Photo credit: Ned and Aya Rosen
Say a new guy comes on the scene. He’s outrageous. He’s funny. He violates unspoken norms of decorum and, lo, the world fails to collapse around everyone’s ears. He’s as much a persona as he is a person, and the plans he outlines — wild, absurd, cartoonish — are so implausible that the establishment guys, the ones who have been around long enough to know how things generally go, just laugh.
But this new guy does have a certain measure of clout. To others on his level, he’s little more than a buffoon hamming it up for the camera, but he’s successful and impressive to those looking up from below. He is totally and unabashedly himself, and that kind of authenticity has power. He makes the old norms look a little silly, like a stuffy holdover from a different era.
A few of the people beneath him, whom those old norms never served much in the first place, begin playing along with his shtick, repeating his catchphrases, cheering him on. They know there is no way that he will ever be anything but a marginal figure, but that’s what makes the new guy such harmless, invigorating fun. It’s fun to hoot at his latest provocations. It’s fun to repeat his rudest sound bites over the water cooler. It’s fun to watch the spasms of sanctimonious disbelief from the establishment guys whenever he talks about his plans, which just get more outrageous by the day.
Of course, the new guy’s “plans” are not to be taken as literal statements of what he actually intends to do. Anyone with an ounce of brains in their head can see that. His plans are WWF-style performance art, merely a way of showing off what kind of guy he is: tough, smart, funny, and impolite. They like that, the people who like him. Talking about his plans makes them sound tough, smart, funny, and impolite too. It is a kind of a game they’re all in on together, a diversion that fortifies them for the more frustrating business of day-to-day life, where you have to put up with all kinds of checks on your strength and pious disavowals of obvious realities.
He is totally and unabashedly himself, and that kind of authenticity has power.
Over time, though, a strange thing happens: the new guy’s plans get a little more real. Is this a byproduct of the sheer number of people now cheering him on, or is it the fault of the new guy’s opponents, so histrionically insistent in their failure to get the joke? Either way, it is a little unnerving for certain of the new guy’s supporters, who got in on a lark and are now being taken more seriously than they ever expected. At the same time, it is intoxicating to be taken so seriously. Being taken seriously is what they have yearned for all their lives.
And the truth is, there is something a little exhilarating about the idea that the plans might be real — something weightless, hilarious, and scary all at once. Is it possible that the new guy talks so winkingly about his plans not because he is joking, but because it really is all so simple and easy? Might the diversion of supporting him be something a little more than just a game? Might it be some new kind of reality in which everyday frustrations melt away in the thrilling unity of unabashed strength?
I never set out to write a book about how 60 million people came to vote for a man who promised to ban all Muslims from entering the country, reinstate torture, and construct a border wall. I set out only to understand how a team of elite US Army Rangers came to participate in a charismatic superior’s plan to rob a bank in Tacoma, Washington in 2006, using AK-47s smuggled back from the Middle East. One of those Rangers was my cousin, Alex Blum, a friendly, patriotic, deeply idealistic 19-year-old whom I had grown up with in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. Alex had dreamed all his life of serving his country and decided after September 11, 2001 that his life mission was to become an elite Special Operations commando and fight terrorists. I thought I knew everything there was to know about Alex’s bewildering story: the social psychology of indoctrination and influence, the extreme conformity induced by Special Operations training, the standard practice among Rangers of wargaming sites around Tacoma in their off-hours. Then I met his former superior, Luke Elliott Sommer, and realized that there was another term in the equation: the moral vacuum created by a certain kind of personality, one whose strange, seductive force field of moral weightlessness makes the impossible look easy and the damage inconsequential.
Over time, though, a strange thing happens: the new guy’s plans get a little more real.
The first time I saw Trump speak, I was mesmerized. It was as if Sommer had managed to teleport himself from federal prison to a Manhattan penthouse. Every word rested on a knife edge of performance and reality, joke and sincerity, provocation and play. “Classic Trump style,” the announcers would chortle each week at his latest beyond-the-pale outrage, just as the 2nd Ranger Battalion once dismissed Sommer’s behavior as the “Sommer factor.” But the pale kept advancing further past the beyond. Each week came a fresh flurry of op-eds predicting Trump’s imminent flameout, implosion, collapse. Each week came a fresh uptick in his popularity. It finally started to become clear to me on more than just an intellectual level how so many Rangers had gotten sucked into Sommer’s plans. On election night, just a few days after submitting the final manuscript of Ranger Games
, I watched the coverage with much the same feeling Alex must have had on the afternoon of August 7, 2006, the first day of his final leave before deploying to Iraq. Through the windshield of his father’s car he could see Specialist Sommer and three others sprinting down the alley toward a Bank of America branch carrying a mix of pistols, assault rifles, and duffel bags. Was this really happening? How had it come to this?
is not a book about politics. It is a book about soldiers, loyalty, good intentions gone awry, and a shocking crime that sent my family into a seizure of bafflement from which we have yet to fully emerge. But history has a funny way of yanking our stories out from under us. I don’t know what lies ahead for our country, but I know what lay over the precipice in that alley in Tacoma: 90 seconds of terror and trauma, the end of Alex’s lifelong dream of heroic service, and the beginning of a nightmare of disgrace and shame so deep that it would take him years to process it all. The tellers and customers in the bank that day, whom Sommer’s plans dismissed as the same faceless abstractions that Rangers manhandled daily on raids in Iraq and Afghanistan, turned out to be real people with real feelings and moral claims. They haunt Alex to this day. I only hope that if our country finds itself on the edge of a similar precipice, we will have the sense to back out and drive away.
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was born and raised in Denver, Colorado. He holds a PhD in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, and a MFA in fiction from New York University, where he was awarded the New York Times
Foundation Fellowship. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and stepdaughter. Ranger Games
is his first book.