Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Worst in Us

There was a time when work on an automotive assembly line, in a coal mine, a steel mill or a lumber yard – often with strong union support – generated a solid wage, and even a ticket to the lower rungs of the American middle class. A small house. A car or two. Vacations by the shore. Public schools were good enough. Generations passed through the system. You worked hard, but you had a comfortable life. That was when, for those American workers, mostly white, America was “great.”
And then America stopped being “great,” as Wall Street’s “funny money” rolled in, fomenting mergers and acquisitions, effecting new efficiencies, shutting down some plants, introducing “productivity enhancements” – from automation to reworking how jobs were done. Globalization, which brought inexpensive consumer goods and cool cars to everyone, also brought cheaper versions of what America was once “great” at doing. 
Layoffs. Plant closures. Whole towns watched their real estate prices collapse. Mortgages underwater. The Great Recession. Wall Street’s fault. Bankruptcies – from Chrysler and GM to local factories and mines. Dirty energy was out. Green was in. And anyway, coal was too expensive; it was an industry in decline since the 1920s. Natural gas was equally abundant, cheaper and cleaner. Wall Street was richer than ever before. Working Americans had never earned less – measured in true buying power. Income inequality reigned supreme.
Those working class Americans wanted those cheaper imports; America was addicted… but they wanted their particular jobs protected. They wanted trade barriers, without understanding how reciprocity would slam American exports… resulting in more job cuts. They never needed college degrees before and their educational system, their strong working class values, didn’t look favorably at the educated “elites” that took away their “greatness.” As tuition and student loans skyrocketed, getting those degrees was elusive… and for middle-aged or older workers, not a viable going-forward option. Desperation.
Once staunch union members and standard-bearers for the Democratic Party, these white and now former members of the middle class were seething. They watched their lives fritter away, the relevance marginalized, particularly as a result of the Great Recession. That this economic downturn began during a two-term Republican president didn’t matter. When the biggest part of the recession hit, they looked up… a black Democrat was president. It was his fault. They left the Democratic Party in droves, supporting Mitt Romney against Barack Obama.
And when Donald Trump uttered the slogan, “make America great again,” that had one, absolutely clear meaning: Trump would undo all of the elements that marginalized their old jobs, restore an economy where they could “go back” and earn what their American Dream had once given them. Some were Evangelicals, but for most, it was not about God, gays or guns. It was about getting them back to a standard and quality of life that their parents enjoyed, and, for the older workers amongst them, what they had before modernity messed up their plans. Great wasn’t about military power or global esteem; it was about returning to a time where these workers had a “great” life.
That the Donald was a bully only told them he would do whatever it takes to decimate those who took those jobs away. Yale Law grad and Silicon Valley Maven, J.D. Vance – who rose from those humble roots – authored Hillbilly Elegy to explain those attitudes… the craving, the belief, that returning to those fat earning years was completely doable, notwithstanding the ravages and changes of time. America could be great without “them.” As their lives, their communities and even entire cities and towns melted in the downturns, anger and bitterness accelerated.
“There are decaying post-industrial Middletowns all over the map. In 1970, Vance notes, 25 percent of white children lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates above 10 percent. By 2000 the figure had risen to 40 percent, and Vance believes it is higher today. The life expectancy for Vance’s people is declining.
“Trump’s promises to stand up to the Chinese are resonating, as is his message that ‘the system is rigged’ against a proud group of Americans, Americans who built the postwar glory but now feel they’re being ignored or outright mocked. White trash is the one ethnic group it is still OK to make fun of.
“‘Humans appear to have some need to look down on someone; there’s just a basic tribalistic impulse in all of us,’ Vance recently told The American Conservative. ‘And if you’re an elite white professional, working-class whites are an easy target: You don’t have to feel guilty for being a racist or a xenophobe. By looking down on the hillbilly, you can get that high of self-righteousness and superiority without violating any of the moral norms of your own tribe.’
