I told myself I wouldn’t write about Donald Trump again.
But if I may quote the late Jim Harrison, writing in another context entirely, “it was like trying not to think of a white horse.” Trump is lodged so firmly in my mind, and in the minds of millions of my fellow Americans, that love him or hate him it is hard not to think about him.
Particularly after you’ve seen him right there in your own town, addressing several thousand of the faithful and perhaps a similar number of the merely curious. It’s like having breakfast at Stella’s Kitchen in downtown Billings and seeing Kim Kardashian at the next table.
You don’t want to stare, you might not even want to admit that you recognize her, but come on. Kim Kardashian at the next table.
And there was Trump—Donald J. Trump, as the parade of warm-up speakers referred to him over and over—thundering out non sequiturs in the Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark, barely a mile from where I live.
So many friends and acquaintances, in person and via social media, wanted to know what it was like to actually be in the same room, albeit an extremely large room, with Donald J. Trump. Most of them asked that question with an implied sub-question: “Was it as awful as you imagined?”
I’m afraid I disappointed them. I told them that the experience was curiously anticlimactic, like going to the circus and finding that the ferocious lions were just lounging about their cages, unwilling to jump through hoops of fire.
In their speeches before the main event, a Republican activist from Bozeman, followed by our own U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke and then a policy adviser for Trump, all made sure to hammer a few talking points—Benghazi bad, border wall good, etc.—but they all came off a bit pale, as if they had been coached very carefully to repeat the catch phrases but not quite to believe them.
And then damn me if Trump didn’t make a similar impression. Maybe it was all those years he spent on reality shows, whose allure is as baffling to me as the rise of Trump. On the few occasions I’ve watched them, all I do is sit and wonder how anyone could mistake them for reality, and if they weren’t, then what was the point?
It was also deflating, in a way, to interview some of Trump’s supporters. There may have been some unconscious selection on my part, but everyone I talked to was polite and approachable, just the sort of average folks one sees at a ballgame, a concert, a circus.
You see enough news clips of Trump supporters cold-cocking a protester or shouting racist epithets and you begin to believe that that sort of thing is the norm. It becomes more interesting, and much more complex, to find out that, in Montana at least, his supporters are disarmingly normal.
I wouldn’t dream of mocking them. Meeting them just added to the mystery of what has been the strangest election year in my lifetime. You’d think the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura as the governors of California and Minnesota would have prepared us for the unlikely candidacy of Donald J. Trump.
But both those men, once they were actually running, did their best to act like bona fide statesmen. They followed the rules of reality television by doing their best to seem like normal politicians.
Not Trump. He became more Trump-like with each passing day, and by November it will be impossible to remember what normal politics was like, back when we ourselves were younger and more innocent.
I think about Trump obsessively precisely because I can’t begin to understand the phenomenon of his popularity. Take his constant harping on the wretchedness of life as it is lived by the average American. If things were half as bad as Trump makes it sound, we should be surprised that immigrants still risk their lives to run the border.
When I think of an America in decline, to reference a favorite Trump trope, I say to myself, well, yes, we have a larger proportion of our citizens behind bars than any country in the world, and compared to the 43 countries of Western, Eastern and Central Europe, only Albania has higher levels of gun violence.
The levels of gun violence are generally much worse than ours in most of the countries in Latin America, but a fair amount of that violence is connected with another of our dismal distinctions—our bottomless appetite for illegal drugs.
But these aren’t the problems Trump, much less his most fervent supporters, are referring to when they talk about the sad condition of the United States. I think those supporters are thinking of an America where old-fashioned morality has not only gone out of style but has been prohibited by one of President Obama’s executive orders.
Fair enough, but to then imagine that this situation will be righted by Donald Trump, who embodies more of the seven deadly sins than the number of the Ten Commandments he could recite—why, that is simply beyond comprehension.
Maybe they don’t want to restore morality per se so much as a 1950s morality, when successful white males were free to do as they wished—paging Don Draper—and everyone else was constrained by law and by custom to do as they were told. That world was something of a reality show itself, with everyone’s parts scripted out and the winners selected in advance.
I suppose it’s another sign of our national decline that I can’t put myself in the shoes of those Trump supporters, who are probably just as mystified by my shocking ignorance. For most of my life, even when I couldn’t agree with large numbers of my fellow citizens, I could usually understand where they were coming from.
There is still plenty of time to close the gap in my understanding, but why do I get the impression that the gulf is only going to widen in the months ahead?