Sunday, November 27, 2016

Getting out of grief in Trump country

In those first miserable days after the election, we progressives spent the beginning stages of our grief torturing ourselves with hindsight. We allowed that Clinton was the wrong candidate. We asked ourselves if we lived in a bubble. We self-flagellated late into the night, wincing with each cleansing lash of the whip—for being so out of touch, for being so wrong, for abandoning sixty million voters.

I went through this stage as well. I was shocked that Trump won. He’s just so vile. So obviously unqualified. So patently full of shit. Have I, too, been living too much in my own bubble? Am I missing something?!

I’ve since emerged from the soul-searching stage with clear eyes and far less patience for all the navel-gazing and self-loathing (though I think this has been a good and necessary stage for the Democratic Party to go through).

In short, I think we need to stop thinking of Clinton as a flawed candidate when the real problem is with Trump’s flawed voters.

We are in denial about this group of voters. We progressives are so understanding and empathetic that oftentimes plain truths cannot be seen through the fog of our own moral relativism. We believe it’s all about their economic struggle. Their jobs shipped to other countries. Their disappearing mining jobs. These, no doubt, are serious and legitimate factors that affect how these people think, act, and vote, but they’re only half of the story. These voters are also driven by factors far more hideous than rational economic self interest—they’re driven by “identity politics,” a euphemism whose dull syllables hide a fire-breathing religion, sociopathic racial and class resentment, and a baseless paranoia about everything from our Kenyan leader to Hillary’s emails to the giant magnetic crane coming to snap up everyone’s guns—all neatly stoked by fake news and rightwing propaganda.*

I do not write this from one of those much-maligned East Coast liberal bubbles. I write this from Stokes County, North Carolina, where I’ve lived off and on for the past six years. In Stokes, 76 percent of voters voted for Trump. Two houses to the left of me, a neighbor waves a Confederate flag (in the middle of which, oddly, is a picture of a bass). Two houses to the right of me, a neighbor (who rides his truck with his Trump/Pence bumper sticker to fire his weapons all afternoon) erected a gate over our road and hung a wooden cutout of an assault rifle painted in black.

On the week leading up to the election, I volunteered for the local Democratic Party to be a designated poll observer and to hand out flyers supporting local Democrats running for office. In front of one polling station, a friend of a Republican candidate went up to the candidate and cordially remarked, “I can get anyone to come out and vote for you, except the niggers.” One of the Democrats running for office (a very sweet, soft-spoken gentleman) was approached by a Trump supporter who called him a “baby killer,” which escalated into a heated verbal confrontation. In King, North Carolina, an Afghanistan veteran holding a “Veterans Against Trump” sign outside of the American Legion polling place was struck by a car. Let me repeat that: a Trump supporter used his car to assault a person he disagreed with. The driver opened the door and yelled out, “What were you in, the gay guard?”

In the local newspaper, we have a local pundit who writes letters to the editor once a month that are so regular and so long they’re more like commissioned Op-Eds. With a strange penchant for 18th Century-style capitalized nouns and a curious fascination with same-sex marriage and transgender-friendly bathrooms, he writes hateful gobbledygook like this for us each month:
The same-sex unions, which some call marriage, are fraud; not truth, since truth does not change, it is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Same-sex unions have been illegal for thousands of years: since the commands of law. Marriage has been defined from the beginning, as between one man and one woman. Right and Wrong cannot logically be reasoned equal by any honest person, nor can one say definitions that are different, are the same for marriage.
This isn’t just some looney uncle with fringe beliefs who we all roll our eyes at when he talks in public forums. This guy actually has influence over our county commissioners, who’ve passed resolutions in favor of ending gay marriage and North Carolina’s odious HB2 bill that discriminates against transgender people.

To round out my “rural-living” cred, let me add that I’ve lived in rural Alaska, rural Nebraska, rural Utah, next to Jerry Falwell’s church in Lynchburg, Virginia, and I spent 4.5 months walking across the reddest, most conservative section of America—the “flyover country,” which voted for Trump in large numbers. (I come to these places more for the scenery and inexpensive rent than the politics.)

