River County borders on Big City, right across the state line. It is heavily industrial and except for being in another state belongs to the Big City metropolitan area. I went there recently to visit a friend. He used to live in Big City but had to move back to River County recently because he has fallen on hard times. The rents are lower there and he has some family nearby to offer support.
He met me at the commuter rail station. He had been mugged the night before. As someone with a very obvious physical disability, he probably made an easy mark. I said I was sorry it happened and I was. He had scars on his arms but otherwise looked physically okay.
We ate at a restaurant near the station. The price of the meal was less than it would have been in Big City. We caught up a little on what was happening in each other’s lives. His state offers low-cost and free health care services he needs. But every time he has set up an appointment, the county’s paratransit services failed to show up to take him.
He wanted to show me his new apartment. We tried calling for a cab but the wait was projected at 30 to 45 minutes. It was a little more than a mile away, so we tried to walk it. But we didn’t get far before we both agreed the walk would be too taxing for him and I felt guilty for putting him in that situation because I should have known better. We decided to call the taxi again and wait on a public bench during the half hour or so the cab would take to arrive.
An interracial (black and white) group of people were gathered at a bench near us. My memory is hazy, maybe it was only two people at first and one or two more came to join them.They looked dirt poor and unemployed and with few if any prospects for a job in the near future. I think they were sharing a bottle of booze but maybe I’m just making that up. A car drove up next to them and the driver talked to them for what seemed like several minutes. I don’t know my cars but it seemed like a pretty expensive one. The driver drove off and has he passed us he waved at my friend. My acquaintance said he’d seen that guy around and that he was probably some gang banger or drug dealer.
One person in the group came to ask us for money. I forget how much but it was a specific amount. Something like 75 cents or whatever. My friend gave him the money. Ever since I’ve moved to Big City I’ve noticed that panhandling works differently here in the Midwest than in CherryPlatte, which is in the Mountain West. Someone usually asks for an exact, but very small amount. They also often preface the request with a long story about what they plan to do with the money. As I recall in CherryPlatte, people just asked for money without specifying an exact amount or explaining themselves too much. But maybe I’m remembering selectively.
The taxi never came, but a bus finally did. My friend got on but I didn’t get on with him. It was getting late and I knew I’d probably have to walk back to the rail station, possibly in the dark. And I felt unsafe there. It was clear that I didn’t belong there. I was so much better off than any of the people I encountered. My bearing, my clothes, my backpack, and in some ways my race marked me as someone foreign to the experiences of the people in this town.
Nobody actually did anything to threaten or harm me. What I felt as danger or fear was probably just feeling different and observed in a way I’m not used to feeling. The feeling wasn’t completely foreign, though. I’ve occasionally been in less-than-safe situations where my fears were partially but thankfully never full, validated.
I know this is a clumsy transition, but as with many things these days, my visit prompted me to think of Trump and the underlying attitudes that support him. It gave me a sampling of what I imagine is a sampling some of those targeted by Trumpism taste in less diluted form.
I forget which thread exactly, but I know that commenter Pillsy has recounted a conversation with a Trump supporter in which the Trumpist made some antisemitic remark. When Pillsy told this guy he (Pillsy) is Jewish, the guy didn’t even apologize. For what it’s worth, I doubt if the individuals I encountered would have been all that welcoming if I told them my spouse was Jewish.
I also recall another post at Ordinary Times some of you may remember. It was taken down because the commenters got too nasty (and I was one of the commenters responsible). That particular post was written before the election. Among other things expressed a sense of foreboding about being in an environment where support for Trump and for what Trump represented was more pervasive than what the author was used to. That author described the sense of menace they felt. I admit I was less than sympathetic at the time, but I now think I feel at least some of it. (And I do ask the commenters here not to mention that author’s name because I don’t wish to drag them into a discussion without their permission.)
Not that River County is Trump Country. But compared to where I live, it’s much more pro-Trump. My state of Sangamon went for Clinton by 55%, my county went for Clinton by 74%, and my city went for Clinton by 83%. River County went for Clinton by only 58%, and Clinton lost Wabashe, the state where River County is located 37% to 58%.1
The atmosphere seems pro-Trump, too. Things seem hopeless there. Shops are closed. While we may quibble about whether the area has really “de-industrialized,” given the persistence of heavy manufacturing, it’s clearer that fewer and fewer jobs are actually available. A friend of a friend who lives in River County tells me anecdote about something that happened shortly after Trump’s election. Two people were speaking Spanish while waiting in line at some retail store. A third person, obviously annoyed, looked at them and said sternly “Trump!” as if to chastise them for daring to speak a language that wasn’t English. I caution against accepting that story at face value and generalizing too much from it, but it suggests to me an anti-immigrant sensibility that is much stronger than one finds in Big City.
The people who seemed so threatening to me probably weren’t Trump supporters. They probably didn’t vote at all, and even if by chance they did vote and voted for him, I doubt they have much love for the guy. But their own hopelessness seemed real enough. And it also seems clear to me that Clinton had little to offer them. In my opinion, though, that state of affairs owes as much or more to the Republican Party’s refusal to work with the Democrats than to any fault of hers.
What to do with all this? I as much as anyone have been an advocate for understanding and empathizing with those who voted for Trump. I still believe in that for two reasons. First, it’s tactically necessary. We can’t fight Trumpism with only anti-Trumpism. That tent isn’t big enough. Second, understanding and empathy are the right things to do, even though it’s hard an unrewarding in the short term. We need to treat people as ends in themselves and set the highest bar before naming them enemies. That second reason, however, applies all around. And I know I’ve been too lax about extending the same empathy to those whose side I ostensibly support.
- My percentages are rounded. I won’t provide links, but hope you can trust me to render the facts accurately when it comes to politics. The sites from which I found the information are Politico, Ballotpedia, 270towin, and a site I’ll call “BigCitymag,” with the name of the real city in its place. [↩]