RIDGWAY, Colo. — It’s different in the West. It’s easier to feel in touch with some essence of what America is. The space, so much of it still, so empty, so awe-inspiring, speaks of American possibility. The boundlessness invites reinvention and prickly individualism. Here in Colorado, purple state, split between gun lovers and legal marijuana lovers, the libertarian streak runs strong.
That’s the bit of the United States the rest of the world finds hardest to fathom. Why the scorn for handouts, the equating of universal health care with socialism, the obsession with self-reliance, the refusal to see that a profusion of guns leads to a profusion of mass shootings? Of course a crowded Europe with its wounds seeks solidarity in the name of stability, while America with its wide-open spaces embraces the right to be left alone (at least until you need Medicaid) and the right, whatever its risks, to the next frontier.
I said it’s different in the West. It’s not so different in the West, it’s just that you see more clearly what the country stood for in its own mythologized self-image, what it was to be an American, what it was to aspire to some new and exemplary measure of freedom, and how far things have fallen to produce President Donald Trump.
No part of the country today is immune to American fracture or the squalid Trump wars, to cultural confrontations over identity and gender and race, to the effects of stagnant incomes over decades, or to the narcissism of modernity.
In a purple state, unlike in Brooklyn, N.Y., or Palo Alto, Calif., these differences press in on each other. Conversations occur that break through ideological lines. Grand Junction, in western Colorado, voted for Trump at the last election. There, I spoke to Robert Babcox, a pastor, who praised the president for sticking to his campaign promises and, “for all the bravado,” getting the economy revved up.
Babcox called the ban on high-capacity gun magazines that hold more than 15 rounds, signed into law by John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor who has presidential aspirations, “a silly law.” The pastor said he could drive across the nearby border into Utah and buy a high-capacity magazine. He said the Second Amendment was designed to create a militia “equal to the government to ensure self-reliance,” and that therefore the ban on the magazines should be overturned. He said, “If I can limit somebody on what weapons they can buy, why would I not be able to limit what you can say about me under the First Amendment? When we endanger one right, we endanger them all.”
Words don’t kill, I said. Some things are worse than death, he said. So, I asked, Trump’s great? No, the pastor said. He only trusted Trump “to a degree.” Someone should take away his cellphone, he said. Americans can come together, he said, praising John F. Kennedy. “I served in the Navy,” he said. “I saw so many taken before their time — white, black, Hispanic. It all hurt me just the same, and they all bled red, and that lesson stayed with me.”
The thing about all the shocking Trump revelations — Michael Cohen’s about violating campaign finance laws by paying hush money to two women in coordination with a “candidate for federal office” being the latest — is that they are already baked into Trump’s image. His supporters, and there are tens of millions of them, never had illusions. I’ve not met one, Babcox included, who did not have a pretty clear picture of Trump. They’ve known all along that he’s a needy narcissist, a womanizer, a lowlife, a liar, a braggart and a generally miserable human being. That’s why the “Access Hollywood” tape or the I-could-shoot-somebody-on-Fifth-Avenue boast did not kill his candidacy.
It’s also why the itch to believe that the moment has come when everything starts to unravel must be viewed warily. Sure, Trump sounds more desperate. But who’s the enforcer if Trump has broken the law? It’s Congress — and until things change there (which could happen in November) or Republicans at last abandon a policy of hold-my-nose opportunism, Trump will ride out the storm.
There’s a deeper question, which comes back to the extraordinary Western landscape and the high American idea enshrined in it. Americans elected Trump. Nobody else did. They came down to his level. White Christian males losing their place in the social order decided they’d do anything to save themselves, and to heck with morality. They made a bargain with the devil in full knowledge. So the real question is: What does it mean to be an American today? Who are we, goddamit? What have we become?
Trump was a symptom, not a cause. The problem is way deeper than him.
For William Steding, a diplomatic historian living in Colorado, American individualism has morphed into narcissism, perfectibility into entitlement, and exceptionalism into hubris. Out of that, and more, came the insidious malignancy of Trump. It will not be extirpated overnight.