Bubble Weary in Trump’s America

A dispatch from the early days of a divided nation 

I live on a hilltop in Arkansas with my husband, kids, parents, father-in-law and a rotating cast of animals. The current pets are rescues: a tabby cat, a chocolate Lab, a box turtle, an Australian python and a bearded dragon. My husband met someone in a vet’s office with a son going off to college and wanting to get rid of the snake. He found the bearded dragon sunning on the bike path. It was May, near some college housing—maybe its owner got bored and decided to dump it? My husband, who keeps spare terraria in our garage, popped the lizard in his pannier. We named it Spike.

In the past, we have had a wine carafe of tadpoles, scooped from a puddle, as a dining table centrepiece. Twice, native snakes collected in our yard have given birth in our living room. At one point, twelve baby king snakes were living in our window seat. My husband requisitioned half the Tupperware and punched holes in the lids: each egg needed its own hatching habitat or it might get eaten by its mom. We fed them worms we dug daily.

I usually confess all this with a wry, long-suffering expression, as though I am a martyr. Do I, in fact, enjoy the frisson of rustic glamour brought by the seething, unexpected life under my roof? In fact, I do. Do these animals cost me time, money and effort? Yes. Do they make the lives of my family richer? I guess. We care for these animals although we cannot know their minds. They do not, with the exception of the Lab and maybe the cat, a little, show any particular interest in us. Looking after them is educational and we feel it is, in some vague way, a moral good. Also, they amuse us.

But my fake martyrdom is even faker than you think: my “hilltop in Arkansas” is situated in Fayetteville, a congenial college town. My study window looks out over a valley filled right now with roseate leaves, threaded with trails. I bike to work at the university past great coffee shops and a used bookstore half a block long. Any minute now, I will see my neighbour walk past with his son in a stroller; he is an Arkansan who became a hedge fund manager in New York but who then convinced his Turkish-born, Manhattan-raised wife to move back to raise their kids in Fayetteville.

She was skeptical. I was, too, coming here ten years ago; but this town turns out to be relatively culturally rich. The university ensures a high density of interesting people, so you can easily end up talking about Proust while watching your toddler play at the park. We have an excellent performing arts centre and public library, although both are heavily subsidized by the Walton Family Foundation, headquartered in a town a few miles north of us. Walmart’s original storefront, on a town square featuring a statue of a confederate soldier, is now a 1950s-style soda counter and “museum”—a gallery of tributes to this emblem of global capitalism. We like to say we are the only community in the world that can “buy local” at Walmart.

Which is to say I live in a bubble, a term much bandied about in the days after the 2016 election came to its thundering close, mostly levelled at the upper middle class, East Coast, college-educated, metropolitan liberal elites who have been ignoring the pain of the unemployed blue-collar populations in the dying factory towns of the heartland.

The neighbour who walks past our house every morning sent me a quiz shortly after the election: “Do You Live in a Bubble?” I texted back, “Um, obviously. But I’ll take it. Love me a quiz.” (This is one of the southern linguistic formulations I have most taken to, together with “y’all.”) The quiz, designed by Charles Murray, a libertarian and a fellow at the Enterprise Institute, asks questions such as whether you have ever: lived in a town under 50,000 where you did not go to college; known an evangelical Christian; had a job that caused something to hurt at the end of the day (carpal tunnel syndrome does not count); bought a pickup truck; participated in a parade not involving global warming, a war protest or gay rights; worn a uniform since leaving school; watched Dr. Phil; or bought domestic, mass-market beer to fill your own fridge. The more of these things you say yes to, the thinner your bubble. The group described by those behaviours is the one that many of the analysts, on both sides of the political divide, say washed Trump to power: middle America, angry that its members can no longer earn a living wage in a factory and, in a subsidiary way, threatened by the values that the Democratic party—once the party of the working class, now the champion of liberal elites, of immigrants and refugees, of LGBTQ Americans—displayed by choosing Clinton, a condescending, double-talking woman, to represent them in this race.

Pundits are recommending that Brooklyn hipsters move to small Midwestern towns. Some of my friends, in the immediate aftermath of the election, tried to talk with friends and relatives in the Rust Belt, to hear them out, whether because they did not already understand their frustration or because they felt it important somehow to build bridges. I already felt inundated with articles on this group’s grievances in the liberal media I consume; I had lost count of the headlines announcing yet another dissection of working class anger. In this analysis, people in towns that, from the 1940s through the ’70s were sustained by manufacturing, now can barely get minimum-wage work. And they do not want minimum-wage work—they want the assembly-line jobs that used to pay them what I make as a professor at a public university. Somehow, though, their anger is not directed at the companies outsourcing their labour in search of higher profits, and permitted to do so by treaties such as the North American Free Trade Agreement. It might be directed somewhat at technologies making them redundant. Mostly, it appeared to be directed at Hillary and liberals and Mexican immigrants and Muslims.

