Stephen King Explains How a 'Joke' Like Trump Can Rise to Immense Political Power
I started thinking Donald Trump might win the presidency in September of 2016. By the end of October, I was almost sure. Thus, when the election night upset happened, I was dismayed, but not particularly surprised. I didn’t even think it was much of an upset, in spite of the Huffington Post aggregate poll, which gave Hillary Clinton a 98% chance of winning – an example of wishful thinking if ever there were one.
Some of my belief arose from the signage I was seeing. I’m from northern New England, and in the run-up to the election I saw hundreds of Trump-Pence signs and bumper stickers, but almost none for Clinton-Kaine. To me this didn’t mean there were no Clinton supporters in the houses I passed or the cars ahead of me on Route 302; what it did seem to mean was that the Clinton supporters weren’t particularly invested. This was not the case with the Trump people, who tended to have billboard-sized signage in their yards and sometimes two stickers on their cars (TRUMP-PENCE on the left; HILLARY IS A CRIMINAL on the right).
Brexit also troubled me. Most of the commentators brushed its importance aside, saying that the issue of whether or not Britain should leave the EU was very different from that of who should become the American president, and besides, British and American voters were very different animals. I agreed with neither assessment, because there was a vibe in the air during most of 2016, a feeling that people were both frightened of the status quo and sick of it. Voters saw a vast and overloaded apple cart lumbering past them. They wanted to upset the motherfucker, and would worry about picking up those spilled apples later. Or just leave them to rot.
Clinton voters were convinced she’d win, even if they saw her as a ho-hum candidate at best. Many did not even bother going to the polls, which was a large (and largely unstated) factor in her loss. Trump voters, on the other hand, could not wait to pull those levers. They didn’t just want change; they wanted a man on horseback. Trump filled the bill.
I had written about such men before. In The Dead Zone, Greg Stillson is a door-to-door Bible salesman with a gift of gab, a ready wit and the common touch. He is laughed at when he runs for mayor in his small New England town, but he wins. He is laughed at when he runs for the House of Representatives (part of his platform is a promise to rocket America’s trash into outer space), but he wins again. When Johnny Smith, the novel’s precognitive hero, shakes his hand, he realizes that some day Stillson is going to laugh and joke his way into the White House, where he will start world war three.
Big Jim Rennie in Under The Dome is cut from the same cloth. He’s a car salesman (selling being a key requirement for the successful politician), who is the head selectman in the small town of Chester’s Mill, when a dome comes down and cuts the community off from the world. He’s a crook, a cozener and a sociopath, the worst possible choice in a time of crisis, but he’s got a folksy, straight-from-the-shoulder delivery that people relate to. The fact that he’s incompetent at best and downright malevolent at worst doesn’t matter.
Both these stories were written years ago, but Stillson and Rennie bear enough of a resemblance to the current resident of the White House for me to flatter myself I have a country-fair understanding of how such men rise: first as a joke, then as a viable alternative to the status quo, and finally as elected officials who are headstrong, self-centered and inexperienced. Such men do not succeed to high office often, but when they do, the times are always troubled, the candidates in question charismatic, their proposed solutions to complex problems simple, straightforward and impractical. The baggage that should weigh these hucksters down becomes magically light, lifting them over the competition like Carl Fredricksen in the Pixar film Up. Trump’s negatives didn’t drag him down; on the contrary, they helped get him elected.
I decided to convene six Trump voters to discover how and why all this happened. Because I selected them from the scores of make-believe people always bouncing around in my head (sometimes their chatter is enough to drive me bugshit), I felt perfectly OK feeding them powerful truth serum before officially convening the round table. And because they are fictional – my creatures – they all agreed to this. They gulped the serum down in Snapple iced tea, and half an hour later we began. My panelists were:
Gary Barker, a construction worker from – how fitting – Gary, Indiana. Gary from Gary is 41, married with two kids, currently unemployed. Graduated high school, never went to college.
William Russell, from Delray Beach, Florida. William spent his working life as a banker in Albany, New York, and is now retired and living in a gated community. He’s 67, a good amateur golfer, physically fit and mentally sharp. Has been married for more than 40 years, with three grown children and six grandchildren. Holds a bachelor’s degree from New York University and a graduate degree (in accounting) from the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Felicia Gagnon, from Castle Rock, Maine. Felicia is 25 and the sole employee of the Castle Rock Washateria, where she washes, dries, folds and sometimes delivers. She also serves as the janitor. She is unmarried, no children. Graduated high school, never went to college.
