The idiosyncratic pantheon of Trump administration staffers continues its exodus, a stream of comic book villains exiting stage right. The combination of venality, incompetence, and pathological narcissism, however, remains. And the world lives in the Trump era’s bubble of strangely dilated time: everything agonizingly slow—and bewilderingly fast.
But for all the post-mortems on the 2016 election, for every Hillbilly Elegy that says to white rage “I feel your pain,” or every column wondering how evangelicals can tolerate Stormy Daniels, there’s a larger diagnosis that Americans need to undertake. A frank assessment of the conditions enabling Trump’s election—and I’m not talking here about Russia and the UAE—means that we look squarely at the tendency of Americans to invest more in “authenticity” than capability, and to combine this with a paranoia that long predates Trump. At the center of this venerable right-wing fantasy (and it does provide the right with subversive pleasure) is the idea that without a “straight talker” to cut through the BS, the state will come for our guns and our freedom of religion.
It’s a capacity for offense, outrage, and embattlement which provides most Americans with their surest sense of authenticity these days. The feeling that we’re part of an Embattled Majority is what gives us the sense that we’re all stars in our own action movie, that our current mediocrity is mere prelude to some glorious overcoming, that the din of the polis might evolve into our very own theme music.
Nothing outrages Americans more, of course, than religion. What characterizes our moment is the literal and metaphorical weaponization of such outrage. And both depend on the unhinged imagination that too many citizens imagine is superior to dull facts.
And in Trump’s America, solid facts—the lifeless bodies of school students, the realities of institutional racism, the norms and laws hourly flouted—are commuted into things that can be ignored, as if their hold on us was mere fantasy. The “again” that is central to the MAGA phenomenon is a yearning for the not-realness of black bodies, women’s bodies, Muslim bodies, or the dead who bear the marks of our complicity.
This is clearly what’s at stake in considering possible American futures, some of which will reckon honestly with our past and others of which refuse to do so. Get Out may never have been fated to win the Best Picture Oscar, but it’s still the movie that best answers the question how did we get here? while pointing to the “black mold” in the basement. But what needs to be acknowledged is that while Trump is truly exceptional in his disregard for laws, norms, and institutions, he’s also a recognizable product of a half-century’s con game.
Significantly, it was with Ronald Reagan’s endorsement of conservative evangelicals that the link between personal religion and politics was cemented firmly in ways we currently recognize. Rather than simply a lens through which people decide to support particular laws or policies, with Reagan religion became central to what we might call Politics as Personal Radiance. In a time of shrinking public resources and uncertain futures, we began to bathe willingly in the light of charisma, hoping that its warmth would sustain us where the state no longer would. And indeed, throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, these associations were steadily made more central to American politics. This focus on the personal, on the sincerely held belief, on personality and inner piety all combined into a vertiginous atmosphere in which everyone could become offended by everyone else.
The fractiousness of the Bush and the Obama years only deepened this condition. Bush, we were told, might have been no genius, but he was a “good man,” the kind of guy you could talk to at a barbecue. Voters didn’t want someone who was experienced and efficient as much as they wanted somebody who looked at the world the way they do. And as Facebook Likes became Tweets became Instagram posts, we came to care more energetically about participating through our clicks in Life as Action Movie than in collective action, about announcing our outrage than in finding ways out of it.
Trump is in no small part the product of this combination of vanity and imagination. He will fight for us, we hear. He tells us we matter, they say. At least he says what he means, the mantra goes. But however hollow these rationales ring, behind the phenomenon is a toxic mix of white-guy swagger and religious exclusivism.
Think about the implications. The preponderance of racial discourse during Obama’s presidency needs little rehearsing. But as Birtherism grew, what increasingly stitched together its concerns about birthrights and freedoms, about wrong religions and national identity—and especially about race—was guns. The fear was that Obama’s thugs would come first for our guns, to prevent good citizens from righteous revolt once the real attacks on Christianity began.
Armed white citizens appearing in public came partly to define the Obama era and the resurfacing of aggressive white supremacy. Consider the Oath Keepers, made up of (mostly ex-) soldiers and cops formed as a kind of extralegal organization professing allegiance to the Constitution and not the newly-elected President (and now volunteering to patrol America’s high schools). Groups held “open carry” church services and warned about Obama’s antigun conspiracy. In the age of false-flag tweets, bots, and Breitbart, America’s politics became increasingly about displaying our vehement opposition to a thing that has not happened. What counts as truth is confirmed in our fearful anticipation—we can’t trust an expert, but we can trust what we feel.
As armed “patriots” convened at the local Starbuck’s, or protested against day laborers at a Home Depot, the outrage about losing our Glocks and TEC-9s and AR-15s contained more potent anxieties. Somehow the very fact that Obama didn’t impose Sharia law and seize guns was converted in the imagination to an anti-Christian, anti-American violence that was even more certain because it hadn’t happened yet. One self-described patriot even wondered, “What am I afraid of? I do not know—but I feel far more comfortable knowing that I have my nine-millimeter in my car.”
A failure to question such fantastical narratives of embattlement and persecution allowed the chief Birther to ascend to the Oval Office. Who could possibly profess shock at the massive increase in American hate groups since 2016, or at the rise in public violence, after years of open carry racism, of hoarding bullets before Obama can tax them, or of attempts to intimidate crowds at Black Lives Matter marches. At the end of the phrase “Make America Great Again,” there may as well be an “Or Else.”
There was some precedent, to be sure. The militias of the 1990s believed that Clinton was going to put people in camps too. Some fevered critics of George W. Bush listened anxiously to police radio after September 11, 2001, certain that right-wingers would seize the moment to realize their longstanding desire to lock up all the radicals. But what distinguishes the Obama-to-MAGA era of paranoid fantasy, in all its everyday, strip-mall suburbanness, is the omnipresence of the black body.
The Obamas’ bodies, especially, were displayed, defaced, hung in effigy, photoshopped, and made fantasy. There were also those other black bodies, too many assembled to ignore any longer, because too many black bodies had been filmed being felled by too many guns.
We cannot think this era without thinking of the status of non-white bodies, and we cannot think of those bodies without the fact of guns stockpiled by white people. White “patriots” claimed that they were breaking no laws, and were in fact keeping the streets safer. Confronted with the seeming unreality of their fevered visions of UN troops helicoptering into their homes at night, or of “political correctness” finally outlawing Christianity, Oath Keepers and their sympathizers muttered that just because it hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it won’t. They needed to stand up against tyranny, even if you couldn’t see it, even if there was no evidence that it existed. And if nothing happened, then it was because of their open carry Braveheart cosplay.
The fearful times we live in didn’t just drop out of the sky. Trump just turned up the volume on what’s been cultivated for at least a half-century: a steady, shrill white noise that drowns out other voices in America. It’s much easier to double down on the idea that we’re embattled, especially when we’re not, than to admit to ourselves we need to rethink certain fundamental realities: like who “the people” are.
While white racists, defined through imaginings of their own heroic resistance, indirectly acknowledge the erosion of their historic privilege, now there are skyrocketing rates of African-American gun owners, gun clubs, and more. For all that Richard Spencer or Stephen Miller might wish otherwise, for all the fearsomeness of alt-righters in the streets, for all the pieties about “our way of life” and the whiteness of its religion, ours is a time of things refusing to conceal themselves, to be swept under nostalgia’s rug.
It’s still possible that Americans might make it through this bleak time with an increased readiness to listen and practice a politics of humility, rather than indulge in carnival, braggadocio and self-serving fantasies of persecution. But if privileged Americans keep drowning out the voices of those who actually, materially suffer, new noise will get louder too.