Stephen King is the author, most recently, of the novella collection “If It Bleeds.”
I’ll call her Annie. That’s not her name, but it will do. In September 2016, she worked at a convenience store not far from where I live in western Maine. I still gas up there, but I don’t see her around these days. In the summer, she was always inside, busy ringing up the purchases of the summer people: six-packs of beer, canisters of Blue Rhino for the barbecue, chips and dip, lottery tickets. After Labor Day, though, the summer people go home, and more often than not, Annie would be leaning against the side of the building in her apple-red smock, having a smoke. I’d put her age back then as 60, or maybe a hard-living 50. Deep lines on her face, smoker’s rasp, Maine Yankee from her brassy blond home-dyed hair to the soles of her red sneakers.
One day that early fall, I joined her at her smoker’s post to scratch a five-dollar lottery ticket with my lucky dime, and asked who she was voting for in the presidential. I expected her to say Hillary Clinton, because I stupidly assumed that, as a woman, Annie would love to see a woman president, but also because the polls, in Maine and in the other 49, made it clear that Donald Trump was going down, buried under a landslide.
“Trump,” she said.
I was shocked. I think I said, “You’re joking.”
She gave me a look that said, Surprised you, didn’t I.
“But why?” I asked, and then used a descriptor Joe Biden would use in a debate with Trump almost exactly four years further down the timeline: “He’s a clown.”
“I like him,” Annie said. “He’s not like the other ones. He says what’s on his mind, and if you don’t like it, you can stick it.” And this time her glance said, That goes for you, too, Writer Boy.
I pointed out that Trump had no experience. Annie nodded as if it were her point. “I like that. He’s a business guy. He’ll shake things up, kick over a few apple carts.”
Four years later, here we are. America is more set against itself than at any time since the Civil War, and Trump is the cause. He’s not just an apple-cart kicker; he is that dangerous combination of low pressure and warm water around which hurricanes form. The polls say he won’t win, but they said it wouldn’t happen in 2016. A good many mainstream Republicans have deserted Trump and will either sit this one out or will vote, quietly, for Biden. Yet Trump’s core support has shrunk very little — and it has hardened. The MAGA contingent is an apolitical rock packed into a Republican snowball.
The list of Trump’s rebellions against normal political and presidential behavior — his apple-cart kicking — is long (books have been written about it, thick ones), and each of them makes his core supporters rejoice.
Because he’s not like the other ones. He’s sticking it to the man.
And, of course, he’s for America. There are photos of him to prove it, one showing him holding up a Bible and another where he’s hugging an American flag with an ecstatic (and, to my eye, at least, spurious) smile on his face.
Trump has succeeded in making a direct connection with the American id. He has crystallized formerly vaporous conspiracy theories such as QAnon and the supposed deep state. He has given voice to prejudices that our logical thinking — our better nature, if you like — tells us are damaging and addictive. We understand what the scientists are saying about protecting ourselves from covid-19 and flattening the curve, but those things are plodding and prosaic. The online rumors (vaccines cause brain damage, global warming is a hoax, Democrats molest children and then eat them) are much more attractive. The id is hateful; it’s also fearful. Trump, a rainmaker who takes credit for rain even as the drought continues, has based both of his presidential campaigns on a series of dark myths. He really isn’t like the others.
As Americans prepare to go to the polls, they are facing a crossroads moment like no other in the nation’s history. One fork leads to Trump and a validation of the id and all the dark beliefs it harbors. The other fork leads to Biden. A vote for Biden isn’t a vote for the superego — Biden is not blameless — but it’s at least a vote for the ego: the part of us that is rational and willing to take responsibility (however reluctantly) for individual actions and societal ills.
It took me four years, but I get where Annie was coming from in 2016, and I get where all those yelling, unmasked, red-hatted partisans at Trump’s rallies are coming from. I understand the desire to kick over the apple cart and then just walk away. But I also understand the need to move forward in a rational, if sometimes plodding and painful, manner. Trump kicked over the cart. Millions of American voters helped him. Biden is promising to right it again … but we’ll all have to pick up the apples.
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