Bachelor Nation, “Real” America, and the Rise of Trumpism

In the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, I spent untold hours looking for reassurance that I lived in a country too principled to elect Donald Trump.

“The country that elected Barack Obama twice will not elect Donald Trump,” my partner told me.

“The country that gave Dubya a 90% approval rating will,” I retorted, hoping I was wrong. For what it’s worth, I would love to be wrong about politics. Just once.

Every morning, I glared at the latest polling data on Nate Silver’s popular 538 blog, hoping to see something different than the morning before. I enjoy looking at pure numbers. It’s one of the few ways we can easily think for ourselves now that every speck of information is packaged in spin. 

As I looked at the data, I found myself simultaneously rolling my eyes and clenching my stomach. Sure, Hillary looked like a lock to win the popular vote, but…

 

disaster
If only they’d listened

 

When I investigated the states individually, the picture appeared far from Democratic blue. I added up all of the Electoral College points available in states where Hillary held a 5% or higher polling lead and discovered Hillary could likely count on 224 points. Theoretically this was good news, as she only needed 270 to win. I did the same calculation with states where Trump led by more than that same 5% cutoff and found he could safely expect 160.

However, using the 5% cutoff meant I had excluded states like Georgia and Arizona that are generally considered part of the Republican firewall. Hillary seemed unpopular enough that I felt confident assuming she would not be turning any loyal red states away from the GOP. Additionally, if potential voters were lying about voting for Trump in polls — a theory gaining traction as nerds looked for lessons from the GOP primary — his popularity might continue to be under-reported in the general election. As such, I took a calculated risk and allowed my projection to err on the side of overestimating Trump’s support. I added Electoral College points from states that had not voted blue since before Reagan, even if Trump’s lead was below 5%, and concluded he could reasonably anticipate at least 213 Electoral College points. 

This left 101 points up for grabs from the following states: Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire. Of those states, New Hampshire, Nevada and Colorado award so few points they are inconsequential compared to the others. Sadly for those of us who correctly despise Trump, those were the states most likely to go to Hillary (and they all did).

At the end of the day, The United States is not a democracy, so the voting power does not lie in each individual citizen. It lies in Ohio. In North Carolina. In Florida. In Pennsylvania. The power lies out in the suburbs, with home-makers and church-goers. It lies in the countryside, with football coaches who just want a president they could drink a cold beer with. It lies with people who strive to be moderate on principle. The “real” Americans.

When I refer to “real” Americans, I am referencing a political class made up of what I call Strict Centrists (Place themselves in the middle of ANY political debate), Moderate Christians (The ones who actually listen to Jesus, not the anti-choice bigots), and The Actively Apolitical (“I’m not political, I just love Jesus and America”), that often refers to itself as the “Real Americans.” I believe that the “real” classification has been amplified by advertisers and politicians essentially sucking up to them for money and votes. In reality, this group of people is just like rest of us — plain old American, nothing special. 

This Is America
This is America. Deal with it.

Demographically, they are largely lower to middle class, rural or suburban, white, Christian — but it is far from homogenous. Because of the artificial distribution of power created by the Electoral College, this is probably the most influential voting block we have. Yet, it is rarely critiqued in mainstream society for how it wields its power. 

Members embrace aspects of the right like capitalist symbology and some “family” values, but also embrace more liberal values like equality and environmentalism. They (you?) are not far enough to the right to feel represented by the Trump-era GOP, but have internalized much of the anti-leftist rhetoric that has plagued the image of the Democratic Party since the 1960s (amplified by Democratic leadership’s piss-poor decision making). While I fundamentally disagree with many of the political choices made by this faction, the research and their own narratives suggest they genuinely want health care, education, and other basic rights for all Americans, and therefore are potential allies to progressive causes.