The people around me, the people I watched fill out their ballots, may have convinced themselves that they were voting for Trump out of love of God and country, but often behind this thin surface of do-gooding decency is something far uglier, and we need to stop mincing our words and pulling punches when describing it: it’s hatred, it’s racism, it’s horse shit.

When I walked across the Great Plains talking with folks about climate change, I did not have rational discussions with folks in which we presented facts, confessed our ignorance to some issues, and engaged in healthy intellectual dialogues. It was more like this: they’d spew nonsense while I politely listened. From Trespassing across America:
Each person spoke to me as if they were doing me some great service, as if they were imparting sage wisdom from ancient texts. But more often than not, I saw that they were propagandized, only regurgitating rumors they’d heard at the local cafĂ© or half-remembered falsehoods they saw on the TV. They talked in absolutes, spoke expertly on every issue, and rarely if ever would you hear someone say, “Well, I guess I don’t know much about that.” They weren’t free-thinking men, but stone tablets onto which dogma had etched its wicked creed.

When I started this trip, I wondered if I had been living too much in a bubble. Perhaps I’d been reading too many New York Times articles. Perhaps I’d put too much faith in peer-reviewed science. Perhaps—surrounded by open-minded, well-educated, progressives—I was missing the bigger picture. Perhaps if I left academe and went out to the Heartland, I’d tap into the wisdom of the prairie and the farmers who worked it. Maybe they knew the land and skies and environment in ways we suburbanites and city dwellers didn’t. Maybe I’d find that they had good reason to deny man-made climate change.

But not one person I encountered had said anything even halfway intelligent when denying global warming. No one had read books or articles on the issue, and they couldn’t begin to understand how peer-reviewed science works. They saw themselves as too freewilled and independent to be duped into accepting something that an accomplished and well-trained scientist says is true. But these skeptics are only selectively skeptical. They think themselves enlightened for resisting all this new proof and remaining steadfast in mistrusting any- thing that someone else says. But it is a false enlightenment to accept only those ideas that align with one’s worldview and reject those that don’t.
I’m not the only one who’s moved on from the initial stages of grief. Paul Krugman of the New York Times writes how these working class whites would benefit far more from Clinton’s proposed policies than those of Trump:
Democrats have already been pursuing policies that are much better for the white working class than anything the other party has to offer. Yet this has brought no political reward. Consider eastern Kentucky, a very white area which has benefited enormously from Obama-era initiatives… Independent estimates say that the uninsured rate fell from 27 percent in 2013 to 10 percent in 2016. That’s the effect of the Affordable Care Act, which Mrs. Clinton promised to preserve and extend but Mr. Trump promised to kill…

Nobody can credibly promise to bring the old [manufacturing] jobs back; what you can promise — and Mrs. Clinton did — are things like guaranteed health care and higher minimum wages. But working-class whites overwhelmingly voted for politicians who promise to destroy those gains.
In a brilliant Alternet piece, the author says the Democrats shouldn’t worry about their political bubbles since it is rural white America that has closed itself off to the rest of the world:
The real problem isn’t east coast elites who don’t understand or care about rural America. The real problem is rural America doesn’t understand the causes of their own situations and fears and they have shown no interest in finding out. They don’t want to know why they feel the way they do or why they are struggling because they don’t want to admit it is in large part because of choices they’ve made and horrible things they’ve allowed themselves to believe….
For us “coastal elites” who understand evolution, genetics, science…nothing we say to those in fly-over country is going to be listened to because not only are we fighting against an anti-education belief system, we are arguing against God…

