What is happening to America?

I still remember vividly my first visit to Europe, back in 2010. I had just barely gotten off a plane in Hamburg and on to a bus to Lubeck, and struck up a conversation with a friendly, well-educated German classical musician next to me. We soon started to discuss politics and religion. Over the course of the conversation, in response to his questions, I explained I had twice voted against George W. Bush, that I opposed the war in Iraq for many reasons, that I did thought there was an ethical imperative to work to defeat climate change, that I viewed health care as an important ethical and religious issue, that I thought evolution was well-established, and that I am a Christian.

Finally, without any hint of insult intended, and rather a lot of surprise written all over his face, he said:

“Wow. You’re an American, and a Christian, and you’re so…. normal!”

This, it seems to me, has a lot to do with Trump.


It felt like a punch to the gut. The day after the election, having known that a man that appeared to stand for everything that honorable people are against won the election, like people all around the world, I was trying to make sense of “how could this happen?” As I’ve watched since, as he stacks government with wealthy cronies with records nearly as colorful as his own, it is easy to feel even more depressed.

Based on how Trump spoke and acted, it would be easy to conclude that the “deplorables” won the day – that he was elected by a contingent of sexists or racists ascendent in power.

But that would be too simple an explanation. This is, after all, the same country that elected Barack Obama twice. There are a many people that voted twice for a black man, and then for Trump. Why? Racism, while doubtless a factor, can’t explain it all.

How Trump could happen

Russ Allbery made some excellent points recently:

[Many Americans are] hurt, and they’re scared, and they feel like a lot of the United States just slammed the door in their faces.”

The status quo is not working for people.

Technocratic government by political elites is not working for people. Business as usual is not working for people. Minor tweaks to increasingly arcane systems is not working for people. People are feeling lost in bureaucracy, disaffected by elections that do not present a clear alternate vision, and depressed by a slow slide into increasingly dismal circumstances.

Government is not doing what we want it to do for us. And people are getting left behind. The left in the United States (of which I’m part) has for many years been very concerned about the way blacks and other racial minorities are systematically pushed to the margins of our economy, and how women are pushed out of leadership roles. Those problems are real. But the loss of jobs in the industrial heartland, the inability of a white, rural, working-class man to support his family the way his father supported him, the collapse of once-vibrant communities into poverty and despair: those problems are real too.

The status quo is not working for anyone except for a few lucky, highly-educated people on the coasts. People, honestly, like me, and like many of the other (primarily white and male) people who work in tech. We are one of the few beneficiaries of a system that is failing the vast majority of people in this country.

Russ is, of course, right. The Democrats have been either complicit in policies damaging to many, or ineffective in preventing them. They have often appeared unconcerned with the plight of people outside cities (even if that wasn’t really the case). And it goes deeper.

When’s the last time you visited Kansas?

I live in Kansas. The nearest paved road is about a 3-mile drive from my home. The nearest town, population 600, is a 6-mile drive. My governor — whom I did not vote for — cut taxes on the wealthy so much that our excellent local schools have been struggling for years. But my community is amazing, full of loving and caring people, the sort of people who you know you’ll be living with for 40 years, and so you make sure you get along well with.

I have visited tourist sites in Berlin, enjoyed an opera and a Broadway show in New York, taken a train across the country to Portland, explored San Francisco. I’ve enjoyed all of them. Many rural people do get out and experience the world.

I have been in so many conversations where I try to explain where I live to people that simply cannot fathom it. I have explained how the 18 acres I own is a very small amount where I am. How, yes, I do actually have electricity and Internet. How a bad traffic day is one where I have to wait for three cars to go past before turning onto the paved road. How I occasionally find a bull in my front yard, how I can walk a quarter mile and be at the creek on the edge of my property, how I can get to an airport faster than most New Yorkers and my kids can walk out the front door and play in a spot more peaceful than Central Park, and how all this is way cheaper than a studio apartment in a bad part of San Francisco.

It is rare indeed to see visitors actually traveling to Kansas as a destination. People have no concept of the fact that my mechanic would drop everything and help me get my broken-down car to the shop for no charge, that any number of neighbors or uncles would bring a tractor and come plow the snow off my 1/4-mile driveway out of sheer kindness, that people around here really care for each other in a way you don’t see in a city.

There are people that I know see politics way differently than me, but I know them to be good people. They would also do anything for a person in need, no matter who they are. I may find the people that they vote for to be repugnant, but I cannot say “I’ve looked this person in the eyes and they are nothing but deplorable.”