Back in 2016, they were people I understood as well as I understand my mom’s elderly pug’s breathing patterns. At first, I couldn’t begin to understand how they might choose between the two candidates. As I racked my brain for ways I might get in their heads, I realized we did have one thing in common: The Bachelor. 

higgins
And not a natural blonde among them

There is a reason that, in comparison to all the others forms of media, literature, and academia I have consumed in an attempt to better understand my fellow American, The Bachelor stands out in my mind as a particularly rich source of study. To quote David Foster Wallace: “If you want to know what American normality is — what Americans want to regard as normal — we can trust television.” Competitive reality television programs, in particular, show us what Americans want “normal” to be. On the one hand, the viewer wants to believe the competitions are fair and that victory is earned. On the other hand, they want fan favorites to win. So, who are the fan favorites? On The Bachelor, the favorites are the contestants who remind “real” Americans of themselves — or at least, who they wish they were. Indeed, dating reality television shows are particularly helpful for investigating the popularity of the contestants. In order to maintain the illusion of meritocracy, the winner of Survivor has to be a little tough. The winner of The Voice has to carry a tune. The winner of the Bachelor just has to be likable. 

2016 was an interesting year for The Bachelor. Premiering in January, producers cast the charismatic, generically handsome Ben Higgins in the titular lead role. Fortunately for my purposes, Ben Higgins is a poster boy for “real” Americans. In his intro package for the season — literally the first thing the audience sees — Higgins gushes over his small town upbringing in Warsaw, Indiana.  He says he is just a “normal guy from small town Indiana living this life,” as country music twangs in the background. After reminiscing over “chasing girls” and playing basketball as virtuous All-American symbols like firemen and our waving flag lull the audience into a sense of familiar safety, Ben concludes: “I think Warsaw feels like America.” If he’s right, America is 90% white and very Republican.

When this west coast bisexual hears a grown man say the highlights of his childhood are chasing girls and playing basketball — and I love basketball —  I think “ew, boring, probably paternalistic tendencies that manifest as benevolent misogyny.” But to someone who shares TV Ben’s values, the intro package is exactly what you want to see: someone like you, up on a pedestal for the qualities you share. The producers picked Ben, and aired footage of him romanticizing small town America, very intentionally. They correctly predicted this would make their core audience relate to him, and therefore root for him. Ben Higgins became the perfect bachelor both for ratings, and as a symbol of “real” Americans.

Make no mistake, ABC producers and politicians alike are well aware how much this demographic loves to consume propaganda that characterizes them as the “real” Americans. The message is everywhere: beer commercials, conservative politicians’ stump speeches, and yes, The Bachelor. Why wouldn’t they? The beer got purchased, the conservatives took over the country, and Ben Higgins’ season of The Bachelor was the most popular in years. 

Fortunately, it’s no longer enough for The Bachelor just to appeal to “real” Americans — it’s an older crowd. Even in 2016, ABC knew it needed to make their dinosaur of a show appeal to the youth. This endeavor requires shielding Bachelor Nation’s image from the show’s wildly sexist, racist history. I do not actually mean that anyone in Bachelor Nation has done anything particularly racist or sexist in the grand scheme of American pop culture. I mean that most millenials grew up aware that “family values” — a phrase The Bachelor has embraced as part of its promotion of “real” American values — can be code for homophobia and an unhealthy obsessions with other people’s wombs. For the most part, “real” Americans don’t share this negative association with the phrase, as they still view it as an endorsement of family dinners and Sunday school. 

To attract millenials, production moved the show’s image in a progressive direction in two key ways. First and foremost, they continued the tradition of including a clause barring political discussions while on camera. The cast always skews Republican, and conservative social values in particular are likely to scare off the new viewers ABC so desperately wanted to attract.

More importantly, however, they implemented a plan to cast a lead of color. Since leads are selected from the previous season’s castoffs — usually the second or third place contestant — the first bachelorette of color would have to be selected from Ben’s contestants.

