In the fall of 2012, just a few weeks before the last presidential election, I flew from Billings, Montana to Denver. Shortly after takeoff, I heard the man behind me announce that he and his wife, who sat beside him, had been married 51 years, to which the woman in the seat next to the wife replied, somewhat loftily, that she’d been married for 62 years.
“Yes,” the man said, “we met in fourth grade, in Topeka, Kansas. We were best friends from the start. We still are most days.”
My feeling at this point was basically: Awww! That is so sweet! I wanted to give all three of these folks a big hug. I didn’t mind that they were talking really loud because I felt (as an old person in training) that old people should be allowed to talk loud, not just because of potential hearing loss issues but because they are closer to death and have experienced more hardship and thus been forced to reflect on life and its ultimate meaning.
It was at this precise moment that the wife lowered her voice slightly and said, in a tone of genuine bafflement: “How did an illegal black Muslim get to be president of the United States anyway?”
“He’s a Chicago mobster,” her husband replied.
“How can the government accept that phony birth certificate?” the wife said.
“He went to college on a foreign scholarship!” the husband said.
I wasn’t sure how their new friend would react. But she soon weighed in. With the authority of one who knows that the true burdens of matrimony only kick in at the sixty-year mark, she declared: “There’s some very powerful group in control of him. Obama just reads the words they put in front of him on those machines. He’s a puppet.”
“The man never worked a day in his life,” the wife said.
“We grew up in the Depression,” the husband said.
“There were no Mexicans,” the wife said.
The conversation had taken on a jazzy, scat-like logic.
“Fox is the only channel even close to the truth,” the friend said.
“It makes us so sick,” the wife said.
There was a pause. Then the husband said, “I feel sorry for our grandkids. They’re the ones who’ll grow up under socialism. They’ll never know what freedom is.”
They all agreed on this: their grandchildren would never know what freedom is.
It should be noted that this quote is the most oft-cited among Americans who identify themselves as conservative, and is widely attributed to Ronald Reagan, who, back in 1961, supposedly said this: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
Curiously, the context of this remark is almost always ignored. In fact, Reagan was condemning a specific proposal. He believed that unless citizens rose up and stopped Medicare, freedom as we know it would disappear in America. But Reagan’s words weren’t heeded. Medicare went into effect in 1966. It now provides health insurance to more than 50 million Americans, age 65 and older.
It is safe to assume that the three elderly people sitting behind me on that plane were, in fact, beneficiaries of Medicare.
To return to the scene in question: I found myself sitting on this airplane and breathing somewhat heavily through the nose.
In an effort to self-medicate, I opened the novel on my lap, The Visit of the Royal Physician by the Swedish writer Per Olov Enquist, and read the first sentence:
On April 5, 1768, Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed Royal Physician to King Christian VII of Denmark, and four years later he was executed.
This is without a doubt my favorite opening line in all of literature. I love that it’s so invisibly spring-loaded with irony and suspense: the man recruited to heal a king winds up murdered by him. How does this happen, and why?
It happens like this:
As a child, King Christian VII is savagely beaten by courtiers to make him obedient. Like many children who are savagely beaten he goes mad and his minders recruit a German physician to soothe him. Struensee quickly becomes the young monarch’s most trusted advisor and begins issuing edicts that bring the age of enlightenment to the dark little kingdom of Denmark. “No troops necessary, no violence, no terror, no threats; merely a mad king with absolute power, and a document of proxy.”
But Struensee is a man of ideas, not of action. He lacks the political guile, and the courage, to neutralize his enemies, who soon kidnap the king, and have Struensee mutilated on a public scaffold. The novel argues, with somber resolve, that it is impossible to bring about a revolution without bloodshed. The Queen, who becomes Struensee’s most ardent ally, is left to deliver the moral:
“Deep inside [Struensee] had always been afraid. She had seen it. He didn’t even like wielding power. She didn’t understand this. She had felt a unique pleasure when she understood for the first time that she could instill terror. But he did not. There was something fundamentally wrong with him. Why was it always the wrong people who were chosen to do good?”
