Recently, for reasons of dubious merit and despite a very inadequate supply of alcohol, I watched the big Donald Trump immigration speech. Trump’s odd, slurred, hateful and largely untrue rhetoric was the single most depressing thing I have seen in politics in my lifetime. When I find myself fondly remembering gaffes like Mitt Romney’s binders full of women and secretly telling donors 47 percent of Americans will never vote for him because they use government assistance as comfortable indicators he would be defeated, things have definitely gone no buena para mierda.
So my wife and I turned it off after it had become apparent The Donald was going to finish long after he was over, and we watched Fixer Upper reruns instead. This is something that’s become a weird but comforting habit in my family. When things go to hell in this country, we become obsessed with flipping and home improvement shows.
It started post 9/11 with Trading Spaces and While You Were Out (the superior show, if you ask me). The former debuted shortly before the attacks, and the latter as a companion piece not long after. My wife and I never missed an episode. We weren’t the only ones either. It got to where you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing Paige Davis on a new book or magazine cover, and the series spawned at least four spin-offs.
Now what we watch mostly are Chip and Joanna Gaines of Fixer Upper, flipping homes and balancing family life out in Waco. Flip or Flop is also a good choice, as is Property Brothers, although I don’t like their format of showing people houses out of their price range as a “back to reality” gimmick. They also basically follow the same premise, though. Fairly ordinary people doing fairly ordinary work finding and tailoring homes to other fairly ordinary people, with a few great stories of personal triumph thrown in for drama. It’s punk rock DYI meets 1950s America.
It has taken me a long time to figure out exactly why I find these shows so comforting in troubled times, and believe me, when more than 30 percent of voters agree that banning Muslims and building a giant wall are good ideas, we are most definitely in troubled times. I think I finally get it, though.
If you think about it, the candidacy of Donald Trump is the most amazing meta-commentary on wealth in the United States. Donald Trump loves money in the unhealthiest way possible. Other rich people use their money to put their names on libraries, museums, hospital buildings, Not Trump. He puts his name on hotels, steaks, board games, TV shows...things that are to be consumed, not endure. It's pretty clear he views women as being in that category as well.
He's a very unhappy man, clearly. Even in his heyday he was considered gauche, and by the turn of the millennium, a joke. No one admired him for being a reality TV star, and certainly no one gave a crap about him as a businessman. When the world was worshipping Jobs and Gates and Branson and Musk for changing the world, Trump was acting like Gene Hackman's Luthor in the first Superman movie.
These fix-em-up shows have become the image of the American real estate genius and the sort of person who builds things. All those shows celebrated people symbolically taking the world that folks like Trump had ruined, and re-imagining it as whole and new and shining. It's like John Galt, but with a humility America has come to need after decades of watching conspicuous consumption while our income inequality grows.
Nothing Trump builds lasts because everything Trump makes is for himself. He wants to be important and remembered, but he doesn't want to put the work in or go without even his slightest whim being immediately met. Why else would he be spending donor money on rallies in states where he is either a sure bet or a ridiculous longshot? He is maintaining the illusion he is winning through the sheer force of volume.
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Trump is a true Randian villain. He's James Taggart from Atlas Shrugged, an incompetent bully gifted his position through inheritance and who tries to buy importance through deals with no substance. He has never stopped to realize that money is in and of itself a promise. It's a promise backed by the American government that what you make in this world will have a measurable, tangible value.
The fault in that promise is that you can run up the score without making anything at all. And that's Donald Trump in the end. He's a guy hacking a video game to get a high score, and he can't seem to realize why that leaves him so empty.
What’s the opposite of that? Watching a husband and wife take old, forgotten houses like the ones that still litter so many neighborhoods since the Great Recession and literally re-infuse them with life in a way that is tangible and meaningful. There’s nothing nebulous about it. It’s bricks and French doors and endless bloody shiplap. I can watch that and realize that somewhere in Texas, someone is actually out there building something that makes more sense than a racist’s symbol of his own fading importance to the world. So that’s my advice. Next time you get the blues (or, in this case, the oranges), check out a home improvement show. It’s nice to see people just making America, instead of trying to make it great again, whatever that means.
Jef’s book of stories about vampires and drive-thru churches, The Rook Circle, is out now.