Today is inauguration day. I am sure the news is full of stories related to the event. Since I am on a news sabbatical, I have chosen to be intentionally ignorant on the subject. But it’s still on my mind. Even in my ignorance I can feel the weight of what this means, or can mean, for the direction of our country.
Frankly, I don’t think the idea of a Donald Trump presidency is that big of a deal. In the mid-nineties, while working on my political science degree and interning on capital hill, I came to the conclusion that the Federal government, as a whole, stopped being effective long ago. The corruption – both ethical and actual – in government, corporations, and even in mid-sized businesses supporting the activities of those larger outfits, like subcontractors and law firms, is mind-boggling. I am convinced that the only reason this country still seems to work well enough is because people at the lower levels, cogs like me and probably you, plug along doing the best we can to be effective in an already failed system. And this idea always gives me hope.
Most of us do what we do for a paycheck, as a means to support our family, and live the American dream. But, I think what’s changed in this election is that many have finally realized the American Dream is bankrupt. It’s a pin-up poster fantasy that given the degradation of our environment, the corporatization of our values, and the breakdown of our communities can only exist in imagination. And, now that we know, we want someone to blame and hate for leading us down this road to nowhere.
The emotion evoked in this election and post-election period is not about Donald Trump at all – he’s just a TV personality. And despite the rhetoric, I don’t think this is about race either. I think the tension regarding race issues are just symptoms of broader underlying economic issues that impact everyone not safely in the “wealthy class”. I also think the one thing this election proves beyond a shadow of a doubt is that the underlying economic issues can no longer be dismissed as temporary. They are real, legitimate concerns, that we, as a nation, and as citizens of the world must address.
Now that I live outside the Washington DC bubble (a magical place where jobs are copious, salaries extreme, and excess is at an all time high despite the pretenses of cost-cutting) I am able to see things differently. Where I live now, in Surry County, North Carolina, our reported population is 93% white. However, there is a significant number of undocumented agricultural workers, so that figure is probably terribly skewed if you take into account the number of taco trucks, Mexican restaurants, and Latin food stores in our vicinity. For the most part, immigrant workers co-exist peacefully among the documented population even though prejudice against race-mixing and the sense of non-whites being second class citizens (or non-citizens) is still prevalent. More than 18% of our reported population live in poverty and the average household (as in for the whole family) income is in the $36K range. But again, undocumented workers probably increase the poverty figures and lower the average income.
Since 2012, poverty in many parts of North Carolina has been on the rise. From the perspective of neighbors, there’s been no end to the recession. Add to that the fact that income inequality – not along race lines – but between the blue and white collar workers has also climbed quickly and you’ve got the makings for…well, Donald Trump as president.
In every way, the situation in my county, and others like it, has declined for people without academic or technology backgrounds. People here have watched powerless, as quality working class jobs were outsourced to other countries so corporate heads and shareholders could enjoy greater profits. Meanwhile, cost of living has increased as transplants like Matt and I have moved in and unknowingly skewed the market by paying too much for things because our Washington, DC price perspective makes everything here seem so cheap. The rise of tourism around the wineries and breweries has had a similar effect. In a sense this makes the people who live and work here outsiders to the very cultures their communities are now being built around.
And since crime follows poverty, income inequality, and cultural displacement, that too has been on the rise. Here it is mostly in the form of illegal drug activity, violence among those who participate in drug activity, and petty theft to support that habit.
Food security, increasingly a more important indicator of poverty than “the poverty line”, has also declined. More children depend on school lunches for nutrition. More adults feed their families with food bank donations. More families have to make decisions between paying the power bill and buying food.
In much of our state there is pork, pork everywhere but not a bite is American owned. Smithfield, corporate king of the US pork industry and a big part of our local economy, is effectively owned by the Chinese government. We can still buy Smithfield hams, incredibly cheap, at the grocery store along with other Chinese goods. In fact, the artificially low prices of certain food items and “luxury” goods like TVs, phones, and video games has probably delayed the demand for “living wages” by giving lower income households the illusion of still getting by. The advantages of low prices aside, more and more people now have the experience of being the out-sourced labor in their own country because the corporations they work for are owned by the Japanese, Germans, and Chinese.
The rate of globalization and its disturbing effect on small communities, coupled with clear economic losses, make for a good case against foreigners. Throw words like Muslim terrorists or Mexican rapists on that kind of fire and you can see how it might become explosive.
Donald Trump, for better or worse, is an outstanding strategist when it comes to voicing and manipulating the real, legitimate concerns of the left-behind working class. This is not specifically a criticism. All politicians seek to manipulate public opinion. However, in his case, I also think the very talent that catapulted him to the presidency is also going to be an impediment for implementing much of his agenda.
Trump’s rhetoric has elicited excited responses from people on both sides of the political spectrum. His opponents will be vigilant and resourceful in blocking his way. His proponents expectant, and then disappointed with his efficacy as he runs into the same challenges every modern President prior to him has faced. This isn’t a criticism either, since in my mind it has been a long time since any President made a meaningful impact on the quality of American lives. Obama broke a race barrier, one that needed to be broken, but his rhetoric too was greater than the sum of his results. The thing with Trump is that he’s promised so much that even if he were somehow wildly successful, he’d still fall short of his own hype because our problems are much bigger than the presidency.
Personally, I don’t think our present problems can be fixed at the Federal Government level regardless of who is president, until we address the underlying false assumptions that have pushed us to this place. I’ll get into those in another blog.
But in the meantime, I hope we can see our way through a Donald Trump presidency to the deeper issues that deserve attention.