Sealing the Victory of Trump’s Gains
— “Some of those that burn crosses are the same that hold office” — Rage Against the Machine, Zack de la Rocha when playing live
As VP Mike Pence blessed 11 GOP senators’ defection on January 2, 2021 to what appears to be the side of treason and un-reason, ready to join the protest vote in Congress on January 6, 2021, I can’t help thinking of the Rust Belt where I grew up. In the Great Lakes region of my youth on the Niagara river in the 1980’s, I witnessed firsthand the factories closing down, the first ones moving to China.
The Buffalo-Niagara Falls region had the first city-to-city electric power lines sending the harassed power of the falls from Niagara Falls to Buffalo, courtesy of Nikola Tesla. His statue stands on the American and Canadian sides, near the mighty Niagara Falls that in part helped to power the world’s first hydroelectric power plant and kick off the electrification of the world.
But, that was in 1896, and since 1900, the Western New York region has suffered waves of loss of status and economic erosion. The youth leave, and they don’t back. The rest of the Great Lakes Rust Belt started much later to witness that decline in prominence and status, money and power, when the ‘jobs’ moved away. As Billy Joel sung in the Blue-collar anthem of 1982 during this region’s long collapse, “Well, we’re living here in Allentown / And they’re closing all the factories down / Out in Bethlehem, they’re killing time / Filling out forms, standing in line.” The rage that Trump that made many white men switch sides in these once proud Rust Belt blue-collar town can’t be forgotten. The Rust Belt Man (RBM) that help him to victory can’t be forgotten. This loss they felt when they backed Trump needs to be recognized if the next GOP presidential contenders will want to keep those gains.
The Great Ole Days
Trump tapped into the RBM anger with nostalgic longing for the (white) past when ‘America was Great’. It was a mythical time when any white man or RBM could stand outside a factory and a get a job, no matter the poor high school grades, their low interest and abilities in the three R’s during school. He could get a job, and then a girl, and then get married. He was a member of the steel town, the factory town tribe; he would be trained on the job by other men. It was a man’s job.
This is the easy myth at the heart of Making American Great Again. The Great (white) Rust Belt Man, he could gain value after failing in school and sports, knowing he could have a middle-class life not much different from the minority of nerd kids who went on to college back then in the 50’s, earning only a little bit more. Sure, the RBM couldn’t study, couldn’t master math, and football or baseball didn’t have to work out. But life did work out with the jobs, joining the white male industrial wage earners, joining the union, doing ‘honest’ factory work.
This myth was partially true from a socio-economic perspective. Tool and die workers could be trained and earn a far higher salary then cigarette factory workers in the Virginia or North Carolina or Kentucky, and factory foremen could make almost as much as mangers ($5100 versus $6100 according to the US Department of Labor 1959 Occupational Handbook). The post-World War Two era saw a boom in factory jobs and college education was not needed as much to advance at work and remained marginal.
But by 2015 and 2016 the wage gap had widened so much between the blue collar workers (now service workers) and white collar workers that the resentment became palpable. The factories moved to China fully and the jobs ‘stolen’ (by American capitalists like David Perdue and USDOC Secretary Wilbur Ross no less, so called captain of industry, though that’s another story and hardly matters to the RBM). Automation has taken the rest of the factory jobs and a two-year degree to operate the advanced metal cutting (CNC) machinery of the remaining jobs seem difficult to obtain. The white male high school dropout or lower-performing student no longer had access to those factory jobs without at least two years in community college. And the logic needed for today’s programming skills is beyond the men who graduated back then as promised by Obama, just as being a doctor, lawyer or engineer remains out of their reach. (I can attest: I went to night school for computer programming and it was too difficult, even though I already had college undergraduate and graduate degrees).
Defeated We Stand
Like the defeat of the South and the southern white man after their defeat in the Civil War, the RBM resentment rose from the loss of position, economic potential, being ‘above’ another group (the Southern cigarette roller or agricultural worker in the Midwest or the Texas oil man), at least in perception. Before the Civil War, the white Southern farmers with no slaves could still identify with the white plantation owners. They had class identity of being “above” blacks. The Southern white farmer could still see their potential and feel above the slaves. With their loss of the Civil War, that identity was stripped away. The loss was not only stinging in its military defeat, but blacks were freed, were citizens, could vote like them, had the right to farm and earn money just like them. Their collective group was diminished, brought down to the level of the slave. The twentieth-century white group identity of the uneducated Southern was born in defeat — class and economic defeat.
