Article – What Comes Next?
What comes next?
For the past two months, the big story has been Donald Trump. Most commentators felt he was doomed to fail in his presidential bid (just as many in the UK felt Brexit was destined to be rejected). As with the UK, I think the outcome revealed a failure to look outside the rather closed circle of like-minded Democrat supporters and sympathisers that many of us inhabit.
In a sense, I was lucky. I moderate a discussion group here in Winston Salem (rather like the Senior Roundtable that I ran for ten years in Melbourne, before I left for these sunny climes!). Back in October, one of our members suggested we discuss an article about ‘Hillbilly Elegy’, a book published earlier in the year by J D Vance. It led me to read the book, and to begin to recognise that Trump was speaking to an unfamiliar but large constituency, and could be much closer to winning the Presidency than almost all the opinion polls were suggesting. Certainly, what Vance certainly revealed was the limit to understanding that comes from talking to – and listening to – only those people like yourself.
J D Vance is Republican, and makes no bones about it. Nonetheless, in a recent article he did admit his admiration for Barack Obama. He’s right: whatever your political sympathies, I hope you would agree that Obama is one of the most decent, thoughtful, principled and honourable individuals ever to occupy a position of political leadership – just read his 2015 eulogy to the Reverend Clementa Pinckney and the eight other victims following the massacre at her church in Charleston. Even better, watch the speech on YouTube, one of the many times he addressed the country on mass killings by a gunman (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rRvBzzR5tdA).
However, in Hillbilly Elegy Vance wasn’t talking about Obama, but rather about his family and the people with whom he grew up in southeastern Kentucky. This extract is from an interview with Vance and gives a good introduction to his experiences: the question is asked by Rod Dreher in an article for The American Conservative, back in July 2016, under the heading ‘Trump: Tribune of Poor White People’. Of course, everyone is talking about these reasons for Trump’s success now, but remember, this was about a book published early in 2016:
“A friend who moved to West Virginia a couple of years ago tells me that she’s never seen poverty and hopelessness like what’s common there. And she says you can drive through the poorest parts of the state, and see nothing but TRUMP signs. Reading “Hillbilly Elegy” tells me why. Explain it to people who haven’t yet read your book.
J.D. VANCE: The simple answer is that these people–my people–are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time. Donald Trump at least tries.
What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by. Heroin addiction is rampant. In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes. The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a “stepdad” only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit (or at least in the home of an unofficial foster like an aunt or grandparent), watch friends and family get arrested, and on and on. And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.
The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades. From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank (more on that below). Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.
From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth. Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth (and I believe there are many), the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis. More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.
Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears. He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas. His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground. He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.
The last point I’ll make about Trump is this: these people, his voters, are proud. A big chunk of the white working class has deep roots in Appalachia, and the Scots-Irish honor culture is alive and well. We were taught to raise our fists to anyone who insulted our mother. I probably got in a half dozen fights when I was six years old. Unsurprisingly, southern, rural whites enlist in the military at a disproportionate rate. Can you imagine the humiliation these people feel at the successive failures of Bush/Obama foreign policy? My military service is the thing I’m most proud of, but when I think of everything happening in the Middle East, I can’t help but tell myself: I wish we would have achieved some sort of lasting victory. No one touched that subject before Trump, especially not in the Republican Party.”
The discontent Vance describes was evident. If you travelled away from the cities, you could see Trump signs everywhere (and there were some even here in Pfafftown). So, should we have been surprised by the outcome? Linda and I went to a celebration party for Clinton on Election Night: if I had my doubts before the night, the outcome was clear an hour after polls closed, even though most at the party didn’t believe it. We left early: wakes can be depressing.
Many others had written well before the many and rather excruciatingly prolonged analyses that have been pouring out since November 10. I am going to include another quote, and this one is from Richard Rorty’s 1998 book, ‘Achieving our Country’. Rorty, a philosopher of the right and who died in 2007, was writing about what he saw as the left’s loss of national pride. However, his comments hit home in many other respects:
“Members of labor unions, and unorganized and unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots … Once the strongman takes office, no one can predict what will happen.”
For readers of this who are not in the USA, a little bit of information, to provide some facts about the election and the source of much of the reams of material dissecting what happened in the polling booths. Here are some interesting facts (please note, to simplify I am rounding figures, but these make miniscule change to the percentages I am about to report).
To begin: the voting age population for the November 2016 election was just over 251m (of whom many were unable to register, in many cases because of discriminatory rules and other barriers in many of the States: by the way, that number could be as high as 50m). Of the voting age population, the actual voting percentage was 54.4%: as you know, voting is not compulsory in the US. Donald Trump received 63m votes, and Hillary Clinton 66m. A little bit of simple maths shows Trump received just under 25% of the possible vote: the total vote declined a little from 2012, and significantly from 2008 (when Obama was elected for the first time). Within the overall number of people who did vote were some interesting trends. There was a drop in the urban vote and an increase in the rural vote, an increase which most commentators put down to a significant higher level of participation by older and less well educated white voters, both males and females. Interpret all that as you will – you’ll be joining hundreds writing their examinations of “what and why”, and thousands more talking about what happened!!
