A Story About Donald Trump, Small Towns, and the Things We Think When We Think No One's Watching
Just 15 miles North of Bellingham is the small farm town of Lynden, Washington. I doubt very much of anything beyond the price of gas has changed in Lynden since the 1970s. Politics, probably. On May 7th, 2016, the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States, Donald Trump spoke at the Lynden Fairgrounds. And I just had to go see the circus for myself.
The farmlands of Western Washington’s Skagit and Whatcom Counties include some of the prettiest terrain within the continental United States. Unlike the infinitely stretching flatlands of the country’s Breadbasket in the Midwest, this “Fruitbasket” is much more densely vegetated, with similar rolling, wooded hills to rural Kentucky or the South, except with less oppressive heat and humidity. One of the last presidential candidates to visit Whatcom County was Bill Bradley, in 2000, when he was running against then-Vice President Al Gore in the Democratic Primary. He lost every single state. This is not heavily contested territory on the national level. Even on the state level, it’s pretty cut and dry. Bellingham and the surrounding area will vote “Blue” with its hippies and college students, and the rural precincts are conservative bastions of traditionally Republican voters; farmers, churchfolk… white people.
Driving up to Lynden, watching the cars and the landscape, and then entering town, driving up Front Street, right down the “historic” downtown district, I could totally understand why the folks in this area might consider themselves the “real” America. I could have been in any one of 40 different states; an out of context photo could be used in the brochure for any suburb across the country. Based on a certain dated, nostalgic ideal of what America perhaps wanted to be in the 1950s, it could even be considered “typical” America. But the thing that makes terms like “real,” or “typical,” or even “middle” America revealingly prejudiced is that this is a very monochromatic America. Whoever coined the phrase “Make America great again,” was very directly targeting this demographic and their idea of what makes America “great” in the first place.
Two days prior, the Trump campaign decided to cancel the campaign stop they had scheduled in Seattle, in favor of one in Lynden and one in Spokane. It was a predictable move, as the two are both not only much more politically conservative than Seattle, but also a lot less ethnically diverse. Aside from ensuring a larger base of support, they were also lessening the odds that the friction between them and the resistance would lead to violence. White detractors of Donald Trump are much less emotionally invested in their position than people of color.
Consequently, the scene outside the rally in Lynden was a lot less of the violent culture clash I’d seen YouTube videos of, and a lot more like two neighbors yelling at each other over a fence, “You’re an idiot, Bob!” “Yeah, well you’re a socialist, Dave!” “Okay, see you at church on Sunday!” I was taken aback by how dispassionate anyone present was about politics at a campaign event for what has been heralded as one of the most divisive Presidential elections in history.
What actually shocked me, however, as I milled about the mile-long line leading into the rally, was that over half the people I talked to were not Trump supporters. They were not Hillary cronies, or overzealous, misguided “Berners” (they were on the other side of the street, more on them later). Most of the crowd in line to see Donald Trump were, as one couple put it for me, “Just here to see the craziness.” A fair number were either longtime Republicans or just people who hate Hillary Clinton, almost all of whom admitted, they don’t know who to vote for, and might abstain completely, but a vast majority are people who – like me – gave up on our political system years ago, and – also like me – only showed up for the sake of entertainment. As one police officer told me, after commenting on how surprisingly civil the event was shaping up to be, “I haven’t voted for President in 20 years. Who cares who’s in the White House? Local and state elections, sure, but this is basically just a reality show.”
Lesser of Two Evils
“Stopping Trump is a short-term solution. The long-term solution, and it will be more difficult, is fixing the educational system that has created so many people ignorant enough to vote for Trump.”
That quote is the biggest takeaway from this entire nightmare of a Presidential campaign cycle. The reason the nightmare has become such a long process, is because nobody responds to logic any more. It’s about indoctrination. Repetition. Trump supporters just regurgitate nonsense about “making America great again” and their wall. Hillary’s lemmings just babble on and on about “stopping Trump” and “too much being at stake.” Even Bernie’s fans – God love ‘em, their heart’s in the right place – by and large have no fucking idea who or what they’re voting for, just that he’s clearly not selling them the same bold-faced lies as every other candidate since the Civil Rights Movement.