Caila_(Bachelor_20)
Bachelor contestant photos: making pretty people look normal since 2002

Enter Caila Quinn, an absolutely gorgeous, kind, religious, half-white, half-Filipina contestant from Hudson, Ohio. In order to sell Caila as the next bachelorette, they would need to make her more of a traditional, all-American fan favorite than any woman of color before her. Much like Hillary Clinton, Caila found herself in a unique position. She was simultaneously trying to appeal to millenials who might be thrown off by her commitment to traditional values, and to suck up to conservatives who — how do I put this nicely — prefer to root for people who share their own background. 

ABC also cast Jojo Fetcher, a lovely girl from Dallas, Texas, who seemed white. At least, everyone I knew thought Jojo was white. Or rather, they didn’t realize she had a race — which means white. Turns out, her mother is actually from Iran, but the show did not explore this aspect of her background on camera. We can’t know for sure how much of this was Jojo and her family’s wishes, and how much was ABC. What I can say is this: the power dynamic makes it much more likely that ABC made a calculated choice to play up Jojo’s Texan roots and ignore her Iranian ones. 

Production really tried to make us love Caila — and they were much more successful than the DNC in their efforts to make us like Hillary. On night one, she came across as likeable, but coached, when she jumped into Ben’s arms. “Thanks for catching me. Now you’ll have to catch up with me inside,” she says through a charming smile. Production also used a sound bite of her laughing “fifty shades of crazy!” to describe that season’s lush, Lace, in multiple promos. She appears ready for marriage, is a person of faith, and clearly loves her family. 

Yet, when the dust settled, Jojo Fletcher, not Caila, went on to become one of the most universally loved contestants on The Bachelor and the next bachelorette. ABC continued with their plan to film a season of The Bachelorette with Caila as the lead, but ultimately caved to pressure from fans and switched to Jojo. She now has over 2 million fans on Instagram and has developed her own real estate television program. She is still engaged to her fiance, estranged-ish brother to Aaron Rodgers and likely Trump supporter/Tomi Lahren buddy Jordan Rodgers.

So why was Jojo so popular? First and foremost, the media narrative depicted Jojo as a funny, down-to-earth Texan who stayed out of the drama. She appeared to have a strong connection with Ben. But the show left plenty of footage that indicated Jojo held some mean girl tendencies. 

Early in the season, Jubilee — one of the few black girls cast on the season, and the only non-blond of the three — starts to lose it. In her interviews, she talks about feeling different because of her “background,” but they never play a reference to her being black — they reference that she is adopted, and a female veteran. Because she feels she is different, she is, understandably, not as social with the other girls in the house.  

In week 3, Jubilee seeks alone time with Ben, despite the fact that she has already secured safety from elimination at the coming rose ceremony. Jojo, among others, attacks Jubilee for taking that time with Ben, even though producers, not contestants, decide who talks to the lead when. It happens every season, and the show does a fantastic job spinning the narrative to make the front-runners read as romantic, and for women like Jubilee — the women who don’t fit in, very often women of color — to be read as aggressive and selfish. Of course, the narrative needed to protect Jojo, as she would eventually be in the top 4. So while we see her making fun of Jubilee for being upset and withdrawn, and egging on other women to confront Jubilee, they do not have a face to face standoff on camera.

However, we do see Jojo approach the bathroom and continue to try and talk to Jubilee after she declares “I am not having a girl chat!” and locked herself in said bathroom. All I see is mature boundary setting from Jubilee, and Jojo’s back to the camera as she taunts a door.  

“Go away!” Jubilee yells again.

“Me?” Jojo yells incredulously and storms off, rolling her eyes. Yet, Jojo has been in interviews saying she thinks Jubilee is dramatic and overreacting. We also see her gossipping with the women, encouraging them to confront Jubilee with their criticisms of her character — why would Jubilee want to talk to her? My interpretation of the narrative was simple: Jojo was part of a mean girl group that was bullying the outsider. It was not a good look. 

But Jojo’s reputation survived.