Enough about reading the signs. The election is over, and today the issue is different: whatever the reasons, Donald Trump is the next President, and the topic to be examined in the current environment is ‘what does that mean’?
First up, Trump is smart: he is quick to pick up on peoples’ hopes and fears, and plays to them. His style comes over as assertive and combative. Reports suggest he seems to say what he believes at the time, and ignores facts. Although he occasionally goes too far, he usually says things that are just on the edge of true and acceptable, and quite happily backtracks and finds another dramatic observation if he is shown to be wrong. He is a master of the effective use of Twitter. He has no difficulty with saying one thing, and then two days later (or event ten minutes later) saying the opposite (as one joke put it recently: “What do Donald Trump and a porn star have in common? They are both experts at switching positions in front of a camera.”). The unsympathetic part of the press and media portrays him as a liar, but I think he might better be described as evasive, clever at using the technique of ‘bait and switch’.
At the same time, we know he is a bully, a braggart, and very thin-skinned. You might have seen the comments made by Meryl Streep at the recent Golden Globes awards. As soon as her comments were known, he rounded on her, and then on Hollywood (he is very sensitive about the large number of people in entertainment who do not want to appear or attend the inauguration). That reminded him of all the things he said about Hillary Clinton, (after all, the Clintons are the same as the Obamas, greatly liked by entertainers of all sorts), and so, for good measure we have been subjected to another round of tweets with a reminder that she is “as guilty as hell”. Good to fire up his supporters, deflecting attention away from Hollywood, and, as usual, conspicuously short in providing any explanation of what she is ‘guilty’.
What else do we know? For his business, his market has been rich people, and he is a friend to, and possibly slightly in awe of, the very rich. He has put together an administration of largely ultra-conservative people (including several who are certainly rich). But having said that, no one yet knows what he and his administration will do. Repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), and replace it with a more commercially driven medical insurance system? Almost certainly – it is the one thing that seems to keep the Republicans together. Push the country backwards in terms of social policies? Probably. Given even more scope and power to (big) business? Very likely. Try to push back the rights of women, gays, African Americans, and dispel the views of progressive thinkers? Could well be. All I can say in this newsletter is “watch this space”, because studying what happens in the USA in the next couple of years is going to be important, fascinating, and telling; there are other countries going down a similar path.
Before you all start to get worried, let me make one other observation. Presidents can’t do much (look at the constant frustrations Obama faced in trying to further his agenda, although some of those might have been a result of his own inexperience in managing Congress); Congress can do some things, but Congressmen, Congresswomen and Senators want to be re-elected. In the USA, it is the States who control a lot of the agenda. But most important right now is the Supreme Court: currently balanced – with four liberals and four conservatives – and a fifth conservative about to be added by the incoming President. The Supreme Court will be faced with some landmark decisions, and its response to these will matter. Appointments to the Supreme Court in the next couple of years will have greater impact over many more years than anything Trump achieves.
So, as a thinking, intelligent citizen concerned about what you see as important issues, what should you do? In summary, you should do what you should always have been doing: you should be engaged, thoughtful and responsive, whatever your underlying political preferences. What does that mean? Well, the Tea Party, once the vibrant voice of the far right, gives us some helpful lessons.
Their first lesson was about awareness. To be engaged is to remind you to pay attention to what is going on. We live in a world of talking heads (so many of them), media opinions, and, increasingly, false stories. Keep an eye on what is happening, and never – never – take the first comment as a good guide. Look for information that corroborates or disproves what is being said. It is still possible to sift out the truth, although I would concede it is getting harder. Focus on the truths that matter to you.
Their second lesson was analysis: whoever would have thought I would write about the Tea Party being analytical! Analysis is not neutral. Analysis is about looking at what is going on, and making sense of it in terms of your predispositions, preferences and aspirations. Assessing what you can see from your point of view and being thoughtful is the core of all this. Have you carefully examined what is being proposed? What are the weaknesses in the arguments being used? Why would anyone care about the issues? Bear in mind that arguing against is often easier than arguing for a proposition, something in which the Tea Party excelled.
The third and most important of the Tea Party lessons is about action. They achieved change because they were unrelenting on harassing representatives at every level of government. Responsive reminds us that there is considerable danger in just being a thinker. If an issue concerns you, let your Senator of Congressman/woman know. They want to be re-elected, and that means they do pay attention to feedback. But responsive also means that you choose to respond on issues that matter. You do have a voice, and even if it is only a voice used in a telephone call to an elected representative, it matters. More voices on the key issues can influence governments: in the current environment, marches and protests achieve little, as you can see from the way Trump scoffs at them. But a campaign of calls to your member of Congress or the Senate, your local member, can and does have an impact.
What am I trying to say? We have a new President who demonstrates many highly undesirable traits and behaviours. We have an extremely conservative Congress and administration that have pushed themselves into a position where they must make radical changes to satisfy the electorate that put them in place. You can be a spectator, and complain to your friends about what is happening, a political couch potato if you like. Alternatively, you can exercise your democratic rights, precious as they are, and be active; it is making the choice to act on those policies and practices that are critical for the future, for you, and for the generations that follow you.
It is said there is an old Chinese curse: “may you live in interesting times”. Let’s keep life interesting for elected representatives, in the USA, and everywhere else!!