I had no intention of reading Donald Trump’s new bundle of books. His vampiric hold on the nation’s attention for five years was quite nightmarish; one of the joys of the post-Trump era is that it has become possible to ignore it for days on end.
But after reading an article adapted from “Frankly We Won This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Loses” by Michael C. Bender, a Wall Street Journal reporter, I changed my mind and the have resumed. What caught my attention was not his report on the dismay of the White House and the terrifying impulses of Trump – some details are new, but this story is familiar. On the contrary, I was fascinated by Bender’s account of the people who followed Trump from rally to rally as authoritarian Deadheads.
Bender’s description of these Trump superfans, who called themselves “frontline Joes,” is likable but not sentimental. Most of all, he captures their pre-Trump loneliness.
“Many were recently retired and had little free time to tie them up at home,” Bender writes. “A handful have never had children. Others were separated from their families. By jumping into Trump’s movement, they found community and purpose. “Saundra’s life got bigger with Trump,” he says of a Michigan woman who did odd jobs on the road to finance her obsession.
There are many causes for the overlapping dysfunctions that make contemporary American life so dystopian, but loneliness matters. Even before Covid, Americans were becoming increasingly isolated. And as Damon Linker recently pointed out in The Week, quoting Hannah Arendt, lonely people are drawn to totalitarian ideologies. “The main characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relations,” concluded Arendt in “The origins of totalitarianism”, describing those who surrendered to universal mass movements.
A socially healthy society would probably never have elected Trump in the first place. As Daniel Cox, senior poll and public opinion researcher at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote in FiveThirtyEight shortly after the 2020 election, “the share of Americans who are more socially disconnected from society is increasing. . And these voters disproportionately support Trump. “
Survey data from the AEI’s Survey Center on American Life found that 17% of Americans said they did not have a single person in their “basic social network.” These “socially disconnected voters were much more likely to view Trump positively and support his re-election than those with stronger personal networks,” Cox wrote.
It’s not just Trumpism that thrives on isolation. Consider QAnon, which has gone from a message board hoax to a quasi-religion. In his book “The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything,” journalist Mike Rothschild shows how central the sense of digital community is to QAnon’s appeal. “This is one of the reasons baby boomers have fallen with Q to such a surprising degree – many are empty nests, alone or retired,” he writes.
It’s also likely a reason why QAnon began to grow in tandem with the Covid blocks, finding new life among Instagram influencers, yoga practitioners, and suburban moms. Suddenly all over America their social life was shattered and many mothers found themselves trapped in domestic isolation beyond anything Betty Friedan imagined. Stuck at home, they had more time to get sucked into the internet’s burrows. QAnon, who came to merge with Covid-trutherism, gave them an explanation of their misery and the bad guys to blame.
A cruel paradox of the Covid is that the social distancing necessary to control it has fueled pathologies which now prolong it. Isolated and atomized people have turned to movements that have turned them against vaccines. Here, too, Arendt was far-sighted. She described the shaken people of any defined place in the world as being both deeply selfish and indifferent to their own well-being: “Self-centeredness therefore went hand in hand with a decisive weakening of the self-preservation instinct. . “
One of the most prominent characters in Bender’s book is Randal Thom, a 60-year-old Marine veteran whose wife and children left him because of his drug problem and who spent time in prison. “The rallies became the organizing principle of his life, and Trump fans loved him for it,” Bender writes. “Like Trump himself, all of Randal’s past mistakes didn’t matter to them.” When he fell ill from what he believed to be Covid, he refused to go to the hospital for fear that he would “potentially increase the number of cases under Trump’s watch.” (He survived but died in a car crash on his way home from a Trump boat parade in October.)
Towards the end of Bender’s book, Saundra reappears. She had just been on Capitol Hill for the January 6 uprising and seemed ready for more. “Tell us where we need to be, and we drop everything and off we go,” she said. “Nobody cares whether they have to work. Nobody cares about anything. If you give meaning to people’s lives, they will give you everything.