Storytelling Won The Election

I am an idiot novelist and screenwriter and I know the dumb reason why Trump won.

Image: Sean Loyless

I tell stories for a living. I think a lot about how thunderingly stupid it is that this can be an actual job. Basically I type lies alone all day.

The lies are lies in a few ways. For one thing, they are the made-up actions of people who don’t exist. But for another, more important thing, they grossly simplify the feelings and actions and lives of those people. I have to fit an entire group of people, and the places in which they exist, and the infinitely subdivisible blocks of time they move through, into 300 pages or 100 minutes. So most of the bewildering complexity and contradiction and nuance of anything resembling real life gets lost. What’s left is a story.

That’s really all storytelling is. Life is way too complicated to make any kind of sense if you try to perceive all of it at once. Here is how you write a story: you take life, cut out pretty much all of it except for like four things, make up some other stuff, and then move all the stuff around, and just in general distort the world in all kinds of ways until it makes sense to our dumb primate brains.

Trump won and Clinton lost. And there are millions of reasons why that was the outcome, not just one reason. Millions and millions of reasons whose influences can’t even be quantified with respect to each other. Your friends and family are screaming all of them at each other on Facebook right now, and it’s a goddamn nightmare. But let’s get grossly simplistic, and let’s choose one reason, and let’s make a story out of it.

Here’s my dumb story: Trump told a story, and Clinton didn’t.

Like I’m doing right now, Trump told a grossly simplistic story in his campaign. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a pointy-headed blue-stater like me, and you’re probably repelled by that story’s worldview. But beyond that, you also probably feel contemptuous of it as a story. Because 1) it’s grossly simplistic, and 2) he made a bunch of stuff up.

But as a story, it was super effective. It was very easy to understand. You could remember all of it, and it was about America. It addressed the same audience every time, and it pointed to obvious solutions that the Democrats were not going to do. Immigrants are taking your jobs; I am going to kick them out! Muslims and black people want to kill us; I am going to stop them and jail them! Comfy city-dwellers on the coasts don’t believe or care that your jobs are gone or crappy; I hate those freaking people as much as you and will not allow them to run things anymore!

What was Clinton’s story? Clinton ran as a technocratic incrementalist, who knows tons of stuff about tons of stuff and will make well-considered technical improvements to our country here and there, continuing and sharpening our neoliberal trajectory with policies that address this thing and that thing, based on dizzying amounts of science and data. She’ll react to world events on a studied, case-by-case basis. That is both a very sound vision of a presidency, and the most boring thing I have ever typed. I had to get up two different times for coffee while writing it. It’s not a story at all.

You might say: She also ran as a glass-ceiling breaker, a highly experienced person, and basically the complete screaming opposite of Trump. Those are all just stories about her, though. They don’t tell a story about America that rebuts Trump’s.

Gore was a technocratic incrementalist. Kerry was a technocratic incrementalist. Remember when Bush mocked Kerry for coming up with “a new nuance”? Remember how infuriating that was? Did you not yell at your television or giant desktop computer, “NUANCE IS GOOD! YOU SMIRKING, IDIOT CHIMP!! NUANCE IS DETAIL, AND DETAIL IS EVERYTHING!!!” But to most people, it’s not.

Technocratic incrementalists are super appealing to those of us with liberal-arts educations who have taken those educations to heart, because liberal-arts educations are about steeping you in the ever-surprising, relativizing complexity of the real goddamn world, and the Hillary Clintons and John Kerrys and Al Gores of the world operate in deference to that complexity. And that’s why the Democratic party keeps nominating them. But technocratic incrementalism makes for terrible storytelling. And technocratic incrementalists make terrible campaigners. They might make good presidents, but they’re atrocious candidates.

This was why Bernie — and I know how much you don’t want me to bring him up, but sorry, I have to — was so electrifying. Bernie also told a story that was incredibly easy to understand: the wealthy are too wealthy, the middle class has gotten a raw deal, and it’s time to rein in capitalism at least somewhat. This was why there was such shocking overlap between supporters of Bernie and Trump, two candidates proposing wildly different policies. People give so, so much less of a shit about policy than most of us want to think. I can’t stress this enough. So much less of a shit. They just need a good story.

Trump knew all of this. Trump’s training is in reality television and conmanship. He’s wildly good at figuring out stories that lots and lots of people want to hear. And one reason he’s great at this is: He never ties himself up into knots trying to concoct a story that everyone wants to hear. A conman doesn’t try to con everyone in the room. He knows he can’t, and he doesn’t need to.

So Trump didn’t try to meet everyone where they live, or tailor his thing to what every single person wants to hear. That is a Democratic tendency, and politically speaking, it is insane. It makes you a mealy-mouthed fence-sitter whose pronunciations are compromised to the point of inanity. America is good! Except, don’t worry, people who are struggling, we know it’s also not good! Except, don’t worry, people who are doing great, we know we’re doing great! But we know we also have a lot of work to do! But obviously we’re going to stay the course and everything! But for sure we also need to change a ton of stuff!

So here’s my plea. Let’s not mistrust the big story the next time around. Let’s not make it a disqualifying thing to have a simple vision, one that excites some people and turns other people off. And I know this plea might be pretty dispiriting. It sounds like I’m asking you to let politics be dumber. But let’s not pretend we’re smarter than we are. We’re all idiot chimps who need stories to make sense of the world. That’s why my stupid job exists. We’re moron chimps who are still just learning the basics of abstract thought.

And if we tell ourselves we aren’t, we’re just telling ourselves a story that isn’t very good.

P.S. I know this story doesn’t contain enough contempt for Trump or his supporters for your taste. Here you go: Trump is a magic unwipeable anus. He is a fecally encrusted anus who uses magic to prevent itself from ever being wiped. And his supporters voted for him. But we have to share a country with them. The more contempt you have for them, the more they’ll have for you. I’d like to ask you to try not to assume the worst in people—just for pragmatic reasons, just because that makes it so much harder to heal. But that’s almost offensively easy for a straight cis white guy to say.

We’re stuck with a magic unwipeable anus in the White House for the next four years because its shitty mouth told a hell of a story. Next election, let’s find someone who tells a better one.

Jesse Andrews is a novelist and screenwriter. He is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Haters, and the screenwriter of Me and Earl’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize–winning feature film adaptation.