This post is not a recrimination of where I grew up — what outsiders now dub deep ‘Trump country.’ It is an ode, in its own way.
Yesterday I woke up at 4:30am and sat around in the kitchen waiting for Manny to wake up too so I’d have someone to talk to.
I absentmindedly ran a red light on my way to work some hours later. I don’t know what happened — I just glided right through it without stopping. Thank God no one got hurt.
Then I graded papers at my desk mechanically for a few hours and somehow managed to teach a 2.5 hour class. Afterward, I drove around the historic district for fifteen minutes looking for parking so I could pop out and mail a package — only to realize I’d forgotten the package at home that morning.
Later, I drove halfway home, after nightfall, without my headlights on.
All of this suggests pretty clearly, I think, that I shouldn’t operate a car for a few days. Because something is wrong with my head. I don’t know how to put it — but I know I’m not alone. Talking to friends and colleagues, I’m hearing stories from people who can’t sleep at night and they don’t know why, who wander around in a fog during the day, starting task after task without finishing anything.
It’s not just my head that’s messed up, either. Muscles around my left eye have been twitching non-stop. It’s driving me crazy. It’s so bad it’s hard to read sometimes. I don’t know what to do. I can’t tell when I’m hungry, when I’m thirsty. My body is also on the fritz.
I remember saying to Manny on Tuesday night, as we watched the election coverage and saw the writing on the wall: “I don’t know how I’m going to get up tomorrow.” I really felt like everything I thought to be ‘true’ about our country was slipping away, or turning on its head. I’ve been in the fog I just outlined ever since.
Let me back up for a moment, though. On Tuesday, I was driving home from work around 5pm, listening to NPR, when a soundbite from a Trump supporter made my blood boil. “What can Hillary Clinton do, if she’s elected, to make you come around?” Mara Liasson asked. A guy, from somewhere in Central Ohio, I think, thought about it for a moment. “Nothing,” he said.
NOTHING?! I thought. Well, then what the hell is the point? If she can’t do anything — anything — to bring you around, then why do we even have elections?
I turned on myself for a moment, then. I was still cocksure Hillary would win. But what if she didn’t? I wondered, hours ahead of learning that she had in fact lost, and decisively as far as the electoral college is concerned. Was there anything Trump could do so that a bleeding heart liberal like me could accept his presidency?
He could stop with the fear-mongering, for a start. He could drop the ridiculous “Lock her up!” chanting and the racist, bigoted, misogynist rhetoric. He could start steering toward a message of unity and quit trying to alienate large swathes of the American demographic.
Those were my thoughts then, and I’m having to make good on them — at least for the moment. As I’ve adjusted to the new political reality, he has indeed adopted, if tentatively, a less divisive and socially intolerant tone. And I’ve begun the hard process of accepting that I was, like so many others, blind to how seriously disaffected roughly half of the U.S. population has become. Whereas, a week ago, I felt sure that Democrats would win not just the Presidency, but, in all likelihood, the Senate, I now see how colored by hubris we were — liberals like me and the media at large.
I’ll cut to the chase. On my way home last night (that ill-fated trip sans headlights…), I heard another interview on NPR, this time with the mayor of Monessen, PA. For those of you who don’t know Monessen, it’s a blighted town outside of Pittsburgh, in the heart of what we now call (not totally affectionately) the Rustbelt. I grew up a few minutes away from this place, in a town that’s arguably even more blighted from the decline of industry in the region — a place called Brownsville, PA. “How blighted is it?” you ask. Blighted enough that the Washington Post wrote a personal interest story about Trump support in the area, focusing on a sad and perhaps mentally unstable women who is among the poorest surrogates for Trump you could marshal. Anyway, I know Monessen, or at least I used to. My high school played theirs in football.
I grew up in Southwestern, PA. I lived in Washington County until I was in third grade and then my family and I moved to Brownsville, the town in Fayette County where my mother had grown up. I lived there from 3rd through 12rd grade, graduating from Brownsville Area High School. When I left — and for good — it was to move to Philadelphia, where I attended the University of Pennsylvania — the same Ivy League School Ivanka Trump attended. We were there at the same time. I didn’t know her, but I saw her an awful lot on campus. People who knew her said she was nice.
