Since last week’s election, through Facebook, op-eds, emails, and tweets, those who fear the new administration have been producing billions of words. They’ve analyzed their feelings and tried, in nuanced essays, to understand what happened and how to respond to it. They’ve sent out millions of messages of dread, depression, love and support.
But for generations, the pain and anger of millions of other Americans had no real outlet. And even if they vented in calls to C-SPAN, or listened to angry commentary on talk radio or Fox, in the main, it was easy to dismiss them. They were not stupid, but they had been poorly educated. They lacked the words to tell those of us who were more prosperous and better educated what they were feeling or what they had undergone as the tectonic shifts in the economy rocked their world.
Documentarian Michael Moore gave us glimpses into their experience, but we weren’t really paying attention. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren tried to turn the Democratic Party around, calling attention to an unjust and unforgiving economy.
Not only did Donald Trump take notice, he was able to give voice to their fears, to make the rest of America listen. And he did not try to filter or positively channel those raw emotions. He was their drinking buddy, buying round after round.
We also can’t forget that white workers at least had temporary claim on the American dream of a good job and a nice house in the suburbs. For many years, discrimination by companies, unions, and even the federal Housing Administration denied that dream to millions of black families.
And there is no doubt Trump appealed to our darker natures – racial prejudice, and misogyny – and erased the shame of giving hatred full-throated permission to thrive. Yes, some of Trump’s supporters are racists and misogynists, period. And some of them are prosperous white-collar professionals who, like Trump himself, have sacrificed nothing, and voted the untrammeled greed ticket.
But I refuse to believe that greed, racism and misogyny would have carried the day this election, were it not for our larger lack of understanding.
When Trump made preposterous claims, the media and policy elites called them out as lies. But to his blue-collar supporters those assertions were parables, images of the world they had lived through and the massive changes that had torn apart their lives. He gave them easy explanations and scapegoats. He promised to restore their world, to “make America great again.”
Trump painted vivid word pictures of “the Other” who jeopardized their precarious livelihoods – Mexican rapists, immigrant terrorists. He spoke of “law and order” as a code word for restoring all the changes they found threatening, including advances in gender and racial equality.
This anger and despair has been building for decades. We in the prosperous information economy just weren’t paying attention.
In 1986, funded by a grant from the Institute for Alternative Journalism, I wrote a special supplement for City Newspaper, the alternative weekly in Rochester, New York. I profiled eight Western New York workers who had lost their jobs. They were among the more than five million U.S. workers whose jobs disappeared between 1979 and 1983.
I began this way. “Karen MacDonald continues to grieve. Joe Manning lives with regret. Robert Horsley has his anger. Their plight isn’t obvious in the unemployment statistics or the annual reports of corporations. Richard Carges’ sense of loss and Betty Rosso’s worry do not register even as a blip on an economist’s computer screen.”
The supplement was titled, “Forgotten Americans.” Over the decades that followed, as millions more workers lost their jobs through globalization and technology advances, they remained forgotten.
I had covered the loss of these jobs when I worked for the Buffalo Courier-Express in the early 1980s, becoming, for all intents and purposes, the layoff reporter. I had seen firsthand that when someone loses a job, it roils their world. Families lose their stability. People are forced to move away from communities where they have deep ties. Parents who liked the domestic tranquility of one breadwinner a now both scramble for work.
That feeling of loss and grieving doesn’t go away, even when they find new jobs. Joe Manning, an eighteen-year veteran of Bethlehem Steel, lost his job when the corporation closed its Lackawanna plant. Manning was one of the lucky ones. After five months out of work, he was hired as a Buffalo bus driver. It paid $150 a week less than his old job, and his wife began to work full time as a first-grade teacher at a parochial school.
But the worst part was the job itself. He hated it. “You never have a good day,” he told me. “Everybody cuts in front of the bus.” He spent his days with his foot on the brake, worried about the icy roads in winter, trying to navigate a “40-foot bus with 100 people on it.”
The words the media and policymakers use to refer to what happened to these workers are clinical. We say they are displaced, the collateral damage from a disruptive economy, the people who inevitably fall through the cracks in the name of greater productivity and greater profits.
Conditions have grown far worse since the 1980s. Workers often lose a series of jobs, and sometimes drop out of the labor force altogether.Their pensions have disappeared.Their homes may have been lost to foreclosure, or are under water.
The government essentially tells them that they need to soldier on, retrain, move, do anything they can to remain productive. Not measured is the impact on generations of this massive, unending, series of changes. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs practically gloat about the trauma, talking about their desire to “disrupt” and “break things.” But we didn’t break “things,” we broke lives.
Many business reporters lionized the executives who actually did the breaking, buying into the notion that corporations are above the law or the norms of human decency, obliged only to earn higher and higher profits for their shareholders. Accustomed to that rhetoric, is it any wonder that Trump’s supporters accepted his flagrant tax avoidance, his outsourcing to foreign manufacturers, and his stiffing of contractors?
Millions of us who call ourselves progressives have been largely spared these upheavals. Even when we lose jobs, and we do, much more frequently now, our skills are fungible. We can rebound. But miners in West Virginia, factory workers in the Rust Belt, experience things far differently.
So now, some of those miners and factory workers have turned to someone who built his own empire by exploiting people like them; someone who almost certainly will make their plight worse. All because Donald Trump’s great gift was to his ability to see the world through their eyes
Celia Viggo Wexler is a nonfiction author and free-lance writer. Her most recent book, Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope, was published in September.