We are experiencing record levels of drug addiction and death. At the same time, we are witnessing a stunning political upheaval in which a political novice is usurping the electoral process. About this figure, a conservative columnist says: “Donald Trump is epically unprepared to be president. He has no realistic policies, no advisers, no capacity to learn. His vast narcissism makes him a closed fortress. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and he’s uninterested in finding out.”
How and why is this happening? Let me explain.
Jack Kennedy campaigned amidst the poverty in West Virginia’s Appalachian region in 1960. Lyndon Johnson followed up with his 1964 antipoverty program after JFK’s assassination. In his ill-fated 1968 presidential campaign, Robert Kennedy spoke after witnessing the poverty and degradation of the Appalachian region of Eastern Kentucky:
For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked for us.
Perhaps not. But the poverty of the Appalachian region has, if anything, worsened in the last fifty years, as announced in a New York Times article in 2014: “50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back,”
But a half-century later, with the poverty rate again on the rise, hardship seems merely to have taken on a new face in McDowell County (West Virginia). The economy is declining along with the coal industry, towns are hollowed out as people flee, and communities are scarred by family dissolution, prescription drug abuse and a high rate of imprisonment.
Addiction goes along with this profile:
“He had another seizure the other night,” Ms. Bolden, 50, said of her son, John McCall, a former classmate of Ms. Shrader’s. John got caught up in the dark undertow of drugs that defines life for so many here in McDowell County, almost died of an overdose in 2007, and now lives on disability payments. His brother, Donald, recently released from prison, is unemployed and essentially homeless.
When President Obama announced his new anti-addiction initiative in October last year, guess where he announced it? West Virginia.
Poor white people alone can’t get you elected president. You need to expand this base of the deeply impoverished to a newly impoverished, marginal population—those working but falling farther and farther behind, due to the eroding Midwestern industrial and Appalachian coal economies, among other things.
Donald Trump has this group: “While Trump fans are spread across the country, they are heavily concentrated in and near the Appalachian states — from Mississippi and Alabama all the way to western Pennsylvania and New York.”
These are the non-college educated white population, which has famously been noted due to the death rate increase among middle-class, middle-aged whites. Another Times commentator declared that these
“middle-aged whites have lost the narrative of their lives. That is, their economic setbacks have hit hard because they expected better. Or to put it a bit differently, we’re looking at people who were raised to believe in the American Dream, and are coping badly with its failure to come true.”
The above appeared in a column by Paul Krugman, known for his self-anointed mission as “the conscience of a liberal.” Krugman is nearly always opposed in his views in the Times by conservative columnist David Brooks, the author of the quote at the beginning of this piece.
But not in this area. Brooks described his pain at the ascendance of the presidential frontrunner in his column, titled: “No, Not Trump, Not Ever.” Brooks went further: “Donald Trump is an affront to basic standards of honesty, virtue and citizenship. He pollutes the atmosphere in which our children are raised.”
Brook anguishes, how could the Trump phenomenon be happening? “Trump voters are a coalition of the dispossessed. They have suffered lost jobs, lost wages, lost dreams. The American system is not working for them, so naturally they are looking for something else.”
Sounds almost identical to Krugman’s view of this group, wouldn’t you say?
Meanwhile, in their trenchant analysis, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton found that the rising death rate for this group mainly represents suicide and alcohol and drug-related deaths.
This situation gives rise to the most remarkable statistic derived from the current primary elections: the counties with high white mortality rates are most likely to vote for Trump. This was pointed out in a Washington Post wonkblog entitled, “Death predicts whether people vote for Donald Trump.”
Let’s be clear what these columnists, Krugman and Brooks, from opposite sides of the political spectrum, are saying: a large group of Americans is so desperately alienated that it is voting for someone, whatever his qualifications, in order to uproot the system. If combined with a large minority underclass, this group of the disenfranchised comprises a clear majority of Americans.
The minority running the country is, of course, the top 1 (or .5) percent who control 90% of the wealth. But really, the group the impoverished and disenfranchised are knocking up against is the larger 30% (as described in Slate by economist Peter Temin and interviewer Lynn Parramore) who control the media, the educational and economic systems, the political process (up until now, that is).
Trump is a sign that this bottom group is struggling to gain control of their lives. But it is a self-defeating sign. Trump, who is at the top of the system that oppresses them, will do nothing for them. He represents a symbolic crusade by the dispossessed, not an actual remedy for their strife, misery and failure.
Think back to the most popular entertainer and media figure worldwide from a century ago. He was Charlie Chaplin, whose on-screen character was The Tramp. In real life, of course, Chaplin was a very wealthy man who starred in, directed, and produced his films, which were international blockbusters. He spent his time hobnobbing with the social crème-de-la-crème.
And, yet, he spoke effectively, hauntingly, to the needs and fantasies of the dispossessed.
But Chaplin was a filmmaker, and The Tramp nothing more than a well-developed cartoon character. Trump is a presidential candidate.
The most extraordinary quote from Brooks’s column spoke to another aspect of the social system that accompanies our record levels of drug addiction and death:
Many in the media, especially me, did not understand how they [the disillusioned, disenfranchised majority] would express their alienation. We expected Trump to fizzle because we were not socially intermingled with his supporters and did not listen carefully enough. For me, it’s a lesson that I have to change the way I do my job if I’m going to report accurately on this country. [my emphasis]
Translation: the cultural elite, or at least the better-off third of the population, whether conservative or liberal, doesn’t know and doesn’t really care about the downtrodden, the impoverished, the addicted (that is, unless and until some of us slip into this addicted group, a small but visible minority among us that arouses our concern).
We’re like the partiers, dancing in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, until the specter, with his deathly mien, intrudes on our reality.
Donald Trump is one version of that specter.