How progressives can win back America’s workers
(Part 2 of 2 — return to Part 1)
I knew that my carpenter, Jerry, a friendly guy who’d done several small jobs for me over the years, was a working-class conservative who got his news and views from rightwing sources.
I once joked with my wife that I didn’t have to suffer through listening to Rush Limbaugh, I could just listen to Jerry regurgitate the blowhard’s twaddle. I seldom responded to Jerry’s rants. Few people I know personally have a rightwing perspective, so I let him keep me as informed as I wanted to be on what the rank and file Tea Party crowd was saying.
Jerry also knew that I am what he calls a “liberal,” and a couple of times he challenged me on liberal views that I hadn’t actually expressed, but, based on listening to his radio feeds, he surmised I must hold. For the most part I didn’t respond — didn’t take the bait, as my wife put it — because I don’t like to waste my time and energy on lose-lose arguments and because I like the guy, despite his obstreperous persona. I see Jerry as misinformed and misguided and don’t really want to hurt him — or incur his wrath. For his part, he didn’t push his points too far because he likes me too — and I’m a customer.
It came as no surprise when Jerry told me he supported Trump. Although he’s basically a nice guy Jerry, like all of us, does have his inner bully, albeit that ugly kernel had remained somewhat suppressed for fear of being judged as politically incorrect. But when Trump’s outward bully liberated Jerry’s repressed brute, things got a little ugly, and a little silly.
Right after Trump got elected Jerry came by my house to look at some work. He took the opportunity to crow about Trump’s victory, which he had heard was the greatest electoral landslide ever, and talk about how America was about to be made great again. Now that the evil Hillary had been banished and would soon be in jail, we would get “our” country back — presumably retrieving it from the legal and illegal immigrants, liberal elites and fat cats who had stolen it from “us.”
Again, I refrained from arguing. Disgusted as I was by Trump and anyone who was angry or gullible enough to support him, and freaked out as I was by the prospect of Trump’s presidency, I saw no point in trying to disillusion Jerry. He was clearly having his “come to Daddy” moment, and would only think of me as a sore loser if pointed out some flaws in his judgement or attempted to dash his hopes.
But suddenly I, too, saw an opportunity, a chance to plant a seed that might eventually produce a fruit that could nourish both Jerry and me. In a flash I realized that I could turn “you and I” into “we,” and “you and me” into “us.”
“You know, Jerry,” I said, “I’ve given Trump quite a bit of thought, and I realized something about him. He doesn’t have anything in common with us. I mean, he sort of talks like an ordinary person, not some snob, but that’s as far as it goes.
“Think about it. You and I, we worry about stuff…stuff like how we’re going to pay our bills, what happens if we get sick and can’t work, whether our families are safe. Trump doesn’t worry about that stuff. He’s rich. Super rich. He doesn’t even think about bills. Somebody pays them for him. He has private security guards.
“You drive your truck to work. I take my car. He gets driven around in a limo. Or flies in his private jet.
“You and I go to our barber or doctor. His barber comes to him. His doctor comes to him.
“We go to the grocery store and get our food and our wives cook it. I wonder if he’s ever been in a grocery store, or ever cooked a meal or washed a dish. He has servants, like some kind of prince.
“He doesn’t hang out with people like us. Everybody Trump knows is rich…celebrities and playboys from other countries. None of them have our problems.
“That’s why I wonder if he’s really going to do anything for people like us. Will he really do anything for working people, or was he just saying that so he could get elected and put a bunch of his rich friends in office? He knows a lot of people on Wall Street…a lot of international investors.
“I’m afraid to say it Jerry, but the truth is you and I have a lot more in common with each other than either one of us of will ever have in common with Donald Trump.”
Jerry responded that Trump spoke for him on a lot of issues, and I let it go at that. I can’t be sure that the seed I hoped to plant will grow, but there are some reasons to think that it might. For one thing, you’ll notice that my “message” to Jerry relied on a “them versus us” dichotomy (as does most right-wing messaging). By making Jerry and me into an “us,” I reduced his fear of me and people like me, and possibly changed his perspective on who “not us” might be.
Perhaps, eventually, Jerry will realize that “not us” is the wealthy donor class, Wall Street barons and multinational corporations who control our politics and don’t pay their fair share of taxes. “Not us” are the billionaires who make up much of Trump’s cabinet and inner circle. Perhaps I can even hope that Jerry will come think that “not us” is people who lie, even if their lies seem to confirm some of his world view and biases — because Jerry isn’t a liar, he’s a decent person burdened with fear and insecurities and he’s the victim of false narratives and spurious promises.
In an ideal, Kumbaya world, espousing a them-versus-us narrative which pits Jerry, me and the rest of “We the People” against the wealthy shouldn’t be necessary, and in fact would be inappropriate. It would be nice to produce messages that bring everybody together, including the super-rich who, for the most part are just misguided humans themselves. But our current predicament demands otherwise. Before there can be a uniter the great divider — Trump — must be defeated. His message is too corrosive, his threat to democracy too imminent to allow it to manifest.
So by pointing out the real division in this country, which is not race, gender, sexual preference or political viewpoint, but income inequality — we, including the Democrats, can send a message that could unite at least the bottom 90 percent of the people. And by pointing out which side of the class divide Trump and his friends, associates and rich cabinet members are on, and which side We the People are on, we might be help spawn the next great upheaval in the twisted and volatile history of our democracy.
It was right after November’s election that I asked Jerry if he thought Trump would put his rich friends in office. It’s probably time for us to have another conversation about them.
(Part 2 of 2 — return to Part 1)