It’s the day after Trump won the national election. Most people I know (because I know a lot of liberals) are in shock. I’m disappointed, uncertain, worried, kind of sad, but not in shock. This always felt like it would happen. Of course I can “believe this could happen.” The kind of people ultimately responsible for Trump’s win are the kind of people I grew up around, much of my childhood and adolescence. Rural Arizona, suburban Utah, rural Montana, rural Washington. Farming towns, mining towns, ranching towns, logging towns. Sarah Palin painted these places as the “real America,” and my stomach turned when she did. Populist candidates know they have to pander to rural America to get the votes they need. Sure, there are some lovely people in rural America, but when they appeal to that demographic they’re also appealing to the kind of people who made some of my childhood and adolescence a living hell. I don’t use that term lightly. I can’t really compare myself to holocaust victims or kids in Sudan or Syria, but it was 100% awful for me. At the time all I knew was my own kind of misery. I didn’t compare it to anything except memories of life without the misery, and it was infinitely worse.
Bullying, for lack of a better term, was a constant feature of my life from mid-elementary school through high school, with (of course) a horrible peak in middle school. There was always someone–usually dozens of someones–to be afraid of. They generally weren’t the suburban kids whose parents were middle managers or salespeople or teachers; they weren’t the kids who liked social studies class or English class. Their parents were ranchers or loggers. They made fun of the kids who enjoyed learning things, and occasionally beat us up.
The terms “bullying” and “beat up” have never really expressed what this was, for me. At best, it was some kid bigger and clearly angrier and more aggressive punching me in the stomach or slamming me into a wall or tripping me then kicking me while I was on the ground. At worst, it was three boys, all bigger than me, holding my arms and legs while a fourth punched me in the gut and groin. This was torture, as far as my adolescent brain was capable of comprehending. They did this in hallways, in classrooms, in gyms, on school grounds, or in the street. Sometimes teachers or administrators saw it, sometimes they didn’t. I don’t remember any of them doing anything about it. The people who tried to protect me were my parents and my older sisters, and occasionally a girl at school who might take pity on me (this was a mixed blessing; I don’t think it helped, in the long run).
Why did they do it? I don’t know, exactly. Their stated reasons were that I was new, I was weird, I talked too much, I was too interested in school, I was Mormon, I wore hearing aids, I was small. More generally, I remember that these boys had an animosity toward formal education. They were told by every adult who mattered in their lives that “book learning” was either pointless or actively harmful. They were told that people have to fight to survive, and those who don’t do that successfully don’t deserve happiness or comfort. They were told the world was a frightening place, especially in cities, and the only people you can trust are the people you grew up with, who shared your values. They imagined (and in the 80s this was perhaps easier) an impending post-apocalyptic Mad Max-like world governed by simplistic “survival of the fittest” principles. They seemed to prefer this world to the one we lived in, with its rules and (sometimes) civility. They absorbed a culture of proving your masculinity every day, of challenging other males’ masculinity, of being challenged at any moment, and using violence to defend your “honor.” Violence was everything, in fact: brothers and fathers in the military; movies with Norris and Stallone; country songs about killing city people; kickboxing, karate, guns, knives. These kids had knives, always. The didn’t carry book bags; the knives were in their jeans pockets. They had faded outlines of Buck knives in their Levi’s, next to the faded circles from their tobacco cans. I have had knives held to my throat or pointed in my face multiple times, starting in about seventh grade.
So they hit me, they humiliated me, they demeaned me, they called me everything young-me could imagine, plus possibilities I’d never considered. they talked about torturing and killing my pets, they talked about raping my sisters, my mother, and any girl I knew at school. They told me I was nothing, that I didn’t matter, that they would kill me. Lots of death threats. I lived in fear, for years, and it shaped who I was and who I am. The fear continued long after the worst of it was over, because how can you tell when it’s over? Through it all I was a shitty son, a shitty older brother, a shitty student, and generally not a great citizen. I couldn’t think of anything, it seemed, except my personal drama and either escaping my reality as often as possible (through reading, watching TV, or focusing on childhood interests) or avoiding harm when I had to venture into the world, into the school. I was afraid of being jumped on the streets of Smalltown USA and in the hallways of the school because I had been jumped there. My fears were rational.
