Sexton covers a race that was more of a national upheaval than political campaign. His chapters are full of often keen, always judgmental personal observations available to a guy free from the pack. It mixes personal accounts with broad campaign context and the pages flip.
I just wish he had tried to get to the story that no one really covered: what the hell happened to a country radicalize it so much in eight years and what are the terms of assuaging it? His book is entertaining in the manner of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, in that it contains one man’s quirky observations. But that becomes its biggest flaw: it is so full of fear and loathing that Sexton missed the real story of what fueled American rage.
What parts of the anger are tribal, racial, aspirant, regional, nihilistic, nationalistic, xenophobic, nostalgic, or just frustration from many realizing their government has ignored them long enough? Can they be united toward constructive goals or are they determined to pull the fabric of community apart?
Sexton seemed satisfied to judge the radicals rather than listen to them. This was frustrating because his go-it-alone approach afforded him time, and beat reporters on the bus or jet never have time. Maybe it’s just a few hours after a rally to sit and talk with the people in a more involved fashion than simply getting quotes. Maybe it affords him an overnight stay and a night at the bar, or dare I say morning at the church, talking to voters. CNN doesn’t have that luxury. He did. During ordinary campaigns, such ground-level detail is simply referred to as “color,” meant to add flourish to a story.
In 2016, the color was the real story because the only conversations that seemed to inform the voters were the words they shared among themselves. The national press had very little influence on the outcome and traditional opinion makers found their jobs obsolete.
The Bernie Sanders figure in 2004 was Dennis Kucinich, and he limped through the Iowa Caucus before poofing into oblivion by New Hampshire. Four years earlier, in 2000, the character of “Donald Trump” was played by Pat Buchanan and — aside from a few bombastic lines reported with disdain — he barely registered on the national scene. Yet in 2016, a European-style socialist and an ethnic nationalist became the dominant forces in the United States’s two major political parties.
Every presidential campaign seems to send a media-branded demographic into the spotlight: Reagan Democrats, soccer moms, NASCAR Dads, Security Moms, White Evangelicals, and the Latino. The last election the key players were the radicals on fire, who think the system is failing us all and is, perhaps, irredeemable.
Sexton stood among the people destined to rise and he chose moral superiority over deeper understanding. To his credit, he ultimately realized he had been part of the bubble that “always pissed him off.” On election day, he smacked down a TV host who had problems with Clinton’s trustworthiness by declaring the race over and Trump a burned English muffin.
Then Trump won and Sexton realizes the degree to which he had inhaled the establishment view. “I’d crossed over into the media and started looking at politics as a game of chess instead of a process by which real people were affected in real and lasting ways.”
His descriptions of Trump supporters horrify the reader. Never mind the dirty language or failure to comply with political correctness — the author’s description of the Republican National Convention shows Trump supporters suddenly liberated from constraints of elitist propriety, with full license to uncork together the ugliness bubbling deep inside them. Free to mock women about rape and harass the homeless side-by-side with Nazi flags, they did just that unshackled from common decency.
He also recounts just the kind of cognitive contortions Trump supporters twist themselves into to prove their own victimhood. The system, they argue, is out to prevent a reality TV host and oft-failed businessman from reaching the rank of commander-in-chief. A particularly priceless episode involves some rallygoers who convince themselves that Clinton was using a body double during her bout with pneumonia.
More seriously, Sexton found himself stalked by Trump supporters after criticizing their worst instincts at a Trump event in North Carolina. He tweeted what the supporters were actually saying from the floor of a June 2016 rally, and Trump supporters immediately set about threatening his life.
Then they seemed to show up at his house. A car circling his neighborhood one night parked repeatedly in his driveway with the engine running. His security system revealed that one day, someone had tried to break into his bedroom.
Unlike the twists and turns of previous campaign chronicles like the “Making of the President” series pioneered by Theodore White, Sexton’s stories follow a depressing pattern. He drives to a Trump rally thinking the surge is about to ebb. He gets there to find Trump's crowds as indulgent in The Donald as ever and then eavesdrops on some off-color conversation outside the hall. Then the event, itself, appalls him and he leaves disgusted, often to fortify himself at a local bar, where he may eavesdrop more on poisonous banter until his will to continue seems in doubt.
