“You’re listening to me but you’re not understanding me.”
“No I’m disagreeing with you. That doesn’t mean that I’m listening to you or understanding what you’re saying. I’m doing all three at the same time.
– West Wing, In This White House
If we are going to get anywhere in this post, we need to start with a few basic understandings:
- I do not like Donald Trump as a person, a candidate, a businessman, a leader or a human.
- I voted for Hillary Clinton and it would be a cold day in Hell before I ever vote for Trump.
- Anything said from this point forward should not be in any way construed as support, excuses, justification or approval for Trump or any action he has ever taken, including, but not limited to his sexist rants, his racist comments, his proclivities for sexual assault, his borderline-incest fascination with his daughter, his financial horrors or his moral compass.
- Anything said from this point forward should not be construed as support, excuses, justification or approval for anyone who voted for him.
I spent the past few days trying to wrap my head around this election outcome and I figured out that I can’t. That bothers me because a) I’m an intellectual so I like knowing things and b) I’m a tinkerer, so I like solving problems.
Everyone who has written every concern about Donald J. Trump and the potential he has to fuck up every single institution in this country and turn us into Wolfenstein: The New Order is right. As far as journalism goes, these people have done everything perfectly in terms of explaining the Who, What, When, Where and How. What I’m trying to dig into is the “Why” aspect of this.
The problem with looking at “Why” is that it can be interpreted as agreement with or justification for choices.
I will be doing neither.
That said, if you don’t understand why something broke, you can’t figure out how to fix it. If you don’t take a look at the underlying aspects of something, you won’t understand its nature. Since most of the analysis has tried to look at the rural vote, I’m going to spend a lot of time picking at that.
And just like we would tell people who spent the last 19 months chanting “Lock Her Up,” we can’t get by with slogans or bumper-sticker answers.
This is going to hurt.
“I’m sure that’s important but I don’t want to tell some 8-year-old kid he has to sleep in the street because we want people to feel better about their car. Do you want to tell him that?”
John Scalzi did a fantastic post titled, “The Cinemax Theory of Racism.” In it, he explains the fact that even people who say, “I’m not racist, but I voted for Trump” were essentially aiding and abetting racism anyway. The analogy is outlined here, but here’s the short-course version of it:
You want HBO, but the cable company says you can’t get it without buying Cinemax as well. You decide to purchase HBO and then you’re upset when people say you are also a Cinemax subscriber.
You can make all the arguments you want that you don’t plan to watch Cinemax, that you didn’t want Cinemax and that you have no love for Cinemax, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re a Cinemax subscriber.
Same deal with Trump: You may have bought him for the supposed economic policies and Making Greatness for Beloved State of America, but you also are a racism subscriber.
He’s right in both the analogy and the outcome: People who bought Trump have to live with being called out for it, no matter how unpleasant the word “racist” is to them. I wouldn’t like being called a lot of “ists” out there either. However, in looking at the rural vote that came out for Trump, it might be more instructive to try a second analogy along those same lines:
You are trapped on an island for 10 days with no outside help or system of support. On this island is a single bird that is the only source of sustenance that will allow you to survive.
Unfortunately for you, this is a rare bird, a one-of-a-kind, and by killing and eating it, you will be causing the extinction of this species and will be helping to destroy an ecosystem.
So, you eat the bird and live.
For the rest of time after your rescue, people tell you that you destroyed the environment.
But I was just trying to survive, you say.
The others say back, Uh huh… but you killed off a species. You destroyed an ecosystem.
But I didn’t have a choice, you say.
The others say back, I understand you feel that way, but you still eliminated the animal from our world and we’ll never see it again. Our world will never be the same again.
But it was do this or die, you say.
The others say back, well, you still made that choice. You better own it.
This is rural America. They feel isolated from the broader whole. They feel desperate to survive. They are trying to weigh out an immediate, real need against what they perceive to be an ethereal broader consequence. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs tells us that starvation is going to trump higher-order thinking every day of the week.
I see three basic reasons for this:
- Loss of local media: You can make the argument that the people in rural America get their information from Fox News and that assholes like Bill O’Reilly and Rudy Giuliani have fed them lies, distortions and false narratives. However the problem isn’t in what the national media is feeding them, but rather what local media isn’t anymore.
