Since November 2016, a good 65 million U.S. voters—the number of folks who pulled the lever for Hillary Clinton—have been trying to figure out how the hell we ended up with Donald Trump and Mike Pence as heads of our beleaguered nation. Theories abound, but it’s obvious that a backlash this extreme can’t be easily or formulaically explained.
It’s this realization that prods Alexandra and Michael, the fictional Gen X hipster couple at the center of writer Elly Lonon and illustrator Joan Reilly’s hilarious and astute graphic novel, Amongst the Liberal Elite: The Road Trip Exploring Societal Inequities Solidified by Trump (RESIST), to take a road trip across the U.S. of A.
Their goal? Finding real answers to the who, what, and why of today’s Republican power brokers, information they intend to share on Instagram and other social media. But on the way, they work through their relationship difficulties and get an up-close-and-personal glimpse of the race and class privilege they possess.
Part sociological probe and part vacation, the pair plot a course filled with stops at historical sites, tourist traps, bars, grills, and campsites. Using their tax refund to pay for this two-and-a-half-week adventure, the pair cram into a small van with pregnant cat Kittery Clinton and set off.
Almost immediately, they begin to bicker about everything. Some of their squabbles are inane. Others are politically substantive while still others are emotionally cutting. Lonon is clear-eyed about the ways long-term partners—in this case white and heterosexual, but likely true of any union—can zero in on vulnerabilities and shoot verbal daggers.
Before I tell you more about the book, though, it’s important that you know that both Michael and Alexandra—characters in Lonon’s longstanding column at McSweeney’s, also called “Amongst the Liberal Elite”—consider themselves progressive activists, people well-versed in the ways that race, class, gender, and sexuality affect daily life. Furthermore, they wear only the finest organic cotton, shop at their local food co-op, and insert terms such as “white supremacy” and patriarchy into just about every conversation. In fact, their talks often run the gamut between laughably slogan-like and cringe-inducing.
For example, early on, Michael declares that he is prepared to forgo his usual diet of organic vegetarian fare and eat in the roadside restaurants along the highways they travel. He quickly regrets his decision. “I feel like my lower intestines are being wound around the gears of a tandem cruiser bicycle traveling over cobblestones,” he moans. Several days later, he becomes ill and convinces himself that he has Lyme disease, a conclusion that forces his annoyed companion to do all of that day’s driving. Tensions build and illustrator Joan Reilly’s drawings brilliantly convey Alexandra’s growing frustration with her malingering mate.
But it’s not all argument and annoyance. Despite their near-constant mutual needling, it’s clear that Alexandra and Michael are deeply in love and enjoy being together, albeit not 24/7. What’s more, they share a fascination with kitsch that is nurtured by visits to countless attractions: the world’s largest truck stop, 67,000 square feet, in Walcott, Iowa; the Shrine of the Grotto of Redemption in West Bend, Iowa; the 55-foot Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Minnesota; the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota; and six sites that each claim to house the world’s largest frying pan.
Who knew those frying pans existed? Certainly not Alexandra and Michael. As they crisscross the states, stopping to refuel, eat, and peruse the local scene, their well-laid plans periodically get waylaid by crises. First, Kittery Clinton vanishes, jumping out of the Snugli-like cat carrier that Michael wears whenever he wanders outside. Although Kitty ultimately returns, her disappearance sends Alexandra and Michael down a rabbit hole of stinging recriminations and accusations.
It’s actually quite ugly.
Shortly thereafter, a second crisis unfolds as Kittery gives birth to three kittens, a joyous event that propels her ecstatic “parents” to forget their fury and focus on finding the perfect names for the new household additions. It’s an amusing interlude and Lonon is at her best here, poking fun at the couple’s anthropocentric excesses.
Other issues—planned childlessness, misogyny, sexual desirability, perimenopause, body shaming, and male bonding, among them—are also fodder for Lonon’s biting satire and wit. Nonetheless, the book never forgets the deeply serious questions that propelled Alex and Michael to hit the road: Why do people continue to support the Trump administration, and how can those who want to contribute to the resistance and build support for human rights and social, racial, and gender justice be most effective?
“It feels like we are tackling the cart and the horse at the same time, plus an avalanche and Ebola,” Alexandra admits. “Since 11/9/16, I’ve been consumed with a crushing feeling of impotence, shame, anger, but mostly remorse. Guilt. An unendurable conviction that this could have all been avoided if I’d just tried harder. Curse me and my complacency. My entitled elitism. My laziness.”
Self-indulgent? You betcha, but probably still somewhat resonant.
The book never adequately teases out the many variables that have cemented Trump’s appeal, not the least of them racism, sexism, xenophobia, and a faux man-of-the-people effect. Nonetheless, it offers a prescriptive diagnosis. Rather than languishing in pointless self-blame, Michael suggests that Alexandra see Trump as “an orange beacon of light,” illuminating “the dark corners and penetralia where evil resides. He’s shining a light in an area no one wants to look. And it turns out the lower intestine of this great nation is riddled with polyps, some of them cancerous …. A cancer diagnosis is a call to fight, to explore treatment options. To adapt when one course of treatment doesn’t work and try another … It’s a time to prioritize what’s important and remember what you most love.”
It’s a potent analogy and Michael’s words remind Alexandra—and us—that resistance can take many forms, including civil disobedience, electoral work, marching and demonstrating, check writing, and volunteering in our hometowns.
And while the liberal elite—people like Alexandra and Michael who want to do the right thing but don’t have a clue what that means—are fun to make fun of, the implied upshot is that we’ll need everyone to topple the Republicans. Even the liberal elite.
Needless to say, eating organic food won’t eliminate the -isms, and shopping ethically won’t solve our political logjam, but we also can’t afford to write off potential supporters and allies. Amongst the Liberal Elite is a clear affirmation of this imperative.
Reading it will provoke a reaction—it will make you smile, laugh out loud, and sometimes roll your eyes at Alexandra and Michael’s incredible arrogance. But it may also provoke wanderlust, since sustaining long-term activism requires us to recharge and fortify. I, for one, have added several enormous frying pans to my must-see list.