Hey, Rural America: A Brief Word About Why All the Liberals are Freaking Out?
So, it happened. Trump is President. Don’t pinch yourself; I tried that, a lot, so I’m pretty sure this isn’t a collective nightmare. (Also, don’t dunk your head into freezing water; you’ll just earn yourself a nasty cough, a trip to the doctor, and a possible case of pneumonia.)
Despondency seems a pretty reasonable reaction to many of us on the Left. But we’re all pretty well unified in our moral outrage and/or disgust. So, I’m going to take a second to talk to the people who might not understand said moral outrage and disgust. Liberal readers, feel free to stick around, of course, but this is more of a conversation between rural folk and…I guess a rural ex-pat? I don’t want to make my identity issues a focus of this piece, but I think it’s relevant in this case.
I grew up on a farm about five minutes outside of Mt. Angel, Oregon. I have four siblings, about fifty first cousins, and everyone knows I’m a Kraemer just by looking at me. (More than a few people have guessed that I’m “Dan’s son,” or “Harold’s grandson” on sight alone, as a matter of fact.) My family came to the Willamette Valley over 100 years ago, and we’ve stuck around. Sure, my big sister moved to Hawaii for a few years, and I have a sister up in British Columbia, but generally-speaking, when people leave, they come back. Usually after no more than a few years. As long as there are people on this Earth, there will be Kraemers in that Valley.
But I’ve always been an odd duck, as far as my family goes. I left in a big way, a couple times; my first year of college I was in Washington, D.C. (a cesspool of a city if there ever was one), and I knew within two weeks I knew I needed to go home. So I did. I transferred to a liberal arts college back in Oregon as soon as I could, and I finished out my undergrad degree (and incidentally picked up all my obnoxious liberal values). I planned to stay in Oregon, or at least the Pacific Northwest, for the rest of my life, from that point on. But, in one of those moments which is still so surreal I’d be convinced it was a dream if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m looking at a building just slightly younger than our country, then I won a scholarship to attend the University of Cambridge for two years. And of course I went, because success and prestige and life experiences and blah blah blah. Leaving home for the second time in my life, this time to head to the other side of the world, wasn’t something I can say I gave much thought to, because I was thinking of what a Cambridge degree would mean for my future. But what I should have been thinking about was what being away from my family and community and my state would mean. Every day that I’m here, away from home, the only thing I can think about is how much longer it is until I can go back, because the only place I want to be, at the end of the day and at the end of my days, is back there in the Valley.
So yes. I’m a liberal. Yup, I received a degree from a liberal arts university. Yeah, I fully admit that I talk like an elitist dick (and I apologize for that; I swear it is not intentional). And I understand that I’m hardly a country boy in the classic sense. But all that other stuff? The degree, the education, all that? Its secondary to who I am. A veneer, and one that I have grown increasingly sick of, frankly. So, for the purposes of this article, just forget about it, as best you can.
Anyway. Hey folks. These protests and what probably looks like a strange attempt by 1/3 of the country to collectively reenact Chicken Little are, more than likely, a little confusing. At the very least, you’re probably happy that you don’t have to deal with the traffic hang-ups and such. A good many of you are probably not so much confused as extremely annoyed; after all, Trump is President, we should just accept that and move on, right? (I have seen that comment and others like it a lot lately, so I’m just guessing it’s a popular sentiment.)
You’re not wrong; Trump is President, and technically there is little anyone can do about it right now. But I gotta disagree with the unspoken part of that thought, which is that it’s not a big deal that Trump is President. In a sense, this isn’t far off the mark, either. Presidents do not have the unlimited power that a lot of folks (and possibly Trump himself; his civics never seemed very strong) mentally imbue them with. But they have a lot of power, and Trump has the support of both houses of Congress. Think back to the opening days of the Obama Presidency. The uncertainty, the sense that your country had changed in a serious way? So, take those feelings and transpose them onto the Left. Now their reactions might make a little more sense. Then combine those feelings with the outrage surrounding the 2000 election (if you can remember that far back; I was eight at the time, so I just remember a lot of trash-talk about Florida, but that seems to be a social constant). Trump lost the popular vote by 2.9 million votes, at current count. I won’t get into the debate about his legitimacy (John Lewis got into that with Trump recently, and David Remnick covered that better than I ever could), but I will say that the anger out there isn’t unwarranted. Our country is in a spiral (I won’t say “death spiral” just yet, but the shoe is fitting better and better and better, it seems like) of outrage; we bounced from a President who probably looked like every nightmare of the Right personified, to a President who (speaking confidently as a liberal) is every nightmare of the Left personified.
