2020 has been a real bitch, and we still have an election that promises to be the most divisive in history to look forward to.
Speaking of which, in my travels I saw exactly one Biden sign but hundreds of Trump flags and hand scrawled signs of support.
Most of my liberal friends remain baffled by this phenomenon but I have been giving it a lot of thought since Trump’s surprise victory in 2016.
I’ve come to believe that the reason for Trump’s support out in “flyover country” is that these are the citizens who have felt the brunt of our 40 year abandonment of any shared commitment in America. These Trump supporters think they are getting screwed-over by an unfair system. They think “free trade” only benefits the rich, they think the government is unresponsive to their needs, they think the system is rigged, and they’re really, really mad. Trump won due to Clinton’s support for free trade and immigration policies that cost jobs and imposed unwelcome demographic changes on the working people of these places. Critical battleground states tilted in Trump’s favor because Democratic policies had decimated their communities and eviscerated their standard of living.
Going further, I believe that the grievances expressed by these “flyover” Americans are the same ones discussed in Thomas Frank’s new book–The People, No. Frank traces the history of mass democratic movements through the social upheaval of the last century, revealing a force for enlightenment and liberation–the essence of democracy itself. More importantly, Frank details the elite groups–today’s Professional Managerial Class (PMC’s)–that have and still oppose populism and denounce it. He also shows how this anti-populism has morphed from being a policy of wealthy conservatives in the 1890’s to the faith of liberal elite PMC’s today.
Of course liberals don’t want to hear this analysis. It’s far easier for them to imagine all Trump supporters as “white nationalists” and “racists”. That these liberals have largely been on the winning side of the great free-trade transformation of this country is conveniently ignored. I’ve got mine, jack. Learn how to code.
There’s a history to our populist moment. Going back to Reagan, wealthy and middle-class Americans were happy to trade tax cuts for a good and decent country. This abandonment provided the justification for eliminating well-paying jobs that didn’t require a college degree and shipping them to China to profit from much lower labor costs, and the refusal to invest in infrastructure while privatizing essential services. Even worse has been the callous disregard shown by wealthy liberal elites to the opioid epidemic and deaths of despair that are destroying families and communities all across the country.
There are numerous explanations but I think it’s largely that we don’t do socialism in America–full stop. Americans are trained from birth to “look out for yourself” and not expect help from others. But the fact is that nobody can actually look out for themselves. Interdependence is simply a fact of life in any complex economy. We all depend on state-created laws, regulations, subsides, and policies. Average Americans used to understand these things as part of their political education, but no longer. One hundred years of increasingly sophisticated propaganda will do that. The media’s success in bringing about subservience to their propaganda, public relations and advertising represents a huge incentive for more of the same to come.
Our two party system of governance also abets our disregard for fellow Americans, specifically where one political party moves dramatically to the right while the other follows along while pretending to provide an alternative. In reality both parties use their supporters as props. White nationalists and Black Lives Matter to the extent global capital deems absolutely necessary. Moreover, it’s apparent that both parties need each other. The increasing lunacy of the GOP that keeps frightened liberal voters satisfied with the meager crumbs of progress promised and unevenly delivered by the Democrats. The Democratic Party’s abandonment of the New Deal and embrace of shallow corporate liberalism keeps white working-class voters flocking to a GOP that only uses and abuses them.
The challenge for us with a deadly virus that’s shut down much of our country, destructive fires smoking out the west and hurricanes punishing the Gulf is that we are going to need to rediscover how to work together as Americans.
Unfortunately, as we head into fall, mass despair and this division into two opposing camps is just waiting for a spark to blow into a conflagration of rage. The result could easily spin out of anyone’s control.