On Hopelessness and Donald Trump
I think the phenomenon of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has blindsided a lot of people across the political spectrum. Some months ago, commentators expected him to fade away like so many other political outsiders with bizarre and extreme views. He hasn’t, and the day before the Super Tuesday primaries, he stands a good chance of winning the nomination and ultimately being elected President of the United States.
Since I’m a professional writer and not a professional political commentator, I’m not going to go over ground that the national and international media have covered. Rather, I’m going to explore where the Trump candidacy intersects with my own work as a novelist.
In my last year at Vermont College of Fine Arts, after I’d finished Rogue (under a different title, which I plan to reveal soon in a new monthly feature of Rogue trivia), I started a new contemporary YA novel. This one grew out of a short story that I wrote in 2002 and revised and workshopped in summer 2011. It features a high school freshman, the only person from his hardscrabble mobile home park in an elite academic program at his suburban high school, who loses his place in that program when three classmates attack him and leave him with a severe concussion. After flunking out of the program, my protagonist (originally named Nate but now named Ryder because of the preponderance of Nates in recent contemporary YA novels) has his worldview shattered. He once believed that his talent and hard work would lead him to a better life, but now he sees no escape. Worse yet, his failure has redounded onto the intellectually-gifted though socially awkward youngest brother of one of his best friends, who has been denied a chance to take the entrance exam for the program.
My protagonist comes to discover what his stepfather has been telling him all along — the system is rigged against people like them. The best they can do is stay out of debt — and trouble. Unfortunately, debt ensnares them because of a rash, but understandable, decision by my protagonist to try out for the football team, thinking his athletic prowess (he was a Pop Warner standout in his old neighborhood) will give him an alternative path to college for free.
When I submitted this manuscript to publishers in fall 2013 and spring 2014, no editor would read it. I despaired of ever finding a publisher. In fact, I considered serializing the novel on this blog. I didn’t because Running Press acquired Surviving Santiago and the edits and promotion for that book kept me busy. I’m now planning to revise the unsold novel, paring down the number of characters and adding another layer of literary allusions to the texts that inform my protagonist’s worldview, texts that he has been assigned in school or a new girlfriend has shared with him — specifically Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.
So what does this novel manuscript have to do with Donald Trump? My protagonist’s community, all white save for an occasional Latin@ or person claiming Native ancestry, includes many people who would have voted for Trump. His mother and stepfather would have voted for Trump. It doesn’t make them bad people, and that’s the mistake we make when we condemn Trump’s followers, or dismiss them as stupid and dangerous. My protagonist’s mother and stepfather are not evil, stupid, or dangerous. They are people who ended up on the wrong side of the economic line, who 40 years ago would have had a well-paying union job making useful things. They’ve worked hard, played by the rules, and want the best for their kids. When my protagonist’s stepfather warns him against trying to get his place back in the academic program, he does it because he wants to protect the boy not only against another violent attack but also against having his heart broken and his dreams crushed.
A recent study by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton shows us the consequences of broken unions, exported jobs, defunded education and social services, and an increasingly powerful wealthy elite that operates with impunity. While Americans’ lifespan overall has risen over the past 30 years, that of poor whites — women and men, young and old — has decreased or plateaued. This is not due to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, or infections but rather to alcohol and drug overdoses, alcohol and drug-related organ failure, and suicide — the symptoms of powerlessness and hopelessness. These are the causes of death when you look at your life and realize that it will never get better: you are trapped in debt and poverty and squalor, and your children, who you love and only want the best for, will never escape this life either.
And then someone comes along and promises, if not a better life, retribution against those who he says have made life so hopeless. A violent attack creates the will for violent revenge. This is something with which my protagonist struggles. He cannot beat up the three boys who left him with a concussion. There are too many of them, and the system is on their side.
I wish this novel had sold to a publisher in 2014 and come out this year. I think it would have shed light on the rise of Donald Trump, at least made it understandable and prompted thought on what kind of alternatives we have to a demagogue who has scapegoated people of color rather than proposed real ways of addressing unfairness and inequality. Still, I believe in this novel, I believe that it is necessary, and I will redouble my efforts to make it worthy of the light of day, better late than never.