So what did I do? That’s the question history asks. I’m sitting on this airplane listening to these sweet geezers go on and on. They talked about “death panels” at length and, without any apparent shame, used the term “negroes.”
I kept thinking, I should turn around and let these folks have it. But every time I started to rise up out of my seat this little voice whispered, Dude, you’re just going to shame them. And that shame is going to drive them further into their rage. And even though I found this voice super annoying, I recognized that it was right. There was literally nothing I could do to make these three people less aggrieved and self-victimizing. And this fundamental truth, in turn, made me so volcanically angry that I felt the only real solution would be literally to beat these three senior citizens to death with my bare hands, if possible on a hastily-erected scaffold, while reciting the Communist Manifesto, or perhaps singing We Shall Overcome, in the hope that this bizarre and savage attack would make Fox News and serve as a deterrent to other octogenarian bigots tempted to speak this way in public spaces. I was, at this point, thinking like a Brown Shirt.
The Brown Shirts, by the way, were the violent gangs deployed by Hitler to help bring about the Fascist Revolution. (In Italy, they were called Black Shirts, which I think speaks to the issue of fashion sense.)
What both Hitler and Mussolini were trying to achieve was quite transparent: they sought to overthrow decadent liberal democracies through the use of violence, direct action, and propagandistic appeals to emotion. They understood that a successful revolution is not the product of enlightened ideas, of appeals to reason or justice, but the capacity to incite violence and to instill terror.
And then there is the curious case of Eduardo Chibás, the Cuban leader who spent the years after World War II trying to end America’s economic hegemony of his country. Chibás was a brilliant orator who hoped to spur a revolution by constitutional means. His central argument was that the Cuban government had grown hopelessly corrupt.
On August 5, 1951, he entered the studio of CMQ radio in Havana for his weekly broadcast. He carried a small revolver in his pocket. He had pledged to furnish proof that a highly placed official was embezzling funds. But the politicians who promised to supply this proof had reneged. Chibás was distraught. He felt betrayed and trapped.
He warned his listeners that the despot Fulgencio Batista might attempt a military coup. Then he bid a dramatic farewell, removed the gun from his pocket, and pressed it against his stomach. He intended to martyr himself live on the radio. He apparently miscalculated the length of his show, however.
There ensued a moment of harrowing irony. Eduardo Chibás pulled the trigger. A bullet tore into his gut. And as the most famous crusader against the commercial exploitation of Cuba lay dying, listeners at home heard an advertisement for a delicious, low-priced coffee called Café Pilon.
Chibás was not a Communist. But he was the central heroic figure in the life of a young revolutionary named Fidel Castro. It was Castro who understood the precise manner in which Chibás had erred: he had turned his gun in the wrong direction.
I realize that I am seeming crazier and crazier, that I now appear to be advocating violence as the sole means of effectuating moral progress in our species. That is not what I’m saying—at least, it’s not what I want to be saying.
But I am suggesting that the course of history is changed not by ideas, but by people with the personal valor to fight for those ideas.
It has become fashionable, for instance, to think of the “founders” of this country as a bunch of gentlemen in white wigs who convened in Philadelphia to weave their distinguished ideas into a constitution. It would be more accurate to identify our founders as the mostly young, underfed militiamen who launched a guerilla war against the most powerful army on earth.
America was borne of a violent revolution, expanded by means of energetic massacres, and absolved of the sin of slavery only at the price of half a million souls, chief among them Abraham Lincoln, who surely knew that by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation he was signing his own death warrant. Lincoln is the finest example our nation is likely to produce of the right person chosen to do good.
But the war he instigated, and its aftermath, has been an object lesson in the persistence of evil. The Confederacy lost, but Southern whites refused to accept the principle of equality. They initiated widespread acts of domestic terrorism and the systematic oppression of African Americans. It is certainly nice to regard the Civil Rights movement as an inspiring chapter in our national story. A more realistic appraisal is that it marked the reluctant enforcement of a mandate issued a full century earlier.
All of which brings us back to my elderly friends on that airplane.
The optimistic view of these three would be that the animus they directed toward Obama reflects a disappointment that we all feel, about the ways in which we’ve somehow traded our families and communities, our sense of coming from somewhere, of having a place in the world, for the empty ambitions of modern capitalism.
