One of the great mysteries of contemporary politics has been how ubiquitous and enduring the conservative narrative remains that Barack Obama is a uniquely sinister figure, a Muslim socialist terrorist-coddling America-destroying catastrophe. Often expressed in anguished cries of ‘our country can’t survive four more years of this,’ it’s frankly comical. Which explains the omnipresent “Thanks, Obama” joke.
President Obama was elected in the middle of a financial crisis of historic dimensions, which he had nothing to do with creating. His Presidency has coped with the crisis aftermath with resolution and intelligence. The economy is recovering, growing, creating jobs. By any estimation, he’s done a good job. He’s been an excellent President.
At the same time, prosperity has not blessed everyone, and for a lot of people, the last seven years have been terribly difficult. Hence the phenomenon of Donald Trump. People are angry, and that what they’re angry at can be summed up as ‘whoever’s in charge.’ Presidents make for easy targets, and voter anger is growing. And those who are feeling it, and those who respond by embracing Trump, tend to be white, rural, working class and poor.
The National Review’s Kevin Williamson took a stab at explaining why. Which, of course, since it’s TNR means an explanation compatible with movement conservatism. Guess what? It’s their fault:
It perpetuates a lie: that the white working class that finds itself attracted to Trump has been victimized by outside forces. It hasn’t. Nobody did this to them. They failed themselves. If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy, you will come to an awful realization. Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.
On top of all that, they’re dying. The death rate among white is rising. Suicide, alcoholism and opioid abuse mean that the US is unique among all industrial nations in having a sizeable sector of the population with a rising death rate. And counties with high death rates among whites also tend to swing Trump’s way electorally.
Which means that Trump’s candidacy isn’t about the supposed power of reality-show celebrity, it isn’t about the cretinous stupidity and foolish cupidity of uneducated folks, and it probably isn’t much about xenophobia and racism. It’s built on a foundation of desperation and fear and panic and hopelessness. I’m not saying that Donald Trump has any solutions to any of this. He doesn’t. But when he says he’s going to make America great again, that’s enormously appealing to people who might otherwise give up. And when conservative talk radio talks about the Obama apocalypse, it resonates. In their towns, communities, homes, life can seem pretty daggone post-apocalyptic.
But, I have to say this: National Review is wrong. The analysis in this odious article is wrong about absolutely everything, except for one sentence. What the rural poor need is precisely what the urban poor need: opportunity. Everything Williamson describes–the breakdown of families, the drug and alcohol addictions–are symptoms, not causes. In fact, Williamson’s entire article is an exercise in arrogance and false judgment; blaming the poor for their misery. The Book of Mormon offers this riposte:
Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just. But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind? Mosiah 4: 17-19
Start there. Start by refuting the way modern conservatism preaches a gospel of selfishness, the false Ayn Randian world-view of heroic achievers and worthless moochers, the 47% canard. Poor people, white or black, are not freeloaders. As Paul Krugman points out: “the argument that the social safety net causes social decay by coddling slackers runs up against the hard truth that every other advanced country has a more generous social safety net than we do, yet the rise in mortality among middle-aged whites in America is unique: Everywhere else, it is continuing its historic decline.”
What’s the answer? First and foremost, we need to recognize the sad truth that income inequality leads inexorably to opportunity inequality. The codified selfishness embodied by anti-tax fanatics like Grover Norquist, the faux compassion of Paul Ryan’s condescending description of a social safety net that becomes “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency,” any and all explanations for poverty that blame it on the poor have to be immediately and emphatically rejected.
What’s needed are jobs, and to qualify for those jobs, education. Improved public schools, in which teachers are respected (and compensated like the dedicated professionals they are), and creativity and imagination are fostered and encouraged and rewarded, in which every child has a computer and internet access, let’s start there, in our inner cities and in our outer small rural areas. And yes, absolutely, provide social safety nets: food stamps and housing help and health care and child care for working moms.
It will mean, politically, raising taxes. It means telling the truth about trickle-down economics–which is that it doesn’t. Nothing trickles down, except misery and despair. It means abandoning, forever, the myth of welfare dependency. It means investment. It means giving people a hand up when they need it, a chance to better themselves. It means that those who rail against taxing those who have prospered in this economy need to be called out as the cowardly traitors they are.
Do you think corporate taxes could, or should be lower? (In fact, I do). All right, Mr. CEO. Here’s a list of five struggling communities. You want a tax break? Build factories in any two of them.
Donald Trump’s actual proposals, on his website, won’t help. He’s all bluster, with no real ideas. But we could enlist him. I think it’s possible he may actually care. In any event, the success of his candidacy is remarkable, and, if it leads to genuine change, could be a positive thing. But he shouldn’t be President. What we need are people in office committed to actually helping poor people. That’s the bottom line.
Let’s just recognize that the poor are still among us. And they’re dying. And their poverty is, absolutely and inequivocally, Not Their Fault.