So, I’m a despised elitist?
This bemusing, tragicomic motif in the aftermath of the Trump victory is heard over and over among the white Rust-Belter diaspora. Living here in deep blue Massachusetts, I know people from all over Trump country: Iowa, Kansas, Wisconsin (my home state), Michigan… all over the Midwest. And all of us are saying the same thing: Really? We’re now the enemy? We grew up eating bratwurst and playing football and raising cattle to show at our various state fairs, and now we are the people that half the country wants to give the finger to? How did that happen?
It is now some kind of accepted fact that many in the center of the country feel despised by us on the coasts. There were many reasons people voted for Trump, but one frequently cited by Trump voters themselves was to exact some sort of cultural revenge. “You look down on us,” they keep saying, “and now you can’t anymore because now we won. Now we can look down on you.” Is this just another media narrative spun to keep us entertained? Or could it be true? As a psychologist and a native of Wisconsin, it sounds true to me. But the truth of it is contained perhaps in human nature, and personality, and mobility, rather than in politics.
One need not be a total genetic determinist to notice that some people are born liberals. There are reams of data from psychological studies spanning many decades that personality traits like “openness to experience” and creativity are partly inborn. People come in different flavors, and the enjoyment, or lack of enjoyment, of novelty for its own sake is one of the flavors. Once can be high on that score or low on it; that’s the nature part. Psychologists also know that people who like novelty also like diversity and tend to be more liberal politically. This is not rocket science: people who are by nature boundary-busters like new ideas, different kinds of people, and bending or breaking rules.
But… those of us who were born that way all picked up and left the midsection. The social mobility and self-ghettoization described in books like Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart tell us what we already know: if you’re a freethinker, you move to a coast, or a biggish city within your state — Ann Arbor, Madison, Bloomington. You don’t stay where you can’t breathe if it’s possible to pick up and move. But if homogeneity doesn’t bother you, you stay put. There is some solid evidence that one big predictor of support for Trump was never having left one’s home community.
The people we left behind who voted for Trump can’t figure out why some people think they are racist. They don’t feel like racists, and in many ways they are right. Many of the people I grew up with in Wisconsin just like things to be predictable; they like uniformity. They use the word “different” (pronounced “differnt” where I grew up) as a veiled insult. It’s not that they hate anyone, it’s that they love the comfort of similarity.
In 1970, the year I left my hometown, an interracial couple was seen walking down Main Street holding hands; everyone in town called the local radio call-in show to ask “what was going on.” When three Jews stood on the platform at my high school graduation, everyone asked each other “what’s going on?” Two of them were the chairman of the school board and the class president — both elected by their peers, after all. But when the local rabbi happened to come up in the local clergy rotation to give the invocation that same year, it was one Jew too many, and there was that rumble…”what’s going on?” When, years later, one of my parents’ caregivers heard I was going to the local farmers’ market, she gave me a helpful hint: don’t buy from the Hmong farmers, because “their practices are unsanitary.” When I went home for my mother’s funeral, we went to the local barbecue place: the menu lists items described as “hot” or “spicy” but if you ask about them, the waitress assures you that “they’re not really hot” and indeed they are not, because no one will order them if they really are hot. Casual racism is just a part of the bigger picture: in my hometown, they like it spicy, as long as it’s not really spicy. They like all kinds of people, as long as they are the same kind of people.
But the people who like it spicy left town long ago. My siblings are long gone from my hometown. With one lovable exception, all my old high school friends are long gone. All the rabble-rousers and weirdos I loved are long gone. The Jews have all self-deported: the synagogue founded in the early 20th century closed in the 1980s when most of the Jewish baby boomers left and never came back; it is now open only for funerals. I left home to attend college in Madison (the bohemian haven of the state) and went to summer school every summer just to have a reason to be away, then moved to Boston never to return.
The many, many Rust-Belters I know in Massachusetts all have the same story: we don’t feel like “elites.” We don’t have elite money, that’s for sure. And we don’t think we look down on the people we grew up with. But we all know we would never go back. Never. Does that mean we despise them? No. But it might mean that this current divide, which many describe as political, is really something deeper and more difficult to heal. Seen in this light, the seminal book about our current predicament is not The Big Sort or Coming Apart. It is an old friend’s: Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. We’re all Carol Kennicott, leaving Gopher Prairie and heading to Washington, not because of being driven out, but because of suffocation.
And if you are the kind of person who likes novelty and diversity for its own sake, life in the Peaceable Province is better. This summer, I posted the following little paean on my Facebook feed:
Okay, I didn’t want to be weighted down with my phone so you’ll have to see this the old-fashioned way. Today, Race Point Beach: breezy, but not windy. Cloudless sky. The water is warm (for the Cape) and totally free of seaweed; the sand is perfect (no rocks underfoot). I’m thinking “It’s like the Caribbean” just when a kid next to me says “It’s like the Caribbean.” Cormorants and gulls and terns feeding. Lovely happy people, including people of color on the beach: black people and Asian people and bi-racial couples with bi-racial children and two men embracing and kissing in the waves and some very white kids squealing to each other in Danish or maybe Swedish. And everyone pretty quiet and totally in awe of the whales spouting just off shore with clouds of birds circling over their spouts.
I cannot imagine this would ever happen in my hometown: it just couldn’t, and not just because of the absence of the ocean. I like life better where this could happen, where it did happen. Dear home folks: I’m staying in the Peaceable Province. That doesn’t mean I hate you. But unlike Carol Kennicott, I’m never living among you again. If Trump’s victory means you get to look down on me, go ahead. But you’ll have to do it from a distance.