Why is that? “The dream is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable—just with more money.” So says a Harvard Business Review piece called “What So Many People Don’t Get about the U.S. Working Class.” According to the writer, Joan Williams, this is why those voters identify with Trump, despite his being a billionaire, a silver spoon New Yorker: “the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich … Owning one’s own business—that’s the goal. That’s another part of Trump’s appeal.”

Trump speaks the way they speak; he eats the things they eat; he has no interest in the books and facts and civil rights they have no interest in. Sorry. That last bit sounded like bubblespeak. But this has to be part of why these voters trusted him more than they trusted Hillary, despite the fact that he probably would get a lower score on the bubble quiz than I did, and despite the unlikeliness that Trump, who surely is still benefiting from the free movement of capital enabled by neoliberal trade policies, would now dismantle such agreements and “bring jobs back to America,” as the refrain went.

In other words, this vote was not only a referendum on the economy; it was in many ways a referendum on American identity and values. There is a Nikki Giovanni poem I kept coming across when I was reading about unwarranted arrests and killings of black men. It seems germane:

Allowables
I killed a spider
Not a murderous brown recluse
Nor even a black widow
And if the truth were told this
Was only a small
Sort of papery spider
Who should have run
When I picked up the book
But she didn’t
And she scared me
And I smashed her

 

I don’t think
I’m allowed

 

To kill something
Because I am

 

Frightened

Statistics suggest people will swerve to avoid hitting a turtle but will swerve to run over a snake. I often see that instinctual fear of snakes, from guests, in our living room, although our python is behind glass and cannot even bite very hard. We do not like this snake—it is inbred, unintelligent and unfriendly, unlike the king snakes, which were beautiful and relaxed easily in our arms. But the python lives here now—this is its home. It did not have anywhere else to go. Australia is sure not looking to welcome it back onto native soil, after three generations of living and breeding in America, serving America’s need for exotic pets.

I have a friend, Matthew, who grew up in Harrison, Arkansas, a town a few hours east of Fayetteville that was in the national news a few years ago for a billboard at the town entrance that reads “Anti-Racist Is a Code Word for Anti-White.” There were protests and an official statement from the mayor saying that he considered the sign “inflammatory, distasteful and not in line with the truth on how Harrison is a city of welcoming and tolerant citizens.” Still, the sign remains, at the entrance to Matthew’s parents’ subdivision. Harrison, a biracial town until the early 20th century, had driven its black residents out and then was a “sundown town”—a town that posted warnings that no black people should be caught there after dark—until some surprisingly recent time.

A few days before the election, Matthew told me a story from his childhood: he was standing around with “some moms, pillars of the community” after a parade. The two or three black families in town, recent arrivals, were cleaning up after the horses, the only job anyone would give them. The moms started talking about them. “Right in front of me, they all turned racist. The language they used. Completely without apology or self-consciousness.” He had never seen the moms like this, apparently because there was no one to bring it out in them.

This seems key: the structures that preserve white communities are often invisible. It also seems important to point out that a huge proportion of educated, white-collar whites also voted for Trump, although there are indications that they would not say that to pollsters, and so accounted in some part for the surprising result. Perhaps the white working class has more in common with these elites than either of those classes realized or will admit.

But I don’t think the angry segment of the white working class is mostly resentful that we in the liberal bubble are not trying to understand them—we do understand them, up to a point. I think they are resentful that their bubble has been popped and that we have different names for their beliefs. Under a microscope, few credos can be defended as objective or rational. The fallback position, then, is to make them defensible on the basis that they define an identity.

The NPR show This American Life, a great favourite of my bubble, ran a number of election-related pieces last month. One was a dispatch from St. Cloud, Minnesota. In the last 20 years, a number of Somalis have settled there and in other Minnesota towns, fleeing a civil war and a famine. St. Cloud has gone from almost all white (it used to be nicknamed “White Cloud”) to five percent Somali—10,000 out of about 190,000 residents. In 2013, the Somalis proposed a mosque. In response, St. Cloud residents formed a committee, “St. Cloud Citizens for Reasonable Zoning,” to resist this. In 2015, in a meeting with their local congressman, this group said they “wanted to talk about assimilation. Nobody asked us if we, in St. Cloud, want those Somalis. We didn’t ask for these people. The people have no control over any immigration.”