Rural, Christian, white Americans are entrenched in fundamentalist belief systems; don’t trust people outside their tribe; have been force-fed a diet of misinformation and lies for decades; are unwilling to understand their own situations; and truly believe whites are superior to all races. No amount of understanding is going to change these things or what they believe. No amount of niceties will get them to be introspective. No economic policy put forth by someone outside their tribe is going to be listened to no matter how beneficial it would be for them. I understand rural, Christian, white America all too well. I understand their fears are based on myths and lies. I understand they feel left behind by a world they don’t understand and don’t really care to. They are willing to vote against their own interest if they can be convinced it will make sure minorities are harmed more. Their Christian beliefs and morals are truly only extended to fellow white Christians. They are the problem with progress and always will be, because their belief systems are constructed against it.
You might argue that poverty, oppression, and marginalization inevitably lead to desperation. They inevitably lead to anger and resentment and hellfire religion. They inevitably lead to the election of the personification of a middle finger. No! These things aren’t inevitable. Poverty, oppression, and marginalization can lead to cooperation, to resolve, to dignified action. They can uplift and bring out the best in people. When blacks want their rights, they march, perform sit-ins, go on freedoms rides. They follow principled men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend William Barber. They quote the best Bible passages and sing “We Shall Overcome.” They act with dignity, patience, perseverance—the same way Native Americans are taking water cannons to the face in South Dakota right now. The same way women, LGBTQ groups, and environmentalists fought for equality and justice. (Yes, there are sometimes riots and violence, but they normally occur only after peaceful protests have failed to result in progress.)

What have these “oppressed” whites done to fight for their rights? What have they done to make their plight known? What marches have they gone on, what dogs have been unleashed on them? How have they appealed to the rest of us? How have they tried to capture the country’s heart? What dignified leaders have they followed?

Instead of doing any of that, they just picked a foul-mouthed reality TV star, who runs corrupt businesses, assaults women, offends minorities, calls for his opponent to be killed and jailed, etc., etc., etc.

What can be done? How do we go about fixing something like mass hatred and mass delusion?

My short answer is: I don’t know. There are (implausible) long-term initiatives that would have an impact: namely enhancing income equality and promoting the liberal arts so we have a smarter, more scrutinizing, and less resentful, electorate. And Congress and our social media overlords simply must do something about controlling fake news.

In the short term, and on a more local level, I think we can do a couple of things.

First, we must acknowledge the problem. We cannot act as if we’re dealing with rational voters whose primary interest is their economic betterment. If we try to appeal to them in that way, like we’ve been doing for years (with promises of better health care, higher wages, infrastructure spending, environmental protection, and affordable college), we’re not going to get anywhere. We need to find ways to get to their emotions. Their guts. They are Republicans more out of a sense of tribalism than anything else. We need to strip off their surface of do-gooding decency to expose them for what they are—for them and the rest of us to see.

We need to have face-to-face conversations with the other side. The Alternet writer above seems to suggest that Christian rural white America is hopeless. I don’t know if I agree. It is possible to change people’s minds, as well as their hearts and souls. Author Daryl Davis, an African American, did just that. In Klan-destine Relationships, he describes his hobby of having conversations with Ku Klux Klan leaders. By following just a few principles, he got some of the most fervent racists in the world to turn in their robes and leave the Klan. Davis’s words from an Atlantic piece:
The most important thing I learned is that when you are actively learning about someone else you are passively teaching them about yourself. So if you have an adversary with an opposing point of view, give that person a platform. Allow them to air that point of view, regardless of how extreme it may be. And believe me, I've heard things so extreme at these rallies they'll cut you to the bone. Give them a platform. You challenge them. But you don't challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform. So he and I would sit down and listen to one another over a period of time. And the cement that held his ideas together began to get cracks in it. And then it began to crumble. And then it fell apart.
I remember in Texas I was speaking with a hardass about environmentalism, which he thought was a big government hoax. I told him about how I grew up near Love Canal in Western New York, where toxic chemicals led to unprecedented miscarriages, cancer rates, and birth defects. After I told this story, and how it factors into my environmentalism, he softened. He got it. He didn’t turn into John Muir, but he did learn that you don’t have to be a whacko to be an environmentalist. I listened, then he listened, and some small progress was made.

