Back in 2013, I had the honor of attending the graduation of my nephew from Texas A&M. I flew down to Houston the day before and rented a car to make the hour and a half trek towards College Station. Because all the hotels in town were booked, I was forced to find accommodations 10 miles to the south.
Traveling north on Route 6, I inadvertently exited too soon and found myself in a town that would’ve made Mayberry look like Midtown Manhattan. I pride myself on being an acute observer – something I developed during my retail days – and took notice of the cars in town. A couple of sedans, no minivans and a shitload of pickups – I lost count at about twenty. I didn’t recall seeing a single “import.” Mostly Fords and Chevys. There was one traffic light in the town, along with a stop sign, which I made damn certain to come to a complete stop at. No way in hell I was gonna end up in a jail cell in Texas.
I finally arrived at my destination; an inn that would’ve made Motel 6 look like Club Med. I remember the TV worked and the shower was functional, even if the bathroom door wouldn’t close, and the next-door neighbors – I assumed they were living there – would occasionally get into, shall we say, a few “heated” arguments.
The image of that town is something I’ve never been quite able to shake from my memory, which is strange because in so many ways it is the town that most of the country never sees, unless, like me, they get lost on the way to their true destination. Rural America has thousands of towns just like the one I found myself in that afternoon: small, insular, and inconsequential. In the grand scheme of things, they matter about as much as a flea on a donkey’s ass.
But while those of us in the cities and suburbs may have ignored their presence, in the rural parts of the country, where none of us dared to go, their dander was just starting to rise. Decades of being pissed on and made fun of by the “elites” can do funny things to people. The term flyover states refers to areas of the country that have either gone unnoticed or been taken for granted; places where going out to a Papa John’s is a major event. To say they did not appreciated being looked down upon would be an understatement. You can cut the resentment in these towns with a machete, that’s how thick it is and how deep it runs.
Most of us never saw the political tsunami of 2016 I suspect because most of us didn’t want to. Like me, they had “better” things to do than pay attention to what we flippantly referred to as the armpit of America. They were hicks without hope, backwards and innocuous. They mattered as much to us as those industrial towns in places like Ohio and Michigan, where plants that once employed thousands of workers had been shut down for years, resulting in massive unemployment and a seething anger.
Well, a funny thing happened on November 8: those small hick towns in rural America joined forces with those industrial towns in the Rust-Belt states and gave the rest of us a giant middle finger. Almost as if on cue, they rose up and made their voices heard loud and clear. They were done being pissed on; now they would finally get the respect they deserved.
It’s difficult for us to imagine, but for these people Donald Trump has become something of a folk hero. He was the candidate who told them the system was rigged and that they were being screwed, as if anyone there needed to be reminded. But Trump did more than just channel their rage; he told them he could help them. Politicians had promised them the moon before, only to fail miserably. But the difference between those past politicians and Trump was that Trump didn’t just tell them he could fix things; he told them who was to blame for the mess: corrupt politicians and, of course, outsiders, e.g., illegal immigrants.
The former is an argument that, admittedly, has been used before, sometimes successfully. Every party paints the other as corrupt and responsible for the problems that beset the country. The last two wave elections – one Republican, the other Democrat – is proof that the electorate can often fall for this strategy. But Trump, despite running as a Republican, threw his own party under the bus as well as the Democrats. He was relentless in his assault of the entire political system; a variation on the old “a pox on both your houses” theme. And it worked brilliantly. To his supporters, he was not only authentic, but incorruptible. The GOP hated him, the Democrats hated him, therefore, he must be the real deal.
But it was his successful deployment of the latter that won him the White House. The constant blaming of foreigners who come to this country to steal jobs away from hard-working Americans. Whether the result of “terrible” trade deals or bad immigration policy, Trump pledged to end what he called the “carnage.” America first, by extension, meant Americans only. Anyone who was considered an outsider had to leave. It was a form of nationalism and xenophobia on a scale never before seen in this country and, for Trump, it proved to be his meal ticket. From his “Mexicans are rapists” charge to his proposed ban of all Muslims entering the country, an astounding number of people bought in and voted for him on election day.
And despite the controversies that have ensnared his administration over the last six months, most of these voters have stuck with him. These are not people who read The New York Times or The Washington Post. Nor are they likely to watch CNN. Indeed, for many of them, Fox News is too mainstream. So when Trump says that the Russia scandal is fake news, they believe him, and no amount of evidence to the contrary is likely to persuade them otherwise. They aren’t just supporters, they’re disciples of a strange cult. And like all cults, the light of day never enters. Reason and reality are shunned for deception and lies. There is one simple rule: the leader speaks, the followers listen. In a rare moment of candor, Trump was correct when he said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any of his supporters. If that isn’t the definition of a cult, I don’t know what is.
But cults can only succeed where there is a breakdown in traditional institutions; be they religious or political. Trump saw an opportunity and cashed in. He knew that neither party had paid much attention to what was happening in both rural and industrial America. Republicans were fixated on maximizing corporate profits and expanding trade which led to the slashing of countless jobs at home and depressed salaries in the ones that remained. The result was that employees worked longer hours for less pay. Whole communities were torn apart and faced massive unemployment.