Regardless of where they stand on this clusterfuck, the majority of the American People are incapable of critical reading or listening to such a horrifying degree that, if genuine understanding of the political system and its realities was a prerequisite for voting, less than 1% of the country would be qualified. Donald Trump’s “policy proposals” are barely complete sentences, yet his supporters take them seriously. Clinton voters making under $200k a year are totally oblivious to the discrepancies between her platform and her voting record, not to mention the fact that her entire political career has been a lead-up to buying this election. Sanders supporters seem convinced that one man who, like Trump, has almost no allies in Washington, is going to somehow change the practices of a government in which more than half of the elected officials are nothing more than wealthy con artists who found the ultimate grift. We’re all too stupid to know any better than just voting for who we’re offered, and in this election cycle it has finally become blatantly apparent that the candidates understand that. Especially Donald Trump.
The droves of Sanders supporters across the street from the line into the rally were just as bad. They likely all thought their signs decrying Trump’s hateful rhetoric were quite clever, forgetting that screaming at uneducated strangers is not only quite hateful in its own right, but totally counterproductive. Stupid people don’t get smarter when you call them stupid. Racists don’t reconsider their position just because you accuse them of supporting hate. All it does is further galvanize them and send them further down the path of thinking they’re right to worry about the position of people who look like and agree with them, and further from compromise.
We’ve gotten to a point where information is unimportant. It’s all about phrasing. “The Message.” Staying on topic, even if the things you’re saying are of absolutely no substance, so long as they “sound right.” We’ve totally cast aside content for rhetoric, and THAT is why we’re faced with an increasingly likely Trump presidency. Nobody actually knows what he stands for, we just know what he’s said in his speeches, and nobody knows if he actually believes any of that, or if he’s just saying it to get elected. While I agree, it’s a little scary to have a complete wild card with his hands on the proverbial “Button,” I’m pretty sure even Donald Trump doesn’t know what Donald Trump would do in certain situations. He’d probably improvise, which probably wouldn’t go very well – and that may be the best argument against his candidacy I’ve heard yet – but he’s not clever enough to be Hitler, and he clearly doesn’t have a concrete plan, so for better or worse, I can honestly say I’m no longer really afraid of Trump being the President.
What does scare me are the people he’s galvanizing. What scares me is that they’ve always existed. They’ve always thought the things he’s now saying on television, and they think he’s actually going to turn America into their ideal version of it. Newsflash: I can almost guarantee you he won’t. Obama couldn’t push through an un-gutted Affordable Care Act with a majority Democratic Congress. Trump is almost universally hated by the establishment of both parties. He does not stand a single chance of deporting any more people than usual, building his ridiculous wall, or being taken seriously enough by any foreign leaders to affect our relations with them (any more so that George Jr). If he even manages to keep from getting impeached in his first 6 months with all the people on both sides of the aisle gunning for him, I’ll be genuinely impressed.
But what Donald Trump has done is pushed us back about 30 years in terms of our tolerance of ignorant racism, and that’s something that, whether he wins or loses, is already a fait accompli.
Y'all Ain't From Around Here
“This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.”
Time for me to admit something. I am a racist.
Your turn. So are you.
So is that Mexican fella over there, so is your grandmother, so are all the heroes you had in your childhood, as well as Oprah, Jon Stewart, Kofi Annan, every world leader, and every human born on this planet to date. By our nature as creatures who take in 90% of our information about the world through sight, we all sort, categorize, and to some extent prejudge people based on what they look like – specifically in comparison to ourselves and the people we grew up around. The decisions we make about how we treat people based on those distinctions are what separate the shitheads we generally label as “racists” from the folks who know that’s not a particularly good criteria to judge others based on.
This country also has the added disadvantage of being founded on an economy built off the enslavement of one particular race, followed by a century and a half of atrocity inflicted upon them after the country nearly tore itself in half from the debate over whether or not this was moral. This took place both before and after we exterminated an entire race (or, according to members of that race, several hundred different races) in an effort to establish our current geographical layout, giving no second thought to the morals of that proposition. Also, every group of immigrants that arrived – even after we erected a big statue at the door, welcoming them – have been treated as subhuman nuisances by the groups that came before them.