Move to the Heartland. Jobs may be few, but the scenery is gorgeous and the rent is ridiculously cheap. We can’t all concentrate ourselves in coastal liberal bubbles. And between the memes, the misinformation, and digital barrier between each set of eyes, Facebook divides us more than it brings us together. The only solution is face-to-face encounters and person-by-person cultural diffusion. Let's consider this the 21st Century's Bloody Kansas, where we move to rural states to change the fate of the nation. Romanticize it by thinking of yourself as a political frontiersman, heading out alone into a conservative, and rather gun-happy (bring an orange florescent vest), wilderness. Be a progressive missionary and come to the Heartland with nonthreatening stories of legal edibles and gay weddings. Join me in Stokes so I have someone to talk to. And bring some of those New York bagels, willya?

What if the left commandeered some of the right’s favorite issues? Let’s get out ahead of the right and use some stiff moral rhetoric to call for, say, drastically reducing the abortion rate (not by making abortions illegal, but by ramping up sex education programs and making contraceptives more widely available). If done in the right way, the Republican Party would no longer have a moral monopoly over the issue. In this way, with more than a little manipulation (and perhaps some legitimate moral motives as well), we can steal issues from the right.

Progressives also need to treat all religions equally, and that includes hating them equally: Fundamentalist Islam ought to get the ire that we don’t hesitate to heap on Fundamentalist Christianity. Our unrelenting praise for diversity and multiculturalism, and our moral relativism, have made it possible for someone like Trump to take a no-nonsense hardline stance on, say, Islamic immigration. We have enough extreme Islam-related incidents in our country, and have witnessed more than enough in Europe, to begin to speak of the religion with the scorn and intolerance it deserves.

Let’s talk about gun rights in positive terms. Instead of talking about restrictions, every Democrat should begin his line about guns with his dedication to protecting the Second Amendment before proposing a few sensible restrictions.

Think about every issue that’s important to conservatives and determine if there are ways that they may be rhetorically commandeered by progressives. None of this is going low or stooping to their level. It’s addressing their fears and speaking to their values in a way that will in the end help advance progressive principles. It’s really about framing progressive ideas for everyone, and not just progressives.

These might be silly ideas. They probably are. And I don’t know if they’ll work. But I know for certain that what we cannot do is use our same-old tactics and let them — with their fake news, rotten religion, and thinly-veiled racism — drive us back into the Dark Ages. We have truth and justice on our side, but that doesn’t mean much when they have the votes.


*I am not using the terms “fake news” and “rightwing propaganda” lightly. Here’s just a few stories about this problem:

Inside a Fake News Sausage Factory: ‘This Is All About Income’

How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study

Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say


Anonymous said...

I liked this up until I felt you were a little extreme about the Muslim religion. Like extreme Christianity, extreme Muslim isn't good either but all Muslims aren't bad just like all Christians aren't bad too. Just my thoughts...

Ken said...

Anon--I generally agree, but, to be clear, I'm referring only to Fundamentalist Islam.

Anonymous said...

I guess when I read " We have enough extreme Islam-related incidents in our country, and have witnessed more than enough in Europe, to begin to speak of the religion with the scorn and intolerance it deserves. " it doesn't differentiate the extreme Muslim religion from simple Muslim religion to me. "the religion" sounds just Muslim religion. I guess that your point isn't clear to me...

I also think that most Americans don't distinguish and feel justified that Muslims should all be thrown out, not the most extreme...we have extreme in many religions.

Anonymous said...

I'm a regular reader of the Into The Woods blog and have expressed fears of what's to come over there. Generally speaking, I think the Establishment will keep much from going down hill. Disintegration into some anarchic class and racial war is the last thing corporate and elitist interests want. Preserving the institutions that exist as they are and have been since FDR and LBJ are part of those interests.

Unknown said...

I think the best solution is to move out to the country. Not only does that allow face to face contact over a period of time but it also allows influencing local politics. Consider it missionary work, right?!

Catherine J said...