Democrats should have seized on the opportunity afforded them and used it as a rallying cry, but instead they too bedded down with Wall Street and became co-consiprators with Republicans. Both parties became obsessed with “soft” money and pandered to their respective bases. Republicans, the top 1 percent of wage earners; Democrats, the big cities and special interests, e.g., minorities. The once big tent party was all but estranged from two thirds of the country’s geography.
If you don’t believe me, that a good look at the election results from last November. Clinton won all the big cities: Boston, New York, Philly, D.C., Miami, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Denver, L.A., San Fran and Seattle. Trump won most of the rest. And he won by appealing to voters who felt left behind by this modern, culturally diverse, pluralistic economy. Many of them were blue-collar workers who longed for a return to the good old days when they were richly rewarded for their labor and everybody looked and sounded alike. They saw the influx of immigrants into the country as a threat, not just to their livelihoods, but to the neighborhoods they lived in and the very culture they grew up with. TV shows that catered to a demographic which no longer represented their values, along with once beloved radio stations that switched to more popular music formats, only served to reinforce their resentments.
So these people, egged on by Trump’s rhetoric, in fear voted for a past that will never return, and against a future they cannot wrap their heads around. It wasn’t just a case of revisionist history gone amuck, this was nothing less than a total rejection of the direction the country was heading in; a direction they view as inimical to their best interests.
The Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment or RAISE Act that was recently introduced by GOP Senators Tom Cotton and David Purdue – and subsequently endorsed by Trump and the Far Right – would seek to cut in half the number of legal immigrants that can come into this country legally, and those immigrants that do gain legal status would have to pass a merit test to determine their worthiness. This isn’t the first time the nation has attempted to place a litmus test on immigrants. Lyndon Johnson tried and failed in 1965.
Thankfully, this bill will suffer the same fate, and for one very important reason: its underlining premise is a fraud and everyone knows it. The bill claims that low-skilled immigrants take jobs away from hard-working Americans. There is no evidence that this is the case. In fact, just the opposite; many of these low-skilled immigrants end up taking jobs that would otherwise go unfilled. Ask any farmer in the South or the Midwest. The overwhelming majority of workers who tend to their crops come from Latin America. They can’t get Americans to endure the back-breaking work that these jobs demand regardless of the pay rate. Hell, in my neck of the woods you can’t even find enough of them to fill the vacancies at fast-food joints. The idea that immigrants are the reason Americans can’t find enough low-paying jobs is laughable. Besides, the goal shouldn’t be filling low-paying jobs; it should be creating more high-paying ones, and this bill doesn’t do a damn thing to address that.
As for the provision in the bill requiring any and all immigrants to be fluent in English, had this been the law a century ago, the vast majority of immigrants from Italy, Germany, Poland and China would never have been allowed to settle here. Virtually none of them spoke English, fluent or otherwise. It wasn’t until the second generation that the sons and daughters of these immigrants became fluent in English and began to make significant contributions to this country by becoming doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, plumbers, electricians, construction workers and, yes, even politicians.
I suspect that what’s really going on here has more to do with where these immigrants are coming from rather than whether they can speak the language. Notice how the Cotton-Purdue bill failed to mention immigrants from, say, Slovenia. No sense telling the current occupant of the White House that his wife wouldn’t “merit” being in the country. Not unless you think “My husband vould make very good president” constitutes fluent English. If that’s the case, the guy who takes my order at Wendy’s is a fucking Rhodes scholar.
But this is why I think Democrats should take this bill seriously: not because it will address any of the real problems that beset our economy, but because an awful lot of people who live in the states Trump won think it will. Let’s be clear here: the RAISE Act will not lead to an increase in high-paying jobs, nor will it bring relief to employers looking to fill low-paying ones. All it does is pander to the fears that people have about their future prospects. When they see a Hispanic working at a fast-food restaurant, especially one who struggles with the English language, it just reinforces the belief that their jobs are being stolen from them by immigrants. It matters not that many of them wouldn’t want those jobs anyway. All that matters is the image of that worker saying, “Welcome to Burger King, may I take your order?”
Some lies are tough, if not impossible, to break. But the first rule shouldn’t be to deny that there’s a reason the lie exists. My fear is that Democrats will do what they typically do: dismiss this ridiculous excuse for a bill, and with it the very legitimate fears of the people it was designed to appease. In politics this is called throwing the baby out with the bathwater, something Democrats do exceedingly well.
The way to win back the people who voted for Trump is to find out what makes them tick. Take their concerns seriously and come up with real solutions that actually work. Sensible immigration policy should be more than just granting unfettered access to immigrants who want to be a part of this great experiment we call democracy; it’s about reassuring those who were born here that you give a shit about their needs.
Think about it this way: if you adopted a child and brought them into a home where you already had one, and then treated that adopted child better, how long would it be before your older child felt neglected and became resentful? If you think that’s an overly simplistic way of looking at the issue of immigration, I suggest that the next time you go out for a drive, you take a detour through a small town and take a good look around.
Who knows, maybe, like me, you might learn a thing or two.
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