Trumpifest Destiny: Rants & Thoughts from an American Road Trip
I am far outside of my box and I am driving through Eastern Arkansas.
Heading into the northeast section of Ouachita National Forest is something like driving through a dream, a personal delusion, an anachronism in real time. A movie set ripped out of the imagination and reassembled in waking life.
For me, anyways.
We stop in a booming city-town called Fort Smith. At the Calico Restaurant my eyes bulge and my stomach cries. Chicken livers—fried; steak—chicken fried; tomatoes—green, fried. Then we head Southeasterly, weaving through towns like Dardanelle—pop 4,745, county seat. A hyperboloid nuclear cooling tower rises up out of a lake, seething, billowing thick white draft toward the clouds. Country Route 7 curves and loops down through Ola—pop 1,259. A few cars are parked downtown. Most of the little brick storefronts are boarded and shuttered. I see a Mexican restaurant and a furniture store. The local high school closed five years ago.
Driving down into the Ouachita and heading toward Little Rock you get patterns. Little towns short on commerce, heavy on faith. In many of these villages the churches seem to be all that remain. Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal. An overabundance, a divine bubble. A supply of religion that seems inconsistent with the supply of everything else. And trees. Beautiful hills ringed with trees, tinged with early Autumn. And little blue and red and white signs that said TRUMP PENCE MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!
And taken together, it all begins to make sense. Open your eyes. Perceive it, man. Fuck. There's a whole world out there. I slap myself. TO BE ALMOST SAVED IS TO BE TOTALLY LOST a sign says. The car meets the highway.
Farther yet, I'm sitting at a restaurant in Zanesville, Ohio.
“So, all the pottery is gone?”
“Yeah…” The waitress nods with a sigh—heavy, wistful, mostly tired. “Yeah…”
Through patchy tree cover, I can see the Muskingum River. An overcast sky presides, not threatening, not sunny—like a dusty puddle turned upside down. A Walleye sandwich—fried—and a platter of Portobellos—fried—come to rest in front of me. It’s 3 pm. Friday. The restaurant is almost full. Men—big men, happy big men—huddle around the bar and tables. They laugh and hoot, content, happy to be where they are for the moment.
Out in the dusty parking lot a group of young guys—20s, early 30s, my age, my friends' age—huddle around a skinny, shirtless friend on a motorbike. I watch them for a moment as the kid on the bike speeds toward the group and skids to a stop just in front of them, venting a puff of dust and dirt. They laugh and shout at him. One kid’s shirt says Hillary for Prison 2016.
Zanesville, Ohio was the Pottery Capital of the World. Now, it’s another town in another part of the country waiting on a forgotten grandeur, or at the very least uncertain, cautious, begrudging of a future that doesn’t look like that past. And why not? The past was good.
It makes sense.
There is no illusion of prosperity in Zanesville. The per capita income is half the national average. But it wasn’t always so, I gather. The past, the past was good. Today, it seems the hope is to move into a future that renews a story ended long ago. A long awaited bestselling sequel. A backward looking hope. There isn’t so much desire for “things as they will be.” Look around town. “Things as they are” is hardly good enough. The desire is for “things as they were.”
In this way, the slogan dreamed onto hopeful lawns and hats is so perfectly appropriate—so mind-bogglingly relevant, so staggeringly ingenious, so correct, that I couldn’t help but think that its inception, creation, devising-up was some sort of cosmic, brilliant accident. It’s a sentence that suggests a future that simulates the past. Or at least one that feels like the past. One that feels as great as the past and in the same way.
Completely outside my box, I'm making my way from Yosemite to Vegas.
The floor at the Nugget Hotel and Casino in Pahrump, Nevada is quiet and blinky-shiny. It’s Wednesday night, maybe 11. A sign at the entrance offers UP TO $500 in cash for SLOT TOURNAMENT TUESDAYS. The floor of the casino is speckled with gamblers. Most are easing small bills or coins into sparkling-fluorescent-flashing slots. An elderly woman climbs out of a motorized scooter and positions herself in front of a machine. Coins go in, she waits. She wears a large white t-shirt that says Make America Great Again!
I wander around, haphazardly shoving dollars and coins into things.
The place is huge. And almost empty.
In Nevada slots are required to pay 75% of what goes in. In practice, this number is actually higher—maybe 90%—because of competition between casinos. Let’s assume the profit margin for the Pahrump Nugget slots is 10%. And the profit margin on games of essential chance—Roulette, Craps, Blackjack—is around 0.5-3%. So the slots are an awful play. But, then again, you could turn your life around with a one-dollar bill. That’s why all 17 people at the Nugget are cranking the wheel and hoping.
Up on the wall are pictures of regular people holding irregular amounts of money. Apparently—and this is true because I consulted the internet—a guy won $18 million bucks playing penny slots at this very Nugget. Could be you. Shit. You never can know for sure. I get a rush, too, watching my currency sucked into the bright lights. A few minutes later, twenty bucks down, not yet a millionaire, I abscond to my hotel.
