precarious work and the fact that the basic way of life requires so much sedation that nearly a quarter of all Americans are on psychiatric drugs, and somewhere between 26.4 and 36 million Americans abuse opioids every day. Oh yes, and the mass shootings. There was more than one mass shooting a day. And the white terrorists targeting black churches again. And the regularly released videos showing the police assassinating black people. And the police in question never being indicted, let alone being sent to jail.

And you know what Americans were worried about while all this shit was raining down on them? While all this insanity was wounding their beloved country? You know what their number one worry was, according to poll after poll after poll?

Muslims. Muslims, if you can believe it.

‘The American dream is dead but I’m going to make it stronger!’

My body is white and it is male. It is six foot tall and weighs 190lb. It is 39 years old and it has had to start running. It has had to start counting calories. There is a tingle in the joint of my right thigh, so I try not to think about my body. The tingling comes and goes. I know my body is going to kill me.

“A man who fears suffering already suffer what he fears,” as Montaigne said. That’s one of the reasons why men die so much younger than women – six years younger on average in America. Ninety-two percent of men say they wait at least a few days to see if they feel better before they go to a doctor, but I know what they mean by a few days. They mean a few more days than makes sense. It is hard to have a male and white body and to conceive of its weakness. In the same breath, my body cannot bring itself to believe it is the personification of power, though it evidently is in any rational accountancy of social status. It feels like a mere body. It feels mortal.

I’ve never been to a place as white as Iowa. That’s the honest truth. Whenever I go to America it’s New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or Florida. In Burlington, at Jerry’s Main Lunch, the signature dish is “the hot mess, eggs and bacon cooked right into the hash browns. The sugar shakers all have white crackers in them, to prevent clumping – a classic bit of commonsense American know-how. The hot mess is delicious. Why don’t they make these everywhere? Why isn’t there a chain of Jerry’s Main Lunches serving hot messes all across the midwest? 

The Memorial Arena, on the banks of the Mississippi, filled up early. Trump wasn’t speaking until 6pm but by 4.45 the parking situation was grim. Outside the building, the hawkers who follow Trump on the road, event to event, sold T-shirts and buttons, three for $10. “We shall overcomb.” “Cats for Trump, the time is Meow.” “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”

Inside, every seat had been taken and the floor filled quickly with a standing room only crowd. Burlington is 10% black. The rally was 99.99% white.

The people who attend political rallies in America are a specific genre of humanity, like the people who stand outside in lines for nightclubs. They know where they’re supposed to go and how they’re supposed to behave when they get there. They have gear.

An elderly lady sat beside me wearing a sequined stars-and-stripes-hat she clearly takes out for just these occasions. “Y’all from Illinois?” she asked. I’m not but I can pass. She goes to all the rallies, she explained. She’s been a Republican her whole life, an active Republican, an Iowa Republican. For 30 years, she’s been in crowds like this one. She plans to go, one time in her life, to the national convention. Like going to see the Stones. When the organizers passed around hand signs reading “The Silent Majority”, she grabbed a dozen so she could pass them around to others.

Cheerful helpful women were half the crowd. Angry and absurd men were the other. They wore T-shirts with whole paragraphs written on them: “I am a United States Military Veteran. I once took a SOLEMN OATH to defend the CONSTITUTION against ALL enemies, foreign and Domestic. Be advised No one has ever relieved me of my duties under this Oath!” 

There were cars in the parking lot slathered with bumper stickers. “We the people are 100% FED UP!” “So if guns kills people, I guess pencils miss spell words [sic], cars drive drunk and spoons make people fat.” “I’m straight, conservative, Christian, and I own a gun. Is there anything else I can do to piss you off?” A picture of Obama with “Does this ass make my car look big?” The Republican style for 2016 is angry aphoristic humor. Behind comedy, absurd rage: America is the greatest country in the world but America is falling apart, government is the problem which is why government must solve it.

This was a Trump production so naturally there was a VIP section. A door guarded by bald, unsmiling men, the bouncers who stand forever as the bored sentinels of indifferent celebrity. A swinging door at the side of the stage received and dispensed the best-looking people, the ones with the buffed neutrality of political professionals, the women whose faces have been tautened to a perma pout, the men who get their hair cut before every event.

