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An Interview with Nathan Rabin

Nathan Rabin is a freelance pop culture writer, the original head writer at pop culture news site The A.V. Club, and the author of five books. His most recent, 7 Days in Ohio: Trump, the Gathering of the Juggalos and the Summer Everything Went Insane, details Rabin’s trip to the 2016 Republican National Convention, combined with his visit to the Gathering of the Juggalos, an annual music festival organized by horrorcore rap group Insane Clown Posse.

Rabin spoke with Utne Reader about his experiences, the connections he discovered between these two seemingly disparate groups, and the importance of empathy in writing about pop culture. 

Read Utne’s review of 7 Days in Ohio here.

Nathan Rabin

Abby Olcese: When you first started working on this project, what connections, if any, did you think you would find between Trump supporters and Juggalos and how did that stack up with what you did find?

Nathan Rabin: I had three sort of overarching conceits between these two groups of people. One was the idea of a family reunion, like (in the case of the Gathering) there’s this group of people who are sort of far-flung who have this intense passion, but who are in very different places when they come together once a year for this great bacchanal.

The other conceit I had was that (The Gathering and the Republican National Convention) were both these kinds of vulgar populist spectacles. Like, Donald Trump is very effective at playing to his base, and very effective at “talking to the common people.” He kind of has this very weird persona, though, and I’m fascinated by the way he communicates.

There are even commonalities like wrestling, which was a big link for me. Donald Trump kind of has the personality of a wrestler. He talks like a 1940s New York Tough Guy, which is crazy, because he’s like Little Lord Fauntleroy. Like, even his hair looks like fake gold.

The third part was that I had my own family reunion, those four days I spent with my brother, who I hadn’t seen in about 17 years.

I had a bunch of different ideas, and I was very happy with the way things turned out. I was sort of hoping that the RNC would, more than ever, look like some sort of dystopian version of Hollywood Squares, and be kind of weird and fringey, and I wanted Insane Clown Posse and the Gathering to be more political and more pointed, and “how can we make a serious and positive change in society.”

I sort of catapulted myself into this situation, I didn’t have a lot of preparation, or even a lot of access to the Republican National Convention, and mostly found myself wandering along the fringes. But, I definitely had some expectations, and it worked out beautifully. There were a lot of things going on, and I just wanted to be part of it all.

AO: You mentioned your brother. He plays an important role in the book. What is your relationship with him like now, since the book’s come out?

NR: That’s the strange thing about writing about real people, like I never go and say, “Hey Vinny I’m going to be writing about you, is that OK? What’s off limits?” And it was kind of unspoken, like there were moments when I definitely talked (to him) about writing about him, about him being someone who I wanted to make part of this story.

There were some parts that were off limits, and those parts were, mainly, other people in our family. He’s pretty open and honest about his own pain and his own struggles, but when it comes to other people that gets tricky.

So, I think he’s happy with it, he’s liked many of the pieces related to it, and shared it. It’s really weird because he’s hung out with me twice, and been illustrated twice, he’s on the cover of the book, and an illustration for an article that ran in MEL Magazine.

But, he wrote this Facebook post referencing it kind of obliquely, where he referenced me as The Robot and himself as The Demon. I think what he was referring to is that I dealt with the traumas and rejections and horrors of my childhood by going inward and becoming really analytical, and writing. Like, I love writing, not just the physical act of it, but also the fact that I’m always thinking about what I’m going to write...That’s how I have fun.

So, I think he was kind of perplexed, because we had this experience together, and I was kind of internalizing and intellectualizing and he was, you know, drinking, and having a more physical, visceral experience. I think I had as much fun, if not more fun, I just have a different way of doing things. For me, overthinking things is a form of pleasure, and writing things and working is a form of pleasure, and for him that seems weird, like, “Stop writing and start having fun.” But for me, if I wasn’t working, I wouldn’t be having fun.

AO: Something I thought was interesting about the book was the way that you showed the appeal of Donald Trump and the appeal of ICP as both coming from a place of brokenness and dissatisfaction with life. Can you talk a little about the differences in the way that Trump addresses that pain, versus the way ICP addresses it?

NR: People become Juggalos or Trump supporters because they’re disenfranchised, because the establishment and the things that are being offered by the mainstream are incredibly unsatisfying, and belong to this world of elites—people who have money, people with power.

