Flying home to vote in Kentucky, I of course expected the worst.
In my imagination, it would be as if the characters from an Erskine Caldwell novel migrated into the mob scene at the end of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. If the recent spate of legitimate thought pieces and somewhat less legitimate “hot takes” is any indication, I imagine that’s what many of you pictured for the South and Midwest as well.
Kentucky sits awkwardly between those hot zones. We have Southern accents and rust-belt woes. We have the opioid epidemic, the obesity epidemic, the joblessness epidemic, the strongman governor epidemic, the crumbling public sector epidemic — you name it, we’ve got it. We are prime Trump territory, a state so secure for the would-be King from Queens that we barely factored in CNN’s endless analysis or Nate Silver’s scientific soothsaying.
Half-Iranian and full-dweeb, I never felt at home in Kentucky, at least not outside my socialist, Montessori-educated bubble in Lexington. I have a TV accent and “He’s a little ethnic-ish, isn’t he?” face. My friends growing up were children of liberal Southerners who, like my mother, abhorred racism and regularly donated to the SPLC. I went to New York City for undergraduate, moved to Los Angeles soon after that, and am now working toward a PhD. In a state where about 6% of high school students take the SAT, I am most definitely an outlier.
My wife and best friend, Melissa Scott, comes from a very different place. She is from Chattaroy, West Virginia, the heart of coal country. While Lexington, Kentucky’s lawns lean agnostic-to-HRC, the lawns of Chattaroy are crowded with Trump signs. Hillary Clinton famously lost coal country when she quipped, at March 2016 town hall event in Ohio, that her clean energy policies would “put a lot of coal miners out of business.” She didn’t mean it, not that way. It didn’t matter. Cities like Chattaroy couldn’t forgive the sleight, despite a creeping suspicion that the good union coal jobs aren’t ever coming back, no matter who takes the Oval Office.
As I drove up Mountain Parkway — the scenic route that connects Central Kentucky to Western Appalachia — I spotted not-a-few “Hillary for Prison” bumper stickers. Before starting the drive, my mom scraped all of her anti-Trump stickers off the family car. At first I protested — I have a John Brown fetish, so I always think I’m down for a (principled) fight — but I wavered and asked her to hand me the scraper. West Virginia, I was sure, would be the heart of darkness. Up there, in the mountains, I would see the mob unleashed.
I arrived at my parents-in-laws’ house around 3pm. I played with my nieces (seriously, I’m a great uncle, all laughs), avoided talking politics with my extended family, and fell asleep watching a History Channel special about Nostradamus’s predictions for the 2016 election. Even he hated Trump, it turns out.
This morning, Melissa and I said our goodbyes to the family and headed to her polling place. It was just up the road from her parents’ house, at the fire station at the mouth of the hollow. Melissa wore her “Nasty Woman” t-shirt. I wore my best liberal elitist sweater. Strengthening our resolve, we entered the fire station.
It was a busy scene. Four women sat behind folding tables. Kids jumped over the thick cables leading from the three voting machines. There was a strong community vibe in the place. It felt, for better or worse, like a living, functional democracy. Men with big bellies, characters straight from the Randy Newman songbook, chatted about maintaining the sanctity of the polling station. They had turned away a man in a “Hillary for Prison” t-shirt just before we came in.
“He can’t be wearing that within 30-feet of the polling place,” one man said. “I told him to go out and cover it up.”
His friend agreed it was the right thing to do.
Melissa voted — no ID required — and that was that. The only regional color quirk had to do with the ancient man who led her the five steps from the folding tables to the voting machine.
“Well,” Melissa said as we got back into the car, “I’ve always wanted to be walked to the ballot box by someone in a Confederate flag hat.”
I don’t forgive West Virginians for flocking toward Trump. I won’t talk down about them by saying they “don’t know what they’re doing,” or insist that only if you came to rural West Virginia and spent some time here then you might see that They Are People, Too. If you need to fly to a place to know that, you are frankly beyond help.
Of course these are people. Of course they are good to their families and friendly with outsiders. And of course they are voting for Trump.
