I’m gazing at Mark Singer’s Trump and Me (2016), with an almost equivalent book-length foreword by New Yorker editor David Remnick; Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016); and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016).
Post-Christmas, I’ve read the first two and started the third. The three books raise vexing questions about America’s governing dilemma: how can the poorly educated, white, working class of the central red (Republican) states cope with the simultaneous onslaught of local environmental degradation, the loss of well-paying jobs in manufacturing, the oil and chemical sectors, and the increasing number of line-crashers (the beneficiaries of federal affirmative action policies, recent immigrant refugees, women, and now anyone with a better and more relevant education)? November’s presidential election may well be their last stand, because the demographics start to favour the line-crashers from here on.
For at least the next four years, America will be focused on working out the solutions to problems defined in two radical camps: the Tea Party and the ‘blue coasters,’ the Democrat supporters who tend to dominate in the states around the edges of the nation.
For the former, well-churched citizens, hard work, sacrifice, a minimal reliance on government handouts, little or no regulatory oversight of any industry, and an end to progressive/liberally-sanctioned line-crashing are paramount.
For the latter, the good life implies progressive solutions to the problems of social and economic inequity, a personal story that includes spirituality (if not churching), meaningful work following appropriate state-supplied education, and the right to a clean and stable climate.
How can a Trump presidency reconcile the two world-views and provide the combined desired outcomes?
It’s a tall order.
There’s indisputable evidence of personal success in the face of business challenges. Trump has succeeded in escaping many American dilemmas (consider the relative ease of his multiple bankruptcies and his real estate branding companies’ extensive international reach). But can he transcend his personal needs and embrace public service? He’s (apparently) undecided on whether climate change is happening; is pro-oil, chemicals and coal; and seems to want to close down (or aggressively slim down) federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Energy and Education.
On balance, he’s definitely unbalanced in his appeal to progressives. When you roll in his stridently pro-Israel, pro-Russia, pro-nuke stances, along with his anti-NATO, anti-UN, anti-NAFTA stances, he’s chronically offside. And there haven’t been any real indications of accommodation during the transition period. It would appear that his presidency will start with a pronounced bias.
Reconciling that bias with cross-camp (Tea Party and blue coaster) communication is what Hochschild recommends as the starting point of national reconciliation. As a Berkeley sociology professor and Bay Area resident, she’s a charter blue coaster. Her research (which she characterizes as “exploratory” and “hypothesis generating”) shows that accommodation has promise. It starts with one side expressing openness to dialogue. It continues as real friendships are developed and it involves spending quality time with your new friends. For Hochschild, this included time on the land and water in rural Louisiana, and learning the deep story of team players, worshippers, cowboys and rebels. Hochschild gives evidence that this works. She finds significant common ground. And hope.
What this all boils down to is simple: Americans have a choice. The two camps can fight on or choose accommodation. In a kind and rational world, their choice is obvious.
But do those values really matter anymore?
We’re about to learn if they find succour in a Trump administration. My jury is still out.
The new president has found great success in the defining metric of Tea Partiers: individual wealth.
He has found limited success in the defining metric of blue coasters: empathy.
Despite the best efforts of a trio of authors, Trump will write his own ending.
Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.