Local newspapers are dying as paper costs more, journalism people don’t want to go out there and education is being shredded. You see buyouts, consolidation and other things that are eliminating newspapers throughout the rural areas. Those that remain are understaffed and overworked, leading to “easy” coverage on things like school plays and local parades.
When local media in these towns meant something, people there learned from “people like them” what was going on with the local government, the school district and other similar things. They found out where their money was going and they could read about how things were in their area. That was all stuff they could get behind and at least understand: “My money will build a new school or buy a new fire truck. My kids can get a better education and my home won’t burn to the ground.”
Now, these places get grouped into a larger “metro market” and get whatever Gannett paper is out there. None of the local news matters to them and the national news sucks, what little there is of it. So they turn to Fox or whatever Facebook feed their friends find interesting and, bam, you get a sense that nothing good is happening out there.
- Realistic Conflict Theory and intergroup relations: Both analogies above (as well as thousands of others) create a dichotomy: You get X or Y. You buy the whole meal, no substitutions. In a broader view of this, it basically becomes a function of Realistic Conflict Theory: If you and I want the same cookie and either I get it or you get it, one of us is going to get something and the other isn’t. Trump did a brilliant job (and I hope to God that’s the last time I ever use the words “Trump” and “brilliant” in the same sentence…) of putting this out there for the voters who live in the rural areas. Kathy Cramer’s work on the rural people of Wisconsin makes this clear: People in the smaller towns and villages all over this state feel like all the good stuff goes to the Madisons and Milwaukees of the state while they get shit on. Can you make that argument? Absolutely. Is it perfect? Not at all. However, when you paint an “us versus them” picture, people will always close ranks with the “us folks” and research for generations has demonstrated that perfectly.
- The lack of broader privilege: When we discuss privilege at the broader level, we talk about things like “white privilege” or “male privilege” and I’m not discounting or dismissing either of those. However, here’s an example of what I’m talking about:On a ballot a few elections ago, there was a referendum to raise property taxes locally for repairs and additions to the local high school. My child doesn’t attend the local school. None of her friends attend the local school. Nobody I know teaches or works at the local school.
I voted for it anyway.
My way of thinking was not about the $10 a year per thousand dollars of assessed value or whatever meant to my pocketbook. I saw value in the project, knew it would help people and just said yes. That’s a privilege I possess that a lot of people don’t.
I would never cast my grandmothers into the “basket of deplorables,” but I know for sure they voted against helping schools, improving the library, paving some streets and a dozen other things that would have benefitted their small cities. They were fucking destitute, living on a tiny fraction of what I spend on car parts and furniture for the year.
Every time I vote, I look at my vote in two ways: “How does it help me personally/my close family network?” And “How does this impact the bigger picture?” If I’m lucky, there’s a lot of overlap between the two and the vote is easy. In some cases, the Venn Diagram doesn’t really provide a lot of AB crossover, so I have to think about what I should do. I have that privilege. I can say, “Sure, Hillary might fuck me over a little here and there, but I can’t put a racist, sexist, homophobic asshole in charge of a hot dog cart, let alone the goddamned country.”
Not everyone can look past immediate self-interest and buy the bigger picture.
And Trump found a lot of those people.
“Don’t press your luck, funny man. And stop thinking everyone between Fifth Avenue and the Hollywood Bowl just stepped barefoot out of the cast of ‘Hee Haw.’ Tell your friends about it.”
– Studio 60, Nevada Day, Part II
Kathy Cramer has done some incredible work in Wisconsin as a political scientist, digging into the rural communities throughout the state and doing something that most of the pollsters and data crunchers don’t: She talked to people.
Researchers will argue that they talk to people all the time. So will journalists. Here’s the problem: They tend to parachute in, ask a bunch of questions, get some answers that support their ideas and evac out.
Cramer kept going back and going back and going back. She was like the Jane Goodall of the farming community in places that have fewer people than my high school.
This interview with her is spellbinding in so many ways, but the part that sticks with me right away is this quote:
“People felt that they weren’t getting respect. They would say: The real kicker is that people in the city don’t understand us. They don’t understand what rural life is like, what’s important to us and what challenges that we’re facing. They think we’re a bunch of redneck racists.”
