43.1% of US adults read literature, according to the NEA’s Annual Arts Basic Survey and the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Find the interactive map of the data here.
In the fallout of Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections, a multitude of commentators – from mainstream media analysts through to social media users – have been keen to analyse, deciphering the results and reaching conclusions as to what the precise cause of Trump’s victory actually was.
The Guardian commentator George Monbiot, for instance, has attributed Trump’s victory to the neoliberal consensus that has gripped with globalised world since the late 1970s. The Spectator’s Theo Hobson, meanwhile, has tasked liberal democracy with being too “flawed” to function, and in its failure paving the way for Trump to ascend to prominence.
While we dissect the different voter demographics for clues and reason – is it simply the case that rich white people won Trump his election victory, as exit polling data indicates? Or perhaps it is simply the case that America has a problem with the idea of a female president, as Patton Oswalt neatly opined in a single tweet that read: “What I’ve learned so far tonight: America is WAAAAAAAY more sexist than it is racist. And it’s pretty f******g racist.”
With so many potential theses being thrown around the digital and traditional media spheres, we thought we’d throw our own into the mix. Given that we are a collective of creatives, bound by a single motto (“there’s nothing in the rulebook that says a giraffe can’t play football”) and focused on supporting artists and artistic endeavours of all kinds, you may not be surprised to hear that we believe the election of Donald Trump was due, in part, to a lack of literature – to a lack of inspiration, imagination, and art in general.
We might also argue that there are too few giraffes playing football in this day and age; although unfortunately the datasets we have on even-toed ungulate mammals playing sports of any kind is, at best, inconclusive.
Fortunately, we aren’t just postulating when it comes to the correlation between reading and art (or lack thereof) and Donald Trump’s election victory.
While Trump himself has said he doesn’t read books, it may not be the greatest surprise that areas in the USA that provided him with the greatest levels of support are also those in which the lowest number of people read books (either regularly or at all) or are inclined to get involved with creative or artistic projects.
Indeed, data pulled from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) show that in places like Mississippi, where Donald Trump beat Hilary Clinton by almost 220,000 votes (almost 60%), only 21.7% of people from the state read literature, and only 38.5% of people personally created or performed art.
By contrast, those states with the highest rates of reading and artistic engagement were also the ones that polled most strongly for Clinton. Colorado, New Mexico, New York, California, Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Illinois, Maryland, New Hampshire and Maine all scored at least 48% or above for literature reading levels, with the majority of these scoring closer to 60%. Indeed, some of the only outliers to this trend at New Jersey (voted Clinton), which had a 40.7% rate for literature and 44% artwork participation, and Pennsylvania (voted Trump), which had a 47.7% literature reading score, and 48.3% rate of art participation. Interestingly, Pennsylvania was among the closest run races of the election night, with Trump winning by a marginal 48.76% to Clinton’s 47.68%.
Fans of the Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders – who ran Clinton extremely close for the Democratic nomination earlier in the year – will be pleased to know that Vermont (Sanders’s home state) had the highest rate of literature readers – at 62.8% – and an impressive 64% of Vermont residence said they regularly created or performed their own works of art.
Of course, correlation can never be seen as causation, yet we would still make the case that a greater inclination towards creativity and art – as well as a passion for reading – are more likely to move people to vote in favour of progressive change, and intellectualism, as opposed to supporting a demagogue who has faced constant charges of racism and misogyny, and who has boasted about his inclination towards sexually assaulting women.
This may well be because books so often contain within them the power to express important ideas in an engaging, thoughtful way – and can teach us truths about the world we may not otherwise see. Some scientific studies even indicate that reading literature is highly correlated with other kinds of behaviours, such as civic engagement and volunteering.
Indeed, as we’ve posted in previous articles, literature turns us into citizens of the world; makes us smarter; and encourages us to be kinder. And famous artists, scientists, politicians and astronauts have also told us of the importance of books, reading and literature. Neil Armstrong, for instance, said simply “the knowledge you gain from books is fundamental to all human achievement and progress.”
Likewise, a passion for art and creating new creative works speaks to an inclination towards the imagination: which, in order to flourish, grows from the idea that anything is possible – and that idealistic, wonderful things are within our grasp if only we choose to reach for them. Such an ethos seems to stand in stark contrast to the world of Donald Trump – a man who dismisses the science of climate change, who refutes the idea that it is better for human beings to co-operate with one another than oppose each other, and whose complete inability for nuanced thought means he thinks a potential solution to the trends of globalisation we have experienced in recent decades is to build a wall between the USA and Mexico.
Unfortunately, recent years have also seen an increase in the number of libraries closing across the USA – and with them a declining availability and accessibility of literature for many citizens. Simultaneously, cuts to public schooling and education – and increasing costs of higher education – mean that opportunities for young people to access art and literature are further diminished. Since our formative years are just that – formative – such disinvestment in education seriously threatens to undermine the power of literature and art to influence people, and encourage them to think in ways that create new possibilities.
Because, of course, Donald Trump – for all his talk of change – in many ways does not represent anything of the sort. He is not a man of new possibilities; but instead epitomises the private, corporate power that many of his supporters claim to have railed against, and which is in itself one of the core tenants of the neoliberal consensus that has been with us for so many years.
Literature and art, on the other hand, represent just this: the potential to create and imagine new worlds, new beginnings and possibilities; real change, in other words. To that end, the author Ursula K Le Guin has called on writers to imagine alternatives to the capitalist system.
Whether or not literature has the power to spark a revolution remains to be seen. What we do know is that human beings have within them the power to do incredible things – even those that were previously thought to be impossible. And we also know is that reading itself is associated with empathy and kindness and truth – not one of which Donald Trump stands for. This, if nothing else, should be cause to triumph the power of reading literature and creating works of art.
Encouraging people to consume more literature is therefore critical. As we try to digest and process Trump’s victory (you can listen to our conversation on this topic on the Extra Secret Podcast here), perhaps the first form of protest we can all participate in is one of the simplest: going to our local library, checking out a good book and then looking to get involved with a local or digital creative arts project.
If you’re stuck for ideas on which books to check out of your library, why not kick off with one or two of the titles on our list of essential reading for the Donald Trump Apocalypse? And if you’re looking to get involved with a creative art project, remember that we here at Nothing in the Rulebook would love to hear from you and feature your work – so do get in touch!
Until that end, comrades, do not despair; just keep reading, and keep your minds open to all the possibilities in the world.