At first, the congressman was outraged, saying no one could tell legal immigrants where to live, and that Somalis were among the fastest-­integrating immigrant groups: “If you’re asking me how I feel about immigrant populations who are in this country legally, and who are actually trying to find a better way for themselves and their families, I support it wholeheartedly.”

But then a woman stood up to speak, someone the congressman knew. She said, “We also work hard, and we also pay our taxes. And we also have kids to raise and go to school … And I think part of the fear—some of you talked about our fear—is that we don’t feel in control of what’s happening in our city. It is out of our control. Where is our say on what happens to our schools?” She wanted the same thing the previous speaker did—a moratorium on immigration, to St. Cloud, to the United States—but the congressman heard her differently, because, he thought, “this is a problem, because this person is not that way … This person is not a xenophobe, not a racist.”

This is the sort of qualifier almost anyone hears when talking to a reasonable person who is a Trump supporter or defends Trump supporters. I wrote to one such friend the day after the election: a Christian, but not one of the lefty Episcopalians of my Fayetteville circle. John and I met on a plane a couple of year ago and fell into a warm conversation that lasted three hours. His most salient qualities are humility and graciousness, but he tends to credit his ethics to his Christian devotion. He believes literally in the resurrection; this came up in our first conversation. We also talked about family (he has four children, all adopted, one mixed race) and literature (he started the conversation by asking me about the book I was reading) and the minimum wage, which was the only point we really debated that day. He is a good listener and believes in hard work and giving back: he has grown a small equipment company into a regional force, and gives ten percent of his profits—in the millions—to charities, mostly ones suggested by his employees.

In my email to John on November 9, I said I was in pain and asked him how he felt about the election: “I’m sure you know people who voted for Donald Trump (you may have even voted for him). I believe many might feel they needed to vote for him because he was the candidate of a party that would defend many of their values, despite how he has promoted racism and misogyny, at his rallies and in his private life. I also know of at least one Christian leader, a lifelong Republican, who spoke vehemently against him.”

John’s response was that both candidates were equally morally flawed and that he thought Christians who voted for Trump mostly did it to ensure a conservative Supreme Court. “I do know that there are a lot of people who did vote for Trump who are not racists, bigots, ignorant or deplorable,” John said. “They open their homes to the homeless, they defend the oppressed and seek freedom for the captives. But in either camp, you will also have some pretty nasty people who are deplorable and intolerant.”

I responded that I did not call Trump or his supporters racists but said they promote or allow racism and misogyny. John told me, “He is an equal opportunity offender. The way he was so condescending to the other white male candidates for president, someone could say he is a racist against middle-aged white men.” I responded with a version of what I once saw black poet Claudia Rankine tell a white man asking her about reverse racism: “I have no power over you, so whatever I say to you or about you is not racism. Racism is about power.”

In the wake of the election, there was a rash of reflexive hate behaviour and hate crimes in Fayetteville, as in many places around the country. Someone shouted “Go back to Allah!” at one of my South Asian–American colleagues; another colleague received an email from a student of colour with the subject line “Excused Absence?” saying that she could not leave her dorm room because people outside it were taunting her. By Saturday, we had received a message from the chancellor affirming the university’s commitment to diversity, peace and freedom for scholarly pursuit; by Monday, a hotline had been created to report harassment and provide escorts to anyone feeling unsafe.

Because I am not Latino or Muslim, although I could be mistaken for either, the streets feel only marginally less safe to me than they did prior to November 8. (I suspect that for black Americans, it all feels exactly the same.) When I was a kid, in the suburbs of Edmonton, white kids told me to go back where I came from, waylaid me with racial taunts, egged our house. I never particularly thought of these as expressions of racism, because the bullying did not appear to me institutionally supported in the way that similar taunts against black children in the South were. I did not see structures holding me back, did not speculate until much later about the resentful conversations that might be happening in those houses.

Although I started feeling strange and anxious when Trump signs started appearing in my neighbourhood six months ago, all my personal experiences have remained as friendly as ever. The expressions of violence post election feel like a micro shift, certain people saying aloud what they said all along in private, although most Americans likely “aren’t that way”—that is, they do not say explicitly racist things in private, either.

In some ways, I prefer racism hidden. I believe all of us harbour some irrational fear of the other and some desire to protect our clan. It is only when those categorical fears are marshalled for oppression that it becomes incumbent on me to name and oppose them. This is one reason I do not call Trump supporters bigots, even while naming their actions or speeches as xenophobic or misogynist. I leave it to them to say who they are; I do not know their souls.

