Conforming to America

Trump supporters and the pressure to conform

A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me an article about the podcast My Favorite Murder. The article was about how the show is empowering for women, encouraging women to take their safety into their own hands, and to listen to their intuition. I teach self defense, and I focus on this same message, so this was wonderful news to me — My Favorite Murder reaches a much larger audience than I can, and the more women that learn to rely on their own, innate self defense systems the better.

But then I listened to an episode — have you listened to My Favorite Murder? I think it’s because I’ve been living outside of the US for seven years now, and no one speaks English that fast overseas, that I honestly could not understand what they were saying for the first five minutes or so. It was like going to a Shakespeare play and sitting patiently through the first scene not understanding a thing, while you wait for your ear to adjust to 16th Century English.

The hosts, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, were talking about the case of Darlie Routier, a Texas woman charged in 1996 with stabbing her two young sons, who both died, although she was also stabbed herself in a way that is almost impossible for it to be a self-inflicted wound. The belief is that she, or she and her husband, either arranged to kill their children to collect insurance money, or she was meant to be killed for insurance money by a hired assailant. A lot of Routier’s conviction was based on audio and videotape that depicted her behaving and speaking in ways that seemed inconsistent with a grieving mother, from the moment she called 911, to infamous video footage of Routier spraying Silly String on her one of her sons’ grave on his birthday, which happened to be only eight days after he died, and similar, mostly behavioral “evidence” all the way through to her conviction.

We’re reasonable people and we know what’s right and what’s wrong.

The case is tragic in a lot of different ways, but what really struck me was the language Kilgariff and Hardstark used throughout their episode. As they recounted the case, the investigation and the trial, and discussed different elements of it all, they consistently said things like “if your kids are stabbed, you don’t tell the 911 operator ‘a man broke into my house and stabbed me’ as the first thing out of your mouth. You talk about your children bleeding on the floor!” or “if you celebrate someone’s life after they die, you do that after, like, 10 years [on the anniversary of their death], not 8 days later. Just: NO.” or “if a child dies before the mother, the mother is so devastated that maybe her behavior is erratic, but she’s crying and grieving. That’s what’s normal; not laughing and singing hymns in her best Christina Aguilera voice”.

It was interesting to listen to (once I could understand it), because it raised a lot of questions for me, especially living outside the US. The two hosts, who are feminist in their views, and certainly left-leaning if not progressive, are so adamant about what one does and doesn’t do, uttered from a position of relative authority but with absolutely no firsthand or even professional experience in the particular subject matter (neither Kilgariff nor Hardstark have professional training in psychology, criminology, forensics or law). Their speech is simply that of a “we’re reasonable people and we know what’s right and what’s wrong” variety. It struck me as disturbingly like the other extreme of people in the US right now.

Language seems so unimportant — it’s difficult to pay attention to the way we ourselves speak in daily life — but it reveals so much about what’s really important to a culture, or what the moral structure of the person speaking or even an entire society can be.

I found the hosts’ speech in this episode, so filled with adamant and rigid condemnation, to do more toward highlighting the pressures in the US to conform, and the implicit sentiment that you’re a bad person if you don’t, than anything else. It chafed, and I eventually turned it off.

A couple of days later, I came across this brilliant article about 4Chan users and the rise of Trump. I had just spent about a week watching the digital performance installation He Will Not Divide Us, a live-feed video camera installed outside the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York by the artist group LaBeouf Ronkko Turner. The idea was for visitors to walk up to the camera and recite the phrase “he will not divide us” into the live-feed camera, which was broadcasting in real time through its own website and across the Internet. Meant as an exploration in the power of mantra as well as a peaceful protest against the Trump Administration, the camera was to remain live and the installation active for four years, or until the end of the Trump presidency (with the implied hope for impeachment).

Language reveals what’s really important to a culture, or what the moral structure of an entire society can be.

