The piece falls into the genre of a look into the “normal” life of an American boy, supposedly inspired by Susan Orlean’s 1992 Esquire cover story, “The American Man at Age Ten,” which was an exquisite portrait of an average life. But the difference here is that a teenage Trump supporter is very decidedly not average.
Generation Z, defined as young people between ages 7 and 22 in 2019, is as liberal, if not more, than the preceding generation of millennials. Only 30 percent approve of Donald Trump and two-thirds believe in bigger government. They are the most diverse generation, with nearly half of the cohort coming from communities of color. For those between ages 17 and 33—of age to vote in the next election—only 9 percent think that Trump reflects their personal values. And for those who did vote in the 2018 midterms, an overwhelming 62 percent of young voters between 18 and 29 years old voted for Democrats, including 58 percent of young male voters.
Yet Esquire casts Morgan as your regular Trump-supporting boy who just really wants to “talk about his girlfriend or cool sneakers or the Packers.” The piece opens with an incident that “still bothers” Morgan, where a girl in computer lab told him to stop opening and shutting the door. When he didn’t she “smacked him in the face” and he “smacked her back.” This was the advice Morgan’s mother gave him:
Ryan went home with a cut on his eyebrow, two on his forehead, and another on his ear. Tori told him to take pictures. “That girl could go home,” Ryan recalls his mom saying, “slit the whole side of her cheek with a knife, and come to school Monday and say, ‘Hey, look what he did to me.’” That was news to him. He’d never even been in a fight before. In middle school, he and this other kid had agreed to punch each other in the face because they wanted to know what it felt like, but when the time came, they just went home. “I guess girls sometimes just do that,” he says. “It happened once when my mom was in high school. A girl purposely broke her own arm just to get another person in trouble.”
Later, Morgan tells reporter Jennifer Percy, “I know what I can’t do, I just don’t know what I can do.” As Percy writes, “Ryan is convinced that if it had been a fight between two girls, things would’ve been different. He has this idea that since I’m a woman, if I were in the same situation, I could do whatever I wanted. I could pull out a knife and stab a guy, and I wouldn’t get in trouble.” Throughout the piece, Morgan opines about the difficulties of having opinions on social media given that he is a conservative white boy in an increasingly progressive environment.
This is not to say that Trump teens should go uncovered. But they have been: in 2015, in 2016, in 2017. Not to mention the deluge of coverage that Trump supporters got overall, in the dozens of post-2016 Let’s Explore Trump County pieces. There is nothing particular to this profile that adds to what we already know about Trump supporters.
In the year 2019, Esquire is making an overt political choice by including a teenage Trump supporter on the coveted spot on the cover of the magazine. It’s reminiscent of how only last month, Nick Sandmann, the MAGA-clad teen who was part of a group of boys at the Lincoln Memorial harrassing Native American elder Nathan Phillips, landed an interview on the Today show.
In his editor’s note, Jay Fielden says that they decided to enlarge the profile into a series that will include “white, black, LGBTQ, female” perspectives on growing up. Yet it’s unlikely that all of these profiles will be featured on the cover, and any other perspective could have been featured first instead.
By painting someone like Morgan as average, Esquire offers his views unearned legitimacy, implying that we have to grapple seriously with the inner struggles of young Trump supporters, rather than those of young students who are shot in school because of Trump’s policies, or of young immigrants and minorities who are terrorized by Trump’s policies, or of young women who will have to live under Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court.
Fielden’s editor’s note is entitled “Why Your Ideological Echo Chamber Isn’t Just Bad For You” with the subtitle, “it’s bad for your kids,” and explains just how a Trump teen landed on Esquire’s cover. (A move that seems wholly in line from someone who decided to hire, of all people, reporter Ryan Lizza after he was fired from The New Yorker for “improper sexual conduct.”)
Fielden bemoans “safe spaces,” thinking especially about his 15-year-old son, who lives in a society that sometimes feels like “a Kafkaesque thought-police nightmare of paranoia and nausea, in which you might accidentally say what you really believe and get burned at the stake.” In his powerful position as editor-in-chief of Esquire, Fielden has very clearly gotten to say what he believes. For some reason, it seems doubtful that he’ll learn anything from the criticisms.