One of my graduate students, a white East Coast liberal male with Midwestern origins, came to talk to me last week. He was in obvious, near-physical pain, and quoted Jamelle Bouie, writing in Slate on Hurricane Katrina. Bouie says that this, not Barack Obama’s election, was “the most defining moment in black America’s relationship to its country.” My student said that he thought most white Americans never had such a moment. I wonder if this election will be that defining moment for young people like him. If so, it might be a kind of inverse of the Katrina effect: the moment for a painful shedding of a certain complacency that the Obama years, in particular, allowed; for an effort to see what can easily go unseen; for a full and proper recognition of the place they enjoy in America, and the blindness that accompanies it. A lot of young white people are shaking their heads and saying this was not the America they thought they were living in. In fact, for many Americans, it always was—as this election may have helped bring to light.

I suspect that Matthew had his moment at that parade when he was little. He grew up to become a city councillor, one who works on climate change initiatives and who helped to make Fayetteville the first municipality in Arkansas to pass an anti-discrimination bill.

Last week, a good friend, whose daughter is twelve, the same age as my son, posted on Facebook about being, in her words, “Trumped” by a business associate of her father’s when she was our kids’ age: “Left in the room alone with me for a brief moment, he came up behind me and grabbed me, pressed his full torso including his hips into my body, reached his arms around me and grabbed my developing breasts, pulling me into him hard.” She got away but did not tell anyone, full of shame and afraid she would not be believed. The election prompted her to go public with her story and tell her daughter that even if her president brags about doing such things, they are not okay. I, too, had a conversation with my son. I told him about a similar incident I had witnessed when I was his age, and said I was counting on him to stop such behaviour if he ever saw it. He came home the next day wearing a safety pin, given to him by a friend.

I am still having long email debates with my Christian friend, John. He has no fear of this administration, while I, as Trump chooses his cabinet, am pretty scared. Many of my friends would call John racist for not denouncing Trump, while I see him as a person trying to articulate his truths, based on some mixture of partial information, fundamental beliefs and personal experience—a person who operates much the way I do, in other words. I feel he ignores structural questions in favour of anecdote; I think he feels that I discount the sins of the left and magnify the sins of the right. He quoted Solzhenitsyn to me: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

I killed a spider last night, a brown recluse. Until I moved here, I had never heard of them, the only American spider, along with the black widow, whose venom is “medically significant.” If you are bitten and if you are sensitive to the toxin—both conditions are rare—a brown recluse bite can necrotize into a pit of rotting flesh, a dramatic and terrifying result. So, for our first years here, we were very afraid of them. Our house has these spiders from top to bottom, in every room. We have found them on ourselves and our children, for ten years, and as far as I know have never been bitten. So this one probably would not have hurt me, but it was in my house and I felt scared. I lifted a book—Maggie Nelson’s liberal-intellectual-LGBTQ classic The Argonauts—and smashed it. Which is to say that I admit there are limits to my hospitality and to my resources and to what I am willing to give.

I think I can listen hard to the other side, with curiosity and some amount of sympathy, but this, so far, has left my fundamental world views untouched. I think John might say the same. Still, while he and I appear to be on different sides of a very wide gulf, he is not pointing fingers, not talking about an “us” and a “them.” He wants to acknowledge that even the tribes that claim us contain a huge diversity of belief. While I feel I have no choice but to forgive many sins on the left, I also acknowledge that there are sins to forgive, complexities to my own positions and to those of my political allies.

Another student of mine, Bill, is a retired army intelligence officer who evacuated the Pentagon on 9/11. He now takes creative writing classes. When I spoke emotionally to my fiction workshop in the days after the election, he quoted a poet from Arkansas, C.D. Wright, formerly a student in our program: “We will have to meet irrational force with savage insight.”

I was skeptical: I know what Bill meant, because we are on the same side of all the big issues, but both sides of the cultural divide are saying such things. Bill is another bubble breaker, though: an old white guy, a career military man, who knows members of Trump’s close circle and calls them “scary.” He is writing letters, telling people in Washington to “put a picture of your grandkids on your desk, because that’s who you’re working for.” He is almost as circumspect as John: he does not pretend to know the future, although he checked the news on his phone at our break in class yesterday and said to me, “It’s going to be a long four years.”

We are girding ourselves, although the future seems to me only one item on a long list of things we cannot pretend to know. Perhaps we can spend these four long years trying better to know them.