A less optimistic view would be that they represent a virulent cultural faction: aging white people whose feelings of diminished social utility, whose sense of dislocation in a world overrun by frantic technologies and terrors, makes them susceptible to the racist conspiracy theories of for-profit demagogues.
The even less optimistic view would be that these folks are symptomatic of a broader American pathology, in which a significant minority of our nation has come to view violent sedition as a reasonable response to the humiliation of living in a modern democracy.
As you might imagine, this little conversation I overheard on that flight from Billings to Denver has been echoing in my head over the past year, because of the bizarre and disquieting events that have transpired in the 2016 election.
Which is to say: for the first time in my life a major party has nominated for President a candidate who is pretty much exactly like the folks who were sitting behind me: openly racist, prone to violent ideation, divorced from reality and energetically paranoid.
There are, of course, a lot of factors that explain Donald Trump’s transformation from reality TV star to aspiring President. Trump’s rise reflects a basic confusion between the pleasures of entertainment and the dull duties of governance, the triumph of great ratings over coherent policy.
But the core of his appeal resides a kind of aggrieved nostalgia. He wants to make America great again by returning to an era in which white male privilege was the law of the land. His presidential ambitions arise from a very particular humiliation: the experience of being mocked by President Obama at the White House Correspondents Dinner several years ago.
Obama was mocking Trump, by the way, because Trump had publicly advanced the very same conspiracy theory as the folks behind me: that Obama didn’t have a birth certificate because he wasn’t really born in America and thus wasn’t the legitimate President of the United States, and was more likely some kind of Manchurian candidate hellbent on the destruction of America.
His secret plan appeared to be the same one that got Ronald Reagan so agitated half a century ago: expanding Medicare and the medical health insurance system.
So Trump wants the old order restored. He wants the interests of straight white men to transcend whatever Other history hands them: women, people of color, gays, immigrants. That’s been the operative template of one or another political party for eons.
What strikes me as frightening about Trump is that he’s given voice to the American electorate’s seething id. He has awakened its proto-fascist impulses by suggesting, for example, that the federal government should launch a registry of Muslims and punish women who choose to get abortions and “take out” the wives and children of terrorists.
He’s interested not just in an agenda, but a political discourse in which violence is not only an acceptable, but sometimes heroic. Trump spent much of the primary season holding huge rallies at which he reminisced about the “good old days” when political agitators were carried out on stretchers. “So if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato,” he told one crowd, “knock the crap out of them, would you? I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.” His supporters responded by, well, knocking the crap out of several protestors.
When Republican officials made noises about refusing to nominate Trump even if he won the most delegates, the candidate spoke of the riots that would ensue. Trump himself seemed stunned by the blind loyalty he commanded. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he observed.
Think, for a moment, about what Trump is saying here. And about its implications. If Trump’s supporters regard him as incapable of doing any wrong, if he can commit murder in broad daylight with no moral or electoral consequences, what is the precise nature of his leadership? Is he running for president or supreme leader?
When we place a man above the laws of his land he stops being a public official. He becomes a king. Or a dictator.
It is no shock, of course, that people who feel powerless lust for power. Trump is, in this sense, merely the latest in a long series of authoritarian leaders. But we have not seen his like in American history. There is something revolutionary in his rise to power, a casting off certain codes of civility, a willingness to express hatred and bigotry and violent intent, not just in private, among like-minded citizens, but in public spaces (such as airplanes) and to whomever might be listening.
It’s a more honest arrangement, in some ways. But also much sadder.
I don’t know what else to tell you. As a country, we often seem to be moving in the same direction as my fellow passengers: backwards, to an era in which the basic tenets of the Enlightenment—economic justice, tolerance, a respect for science—are routinely subverted by a democratically elected ruling class that is happy to exploit the tribal superstitions of a population indentured by their personal terrors.
On dark days, I find myself feeling the same way as my fellow travelers.
By which I mean: helpless and very very angry. Like them, I pine for an authoritarian leader willing to declare war on the reactionary forces of our country so as to impose sensible economic, social, and environmental policies before we destroy our habitat and our species.
