The Best Essay I Read This Month: “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” by George Saunders

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It’s easy—reflexive, even—to be snarky and closed off to genuine emotion when writing about this election season, which is why it’s nice to read a piece rooted in genuine concern and the desire to understand people, especially people whose beliefs seem to us impossibly far removed from our own. George Saunders’ “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?,” which appeared earlier this month in The New Yorker (it was titled “Trump Days” in the print issue), is such a piece.

The style is very Saunders-y, which is of course why we’re here. I’d imagine it’s the minority of people in the literary/media world who scrolled past the concept “George Saunders hits the Trump trail” and thought, ‘nah I am not reading that.’

“He growls, rants, shouts, digresses, careens from shtick nugget to shtick nugget, rhapsodizes over past landslides, name-drops Ivanka, Melania, Mike Tyson, Newt Gingrich, Bobby Knight, Bill O’Reilly. His right shoulder thrusts out as he makes the pinched-finger mudra with downswinging arm. His trademark double-eye squint evokes that group of beanie-hatted street-tough Munchkin kids; you expect him to kick gruffly at an imaginary stone. In person, his autocratic streak is presentationally complicated by a Ralph Kramdenesque vulnerability. He’s a man who has just dropped a can opener into his wife’s freshly baked pie. He’s not about to start grovelling about it, and yet he’s sorry—but, come on, it was an accident. He’s sorry, he’s sorry, O.K., but do you expect him to say it? He’s a good guy. Anyway, he didn’t do it.”

There are descriptions of xenophobic, racist abuse, both physical and verbal. Protestors who were kicked, punched, groped, thrown to the ground. Trump-ites declaring to protesters their desire to shoot those protesters execution-style, which you probably didn’t read about elsewhere or see on the news because it’s normal now. We don’t expect less. Like with gun violence or terrorist attacks, we have to a certain degree become inured. Which is why it’s really important that we keep reading stories like this, that we keep caring.

Saunders does a neat job of navigating both the narrative of the mob and the narratives of individuals. There’s a description of a river of supporters offset by riverbanks of protesters where the back-and-forth is just surreal. When you read it, it gives an almost physical sensation of dizziness, as though you are actually being spun in circles, which is a good way for a writer to make you feel when you’re reading about the chaos of a crowd.

Saunders focuses not just on the anger, indignation, and fear—which we talk about pretty frequently—but on the sadness that comes from witnessing such a lack in human solidarity and decency. Which we do of course talk about, but maybe less frequently.

“If you are, as I am, a sentimental middle-aged person who cherishes certain Coplandian notions about the essential goodness of the nation, seeing this kind of thing in person—adults shouting wrathfully at one another with no intention of persuasion, invested only in escalating spite—will inject a palpable sadness into your thinning, under-exercised legs, and you may find yourself collapsing, post-rally, against a tree in a public park, feeling hopeless.”

He gives us an analysis of “LeftLand” and “RightLand,” and laments, while managing to not navel-gaze, just how unfordable the gap between the two has grown. The two worlds are borne not just from different circumstances, but from different realities—our very sets of facts are different now. He conveys that feeling we experience when confronted with the impotence of arguing, simultaneously frustrating and sad. A liberal guy, “Green Shirt,” who sputters to answer the “Trumpies” charge that he’s uneducated but can only come up with “ask me a question, ask me a question” by way of proving otherwise. Trump disciples who insist Obama and Clinton and undocumented immigrants are bringing them to personal ruin, though they can’t say exactly how. Saunders himself struggling: “I make a certain sound I make when I disagree with something but have no facts at my disposal.”

Many portions, especially early on, are sort of written from the perspective of a Trump supporter—or, rather, with an openness to understanding and acknowledging how Trump looks from the perspective of those supporters, the rapture and religiosity and promise of salvation he brings them.

“What unites these stories is what I came to think of as usurpation anxiety syndrome—the feeling that one is, or is about to be, scooped, overrun, or taken advantage of by some Other with questionable intentions. In some cases, this has a racial basis, and usurpation anxiety grades into racial nostalgia, which can grade into outright racism, albeit cloaked in disclaimer.

In the broadest sense, the Trump supporter might be best understood as a guy who wakes up one day in a lively, crowded house full of people, from a dream in which he was the only one living there, and then mistakes the dream for the past: a better time, manageable and orderly, during which privilege and respect came to him naturally, and he had the whole place to himself.”

His gift to these people, which many of his idealogically like-minded peers and readers probably feel they don’t deserve, is to give their version of the facts their due. There is a fine line between empathy and condescension, of which Saunders is respectful. He writes his best understanding of why Trump supporters have chosen to stand for such a man, while stopping just shy of the edge of, ‘yes, I see how you poor, misguided, uneducated left-behinders have been tricked into believing what you believe’ territory.

It’s unfortunate that, despite that, this piece will pretty much just be read by the kind of people who generally read The New Yorker. Still, as Saunders discovers, or perhaps rediscovers, that not all Trump supporters are necessarily evil—that not everyone is violent or a Nazi, that some of them, many of them, care—he does takes pains to note, gently, that many people who support Donald Trump do so without really grasping his meaning. Some of them support him not because they understand his platform and find that it resonates, but because they misunderstand what he can offer them.

“The tragedy of the Trump movement is that one set of struggling people has been pitted against other groups of struggling people by someone who has known little struggle, at least in the material sense, and hence seems to have little empathy for anyone struggling, and even to consider struggling a symptom of weakness. ‘I will never let you down,’ he has told his supporters, again and again, but he will, and in fact already has, by indulging the fearful, xenophobic, Other-averse parts of their psychology and reinforcing the notion that their sense of being left behind has no source in themselves.”