At this point, some of you might be thinking “Well, let’s just give him a chance. He hasn’t been in office that long.” Well, again, you have a point. At the time I’m writing this Trump has been President for about a week. But in the first hour he reversed a move by Obama to reduce mortgage rates on Federal Housing Administration loans by a quarter of a percent, which doesn’t sound like a lot but will cost the working families most of you belong to an extra $500 a year on a $200,000 mortgage, or an extra 79 hours of work at the federal minimum wage level, or an extra 33 hours of work if you’re making $15 an hour. And his press secretary’s first press conference was an almost pathetic and certainly rather Orwellian dressing-down of the news media for misrepresenting coverage of inauguration turn-out, when in fact their coverage was pretty damn accurate. Making things better, a few hours later Kellyanne Conway discussed the possibility that Spicer was simply offering “alternative facts,” and driving sales of 1984 in the process. Trump is moving to dramatically reduce US engagement in the UN. He signed an executive order to reinstate a global gag rule on abortion which threatens to rescind $9.5 billion in global health funding to various public health NGOs—unless they ensure they make zero mention of abortion. He has signed an executive order bolstering border security and ordering the construction of his much discussed “border wall,” a move which has opened a rift with Mexico and caused Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto to cancel a trip to the United States—to which Trump responded with tweets. The list of things goes on and on and on. The Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines? They’re happening now. Besides the policies this President is advocating for, the man himself is not exactly inspiring confidence at the moment; stories have begun to emerge that Trump must be carefully corralled—lest he come across information or opinions which might “infuriate” him. This list goes on. Worse, I’m sure by the time I hit “publish,” something else will have happened. (I had to spend half an hour just now updating this to reflect everything that happened in the last two days.)
The point is, his initial days haven’t been encouraging, but they haven’t involved a solar eclipse, or rains of blood, or anything else portending the apocalypse. Fine, I’ll give you that. But, to me, it’s less about the man himself than it is the people he’s drawn around himself. Trump isn’t a great thinker; when asked shortly before the election what his favorite books were, he gave a typically narcissistic answer: "'The Art of the Deal,' 'Surviving at the Top.'" Those books, dear reader, are books he wrote (though the former was ghostwritten for him, and the real author didn’t have much positive to say about the 45th President of the United States). He also has the alarming tendency to agree with whomever he spoke with last which, considering he’s likely to speak with Vladimir Putin at some point, gives me some pause.
But let’s turn to the people he’s chosen to lead alongside him, as they are the people most likely to heavily influence him, and the real reason, for me at least, why I am terrified of a Trump Presidency. A full accounting of his many appointments would balloon this piece out of control, so I’ll focus on one, Steve Bannon, and give a gloss to a few other glaring examples of “okay, what in the f*ck?” that we can see in Trump’s appointments.
Steve Bannon is the Chief Strategist of the Trump White House, which is a position with somewhat vague responsibilities which vary from administration to administration (in fact, “Chief Strategist” isn’t even what the job has been called in the past), so it is unclear, as yet, just what role Bannon is to have in the Trump administration. But it’s safe to assume that Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Bannon will have overlapping responsibilities in terms of executing the long-term objectives of Trump. So, now for the ugly stuff: Steve Bannon was the chairman of the website Breitbart until he was tapped by the Trump campaign, and...wow, it is just awful. (To those of you who read the damned thing, hello. I’m not sure what to say to you, but hello, thanks for reading, and please don’t dox me.) Bannon called his website "the platform for the alt-right" in summer 2016. For those of you who have been lulled into thinking it isn’t a cadre of rebranded Nazis, a point of clarification: the alt right is just crazy, crazy racist. Ben Shapiro, a former columnist for Breitbart described it as a movement which “Basically…believe[s] that Western civilization is inseparable from European ethnicity—which is racist, obviously.” He continued:
“It’s people who believe that if Western civilization were to take in too many people of different colors and different ethnicities and different religions, then that would necessarily involve the interior collapse of Western civilization…this has nothing to do with the Constitution. It has nothing to do with the Declaration of Independence. It has nothing to do actually with Western civilization. The whole principle of Western civilization is that anybody can involve himself or herself in civilized values. That’s not what the alt-right believes—at least its leading thinkers, people like Richard Spencer…”
Richard Spencer is an interesting guy, and by “interesting,” I mean “truly awful.” In an 2013 article from the Richard Spencer-edited website Alternative Right published an argument was made that black genocide is an idea worthy of consideration: “Instead of asking how we can make reparations for slavery, colonialism, and Apartheid or how we can equalize academic scores and incomes, we should instead be asking questions like, "Does human civilization actually need the Black race?" "Is Black genocide right?" and, if it is, "What would be the best and easiest way to dispose of them?" With starting points like this, wisdom is sure to flourish, enlightenment to dawn.” (This is an archived page because it was deleted almost as soon as it was published, because it was a little blatant by their standards, and protecting brand image is important to neo-neo-Nazis. Also, this means that they aren't drawing any ad revenue from viewings. Also also, here’s a video of Richard Spencer getting sucker punched in case any of you need a palette cleanser.) Granted, it could look like we’re going from Bannon to the alt-right to Richard Spencer, a legit Nazi, and then back to “Trump as Hitler.” Trump isn’t Hitler. Hitler was an ideologue, Trump is…Trump. A thin-skinned narcissist with infantile emotions and a need for approval. But the alt-right sure seems to think he’s Hitler, and they love the man, and his Chief Strategist is, in large part, responsible for the growth of that repugnant movement. It’s not a straight line, or even a line, but more of an ominous suggestion. And trust me, there are plenty of times when “ominous suggestion” turns into “aww crap, is it time for another round of worldwide bloodshed?”
