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 covers with Common Nonsense, a graphic look at "Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance" in the Tea Party era. His latest, The Gilded Rage: A Wild Ride Through Donald Trump's America, communicates the larger stories underpinning Donald Nation domination.
City Weekly: This seems like an especially big feat—a book spanning the primaries that comes out before the election. What was the approach?
AZ: 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.
Your dispatches have been amazingly detailed, focusing on elements of the side show that might have been overlooked by other writers. What of these observations are especially important in your mind for anyone who is really trying to understand the bigger picture high and above the spectacle?
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. The animating spirit behind the book is Studs Terkel ... who conducted long biographical interviews with everyday Americans. As I watched the Trump story explode, I thought there was a need for a Terkel approach that let Trump's supporters explain themselves, instead of just having a tiny quote box or sound byte. ... The kind of data journalism people have come to depend on 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.
Is it your job as a journalist to separate 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. ... 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.
Does any of this bother you anymore, or are you just like somebody who cleans 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. ... I think it's 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. How do they compare?
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. CW
Author's note: I have known Zaitchik for many years, and teach in the same department as his father at Salem State University.