Monday, September 12, 2016

Wherever People Have Lost Hope, They're Turning To Trump... "Rabidly"


Can you imagine a place where the support for Señor Trumpanzee isn't just solid or firm, but "rabid?" Yeah... I guess that's not much of a stretch among the deplorables. Although... in yesterday's NY Times Roger Cohen introduced his readers to people who don't really seem deplorable, but who are certainly rabid Trump supporters, normal Americans who are hurting big time economically and, maybe not brilliant or even smart enough to understand that Trumpy-the-Clown will never do anything for them, but smart enough to at least realize the establishment and the status quo aren't doing them any good. Cohen was writing from Paris... Kentucky. It's a very alienated town of less than 9,000 people in Bourbon County's horse country, not all that far from sophisticated Lexington. The town is basically all white and the median household income is $30,872. The county votes Republican, but not lopsidedly so.

Cindy Hedges, one of the Trumpanzee fans Cohen interviewed for his piece, is under economic stress and told him the U.S. needs "somebody spectacular to get us halfway straight," Trump, who she feels certain will "clean up the mess Obama has left us." (Interestingly, just as the piece got published a new Washington Post/ABC News polls came out showing Obama with a 58% approval rating, spectacularly high for a president at this point in his term and higher than at any point since 2009.)

As for Trump's obvious character flaws, she admits "he’s kind of a loose cannon, but he tells it the way it is and, if elected, people will be there to calm him down a bit, tweak a word or two in his speeches. And I just don’t trust Hillary Clinton." Sounds like Hate Talk Radio and Fox are her news sources. They blame Obama, the EPA (and Hillary) for the collapse of the coal industry in Eastern Kentucky.
The number of Kentucky coal jobs has plunged to fewer than 6,500 from about 18,000 when Obama took office; the number fell 6.9 percent between this April and June alone. Hillary Clinton’s words in Ohio-- “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”-- echo on Republican radio ads, plucked out of context from her pledge to replace those jobs with opportunities in clean, renewable energy. By contrast, Trump declared in West Virginia in May that miners should “get ready, because you are going to be working your asses off!”

“I don’t believe Obama has a white board on how he’s going to torture us, but he has,” [Bill Bissett, the president of the Kentucky Coal Association] told me at his office in Lexington. “I cannot tell you how rabid the support for Trump is.”

That support is proving resilient. The post-convention Trump free fall has run into the obstinacy of his appeal-- an appeal that seems to defy every gaffe, untruth and insult. The race is tightening once again because Trump’s perceived character-- a strong leader with a simple message, never flinching from a fight, cutting through political correctness with a bracing bluntness-- resonates in places like Appalachia where courage, country and cussedness are core values.

“Trump’s appeal is nationalistic, the authoritarian shepherd of the flock,” Al Cross, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky, told me. “That’s why evangelical Christians are willing to vote for this twice-divorced man who brags about the size of his penis. There’s a strong belief here still in America as special and exceptional, and Obama is seen as having played that down.”

But the Trump magnetism goes deeper than resentment at Obama’s regretful tone from Havana to Hiroshima. It seems to go beyond the predictable Republican domination in this part of the country. There’s a sense, crystallized in coal’s steady demise, that, as the political scientist Norman Ornstein put it to me, “Somebody is taking everything you are used to and you had”-- your steady middle-class existence, your values, your security. It’s not that the economy is bad in all of Kentucky; the arrival of the auto industry has been a boon, and the unemployment rate is just 4.9 percent. It’s that all the old certainties have vanished.

Far from the metropolitan hubs inhabited by the main beneficiaries of globalization’s churn, many people feel disenfranchised from both main political parties, angry at stagnant wages and growing inequality, and estranged from a prevailing liberal urban ethos. I heard a lot about how Obama has not been supportive enough of the police, of how white lives matter, too, and of how illegal-- as in illegal immigrant-- means illegal, just as robbing a bank is. For anyone used to New York chatter, or for that matter London or Paris chatter, Kentucky is a through-the-looking-glass experience. There are just as many certainties; they are simply the opposite ones, whether on immigration, police violence toward African-Americans, or guns. America is now tribal, with each tribe imbibing its own social-media-fed ranting.

The Clintons were feted here in the 1990s, but two decades on Hillary Clinton is viewed with cool suspicion. That’s because both the economy and values have moved on, too. Jobs went south to Mexico or east to Asia. Somewhere on the winding road from whites-only bathrooms to choose-your-gender bathrooms, many white, blue-collar Kentucky workers-- and the state is 85.1 percent white-- feel their country got lost. The F.D.R. Democrats who became Reagan Democrats and then Clinton Democrats could well be November’s Trump Democrats.

America is no longer white enough for that to be decisive, but it is significant. To these people, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is not the empty rhetoric of a media-savvy con artist from Queens but a last-ditch rallying cry for the soul of a changing land where minorities will be the majority by the middle of the century.
Hazard in Perry County is further east into Appalachia, and in much worse shape than Boubon County. Hazard has just over 5,000 people. Perry County is Republican landslide territory. Romney won Bourbon with 59%; he won Perry with an astronomical 79%. And it's even whiter than Bourbon-- 97.34% white. The median household income is $22,089. Over a quarter of the population is living below the poverty line and the average female life expectancy is 72.7 years, the shortest for any county in the United States, about 8 years shorter than the American average for women. The unemployment rate is over 10% and it's the center of a horrfiying drug epidemic. Cohen talked to a couple of regular guys in pretty bad shape.
On a bench opposite the county courthouse, on the Starbucks-free Main Street, I found Steve Smith and Paul Bush. Smith used to work underground at the Starfire mine. He earned as much as $1,500 a week, but was laid off a while ago. His unemployment has dried up and he has four children to feed. His family scrapes by on his wife’s income as a nurse. He’d been in court over a traffic offense; now an idle afternoon stretched away.