The woman beside me – Stars ’n’ Stripes Hat – was wearing a pewter elephant pendant. A young girl in a bright orange dress passed out of the VIP entrance wearing an elephant pendant encrusted with diamonds. Elephant pendants were a theme, I noticed, and elephant brooches and elephant rings and elephant T-shirts. They came in all different price points and in all different styles: round elephants reminiscent of French cartoons from the 1960s, and strange pseudo-sexual shimmies, and with 1920s straw boater hats leading parades. There was one kind of elephant you couldn’t find. An elephant that actually looked like an elephant. A realistic elephant might serve as a memento to the hundred elephants killed for their ivory every day. A naturalistic elephant would be inherently environmentalist. The elephants must all be fabulous.

Like any good show, there was a warm-up act. In fact, there are two – three if you count the recitation of the pledge of allegiance. The first was Tana Goertz, an Iowa woman who had been runner-up on the third season of The Apprentice. “What a good-looking crowd,” she pandered. She vouched for Trump as a woman (“He loves women!”) and as someone who had returned to Iowa (“How could you live in New York City if you didn’t love people?”). She promoted the idea which is at the core of every last thing that Trump does, that simple contact with the man brings prosperity. “When you’re in the Trump train you’re going places!” She walked off to polite Iowan applause. The crowd would probably, all things considered, rather have listened to the Elton John music playing on the speakers instead, but at least she made the effort. 

A more standard hype man followed. Sam Clovis hosts a conservative radio show and is a Tea Party activist who has run and lost a bunch of Iowa Republican positions. He just started right in with it. Trump was “one of the greatest men to ever walk the face of this earth,” a good line – the crowd could have laughed but instead they applauded, thus proving that they were not paying attention or would swallow anything. Clovis compared Trump’s recent speeches to Reagan’s A Time for Choosing at the Goldwater convention in 1964, which must have been, to his way of thinking anyway, roughly like comparing it to the Sermon on the Mount.

Clovis knew what the crowd had come to hear and he gave it to them. “America and Americans will be first again!” A collective roar shook the Burlington Memorial Arena. They so badly wanted to be first again. First in what was unclear but definitely first.

After the roar died, the crowd was ready for Trump. But, showmanship. Trump let the tension build; the angry absurd men and the cheerful, helpful women hollered. Trump! Trump! Trump! I could barely imagine the pleasure the muted sound of his chanted name, from backstage, must have been bringing the man. 

When he finally took the stage, the crowd surged; their phones surged. It was an orgy of phones. The men behind Trump scanned the crowd with their phones. The cameras in the back were recording everyone recording each other. Trump was the only person not holding a screen, the absence that brought desire. He started roaring, as everybody in the crowd stopped to check the footage they had gathered. 

Trump started out with the clip he knew would appear on the news the next morning – Joe Biden had dropped out of the race and Trump approved of his decision because Biden never had a chance and Trump wanted to face Hillary. The mainstream media adroitly handled, Trump began his disquisition on the subject dearest to his heart: his own success.

The Burlington rally marked the 100th day he had led the polls. He read the polls, poll after poll. He paused only to ask the crowd how great the polls were. “Beating Hillary nationwide do you love that?” The crowd approved of his approval numbers. And so he moved on to the more qualitative aspects of his greatness. His opponents just weren’t winners. “I speak from the brain but I also speak from the heart,” he said, rambling like a rich know-it-all uncle – “I’m bringing back the jobs from China!” – with brief digressions into self-pity: “Macy’s was very disloyal to me. They don’t sell my ties any more.”

He described, in twists intermittently frank and self-deluded, the brilliance of his own capacity for political manipulation. He talked to the people he was spinning about how cleverly he was spinning them. So he declared “I’m a good Christian” and that if he became president “we’re going to be saying merry Christmas”, but then he couldn’t stop himself from acknowledging the cleverness of his Christian electioneering: “I walked on to a stage with a Bible, everybody likes me better.” Trump brought meta to Burlington, Iowa. And he did not deny the crowd that taste of celebrity they desired. What would he say to Caroline Kennedy, the ambassador to Japan? “You’re fired!” “You’re fired!”

