The Mystic of Mar-a-Lago

The first time I saw the hat was out West four years ago. On a reporting trip to a small fruit-growing agricultural town divided between white Republicans and Mexican and Central American migrant workers, my host invited me to attend a raffle luncheon. Within minutes of my arrival, a jovial, big-bellied white man walked into the lobby of the community center that was hosting the event, wearing the hat. I was a Black woman alone. I had felt entirely comfortable there, however, until I saw the hat.

The man wearing it paused in front of three teenage Chicano boys and me, greeting his friends and neighbors. The scene seemed appalling. And I wanted a record of it. Click, my phone went, as I snapped a picture.

I had forgotten to silence the shutter. The man spun around. Humiliated and caught, I pretended to take a selfie. The teen boys were, as teen boys often are, absorbed in a hand-held video game, uninterested in the man, the raffle and my disgust. They slumped together on the bench, lost in their virtual second life. “Did you want to take a picture together or something? With me?” the man asked. He was chuckling.

I told myself, sometime in 2016, if I ever found myself in an exchange like this, I would say something pointed. Instead, we bared our teeth at each other for a few counts while I tried to draw up sharp words to say. Nothing came. “No, no,” I said, “I took a picture so I could remember this.”

This was not a lie.

We stood there, still smiling, like two people trying to agree on a common language. Until finally I told him I wanted more of the dump cake they were serving and walked away. This was a lie. Throughout it all, the three boys never looked up. That was the first time I saw the hat, and I felt like a fool standing there rattled by it. And I still do whenever I look through my pictures of that trip and see that man and his red Make America Great Again hat.

The third time that I saw a MAGA hat, I finally understood its power. This time, no one was wearing it; it was sprawled out with ludicrously designed bootleg Keep America Great apparel that reminded me of the New Kids on the Block clothing I once begged my mother to purchase. That type of clothing doesn’t have a long life, my mother told me then. She was right. At the time, emblazoning a bunch of teeny-bopper singers’ faces on my chest seemed like an easy way to put forth my personality. No different from the “God, Guns & Trump” shirts and hats I saw at this roadside caravan in West Virginia, just days before the 2020 presidential election.

My husband and I had pulled over not because the gear beckoned us but because the sight of a hyperactive Black man hawking MAGA hats caught my eye. We were less than a mile away from Harpers Ferry, where John Brown, a white man, had conducted his noble abolitionist raid, and here was a Black man selling red hats and Confederate flags to burly, going-through-bad-times white people without any irony.

“Brother, what the eff are you doing?” I asked him, laughing. He smiled. A gold tooth flashed. Biography came. He was from up North. “Wasn’t about no Trump. Be serious,” he told me. He also did Freaknik, Daytona, Sturgis. Merchandise is merchandise. If he had things to sell, he would sell them.

“But Trump?” I said, shaking my head.

He shrugged. A good salesman, he was a quick study of me. His mood changed to no more jokes, just frustration. “Do me a favor? Please don’t run off my business. It’s a hustle, my hustle.”

I agreed. We laughed together once more, and we drove off, with him waving goodbye to us in our rearview mirror. Two days later, we drove back that way and passed the stand. The brother was still there, this time with a huge handwritten sign that said, “5 dollars. Everything must go.” Including the hats.

Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

Another memory: Once, on the border of two countries in Africa, getting out to stretch my legs, I saw something that I still consider whenever I think of the power of a MAGA hat and the psychic hold that Donald Trump has over his acolytes and his opponents. On the edge of a market was a small table selling what seemed to be talismanic pouches and remedies. I asked my friend what they were used for, and he told me to stay away. An avowed Christian, he sniffed the air with resentment and explained that they were occult things to protect against bad spirits. “You have no need for this.”

I agreed with him. But when he wasn’t looking, I headed over to the table and studied the sachets and the small crowd of people who, in their stockpiling — their avid apparent belief in their purchases to recover them, empower them or do right what life had done them wrong — would later remind me of the West Virginians standing in a line, desperate to buy their MAGA looks, clothes intended to project permanence and strength, days before their MAGA world came tumbling down.

