Young voters saw this coming, even if the media didn’t – this is the deathly political system that we grew up in
It was the hottest of takes and the dankest of memes, the agony and ecstasy of a howling electorate captured in one two-second GIF: The world’s most photogenic dumpster, raging with a fun-size hell-fire. Behold, said the captions, the 2016 U.S. election. It had everything: Poetry! Zeitgeist! Behold the insouciant, savage wit of the Twitter commentariat! For about a day, dumpster fire was lit AF. Then it got old.
But, as the most obnoxious memes are wont to do, it refused to die. It has become an indelible cliché, an annoying and persistent rash on the rump of political punditry. The media has since proposed some alternatives: This election is hell. This election is a Netflix Original Series. This election is that Hieronymous Bosch painting of the bad acid trip with the strawberry orgy. Whatever your metaphor, it’s the same thinkpiece: Reality has been fucked up beyond recognition, and we never saw it coming.
This election is like one if those enormous Hieronymus Bosch paintings where everything is happening and none of it's good.— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) March 3, 2016
But didn’t we? I don’t recall being particularly shocked by Donald Trump’s nomination, even as the mainstream media erupted in indignant hot takes asking how the hell this could happen. It had simply confirmed what many young voters — especially those who are POC, queer, trans, and otherwise disenfranchised — had feared for a while, even betted on. Aha, a large portion of the country really does hate us that much. It was like something out of a Stephen King novel, except less white and straight: You know that ancient, all-powerful, cosmic horror that royally screwed up our adolescences? Well, it’s back, it’s pissed, and it’s running for president.
Roger Ebert famously called noir the “most American film genre, because no society could have created a world so filled with doom, fate, fear and betrayal, unless it were essentially naive and optimistic.” The 2016 election only comes off as a Lynchian parallel universe if you don’t already live in a world ruled by racist, incompetent, gibbering men-children who make insane promises and are bad at boundaries. It’s intellectually dishonest, this surprise apocalypse narrative so beloved by the mainstream media. Or perhaps, more despairingly, it’s merely out of touch — that grating Palahniuk brand of naivety and privilege masquerading as edge and cynicism. It’s like Banksy writing a dystopian YA novel in which every teenager is sorted into a social media platform at birth. You’re showing a PSA about dumpster fires to people nursed on the fumes of hot garbage. What dumpster fire? We yell, roasting marshmallows over it. This is my living room, asshole.
“Of course with every college acceptance or raise or achievement of some basic human right, we’d be indirectly fueling the rise of a militant army hell-bent on taking it all away”
Preachers of the dumpster fire narrative love to criticize the unrealistic writing of this election. A presidential candidate who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy? Russian hackers? The FBI as (almost) deus ex machina? Not even J. J. Abrams would stoop this low, but boy is it bingeable. But to many of us for whom this is our first presidential election, it’s a natural and skillful progression built on many seasons’ worth of character development and plot advancement. There’s even a smidgen of poetic justice. And it’s incredibly painful to watch knowing we couldn’t stop it. Of course the angry, 4Chan-weaned nerds of our youth would grow up to become the alt-right. Of course with every college acceptance or raise or achievement of some basic human right, we’d be indirectly fueling the rise of a militant army hell-bent on taking it all away. Of course we’d be forced to choose between the flesh vessel of the Divine Fuccboi and a sociopathic white feminist who thinks quoting Beyonce is a good substitute for intersectionality.
In the last few weeks of the election, the media has finally grown bored of the dumpster fire pieces. The ethnography of Trump supporters is the hot take du jour — the media has, at last, begun its long overdue postmortem of Trump’s ascent. BREAKING: It’s because of fragile white masculinity. The threat of emasculation by immigration and feminism. Wrath at a system progressing for everyone but them.
But the kids who grew up with these people, who witnessed them tormenting our parents and inherited the torment, have always understood why Trump is their perfect messiah. Trump is every classmate who got a consulting internship from his dad or got into college on a legacy preference but complains about affirmative action. This is not, of course, the average Trump supporter, but they follow him because he represents an ideal, a prototype to strive towards. And he makes that ideal realistic by emphasizing his flaws. Trump is not a good businessman, or an eloquent speaker, or a “winner” even by his own standards. That is precisely why he’s so popular — he’s a terrible businessman who speaks like he forgot his Ivy League education who is nevertheless entitled to being a winner, who is guaranteed to come out on top no matter how many women or minorities are more competent than him. He peddles the fantasy of unlimited, unadulterated white, male privilege. Is it that hard to see its appeal?
“Trump is not a good businessman, or an eloquent speaker, or a “winner” even by his own standards”
Look, I embody everything a Trump supporter despises. I’m a journalism major from a liberal private university. I’m a bisexual, genderqueer Asian-American who grew up in upper middle-class Silicon Valley. I’m a terrible snob who turns up my nose at having to set foot anywhere between the East and West coast. But even I agree with Trump supporters that the mainstream media has supremely screwed up their coverage of this election. Too busy waxing sexy prose about the aesthetics of this novel Armageddon, peacocking their intellectual superiority, shitting on each other’s listicles about how this election is like House of Cards or Scandal or Veep to listen to anyone resembling the electorate — be that POC who have been shouting into the void for years or poor, white high-school dropouts for whom xenophobia is not just a coping mechanism, but a means of survival — however misguided that may be. I don’t know if I agree with the narrative that the media singlehandedly created this dumpster fire, but it certainly spilled a lot of kerosene.
It’s not too late to rectify this. We all know this bullshit isn’t ending on Tuesday. We have the next four years to put out this dumpster fire. But the first step is to stop calling it a dumpster fire. For most of us, this is not an ARG or Shakespearean thriller, but a reality. And most of us don’t have the luxury of watching the world burn.