David Allen is a roadie-for-hire in Nashville, almost always employed. Last year he toured with both Little Big Town and Trisha Yearwood. He is 29, divorced, with one child. He makes his support payments regularly. Graduated high school, has two years of college (no degree).
Andrea Sparks is a successful restaurant owner in Flint City, Oklahoma. She is 42, twice divorced, with three children. She has a degree in business administration from the University of Oklahoma. Next year she will be president of the Flint City Chamber of Commerce.
Helen Wiggins is a single mother who lives in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and works as a nail technician (she prefers this to manicurist). She is 28 years old. Graduated high school, no college.
Although they come from varying walks of life and have attained varying degrees of education, none of these participants was stupid, venal or evil. The reader would do well to remember that they were loaded with potent truth serum, which forced them to say what they actually believe, rather than what they thought might be most palatable to their interlocutor. If you, gentle reader, should be inclined to view any of them with contempt or feel outraged about their comments, you’d do well first to look inward and ask what you might say if compelled to give the truth of your feelings, the whole truth, the absolute truth, and nothing but the truth.
And, with that caveat, the discussion.
Stephen King Thank you all for coming, and agreeing to participate.
Helen Wiggins You could use a manicure. Your nails are too long. But at least it doesn’t look as if you chew them.
William Russell I started one of your books but didn’t finish it. I’ll never try another one. You’re an awful writer.
King Many critics would agree, but today’s subject is politics rather than fiction. To begin, I’d like to go around the table and ask each of you when you decided you were going to vote for Donald Trump.
Gary Barker After a couple of debates I knew who I was going for. He [Trump] had nicknames for the other guys that really put them in their places. Lyin’ Ted, for instance. I hated that guy. He always looked like he wanted to yell, “Come to Jesus!” And Little Marco. That was my favorite. He [Trump] nailed that sucker. He [Rubio] looked like he was about 13 fuckin’ years old.
Wiggins Don’t forget Crooked Hillary. That was the cutest nickname.
David Allen Right. When they all started yelling, “Lock her up!” at the convention. I knew then it was going to be a whole new ballgame, and I decided to vote for Trump. But I didn’t shoot my mouth off about it. Nashville is in the south, but in the music business there are plenty of bleeding hearts. Not like Hollywood, thank God, but you still have to be careful. I started off saying I hadn’t made up my mind when people asked me, then I started saying, “Probably Clinton.” I never told anyone I was going to vote for Trump. Especially not my ex. She would have torn my balls off.
Russell Trump’s a businessman who understands business. He’s going to make them sit on the minimum wage, and he’ll take off a lot of those stupid banking, business and pollution regulations. It’s working already. Just look at the stock market.
Felicia Gagnon Most of my customers at the Washateria were for him, so I decided I was, too. It wasn’t just going along with the crowd, either. He always had an answer for everything, and he took no shit. Also, he wants to keep the illegals out. My job isn’t much, but it pays the rent. What if some illegal comes along and tells Mr Griffin – he’s the owner – that she’ll do my job for half the salary? Would that be fair?
Andrea Sparks It wouldn’t, it absolutely wouldn’t. And I admired him for a comeback he made to Clinton in, I think it was their first debate. She said he paid no taxes, and Trump came right back, said: “That makes me smart.” I knew right then I was going to vote for him, because taxes are killers. That’s why no one from the middle class can really get ahead. They tax you to death. I am making a little bit of money, but I’d be making a lot more if they didn’t tax me so badly, and why do they do it? To pay welfare for the illegals Felicia was talking about. The beaners, the darkies and the camel-jockeys. I would never say that if I wasn’t full of this truth serum stuff, but I’m glad I did. It’s a relief. I don’t want to be a racist, it’s not how I was raised, but they make you be one. I work hard for what I’ve got, from nine in the morning until midnight, sometimes until one in the morning. And what happens? The government takes the sweat from my brow and gives it to the foreigners. Who shoot it into their arms with dope the drug mules bring up from Mexico.
Barker Amen to that, sister.