It wasn’t the same boys doing all this; it was different sets at different times, in different places. There was a pair of them in Layton, Utah, a set of them in Arlington, Washington, a couple of them in Great Falls, Montana, and two or three nasty little packs in Malta, Montana. Malta was the worst. If I never see that town again I’m pretty OK with that. When Stephen King writes about Derry, Maine, I think of Malta. I think that this is how evil comes into the world: through the petty, sadistic violence of children.
In a sense, I wasn’t bullied by individuals–sure, even now I’d be perfectly happy if every kid who ever hit or kicked me was locked up for a while–they were symptoms, not the cause. I was bullied by a culture. A culture of hypermasculinity (and, conversely, of hyperfemininity), of rabid patriotism (a shriveled, pale, roided-up brand of patriotism), of xenophobia (I was always the other, even when I tried not to be), of authoritarianism and conformity (I could never seem to fit in), of anti-intellectualism (my love of learning was suspiciously like those experts their parents were always going on about). I was living in the srongholds of Tribe A, when I was clearly not from the tribe. I wasn’t from Tribe B or Tribe C, either, and at the time I had no idea who “my people” might be. These were not my people, though, and they made sure I knew it every day.
It wasn’t just the bullies telling me I wasn’t one of them. In a thousand little ways it was made clear to me by other kids, by their parents, by my parents’ acquaintances and, in many cases, by my teachers. One very effective way to make it clear that you implicitly agree with aggressors is to visibly fail to intervene when they aggress. I wasn’t good at fitting in with the farmer/rancher/logger kids, nor with whatever the alternative was. Okay, there wasn’t an alternative, not in those towns, but even if there had been, fitting in just wasn’t my thing. I didn’t even fit in well with my own family. I annoyed them, too, and I failed to do the things a son and older brother needs to do. Partly I failed because of who I was, and partly because everything else was happening. I alienated my family, though they were good about overlooking my behavior, as well. I was a problem, but I was their problem.
These towns, this “real America”, had no place for people like me, whatever kind of people I was, and they had painful and traumatizing ways of expressing it. These towns were full of the people feeling they had been left behind by the economic gains of the previous decades. They felt they were ignored or marginalized in the nation. They felt aggrieved, like they owned America and it was an injustice that someone else had shoved their way in. They didn’t like Indians (meaning Native Americans), Asians, Mexicans (meaning any and all Latin Americans), Black people, homosexuals, Californians (which were basically an amalgamation of all the other unacceptable groups), or foreigners. They were casual and pointed in their racism and sexism, secure in the understanding that everyone around them felt the same way. There was no filtering, no “just sayin’…” or “I mean, in a sense…” It was just out there. These kids didn’t seem to know which group I belonged in, except that it wasn’t theirs, so they usually decided I was gay. That’s what initially prompted me to learn what homosexuality was: from being beaten up and called gay.
This has gone on too long and has been too self-indulgent, so I’ll finally get to the point: Trump is one of them. If he had been in Malta Middle School in 1980 he would have held me down or maybe done the punching. I figure he probably would have gone for my testicles. He would have called me gay, thinking it was the worst insult he could think of. He would have described raping my sister or my girlfriend (I clearly didn’t have a girlfriend, but those details never stop bullies). Or maybe he wouldn’t have done these things, but I’m fairly confident that the people who did them are pretty happy he’s president. The people who swept him into office–not the “lesser of two evils” voters, but the hardcore Trumpites–aren’t some new demographic; they are these same racists, misogynists, bullies, and terrorists I knew as a kid. They nurture the sense of wounded pride and diminished honor those kids’ parents nurtured. Like their parents and grandparents, they feel that this country should be theirs and used to be theirs, and it’s an injustice that they aren’t in charge. They feel their parents’ deep sense of violation at the need to share a world with people who have different cultural backgrounds and different values. Their lives have gone downhill, or they might go downhill, and they blame liberals and intellectuals; for them there’s no need to even think about this. In fact, thinking about it too long means you’re probably one of them intellectuals yourself, and you’re part of the problem.
I am a social scientist. I have plenty of good, well-sourced, data-informed, principled reasons for thinking Trump’s presidency is bad for this nation in multiple dimensions. Alongside those, however, I have a very personal belief that Trump’s rise means the bullies are in charge.