This presidential election is the weirdest in living memory. Conservatives nationwide are scratching their heads over how Donald Trump became their nominee, while progressives are still unsure about sending their frenemy, Hillary Clinton, to the White House.
These feelings are as intense (if not more so) in the WNIJ area, according to our citizen reporter, Dan Libman. Dan’s been interviewing voters in the places where they’re most comfortable – their neighborhood bars – and came back with one heck of a story. It’s about deep disillusionment and conspiracy theories, set against the backdrop of competitive trivia.
Here’s Dan Libman’s latest edition of “Politics on Tap.”
In the years of doing Politics on Tap I’ve had many a pleasant conversation talking to people in the bars and pubs of northern Illinois. Occasionally people will politely decline if I ask to record them talking about politics, but mostly folks don’t object to weighing in on a particular topic while enjoying a pint with their friendly neighborhood citizen reporter slash drinker. But then came the presidential election of 2016.
Me: “Nothing? Should I air that? You saying nothing?”
Patron: “Yes! Voter discontent.”
I’ve never seen anything like it. Mention the election, and people twist their faces like they’ve bitten into a lemon; they lean away and signal for the tab. “I’m here to not think about the election,” an elderly man told me. Then he put his palm up, talk-to-the-hand style.
In 2008, just after the nominating conventions, The Economist put Barack Obama and John McCain on the cover of their magazine. Both standing in front of an American flag, the headline screamed “America at its Best.” That felt about right. Everyone I knew had a strong opinion on who they were voting for, but that was the key. Who they were voting for.
“I want, someday before I die, to be able to go to the polls and really be proud of a candidate. Like, somebody that I really believe is the right man or woman, you know, that’s just going to make you feel good about going to the ballot box.”
That’s a guy named Mitch I see most Wednesdays in Byron, where I play bar trivia along with a regular group of locals. We compete each week for a couple bucks off our bar tab and bragging rights. While getting an answer to a question about which Prince songs charted after his death, Mitch told me the last time he voted for a candidate he liked.
“The only guy that I voted for since I was old enough that I thought was a good candidate, believe it or not, was Al Gore. Honestly.”
We take the trivia game pretty seriously at Fifth Alarm, a former fire house turned bar and grill. While waiting for the next question, I asked one of my teammates -- Dale, who is also unhappy with both candidates -- what either one could do to earn his vote.
“The more they talk, it seems like the worse they appear," he said. "It’s almost as if one would be quiet for awhile and let the other one talk themselves out of it. ... I don’t like either of the candidates. A lot.”
“The Girls,” is one of the regular teams and a perennial top-place finisher -- almost as good as Dale, John and I. When I asked about the election, the talk moved invariably to the Most Shocking Thing Ever Said Today. Guess which candidate Lesley is talking about.
“Well, he’s an ass," she opined. "I think he says things to incite people. His latest remark was ridiculous. The remark about Hillary. Second amendment people?”
Maybe it was partly because we were trying to remember the name of the Kathy Bates character in Misery (this is what passes for a literature question), but people really seemed to be trying to puzzle out this election, to make sense of our really bizarre political moment, and really wishing the choice was something else. Anything else. Like Katie.
“Let me tell you, I have this theory that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are working together so that Hillary will win, because I can not believe the things that Donald Trump has said," Katie explained. "They are ludicrous, and I think he is saying things on purpose so that Republicans have to abandon his support.”
Katie’s theory is pretty wild, but the comments of some of the other players suggested she might be on to something. Ty, who is on another team -- this one with a name just slightly enough off-color as to not be air-able on public radio -- was more sympathetic to Trump, though clearly in agony about it.
“I tend to agree with a lot of what people say. He’s a loose cannon," Ty said. "But, uh, I do not trust Hillary at all but, uh, I will go vote, but I’m still struggling. I can’t get myself to vote for Hillary but.... It’ll be hard to get myself to vote for Donald Trump.”
Another team that does well regularly is made up of teachers from a nearby school district. Katie, who had the theory about Trump being in cahoots with Clinton is on that team. And so is Adam.
“If Donald Trump says, 'I’m joking about all that stuff I said, here’s my actual platform,'" Adam mused, "If something like that happened I’d be, like, 'All right, the world makes sense.' Because right now it feels upside down.”
Adam seemed like a thoughtful guy -- mentioned he was an NPR listener and everything -- and, as a teacher, he came up with a novel analogy:
“Donald Trump is like that kid in high school who starts a speech and he’s totally winging it, and the whole class is like, 'Ah he’s going to fall, he’s going to fall, he’s going to fall,' and the teacher’s just letting it go," Adam theorized. "That’s what’s going on. Like he’s started it as a joke and he thinks, 'Sooner or later, someone is going to call me out on these shenanigans.' But nobody’s doing it. It’s just happening."
Maybe this whole thing is just to teach him a lesson? Adam says we should all be so lucky. And I like this idea. At the end of the election, Trump will be taught a valuable lesson about humility and then maybe the rest of us can join a class-action suit to get our year back.
And how did the trivia game go this week? Let’s just say these weren’t the best slate of bar trivia questions ever fielded and, as a result, Dale and I had to pay for our beer.
This is, of course, a trifling matter compared to who will steer our nation in the years to come, but at least the campaign has taught me how to react to defeat. So let me just say the game was rigged. The questions were unfair. I wasn’t treated nicely.
-- Dan Libman
Dan Libman is an English faculty member at Northern Illinois University. He is also the author of the story collection Married But Looking.