And so, people in rural areas feel misunderstood. And they are right.

Some perspectives on Trump

As I’ve said, I do find Trump to be deplorable, but not everyone that voted for him is. How, then, do people wind up voting for him?

The New Yorker had an excellent story about a man named Mark Frisbie, owner of a welding and fab shop. The recession had been hard on his business. His wife’s day-care center also closed. Health care was hard to find, and the long, slow decline had spanned politicians of every stripe. Mark and his wife supposedly did everything they were supposed to: they worked hard, were honest, were entrepreneurial, and yet — he had lost his business, his family house, his health coverage, everything. He doesn’t want a handout. He wants to be able to earn a living. Asked who he’d vote for, he said, “Is ‘none of the above’ an option?”

The Washington Post had another insightful article, about a professor from Madison, WI interviewing people in rural areas. She said people would often say: “All the decisions are made in Madison and Milwaukee and nobody’s listening to us. Nobody’s paying attention, nobody’s coming out here and asking us what we think. Decisions are made in the cities, and we have to abide by them.” She pushed back, hard, on the idea that Trump supporters are ignorant, and added that liberals that push that line of thinking are only making the problem worse.

I would agree; seeing all the talk about universities dis-inviting speakers that don’t hew to certain political views doesn’t help either.

A related article talks about the lack of empathy for Trump voters.

And then we have a more recent CNN article: Where Tump support and Obamacare use soar together, explaining in great detail how it can be logical for someone to be on Obamacare but not like it. We can all argue that the Republicans may have as much to do with that as anything, but the problem exists.

And finally, a US News article makes this point:

“His supporters realize he’s a joke. They do not care. They know he’s authoritarian, nationalist, almost un-American, and they love him anyway, because he disrupts a broken political process and beats establishment candidates who’ve long ignored their interests.

When you’re earning $32,000 a year and haven’t had a decent vacation in over a decade, it doesn’t matter who Trump appoints to the U.N., or if he poisons America’s standing in the world, you just want to win again, whoever the victim, whatever the price.

According to the Republican Party, the biggest threat to rural America was Islamic terrorism. According to the Democratic Party it was gun violence. In reality it was prescription drug abuse and neither party noticed until it was too late.”

Are we leaving people out?

All this reminded me of reading about Donald Knuth, the famous computer scientist and something of the father of modern computing, writing about his feelings of trepidation about sharing with his university colleagues that he was working on a project related to the Bible. I am concerned about the complaints about “the PC culture”, because I think it is good that people aren’t making racist or anti-semitic jokes in public anymore. But, as some of these articles point out, in many circles, making fun of Christians and conservatives is still one of the accepted targets. Does that really help anything? (And as a Christian that is liberal, have all of you that aren’t Christians so quickly forgotten how churches like the Episcopals blazed the way for marriage equality many years ago already?)

But they don’t get a free pass

I have found a few things, however, absolutely scary. One was an article from December showing that Trump voters actually changed their views on Russia after Trump became the nominee. Another one from just today was a study on how people reacted when showed inauguration crowd photos.

NPR ran a story today as well, on how Trump is treating journalists like China does. Chilling stuff indeed.


So where does this leave us? Heading into uncertain times, for sure, but perhaps — just maybe — with a greater understanding of our neighbors.

Perhaps we will all be able to see past the rhetoric and polarization, and understand that there is something, well, normal about each other. Doing that is going to be the only way we can really take our country back.

18 thoughts on “What is happening to America?

  1. One thing, rural people account for what, 15% of american population? And unemployment rate is ~5%. Lots of *other* people voted for trump as well. I think a lots of people voted just to get a tax cut and smaller health insurance bill.

    Second thing, we now live in click-bait era. Trump is perfect click-bait. Media makes eons of money of trump writepieces. The online advertizing ecosystem encourages trolling, polarizing click-bait. The more extreme view you take, the more shares you get (from both your supporters and haters). There are lots of people who only read news from facebook – they only get to see the most polarized view of any subject matter. Until either people stop rage-sharing or facebook/google change the algorithms to prefer balanced and high-quality content over exaggerating emotional garbage, people like trump will get elevated to top positions.

    1. You are correct that it’s not just rural people, but I think a lot of people that felt like they had done what they were supposed to but were left behind.

      In my more hopeful moments, I hope this ushers in a media renaissance. We shall see.