Within a week, word got out on Reddit and 4Chan, and the 4Chan users and Pepe supporters mobilized: they infiltrated the groups chanting “he will not divide us”, waving Pepe signs and wearing Make America Great Again hats in the background. They teased and taunted the artists, pushing them to the point of physically defending themselves; they took over the feed at night, hanging around, responding to real-time questions and comments from viewers tuned in. They drowned each other out by blasting Shadilay, by sharing their wonky world views (one kid who had made a special trip from Chicago to Queens just to be on the live feed, explained his respect for the Eastern European countries who are refusing refugees: “in the last two world wars, when their countries were invaded, they didn’t run to England or America to be safe. No. They stayed and they fought for their land!” — because apparently the United States has been populated solely by people on holiday who simply decided to stay), by egging each other on to more and more violence: in their words, in their views, in their actions.

Finally, the real-time violence did escalate to such a degree the museum shut the installation down, out of concern for the safety of its staff and visitors. The artists found another venue for the installation — the El Rey Theater in Albuquerque, New Mexico — and one week later, the feed was live again. But sure enough, the 4Chan and Pepe people mobilized and once again took over the live feed, once again teased and taunted the installation’s supporters, once again egged each other on to violence until gunshots rang out and the feed was shut down once more (as of this writing, the feed remains shut down).

In his article, Dale Beran compares the 4Chan world to Lord of the Flies, and after watching the live video feed, I had come to the same conclusion: it was like a “where are they now” special about the kids from Lord of the Flies. It was horrifying, but at the same time, I got it. I understood why these kids — mostly boys — support Trump, support Steve Bannon, and are out to destroy everything. Beran’s article spells it out, explains the phenomenon eloquently and with intelligent compassion. They are the misfits, the outsiders, and Trump and Bannon understand them, accept them, are them.

But Beran’s article, as brilliant as it is, doesn’t explain the other Trump supporters. The people who aren’t living in a blurred reality between videogames and their mom’s basement. The people who lost everything in the housing crisis and still haven’t gotten it back; the people who can’t find jobs in the fields they have degrees in, the people who can’t afford to send their kids to college, but watch the neighbors who work menial jobs or get Welfare support show up with the new iPhone, the new tablet, the new car. It looks like they’re gaming the system, and they feel if the system can be gamed, there must be something wrong with the system. Everything is stacked against them. If only they could get a break.

The short answer is: not everything works out for everyone.

Last summer, a guy I’ve been connected with for several years on Facebook but had never met in real life showed up in Berlin. I invited him over for dinner, along with my houseguests — two Swedes in their early 20s visiting for the weekend. We had a lovely time, and this new friend shared his history with us: he had a degree in political science, was articulate and bright, well read and up on current global politics, and was a fairly dedicated tech head. He had once worked as a television writer in LA. He had traveled through Latin America to make a documentary film. He had worked as a camera operator on another TV show. Everything was freelance and, after a while, all the work dried up. He became an Uber driver to make ends meet, until he received funding from a wealthy acquaintance to travel around Europe and talk conspiracy theories for a web series. He was a good-looking man, and who enjoyed a drink.

We enjoyed meeting him, getting to know him, and sharing lively, intelligent, interesting conversation with him. After he left, my young Swedish friends asked (quite innocently), “but… what’s wrong with him? He’s obviously intelligent, he seems motivated, he has a degree in political science. Why isn’t he successful?”

There are a lot of factors that contribute to every individual’s life, and we here in industrialized nations, fat and happy with our technology and toys, we overlook that. We drink the Kool Aid too, the Instagram Kool Aid, the Facebook Kool Aid, the reality TV Kool Aid. The drink that says anyone can achieve anything and look at you: you’re better looking than a Bieber, smarter than a Kardashian. You can do it too.

And when you don’t do it too, people respond the same way my young Swedish friends did: what’s he doing wrong? what’s wrong with him?

The short answer is: not everything works out for everyone.