So you could say, we’ve had some issues treating people based on racial criteria before. But in many ways, we’re among the least heinous countries on the planet in terms of this, historically. Half the countries in Africa have seen a genocide in the last 50 years. The injustices the British Empire committed against indigenous ethnic groups around the world are innumerable, and surpassed only by every other empire that existed before theirs. People are racist. All people. Not just a little bit. Inherently.
However, America is in a complicated position, being one of the few (if not only) countries founded on the principle that “all men are created equal.” A pretty convincing argument can be made that that’s not at all what the men who codified that notion believed, but for the most part, our history is littered with instances of people fighting (often bloodily) for that sentence to be taken seriously and literally. Most recently, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is looked at as a shining example of our society’s triumph over our baser inclination to segregate and oppress those who look different. But it would be ludicrous to suggest that we are beyond the argument of race. Vast portions of this country believe in the superiority of the white race, and while, over the last half a century they have been pushed to the margins of reasonable discourse, few, if any of them, have actually changed their minds.
Racism comes from ignorance. You don’t know someone, so you assume they’re like everyone else who looks like them. I hate white people for this reason. I genuinely prejudge every white person I meet, assuming they are entitled, squeamish, weak, and easily made uncomfortable until proven otherwise. I’m also fascinated with black people, because where I grew up, there weren’t many. I also assume that all Hispanics are friendly and have a good sense of humor. These are all racist statements. Even the positive ones. I base my initial opinion of everyone I meet on the predominant trait I’ve observed in the majority of other people of their race. We all do this, because otherwise every person you meet would be starting at square one, and that’s just not how our brains work.
Spending a day talking to Trump supporters, hearing over and over their fear of Muslims and Mexicans and anyone from a place they know nothing about, I realized, these are not hateful people; they’re afraid. On an individual basis, when you talk to one of these people, the vast majority are not personally interested in oppressing anyone. They’re just afraid of what would happen if they were suddenly surrounded by people who live differently than they do. The problem occurs when you put a large group of them together, and the conversation turns from how afraid they are (which they would never admit to themselves, much less one another), to how they will “protect” themselves. The world is a scary place, and when you don’t know what someone wants, or what they’re about, the natural inclination is to feel threatened. The other tendency is to believe whatever worst-case scenario is presented about these strangers.
Donald Trump built his whole campaign on that single point. The only reason these people identify with him is because they’re all scared of people who don’t look like them, talk like them, and believe in the God they worship. Trump will not destroy this country, but enough of those people, all feeding each other’s fear just might. Everybody’s a racist, Trump just played that card – probably not even knowing how powerful it was, and probably with little thought to what the long-term ramifications would be. Yugoslavia, the country of my birth, was destroyed in precisely this way.
“Stopping” Trump in this election cycle is not going to undo what he’s set in motion. To be fair, he didn’t really start this, he’s just an opportunist who saw the chance and took it. This is the endgame American Politics have been marching steadily toward since Nixon, and probably before. Trump just poured gasoline on the fire (hopefully blowing up the GOP in the process). If Hillary Clinton is our next President, the newly vindicated radical, racist Right will not just sit by and let her do that job. There will be violent insurrections, and she will respond in the same way she always has to tense situations, in the same way her husband responded in Waco, Texas.
Make no mistake, friends, this is where we’ve been headed with our internal political struggles since the end of the Civil War. I’d like to tell you the solution is to elect an honest man and vote out all the dead weight in the Midterms, but I honestly think it’s a little late for that. I’m not saying a violent end to this American Union is imminent – I’m not that confident in my assessment of the demographic makeup of our country – but I do think it’s inevitable. I don’t think we can de-escalate the divisions that these last 6 months of mindless bickering, or the next 6 months of insufferable campaign commercials have carved. Things are going to get worse before they get better, and when all’s said and done, I very much doubt we’ll be living in the United States our forefathers established.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Hillary Clinton will get the votes she paid for (in both dollars and quid-pro-quo), and serve out her term without incident. But is that the America you want to live in? One where the face of our nation is someone nobody likes, who only got the job because the alternative was a brash, uneducated, cocky, selfish, bigot? Or would you rather have that bigot saying things on international news broadcasts that make you cringe because they prove how stupid, shallow, and easily manipulated we actually are as a society?
Either way, it looks like for the next four years, Americans, as a group will be represented before the world much more honestly and accurately than we’d probably like to be, and with much more integrity than whoever is doing the representing probably intended. Fitting, I suppose…