It’s been a long while since I sat down at the computer to put my thoughts down. I’ve been unable to focus, unable to form coherent thoughts about what is happening and unsure if I had anything reasonable to add. This past year has sort of stripped me of the words and thoughts to describe it. It is not a year, growing up as I did, that I was prepared for. I’m just a kid from the suburbs, who went off to college, got a bit more radicalized than my peers and came to believe that we could understand the world if we studied, trusted experts, and acted slowly and methodically.
Yet in the last four years (and before) I watched as that belief system got challenged. People genuinely don’t trust experts, think they have hidden agendas, and even the studies are flawed. Some of it was reactionary for sure, a reflex to embrace the sort of hard lines traditional conservatives took as a sort of tonic to what they were watching on television. But I don’t think that the many people I grew up with are as bad as many people on the left portray them to be. Likewise I don’t think it is the job of oppressed peoples to explain the nature and effects of that oppression to their oppressors or their accomplices. They’ve been talking about it for hundreds (if not longer) of years and yet our perceptions of them and their material conditions have not improved. So I’m left with this task. How do I communicate to my peers (middle class, cis-gendered, white) the world we’ve created and how that has impacted others not like us and why we need to make it work for them, and by extension everyone, better?
When I talk about my background I’m going to just plant two facts: one, my great grandfather, Samuel “Wat” Arnold, was a Republican Congressman from Missouri representing the 1st District from 1943–1949 (the same district that just elected Cori Bush-an unapologetic progressive), and two, when I was 19 years old I voted in my first presidential election. I, like 60% of the country and all but one of the states, voted for Ronald Reagan. These two facts are not just dropped here as a way of trying to beg forgiveness from my more liberal friends but as a way of highlighting that people over time can change.
In wrapping my mind around what this latest election cycle has done, I started with a basic question: how could seventy million people vote for Donald Trump? I know there are a lot of answers to that question but I want to see if I can tease out a larger exploration. In talking about this I may stray dangerously close to some of the favored narratives that demonizes his supporters and lets them off the hook. That is not my intent. Despite his protestations to the contrary, I do think Trump is a racist. But I don’t think he is any more racist than most of white America (myself included). When I hear Trump say, “I am the least racist person in this room….” I don’t see it as someone who just doesn’t get the nuances of how the left and the right are defining that term but as someone, honestly, who doesn’t really care about anybody but himself. He can’t be racist because he divides the world as those who can help versus those who can hinder him and race or sex do not make a difference. He’s no more racist than the rest of America.
At the end of the day, he’s a narcissist and will use whomever and whatever to feed his own ego and gratification. He basically pretty much just loves himself. In that light you start to understand his behavior: the fake tan and comb-over, the COVID spreading rallies, the surrounding himself with people who are going to reinforce his worldview, and the simply weird pronouncements, “Four or five months ago when we started this whole thing — because, you know, before the plague came in, I had it made. I wasn’t coming to Erie. I mean, I have to be honest, there’s no way I was coming.” He was candid in a way that a “traditional” politician can’t be, and many of his supporters loved that. Yet many of his supporters started to see through the bluster, the norm busting, as an even more extreme bullshit as evidenced by his losing Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. They thought he would have their back and ultimately he didn’t.
And his supporters are still mad. They are mad because when “Hope and Change” Obama came in during the financial crisis he bailed out the banks and they lost their homes. Obama didn’t move aggressively enough to keep their factory open (even though the prevailing corporate governance and global economy pushed many companies to move away). Without a congress willing to radically change corporate governance, media consolidation, and Silicon Valley being largely unregulated the Obama we voted for became merely a visible symbol to feel better about ourselves even though he governed not all that differently than George W. or Bill Clinton before him. We wanted change and when we didn’t get it from Obama many flipped to Trump because he “appeared” as if he’d be willing to buck the status quo.
Turns out, he wasn’t. He tried on some measures (tariffs on Chinese imports) but those measures were so short sighted that not only did these companies pass on the cost to consumers but that the Federal Government has bailed out the Midwest farmers in record numbers. Contrary to some beliefs, these are not people who are looking for a “hand out,” rather they just want a fair shake, a government that sees their intrinsic value as small businesses and rewards them so that they can be competitive. And of course, imposing tariff’s is something the President can do, unilaterally, and didn’t require him to work with Congress at all.
After he lost control of the House, considering that most of the country did not vote for him, there was absolutely no incentive for them to work with him. Unless his approval rating started to go up, the opposition could fight him on every initiative and use him as a convenient excuse for why things weren’t getting done. And his own ego gratification only made that worse.
Why would any conscientious liberal work with a man who called marchers carrying lit torches and chanting, “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville “fine” people? Trump’s norm busting meant he didn’t speak like a politician and his supporters knew what he meant even if he didn’t exactly say it. He had a case of “foot in mouth” disease that endeared him to his supporters and positively drove liberals crazy. To the managers and professionals who are increasingly becoming more and more Democratic, words matter. And we, somehow, elected a President (defined as the person in charge of the largest bureaucracy in the world-an uber-manager if you will) who didn’t get that, who seemed to relish in pissing us off.
It’s no way to run a country, and it increasingly looks like we are two countries: an increasingly diverse suburban/urban country where government has to function to control crime, remove trash, keep infrastructure working, public schools teaching, and hospitals healing, and a rural country where more often than not your interaction with the government is in telling you what you can’t do: grazing on public lands, developing your own property, regulating what steps you could take to protect what is yours, etc. Increasingly we have a urban/suburban country that says, “It’s broken and we need to fix it and this is how,” and a rural country that says, “Why are you trying to fix what isn’t broken? What’s broken is this, but you don’t want to fix it or don’t know how.”
So where are we now? How do we go about healing the rifts that one unfit man exposed in our country? I don’t have an easy answer; I don’t think there is one. I do know that simply writing off a little less than half the country as racist, as misogynist, as xenophobic, as stupid, as unamerican is not going to work. I think the first place to start might be in how we talk to and about each other. As a poet, I know that words matter.
We can start by talking to each other. We share the same physical space (the old United States) and we need to commit to solving our problems collectively and listening to each other. Instead of letting our “dishonest” media define and other us, we should try and get to know a conservative, a Trump supporter, a Biden supporter, a liberal and see them as Americans first. We may not agree with their worldview but we have to value their right to have it. Democracy may never be perfect and as we reflect on what really happened on November 3rd, let’s keep this Churchill quote in mind, “…No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”
November 9th, 2020