The universe may be infinite, but we live in a finite reality. If the film and television industries employed every single screenwriter in Hollywood, there would be more output than audiences can consume. If everyone with a political science degree got a job as a politician, we would have more politicians than we need (some would argue we already do). If everyone on the planet wrote a novel, who would read all those novels when everyone is busy writing their own? And who would print them? Where would the paper come from? We would run out of trees (some would argue we already have).

It’s finite, but we are told it’s infinite and when we don’t get a piece of that infinite pie it’s somehow our own fault. But it’s pie, not pi. There really are only so many pieces before it’s gone. And woe is you if you don’t even like pie — not because you’re diabetic or on a diet, but because you simply don’t like it. How can you not like pie? You’re American. You like pie — that’s what you do. Everyone likes pie.

The pressure to conform in American society makes everyone miserable. It made me miserable — it’s why I left. It’s not that I don’t like pie — I just don’t care about pie, not enough to feel good or bad about it, certainly not enough to crave it.

I do like pi, though. In American society, that makes me different. I also like Shakespeare, by the way, and I hate Dan Brown. One of my brothers once yelled at me out of frustration when I told him I had no interest in reading The DaVinci Code because the two or three pages I had read I had found to be poorly written and too predictable. “You don’t have to read Shakespeare plays as bedtime reading, you know! You can just read something light and fun!” But Shakespeare plays are fun for me to read. And my brother — because I wasn’t conforming to the trend sweeping across the US that year — got mad at me for it.

Just as I got mad at a cousin of mine who voted for Trump. She’s not a bad person at all, not racist, not insensitive. And when she posts photos of eating healthy and running marathon-length distances in the heat of New Mexico, she gets a lot of popular support on Facebook, including from me. But when she posts photos of her hobby of knife-throwing, she is ridiculed, even by her own family. Yet we’re not that different, my cousin and I: I study a martial art, and my favorite weapon is the sword. But I practice in a uniform and within the confines of a dojo and a hundreds-year-old framework; she simply goes out back and throws knives at wooden pallets. She’s the weird one.. but is she, really?

(Incidentally, I started martial arts training because I was afraid, and I wanted to be able to defend myself. My cousin practices knife throwing and shooting because she’s also afraid, and wants to be able to defend herself. My fear was from a specific incident; hers is more general — but both practices are born of the same fear, the same need; even if, on Facebook, they look different.)

The universe may be infinite, but we live in a finite reality.

In American society, the ways you don’t conform are shameful, an embarrassment. No one else wants to admit their nonconformity either, so you think you’re all alone. It’s a miserable, painful existence. But… you’re not hurting anyone. You’re not making anyone suffer, and you’re not suffering yourself. You’re a decent person. There can’t be anything that wrong with you.

And yet all of American society says there is. Of course, you deflect — you run the same distraction game that Trump is such a master of: you call out this group or that as taking jobs or trespassing or being bad or just being weird, as being not like the rest of us. You hide your faults, your nonconformity by pointing out the failure to conform in others instead.

Beran says in his article that the 4Chan kids just want to be able to do what they want. This is evident by their behavior, but I would also posit that they want to do what they want in reaction to the restrictions they feel. They figure, in that classic adolescent way, if everyone hates them anyway, they might as well make you hate them more.

Likewise, the other Trump supporters want to do what they want, too — although I don’t believe the majority of them actually want to be racist, or homophobic, or even politically or socially insensitive. I think they, like the 4Chan kids, are pushing against walls that feel like they’re closing in on them, shrinking their worlds and their definitions of themselves, forcing these square pegs into round holes. I would push against that too — and I have. That’s what it meant to be a punk rocker when I was younger. That’s what it means to be an ex-pat now.

The 4Chan people respond to this pressure in the same way any trapped animal would. If, at every turn, you are criticized and ostracized and condemned, it feels like a shrinking space with no way out. You have to save yourself. So you punch your way out, destroy stuff, blow things to smithereens — just like on video games. But also just like any punk rocker, just like any kid, anywhere, who is simply trying to be.