A few spectators started to drift out to beat the traffic and Trump shouted about the silent majority and about how he says what nobody else dares to say and about how he will end free trade and how Mexicans are car thieves (big laugh) and how he wants a piece of the action from the Keystone pipeline and how he’s going to help women’s health and how America used to be emulated. “The American Dream is dead but I’m going to make it bigger and stronger!” he shouted. At this moment he appeared to me the way every celebrity I have met in the flesh does, like a living pagan idol awaiting sacrifice, a puff-faced Baal. “We’re going to win so much,” he promised before leaving the stage to Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Going to Take It.

I stayed to watch Trump work the line. Up close, in person, the hair is much more intricate than it appears on screen. Its construction is tripartite, its significance polyvalent. First and foremost, there is the comb-over, although it can be called a comb-over only in the sense that the mall in Dubai with a ski hill inside it can be called a building. It is hair as state-of-the-art engineering feat, with the diaphanous quality of a cloak out of Norse legend or some miraculous near-weightless metal developed in an advanced German laboratory. It floats over the skull, an act of defiance not only against ageing and loss but against time and space, against reality.

Behind the technical display of the comb-over, as counterpoint, the back is as traditional and old-fashioned as a haircut can be. It’s a classic ducktail. It’s such a classic that I have only seen it in movies set in the 1950s. Not movies from the 1950s I should be clear, but movies from the 1970s about the 1950s. In between the comb-over and the ducktail, between the two follicular spaces representing the modernistic and the atavistic, the fantastical and the nostalgic, there is a third tranche. Even in person you have to look closely to catch sight of it. It bulges, slightly but only slightly. It is the real part of the hair, the human part, the actual hair. It is the hinge of Donald Trump.

As Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination has unfolded, in all its unlikeliness, he has shaken hands with many thousands of Americans, and posed with many thousands for many thousands of selfies. And among those many thousands, not one has reached up to mess up his hair. Though he regularly brings up the physical appearances of his opponent, none of the other candidates even mention the fact that he looks ridiculous. Trump’s hair is an act of defiant social pre-emption: call me a phony. I dare you. I fucking dare you.

A few hardcore fans lingered on the fringes, just like at a concert. Everybody else had drifted into the parking lot and the town center of Burlington was soon returned to its emptiness. A Trump show is good value for the money, especially since it’s free. They don’t even ask for donations.

The view from Fun City

The morning after the rally, it has become clear that Iowa may be the bramble in Trump’s path. A scandal over an errant tweet has cloudburst.

He blames the insult on a young intern. But the eight-point rise of Carson must be galling. Trump possesses the weakness of anyone who lives by the strength of their results. Results vary. When the results are down, where are you? Who are you? Trump is in the business of winning. Does Trump losing even exist? 

I had a day between Trump and Sanders, and all I had to read was a pdf of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, which I had agreed to look at for a book of the month club. After another hot mess at Jerry’s Main Lunch, and a run to burn it off, I spent a day at the Motel 8 in Burlington reading, while across the street, the Winegard factory, manufacturing satellite dishes 24 hours a day, thudded like a heart without syncopation. Did you know you can buy a six pack of beer and a bottle of bourbon for just a little over 20 bucks in Iowa? What a great country. 

The title of Between the World and Me comes from a Richard Wright poem called White Man, Listen! and it was never going to get much whiter or more male than me in the Motel 8 sipping bourbon and beer, on my iPhone, with the Jays and Royals highlights flickering in the background and the thud of the satellite dish factory in the background.

The urgency of the book, the vitality of the historical imagination at play, rose like waves into crests of anger tumbling over their own force. It was all of a piece. And it all made very ferocious sense. Between the World and Me is one of those books that possess the powerful inevitability of a natural phenomenon – as if it accrued out of the ether that surrounds us, a crystalline formation of the outrage that defines the moment. To criticize is beside the point. It’s just there.