Most of the talking heads spent the 48 hours after the election trying to parse one issue: Was this racism or classism? If you were on the Left, it was usually racism. If you were on the Right, it was usually classism.
Cramer’s research says it’s probably neither, but more of tribalism.
City Mouse versus Country Mouse.
Cramer talked at length about how her naiveté allowed her to start her work because had she known of the chasm of this divide, she probably would have been too scared to go to these places. Even as a white, Midwestern woman, she said there was a sense of “other” that emerged when she explained what she was doing and why:
They’re asking questions like, how often do I teach, what am I doing driving around the state Wisconsin when I’m supposed to be working full time in Madison, like, what kind of a job is that, right?
It’s not just resentment toward people of color. It’s resentment toward elites, city people. …
Part of where that comes from is just the overarching story that we tell ourselves in the U.S. One of the key stories in our political culture has been the American Dream — the sense that if you work hard, you will get ahead.
Well, holy cow, the people I encountered seem to me to be working extremely hard. I’m with them when they’re getting their coffee before they start their workday at 5:30 a.m. I can see the fatigue in their eyes. And I think the notion that they are not getting what they deserve, it comes from them feeling like they’re struggling. They feel like they’re doing what they were told they needed to do to get ahead. And somehow it’s not enough.
Oftentimes in some of these smaller communities, people are in the occupations their parents were in, they’re farmers and loggers. They say, it used to be the case that my dad could do this job and retire at a relatively decent age, and make a decent wage. We had a pretty good quality of life, the community was thriving. Now I’m doing what he did, but my life is really much more difficult.
I’m doing what I was told I should do in order to be a good American and get ahead, but I’m not getting what I was told I would get.
At one point, I was forced to calculate how many hours a day I “worked” as part of my job here at the U. Counting the newspaper, night-time grading, emails to kids off hours and other things like that, it came to something like 60-65 hours per week. Maybe it was a little more or less, but that was what I was coming up with for a month worth of counting.
Here’s the thing: I wouldn’t trade that for anything the people I live near do, no matter what.
I get to wear what I want to work. I can’t remember the last time I had to wear a uniform.
I can eat or pee whenever I feel like it. I don’t need to ask permission or have someone approve it.
I don’t have to punch in or punch out. As long as the work gets done, nobody gives a shit.
The biggest thing, though, is that I don’t come home dirty. Some days I feel mentally shot or brain dead, but I can sit on the couch right away without hearing, “Change your pants before you sit on the good sofa!”
When I worked in the garage, Mom used to make me strip in the yard and march my clothes down to the basement every day. They had to run my clothes through the wash without anyone else’s and we had to run an extra rinse cycle before we did the next load, for fear of damaging the rest of the laundry. I can’t tell you how many days I scarfed down my night meal in the kitchen in my skivvies and socks with clean hands, dirty arms and a naked torso.
When I go into the Kwik Trip in town for gas or a snack on the way to work, I see a lot of people I know do the same thing. The guys with dirt-caked boots, grease-stained Dickies and a worn-out baseball cap. The difference is, this is their life, not a summer job.
The other difference? I probably make three or four times what those guys make and the only surgery I’ve had to endure because of it was bilateral carpal tunnel.
I have friends with fused necks, fake knees and mangled fingers, courtesy of a life on a farm or in a garage.
This election, they came out for the promise of a better personal experience, even as those of us who make our livings on keyboards and televisions told them that Trump wasn’t their guy.
The Country Mouse roared.
“Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”
– Gene Krantz, Apollo 13
I had a chance to sit down Thursday with one of the most insightful and emotionally worldly students I ever taught. She ticks almost all the boxes of things Trump has pissed on this election: She’s black, she’s gay, she’s from a large city, she’s been poor, she has relied on government assistance and she “doesn’t know her place.”
She is my fucking hero. She’s also on the verge of a mental breakdown.
We talked about all sorts of things today in hopes of getting her untracked as she comes ever closer to a December graduation.
