California is drawn deep blue, when conceived as a whole, but drawn at the county level it is as multifarious and fractured as the country itself. I spent a good portion of the late summer in the heart of California’s own Trump territory, in the high desert town of Barstow. I was there to attend to my father in the weeks leading up to his death at the local veterans’ hospital. Nor was this my first stay in a part of the state that supports Trump. I grew up in the town of Rio Linda, the butt of one of Rush Limbaugh’s most long-running jokes— an early lesson to me, when I first heard it around 1990, of the strange relationship between right-wing elitism and right-wing populism. Rio Linda was a hotbed of Klan recruitment, and I personally knew some of its initiates, though my friends were mostly Mexican-American punks and goths. Those were formative years for me, in Trumpland, and I feel they give me sufficient credibility to speak with authority on that dispersed part of America, even as I write from Paris.
I’ve been thinking incessantly over the past few days about what to do: declare that I’ll never return to America, or rush back to do what I can to change it; declare my enmity to everyone who voted for Trump, or declare that them’s my folks and y’all are misunderstanding us. One just reels too much at moments of such historical turmoil to be able to produce anything like a coherent plan.
I am struck, right now, by how much my effort to comprehend the rise of Trump is coloured by my memories of Barstow this summer, by what I see now as a presentiment I felt then of what was to come. My father’s last words to me, or very nearly, were a quotation from a certain Douglas Adams novel: ‘So long’, he said, ‘and thanks for all the fish’. At the time I took it as a funny, if basically empty, reference to our shared popular-cultural reference points. A friend reminded me, when I told him about this later, that in the novel the dolphins express their gratitude for all the fish as they are departing from the earth, and they are leaving because the earth is nearing its cataclysmic end. And I can’t help but think, now, that this is what lay at the heart of the presentiment: that I knew my father was ducking out, now, out of America and out of the world, because the time was right, because his own biology was attuned to the demise of his historical epoch, and all those left alive were tumbling headlong into a great historical void.
My father was definitely no Trumpist. He was a stubbornly independent-minded man who thought most people were full of shit, and who valued nothing more than good, honest, ‘authentic’ folk. He knew which of the two groups Trump belonged to, while his paragon of authenticity and goodness toward the end of his life were the Mexican people who surrounded him in his expat community of Lake Chapala, in Jalisco state. He was also extremely disappointed by American culture, and by the elite political class that, he felt, had left him and his kind with so little. He listened to media that spoke of dark forces behind the scenes, keeping all the power and the wealth. He had his picture taken with the dirty, toxic, shameful Alex Jones at some conference in San Antonio, but assured us that ‘that guy has some ideas that are really out there’. Move a few steps closer to the source of the sort of things my father echoed about the people who are controlling things behind the scenes, and you will find overt and evil anti-Semitic propaganda. I sincerely do not believe that he was aware of this connection.
He was surrounded in Lake Chapala by a number of fairly hardened American men, some of whom I got to know during my handful of visits there: Vietnam vets with eye-patches and missing limbs, who spoke of the need to stock up on gold and on canned food, who hated political correctness. The air was just as thick down Mexico way as in Barstow and in Rio Linda with the sort of sentiments that would propel Trump to power. And this is where things get complicated, for me and in reality. Many of those men love Mexico too, not as entitled white retirees love paradisiac resorts, but as men who think of themselves as lowly and alienated, as on the receiving end of a life of blows coming from the well-connected and wealthy, and who melt into a culture that they feel has room for them, who start families and love their Mexican children, who love Spanish and who love in Spanish. Educated liberals will demonise them for targeting subaltern women in stereotyped and stereotyping ways, yet from their point of view, I am certain, it is not objectification at all, but love. One of the most hardened and politically reactionary of all of them had a disabled child, whom he struggled to send to the United States for medical care. This child was, one might suppose, the very embodiment of everything the Trumpists despise as subhuman, yet there she was: generated and raised up and loved by a man who himself surely believes that Hillary Clinton is a puppet of Alan Greenspan, who is a pawn of George Soros, who is... well, you know.
So, it’s complicated, far more complicated than it appears from within the enclaves of blue America. I have recently said that everyone who helped to bring Trump to power is my ‘enemy’, while everything I am saying here might seem to be an attempt to mitigate that. But I mean what I say. Wars turn brother against brother. True historical crises tear us apart, whether we love each other or not. Those who propelled Trump to power are bursting with love, just like you are, just like the kids sobbing right now, so I’m told, on Harvard Yard. Many of them had no idea what evil they were helping to unleash. They love, and are worthy of love, and they must be defeated.