November 9, 2016
The Trainwreck Files: The American Electoral System
by Sady Doyle
We’re all struggling to make sense of this morning’s news. In this latest installment of her ongoing series The Trainwreck Files, Sady Doyle, author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… And Why, takes a look at the American Electoral System and asks: is it a trainwreck?
Sady wrote this late Monday night — a lifetime ago, it suddenly seems. In a state of rage and unquantifiable sadness, we note that these words are all the more relevant for the epochal shock America has suffered.
So: It’s the night before the 2016 Presidential election. I’m writing to you in the dark, suspended in mid-air.
This isn’t a metaphor. I’m on a plane. I’ve been in three different time zones on three consecutive days, starting out in Brooklyn, heading south to Austin for the Texas Book Festival, then north and west to Portland for an event at Powell’s. And now, finally, I’m headed back home. Spanning the continent in the space of a night, so that I will have been in every part of America the night before America makes its decision.
It’s a big country. You wonder how we manage to knit it together, even mentally; how we manage to conceive of the United States as one coherent nation, rather than the mess its name describes, a grab-bag of different kingdoms united by compact. Touch down in a few cities in a few days, and you get the sense of what I mean.
Austin is all bright primary colors, like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse; strings of little paper flags with lacy cut-outs hang out the sides of trailers serving take-out food. Bars have old pin-ups hanging tits-out along the wall, or Aztec designs painted around the courtyard. Flowered skulls are everywhere; Dia de los Muertos just passed, and the community altars are still on display. Men have sideburns, women have Bettie Page haircuts. Kids in hot pants drink beer on the roof to ward off the muggy November heat. Restaurants have signs out front: Please conceal your gun before entering.
Portland is green and brown and almost universally wood-paneled, like a rec room in 1977. There’s a Unitarian church with a #BlackLivesMatter banner strung along the side, next to a school promising “inspired learning.” You buy ramen from a block of food trucks downtown and eat it in a grimy little brick-lined park where young men approach to offer you weed. Girls with pastel hair walk through town clad in wool caps and what looks to be about fifteen simultaneous sweaters. Public restrooms implore you to Help Us Keep It Green; your hotel informs you that, unless it is absolutely necessary, you must not inflict damage to the Earth by requesting that the staff launder your towels.
One of these places is in a “red state,” the other a “blue” one; we know how they’ll go, which column they’ll be sorted into. But this does not describe anything about them, or alleviate the weirdness of the fact that they are essentially different planets, and we have to make one big decision, as strangers, that will apply to both. Poking around the Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin gives me no sense of what it really is to live so connected to that country—a day’s drive away, on what was once Mexican land—but people who haven’t even done that much, people for whom “Mexico” is an abstract concept or a mysterious force that sucks jobs away, are going to decide whether or not we build a damn wall.
I try to prepare for worst-case scenarios, a woman told me last night, but I can’t imagine him winning. I can’t wrap my mind around it. It’s just too dark.
I can’t either; the possibility is so horrific it’s actually just ridiculous. The cause, I suspect, comes down to that abstraction from each other’s lives. The fact that we let our responsibility to care for each other degenerate into spectacle. There are plenty of things wrong with the US electoral system. Caucuses—in which you are forced to literally argue the decision out with your neighbors, and people who have kids, or are too poor to skip work, or don’t speak the same language as their neighbors invariably get screwed—are one thing I would like to see abolished in the Utopia. But Donald Trump is, more than anything, a symbol of what happens when we treat elections as entertainment.
Because they are. They are! We watch the debates looking for gaffes, live-Tweet the horror shows on the other side. We meme Ted Cruz into the Zodiac Killer and share embarrassing pictures of Martin O’Malley’s band and work out our nation’s complicated feelings about Nate Silver. Normally ignored news anchors become folk heroes or cultural villains. And it’s great. I loved the Tumblr that turned Mitt Romney into Lucille Bluth, or Newt Gingrich’s moon colony, as much as anyone. But we turned it into a show. And when there’s no show—when it’s just the boring, unglamorous midterms that actually determine whether progressive governance is possible—we don’t show up.
Shows need heroes. They need villains. They need breakout characters — a wild man, sort of a Kramer type, who just crashes in at random and does ridiculous stuff. Really edgy, always tells it like it is. So politically incorrect, but you have to admit, he’s funny! Scores big with the white male demographic. Give him a catchphrase, too, something to put on the merch. Oh, that’s great, we’ll move a ton of those hats. Make him wear the hat on the show. People love the hat. People love the character, can we get him more focus? Like: Maybe he just calls news shows at random, and they always air him, every time. When Trump’s not on the screen, the other characters should be asking: Where’s Trump?
And yes, the show was supposed to be about politicians. We had some really solid politician characters. But the thing is, we have a character that’s a really plausible President—if anything, she’s too idealized: too qualified, too experienced, too adult—and the camera hates her. A sixty-something woman who’s never openly upset about anything, and just keeps her head down and does her job? Why is that something you want to watch? If people aren’t bored stiff by the character, they’re irritated by her. Male viewers think she’s a nagging bitch — it’s a total Skyler White situation. So you have to ask, do we really want to push this “Hillary Clinton, First Female President” arc? It’s a dud. And people tune in to see the crazy guy.
Spectacle is not kind to women, but it may not be kind to any of us, in the end. Not if the show, the creation of heroes and villains, substitutes for empathy. Not if it leads us to forget the agreement we made, the agreement to be a country. To care for our neighbors, and for strangers across the country. To choose a common leader with each other in mind; the candidate that is kindest to both Austin and Portland, who will help the most people and harm the least. If you think that decision through, I think, Hillary Clinton is the only choice in 2016. Yet we could go down a different road. We could just keep the show going forever.
So: I’m in the dark, in mid-air. Like everyone else in America, tonight. The plane’s path is stitching together all those big central states. All those Trump states; the land we call “flyover country,” even though it’s most of the country. When I look down, I see nothing; no cities means no light. I can’t tell you how it feels, or looks, what the mythology of the land is, what the assumptions there are. I can’t give you a portrait, the way I might if I’d breathed the air, drank the water. It’s just a void, a black blank slate, for miles. It will stay that way until tomorrow, until those states, and all the others, write the history of the world.
Verdict: What trainwrecks are made of.
Sady Doyle founded the blog Tiger Beatdown in 2008. Her work has appeared in In These Times, The Guardian, Elle.com, The Atlantic, Slate, Buzzfeed, Rookie, and lots of other places around the Internet. Her first book, Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... And Why is out now from Melville House.