I live and work in the Silicon Valley/New York tech media bubble, as do most of my friends and many of my relatives.
They’re stunned tonight. There’s talk of vomiting, of grabbing their passports.
I just got back from four days in the deep red Trump country of eastern Tennessee to attend a wedding, and I’ve been visiting every year or two (or three) since I met my wife in 1996.
I didn’t grow up there, but I enjoy my visits there. Our relatives there treat me well. I love them like you love relatives who you know you’ll never talk politics with.
And I think I sort of understand where they’re coming from, even if I disagree.
Here are some observations that may help my friends who never left the bicoastal bubble — and all of you around the world who are looking on in shock — understand how Americans just elected somebody who 61% of Americans in a recent poll said was not qualified to be president.
- One relative worked in a photo processing lab for more than 20 years and used that job to singlehandedly support her family. She was laid off a few years away from retirement. The company was cutting costs thanks to competition from digital imaging technology that made film obsolete, and hers was one of the jobs to be cut. She got nothing extra. No pension, no retirement. We tell people like her that they’re supposed to retrain, get educated, get new jobs. How does that work, exactly? What do they do for money while retraining? Who’s going to hire a 60-year-old trainee from the local community college or trade school anyway? What happens to all those communities where these jobs disappeared before the current generation could get hired in the first place?
- Her husband, fortunately, had worked his way up to a good position in the local paper mill, the main employer in that area. He retired with a full pension and had enough to buy a nice house with some land attached, and she’s able to live on what they had together before he passed away earlier this year. But those paper mill jobs — good working class jobs that could set you up with a nice retirement — are the kinds of jobs that those of us in the new information economy and on Wall Street and in D.C. denigrate and say are going away and never coming back. The people who live in these places aren’t stupid. They know that globalization is making it more economical for companies to ship these jobs overseas, and they know that the people who run these companies care more about the numbers than about the people who work and live in these communities.
- While I was there, we conspicuously talked around politics, not wanting to ruin what was supposed to be a joyful occasion. But one evening, a relative explained how a few years ago, hundreds of huge trucks kept going by with loads of something (ore? scrap? she wasn’t sure) from one of the old copper mines up in the mountains a few miles away. “They were shipping all that stuff to China!” she said, indignantly. Sure, this is global capitalism at work, and it’s efficient — if there had been US demand for whatever was being shipped, it would have been sold here (it’s cheaper not to ship it). But her point was that we were taking something that somebody felt was valuable and shipping it away, where it would do no good for the local economy and create no jobs.
- I’m so used to seeing homeless people on the streets of San Francisco, it felt depressingly familiar when I saw a vagrant holding a sign by the highway in Athens, Tennessee. But it was the first time in 20 years I’d seen a homeless person there. People have always had jobs, or churches, or at the very least too much pride to show their desperation like this. It’s awfully hard to convince people that we need to open the country up to Syrian refugees “when we can’t even take care of our own,” as one relative put it.
- Tennessee has a fairly progressive Medicaid system called TennCare, which started in the 1990s. It offered insurance to people who didn’t have it and enrolled all recipients in a managed care (HMO-type) plan to keep costs low. Our relatives there have often expressed their hatred for it. They have all worked their whole lives and didn’t understand why freeloaders who’d never held a job should get the same benefits that they had to work for.
Don’t get me wrong — people there are flawed, just like people everywhere. There’s plenty of alcoholism and drug abuse in the community. People openly use racist terms and aren’t particularly ready to embrace non-white non-Christians. There’s a lot of cultural ignorance — I once heard somebody refer to “one of those Mongolian Jews” and still have no idea what he was talking about. (He said it with a neutral descriptive tone, not angrily or critically, for what it’s worth.) The preacher conducting the wedding pointedly referred to marriage as “between one man and one woman.”
I don’t excuse or condone any of those things. I think they’re wrong.
But when you ignore the troubles of huge swaths of America and condescend to the people living there for decades, eventually they’re going to get fed up.
Hillary Clinton is the personification of the ruling class. Her husband was president when the forces of globalization started slowly ripping these communities apart. She’s a career politician, and even if some of the criticisms against her are unjustified, she seems just sneaky and condescending enough to give off a whiff of guilt, of complicity.
Electing Donald Trump president over her was the biggest imaginable “f— you” they could have sent to the unseen ruling classes, those forces who have changed their lives over the last few decades without their permission or consent, and reaped the benefits while their communities have slowly fallen apart.
Now we’re all going to suffer for it.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
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