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  • Ken Ilgunas

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 café 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:


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