Wiggins You know, I was torn at first, but when he hired that guy Pence to be his vice-president, I got on board. He [Pence] was so smart at the debate he had with that other guy. He had an answer for everything.
Gagnon Also handsome, with that nice white hair.
Wiggins Yes, he takes care of himself. Nice haircut, good teeth, beautiful skin. I thought to myself, “Trump is on the fat side. If he has a heart attack and dies, Pence can take over.” And the guy who ran with Clinton, I can’t even remember his name, but he looked like one of those guys at the DMV who, when you finally get to the front of the line, says you filled out the paperwork wrong and sends you home.
[General laughter from the panel.]
Russell Also, there’s the matter of the trademark slogans. Do you know what I’m talking about?
King Tell me.
Russell Candidates have certain codified positions, which form the basis of the so-called stump speech. In that speech, which is about the same whether it’s made in Portland, Maine or Portland, Oregon, they make their basic talking points over and over. But they also need a simple summation of what they stand for. That’s conveyed by the trademark slogan, something simple and catchy. Trump’s was MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, and it was perfect. Contains two words of great power: America and great. Clinton’s was STRONGER TOGETHER. Vague. Wishy-washy. Forgettable. Stronger than what? Together with whom? It says nothing. The person who thought that up was an idiot, and she was an idiot for using it. Her slogan might as well have been WE’RE GOING TO DO SOME STUFF.
Sparks Trump was the boss. Clinton was just bossy, and take it from me, nobody likes a bossy woman. As a business person, I have to use a certain amount of tact. She didn’t have that.
Allen When she spoke, she kind of brayed.
Gagnon Because she was trying to sound like a man. That may work in New York, but not out where there are real people.
Sparks Whatever, it was like fingernails on a blackboard. If I talked to my waitstaff like that, half of them would quit.
King OK, since we’re on the subject of Clinton, I want to go around the table and have you give me one word or one short phrase that describes your impression of her. Gary, you haven’t had much to say, so let’s start with you.
Barker Before we get to that, I just want to say that I’ve always been attracted to young men on surfboards. This truth serum is… whoo.
King Good to know, and thank you for sharing, but how about a word or simple phrase describing your impression of…
Barker Bitch. I thought she was a bitch.
King OK. Felicia?
Gagnon Stuck-up. A stuck-up smartypants. She talked down to people.
Russell Felicia’s exactly right. Clinton projected arrogance and a sense of entitlement. Riding on Slick Willie’s coat-tails.
Allen I hated those pantsuits. Like she doesn’t think people can figure out she’s got a booty. And she’s starting to look really old.
Wiggins Is she a lesbian? I heard she was a lesbian.
King I’d like to discuss two issues that dogged Hillary Clinton’s campaign…
Sparks Can I just say I ate a whole box of chocolate pinwheel cookies last night? I’d like to say that. Then I vomited them back up, because I have to stay thin.
King Thank you, Andrea. Now, if I could turn to Clinton’s involvement – if you choose to call it that – in the Benghazi attack, where four Americans, including US ambassador J Christopher Stevens, were killed. Did that play a part in your decision not to vote for Clinton?
Allen Is Benghazi in Africa or China?
Russell Actually, it’s in Libya. Which the Obama administration destabilized by not helping Gaddafi in his time of need. The man was an asshole, but he was our asshole. Pardon my French, ladies.
Barker Putting the bitch factor aside, I don’t think you can hold her responsible for what a bunch of ragheads do. They just want to kill Americans for Allah.
King So you don’t blame her?
Barker Not for that, Jesus no. Hey, you should see my collection of surfer mags. My wife thinks it’s the boards I’m interested in.
King Just to put a button on this, were any of you influenced by Benghazi when you stepped into the voting booth?
King OK, let’s move along. There was also a controversy about Clinton sending and receiving emails on an unsecured server. Something like 35,000. Did that influence any of you?
Russell Speaking just for myself, not at all. Hackers can get into any computer, secured or not. Someone phished my American Express card number and got himself over $1,000 worth of equipment at Best Buy. They should bring back the whipping post for people who do that. It would put a stop to the practice in short order.
Allen Billy-boy, you nailed it. Computers these days might as well be screen doors. You see hacking all the time in the music business. And hey, get real. What was the stuff going back and forth, anyway? Recipes, gossip, I’ll be here at such-and-such a time, did you see her new purse, shit like that. Give me a break.