To me, the key passage in Between the World and Me, comes after Coates has been on television explaining to the host the desperate consequences of yet another police assassination of a black boy.

I came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. 

Right then, reading that passage, I knew that white people were going to love this book. What white people crave – more, they require it, they require it to live – is an alibi from their whiteness, an escape from the injustice of their existence. There are various alibis available depending on how much stupidity you can tolerate. You can say to yourself or to others that black people are stupid and lazy; you can say that you don’t see color; you can call your uncle a racist so everybody knows you’re not; you can share the latest critique of brutality on Twitter with the word THIS; and now you can tell a friend that she really has to read Between the World and Me. 

Because that Dream of Whiteness, the dream of treehouses and cub scouts that tastes like peppermint and smells like strawberry shortcake, is a perfect alibi. Who lives that dream? Somebody else may live it but not me, not anyone I know, no one I could see in Burlington. That’s a dream that belongs to somebody else. Always to somebody else.

It certainly didn’t belong to the Winegard factory workers who were drifting to their cars at the end of their shift. The whiteness of my existence was my iPhone and the fumes of bourbon and beer, and the game from last night and the tingling in my thigh. The tingling in my thigh was my body – the reality I can’t look at because I’m too afraid of my mortality. 

To me, the best question ever asked about race in America has always been the one that James Baldwin asked, when an interviewer wanted to know if he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future of America. “What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place,” he said. “If you invented him, you, the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.” The obsession of intellectuals over the question of Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr active or passive resistance – was moot; the pressing matter was why white people were blowing up churches filled with children.

Whiteness is a spiritual distortion, evidently – by the fruit ye shall know the tree. And on the question of white pathology, what good answers has America produced since Baldwin asked that question in 1963? And now that white pathology has returned to waste away its host, unexamined and mysterious, a golem. 

In the evening, I finished the book and didn’t want to think about my white and male body any more, or the tingling in my thigh.

Across from my hotel, the Fun City complex contained an imitation midway, a bowling alley, a couple of bars, a replica diner and, tucked in between a hotel and a spa, the Catfish Bend Casino. The poker room is dingy but serviceable. A game started at six. I wanted to play. I wanted to find out how much fun can you have in a place called Fun City. 

The youngest guy at the table, Curved Baseball Hat, grew beans and corn. A man with an angry mustache ran the conversation, a three-day beard beside him adding an occasional aside. The rest of us sat cooking quietly in the juices of our addictions, like in any casino. Everybody at the table knew everybody else, except for me and a black welder in town for a specialist job. It was happy hour in Fun City, and beer was a dollar. Everybody ordered a mess of them. And I felt just how lucky it is to be in America, despite politics, despite everything. Cheap beer and frank people and an honestly run game in a clean room. Even compared to Canada, the unthinking prosperity of the place is dazzling.

Three Day Beard had seen Trump the night before, and Angry Mustache asked his opinion.

“I think he could win,” Three Day Beard said cautiously, as if it were a criticism, as if it were all you could say of him, that he might have a chance to take the presidency, for what it was worth.

“Don’t matter,” said Angry Mustache. “No matter who gets in, Washington just ruins them.”

“He might be different because he doesn’t need the money.”

Angry Mustache quoted a statistic, which I later check and turns out to be bullshit, that all congressmen become millionaires by the time they’ve been in office for a year. Everybody agreed that Trump’s main advantage is that he comes pre-corrupted.

“It’s not even the money,” Three Day Beard said. “They get there. They all have these schemes and plans. They can’t do anything.” Three Day Beard almost pitied the politicians. 

“It’s all broken,” added Angry Mustache as a kind of given, the way you’d state any historical fact, like “Germany lost the second world war” or “Frances Farmer was once a star.”

The view of American politics in Fun City is snug despair. It is despair not just at who happens to be in power but at whoever could ever be in power. It is despair not simply that the system is broken but that any system, imaginable in the current iteration of the United States, would turn out to be just as broken. The choice is a choice between impotence and coercion. The response was not revolution but a shrug. 

