When the salt of the Earth turns bitter

Photograph: 'Donald Trump' / Gage Skidmore
Photograph: 'Donald Trump' / Gage Skidmore

I will never forget some of the people I met at a Tea Party Rally in Port Jervis, New York when I was a reporter. In 2009, after the bank bailouts and the financial crisis, during the early days of the movement, before it developed an anti-Obama orthodoxy, I was sent to report on Tea Party rally on a bridge on the Delaware River.

The bridge joined Port Jervis, New York, a mostly white, mostly working-class city and the Borough of Matamoras, Pennsylvania, which has the same demographics.

There was the retired gentleman with a fishing hat with colourful lures dangling from it, with a blow horn, whose pension and social security wasn’t enough for him to eat and afford medication.  He worked part-time at Wal-Mart and was pushing 70. There was the young man with the shrivelled arm who told me he was interested in journalism, and that he had trouble keeping a job. There was the retired teacher worried about her children’s future, who was a registered Democrat (she made sure to tell me), and who bought loose-leaf tea for the symbolic throwing of the tea into the Delaware River. She thought throwing paper teabags in the river might hurt the fish.

Something was wrong, I heard again and again, with the government, with corporations, with banks, with the Federal Reserve, with the bailouts, and the American dream was gone. The complaints were vague, unfocused. At later rallies, people arrived and gave speeches that were standard political boilerplate, hitting on conservative themes that offered less government and lower taxes as solutions.

Many of the rank-and-file protesters, however, just wanted somebody in power to pay attention to them. Life was hard. It seemed like it was getting harder. They had done the right things, stayed in school, got jobs, worked hard, but they didn’t feel rewarded for this. All of ‘them’ were corrupt — the politicians, bankers, CEOs, and, of course, the media. They paid their taxes, but they got nothing back.

They may well have been Trump voters in 2016, and the if they voted in Pennsylvania, they helped to put Donald Trump in the White House. It’s no wonder I’ve been thinking about them.

Their discontent wasn’t that far from my own. I worked in newspapers and wages seemed to be getting lower. Job security was non-existent. Layoffs (redundancies) were common. Yet, I’m alarmed that Trump is president-elect, and I should be. You should be too. It wasn’t that Hillary Clinton was the lesser of two evils; it was that Trump and Clinton were in entirely different categories altogether, and playing by different rules.

The rules Trump was playing by, his own, are full of things Americans in recent years have rejected from political candidates, until now. Ugly things like overt racism and sexism, and, both horrifyingly and amusingly (a typical Trump combination), tweeting insults at 3 a.m. I doubt Mitt Romney would have got away with any of that.

Then there’s the frightening authoritarian tendencies, the admiration of not a democratic leader (that’s a small ‘d’ democrat), but an authoritarian ex-KGB agent, Vladimir Putin, who censors the media, represses decent (possibly by murder) and encourages violence against LGBT people. Really, not a role model.

Trump spoke to people who were ignored. He said, “I am your voice,” at the Republican Convention. And he was. There was a lot of economic populism in Trump speeches that did not get the attention it may have deserved in news reports. It was drowned out by his more sensational nationalism, racism and sexism. Almost none of this economic populism has been turned into concrete policy proposals, however.

Trump not only voiced their suffering, but he also voiced their worst impulses. In a way, people were right, he told the truth, even if he made up facts. Only the truth he told was a shameful one. In fact, many of Trump’s supporters seem to think he’s a terrible person, but they are okay with that. As FDR said about Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

We say we don’t understand these ‘deplorable’ Trump supporters, but I think we do. I think we understand the allure, the power, the sense of recognition one can get by getting on the “Trump Train.”

And what do we who oppose Trump have to offer as an alternative? Honestly, a bland form of managerial liberalism that doesn’t connect. That isn’t Hillary Clinton’s fault; the Democratic Party has been running away from its New Deal roots since before Ronald Reagan took office. Jimmy Carter, who is having the most admirable post-presidency in history, was a fiscal conservative when the president, just like Reagan.

In Listen, Liberals: or, what ever happened to the party of the people? author Thomas Frank argues that the Democratic Party has become a party of professionals, the kind of people with degrees and substantial profiles on LinkedIn. I think this is why a 75-year-old senator from a small New England state who called himself a socialist (though he isn’t, he’s what Europeans would call a social democrat), Bernie Sanders, got so much traction. He brought the party back to the people, particularly young people.

The Democratic Party, much like the Labour Party in Britain, is in danger of becoming a party that believes in nothing, except maybe best practices. That’s not enough to fight the appeal of Trump’s brand of (dare we say it?) American neo-fascism. We don’t know yet if Trump is a full-blown fascist, but we do know he used fascist strategies and rhetoric.

If there ever was a time to regroup and rethink, it’s now. If ever there was a time to stop calling Trump supporters ‘morons’, it’s also now. If ever there was a time to start treating working men and women as adults, which involves both understanding their concerns and calling them out on entrenched racism, it’s now. Now, now, now, before it’s too late.

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