Barker What’s this about emails? What are you talking about?
Wiggins Never mind, no biggie.
Gagnon My computer is busted. It was just a cheap one, anyway. I have to buy a new one, but can’t afford it just now. I’d steal one, but I’m scared of getting caught.
King Andrea, what about you?
Sparks I don’t care about that chick’s emails. What I care about are the taco-benders down the street with their food wagon, cutting into my business. I went to the police, and they said the taco-benders had a permit. How do illegals get a permit to sell food on the street? Tell me that.
Russell Do you have proof they are illegals, Andrea?
Sparks I don’t need proof. Those wetbacks are like bedbugs, they’re everywhere. And they breed. I can’t wait until Trump builds that wall. The Mexicans say they won’t pay for it, but they will, unless they want American tanks in JuÃ¡rez and Tijuana. You wait and see. Trump takes no shit. I like a man who takes no shit. If my ex-husbands had been more like that, I’d never have fired them.
Wiggins You want a scandal? Clinton’s on the side of the baby-killers, that’s a scandal.
Barker She’s also on the side of the gun Puritans. I’ve got four firearms, two handguns and two rifles, and nobody’s taking those suckers. Nobody.
King Very interesting, Gary, but we’ve wandered away from the question. Were any of you influenced by the so-called email scandal when you stepped into the voting booth?
King OK, I’d like to move along to…
Allen Can I say something else about Hillary?
King Of course, David.
Allen You asked us when we decided to vote for Trump. I’ll tell you when I decided I was also gonna vote against her, even though I thought she was basically OK. Smart, even. I don’t go along with that bitch stuff, either. I work with women on the road, and even the ones who are bitches hate that word. So I steer clear of it.
Sparks What’s your point, Mr Huffington Post Politically Correct?
Allen You ought to do something about that hair, ma’am, your dye job’s showing.
Sparks Fuck you.
King If we have that out of the way…
Allen I was in Houston on 9/11 last year, OK? Visiting my sister and picking up some bucks working an Eric Church gig. That afternoon, before I had to go on down to the Bayou and start rolling amps, I was in this little place called Spot Mike’s, kind of a lunchateria where they also serve beer. The TV was on, and they showed Hillary collapsing after she tried to give a speech, or maybe she did give it, I don’t know. But she went legless and the men around her, probably Secret Service, had to help her into the car. It made me think of something my grandad used to say: woman-weak. That’s what she was, woman-weak. Now suppose that happened during a crisis, or something. No, she didn’t have any business being the most powerful person in the world.
King Can I point out that George HW Bush vomited during a state dinner in Japan?
Barker I remember that, but he had food poisoning. Her, though, it’s like Dave said: woman-weak.
Gagnon I heard she had a bunch of strokes and they covered it up.
Russell She and Slick Willie are big-time dopers. It’s a known fact. Whereas Trump doesn’t even drink.
Wiggins Kind of a fat shit, though, isn’t he? Likes his Whoppers.
[General affectionate laughter from the panel.]
King I want to move on to some of the negatives about Trump, and ask why they didn’t influence you. Let’s start with his alleged ties to Russia. Anyone care to comment?
Gagnon Speaking of influence, do you have any with TV people, Mr King? I’d sure like to be on The Price Is Right. I’m very good at guessing the prices of things, toasters and such, and I’d like a chance at one of those showcases. They have these wonderful trips.
King I’m sorry, I don’t know anyone who…
Russell You have to stand in line, like everyone else. Live with it.
King There have been accusations that Trump’s associates have ties to Russia, and that Trump himself may have financial interests in that part of the world. He’s certainly said plenty of complimentary things about Putin. Any feelings on that? Helen? What about you?
Wiggins What’s wrong with making friends of an enemy? Burying the hatchet? That’s what the Bible says.
Allen Like that song, What’s So Funny ’Bout Peace, Love, And Understanding?
Sparks Totally agree. As for the oil, if there’s more, the prices go down. More miles for your buck. No-brainer.
Gagnon Speaking of that, they had one of those electric cars on The Price Is Right just last week. I think it was a Prius, or maybe a…
Russell Two strong men working together. I like it. It’s good for business.