Excellent points, Ken. Living in North Carolina in a county bordering Stokes I see this all the time. It is clear that thoughtful and cRng citizens have work to do. I don't generally enjoy trying to have a cconversation with people who appear to be closed minded, but then I have to look in the mirror and make sure my mind is open to hearing out people whose world views differ from mine.

Still grieving but also making plans!

Maine Joe said...

Ken, why are you living in Stokes County with angry people intent on fomenting tribalism when you could be living in Asheville, Raleigh, Durham? Your white skin probably saved you from harm. Please take care of yourself. I have all your books on my iPad.
Portland, Maine

Jen Miller said...

I enjoyed reading this so much! I've been reading your stuff since the Duke days and it just gets better and better!
Another solution that will just happen on its own is that many right-wing voters are elderly and will begin dying off soon. Of course there will still be many, many stubborn, uneducated and fearful idiots at the polling place in four years but I believe they're dying faster than they're being born.

Joseph Margolis said...

Ken, you lost me talking about Muslims the way you did. I just don't think it's fair. Please consider that right wing extremist Christianity gets more flak in this country is that there is far more of it. FBI top domestic terror threats are from right wing Christian groups. Please rethink. Muslims in this country are by far a marginalized group in this country more than they are a threat. The stats just don't back up the dangerous assumption you made. I really encourage you to talk with more Muslims just as you have rural Americans. Respectful Kind regards to you.

Ken said...

Joe--My Islam-related comments have been flagged by three readers now, so I've reexamined those lines. I'm still not sure what's so wrong or controversial about them. It should be more than obvious that I'm not talking about all Muslims. In fact, I've used the words "fundamentalist" and "extreme" to properly distinguish them from the greater Islamic religion, have I not? Why is it wrong of me to dislike or express intolerance for a religious group that will kill you if you draw a mean cartoon of their religion, blow up or shoot down hundreds of innocent people, brutalize women, who are homophobic, and who believe utter and hateful nonsense? I'm not exaggerating any of this:

I don't have any more love for Christian Fundamentalists, or fundamentalists of any sort, and I appreciate how threats of Islam-related violence are less serious than at-home hate groups and probably less serious than the threat of hitting our head and drowning in our own bathtub. But the truth is that bathtubs don't make people afraid for their lives and families. 9/11 does. Mass shootings do. And those fears must be taken seriously, however nonthreatening they actually are, because we've seen that they determine elections.

My overall point is that progressives' pussyfooting over the issue comes across as so soft that rightwingers get scared/pissed off and start supporting extreme policies: like Ted Cruz's neighborhood surveillance and Trump's registry. In other words, I believe that progressives, by not properly addressing voters' fears, have enabled Cruz's and Trump's ridiculousness.

Unknown said...

Good read. I tend to think of myself as moderate. I'm personally conservative on certain things and liberal on a lot of others. For a long time I've felt that I had nothing of value to say because no one would even consider a point of view different from theirs (I'm from Stokes County and still live close to there. Actually, you had dinner with my family once). However, I've begun to shed some of my old fears of being ostracized and instead try to build some solid relationships that allow for discussion. I'm deeply introverted and it takes a long time for me to get to that point, but I've had some success. I think people are more open to what I have to say when they know that I actually give a damn about their lives. I just have to not let things as they are tempt me to give up. Thanks for the encouragement, Ken.

Don Mitchell said...

I was rolling my eyes at the start of this post, but you won me over at the end. I'm from Canadian Fly-over country and we too have our issues with the near coastal establishment (Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal triangle) but we all need to just talk to each other human to human and not rural vs urban. Each of us look at each other with incomprehension (how the hell do you live there?!?!?) but we need each other to live. The sooner we figure that out the better.

Scroffles said...


Pleased to read your writng again. I thought Trump would get your juices flwing and looked in.

Hmm. Personally, I am not without education but still don't like to be told what to think. Or, to be told what I think is wicked or obscene etc. by commentators who have the advantage of received wisdom. Perhaps the wrong thinkers who were in the majority in voting in The Donald have a legitimate interest and point of view and are not just
bigots who can be dismissed because of their various or perceived anti-ism views.

