In a time of questionable candidates and flame wars galore, Alexander Zaitchik has a new book that displays the disarray.
A longform Jedi with roots in the alternative press, the author last surfaced between periodical pieces with Common Nonsense, a graphic look at “Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance” in the Tea Party era. So it’s fitting that his second major project has been released in the middle of such comparable political hysteria.
For those lamenting an apparent widening attention deficit in modern journalism, Zaitchik’s detailed work should come as an informed relief. His latest, The Gilded Rage: A Wild Ride Through Donald Trump’s America, is a hearty bone for long-readers, on either side of the divide, who feel reporters have neglected to communicate the larger stories underpinning Donald Nation domination.
Though his dispatches arrive amidst a dizzying daily variety of Trump coverage, Zaitchik writes clear of the hype to illustrate conditions fomenting today’s anti-establishmentarianism, however superficial or trumped up. We asked about his revelatory travels through the industrial heartland, Southwestern border territories and Appalachian coal country.
This seems like an especially big feat—a book spanning the primaries that comes out before the election. What was the approach?
I jumped on the primary calendar near the middle, in Arizona, and finished with the June votes in New Mexico and California, a few weeks after Trump clinched the nomination in Indiana. I focused on six states representative of Trump’s marquee campaign themes—in Appalachia, the Rust Belt, and along the Mexico Border. Ideally, I would have had a little more time—I filed the last chapter in early July—but the goal was to get it out in time for the general election. This ended up fitting nicely with the idea behind Hot Books, the Skyhorse Publishing imprint of which The Gilded Rage is a part. They’re short, timely books of around 150 pages, edited by historian and Salon.com founder David Talbot.
Your dispatches have been amazingly detailed, and they focus on some elements of the side show that may have been overlooked by other writers. What observations are especially important in your mind for anyone who is really trying to understand the bigger picture high and above the spectacle?
Like everyone else, I’ve basically been swimming in the Trump story since autumn. While traveling for the book, I kept up with the circus, but not because it impacted the work. I was focused on the lives of Trump’s followers, which don’t have much to do with the cable news cycle on a given Tuesday. The animating spirit behind the book is Studs Terkel, the Chicago journalist and oral historian who conducted long biographical interviews with everyday Americans. His books of interviews revealed more about the country, in a vernacular that sometimes approached literature, than 1,000 newspaper editorials (or 2,000 “hot takes”). As I watched the Trump story explode, I thought there was a need for a Terkel approach that let Trump’s supporters explain themselves over the course of many pages, instead of just having a tiny quote box or sound byte.
When I started the project, a lot of stories were coming out that promised readers and listeners a chance to “Meet the Trump Supporters,” or whatever. But when I finished these pieces, I never felt like I’d met anybody. So I decided to go long where everyone was going short. Sometimes I conducted the interviews only after days spent building trust, hanging out, learning something about them. There wasn’t much scientific about my approach, which was the point. The book is intended as a counterpoint to all that.
The kind of data journalism people have come to depend on, if not worship, never felt more useless than during this primary. One, it was wrong in its predictions, over and over. Two, it kept missing the point. You’d see all these articles crunching numbers, like how Trump voters aren’t really that poor compared to some other voting bloc. They split some statistical hair and completely ignore the whale in the water, which is the unquantifiable psychology of pain, insecurity, anger and resentment. I think there’s obviously a role for the data stuff, but in this election, you’re better off getting drunk with a Trump supporter whose town lost its factories and whose nephews are all on heroin. That’s where I think the Trump story is—in all of these individual American stories, many of them tragedies, almost all of them more complicated than plain racism or sexism. I went around and tried to collect some of these stories. I do think they have a certain amount of political explanatory power. But beyond that, the lives of everyday Americans are just interesting—much more interesting than anything I have to say about Donald Trump, or what Donald Trump has to say about his tax returns.