This is the secret dream of every well-behaved lefty: that our side will rise up from the couch of our own convenience and stop shadowboxing with the bright lies served up by the corporate sponsors and instead take to the streets to impose our moral agenda by any means necessary.
It’s a dream that acknowledges the ultimate failure of the Enlightenment, which held that man, if granted the freedom to choose, would choose reason.
This will sound odd coming from a Jewish atheist with Marxist leanings, but I keep coming back to the figure of Christ. Whoever the real Christ was, the version who endures in scripture is a homeless pacifist who preached the gospel of love as a revolutionary force, knowing the prevailing powers were going to nail Him to a cross.
Devout Christians, for the most part, see a different story: Jesus didn’t die. He ascended to heaven. He was brave not to inspire action, but to insure absolution. Our central duty is obedience to His word.
Maybe it works like this: The Left dreams of revolution while the right dreams of rapture. Both are visions of a paradise reached by way of ruin. And they are both, to my way of seeing things, false visions.
Because it is the nature of the human endeavor that each of us embodies the struggle between good and evil. That struggle is at the root of every historical upheaval. The Royal Physician wants to do good, but he lacks the courage to confront his enemies. Like me, he mostly sits around thinking himself better than other people and simmering in a silent disdain. But he has, at least, the good sense to ask the right question: He asks: “Was that what a human being was? Both an opportunity and a black torch?”
Another way of saying this would be to acknowledge that the revolution exists inside each of us. It is a struggle conducted, every moment of every day, within the privacy of our souls. How do we choose kindness over cruelty? How do we locate within the suffering of others our own mercy?
Maybe the real question is where the black torch comes from? What turns us away from empathy, into the dark precincts of contempt? By what process does our love become distorted into evil?
I keep thinking about those old folks sitting behind me on that plane to Denver. If I was a betting man, I’d lay odds that they’re rabid supporters of Donald Trump, the kind of folks who bring signs to his rallies, who revere him a candidate who is finally “telling it like it is.” Telling them what they have so long yearned to hear.
Maybe the reason I can’t shake off this memory is because a part of me knows that I was complicit in my silence, that I should have found a way to confront their cruelty, that our failing as a democracy resides in our collective decision to consent when we should object, to fall silent when we should lift our voices in protest.
But it’s too easy to play these folks off as useful idiots. They are also human beings with big, complicated internal lives. They are sons and daughters and mothers and fathers, loyal, hard-working, frightened, bitterly disappointed—just like the rest of us. It’s not just that their vote counts as much as ours do. It’s that their humanity counts as much.
Another way of saying this would be to acknowledge that the old man sitting behind me in the lush, unthinkable comforts of a softly roaring aircraft, in the lush, unthinkable comforts of 21st century America—that overfed goat so full of fear and loathing—was once a young boy growing up in Topeka, Kansas during the Depression.
He was deprived of love (as we are all deprived of love) and this deprivation planted the seed of wrath within him. Maybe his father drank too much and his mother maybe wept quietly in the night and he listened to her and felt the proper and inevitable helplessness of childhood.
But then in fourth grade he met a girl and she became his best friend and soon he recognized that there was something inside her that made him let go of everything black and so he gave himself over to the soft terror of love. He began to scrub his neck and wet comb his hair and when she came into view, always so suddenly, his heart stammered and his palms went sticky and one evening he put on his Sunday shirt and his father’s aftershave and he took her on a walk though the orchard that ran between their homes, where, without warning, it was spring and the dying sun made a riot of the apple blossoms around them and they kissed and held within themselves as much hope as any two creatures in the universe ever have, and seeing them now, still holding each other after so many confusing years, we should be left to wonder only this: How could these two be anything but blessed?
Steve Almond is the author of eight books of fiction and non-fiction, most recently the New York Times bestseller Against Football. His short stories have appeared in the Best American and Pushcart anthologies. His most recent story collection, God Bless America, won the Paterson Prize for Fiction. His journalism has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere. Almond co-hosts the podcast Dear Sugar Radio with Cheryl Strayed. He lives outside Boston with his wife and three children.