The older demographics that support Trump, the baby boomers, the Gen Xers, all of them who don’t conform to the TV model of America — the ones who are convinced that they are the real America, the real people — respond in the same way. And they’re right, by the way, they are the real America — the non-TV model of America, the dorks and geeks and knife throwers and video gamers and political science degree holders who can’t find a job. And they voted for a guy that looks like they do — the outsider, the one who yeah, ok, he inherited his wealth but he didn’t act like so many rich kids do and just live off of daddy’s money; he went to work and made more money with it. The one who wears ill-fitting suits because he likes them (and probably because he knows it irritates people — like any other human, he digs in his heels). He knows he’s outside the wealthy classes and he doesn’t care. He doesn’t fit in and he made it anyway. That’s the champion of the common American right now. And no wonder. It hurts not to fit in, to feel like a failure when you know you’re not… if you just could get a break.

For the record, my Facebook friend did not vote for Trump. A month or two after I met him, the wealthy acquaintance funding my new friend’s web series disappeared with bills unpaid, shows unproduced, promises not kept, hopes dashed. It’s easy to say that this was no surprise, that the red flags were probably already there, that when something is too good to be true it usually is, implying that my friend should have known this, should have seen it coming, should never have accepted the offer in the first place… and bringing the whole thing back around to being my friend’s own fault. What’s wrong with him? Except, when you know you have something to say, when you know you’re a good writer or speaker, when you have your political science degree and you end up driving an Uber, how can you know? How do you know what to do when life hasn’t worked out the way you thought it would? How do you know what to do when hope is offered for the first time in years?

Darlie Routier, the subject of the My Favorite Murder podcast episode, is still on death row, waiting for results of new DNA testing. In a 2015 news interview in response to the criticism of her behavior following the murders of her children, she said, “But how do you know what you’re going to do when you lose two children? How do you know how you’re going to act?”

No, say My Favorite Murder hosts Kilgariff and Hardstark. You just don’t. This is how someone responds. This is how it is. And yes, we totally agree everyone has different ways of grieving, but you don’t do this.

Except: yes, you do. Yes, you do. Maybe you’re one in a million. But you do.

Full disclosure: The hosts’ condemnation of Routier’s behavior rubbed me the wrong way because I have also had the experience of a man breaking into my home and trying to kill me. I was badly beaten, I was terrorized, I was shaking so badly I could barely dial 911. And the first words screamed out of my mouth to the 911 operator were not “I’m hurt”. They were “a man broke in and tried to kill me!” — almost identical to Routier’s. The operator asked me — as she was required to do — if the man had a weapon. I replied “I think he had a knife” because I knew the police would take longer to respond if I said no. Even in my extreme state of shock, I was able to reason out this piece of logic in a heartbeat. Our systems of self preservation and self care are complex and sophisticated and sometimes operate on levels we ourselves don’t understand in the moment, or even for years afterwards.

And for further full disclosure: in my family, we’ve lost children. We’ve held funerals for three children who died before their parents, and one parent who died before her children. No one was murdered, but all the deaths were tragic losses for us. Two of those funerals were incredibly somber. And two of those four funerals were incredibly celebratory because that’s how our grief carried us. I watched the mothers of these children cry at two of the funerals, and I watched them laugh at the two others. I watched them drink champagne, and I drank with them. I watched them sing, and I sang with them. I watched my sister-in-law place chocolate on her infant’s casket and tell her baby boy “you’re going to love this” before they filled his grave.

Some people thought those celebratory services were a bit strange, but we didn’t care. It was our grief, and our loss, and our lives who were affected, and we processed those moments in the best way we knew how.

Because how can you know? How do you know what you’re going to do when you lose a child? When someone tries to take your life? When you lose your house or your business or your hope? When you don’t get that job or that partner or that big break? When life doesn’t work out the way everyone says it should? How do you know how you’re going to act? And how can you judge? How can you condemn? How can you say “you don’t do this” “you’re a failure” “it’s all your fault” — how can you place these restrictions on people, set those crushing walls in motion, and not expect anyone to try to escape, by fighting, by blowing things to smithereens, by voting for the person who offers a way out?


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