The economic war waged on the Rust Belt Man was no different in results if the methods in getting there took a much different path. But it took Trump tell them or remind them of that loss, that defeat. No coastal elites with their fact-checking truths can defeat them this time. The RBM has a right to be heard and feel needed again, important, college degree be damned.
Trump gave them a choice: join these regional white groups, hoping to get promised jobs back, that identity; or continue to side with the Democrats who’ve given them and their unions nothing. And look now that those Democrats, riff raff really: socialists, blacks, “Mexicans”, illegals, other colored poor from s-hole nations — not even ‘real’ Americans. Why not at least take a chance? Nothing else has worked for them. No one else has bothered tapping into their pain, the sting of a long defeat.
Worse, Trump fortified the myth by making it seem that the jobs left to non-college educated are being stolen by foreign immigrants as well. He played the GOP card of “the elites”, coastal educated who are now far outstripping these Rust Belt men economically, politically, in class status, making the RBM feel even more left behind. Volvo drivers! Expensive European fancy cars out of reach (that they can’t afford). Trump’s politics of resentment emphasized the white group identity further. The Northern discarded white males were merged suddenly with their Southern peers who lost war, also discard; their Midwestern brothers who lost their farms in dust bowl of the 1930’s Great Depression; real Texas men who lost the Alamo and great oil roughneck jobs. These groups of losers, proud boy Deplorables, merged together by his identity politics of rage from loss — along with their wives and the normal GOP loyalist businessmen — resulted in the biggest GOP turnout yet.
And this is the real coup of the Great Northern strategy. (OK, strategy and Trump don’t seem to belong together, I know, not on a conscious level of 3-D chess; more like an accident of history). It took the relatively uneducated northeastern and Great Lakes RBM whites who long since lost potential for ‘good jobs’ straight out high school, no longer unionized, to have their resentment recognized and tapped into, making their anger swell enough to cross party lines from blue to red.
The existential question of the GOP, is Will they return to the union mindset? Are they slipping back to blue? Somehow, I doubt it. They’ve armed themselves with guns now, seeking to take hostage the Michigan woman governor, or crossing state lines in militia-like fashion with military style weapons, as Kyle Rittenhouse did, waved on by white men police in tanks after shooting blacks and antifas. No, I doubt they are going back. The Rust Belt unions ‘back in the day’ voted out of anger, loyalty — never out of a desire to live in a diverse utopia. This is the lesson Cruz and Pence just realized in their guts.
The racial merging of this group is like fusion in physics. So much energy is needed to bind the hydrogen particles together at the core, it can’t be undone, a new element is formed. Identity politics is racial for Trump, but not necessarily racist or bigoted. The biological recognition of the physical flesh can be hard to overcome. The intangible ideals of Democrats are based on educated principals, class aspirations, serving the Public Good. Theirs is a milder energy to move votes from red to blue than Trump’s hate politics fireball of rage that moved them to red. The RBM can associate on a visceral level with the raw rage of the liar who never admits defeat.
The Democrats can’t win over votes from the skin-identity and gut-anger politics of the GOP with tepid policy promises. As much as I believe health care for all is a good thing, even just by closing the 9% gap of those that don’t have it, according to one Washington Post report, such a policy does not address the injustice of economic and status loss due to the long decline. The outrage they felt under Trump was refreshing; their freedom to express it openly a relief; and they can’t be brought back with a health card. Until the Democrats find a way to get angry, they will be not be winning back those RBM votes they lost. Without Trump to rally again, the Democratic leadership may find it hard to sustain voter turnout. Most voters, a majority in two elections, voted against Trump; most of them weren’t enthusiastic or supportive or Hillary or Biden.
Thus, we return to the white group skin loyalty of the GOP tribe. Anyone wishing to grab Trump’s voters he gained, if not his mantle, needs to show the appropriate outrage of loss. Anger at losing, of being cheated of victory, that nasty sting of defeat they are too familiar with. That is why Pence gave a nod to the Cruz Revolt. If either of them, or any future GOP candidate wants to run against Biden in 2024, they must solidify the gains Trump made by fusing the Rust Belt white man tribe with the other regional white man tribes. And the way to do this is recognize the anger Trump used of the “stolen victory.”
Their attempted coup, which they know will fail, may seem despicable to Democrats and the media, but it makes sense somehow on the deep emotional level of the identity politics of long-term defeat. Thus, that’s why I can’t help but think they of the outrage at the loss still reverberating in the guts of those factory workers from the mills and shop floors that closed down in the blue-collar towns of my youth.