In 1994, Neal Stephenson and his uncle George Jewsbury published a novel called Interface, about a high-tech, poll-centric election.
As I've written, this is one of the great underappreciated political novels of our time, and now that Trump is on the campaign trail, I am reminded daily of it, because he is the living, breathing avatar of a cable installer-turned-politician called "Earl Strong" (née Erwin Dudley Strang). Here is the scene in which Strang/Strong gets his comeuppance, from a black single mother called Eleanor, who is a veteran and who has just become homeless after her husband's suicide, and who happens upon a Strong rally at a mall.
"I don't see people standing in line for a handout. I don't see people going to court and suing other people for what they think the world owes them. I don't see people breaking into other people's homes and stealing things. I see people working hard in honest businesses, small businesses, and to me that is what makes America the greatest nation on earth."
"And I have particular respect for the small businessmen, and women – let's not forget the women's libbers!-" laughter "-who built these businesses, because for a number of years, I was a small businessman myself, owning and operating my own enterprise as an independent contractor."
Eleanor could not restrain herself; standing now at the base of the podium, she spoke up. "Excuse me! Excuse me?"
Earl Strong looked down at her with a fixed, glazed smile. He noticed that she was black. Once again, he got that look on his face.
But he was older and, if not wiser, then smarter. He didn't let it throw him off. She could see the wheels turning beneath his artificial face. She could see him having an inspiration, making a quick command decision.
"I don't usually take questions from the audience at this point in the speech," he said, "but some people have been saying that I only appeal to one kind of person, and I'm glad to see that a racially diverse group is here today, and I see that one of them has a comment she wants to make, and I'm very interested in hearing what she has to say. Ma'am?"
Television sound men brandished their boom microphones like fishermen on a dock waving grotesque, furry lures, competing for the attention of the only fish in the pond.
"You were saying that you were a businessman," she said, and suddenly her voice was very loud through the amplifiers, and she realized that she didn't have to shout anymore.
"That I was," Strong said. But his voice didn't come through; Eleanor had the microphones.
"You were a cable TV installer," she said, in a normal tone of voice. She sounded good. Everyone had always said she had a good telephone voice.
"Yes, ma'am, that I was," Strong said, shouting toward the microphones now, his voice high and strained.
"Well, a cable TV installer isn't so much a businessman as he is a burglar with pretensions."
Most of the crowd gasped. But a lot of them actually laughed. Not the deep forced belly laughter with which they had responded to Earl Strong's canned jokes. It was nervous tittering, choked off in the middle, just this side of hysteria.
Earl Strong was cool. He was good. The smile on his face barely wavered. He was silent and calculating for a few moments, waiting for the laugher to die away, searching her up and down with his eyes.
"Well," he said, "I must say that's quite a disrespectful attitude for a woman who's carrying a big piece of cheese in her bag that was paid for by my tax dollars."
A smattering of belly laughs, and sparse applause. Most of the people were silent, nervously realizing that Earl Strong was verging on dangerous territory. And in the near vicinity of Eleanor, there was violent convection in the crowd. Die-hard Earl Strong supports were stepping away from her as if she was going to give them AIDS, and minicam crews and news photographers were converging on her as if she were going to make them famous.
"Well," Eleanor said, "I would say that even showing yourself in public is pretty cheeky when you are nothing more than a pencil-neck Hitler wannabe with a face from Wal-Mart."
This time, there was utter silence, except for a few sharp intakes of breath.
Earl Strong had gone bright red under his pancake makeup.
"Besides," she added, "this cheese didn't come from your tax dollars. It was bought by churchgoers who give money to support a public food bank. Have you ever been to church, Mr. Strong?
Before you started running for something, that is."
"I am a conservative Christian," he said. "I have no qualms about saying so."
"You have no qualms about saying anything that'll get you elected."
Another nervous titter from the crowd. But father away, around the fringes, a cheer went up; passing shoppers had gathered, attracted by the noise and now they were cheering her on.
"I saw you show up just now in that tacky limousine. Most of the people who ride around in that thing are used-car salesmen or silicone beauty queens. Which one are you?" she said.
"I resent the implication that there's something wrong with the used-car trade."
"It's not exactly a character reference for you, Erwin Dudley Strang or whatever your name is."
"My name is Earl Strong. And it's an honest business like any other."
"Oooh, Erwin Dudley Strang is giving me a lecture about how to be honest," Eleanor said. "I know you think all black people are dishonest. Well, the only dishonest thing I've ever done is tell myself I had a chance to make it in a white society."
"There we have it," Strong said, addressing the crowd again. "The defeatist attitude that is bringing our economy down and brainwashing many minority people into thinking that they have to have affirmative action programs in order to succeed. This is a classic example of the attitude problem that prevents black people from succeeding, even where no real impediments exist."
"I don't have a car," Eleanor said. "That's a real impediment. I don't have a job. My husband's dead. How many more impediments do I need?"
"None whatsoever," Strong said. "That's plenty. Why don't you just shut up now."
"I won't shut up because I'm hurting you on television, and you don't have the brains or the balls to stop me."
A big whooo! went up from the shoppers.
Strong laughed. "Lady, I represent a political ground swell in this country that is more powerful than you can imagine. And there is nothing you can do, on or off television, to hurt me. All you do is annoy me."
"I know that's what you think. Ever since you took that belt sander to your face you think you're the second coming of Ronald Reagan. You think you're made of teflon. Well, it takes more than a simple mind and synthetic smile to be Ronald Reagan. You also have to be likable. And you aren't any more likable than you were when you showed up at my door at 4:54 p.m. and installed my cable like some kind of a trained monkey."
"Oh, so that's it," he said. "This is some kind of vendetta." Strong looked up at the crowd, turning his face up into the light again. "This woman is upset because she gets static on her daytime soap operas."
"No," Eleanor said, turning around to face the crowd, "I'm upset because my son just got shot in the back for using a pay phone. And Earl Strong, this juvenile delinquent with a fifty-dollar haircut, is standing up tall and pretty telling me it's all because I don't have values. Well, I may be sleeping in a car and eating government surplus cheese but at least I haven't sunk low enough to become a politician who feeds happy lies to starving children."
"I am exactly the opposite of the kind of politician you think I am," Earl Strong said, "I am a man of the people. A populist."
"A populist? To you, a populist is someone who's popular … to you, a homecoming queen is a populist. To me, a populist is someone who serves the needs of the populace. And the only thing you've ever done for the populace is show up late, drill holes in their houses, and hand them a big fat bill. Which is exactly what I predict you'll do for us in the Senate."
A high, enthusiastic screeching arose from the predominantly female shoppers gathered around the edge, whose numbers had now swelled to exceed the Strong supporters. They rattled their shopping bags, waved their fists in the air, and stomped the floor with their stylish pumps.
Interface [Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George/Spectra]