A friend and I were perched on stools at a table in the darkish far corner of a Wisconsin tavern located outside the Madison liberal bubble. The rest of the customers were sitting at the bar enjoying a refresher after a long day on the job – made harder by the unusual cold that had gripped the state. Our conversation had – not atypical of my conversations 😉 – turned to politics. Even so, we were talking in low tones, and the specific topic was not an emotive one – the psychological moral foundations Jonathan Haidt lists in The Righteous Mind, and Mr. Haidt’s description of how liberals’ and conservatives’ gut instincts give respectively different weights to what are all indisputably worthy values. At least I was only vaguely aware that a man had started playing a video game within a few feet of us. Having apparently heard at least part of our conversation, he approached our table – mid-30’s, Caucasian, dark longish beard, not large in stature, stocking cap on his head pulled down almost to his eyebrows — pardoned himself for interrupting, and, not at all aggressively, proceeded on what was a fairly long monologue — his frustration and resentment evident although his tone was even – about what his life was like: married with a child, how he and his wife both worked, how he had gone to school and worked for a couple of companies before starting his own business, how he had thousands of dollars’ worth of tools in his truck but couldn’t get ahead. His friends in the trades felt the same way. “Child care costs so much.” “I’d be better off working for $7.50 an hour – then I’d get assistance. They get assistance. I get nothing.” “The older generation doesn’t get it – they could get ahead by working hard. We can’t.” “The middle class is dead — there is no more middle class.” “Social security is there for you [no offense intended or taken; I am obviously of Social Security-eligible age 😉 ] — do you think it’s going to be there for me? [Rhetorical – clearly he thinks not].”
While we – at least I – will probably never be able to viscerally feel the indignation this gentleman feels, my friend and I have sympathy for what he and so many Americans are facing, and he could see that; our tones remained even, as they should have – Americans civilly exchanging contrasting viewpoints. My friend ventured: Was he for Trump? “Trump all the way,” he replied. Mr. Trump wasn’t perfect, but finally, someone was taking on China, somebody was trying to bring back the middle class. I indicated that at least one of his concerns – Social Security – could be fixed if the politicians got their heads together; he respectfully waved that off. I asked what he thought of Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate with the seemingly widest working class appeal. “He’s just in it to put money in his pocket. That’s what all politicians do – just put money in their pockets.”
I’ve probably mentioned The Righteous Mind in these pages more than any other book I’ve read since retiring. Since it seems so blatantly obvious to me that President Trump is a self-interested blackguard willing to sacrifice national interests for his own while doing nothing to objectively better the circumstances of those who most fervently believe in him (caveat: he has well served anti-abortionists by packing the federal courts with young conservative judges), I have increasingly reflected upon why approximately 40% of my fellow citizens feel so vehemently differently than I think they should feel about the President. Putting aside the bigots, I reject the notion that the vast majority of the President’s supporters are “deplorable.” They are not stupid. So what is it? Is it gut resistance to the country’s inevitable technological and demographic change? Antipathy to cultural change – a longing for a time when – to quote Carroll O’Connor’s and Jean Stapleton’s Archie and Edith Bunker – “Girls were girls and men were men” and we “Didn’t need no welfare state; everybody pulled his weight”? Resentment at obviously condescending intellectuals? Outrage at the disparagement of religious faith that many of them (and I) consider central to our beings? A lack of hope born of the realization that they’re too many touchdowns behind to catch up no matter how hard they work? A product of propaganda – one turns to sources with which one is most comfortable, and Fox News commentators and alt-right social media outlets, driven by profit, have given them tangible targets to blame?
Probably all of the above. Clearly many of our people have been overtaken by despair. Despite all of his transparent bluster and lying, a segment see the President “telling it like it is” – that he’s given voice to their anger that they’ve been betrayed by the educated and affluent class that they trusted to lead the nation. Judging by President Obama’s electoral majorities, many of them believed in him, but as uncomfortable as it is for some progressives to acknowledge, Mr. Obama did little to help them. Mr. Trump at least provides the impression that he hears them together with the satisfaction of sticking it in the eye of the snobs who have undeniable disdain for them.
These divisions are deep. In its retrospective on President Ronald Reagan at the time of Mr. Reagan’s death, Newsweek stated, “[At the time Mr. Reagan became President] [s]erious people began to wonder whether the presidency was too big a job for any one [person].” One cannot help but ponder how any one person can adequately address the sharp divisions and diverse challenges we have today.
It had reached the hour my friend and I had planned to part. We rose from our bar stools, stood. I said to the young gentleman who had engaged us – gently, because we had had a completely amicable exchange, and I had benefited much more from our talk than he had — “I fear that you’re placing your faith in a mirage.”
“I base it on facts”, he replied with assurance, but without rancor. I didn’t ask from whom he gets his facts. It was time to go. It was dark outside, and unseasonably cold.