David Michael Miller
The world changes this Friday and not in a good way.
Donald Trump will replace Barack Obama as president of the United States of America. Shoot-from-the-hip tweets will replace carefully considered policy statements. Aggressive ignorance will replace restrained intelligence. Graceful easy elegance will be covered over with cheesy gold spray paint. More or less normal tensions with the press will be replaced by open hostility for the press. A man who had the best interests of his country at heart will be replaced by a man who cannot seem to see beyond his personal interests, petty grudges and bizarre obsessions. Insanity will overtake sanity.
Trump’s apologists tell us to ignore what he says and look within his heart. I will do that as soon as I can confirm that he has one.
I wish I could say with confidence that this guy won’t ruin American democracy or blow up the world, but I can’t. Like a lot of people I was somewhat encouraged by his cabinet nominees, who in their confirmation hearings met the new low hurdle of sounding not real crazy. We’ll have to wait and see.
But of course many of us do not want to just wait while we’re seeing. So, some folks will go to Washington to march while others will protest here in Madison and in other places around the country.
I have never been much of a marcher. I’m going to read.
One of my 2017 resolutions is to concentrate my reading on the Midwest — Midwestern literature, history, politics, economics, even cooking. I want to better understand my own home region because we are largely responsible for putting a man like Donald Trump in the White House. Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin are all states that voted for Barack Obama at least once but went for Trump this time. And even Minnesota came close.
I started my Midwest reading with the novels of Jim Harrison and David Rhodes. Harrison, who died just last year, lived a good part of his life in the Upper Peninsula and set much of his writing there while Rhodes still lives in Wonewoc in Wisconsin’s driftless region.
Their novels convey in an artistic way what the social scientist and UW Madison professor Kathy Cramer has documented in her new and excellent book, The Politics of Resentment.
Here’s a passage from Rhode’s 2008 novel “Driftless,” which takes place in the fictional Wisconsin town of Words.
“Driving slowly over Thistlewaite Creek Bridge, Violet remembered the exodus years, when whole family trees simply vanished into the wider civilization. The new dominant culture moved on, forgot about Words and thousands of similar rural communities as though they had never existed.”
And here is basically the same sentiment from real people quoted in Cramer’s book. She quotes a man she calls Gary from a small northern Wisconsin town:
“In a small town like this the only identity this town has anymore is the school… and if the school wasn’t here… well, it’s not the first time in history that small towns have been dried up and blown away.”
And she quotes another man she calls Mark:
“Most of our kids leave. Mine left. There is nothing for them to do up here.”
Cramer also quotes a woman she calls Martha, who speaks to Madison’s rural/urban divide.
“We’re strange to Madison. They want us to do everything… the way they do things, but we totally live differently than the city people live.”
The advantage of good fiction is that it’s just a better organized and more succinct form of reality, but you get the picture. Cramer did her research — visiting 39 groups in two dozen Wisconsin communities several times — before the election of Trump. It’s likely that many of the people she spoke with were part of the rural uprising that produced the Trump surprise.
There are at least three ways that we can deal with the reality of Donald Trump and the simmering politics of resentment that elevated him. We can try to ignore it, we can get angry or we can try to understand it.
Ignoring Trump and focusing on what we can control locally and in our private lives is an absolutely sane and reasonable response. But at some point we have to ask ourselves if we’re doing much to improve the world by buying lots of kale from the local organic CSA.
Getting angry can also be a positive response. Anger isn’t all bad, especially when it’s justified. It motivates. It provides energy for the fight. But it’s best consumed in small doses. Too much sustained anger clouds the judgment and burns a person out too quickly. You can also become someone everybody else wants to avoid at a party or at the grocery store.
I admit that at various times since November I’ve tried both retreat and anger and I suppose over the next four years I’ll lapse into these modes from time to time again.
But for me the best way to deal with all this is to try to better understand it, to start with the idea that my fellow Americans and fellow Midwesterners and fellow Wisconsinites who voted for Trump are not all bad. Begin by sorting out the racism, xenophobia and misogyny, which we want to reject, from the real economic hardships and social and cultural alienation, which we should want to recognize and address.
Take some time. Read and listen more than talk. Try to figure things out and then figure out what to do next.
One thing is for certain. We do not live in a healthy political culture right now. Neither retreat nor anger is likely to make things better. Understanding might.