Hillary Rodham Clinton famously said that “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.” It’s with this quote, used as an epigraph that Harmon Leon and Ted Rall begin MEET THE DEPLORABLES: INFILTRATING TRUMP AMERICA. To do the research for the book, released last month, Leon, a journalist, went undercover among President Donald Trump’s supporters. Through his findings, he and Rall, a political cartoonist and essayist, attempt to answer the question: What happened in the last US presidential election?

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What is Deplorable Anyway?

The last thing I thought I would find in a book about President Trump’s voter-base was a somewhat pedantic lecture on whether “deplorable” is a noun or an adjective and if it could be plural. This is an exercise in nitpicky pedantry that can be solved with a quick Google search.

It is this pedantic tone that permeates through most of MEET THE DEPLORABLES, Leon and Rall’s journey into what they call a Margaret Mead-like study into the makings of President Trump’s voter base. The tone is not always present, yet like the drone hum of some holier-than-thou Gregorian chant, it surfaces often enough to be noticed as a driving motive in the work.

This is not to say that MEET THE DEPLORABLES is not a worthy read. On the absolute contrary, it is a necessary read in our time. In its one-night-stand-like encounters with blue collar workers of a different political stripe, the book gives readers a glimpse at people they may not otherwise encounter: people who have had a car repo’ed, taken a payday loan, or blew the last bit of their money on gambling and alcohol because the prospect of a future is a luxurious abstraction that holds no joy. But these are not just situations experienced by the Right Wing poor. The poor, whether on the Left or the Right, suffer equally and usually from similar cocktails of systemic and historical issues mixed with personal and cultural decisions.

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Missed Opportunities

MEET THE DEPLORABLES opens with a promise unfulfilled. Rall points to the decades-long growing trend of glorifying American anti-intellectualism as what culminated in the election of Donald Trump. If this is the thesis of the project, then the evidence must be the twenty chapters of seemingly triaged misery. Each chapter is a vignette of ordinary Americans dealing with ancient human issues in the current American political reality.

The way the people are presented and their stories are told have a tone of “why would you do this?” or “why do you want to live this way?” This is not that different from Conservative rhetoric. The difference here is that ‘deplorables’ need to pull themselves up by their intellectual bootstraps or fashion them and then do it.

Aside from passing remarks in the chapter on the Ken Hamm v. Bill Nye debate, the book never revisits anti-intellectualism. Why is American culture anti-intellectual? Why is anti-intellectualism so characteristic of a large part of the Conservative base? MEET THE DEPLORABLES never answers these questions. In fact, they come up in retrospect of reading the book.

But again, this is not a burn.

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Why MEET THE DEPLORABLES Matters

MEET THE DEPLORABLES should have a place in the bookshelves of everyone who seeks to find meaning in our time. That includes anyone who wonders how America ended up with a President who thrives in anti-intellectual remarks and controversy, and how the shining city upon the hill became the laughing stock of the global community.

The authors remind readers that Australia had/have dwarf tossing as a thing, but only in America did we have a political party called the “Know Nothings.” American historians shrug instead of at least feigning embarrassment about this. Even the Australian Broadcasting Corporation said that the aforementioned Nye/Ham debate “drew world attention, once again, on the United States as the home of whacky Christianity.”

In the book, Rall is correct to say that Leon is a national treasure. Harmon Leon appears to be singularly able to connect with people in a way that allows them to feel comfortable enough to open up and share with a complete stranger their less “politically correct” selves. Not that Trump’s crowd has any issues throwing down the chains of political correctness, but these are not confrontational excursions. These are people who share their rationalizations for believing in Trump.

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Yes, You’ve Seen This Before

Not every chapter deals with Trump directly. The great majority of chapters are rewrites of Leon’s other works, published years before the Trump campaign. I had encountered “Here Comes the Repo Man” in 2012 as “Tales of the 99%: Riding With the Repo Man” in the Huffington Post.

Someone more cynical would point that this is disingenuous: Leon claims to dive into the world of Trump supporters, and yet the book only has a few chapters on people who explicitly voted for him. I believe this to be a mistake. The support and antagonism for Trump was always there as much as it was for Hillary Clinton.

It took the work of key people to till and fertilize the grounds upon which these seeds grew. Leon explores Trump’s fields and, with a bit of bias, airs out the manure.

Rall, though a bit self-indulgent in his political fervor, is a perfect accomplice to Leon’s comedic observations. He introduces chapters/vignettes with careful attention to connect the story with the greater Trump phenomena, especially in the chapters that don’t bring him up at all. He also pens a poignant epilogue.

MEET THE DEPLORABLES: Final Thoughts

In the end, we are left with two political pundits who were/are prominent Bernie Sanders supporters. Leon and Rall are reminiscing about a Left that checked out. And in a Dave Chappelle-like fashion, they believe Trump’s election, like Emmett Till’s murder, is an unfortunate moment in history that will reinvigorate change.

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