Hegel, Marx and Freud would most likely object to what I’m about to suggest, but the only word that comes to mind whenever I’m asked to consider the hat, and the third presidential campaign of Mr. Trump, is “fetish.” Hegel in the 1820s put forth an easily refuted lie: that “Africans” worship “the first thing that comes in their way,” be it “an animal, a tree, a stone or a wooden figure.” “If rain is suspended,” he wrote, “if there is a failure in the crops, they bind and beat or destroy the Fetich and so get rid of it, making another immediately, and thus holding it in their own power.” A fetish object, as identified by these biased Europeans who struggled to define cosmologies they could not understand, was an African object imbued with spiritual belief. But as J. Lorand Matory, a distinguished professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University, recognized in his brilliant upending of the concept of fetish, “The Fetish Revisited,” their claim that this irrational relationship with “false” gods was specific to Africans actually exposed the limitations of these European thinkers. “Fetish” is a polarizing term, its value often animated by rivalsocieties and personal expectations. And the West has also long had its own kind of, as Mr. Matory put it, “equally useful but human-made reifications.”

The 45th president, for those who abhor him and those who adore him, is not just a well-utilized object. He is a fetish object. If possessed of any form of brilliance, he is a brilliant synthesizer of low American moments; his presence replays the racial suspiciousness of the 1980s and of “Birth of a Nation” all at once. He is a brilliant manifestation of what a poor, angry man hopes a rich, angry man will be like; he brilliantly demonstrates what an embittered loser hopes winning will feel like — vengeful and delicious. A fetish figure is illogical to those on the outside, but it makes perfect sense to those who venerate it.

The menaces and right-wing fires that Mr. Trump unleashed are now beyond his control and, worse, are all but ready to consume him for being a tactless distraction. He outrages traditional conservatives because his behavior blitzkriegs conventions and conceals nothing. His refusal to act like a reasonable person and play by the rules pulls back the curtains on the greased poles upholding so many American structures that prevent and deter equity and progress. He is brash and indiscreet. He is unnecessary trouble. If you consider him as a symbolic object, you understand that an object often outlives its usefulness and routinely gets discarded when more potent, new idols appear.

Whatever remains of Mr. Trump’s close to supernatural hold on America relies on two things: his base’s need for him to articulate what would get most people fired and the incoherence and insincerity of the many liberals who discussed him with so much compulsion, they almost spun like dervishes. Once he appeared, they avoided having to truly commit themselves to the progressive movement, and they did not produce any real strategies to combat the xenophobic racism he bellowed; instead victory, for many liberals, in particular the wealthy ones, became all about defeating the man, not the underpinnings of what had propelled him to power or the foundational myths that created him. They put up Breonna Taylor’s image in their windows and did little else. Whole histories of subversions and violent radical protest were co-opted into trite abbreviations like “D.E.I.” People donated to circumvent self-interrogation. He gave them camouflage. It was and is a dangerous loop. For me, the weightlessness of the liberal response to the surge of right-wing thought in America is as concerning as the return of the former president.

Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

That MAGA’s greatest demographic enemy when it comes to the polls was Black American women is proof of the long arm of Black history. Who else was ready to take him off his vulture’s perch? His racial chauvinism was remarkable only in the sense that it was a deft regurgitation of the bones of his predecessors.

My grandmother died many years ago. But I think of her often, especially whenever I think of Mr. Trump. My grandmother and me? It’s not that we had an easy relationship — we did not — but now, in the era of Trump, she exists for me as a parable or an oracle, an unburied Southern ghost, smoking, gray haired, sipping her Sanka, eye cocked at my ways and confident that I was not the one. She was complicated, and so she was a profound introduction to a country I still do not understand but belong to and cannot quit. I have no idea what my grandmother thought of the Trumps in any deep way. But through her, I was introduced to a glossary that lasts, of the most American of names, ideals, signs and symbols. And among the most persevering of them is Donald Trump’s.