King Anyone else?
Wiggins Is it lunchtime yet? I don’t know if it’s the serum or what, but I could eat a horse.
Allen I got something you can eat, hon. Not as big as a horse but almost.
King This seems an appropriate time to ask about certain sexual allegations. The famous “grab ’em by the pussy” remark, for instance. And how you can “do anything” if you’re famous. Ladies first.
Gagnon How many women do you think have been throwing themselves at him, someone who’s rich and handsome?
[General laughter at the word handsome.]
Gagnon Well, he was, anyway, and he’s still rich. Nobody talks about women who go sex-fishing for men, tell you that.
Sparks Also, most women in showbusiness are whores, so what’s the big deal? Look at the Academy Awards if you don’t believe me. Every woman under 30 falling out of her dress. Show a man dessert, honey, he’s going to want to eat.
Barker And at least he’s not a fag, you know?
Wiggins Men are men, that’s all. They all talk big, especially when they’re with other men.
Russell Sure. And let me point out we were electing a president, not a saint.
Allen Exactly. That sex stuff was just the press, trying to sell papers and bring him down while they were at it. Those guys were all for Hillary.
King OK, but suppose the shoe had been on the other foot, and the press had obtained a tape of Hillary talking like that?
Sparks They didn’t.
Wiggins Also, it’s different for women. The… um…
Russell The perception.
King I believe you have a daughter, Helen…
Wiggins That’s right. Patricia. Patty. She’s the best thing in my life. Smart as well as pretty. Gets all As in school. You should see her book reports!
King What if it was her pussy Trump was talking about grabbing?
Wiggins That’s a filthy thing to say. Also stupid. My daughter’s only nine. Even the New York Times never said Trump goes for kiddies, and they lie about everything.
King I’m just saying…
Wiggins Well, don’t. Save the dirty talk for your books.
King OK, let’s move on to Trump’s taxes. He won’t reveal them.
Allen No law says he has to.
King What if he’s hiding something?
Sparks Honey, we’re all hiding something. Although I will admit I’d like to see what sort of fiddles he’s using.
Barker Actually, I would, too. He’s got a lot of friends in big business, and they all care more about their money than anything else. Goes without saying. That stuff about how he was going to drain the swamp? I never believed it. They drain the swamp, everyone will see how many bodies they’ve buried there.
Sparks Not to mention how much buried treasure.
Allen If he does a good job, fuck his tax returns.
Barker Can’t argue with that.
Gagnon Besides, rich people don’t have to pay like the rest of us, everyone knows that. They have lawyers and accountants to keep them on the right side of the law. They know all the loopholes. It’s how the world works. He’s against Obamacare, that’s the important thing. That takes more money out of poor people’s pockets than taxes. It’s not like the Affordable Care Act. The Republicans did that, and it’s much better.
King It appeared that he made fun of a reporter with a physical disability – shaking and stuttering. Any thoughts on that?
Russell Not relevant.
King It doesn’t speak to character?
Russell Of course not. Don’t be obtuse.
Allen It wasn’t very nice, but the guy pissed him off. Sure, it was politically incorrect, but I thought it was, um…
Sparks A breath of fresh air?
Allen Yes. It woke people up. None of the usual politician bullshit. Hannity isn’t right about everything, but he sure was about that.
King This would be Sean Hannity, of Fox News?
King How many of you got most of your information on the candidates from Fox News?
[Allen, Russell and Sparks raise their hands.]
King What about you, Felicia?
Barker I read USA Today. They have a little story about Indiana every day, and their sports coverage is terrific. The rest you have to take with a grain of salt, because the coverage was slanted toward Clinton.
Russell What wasn’t slanted in the papers was made up of whole cloth. Fake news. The worst offender was the New York Slimes, and they won’t let it go.
King I think we’ve about finished, but I’d like to run one more thing by you before we break for lunch. Psychologists mention four basic traits when diagnosing a sociopathic condition known as narcissistic personality disorder. People suffering from this condition believe themselves superior to others, they insist on having the best of everything, they are egocentric and boastful, and they have a tendency to first select love objects, then find them at fault and push them aside. Comments?
[A long silence at the table.]
Russell What’s your point?
Gagnon Are you sure you can’t get me on The Price Is Right?