Is it possible to talk to working-class supporters of Donald Trump? Of course it is. It’s just that Democrats from Hillary Clinton’s crowd have a very difficult time reaching across the social, economic, and cultural divide that often separates them from Trump’s (often reluctant) supporters.
This lesson came home to me in Arlie Hochschild’s recent article for TomDispatch.com. Arlie got to know Mike Schaff, a man whose home in the bayou of Louisiana was poisoned by an environmental disaster at the hands of big oil. Despite this, Mike Schaff remains deeply skeptical of government oversight and says he wants to eliminate agencies like the EPA that help to prevent environmental damage.
Despite his bitter experience with corporate malfeasance, Schaff remains unsympathetic to the Democratic Party and its arguments for more government intervention in the name of protecting ordinary citizens from harm. Schaff, in short, believes in individualism, hard work, and self-reliance, as well as working together with his neighbors in small communities. He doesn’t buy the argument that big government is his friend. He doesn’t want to be seen as dependent on welfare and other government handouts. He mostly wants to be left alone, even as he professes belief in Trump’s sentiment that America needs to be made “great again,” in part by a government led by Trump.
I think I understand part of what drives Mike Schaff. The “do-gooder” liberal Democrats don’t speak his language. Their reliance on regulations, lawyers, and bureaucracy makes him feel out of sorts, inferior, even dumb. Their talk about “victims” and government “rescuers” turns him off, even though he himself is a victim of an environmental disaster. But the point is that he doesn’t see himself as a victim. He sees himself as a self-reliant man, a man working through a tough time, getting by with a little help from his friends, with no need of help from the Suits in Washington.
A confession: I’m not the most mechanical guy (though I fix small stuff), but around a guy like Mike Schaff, a man who welds and spends his time constantly tinkering with machines, I’d feel a bit uncomfortable. I’m used to slinging words, just as he’s used to working physically, with his hands.
But I could hang with him. I did my time in the military. I come from a working-class family. I know guys like Mike Schaff. I can empathize with him. I can speak his language.
The message of politicians like Hillary Clinton will not resonate with Mike. Guys like Mike prefer plain-speak. Making America great again — hell ya, it’s about time! As cynical and opportunistic as Trump may be, his message of self-reliance, his blunt talk, his braggadocio, and his calls for action (no matter how stupid) do resonate with Mike, even if his pro-corporate policies will only aggravate Mike’s situation.
What ever happened to tough democrats who could talk to guys like Mike? Even Joe Biden, despite his hardscrabble Scranton origins, doesn’t quite fit.
Joe Bageant was great at this — his book “Deer Hunting with Jesus” told the story of a liberal gun-owning Southerner who lived the life of men (and women) like Mike Schaff. But sadly Bageant died a few years ago. (For some articles I’ve written about Bageant, see here and here and here.)
If Hillary Clinton loses in November, a big reason why will be that she simply couldn’t (or wouldn’t) speak the language of working-class Americans, people like Mike Schaff.