Trump: an emotional voyage

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While France enjoys its burkini summer, you may have noticed the USA is having a little bit of an election thingy. Anyway, I just wanted to pass on this wonderful Mother Jones article giving a humanised look at the core Trump vote. I am no fan of Trump, but there’s a tendency by some left-liberal-inclined people to Other the Trump voter and view them as some sort of lumpen orc-people rather than people whose motivations are explainable in terms of the world they see and experience. Sure the article is mostly anecdote, but there’s a place for this sort of “cross-sectional” analysis. And while the observations made are not new, I rarely see them put forward both so concisely and in such a personal, empathetic way.

The author identifies the “core narrative” of the white working-class Trump supporter/Tea-Partier/whatever, thus:

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

This sort of ressentiment won’t be new to any of the regulars here, and it’s been identified before, but the article places it not as an abstraction but rather in the context of a very real lived experience — but also a psychological and cultural experience, because, after all, why don’t these people take the “line-cutting” opportunities that are even sometimes offered to them?

If you could work, even for pennies, receiving government benefits was a source of shame. It was okay if you were one of the few who really needed it, but not otherwise. Indignation at the overuse of welfare spread, in the minds of tea party supporters I got to know, to the federal government itself, and to state and local agencies. A retired assistant fire chief in Lake Charles told me, “I got told we don’t need an assistant fire chief. A lot of people around here don’t like any public employees, apart from the police.” His wife said, “We were making such low pay that we could have been on food stamps every month and other welfare stuff. And [an official] told our departments that if we went and got food stamps or welfare it would look bad for Lake Charles so that he would fire us.” A public school teacher complained, “I’ve had people tell me, ‘It’s the teachers who need to pass the kids’ tests.’ They have no idea what I know.” A social worker who worked with drug addicts said, “I’ve been told the church should take care of addicts, not the government.” Both receivers and givers of public services were tainted—in the eyes of nearly all I came to know—by the very touch of government.

Sharon especially admired Albert, a middle-aged sheet metal worker who could have used help but was too proud to ask for it. “He’s had open-heart surgery. He’s had stomach surgery. He’s had like eight surgeries. He’s still working, though. He wants to work. He’s got a daughter in jail—her third DUI, so he’s raising her son—and this and that. But he doesn’t want anything from the government. He’s such a neat guy.” There was no mention of the need for a good alcoholism rehab program for his daughter or after-school programs for his grandson. Until a few days before his death Albert continued working, head high, shame-free.

Sharon was a giving person, but she wanted to roll back government help. It was hard supporting her kids and being a good mom too. Managing the trailer park had called on her grit, determination, even hardness—which she regretted. She mused, “Having to cope, run the trailer court, even threaten to shoot a dog”—her tenant’s pet had endangered children—“it’s hardened me, made me act like a man. I hate that. It’s not really me.” There was a price for doing the right and necessary thing, invisible, she felt, to many liberals.

But the author still eventually reveals her own distance from the subject she is writing about:
To try to understand the tea party supporters I came to know—I interviewed 60 people in all—over the next five years I did a lot of “visiting,” as they call it.

I found the scare quotes around the concept of visiting rather odd, myself, isn’t it a conventional use? But even among Trump voters, there’s a subtle class divide:
Trump, the King of Shame, has covertly come to the rescue. He has shamed virtually every line-cutting group in the Deep Story—women, people of color, the disabled, immigrants, refugees. But he’s hardly uttered a single bad word about unemployment insurance, food stamps, or Medicaid, or what the tea party calls “big government handouts,” for anyone—including blue-collar white men.

In this feint, Trump solves a white male problem of pride. Benefits? If you need them, okay. He masculinizes it. You can be “high energy” macho—and yet may need to apply for a government benefit. As one auto mechanic told me, “Why not? Trump’s for that. If you use food stamps because you’re working a low-wage job, you don’t want someone looking down their nose at you.” A lady at an after-church lunch said, “If you have a young dad who’s working full time but can’t make it, if you’re an American-born worker, can’t make it, and not having a slew of kids, okay. For any conservative, that is fine.”

But to me the most unique, if not important take-away from the article is that Trump is telling a story that much of the white American mainstream has felt they either couldn’t utter or wasn’t heard, and this is a deep portion of his emotional appeal. Oh, there’s lots of left-wing people with probably-correct technical analyses of class interest and so on and so forth, free trade and what have you. But to many people, it must sound like someone else imposing another narrative upon their lived experience. Their lived experience includes the personal connection that Sharon has, as a sort of economically precarious “manor lady”/slumlord, to her “peasants” in the trailer park she once owned, which may not necessarily entirely fit the caricature most people imagine. It includes their sense of having waited in line, of proudly dying in their jobs — who can talk to them about minority suffering and white privilege after that? Sure there are the occasional Republican society ladies angry about being given the side eye for having the luxury to be a stay-at-home mother, and that’s doubtless privilege incarnate.

I’m not making an argument here. I’m not arguing for people to agree with their self-image of having waited patiently in line while the undeserving took priority. But I am saying that their demand that you still try to see the world through their eyes is not one you can easily ignore, even if you feel that their demand is presumptuous, which, yes, if you’re a black kid terrified of the policemen who are drawn from these very classes of people, would be quite true —- it is presumptuous in that way. But nevertheless, it’s a weight on the political scale, and pretending that there’s nothing to empathize with is simply not realistic.

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This page contains a single entry by Mandos published on August 25, 2016 5:51 AM.

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