With Trump it’s maddening to me because he’s such an insider, but paints himself as such an outsider. In The Art of the Deal he says he’s a maverick capitalist, that there are all these sad shells of men who are tied to their board of directors, their stock price, tied to going public, but (he’s) this Ayn Rand objectivist hero who can avoid everything. Yet, at the same time, a lot of his book is devoted to him seeking tax abatements and working with minor politicians to try and get better terms for his various deals. So it’s very much this paradoxical playing both sides.

And then with Insane Clown Posse, there’s a lot more of a legitimate appeal, where people genuinely hate Juggalos, and sort of the hatred of them is classist in nature, like these are the white people who it’s OK to say are terrible, and nobody’s going to get in trouble for making fun of Juggalos.

So, yeah, I think there’s definitely this populist “us vs them” dynamic at play (in both groups), but with the Juggalos there’s a lot more to it, and a sense of righteousness, and a factor of “we just want to be accepted, we just want a place at the table, we just want to not be considered gang members.” whereas the Trump supporters want to project that anger onto other people. ICP’s anger and rage is directed towards people at the apex of culture and society, at the Donald Trumps and billionaires of the world.

With Trump, the opposite is true. You’ve been fucked over, and the people who are fucking you over are Mexicans, your enemies are transgender people, your enemies are African-Americans in the inner cities. “You’ve been fucked over, poor white America, by non-white America. I, the hero of capitalism, will be your voice.” And that’s incredibly galling and hypocritical.

They’re both really populist appeals, but appeals that head in opposite directions, with opposite goals.

AO: Another thing I’ve found interesting in following your career as a whole is that you tend to be drawn toward these areas of popular and now political culture that have real negative or polarizing connotations. What attracts you to writing on these kinds of topics?

NR: There’s something inherently fascinating about extremes. I think also that a lot of my career has been colored by low self-esteem and insecurity, so I feel like if I go to places that nobody else will, and write about things that nobody else wants to, there will be value there.

And I also think a lot of my career has been dedicated to finding value in things that our culture considers value-less, and Insane Clown Posse, boy, there are few things that our culture considers to have less value than Insane Clown Posse.

And with Donald Trump it’s kind of the same thing as well. There was part of me that thought “What if I have a road to Damascus moment and I change? And I go there and think ‘there’s something here?’” And granted, I had a very strong hunch that this would not happen, that there were many reasons that Trump is someone I despise with every fiber of my being, but there was a one percent chance that I’d go there and think “Oh my god, he’s right! He’s right!”

So yeah, I think I am driven to writing about extremes, partly because it’s more interesting to write about, but also because I felt like an outsider. I felt like someone who didn’t belong and was on the fringes for a long time, so it made sense for me to seek out subject matter in popular culture that reflected that feeling of not belonging, of being forever on the outside looking in.

AO: Since you’ve spent so much time documenting unpopular areas of popular culture, are there other parts of popularly maligned culture or fandom that have caused you to think about those groups differently, or even the role of criticism in determining what society as a whole thinks of as good or bad?

NR: I think it’s made me more empathetic. I remember getting a review of my first book, The Big Rewind about three months after it came out...it was incredibly negative, and basically took me to task for being too mean-spirited of a writer, the reviewer dubbed me “the snarkitect,” which I thought was hilariously ironic, that this person calls me snarky and glib, and then treats other people as targets for their cheap, facile cleverness. I thought “oh, this feels terrible, to get a review like this.” It was in the Washington Post, which really hurt, because it’s a paper of record.

I never want to hurt somebody. I never want it to be personal. There are some exceptions, like, I just reviewed the Tucker Maxx movie, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and he’s a terrible person. I have no compassion for him whatsoever.

The same thing with Trump. I have no compassion for him because I think he’s a sociopath. He does not think other people have value, he does not value other people’s lives or ideas, he’s horrifically sexist and racist. You don’t have to be tolerant towards hate. You don’t have to be tolerant towards discriminating against other people. In fact, those are things you should not be tolerant of. Those are things you should stand up and fight against.

So, there are people that it’s hard to empathize with, and people I’m incapable of (empathizing with). But what I tried to do with this book was to empathize with people who are attracted to this message. People who saw something in (Trump) that could fix their brokenness. I tried to be empathetic towards people who had lost a lot in their lives, and turned to Donald Trump as this larger-than-life figure who kind of came out of nowhere with this bold plan to change everything.