Curved Baseball Hat, the guy who grows corn and beans and who had delicate traces of soil in the lunulae of his fingernails, asked about an old gambling hall that used to be in town, and the reminiscences of the way Burlington used to be flowed – buildings that had been knocked down, women that were once beautiful and were now dead, fortunes made and vanished.

Eventually the black player, who has said almost nothing except his calls and folds and raises, busted out.

“Did you see that guy’s fingers?” Angry Mustache asks when he had left. He gestured an inch past his middle finger. We were all, it was made very clear, in a room of white men. “You know what they say. My brother worked in the prison and he says it’s all true. I guess that’s why they say once you go black.”

The rest of us nodded or smiled or said nothing, looking down at the cards. Now that we had all shown how white we were, it was a friendlier room. We knew that none of us would object to the evil of the others. What if the answer to Baldwin’s question is as banal as it appeared to be in Fun City? What if it white people make the nigger to make themselves a little less lonely? 

And I said nothing. I offered no resistance, though the line between the man in Fun City and the cop shooting a black child in the face was not hard to trace. Here was my alibi that evening: I am Canadian. Which means I am a spy from nowhere. Or perhaps I am a coward or something in between a coward and spy from nowhere. It’s a pretty threadbare alibi anyway. Whose isn’t? 

Conversation drifted back to Trump. It was more polite. 

“I can see Trump,” said Angry Mustache. “He’s not the worst that I’ve seen anyway.”

“I’m starting to like that doctor,” Three Day Beard adds as an afterthought. 

That doctor, Ben Carson, proposes a flat tax of 10% that would put the US government, estimating conservatively, in a $3tn deficit. He believes that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain, and he believes that Hitler never would have risen to power if the German people were armed, and that Obamacare is worse than slavery, and that Americans are living in a Gestapo age. 

I wish that Coates had some crazy scheme, some utopian fantasy for communards in Georgia, or the return to one motherland or another, but he just wants the end of white supremacy. He just wants white people in America to grow up, to cede their inhumane sense of absurd superiority. I cannot imagine why they would. It’s fun to drink and to play cards and to imagine what Donald Trump would say to the Mexican president the day after he was elected, or whether Ben Carson would set the flat tax at 10 or 12%. The ultimate alibi is ignorance – it lies closest to innocence – but if you can’t manage ignorance, craziness does nearly as well. 

I mean, none of it’s going to happen anyway, right? Whoever gets elected, it’s just going to be gridlock and outrage anyway, right? Did I mention that beer cost one dollar? A single, solitary buck.

‘Ellen Degeneres, eat your heart out!’

The Bernie Sanders rally in Davenport was the precise opposite of the Donald Trump rally in Burlington and yet precisely the same in every detail. “Make America Great Again” was replaced by “Feel the Bern”. Hawkers sold pins, three for $10. They read “Bernie Sanders is my spirit animal” and “Cats for Bernie” and “I supported Bernie Sanders before it was cool.” Davenport, at least near the Adler Theater, is the same Brooklyn-outside-Brooklyn that has conquered every corner of the world that is not a strip mall. The tattoo artists of Davenport do not go hungry. The cornfed hipsters at the Sanders rally look like they have probably attended a party at which somebody played a bongo. They may even have attended a literary reading.

There were hype men as with Trump, too, although in this case they were twentyish women in glasses screaming “Feel the Bern!” and “We’re Going to Build a Revolution!” Somebody with a camera from NBC asked a group who has brought their precocious children because they want them to be engaged in the political process “Can I get you guys to look like you’re excited about Bernie?” They carefully placed their drinks on the floor, out of sight, to oblige. 

The same specter of angry white people haunts Saunders’s rally, the same sense of longing for a country that was, the country that has been taken away. The Bernie crowd brought homemade signs instead of manufactured ones, because I guess they’re organic. They waved them just the same. They were going to a show. They wanted to be a good audience. 

The fundamental difference between the Trump and Sanders crowd was that the Sanders crowd has more money, the natural consequence of the American contradiction machinery: rich white people can afford to think about socialism, the poor can only afford their anger. 