For the 15 years that she lived in our house, my grandmother was a Winston-smoking primer for an America that I believed was long gone, a time catacombed inside her taste for Mary Jane candies, afternoons spent shellacking down her shoulder-length hair with bergamot hair grease. She spent her almost indistinguishable days in front of her television watching her shows: “In the Heat of the Night,” “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” with Robin Leach and “The Young and the Restless.” What was going on outside was their business. In her room, we lived in the American South, as she recalled it.

I keep saying that my grandmother was Southern, but she was not just Southern. She was Louisianian, and therefore her morality was hot and judgmental but also fervid, touched with the kind of heat of someone who had seen the extremes and lusciousness of life, swamps, boudin blanc, rosaries, floods and sensuality. She spoke of uplift, excess, decay and wrought-iron French architecture, Louisiana whiffs of Haiti and West Africa. She read the Bible daily and smoked until the birth of my younger sister, someone who gave her a reason to live. She moved North to care for us but was so wary of her new surroundings that she rarely socialized or left her room. She was Black by choice and Black and Asian by biology, and she preferred dark skin, in particular pitch-colored men above all, as if to assert that the racial designation bestowed upon her by Jim Crow could be bested by her sincere love of a deep-down brown-skinned handsome man. She married many times. Her mother went to college, but my grandmother suffered the vast humiliation of not doing well in anything except home economics at the school where her mother taught. So my grandmother was determined to make sure that her three girls would return to her mother’s legacy and that do-for-self form of formal Black self-education.

My grandmother didn’t work yet managed money so well that not only did they all get graduate degrees, but they did so with few loans. My grandmother was unyielding toward me, often telling me if I ran too fast, I would fall. I had no idea what this threat or admonition — or was it fear? — meant until I was much older and she was dead.

Because my grandmother loved her television, I have known of Donald Trump my entire life. He was the rich man of my childhood. He is now the rich man of my adulthood. I remember sitting in my grandmother’s room watching some terrible chiffon of a television movie that showed a fictionalized version of the Trumps’ marriage. There was Ivana Trump, ostensibly skiing across the Czech border on an endless slope toward freedom. And there were the two of us, grandmother and child, finding the rare mutual core to cheer together for something — a woman’s flight away from her limitations, propelled by her wits, as best could be represented by two pieces of fiberglass in forward motion taking her closer and closer to the kind of life my grandmother, as a Black woman, could only imagine: Greenwich, Conn., gold veneer, a rich slag of a husband and the bright lights of New York City.

When I was young, maybe too young, she was also the first person to tell me about another fetish, the Ku Klux Klan. She didn’t fear it, but she knew all about it.

This is where we must hold these convergences in the same American line: That my grandmother introduced me to the Ku Klux Klan and the phenomenal wealth of Mr. Trump can make sense only in the context of her room, where not only the South rose again but it also stampeded into her a sense of things the way that racism does for all Black people, uninvited, braying and ready to ride over you senseless.

I wonder what my grandmother would have thought of Mr. Trump’s evolution into public, overt racism, if the overripening of his capitalism into fetid hatred would have surprised her. Or if she would have accepted it as the confirmation of her remove from people she did not trust, her extraperceptive sense that everything was possible within them and that a dislike of Black people and Black self-determination should always be expected, if not anticipated. But as much as she distrusted everyone, my Black Southern grandmother held the good liberals around us at a certain distance, as if she could tell they were not rugged warriors. No, our friends in our Northern city of Philadelphia were the kinds of people wholly unprepared to battle with the nastiness she had seen and witnessed. They made the fight sound good, but their knuckles and wills were untested. This strange woman in our house! I spent much of my childhood thinking that my socially calloused grandmother was wrong on that account. Until she was right.

Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

These days, so many of us speak the language of emergency, but where is the language of integrity, sincerity and dedication?

Gone is the ability to bear down, to think beyond ourselves, even in the most basic ways. Instead, we have been left to navigate a disabling pandemic on our own, with the most vulnerable left to their own resources.

We are becoming a country anesthetized to people saying, “I am afraid for my life.” The war on one another demands that we not stop to ask, “Why are you afraid?” but rather that we bear our right to be callous and to keep on.