Look, people aren't protesting because of sour grapes: they're protesting because someone like Steve Bannon has an office in the White House now, and the Richard Spencers of the world couldn't be happier with the current occupant of the Oval Office. Trump built a significant support base off these people. Whether or not Trump sympathizes in the least with their views isn't the point. (Also, I doubt the man is physically capable of sympathizing. Or feeling anything other than "angry," "hungry" and "daddy didn't love me enough.") The point is that Steve Bannon probably does, and the alt-right sure as hell likes what Trump has to say (which is condemnation all its own). And that shit is scary in a way that I think should be readily understandable to all of us.
I’m sure my editors are going to be unhappy with the length of this article (sorry Sophia and Julian), so I’ll just end with this: folk aren't talking about resisting Trump because it sounds good or because they like to be overwrought; they're talking about it because our norms as a country are being undermined. We're talking about a resistance because the alt-right has entered mainstream conversation now. Because a man who diverted funds away from AIDS funding towards conversion therapy is the Vice President. Because an oilman with connections to autocrats the world over (and who already has a conflict of interest in carrying out his duties) is poised to be the Secretary of State. Because a woman who has strong connections to the religious far-right and a personal stake in undermining public schools might be the Secretary of Education. Jeff Sessions was considered too racist back in the progressive age of the 1980s to be a judge, and now he’s Attorney General. Rick Perry is set to be in charge of an agency which he wanted to get rid of when he was running for President in 2012 (of course, he couldn’t remember its name). Scott Pruitt has been selected to lead the EPA, even though he’s a climate change denier who actively worked to undermine the EPA during his time as Oklahoma Attorney General. (I could go on.) The point is: we’re talking about a resistance now because it is always better to start that sort of talk too early, or needlessly, than when it’s far too late.
I don’t expect to convert anyone with this article; that’s not at all the point here. All I hope to do is point out that there is good reason for outrage and fear, from our perspective. The problems I listed above might not seem like real issues to you; I didn’t expect that would be the case. But I hope it’s clear why liberals are freaked out right now.
Get pissed off at protesters, sure, but I also implore you to try and understand why people are angry. This isn’t because our person lost. (Frankly I don’t know that many liberals who were particularly overjoyed with Clinton in the first place; had she been elected, the far-left and the far-right would have been attacking her from both sides.) It’s because truly poisonous discourse has been brought into the mainstream, and because a bunch of foxes are in a bunch of hen houses. And that was brought about by someone so self-serving and power hungry that we can’t be sure that he won’t do some truly dangerous things in pursuit of shoring up his hold on power, and because Trump is too weak-willed and ideologically unfettered to really be trusted to hold to whatever convictions he has. I understand why Obama was scary; hell, at the time I was a conservative and I was alarmed too. (Mostly because of governmental overreach, which is still a concern I have.) If we can try to understand one another’s fears we can possibly get through this mess without tearing each other’s faces off. That’s a pretty sad minimum goal, but there it is.
Empathy is hard. It is exhausting. And it isn’t held at much of a premium in a society as cynical as ours. But it is our only hope.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or the views of Arbitror itself.
Photo: “The Future is Me,” Originally taken by Jarod Armstrong with a CC license. Use of this photo does not indicate an endorsement from its creator.