Sanders’s opening act was a congressional hopeful, Gary Kroeger. He hadn’t been on The Apprentice but on Saturday Night Live, a forgettable lesser actor from the great period between 1982 and 1985. He started out, naturally, with a half-assed gag: “the fresh patchouli in the air is so beautiful”. The sign language translator offered a mild smile to indicate it was a joke. Then, after a brief foray into leftwingery, calling America a “social democracy also known as a republic”, Kroeger took a big selfie with the crowd behind him: “Ellen Degeneres, eat your heart out!” he shouted. Everyone’s phones rose up to take pictures of themselves in a picture imitating a picture from the Oscars: such was American socialism in the year 2015. 

A few desultory bands followed, performing an assortment of leftwing songs from various historical leftwing movements. They harmonized on The Auld Triangle, a prison ballad that was covered on Inside Llewelyn Davis. The singer from Alice in Chains (remember them?) did an electric version of I Won’t Back Down. An old The Clash song, Jail Guitar Doors, was sung by the subject of the first verse, Wayne Kramer. And it was all, so obviously, a nostalgia act, the indulgence for a longing of a time when music encouraged politics, when activism possessed an artistic face, and vice versa. 

Eventually Bernie wandered out. The phones went up. The phones went down. “Enough is enough,” he shouted, leaving blank what there’s been enough of. And then he talked about how he wanted to end the war on drugs and campaign finance reform and government that isn’t for plutocrats, and how they were going to build a revolution (such an embarrassing word to hear uttered out loud), and America was going to be a social democracy, by the people of the people. 

Sanders’s exasperation was the principal fact to be communicated, more than any political content. Trump was about winning again. Sanders was about having lost. The vagueness of American politics is what astonished the outsider. It’s all about feelings and God and bullshit. Sanders actually uttered the following sentence out loud: “What we’re saying is when millions of people come together to restore their government we can do extraordinary things.” Nobody asked what he meant. Nobody asked for numbers. They applauded. Better to take it in the spirit in which it’s given, like a Catskills resort comedian. 

Sanders reminded me of a line from Seinfeld, maybe because Larry David’s SNL parody was only a few days’ old. “The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup at a deli.” When Ben and Jerry make a Bernie Sanders ice cream, I hope it’s chili and ginger: the delicious hot flavour of nasal-passage clearing outrage. 

Sanders’s speech was much shorter than Trump’s. There had already been the music, I guess. I had the impression, as with Trump, that I had traveled many hundreds of miles to look at a man’s hair. Bernie Sanders’s hair is as much a statement as Trump’s. It looks like the hair of a tenured professor whose wife has stopped nagging him to get a haircut because the nagging doesn’t work. You couldn’t muss Sanders hair. The disorder is just as much an aesthetic as the comb-over. I mean it always looks the same. Somebody is cutting it to droop that way over the ears.

The view from Tampico

As despair has suddenly spread like a fabulous mist over the white people of America, as the white people die off in their unprecedented numbers, the commenters are surprised, a bit, but they have no plan of action. No policy proposals aim at ameliorating the conditions of white people. 

How could they? If you believe the Case and Deaton report, white people are victims of their own privilege – literally. Their cherished right to own guns, and the vast increase in the ownership of weaponry, means that their suicide attempts are more effective. They have more access to opioids because doctors are more likely to trust white people with them. They have the money to make themselves lonely and drink. 

I remember reading a passage from bell hooks once, the kind that circulates on Facebook because it sounds slightly unusual in its predictable virtue. “The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males,” she wrote, “is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage is psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves.”

Her compassion is admirable, glorious even, but also inaccurate. No one is more emotional than a piece-of-shit white man. They are sentimentality personified. How else can so many be moved to rage over the absence of a Christmas tree on a Starbucks cup?

That dream, that white dream that smells like peppermint and tastes like strawberry shortcake, comes with a cost of shit. If you take shit, if you eat shit, if you live through the shit, if you survive the stupid wars and the meaningless jobs, you should be sure of who you are and what you deserve. And if you are not sure and you have not received what you deserved, why did you take and eat and breathe all that shit?