“Trump’s going to get us killed, probably!” he told me. “But I’ll vote for him anyway over Hillary. If you vote for Hillary you vote for Obama, and he’s made it impossible to ship coal. This place is about dried up. A job at Wendy’s is the only thing left. We may have to move.”

“Yeah, another year without change and they’ll be shutting Hazard down,” Bush suggested.

He was awaiting his son, in court on a drug charge for the painkiller Percocet. A retired operator of heavy equipment for the Road Department, Bush said his son did nothing, “just a few odd jobs.” He continued: “Obama’s probably never known hardship. He and Hillary don’t get it. At least Trump don’t hold nothing back: If he don’t like something, he tells you about it.”

His son’s girlfriend emerged from the courthouse. “They locked him up,” she said.


“He failed one of the drug tests.”

“Well, ain’t nothin’ we can do about it,” Bush said.

...That anger simmers. It’s directed at Obama, and by extension Clinton, and by further extension a Democratic Party that, as the former Democratic senator Jim Webb from Virginia told me, “has now built its constituency based on ethnic groups other than white working people.” The frustration of these people, whether they are in Kentucky, or Texas, or throughout the Midwest, is acute. They are looking for “someone who will articulate the truth of their disenfranchisement,” as Webb put it. Trump, for all his bullying petulance, has come closest to being that politician, which is why millions of Americans support him.

Bissett, the Coal Association president, made clear to me that he did not dismiss the emissions concerns about coal; what bothers him is what he sees as Obama’s and the E.P.A.’s refusal to seek a reasonable balance between the economy and the environment. The administration, he argues, has moved the goal posts to kill coal. It is this that feels punitive. For example, the E.P.A.’s Clean Power Plan, first presented in 2014 with no backing from Congress, requires every state to submit proposals for reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 2018. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, blocked the initiative early this year. But that was just before Justice Antonin Scalia died. “We need Trump for a reasonable Supreme Court and an E.P.A no longer skewed against fossil fuels,” Bissett argued. “A lot of jobs here still depend on coal and cheap electricity. That’s why Clinton is toxic right now.”

...Trump can’t reverse globalization. Nor is he likely to save coal in an era of cheap natural gas. His gratuitous insults, evident racism, hair-trigger temper and lack of preparation suggest he would be a reckless, even perilous, choice for the Oval Office. I don’t think he is a danger to the Republic because American institutions are stronger than Trump’s ego, but that the question even arises is troubling.

Still, in a climate where disruption is sought at any cost (whether political in Hazard or economic in Silicon Valley), it would be foolhardy to suggest that Trump cannot win. He can; and he can in part because of the liberal intellectual arrogance that dismisses the economic, social and cultural problems his rise has underscored. Whatever happens in November, these problems will persist, and it will take major public and private investment and an unlikely rebirth of bipartisanship in Washington to make any dent in them.

Back in Paris-- the Kentucky one-- I sit down in a coffee shop with Cindy Hedges and her husband, Mitch. He worked for more than 30 years as a welder and then a supervisor in a factory that refurbished mining equipment. It was dirty work-- coal is black, grease is black, hydraulic oil is black-- but it was a good living. He lost his job in February, before returning on a temporary contract a couple of weeks ago, and when I ask him why his full-time employment disappeared, the answer is by now familiar: the E.P.A. and Obama, for whom, like his wife, he voted in 2008. But when I turn to this political season, he springs a surprise.

“Look, there’s nobody to vote for,” he says. “Trump is an idiot, he pisses everyone off, he’s scary, he’ll pump his mouth off to some foreign country and we’ll be at war. He’s a billionaire on a power trip with as much reason to be president as I have. If Trump had shut up, he’d win the election. So do you vote for the one who’s going to lie, or the one who takes you to war? I’m leaning Hillary.”

“Oh, come on, Mitch!” says Cindy.

“What? With Bill Clinton the economy was rolling. I was working a 50-hour week and my 401 (k) outperformed my salary. He’s going to be advising Hillary, suggesting she needs to do this or this.”

“They don’t get along, Mitch.”

“Well, I’m scared of Trump.”

“I guess we’ll cancel each other out then,” says Cindy.

At the boot store, Carrie McCall, a FedEx driver, appears with a package.

“I love Trump,” she declares. “He shoots from the hip.”

But, I ask, isn’t that dangerous?

“I don’t care. After all we’ve been through, I just don’t care.”
"I don't care"-- the cri de cœur of life's losers. Are there enough of them to elect Trump? In places, like Kentucky that seem like time left behind, there may be. 454,573 Democrats voted in the Kentucky primary on May 16. It was a basically a tie, although a couple of corrupted big city machines swung the vote to Hillary 46.8% to 46.3%. No machine was going to help her in Perry County. Bernie beat her there 59.6% to 30%. The GOP had a caucus and 229,667 people participated. Trump won, narrowly with 35.9% of the vote, with Cruz at 31.6%, Rubio at 16.4% and Kasich at 14.4%. Perry County was Trump territory-- 49.2%. He did badly in the middle class suburbs but did real well wherever the hardship and suffering is most acute. He basically swept coal country-- as did Bernie.

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