In 1997, Patterson was riding in a car that was hit by a drunk driver, and the bones of his left arm were shattered into several dozen pieces. After six surgeries, he suffered permanent nerve damage, decreased arm mobility, and no future as a closeup magician. Having acquired his G.E.D., he enrolled in classes at the University of Miami. The quality of Patterson’s writing impressed an instructor, who persuaded him to apply to Columbia. The year that Patterson turned thirty, he became an Ivy League freshman. He majored in classics. Every night, he translated four hundred lines of ancient Greek and Latin. In class, he often argued with professors and students.
“The default view seemed to be that Western civilization is inherently bad,” he told me. In one history seminar, when students discussed the evils of the Western slave trade, Patterson pointed out that many cultures had practiced slavery, but that nobody decided to eradicate it until individuals in the West took up the cause. The class booed him. In Patterson’s opinion, most people at Columbia believed that only liberal views were legitimate, whereas his experiences in Grand Junction, and his textbook lessons from magic, indicated otherwise. (“States of mind are no different than feats of manual dexterity. Both can be learned through patience and diligence.”)
“Look, I’m a high-school dropout who went to an Ivy League school,” Patterson said. “I’ve seen both sides. The people at Columbia are not smarter.” He continued, “I went to Columbia at the height of the Iraq War. There were really legitimate arguments against going into Iraq. But I found that the really good arguments against going were made by William F. Buckley, Bob Novak, and Pat Buchanan. What I saw on the left was all slogans and group thought and clichés.”
Patterson graduated with honors and a reinvigorated sense of political conviction. For the past seven years, he’s worked for conservative nonprofit organizations, most recently in anti-union activism. In 2013, the United Auto Workers tried to unionize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, where Patterson demonstrated a knack for billboards and catchphrases. On one sign, he paired a photograph of a hollowed-out Packard plant with the words “Detroit: Brought to You by the UAW.” Another billboard said “United Auto Workers,” with the word “Auto” crossed out and replaced by “Obama,” written in red.
In Patterson’s opinion, such issues are cultural and emotional as much as economic. He believes that unions once served a critical function in American industry, but that the leadership, like that of the Democratic Party, has drifted too far from its base. Union heads back liberal candidates such as Obama and Clinton while dues-paying members tend to hold very different views. Patterson also thinks that free trade, which he once embraced as a conservative, has damaged American industries, and he now supports some more protectionist measures. His message resonated in Chattanooga, where, in 2014, workers delivered a stinging defeat to the U.A.W. Since then, Patterson has continued his advocacy in communities across the country, under the auspices of Americans for Tax Reform, which was founded by the conservative advocate Grover Norquist. “So now I bust unions for Grover Norquist with a classics degree and as a former magician,” he told me.
He’s a flack. You sent a reporter to the Real America, NewGoddamnYorker, and you found a GOP flack with a funny backstory, and you used him as an example of why Trump won. You let him say a thousand words that all boil down to racism (unions were fine until black people and brown immigrants started to benefit) and this is how Trump is transforming rural America? This asshole lives in Washington DC, no matter where he came from, and he’s paid to push a line you’ve bit on. Nice job.
The entire piece is an exercise in how to let white people avoid saying “racism,” perhaps best exemplified in this paragraph:
Before Trump took office, people I met in Grand Junction emphasized pragmatic reasons for supporting him. The economy was in trouble, and Trump was a businessman who knew how to make rational, profit-oriented decisions. Supporters almost always complained about some aspect of his character, but they also believed that these flaws were likely to help him succeed in Washington. “I’m not voting for him to be my pastor,” Kathy Rehberg, a local real-estate agent, said. “I’m voting for him to be President. If I have rats in my basement, I’m going to try to find the best rat killer out there. I don’t care if he’s ugly or if he’s sociable. All I care about is if he kills rats.”
That’s not loaded language at all when you’re a white lady talking about a candidate who campaigned on promises to boot illegal immigrants from the country.
These people similarly seem really nice:
The calculus seemed to have shifted: Trump’s negative qualities, which once had been described as a means to an end, now had value of their own. The point wasn’t necessarily to get things done; it was to retaliate against the media and other enemies. This had always seemed fundamental to Trump’s appeal, but people had been less likely to express it so starkly before he entered office. “For those of us who believe that the media has been corrupt for a lot of years, it’s a way of poking at the jellyfish,” Karen Kulp told me in late April. “Just to make them mad.”
If you think this is new, you must have slept through the last 40 fucking years. Republican legislators have been making their bones attacking journalists and universities for DECADES. Until recently, they didn’t have a compliant media machine of their own to amplify their resentments, whip them up to turn on their neighbors white and otherwise, and suppress the votes of those they thought were looking down on them.
People don’t think liberals are smug because they know smug liberals, but because right-wing media feed the public vicious caricatures.
— sean. (@SeanMcElwee) July 17, 2017
For as long as there have been public universities and newspapers, there have been assholes attacking them as anti-American. Once upon a time, though, we didn’t mount expeditions into the assholes’ native territory with the aim of understanding the people who wanted us dead.
In Grand Junction, it was often dispiriting to see such enthusiasm for a figure who could become the ultimate political boom-and-bust. There was idealism, too, and so many pro-Trump opinions were the fruit of powerful and legitimate life experiences. “We just assume that if someone voted for Trump that they’re racist and uneducated,” Jeriel Brammeier, the twenty-six-year-old chair of the local Democratic Party, told me. “We can’t think about it like that.” People have reasons for the things that they believe, and the intensity of their experiences can’t be taken for granted; it’s not simply a matter of having Fox News on in the background. But perhaps this is a way to distinguish between the President and his supporters. Almost everybody I met in Grand Junction seemed more complex, more interesting, and more decent than the man who inspires them.
Maybe they did. But if you are truly so dim as to think that they wouldn’t seem more complex, more interesting and more decent TO YOU because YOU’RE A WHITE GUY, I have a membership to Mar-A-Lago to sell you.
They seemed better than the man they voted for? Too bad. They voted for him. I don’t care if they’re racist and uneducated in real life or if they have a bunch of graduate degrees and ten black friends, because they voted for racism and stupidity anyway.
They don’t want people looking down on them? They can fix that really easily by BEING BETTER HUMAN BEINGS.
This whole story is a mess, and the only interesting aspect of it is the idea that voting for Trump is performative, something done not to improve anyone’s life but to make the voter feel powerful and good in a world that tries to snuff such feelings out. I wonder if anyone’s ever made that point before.