[This essay was originally published in Volume 32 of The Gallatin Review. I’ve been working on a short story over the last week, and I’ve been meeting my daily word count in that endeavor. But it occurred to me that part of holding myself accountable is regularly updating my website with some content. Thus, I thought I’d publish something that had actually been published. Not many people have read this essay… consider it autobiographical fiction. Keyword: fiction.]
I didn’t feel a sense of shock on election night. It seemed apparent to me the week leading up to the election that there was a real possibility Donald Trump was going to win. The first red flag was President Obama visiting Michigan. Michigan? Robby Mook, John Podesta, and their pollsters hadn’t taken the time to send Hillary Clinton to Michigan (or Wisconsin) and now, the week before the election, they were sending the President of the United States of America to campaign for her in a state that wasn’t supposed to be all that close.
I grew up in Michigan and spent much of my young life struggling to survive there. The plight of the white working class, the stuff you hear about on television and NPR, that was my plight. We lived it every day, every frigid winter, each hole in my shoes and every hand-me-down coat, the plight was the price we paid to live in Michigan. Michigan didn’t owe Secretary Clinton anything and I was certain that her absence would be noticed by the plighted in the mitten state.
Of course, most of us didn’t know we were in a plight. That journalistic expression and the assignment by demographic prognosticators wasn’t something the average Michigander was aware of when I was a kid. Growing up my mom made two or three quarters more an hour than minimum wage, somewhere around $6.00 for each exhausting hour she spent trying to provide for us. She did home health care, she did side jobs, but she never made much more than that amount of money. To us that was simply being poor, it wasn’t considered a plight.
Our poverty was such that our pipes regularly froze during the winter months because mom couldn’t afford proper insulation. Without water there was no shower, sometimes we went to school two or three days in a row without being able to clean ourselves. The wind would often whistle through the lazily pieced together trailer and snuff out the pilot light of our propane powered heating unit. Without central heat there was no sleeping in our own comfortable beds. So we’d improvise by hanging up a blanket to partition the living room from the rest of the trailer so that we could huddle together on the floor near a small electric heater. If the electricity went out we would use a kerosene camping heater. I am still not sure how the cockroaches in our kitchen survived those brutally cold winters; it seems unfair that they would thrive in the same conditions we struggled in.
Often I find myself wondering if our life was the plight of the white working class. More specifically, I wonder if this is the plight that the politicians debate when they argue about who I and my mother and my sister once were. During all of the years of living like that, we never once considered ourselves representatives of the way the talking heads and academics discuss the angry silent majority which elected Donald Trump and perpetuate prejudice.
Perhaps what makes the plight of the white working class even more complicated, at least in my mind, is how often it is viewed through the lens of racism, homophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. Making America great “again” through the policies and leadership proposed by Donald Trump involves explicit and implicit acceptance of those biases. This is certainly true if we consider “again” to mean the “good ol days” of American Exceptionalism. Segregation, Jim Crow, and white superiority are all implied and understood by “again.” Based on my life experiences, however, I’d argue that the vast majority of citizens are too ill informed when it comes to making such a nuanced voting decision.
When I was growing up there was no talk about how to make America great again, at least not in my family nucleus. To my single mother voting was her duty as a citizen and she always voted Democrat. I can’t recall if she has ever voted for a Republican. Certainly many members of my plighted white working class family have, especially my grandfather on my estranged, now deceased, father’s side. But even he, a Reagan era Republican, never talked actively about the greatness associated with white America.
Grandpa Sam was a truck driver and experienced all different walks of life during his time on the road. His best friend, “Black” Mike, a fellow veteran and the only black guy in town, smoked pot with him and they played pool together at the local Eagles Club. The marijuana helped both of them with their health problems, being exposed to this drug taught me that everyone, even Reagan era Republicans, had their coping mechanisms. Neither “Black” Mike or my grandfather had a filter around me, I was considered the prodigal son so they exposed me to almost everything. Their trust sometimes allowed me to steal their pot; I spent the entire summer of my eighth grade year stoned.
One thing they did that always bothered me was regularly talk about and use the “N” word. My mother raised me to believe that certain terms were inappropriate, that was one such term. “Black” Mike and grandpa, however, had no such sensitivities when it came to the language they used to describe people they had no respect for. To Grandpa and “Black” Mike this word meant men who didn’t work or stay with their families. I had always found this ironic because my own father didn’t work or stay with our family; one day I heard them call my dad that word and it shook my understanding. It was explained to me that it didn’t matter what your skin color was, it was how you acted that determined whether or not you were that type of person.
My grandfather’s relationship with “Black” Mike was typical of most people in my community growing up. People were indifferent to the idea of various “isms” and prejudices. Grandpa Sam was the type of person who would treat you with respect until you wronged him, and then he would become unruly and frightening. That isn’t to say, however, that he isn’t capable of ignorance – all people are capable of ignorance until they are educated.
When I came out of the closet it was still common for many people in my family, including my grandfather, to indiscriminately use the words “fag” or “faggot” or “gay” or “queer” as a way to negatively describe something or someone. But I played football, I wrestled, and people considered me “big man on campus” by the time I was a senior in high school. If I could be the epitome of the masculine jock as a gay man than the concept of the homosexual as “less than” couldn’t fit into their stereotype. Coming out of the closet fundamentally changed the way many of my friends and family understood homosexuality, it was one of the scariest and most rewarding experiences of my life and it is why I don’t consider most of them homophobic.
Eventually my mother was able to crawl out of the poverty we lived in for so many years. She married a nice man who made drastic improvements to our home, was dedicated to his family, and worked full time. He hunted, enjoyed country music, and loved working with his hands. In every way imaginable he was the typical redneck, the archetype of the white America that elected Donald Trump. He was completely ignorant of his privilege and totally skeptical of government. Never in my life did he mention a negative thing about blacks, women, homosexuals, or Muslims. When he cast his vote for Donald Trump it wasn’t because he disliked people different from himself, and it wasn’t because he didn’t care about the targets of Trump’s rhetoric. My stepfather voted Trump because he was tired of being told by other people who he is, how he feels, and why he’s wrong about everything progressive liberals hold dear.
My mother and stepfather divorced recently. She found out that he had been cheating on her with one of her very close friends. After the divorce he ended up marrying that woman and having a baby with her. By the time his infant daughter graduates high school he will be nearing 70. I hope he’ll no longer be working in manual labor by that time. It’s difficult for me to think about forgiveness for him because the pain is still so fresh, but I think about him constantly because he helped transform my life. He loved me, traveled the world with me, and embraced people different from him always. He taught me how to be a good man, and supported me when I struggled.
The members of the silent majority who elected Donald Trump share many similarities with traditionally oppressed minorities. They deal with the same class struggles, drug use, employment issues, single parent homes, educational achievement gaps, and anger directed towards government for failing to understand who they are. I once attempted to use my own experiences to empathize with the black and Hispanic struggle and was told I have “white fragility and tears.” This alienated me in a way in which I believe my grandfather, stepfather, and many anti-establishment voters feel when they are told who and what they are instead of asked.
The white identity, especially in heterosexual men, is now synonymous with oppression and fragility, ignorance and hatred, bigotry and fear. Because of a lack of understanding on all sides, and a projection of identities which might not exist in totality, Donald Trump, a possible fascist, will be president for the next four years. How do we move on? How do we resist? What is our struggle? Perhaps we should move away from collectivism and work towards a greater understanding of the individual experience. If we don’t, I fear we’ll have eight years of Trump instead of four.