I am fascinated with the presidential campaign. I wish I wasn’t. I spend too many hours watching coverage, speeches, debates, town halls, reading news article and taking any other opportunity to see the candidates speak, debate and disparage each other.
I am not a Trump fan. But I do find him to be interesting in the way I find all bombastic salesmen interesting. Their ability to choose their values within the moment, without hesitation or shame, always interests me. I am intellectually fascinated by the way they use willful dishonesty in making the sale but are simultaneously sincere in their belief that making the sale is the core of their goodness and at the very root of their self-esteem. They don’t care to hear what is wanted or needed outside of where that connects with the features of the product they’re selling.
I believe that is why Donald Trump seemed to all but ignore the fact that there was an Olympics going on. It did not promote his product of a broken America. Lots of great athletes doing great things wearing red, white, and blue. People achieving, winning and draped in American flags. It reminded me of a story I heard about an old pro golfer who when asked by a television reporter about an outstanding shot by an opponent said, “Why should I care, it didn’t help my score.”
Trump knows he’s preaching prosperity religion to poor, uneducated whites. He knows their fears, the ones borne of their lack of education, their lack of exposure to the world outside their impoverished communities, the shrinking white worlds many of us grew up in but which have become relics of a bygone era, a comfortable white era no doubt.
Trump has seized on the Angry White Man complex. It is best characterized by a man who lived in my apartment complex no long ago who had been laid off by a Campbell’s soup company. The soup company was moving its operations out-of-state to lower costs, it moved its operations to North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas where business taxes are more favorable, cost of living is lower, and where at least Texas is a right to work state where as such, unions are compromised.
The man worked as a janitor for over 20 years, a union janitor. He made over $20 an hour in that job. He was well paid enough to drive a decent truck, have an apartment and so on. He suddenly found himself given a pink slip and an early retirement. He began looking for work and found that his job skills in the rest of the working world paid a lot less than he was accustomed to earning. He was disillusioned, angry and not afraid to tell everyone about it. He moved after a long, fruitless search for another $20+ an hour job, and I am pretty certain that if he were here still he would tell me that he is supporting Trump.
That man is about my age. Born in the late 50’s and growing up in the 60’s and 70’s we are a unique breed of American. We grew up in the Autumn of white comfort, that brief period between the end of the Second World War and the end of innocence that I see as an aggregation of events. The assassinations of JFK, MLK, and Bobby; the Vietnam War, Watergate, the oil embargo and gasoline shortages, the 70’s recession.
My early childhood was a Hollywood movie, it was a weaving of Ozzie and Harriet, Mary Poppins, Father Knows Best. Our neighborhood was safe, doors weren’t locked, keys were left in the car, Christmas lights were on every house, most stores were closed on Sunday and everyone went to Church. School started the day after Labor Day and ended around June 1 and we were free to run the safe world unsupervised all summer. It was a good world. Dad worked and we got a two week vacation in the station wagon every year.
The problem with many uneducated whites today is that they hold on to that Disney-esque reality of their childhood as if it were Valhalla instead of what it actually was, a world built around a narrow set of norms and values that did not represent the real world, it was a façade of the real world we actually lived in, all wallpapered over in bright green and gold paisley prints. Behind the wallpaper and the closed doors and across the neighbor’s fence were all of the societal features, problems and challenges we now talk about openly.
In the 60’s if you didn’t talk about it, it did not exist. Homosexuality was a fringe bunch of perverts who run around in dark places doing awful things. When in fact our neighbor, married to a nice woman, was closeted and trying his best to live as a straight man to fit in to the plastic world the white society created. Alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic abuse, racism, bigotry all existed and were part of the fabric of our lives, but since we were all white, we all just accepted it as the norm, because it was the norm. Is it any wonder that someone like Clint Eastwood says things like “Get over it, it used to be no big deal.” He’s right that it wasn’t a big deal when we chose sides in a game by eeny meeny minie moe, catch a n……er by the toe, if he hollers let him go… Yes, that was the norm, no big deal to a group of white kids who’d never met a black child, did not go to school with a black child, whose parents knew no black people, whose church included no black people. We lived in a white bubble.
We had and have advantages as white people that gave us jobs as janitors that earned $20+ dollars an hour. We earned enough to be comfortable. A living wage kept us happy. The wealthy and the politicians that work for them are now scrambling to find a way to bring that living wage back into being now that the unions have collapsed and the wealth has concentrated, and the wealthy do not want to spread it (trickle it) downward. Politicians recognize that without a living wage that gives people like the man I knew from Campbell’s a decent standard of living as we in this country understand it, people get unhappy, dissatisfied, possibly even revolutionary.
Some white people want that white bubble back. That’s what Donald Trump implicitly promises. He is making the sale with millions of angry middle-aged white people.The problem I see is that he can sell it, but he just can’t deliver it. He cannot take this country back to the 60’s like he says he can because economically you have to be inclusive, minority people are no longer the minority in many areas and are no longer ignorant to the willful, systemic racism that kept them in poverty and most whites just above it.
Ours was a comfortable white world, but it was in some ways, certainly not in all, a false one that benefited from the subjugation of others for our comfort and advantage, and too many of us know it now, and we reject those parts of it that caused harm to others. But we white people who grew up in the cradle of the post-war boom continue to yearn for the safety, the lack of crime, opportunity, the peace of a world where positive expectations were the norm and the American dream was a real thing that motivated students and workers alike.
I reject Donald Trump’s sales pitch because it is only that; and the product he’s selling – a great, safe, white man’s privileged bubble of American prosperity – is false now and it was fundamentally false in the 60’s. Donald Trump sees the opportunity to make a sale. But what is wanted by his angry white followers is certainly not what is needed by the country, and he cannot deliver it because it does not exist today, and it cannot be recreated.