Anyone who votes knows, more or less, what they’re doing. They are voting to fulfill some fantasy of life under a new regime. That that fantasy includes, for many, mass deportation, legal action against women who have abortions, the privatization of infrastructure, all-out war on black and brown neighborhoods — is that something to defend, forgive, or explain away? No, of course not. Instead, we have to live with the uncomfortable reality of knowing that good, kind, family people, want bad things to happen to other good, kind, family people.
West Virginia was a wash; no violence, no outrageous comments, no voter intimidation. Surely my luck would change in Lexington. Surely I would be able to sustain a noble injury while voting for one of the two major capitalist parties back down there. We headed back down Mountain Parkway.
I got home three hours later. It was spitting rain and chilly. I parked and walked into Bryan Station High School on Eastin Road. There was no line. I checked in. (I had to have an I.D.; Lexington is less trusting than Chattaroy.) I walked to an open machine, I locked in my votes, and I exited.
When I got home, I check on a Gary Johnson joke I had made on Facebook: “If Gary Johnson changes his campaign’s name to The Gary Johnson Movement I might vote for him because I’d really love to hear The Gary Johnson Movement’s 4-LP prog opus, Aleppo di Bebop.” It had gotten 8 likes.
So My Red State Election Day Story is dull.
I saw nothing interesting, confronted no alt-right boogie men, involved myself in no riots. I came in expecting the worst. I’ll say it: I sort of wanted the worst. I am guilty of the same longing for horror that Charles Baudelaire wrote about in 1857: “If rape, poison, daggers, arson/Have not yet embroidered with their pleasing designs/The banal canvas of our pitiable lives,/It is because our souls have not enough boldness.” Creeping under the real fear we all feel, the real 2016 election nightmare we all have hoped would end, was a tiny, bleak and thumping heart of desire. It’s such a dull world. Can’t the revolution be now?
Ennui and its concomitant secret desire for something terrible to happen are in my nature. They’re also the tenor of the country right now. If Hegel was right and the individual’s destiny is, in fact, “the living of a universal life” in harmony with the other individuals that comprise his or her State, then I have been living in harmony with the 2016-national-horror-vibe for all of my 20s and 30s. But whereas before the hipper-than-thou pessimism and reactionary skepticism of me and my tribe seemed fringe, now it is a fact of national life. We won; everyone is miserable. Shouldn’t we be happy?
Writing in 1870, the abolitionist and Native American rights advocate Wendell Phillips diagnosed what most of us have been feeling since Trump descended that escalator in June 2015: “[A]s a nation compared to other nations, we are a mass of cowards. More than any other people we are afraid of each other.” My fantasies of doom and dread are symptomatic of that deep strain in the American political imaginary, what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style” in American thought. There’s always an insurrection in the wings; there’s always a holocaust on the wind.
Matt Taibbi channels Hofstadter well in his Election Day article for Rolling Stone:
“There’s a paradox in American national politics. The overwhelming majority of us only have one meaningful avenue of political expression. We can vote once every four years. Meaning, once out of every 1,461 days, we actually get to do something. The rest of the time we sit around, glued to TVs and tablets and phones, bombarding ourselves with trolling messages and news reports about the Advancing Political Enemy.”
Is it surprising, given the pervasive ennui and constant fear-mongering we endure every day of the year, that Election Day would be a focal point for imagined horrors? And that we imagine those horrors will always happen away from us on the Left Coast, out there in the Red States?
As I type this, with my friends downstairs waiting to watch election results and my friends in California biting their nails and iMessaging me articles, an active shooter is on the loose in Azusa. The horror I had looked for in Kentucky and West Virginia is playing out on the streets of Southern California. I came back to Kentucky expecting to find a slime, an ooze, a nightmare. Yet Mike Cernovich, king of alt-right memes, hails from Orange County. Peter Navarro, Trump’s key economic adviser, is on the faculty not at the University of Kentucky (Go Cats), but the University of California – Irvine. When I visit Kentucky, I walk in the University of Kentucky Arboretum; when I go back to California, I hike at the Ladera Linda Community Park in Rancho Palos Verdes, right across from the Trump Nation Golf Club and its impossibly tall American flag. Coming back home to vote, I wanted Erskine Caldwell characters to leap from ‘Tobacco Road’ and land in The Day of the Locust. But The Day of the Locust is set in Hollywood, not Dollywood.
Tonight, Kentucky is at peace. How’s California doing?