MY EDGY FORAY INTO CREATIVE NON-FICTION: On Bernie, Trump & White Privilege

Caution: CAFE's Chief Beltway Insider Hack gets raw in this unfiltered, first-person experiment

Well, DIGsters, we’re in for another “experimental” edition of The Dig today. You may be saying, “Carl, what’s with the artsy fartsy stuff? I just want you to tell me the Winners of the Week every day!” I mostly agree, but I also think we journalists have a duty to tell stories in innovative ways. And besides, if Hollywood heartthrob Sean Penn can be an investigative journalist, why can’t ol’ Carl be a first-person creative nonfiction writer in the vein of young edgy hotshots like Chuck Klosterman and Stephen Marche?

This past week I went down to Iowa to see up close the fervor behind Bernie Sanders’ and Donald Trump’s pathologically white supporters. Here are my unedited, unfiltered, raw observations:

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The patina of Iowa is a dull hiss of whiteness, a distillation of privilege and the experiences that come to be revealed the moment one crosses over the border. The further I drove towards the state, I felt farther away from my friends who are all types of colors and creeds. What would they think, I thought? While at the toll booth, a worker asked me polite questions.

“Why are you coming to Iowa?” he asked.

“To see Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump,” I replied.

“OK, have a good one,” he said rhetorically.

His words echoed with me as I continued the drive through the cornfields that screamed in their silence. They screamed with him, in their similarly muted yell. I write. He presses a button as if a trained animal. And he worshipped me for it, for his lot in life. But he felt he owed me nothing, as per his casual tone. Contrasts live inside the otherwise simple people. This is Iowa. This is the world.

Waves of nothingness fell through me and tingled first through my feet, then my thighs, then my torso, then my head. It was a swirling of minutiae and Michelob until I went to bed. Staring at the ceiling for the Burlington, Iowa Days Inn, I contemplated the white privilege of the Iowans. They hadn’t even built a Marriott or similar accommodations suitable for a reporter of my caliber, yet they were treated to me writing about their small lives. Would I be there if they weren’t white, here in Iowa? It puzzled me till I went to sleep.

* * * *

Donald Trump supporters and Bernie Sanders supporters are the exact same white people, but in the shadows of their sameness there are differences.

The Trump rally was a study in contrasts. On one hand, these people were happy to be there. On the other, there was rage. They were mad at the government. At America. At the nature of man. They talked of strength, but betrayed the weak breeding of the American farmer. They spoke of making America great, but many of them were poor.

Trump spoke of the TPP, or Muslims, or something else. I wasn’t really paying attention because I was realizing the contrasts. I wrote it off as an aberration or irregular heartbeat in the body politic. That was until the next day.

* * * *

I stared at myself in the mirror. My legs that carried me to where I exist in life. My hands that wrote exposes of Paul Wellstone’s rumored bisexuality. But most of all, my white skin. I am white, and a writer. And I am about to go to a Bernie Sanders rally to complete the two axes of American politics in the neverending but ultimately finite display that is the Iowa primary.

Bernie’s rally was as predicted. The candidate sounds more like Larry David than he does even himself, something no one else has really noticed but me. He was mad. In 30 years of political reporting, I’ve never really noticed anyone speak angrily about issues while campaigning for issues. But so be it, in this age of anger. He prattled on in his ridiculous, obnoxious voice. Only a white person would be allowed to have this kind of voice, I thought.

What turned this from a bizarre Lynchian spectacle to an exercise in our national demons was his supporters. They wore shirts with Bernie’s name on them. They clapped when he spoke. It was like watching a cult affair.

The sky opened on me and passed through me a revelation that these men, these Bernie men, these Trump men, this Trump, this Bernie, are all the same.  They are concurrently appealing to people who would vote for candidates other than Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, or the others. They are masters of their privilege, but jacks of no trade. An anger shakes through both men, into their supporters. A vote for one is a vote for another. American politics is a seesaw shaped like a horseshoe.

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With my remaining hours, I drowned my sorrows in silence. The lowly corn people of Iowa didn’t recognize my Diner’s Club card (it’s an elite card usually owned by East Coast media professionals), so I was prevented from opening a tab. I sat around the lobby of the Day’s Inn, and it sat around me. It all sat around me. I was restless in the American dream.

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Hope you liked it, DIGarinos! We’ll be back to regularly scheduled programming this week when I preview the win-and-fail minefield that awaits both fields of candidates on the double bill of debates!

Carl “The Dig” Diggler has covered national politics for 30 years, and is the author of “Think-ocracy: The Rise Of The Brainy Congressman”. Got a question for the Dig? E-mail him at [email protected] or Tweet to @carl_diggler.