Interestingly, we do see Caila – my metaphor for Hilary – during this episode. She is in a third group of women, expressing sympathy for Jubilee. “That’s not a conversation,” she says, accurately pointing out that it’s ludicrous for the other women to continue to try and talk to Jubilee after she has rejected their invitation. If only the DNC could have marketed Hilary as so compassionate and wise — she still would have lost, but it wouldn’t have been so embarrassing. 

So why was Jojo more popular than Caila, even though she had participated in bullying? Because she values the right things. She talks about the importance of faith in her life. She talks about wanting to be a mom. She assures Ben that “family is the most important thing.” She loves Texas just for being Texas. Quite frankly, she didn’t state a lot of opinions. She spoke to all the symbols that makes “family values” sound harmless, and the GOP sound noble. To me, she was bland at best. 

But America? She was kind of a bully, but America loved Jojo. America wanted to be Jojo.  And then “real” Americans went out of their way put her in charge. Sound familiar? With the choice of president left to the “real” American in the swing states of Pennsylvaia and Ohio, the rest of us were were inevitably going to lose. “Real” Americans were going to choose Trump. 

This election year, we are beginning to see the continued deterioration of the “family values” image. As I mentioned before, many millenials are aware that the term has become code for passive bigotry. “Family values” isn’t just trying to work through a rough patch in a marriage, or taking your family to church, or taking time off work to be with a newborn. Not anymore.

“Family values” is kicking out trans teens and leaving them homeless. “Family values” is withholding funding from public health because talking about sex makes people uncomfortable. “Family values” is hiding your white babies in the suburbs, yet responding to black babies in need with racist assumptions about their mothers. At least, that’s what the leadership who appealed to “family values” wanted us to do. And “real” Americans, too many of you did it. 

***

November 8, 2016. I crouched on an enchilada-stained futon I couldn’t be bothered to buy a cover for, a strong red wine breathing on the floor next to the IKEA coffee table. Dave Chapelle graced my television screen, performing a sketch parodying white Americans naive enough to think The United States was not racist. I attempted to take a sip of my wine straight from the bottle, let out an involuntary whimper as my ears took in the phrase “President Trump,” and thus my futon’s enchilada stains were joined by purple droplets with notes of blackberry and existential defeat. 

Unlike everyone else I was texting, messaging, or judging on social media, I joined Dave Chapelle in a different kind of disbelief. I couldn’t believe Americans didn’t see this coming. 

I turned off the TV and opened YouTube. I searched for a song that had been stuck in my head for a week. Not even a song. An intro:

Oh Father, tell me 
Do we get what we deserve?
Oh, we get what we deserve 
And way down we go 
Kaleo, Way Down We Go 

As wine finally made its way into my mouth instead of onto the couch, I sunk into a familiar disappointment that usually follows my spurts of interest in mainstream politics. It wasn’t just about the outcome itself. I was frustrated that people thought Trump was the exception, not the natural evolution, of the modern GOP. I was surprised, and then frustrated, that everyone else was surprised. 

Americans: you worshiped billionaires, you turned a blind eye to Christian extremism, you chastised the Civil Rights movement for having bad manners. You routinely buried your head in the sand and prayed a political process you can’t be bothered to educate yourself on would solve the nation’s many problems. And at every turn, when things got worse, you doubled down on your commitment to order over change. 

Americans, it needs to be said: you deserve Trump. His administration is a reflection of your priorities. You don’t like the direction this country is going in? Accept that as part of this country — as the self-proclaimed “real” Americans — you are part of the problem. 

This realization is nothing to fear; it gifts you the freedom to become part of the solution.

***

One final coda: documenting the problem of “real” Americans and their cowardly approach to politics is hardly novel. I would be remiss not to mention the OG smackdown of “real” Americans, brought forth into the light by the incomparable anti-capitalist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr himself. Imagine how beautiful a country we would live in if this was the quote that circulated every February: 

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action; who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

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