Against Everything and the Arbitrary Nature of Success in Trump’s America

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Mark Greif composed the essays in his 2016 collection, Against Everything, over the ten-year span during which Donald Trump consolidated his place in the popular imagination, first as star of The Apprentice television program, then as Obama “birther,” and finally as candidate for the US presidency. It is not surprising, then, that many of the priorities Greif examines contributed to Trump’s rise: the fixation on youthfulness and vitality, the yearning for escapism, the widespread impulse to scapegoat rather than introspect or engage with policy. Greif’s analysis of these themes is trenchant, wondrously erudite, empathic, and humble. To read Greif in the aftermath of Trump’s victory is to marvel at the sharpness of his powers of observation, the fineness of his moral vision—and to understand more clearly how the American intelligentsia misjudged the Trump phenomenon.

Part of what makes Greif’s collection so compelling is that its scope is wide and quotidian even as its focus in each essay is granular. The first essay, “Against Exercise,” takes as its subject the grinding routine of the gym. The second piece, “Afternoon of the Sex Children,” considers the relation between the widespread sexualization of young people and the opprobrium hurled at pedophilia. The third essay explores the link between narcissism and food security. A reflection on the hipster follows three sharply framed essays on the political valences of contemporary music. There is a rich analysis of reality television that argues for its democratic importance, if not its virtues; an essay on police violence; and one on warfare, inspired by the US invasion of Iraq. The strongest piece in the collection, “Octomom and the Market for Babies,” links the fixation on Nadya Suleman and her octuplets to opposition to abortion, career-delayed pregnancy, and the 2008 financial crisis.

Each essay is animated by the conviction Greif articulates in his preface: that many of the reasons for our most common—and so, perhaps, most important—habits, are wrong; that there are deeper, often troubling, impulses motivating us. This critical stance could turn reflexive and reactionary, but Greif’s conclusions are consistently bracing. In spite of the title, he is not against everything. He is also for things, and his values are progressive, humane, and mature. He bemoans what he calls “the health impulse,” arguing that “though health claims to purify and strengthen the body politic, health has nothing to contribute to (horizontal) solidarity and democracy,” and instead merely “leads individuals back into themselves.” He traces the interrelated definitions of the hipster and explains why the figure is so often reviled—because it co-opts tropes of the counterculture, repackaging them as consumer goods—but also offers a program by which the hipster might be redeemed, through the reclamation of the countercultural elements that form a crucial, if mostly forgotten and obscured, part of hipster identity. He explores all the ways reality television reflects the worst, most poisonous elements of contemporary culture, and, at the same time, occupies a central place in American democracy, because it forces us to confront how completely reality is mediated by television and the internet. Greif argues for age and experience over youth, for the analog over the digital, for wealth redistribution, egalitarian meetings and “a president and vice-president who will forswear wealth permanently”—values that are not only antithetical to the prevailing cultural trends in the United States, but also diametrically opposed to those Donald Trump traffics in and symbolizes.

Trump occupies a minor place in Greif’s collection. His role on The Apprentice is mentioned briefly in the essay on reality television, a show Greif says “teaches the arbitrariness of contemporary success in relation to skill,” wherein “winners are conditioned to meet a certain kind of norm, not really familiar from anywhere else in life, which corresponds to ‘the values of business’ as interpreted by Donald Trump.” “The arbitrariness of success” might seem like a fitting slogan for Trump’s slipshod yet ultimately victorious campaign, but Trump’s win was not random. Greif’s collection shows us why.

The white working class haunts the margins of several key essays. The piece on reality television includes an account of the show American Pickers, in which “two jerks from a Los Angeles kitsch emporium drive through the American interior, acquiring beloved junk from the rural poor and elderly shut-ins in Midwestern ghost towns.” Greif’s account of the White Hipster, American Apparel, and early VICE, notes its deployment of the “lower-middle-class ‘white trash’” values of “violence, instinctiveness, and rebelliousness.” And in “Thoreau Trailer Park,” the essay that would seem to engage most explicitly with rural America, Greif musters a half-hearted defense of the individualism inherent in trailer park life, while also noting that “‘Trailer trash,’ referring to human beings, is the rare American phrase of contempt that lacks an organized group to resent it.” The remainder of the essay is a paean to the Occupy protests in Zuccotti Park.

In each of these instances, Greif rightly acknowledges white working-class identity, and then moves on. His interests reflect his trajectory from suburb to city, his urban, cosmopolitan sensibilities. Therefore, the brilliant essay on rap, in which he earnestly tries to engage with a culture that is not his own, the defense of urban parks against intrusive runners. Therefore, the references to Rousseau and Foucault, the critique of Michael Pollan. Greif’s attention to these matters is justified; the renewed vibrancy of US cities is one of the most important developments of the last several decades. But over the same period, life in rural and exurban America has become more precarious, due to outsourcing, automation, and the neoliberal policies Greif, like so many urban liberals, earnestly decries.

Why does rural America not respond to the left’s policy vision? One reason is that American elites have turned away from rural life. Rural white culture is not “hip” in the city. The empathy Greif trains on the youths “rapping at full voice to songs that leaked out of the cups of their headphones” is seldom extended to working-class whites. Greif does better than most commentators; he grants rural whites their dignity, but with a brevity that only reinforces how marginalized the white working class has been by the cultural “elites” Donald Trump so expertly demonized.

In rural America, widespread scorn for liberals has taken hold. Undoing it will not be easy. Greif’s wise collection offers a path forward. The humility he models here, the deep sincerity, the repudiation of “healthful” and status-conscious narcissism, these are the values the American left must deploy as it begins to engage more fully with white-working class culture without abandoning its commitment to diversity.

Andrew Harnish is a PhD candidate in English and Creative Writing at the University of North Dakota. He holds an MFA in Fiction from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. His work has been published in NDQ, the Journal of Mennonite Studies, Atticus Review, and Disability and Society. He is currently at work on a queer coming-of-age novel set in a Mennonite farming community. More from this author →