I have a complicated relationship with white America, particularly white male America. And so much of Donald Trump’s thing is that he’s the voice of the oppressed, of poor white, middle class Christian America...In many ways I fit the demographic of someone who would be his supporter. I grew up in a group home. My mother abandoned me. I recently got laid off from a job after working in my field for 18 years, then realized that I wouldn’t be able to get a staff position or a salaried position in my field. (My wife and I) pay out-of-pocket for our insurance for our baby.

So, I should have every reason to stand up and say “No...I’ve worked really hard, I’ve done everything that society told me I’m supposed to do, and yet I’m still struggling.” But, Mexican immigrants are not responsible for my problems. Muslims immigrating to America are not responsible for my problems. The world is shifting in ways that aren’t always in our favor, and that can be scary, but that doesn’t entitle you to go looking for scapegoats.

It’s complicated, and I think that’s one of the things that gets people fascinated and horrified about Insane Clown Posse… because they’re white, and the overwhelming majority of their fans are white, although they have a lot of black Juggalos and latino Juggalos and lesbian Juggalos. I think people are confused by that, and it’s easier to be critical of them as hip hop artists because they’re white.

They’re kind of a release valve for our country’s hostility and anger towards poor people. When the FBI put Juggalos on their list, they were criminalizing poverty, and having eccentric taste in music, or eccentric taste in clothing and hairstyles. In the keynote speech that Violent J (of Insane Clown Posse) gave, he said something that I thought was really interesting. He said, basically, that our fans are being profiled by the FBI, and being targeted, and we’re alone in speaking out against this.

Other bands aren’t standing up for (them). You don’t see Eddie Vedder standing up and saying it’s wrong and un-american for the FBI to be targeting people based on their hairstyle and their tattoos and the music that they listen to...Even people like Jack White, who’s worked with them in the past, and understands their appeal. They’re going it alone, because despite the advances that they’ve made, it’s still an invitation to mockery to say that you stand behind Insane Clown Posse, and that you feel there’s something important that they have to say.

AO: How much truth do you think there is in the larger cultural representation we’ve seen of these groups?

NR: The fact that the representation of Insane Clown Posse in popular culture remains so overwhelmingly negative, that’s pretty damning. There was a moment, again, in the (Insane Clown Posse) keynote address, where they were talking about the FBI designation of the Juggalos as a gang. When that first happened, I thought this was great for ICP. This gives their brand more of an element of danger. They’re literally outlaws now, there’s a David and Goliath dynamic at play.

But, the more they talked about it, it was more like, no, this is something that they hate. This is something that they feel de-legitimizes everything that they’ve worked towards. (This year) was the 17th Gathering, and it’s amazing that it’s lasted 17 years. Like if it were a human being, it’d be able to get into R-rated movies by itself. But they’re being depicted over and over again as sub-humans, cretins, the worst kind of white people in the world.

I do a column (for Splitsider) called Pod-Canon where I write about the best podcasts, and I was listening to an episode of the Dana Gould Hour...and Dana Gould is a brilliant guy. The entire episode was about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and going to see it as a 53-year-old man in 2015, and what an intense emotional experience that is for a variety of reasons...It was really lovely and profound. And then, for absolutely no reason, it just went into five minutes of bashing Juggalos. Talking about it like they’re all on meth, and blah blah blah...and I was so disappointed. Because if anybody’s going to get it, it’ll be you people who are so empathetic and smart and incisive when you’re talking about films and music that you love.

(Being glib and sarcastic) is really easy to do. I’ve spent the last three or four or 5 years trying to get people to at least respect what Insane Clown Posse has accomplished on a cultural and business level, and it’s still an upward struggle. I once wrote an essay for the A.V. Club about why Phish was a necessary contribution to popular culture. Then, VICE did an article that said Phish sucks, and they’ve sucked for 30 years, and they’re sucky and their fans are sucky. (The VICE article) literally had 10,000 likes on Facebook. And I just think, this is garbage, this contributes absolutely nothing to the culture, and yet it’s so popular. People just want to have their opinions validated. They just want to hear that they are correct. That’s kind of depressing to know that kind of negativity will always be popular. And to go the opposite route, to say that this thing that everyone says is terrible has worth, that will be the harder road to hoe.

In terms of Trump, his supporters are being depicted as the worst people, as racist, as sexist, and I gotta say, if the shoe fits, wear it. If you support someone who is unqualified, is hugely xenophobic, who has a history of saying unconscionable things...There’s a limit to empathy, and I think I discovered that.

Nathan Rabin’s new book, 7 Days in Ohio: Trump, the Gathering of the Juggalos and the Summer Everything Went Insane, is available now from Amazon