In the aftermath of that deal, the choice, I suppose, is either to be proud to be white, which is a form of insanity, or to fantasize a post-racial cosmopolis, which is a kind of make-believe, or to be ashamed. So much easier to forget those choices, or to defer endlessly the choosing, or to debate the difficulties of choosing infinitely, because white male flesh is not under mortal threat, as the flesh of black men or the flesh of women. Our bodies are safe. Our bodies are the threat.

In medieval monarchies, the state required the existence of a double body, one for the real world and one for the symbolic. There was the flawed and mortal body of the king, which wept and shat and screwed and died, and then there was the Body of the King, sacred, pure, indestructible.

Race gives us all double bodies, “double consciousness” in WEB Du Bois’s phrase, whatever you want to call having to live mortally through the judgment of others. The new white distortion, the sickness at heart, the pathology, may simply be the arrival of the awareness of two bodies: the dizziness and nausea that arrive with the onset of double vision. 

Because they have to be like everybody else, their hearts are breaking in half.

The morning after the Sanders rally, I found enough strength to look in the mirror at my white and male body, to examine its mortal and symbolic nature. At the corner of my groin, where it had been tingling, a brown patch spilled like spoiled milk down my skin. A wide brown patch shaped like post-climate change Florida in the corner of my thigh. Instantly, I knew I would die. And the next moment I started driving back to Toronto, to my wife and children, flesh of my flesh.

Bernie Sanders wants a revolution to overthrow casino capitalism but the problem, or maybe just the first problem, is that the American people love casinos. They can’t build them fast enough. On the road from Iowa, I passed at least a dozen, a dozen Fun Cities of various shapes and sizes, enduring various conversations about Trump and Sanders. The highways of Illinois are a unique vision of the workings of human desire – a nearly limitless marketplace for addiction and its cure. Strip clubs or fried chicken or gambling or church or rehab or cancer treatment. The I-94 spoke right to the unwounded body – the promise of processed sugar and pussy, or salvation from them. 

There was one other attraction on the route home: Ronald Reagan’s birthplace in Tampico. The beauty of the landscape around those towns, for some reason, has never been properly romanticized. There are no tourist buses to these fields, as there are to the ocean or the mountains, but the landscape is every bit as sublime. Reagan’s childhood passed in the loin of the continent, the grand hinge between the industrial core of the Great Lakes and the agricultural heartland. The historical memory of his presidential monuments has been consumed by fantasies of small-town life but it is a landscape of whitewashed buildings against the undulating emptiness, a country roiling with dreams. You can picture Reagan as a boy in these fields, dreaming of movies and America – vast screens on which he could project himself. The highway runs like a river of craving through an ancient dream. 

The ancient dreams are still so vivid here. In the United States, 240-year-old writings can be recited by heart by people who cannot be described as educated. Documents written by men who owned slaves are spoken of as if they could solve the problems of today and tomorrow and any conceivable future no matter how distant. 

Thomas Jefferson believed that the constitution should expire after 19 years, so that the dead would not have dominion over the living. That fate seems to have arrived. The Americans are in constant debates with ghosts and their conversations with dead people are most powerful, most ferocious, at exactly the points where they are most nonsensical. They state defiantly that all men are created equal when any casual observer of life knows they aren’t. They claim that men and women should be judged by the content of their character, when nobody can know the content of another’s character. These dreams, these impossibilities, are the absolute and real foundation of their nation. And the dreams are so entrancing that it’s unclear whether the problem is that the Americans believe them, or that they don’t. It’s supremely childish, either way. 

Back in Toronto, my wife took a look at the brown patch on my groin and sent me to a doctor, and the doctor told me it was a rash from running too much, and I had been given the greatest gift anyone can hope for, in this time and this place. I had been forgiven, for a while, for my body. 

 

Stephen Marche is the author of How Shakespeare Changed EverythingShining at the Bottom of the Sea and, forthcoming, The Hunger of the Wolf. He writes a column for Esquire as well as regular features and opinion pieces for the Atlantic, the New York Times and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenMarche

 

 

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