  2. I would be interested to hear how Christianity can be compatible with evolution.
    I don’t know why the common sense in Europe is that this is THE sign of progressiveness. I’m also not sure how many European politicians are similar to the new president…

  3. Your ancestors were Moravian Brethren if I remember correctly, coming to the US from Russia (where they’d gone to escape oppression in German speaking lands).
    Quiet, gentle, community and family oriented.

    Run, don’t walk to Canada / reclaim a German passport: Trump doesn’t represent your community well and doesn’t understand intelligence.

  4. Why do you think that something is happening to America? Do you actually think Clinton or Obama are more sane than Trump? Do you have any idea what Obama did with drones or whistleblowers?

    Its not really different here in Europe. People are nice and caring individually but in polls they vote what makes them feel best – which is populism.

  5. The perspective I’ve been getting in big city Oklahoma is that Sanders would have won in a landslide. Lacking the best possible option, people voted for the worst possible option out of spite.

    We could have seen Oklahoma turn blue. But the Democrats decided they’d rather nominate Clinton than win an election.

    1. I have often suspected you’re right, Paul. The earlier polling showed Sanders in a much stronger position vs. Trump than Clinton was. And, of course, the Democrats ran a status quo candidate in a change year. The Democratic establishment has a lot to answer for this year.

      1. Plus we inflicted Mary Failin on ourselves for some reason (I wasn’t in Oklahoma yet at the time that happened), so it’s not like it’s going to get appreciably worse for us. We already did our worse to ourselves.

        1. Sigh. Here in Kansas, I have voted against Sam Brownback sooo many times. Thankfully he is now incredibly unpopular, but once again his policies have left a gaping hole in the budget. Sigh.

  6. Excellent and very thought provoking John. So very many things I felt and knew I was intuitive about I wasn’t able to explain concerning this election, you made very good sense of it and I appreciate that.

  7. Just my opinion but this election is more about who didn’t vote rather than who voted. Whenever the number of people that actually vote goes down the higher the chance of something unexpected happening. With Trump getting out the discontented voters and a depressed turnout with those that just didn’t believe Trump would win…

    My wife comes from a small town in the mid-west. Typically small town life and knows just about everyone within 100 miles. We met in California and yes people in (and around her home town) are at a high level warm and friendly people. They go out of their way in a manner not often seen in many big cities. But…

    I grew up in New Jersey and New York and eventually moved to California. Between college, internships and life I spent some time living in Philadelphia, Boston, parts of New Hampshire, Florida and Maine. I have had some uncomfortable and some ugly run ins with people but I never felt so pervasively “alien” as the first time my wife and I went to visit her home town.

    It was clear in the first second that we walked into the town center (the one local restaurant where everyone went). It is something that is hard to understand unless you have brown skin. The subtle “friendly” racism from many of those that came to say hello. Oh you can think what you want about me, but thankfully my skin is pretty thick.

    Have I ever been to Kansas? Three times, but just driving through OMW back home. Do I think everyone who lives in the country is an evil, racist trump supporter? No, my wife’s father is more a father to me then my own and we could not be different. I’m a big city boy and he’s a multi-generational farmer.

    Here’s what I know about farmers:

    1. Most of them want immigration reform. But they still vote republican.
    2. Most wanted the Farm Bill passed. But they voted for Tea Party candidates that delayed this.
    3. Many “friendly” farmers like listening to Pork and Beans play songs but then support someone like Phil Robertson.
    4. According to the Census in 2012 farm households’ income in 2010 averaged $84,400 (25 percent higher than the national household average).
    5. government-subsidized crop insurance minimizes the risks farmers face. In 2012, despite a historic drought across much of the country, farmers recorded record profits (http://www.cnbc.com/id/48822850).

    Lots of people seem to be voting against their own self interest. Then they complain that they are not being listened to, how they are being “forgotten”. Of course it’s those big city folks fault b/c they get everything right? I mean they are just living large in those urban sprawls since they seem to be getting all the attention from politicians?

    There were many segments of the US that were suffering and it wasn’t just outside of Urban areas. I see many “friendly” non-Urban people decry some mythical “fraud” or “welfare” but yet get livid when their institutional welfare (or subsidy) gets threatened.

    I hate to tell you but there were plenty of people that were being left behind in the urban centers. Plenty of people that weren’t being lifted with the tide and felt ignored. The brilliance is that you now have politicians that can incite anger in their constituents (look! There’s a liberal and they want to take your gun away, they are socialist and they kill babies!) and get them to ignore who is really doing this to them but point at some intellectual elite in the big cities that have everything.

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