How much other coverage of Trump and his campaign have you been consuming, and do you have any specific or general praises or condemnations?
I respect those (reporters who cover his campaign on a daily basis) a lot. They live and breathe the campaign and have to file stories every day, often more than once. I don’t think I could do it, and somebody has to. That said, there are serious limitations to working that kind of campaign beat. You fly in, go to a rally, get a few quotes, then go back to the hotel and file, and maybe drink with the hack pack, which is mostly made up of middle-class and upper-middle-class people from the same group of elite schools. They all live in D.C. or the Virginia suburbs. The job isn’t really structured in a way that lets them spend much time away from each other or the noise of the news trail.
I often started at the same place as the press corps, usually at a rally. But after they moved on to the next rally, I’d push deeper into the corners of the state and put in time with the people I met. I also couldn’t afford hotels, so I couch-surfed in the communities and neighborhoods of my interview subjects. In West Virginia, I stayed next door to the guy at the center of that chapter. Instead of drinking back at the Charleston Hilton bar, I went to the run-down local Juggalo club in Raleigh County where all the kids were unemployed and on pills or heroin.
Is it your job as a journalist to separate out the right-wing nut jobs from the so-called everyday Americans who are supporting Trump?
I didn’t seek out any kind of Trump voter. I just talked to people and let the chips fall where they did. If people were open to spending time with me and were halfway articulate, they usually ended up in the book. Some of these people were not pleasant; some were small-minded racists; and others were extremely sympathetic and generous in spirit. The Trump voter base—like the country, like individual Americans—is complicated. There were overlapping themes, but after five months of talking to people at length, I struggle with sketching the “average” Trump voter. I would never discount or downplay the racism and “authoritarianism” swimming in Trump’s base, but I also wouldn’t reduce it to those things.
As a native of Massachusetts, what has it been like to see such a significant embrace of Trump here in New England?
Anyone who’s spent time in Massachusetts knows that even the Republic of Cambridge isn’t all Volvo-driving Democratic socialists. The state has a lot of New Hampshire in it, and worse, and the frustrations and anger that Trump has ridden to the nomination are a national phenomenon. I wasn’t that shocked to see Trump win the primary, though I was disappointed. I admit to clinging to the conceit that my home state is a liberal oasis of reason and progressive politics, the Athens of America. Of course, it isn’t.
How thick is your skin? Does any of this bother you anymore, or are you just like somebody who cleans enormous streams of diarrhea out of sewer pipes all day and no longer even shrinks at the stink?
I spend most of my life in liberal enclaves talking to people who think like I do, so I enjoy getting out there and talking to conservatives. Not so much the cruel, bat-shit crazy ones, but most people are pretty cool on a personal level. I think it’s a good exercise in more ways than one, but above all, it’s necessary if you are going to have any clue about what’s happening in this country. You also need to know how to talk to people if you want to help build some kind of broad progressive coalition. While working on the book, I’d sometimes watch recent college grads completely unable to talk politics with a machinist with a high school education. They simply could not hold a conversation. They used jargon, or coils sprang from their eyes if they heard a word they associated with “trigger warnings” in Gender Studies 101. It’s terrifying to see.
You have now written books on Glenn Beck and Donald Trump. Are they comparable? Any striking similarities or differences?
Two greed-head egomaniacs with Messiah complexes. Hopefully Trump crashes and burns the way Beck is currently. But we’ll still have to reckon with what it all means. Trump obviously heralds and signifies much more than just an unlikely one-off in the 2016 primary.
As somebody who already spends a significant amount of time working outside of the country, would you consider moving if Trump wins?
If anything, I’d be more likely to stay in the country under a Trump presidency. Not just out of a sense of civic duty, but also because times would get “interesting,” in the Chinese aphorism sense of the word. But something tells me they’re about to get pretty damn interesting either way.
This piece was originally published in Dig Boston. The author has known Zaitchik for many years, and teaches in the same department as his father at Salem State University.