The Nugget is a rough metaphor for this moment in America. It’s the promise of a reality so shiny and so acceptable and perfect, so easily realizable. And, what of the promiser of that reality? The promiser hints at the possibilities of what could be, preying brilliantly on the desperation and the flickering, stifled sense of possibility of those accepting the promise, never once mentioning the odds, the truth about what it would mean to really make it all better, really make it all shiny and perfect.
Before I left to drive around the country, this Trump moment, whatever we want to call it—Revolution, Mass Confusion—weighed heavy on me. I don't think I’d have taken the trip this time last year. The country has never been more interesting and foreign to me. I was intrigued to see who and what was out there, who lived outside of my hyper-blue progresso-box of felt Berns and deplorers of deplorables. Who are these others—these terrible, horrible no good, very bads?
I think I get it now.
See, politics is a hope shower. People run, and fast, toward the hope and you have to be generous with it. No, you can’t be a simple dispenser of hope, you’ve got to be a cracked fire hydrant—pummeling and overwhelming.
Now, sometimes you have to manufacture hopelessness before you can become the hydrant of hope. First, you might have to yell fire!—or rapists!, or terrorists!, or names of North African cities—even if there isn’t really a fire. But, if the people are already hot, yelling fire is just gravy. Sometimes, the hopelessness is already there.
Anyways, that's enough metaphor.
There are parts and people in this country that are legitimately entitled to hopelessness. No, not Syria hopeless. Not Eritrea hopeless. But, hopeless all the same. They’re stuck, disappointed, underappreciated, let down by the bureaucratic soothsayers that claimed to be on their side. But they’ve been hoping for a long time now and downtown Zanesville still doesn’t look like this:
and the high school in Ola is gone and the slots at the Nugget still aren’t reciprocating.
And it makes sense.
I could feel it in Former-World-Capitals-of—______ in Ohio and around the Ouchita, in Pahrump and Eureka, California, and Scranton, Pennsylvania and on and on. An emptiness needing dealing with.
In stepped The Knight in Shining Orange, speaking directly—and sometimes even accurately, I might add—about what’s going down in those places.
Look. I’ll never advocate for forced lifestyle change. I think the fundamental desires of the people deserve precedent. But, the problem is that there is no reclamation of the past—yesterday is yesterday, tomorrow is tomorrow—and the promise that there can and will and should be a return of yesterday has been an underhanded punch to the gut of these places that just want and need some hope. The lie of Make America Great Again, the revertative Back-to-the-Future politics has done serious damage to those parts of the country.
After spending time in many downbeat, Trump-targeted parts of the USA, I find it even more of a real fucking tragedy that such an epic bastard has been designated Hope Pusher in Chief for millions of people that really do need the hope. Instead of being told to consider embracing, adapting, falling in love with the changing world, they’ve been told to spurn it all and rewind the tape. Despise the new. Circle the wagons and beat back. Push away towards the Great Before. And they believe. Because they’re told they have no choice. And because they want to. And they’ll believe until the end.
You know, they say the last people who admit that a Ponzi scheme is a Ponzi scheme are the victims.
So, in this way, it is not mostly the fault of the deplorable hopeless, because they want and need to believe in something. In the same way I do not think it is mostly the fault of the people who wrote checks to Bernie Madoff or the boy who believes in 72 virgins and salvation. It is ultimately the fault of the ones that want and need to BE believed over all else. The misguider, I truly do believe, is forever worse than the misguided.
I saw on my trip that regular people are regular people. They want to be satisfied and loved, spoken to and treated like they matter, work hard for enough dough to be comfortable, and think that what's left of their future, whether it be tomorrow, 10 years from now, or the better chunk of a lifetime is a place with greener grass and comfortable chairs, and maybe even angels and clouds and shit.
They make sense to me, now.
If you spend your life in a box, you will be skeptical of circular rooms. Spend enough time in that box, you won’t believe a circular room when you see it. This is my problem and this is our problem. We have an exposure deficiency. We absorb reality in ways most palatably consistent with our own. We want, desperately, to believe in things that fit the pattern. We end up sharpening the edges of the box.
The fact that so many of the people I saw on my trip around the USA seemed like dream people, the places they inhabited like dream worlds, like the kind of shit you read about in books and watch about in movies, is scary. I’ve made them into archetypes, differentizing them to fit my version of the story, dismissing their hopes/dreams/lawn signs as the embodiment of awfulness, their way of life as backward to my forward. And, I think it's fair to say, they have done the same.
The truth is, of course, that if my reality were a little different I might just have those lawn signs, too. And I’d be in the market for a voice that tells me a story with a great ending. And I suppose I’d want to believe enough that I just would.