Mr. Trump gave people something to coalesce around as a communion of disdain, but it signified nothing at the end of the day. The vaporization of investment appeared everywhere. For centuries, Quakers, known as the Friends, led the fight for abolition, sat out the Vietnam War and fought tirelessly for civil rights in America. But two years ago, Brooklyn Friends School attempted to decertify its teachers’ union, using a Trump-backed ruling designed to prevent certain employees from unionizing.

In 2017, The New Yorker published a fantastic cartoon cover of Mr. Trump blowing air into a boat’s sail that resembled an eerie K.K.K. hood. This strong public stance against white supremacy was later gravely undermined by the intrepid work of the magazine’s archivist Erin Overbey, who disclosed a number of statistics about diversity at the publication. (She was later fired.) The same magazine that had implied that Mr. Trump was a bigot was discovered to have published in 30 years of its weekly publication fewer than five profiles by Black women.

In 2020, David Zapolsky, Amazon’s general counsel, reportedly described Christian Smalls — a Black Amazon worker who had led a significant walkout at one of its warehouses — as being “not smart or articulate.” Two months later, in the heat of that June we will never forget, without offering any kind of apology to Mr. Smalls, a Black labor leader standing up to a billionaire, Mr. Zapolsky wrote a memo detailing his commitment to Black life.

Those harnessing this brand of power would actually like us to imagine that our strength is a fluke. Or would have us think that the precariousness and alienation that Black people experience is merely a kind of speculative fiction unless filmed or photographed. When in reality we simply have to ask ourselves why we keep imagining that those with no blisters on their fingers, no courage or clarity of spirit should be at all qualified to take on Mr. Trump or the right.

In a bifurcated political system such as America’s, us against them is often taken to the utmost extremes. The faded stain of civil war is always present. But Mr. Trump, because he broadcast so loudly a kind of uncommon indecency, if not ignorance, provided those who opposed him with a four-year screed that propelled us all into an airless nightmare whether we want to admit it or not. Found in Mr. Trump’s inability to shut up was a kind of fuel for a furious energy that had been missing in liberal circles for decades. People knitted pussy hats. They put images of slaughtered Black people in their windows. They purchased rhinestone-lettered bracelets that spelled “Obama.” They took to the streets fortified to declare mutiny against Mr. Trump’s America. It was an energetic performance. But ultimately, it was just that: a performance. Mr. Trump, the president, was treated by so many like a boogeyman, the person bellowing at the perimeters of our towns who impatiently demanded more while those bemoaning him continued to feed and negotiate with him in order to preserve their own lives.

But liberals cannot continue to depend upon Black urban centers, the working class and the young to save this fragile democracy without any authentic commitment to improving our futures in tangible ways. They have to view the defense of our lives not as a culture war but as a progression of values to bring forth leaders who can see America in its totality. There must be lasting recognition of the young voters and the communities laboring nonstop to send Mr. Trump and his hate to the dustbin of history. The work will not be light. But it cannot splinter us. We see now that there is a way out of this shattering, out of this American fetishism and fatalism and into recovery.

The first time I headed South on my own, with no obligation to see aunts and cousins, I headed straight to Oxford, Miss. Where the heat makes you feel vertiginous. Crowded with Ole Miss college students, Oxford rests on red clay and fallen magnolia flower petals, swarmed by echoes, shadows, history and grief. I felt the anguish of the past there, the fragility of the present. And in a motel just off the main square, I found reinforcement from the words of a writer who mostly wrote about women like my beautiful grandmother only as maids, but he still retained a kind of unsettling sight, a way of seeing how ill we are and why. He was a brilliant American because he knew he was flawed. He knew that none of us are perfect, that we all have inherited a sickness and ache from residing in this place and we must contend with it by facing it with a sense of honesty that actually dismantles, disintegrates and reveals. And soin “Absalom, Absalom!” there is a passage that all “good” American liberals should be read whenever they find themselves fearful about the return of Mr. Trump:

“His very body was an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names; he was not a being, an entity,” William Faulkner wrote. “He was a barracks filled with stubborn back looking ghosts still recovering, even 43 years afterward, from the fever which had cured the disease, waking from the fever without even knowing that it had been the fever itself which they had fought against and not the sickness.”

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah is an essayist. In 2018, she won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.

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