Things got better for her at the end of the talk and so I said this:
“I want to ask you a question because you have a better sense of the world than I could ever hope to. If you don’t want to answer it, don’t. And don’t worry about it ever coming up again, but I need to know something if you can tell it to me.”
“Go ahead,” she said, not even flinching for a second.
“OK.” Deep breath. “In your lifetime, have you ever dealt with a straight-up moment or attack from an “ist?”
“Yes. Many times.”
“So here’s the question: How does that compare to how you felt Tuesday watching the election results?”
“A thousand times worse.”
That was exactly how I felt, a sense of betrayal. A sense that I thought I knew all these people who ended up perpetrating the one unforgivable sin.
The truth is, we didn’t.
The reason she felt worse, she told me, was because that old-fashioned, straight-up racism was at least honest. When you saw the guy with the Confederate Flag belt buckle, the “Go back to Africa” shirt and the words “White Power” tattooed down the backs of his arms, you knew that guy was an asshole. You could pick him out, and you stayed away from him. You had no expectations.
This election, we looked at people who we thought were “good people” and found out they cast a vote for someone who embodies everything that guy with the belt buckle displays.
Trump wasn’t a con in that regard. He didn’t hide it. It wasn’t like a JFK-like rumor about Marilyn Monroe or Angie Dickenson.
He told you he was going to grab your pussy before those Mexican rapists got to it.
No ambiguity there.
As Cramer noted, these people weren’t “hoodwinked” into a vote they didn’t understand.
So that’s the problem. How do we solve it?
No fucking clue.
That said, here are a few thoughts to consider before 2020:
- The thing that hurt my student and me (and probably a lot of you) is that these people who voted for Trump were always here. They lived among us. It wasn’t like Trump took a container ship some place and imported 50 million voters from Asshole-istan and took over the country. These people shop with you, eat with you and work with you. Your kids go to the same schools (I found that out when the mother of one of my kid’s friends turned up on a Ron Johnson commercial, bitching about Feingold and Obama.) and you probably wave to each other when you pass on the road.
They’re not going anywhere. We just figured there weren’t as many of them out there as there turned out to be.
Let’s assume for a minute that Hillary Clinton was right when she made her “basket of deplorables” comment: Half of Trump voters are racists, sexists, homophobes and other horrible, vile things. That leaves us with slightly more than 30 million Trump voters outside that basket.
What do we want to do with them?
If the answer is, “Get out the vote next time” that’s akin to seeing a leak in the ceiling and fixing it by using a bigger bucket to catch the drips. Trying to get more of “us” to vote to counteract the surge in “them” doesn’t solve the “they’re here” problem.
- For all the talk about pulling rural knuckle-draggers out of East Shithole-ville, we need to consider the converse. No, I’m not talking about learning the words to “Deutschland erwache” or getting fitted for a white sheet. It’s that kind of thought process that put us in this mess in the first place.
Barbara Ehrenreich touched on this concept in her book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” when she went to work for $7 an hour to see what poverty was like. Linda Tirado took this a step further in “Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America,” as she actually lived the life Ehrenreich visited. However, in both cases, you were looking at survival in larger metro areas.
What’s it like hauling lumber, milking cows, running the town’s only diner or teaching in its only school? How many people out there have never met a person of color, a gay person or any of the other things Trump is shit-talking? I have a hard time believing anyone on the New York Times editorial board goes home smelling like pig shit at the end of the day or waking up unable to move their right arm. It’s easy to say, “You should come to my way of life” if you have never experienced someone else’s.
- Vilifying and castigating people have never, ever led to improvements. When someone tells me I’m bad or stupid, the next thought in my head isn’t usually, “Hey, this guy might be on to something! Let’s listen more closely!” Instead it’s “Fuck you and everyone who looks like you.” I have no idea how best to reach people before the next time we have to play, “Let’s Save the Republic,” but I do know what is happening now sure isn’t it. Telling people “We know better” or “Your way is the wrong way” got us here. It’s that self-assured smugness we all hate in Trump and fans of the New York Yankees. We might be right that we know better or that one way is better than the other. That said, that’s not the answer. We have gotten into a pattern that isn’t helping us connect: We wait for our turn to speak. We don’t listen.
Now, we have to at least consider lending our ears.