Speaking as one who worked as a political journalist for more than 20 years, I can tell you that’s just a day in the life. Half the country has always seemed drawn to the apocalyptic fringe, on every side. Think about it. Add the 30 percent on the far right and the 25 percent on the far left equal 55 percent of the country is out there hugs the edge. That’s not new. What changed to make it crazy? It’s not a hard conversation to have if you just sit and listen without judgment. Then write the story, drink happily, and shoot pool. That’s how reporters do their job.
Despite this tendency toward self-pity, Sexton’s approach does give him the ability to drop a truth bomb right down the stovepipe. When talking heads on cable TV ruminate that Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP was a surprise, Sexton points out Trump just planted his seed on what had become fertile topsoil.
“Trump hadn’t dragged anybody anywhere,” he writes.
And he didn’t have impressive poll numbers because he’d somehow or another convinced anybody of anything. Trump was, as of that moment, the heartbeat of an America with which many of us were unaccustomed. His was not a proactive candidacy but a pure, unadulterated reaction to what a slice of the American people wanted.
Sexton had that pegged in December 2015 while traditional reporters were still running the numbers that had always worked before. Talk radio and Fox News created a market that wanted something specific from their party, and the party wasn’t listening.
There’s a great example about halfway through the book. The author discusses a road trip he took with a Trump supporter he calls “Dave.” Together they drove from Georgia to Ohio to see Hillary Clinton give a speech with opening act Elizabeth Warren.
So there is an avowed liberal Sexton listening to “Dave” explain his opposition to the Civil Rights Act’s public accommodation requirement — the same portion of the law that tackled the vile “Open For Business — No Coloreds” signs of the mid-20th century.
The same Sexton who complained of judgmental listening from the national media then sports the same short fuse when it came to outrageous statements. “I’d told myself, before picking Dave up that I wasn’t looking to argue issues,” he writes. “I was hoping to listen and find common ground. But I wasn’t going to just sit there and listen to outright intolerance.”
Sexton can’t get out of his own way long enough to listen to Dave’s point. Is he arguing in favor of racism? Or is he arguing that a business owner has a right to be a jerk? How much of Dave’s argument is just basic libertarianism and property rights? Does that make him necessarily intolerant for questioning federal power?
When Dave said he questioned the government’s role in legislating what’s in someone’s heart, Sexton concluded he “could not have been more wrong.” But wait a minute: didn’t liberals spend almost half a century arguing the Christian Right can’t “legislate morality”? This question gets skipped over.
The sections on the progressive love affair with Bernie Sanders are less salacious and upsetting, but also problematic. While attending the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, he details the outrage of Sanders’s supporters who concluded neoliberal Hillary was enough of a menace to treat the Trump threat in lukewarm terms — a tradeoff that appalls Sexton. “And how could they not look at Donald Trump and see him as an existential threat to all of their stated beliefs and principles?” Unfortunately, those are the last words of the chapter. He never bothered to ask.
It must be emphasized once more: Sexton is not a traditional journalist. He’s an English professor. Digging isn’t his specialty. He never had to knock on the door of a family whose kid just died to ask for a fifth-grade photograph. Next to that, asking a rabid Trump voter “What’s up?” is really nothing.
Sexton is among the new breed of pundits whose online presence leaves them a tweet away from getting launched into the national conversation. The internet has so bladed and graded the journalistic hierarchy that anyone with wi-fi and a snappy point of view can get into the conversation. That’s how Sexton, a creative writing teacher and author in Georgia, passed from the online journal Atticus Review into the pages of The New York Times without so much as covering a city council meeting.
He admits that he bought into the worldview offered by those who elevated him to national stature. They were certain Clinton would win big, and that Trump was an ugly stain of barbecue sauce that would be washed away like Pat Buchanan. And he bought it, despite everything he had chronicled in the book he was still writing.
“There’s a cloistered community once you reach a certain point of visibility, and everybody gets to know one another,” he writes,
There are inside jokes, rumors that never make it in print, a sort of high-school-clique mentality if high school were only full of nerdy writers wearing button-down shirts and slacks from Banana Republic. It was intoxicating to get a glimpse into that world, and when they told me, to a person, that election night would be over early, I believed them. If only I’d kept my eyes open.
I would amend that last sentence. If only he’d asked more questions. He could have had a hell of a story.
Blake Morlock is an award-winning journalist and free-lance writer in Tucson and has covered politics for more than 20 years. His column “What the Devil Won't Tell You,” appears regularly at the Tucsonsentinel.com.