From Penn, I went on to graduate school. I lived in Europe for a few years before completing my PhD and eventually married one of my former Penn classmates (Manny). We lived in Brooklyn, NY — which you well-know by now — and then we moved here, to Savannah, where I’m now a college professor and an old-house lover and a basset hound mama. In the meantime, the blighted communities of Southwestern PA — the place where I grew up and the surrounding towns — have declined even further. I returned last spring, when Manny and I went to Pittsburgh to visit my bro and Alyssum. We did a Frank Lloyd Wright tour, so Manny could see Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob — and you have to go through Uniontown and Connellsville, PA to get there. It is sad to see these small, dying towns. Everything you’ve heard on the news about those places being a forgotten corner of the world is true. The people have a right to be angry.
But the mayor of Monessen. His name is Lou Mavrakis and he is no fool. He’s an old-timer, but he summarized on NPR, and eloquently, why Trump won even democrats in the region. He talked about what people there really want to see happen. He pointed out that Trump campaigned there — not just in the city of Pittsburgh, a wonderful place to live and a far-cry from the blight that surrounds it on so many sides. Trump actually campaigned in Monessen. A town with less than 8,000 people. A town just like Brownsville.
A lot of blame is going around right now — a kind of “How did we not see that coming?” Because the truth is that the liberal side of the divide did not. And we have not been listening, at least not effectively, or maybe we would have. Now we are for that reason getting a taste of our own medicine, or so one may say. And I am embarrassed, as someone who should have known better, that I didn’t listen more, or try to understand better. My impulse growing up in a place like Brownsville, feeling often like a square peg in a round hole, was always just to leave.
But I can say this. I see now — as if the scales have fallen off of my eyes — that many, if not most of the people who voted for Trump are not the parody of the Trump-supporter so many Hillary-democrats focused on in the months and weeks and even days leading up to the election. The people of Southwestern PA, for instance, are not fools or sheep. They are people who have sat through the presidencies of Republicans and Democrats alike — Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr., and now Obama — and watched as their quality of life declined further and further. I am a diehard Democrat and a Yankee liberal to my core. But if you are struggling to understand, as someone on my side of the divide, why Trump won, then you should drive through Monessen and Brownsville and eat at one of the diners there. I can still recommend a few, I think, even though I left half a lifetime ago.
I don’t know what I can do about the aspects of a Trump presidency I am most frightened of. I think liberals who feel the same can and should be activists — I for one do not want to live in a country where Roe v. Wade is overturned, where our borders are closed, and where populist policies threaten to sow the seeds of our own destruction. But I also refuse to be like that Trump supporter I heard on NPR at around 5pm on election day, who resolutely refuses to be pacified “no matter what.” I’m not going to spend the next four years angry, tuning out the people I disagree with.
This election is a lot to take in. I am still scared. I am hoping we won’t get the herrenvolk government Trump has so often threatened. I still believe that equality means more to me than ‘freedom.’ But I am also a little ashamed of myself for having believed the myth that all Trump supporters are bigots and racists, overtly or covertly. I’m sad that I failed or refused to understand why people are so angry. Now I’m going to try to be much more respectful of people who think differently so that I can learn. Because the reality is that, while I wish Hillary had won, her presidency would have been difficult. She would have done the good work of carrying forward Obama’s message of tolerance and social progress, but she would have been stymied by opposition and ongoing ethics investigations. The country would have remained frustrated and divisions would have grown deeper. I actually want to heal. I want to understand. So if you’re reading this and you voted for Trump, I want to have a respectful dialogue with you and know why.
Also, if you’re a fellow liberal, we don’t have to sit around and wait for the ‘apocalypse.’ A very smart friend of mine from Penn is advocating that we reach out to Ivanka — through social media or sending fruit baskets if that’s what it takes — and encourage her to try to influence her father. He can continue to temper his rhetoric; he can refuse to privilege mis-guided protection of ‘religious freedom’ over real social freedom, implicitly sanctioning discrimination against the LGBTQ community and its allies; he can refuse to preside over the rolling back of women’s reproductive rights.
I’m hoping I’m a little better behind the wheel today — not just for my sake, but for everyone’s. I’m also hoping this election will not bring about a dystopian age and the decline of so much I love about this country. In the meantime, I can say the election has taught me that I need to listen better and try harder to understand those like the really good people I grew up amongst. The first step, for me at least, has been a painful attitude adjustment.
Anyone else feel this way? Anyone on the ‘other side’ that can share their insights?