“Mapping the politics of Vance’s clannish, resentful neighbors is challenging, even exasperating. Hillbillies pride themselves on distinguishing the deserving poor from the lazy moochers, but Vance points out that it’s a fuzzy line. His grandmother would lash out at the government for doing too much, then for doing too little. She’d ask why society could afford aircraft carriers but not enough drug-rehab centers. She’d complain that the rich weren’t paying their fair share. But she and J.D. would be just as angry at people who paid for T-bone steaks with food stamps and hated the idea of the government using Section 8 housing vouchers so that poor people could move in next door — poor people ‘like us,’ Vance says. She’d say people wouldn’t have so many problems if they were forced to work for their benefit checks.” New York Post, July 30th.
These once-productive Americans were ready to fight back… Anyone who was part of the establishment political system was the enemy. To them, outsider Donald Trump understood “all things economic.” He agreed with them. He repeated their fears and catered to their unyielding belief that he was the only one able to unravel the present and return them to their former lives. He took on those draining the economy – in their eyes “welfare-dependent” blacks, criminal Latinos who took away many of those jobs, and those horrible “Muslims” attacking their most basic values – with merciless vituperatives.
The more politically incorrect Donald got, the more they believed he was the man for the job of taking “them” out. Law and order would teach “them” a lesson. He would unrig the system, slam those nasty foreign economies and restore what they believed could happen if only a president was unrestrained in attacking “them.” They had their political pit bull.
Being a bully, calling people names, taking extreme positions, and being rather callous about insulting individual human beings for traits well beyond their control were legitimate tools to take the system back to “greatness” (their view of “greatness” anyway). And the less education you have, the less you understand the irretrievability of change, the more attractive Trump’s impossible promises seem. The down and dirty voting realities tell us that Hillary Clinton, unpopular even without her “insider” status, is particularly vulnerable to this rising anger.
“White voters without a college degree have favored Republicans for some time — they voted for Mitt Romney by 18 points in 2012 — but they love Donald Trump. In an average of six polls this month, he is beating Clinton by a margin of 58 to 30 among these voters. The massive swing of white working-class voters, who made up 44 percent of the electorate in 2012, could more than cancel out her strengths among minorities and the college-educated.” New York Post.
The brusquer Trump gets, the more his base rejoices; he’s fighting the nasty incumbents from both sides of the aisle who are part of the conspiracy that decimated the earning power of those white workers without college degrees. They really believe him when he tells them (at a recent Ohio rally), "I'm afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest.” By the same people who rigged their lives, to make more money for themselves, and cost these workers their precious earning power, perhaps?
There are more than a few folks who believe Democrats who think Trump is unelectable just don’t get his supporters. Even in England. Take BBC presenter Katty Kay (BBC.com, July 29th): “Few people in the British establishment thought Britain would really vote to leave the EU. Even in the Leave campaign didn't really think it would happen.
“Democrats, by the way, think that now the conventions are over, people will shift from the angry protest mode to a sober decision mode… The Clinton campaign elite that partied at the convention tends to live and operate in the rarefied world of the east and west coasts of the US. They don't spend a lot of time in the small towns of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia that will decide this election.
“These are towns where a lot of people hate Hillary Clinton, really, really hate her. They may be underestimating the strength of that antipathy… The Democrats are confident, they'd do well not to get cocky.”
And remember, for these disenfranchised workers, it is all about their wallets… reminding us that “it’s the economy, stupid.” That Donald Trump brings out the worst in us… is a small price for such voters to pay for getting America back to the pre-1980 era… notwithstanding that we tell our kids that bullying and name-calling are unacceptable behavior. Even if going back in time will never, never, never happen. But the rest of us still need to understand their pain.
I’m Peter Dekom, and that the Donald’s promises would require a time machine, that world is irretrievably interconnected and is looking very negatively at Trump’s view of the world, are irrelevant to those who have little else in their lives but a belief that they can go back in time… to be “great” again.

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