I must say that your description of the odiousness of Trump was the best that I have read. Sadly, he is the man now because of the slack thinking by 'progressives' and the associated arrogance which so many must have found still more distasteful. Pleased that you are talking about developing the debate fruitfully.

With sympathy,

Jon London

Anonymous said...

I have so much anger toward Trump voters. Frankenstein's monster is tromping around this country, and they are the ones who flipped the switch. They put our nuclear weapons in Trump's hands. If he uses them irrationally, they are ultimately to blame. The alt-right (aka the new KKK) is in the White House, and they are to blame. I do not try to empathize with them or understand them. I do try to have compassion for them, but it's hard. No matter why they say they voted for Trump, they looked at that lying, vile man, walked into a voting booth, and stated that they wanted him to be president. If they really thought that Clinton was just as bad as Trump, why didn't they just stay home? No one forced them to vote for Trump...this time.

I have tried talking to them. I thank God that my parents are not Trump supporters. My husband's parents are, and I feel so let down. They taught him that character counts, then they voted for Trump. They are no longer people we could ever turn to for guidance (my husband says he knew this all along, but they seemed "nice" to me). I have tried talking to them. They take a page out of their leader's book and will never admit that they are wrong. They absolutely insist that Clinton was "just as bad" and that "they have a right to their opinion."

In 2016, for the first time, I gave money to a political campaign--Clinton's--several times. I signed up to volunteer. Well, Clinton had more money, more volunteers, and more support, but she was limited by the truth, and Trump was not, so Trump won. She did take many of the positions you advocate in the last part of your article (like being for our gun rights with some sensible restrictions). But I have found that subtlety is often lost on Trump supporters; after all, he did deliberately target the uneducated.

I will read the book you mentioned about the man who reached out to the KKK. Perhaps some Trump supporters can be reached, sometime, somewhere. Mostly, I am bracing for what happens next and trying to calm my anger. I sure wish I knew what to do.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you have enlightened me. You're right; we college educated people of this country need to stop pitying those Neanderthals in flyover country (with their strange capitalized newspaper columns and their "rotten religion") and enlighten them to how stupid and evil they really are. We owe it to the world to show them how black and white it is: that conservatives are crazy extremists and liberals are mild and compassionate souls who live quieter and more complicated lives next door to them. We'll make it our mission to fill this country with open-minded people just like us, and no one else.

I'm a moderate guy. I'm liberal on some issues and conservative on others. I didn't vote for Trump or Hillary because my conscious wouldn't allow it, and I won't apologize to all of the angry democrats who blamed third-party voters like me for the loss of their candidate. From someone who has has the opposite experience of you (grew up in a rural industrial town and went to college to find crazy, angry, extremist liberals), I am amazed at how open-minded you think you are compared to how closed-minded you really are. I want so badly to agree with you when you talk about addressing anger and fear-mongering, but it feels like reading the Unabomber Manifesto: maybe there is a truth buried deep inside, but it's been warped into an unhealthy perception from a man who is so damn angry and self-righteous that I can never stand with him.

Anonymous said...

I liked your books, but your politics are laughable, you really think that trump was elected by far right extremists in rural north carolina? I also get a laugh when I read the trump lied and hillary did not.... Really - can anyone that is at least a little bit rationale say that? Somehow she made what hundreds of thousands trading commodities, somehow her records were missing right up until they magically appeared.... somehow she is described as the smartest woman on earth yet does not understand basic computer security or the designation of the different secrecy levels on documents?

I work in the financial industry and make a mid six figure income, live in a city and yes I voted for trump. I work in a large room with about 50 people like me and most did too. We are tired of you progressives deciding what is "best" for us, tired of you progressives deciding that we can ignore radical islam by calling a clear terrorist attack "workplace" violence. You all sound like Hillary, in her recent interview blaming everybody but my grandmother for her loss. She lost because she is about the least liked woman in America, she lost because trust in any of the Clintons is long gone. She lost because people that for years had democrat stickers on their cars started asking "why?"