Newsletter vol 16
Revolution of the Back Row Kids
I’m away from home, on vacation and trying hard to avoid most things that appear like news. Still, I watched the debate on Monday. Like every right-thinking American, I’ve been trying to cope with life in a time of Trump and keep coming up empty handed. In that spirit, and in keeping with the journalist’s tradition of “gathering string”, here are some pieces I’ve kept as touchpoints this past year.
I was a little shocked last month when the Clinton campaign addressed the “alt-right” directly. I never expected the bowels of the worst of the internet would rise to mainstream acknowledgement, let alone be name-checked by a presidential candidate. One of the earliest, and still best, dissections of this horror show is Park MacDougald’s piece in The Awl, “The Darkness Before the Right” published exactly a year ago. Rereading it today, in light of Brexit, Trump, Gamergate, Peter Thiel, Milo Yiannopoulos, et al, MacDougald’s piece is not just prescient but seemingly obvious. And last December, Joseph Bernstein wrote a similar piece for Buzzfeed that identifies “Chanterculture” as a legitimate, if horrific, counterculture of racist, misogynist lulzsters. (Bernstein was mercilessly harassed last month when he wrote a takedown of Adult Swim’s Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace).
This past March, when Trump was starting to look more and more like an inevitability and the thinkpiece industrial complex really started to get going, Jamelle Bouie wrote what continues to be one of the most precise explanations of the grievances of Trump supporters. Bouie quickly and convincingly dispenses with the then (and still) popular idea that Trump’s support was merely about jobs and decades of free trade. Instead, he argues, Trumpism was born from a darker, more atavistic turn to white nationalism.
Last week, The Daily Beast broke the news that Palmer Luckey, cofounder of VR startup Oculus, was funding a shitposting meme campaign in support of Donald Trump. It seems counter to the popular idea of Silicon Valley as apolitical introverts but anyone who’s waded into the wrong subreddit understands Luckey’s neuroses. Ian Bogost frames Luckey’s campaign as a classic revenge-of-the-nerds tale, exacting vengeance not against jocks or bullies but the very institutions that rejected them in first place.
Something I’ve grappled with for most of this year is how to truly understand, how to empathize even, with my Trump-supporting countrymen. It might make us feel good to laugh at a Daily Show segment exposing the lunacy of a Trump rally but that also creates more separation. Which is why I’m glad to have recently found Chris Arnade. Arnade is a former bond-trader turned columnist and photographer who’s been traveling the country and talking to a lot of the people who’ve been passed over by contemporary America — culturally, politically, economically. Earlier this summer, Arnade wrote a short post about why Trump’s supporters aren’t stupid, they aren’t voting against their own self-interest (like so many elites in both parties assume), they are voting to reclaim a semblance of self worth. Bearing in mind that so much of Trump’s campaign explicitly deals in racism and misogynism, it’s impossible to ignore Arnade’s point that far too many people have been ignored. I’ll be honest, Arnade is not an easy follow. He tweetstorms. He repeats himself and his theses a lot. But he also engages with his critics instead of just blocking them to build a filter bubble. He challenges a lot of contemporary thinking, particularly about the millions of Americans he calls “the back row kids”. These are people so angry and frustrated with the “front row kids” they are willing to burn down the school just to see some kind of change.
There may not be a narrative that weaves all these strings together neatly but the themes are undeniable. Decade long struggles of race, class, gender are being thrown into sharp, sudden relief by the internet, globalization, inequality. Institutions are unable to keep pace with not just technological change but the rate of change — the last time that happened, we had to fight two world wars. Those of us who sincerely thought the internet would solve, or at least route around, these problems were not only wrong but completely naive. We have a lot of work to do.