Depression, Powerlessness and Presidential Politics
Most of America is absolutely, positively flabbergasted that poor whites are voting for Donald Trump in record numbers. There have been a lot of articles written by people way smarter than me about why these folks seem to be voting against their own self-interest and frankly have been for quite awhile.
As I see it, working with poor white Americans is a lot like helping a friend who is suffering from depression.
I’m not sure if I’m at all unique in this regard, but I have a lot of friends and family members who suffer from depression in one form or another. (There have been times that I’ve wondered if being around me in fact causes depression, but I’m trying hard not to dwell on that too much.)
Anyway, it’s part of my nature to be a problem-solver and so faced with people who suffer from depression, I have a tendency to jump into problem-solving mode:
“You know, sunlight is such a good stimulant for both serotonin and dopamine; you should try to get out in the fresh air and let it work its magic.”
“Well, if you turned off your phone at 10:00, you’d sleep better and that is BOUND to help.”
“Well, of COURSE you feel depressed; you’re looking at the worst side of every situation!”
There…don’t you feel better?
Yeah; it doesn’t work in person either.
So there’s this video that I pretty much have to watch every two weeks or so as a reminder; it’s called “It’s Not About the Nail”. The link is here. It’s only two minutes long, so if you want to go watch it, I’ll wait…
(If you’re anything like me, you were screaming “Oh for God’s sake, it’s about the f*cking nail!!!” about 22 seconds into it.)
So here’s the point. Most people suffering from depression are absolutely aware of their condition. And they have been told…by therapists, friends, family members, the media, blogs, Facebook, etc. what they need to do to help them feel better. Knowing what to do isn’t really the problem. Having the presence and the will to do it is another matter. And to get there, they need to feel supported.
The problem is that what they really, really need most is someone to simply acknowledge that they are suffering and don’t deserve to suffer. “Man; that totally sucks. I’m really sorry you are suffering.” That simple act right there makes them feel empowered and cared about and that can go a long way toward their having the courage to start the really hard work of alleviating their own suffering.
What does this have to do with presidential politics? Glad you asked.
White, poor Americans are suffering from their own depression. They have, for decades now, lost ground socially and economically against every other group in the nation. They feel powerless to help themselves get out of the hole they’re in. I mean, when was the last time you heard someone in Washington decry the “plight of the high school-educated white guy”. If you're a minority or a woman or an immigrant, then everybody acknowledges that they deck is stacked against you and there are programs and even if it doesn’t get better for you, at least everyone acknowledges that you're in a pickle. But not if they’re white and poor. “White and poor? Nope…don’t see much here for you. Are you sure you’re not maybe Hispanic? Because I can do something if you’re Hispanic.” It’s going to take a LOT of hard work and unpopular reforms to help this group, because the economic world, with its tech-based focus and cheap overseas consumer goods, has changed and left them behind.
And the messaging from everyone…Republicans, Democrats, the media…is that they brought it on themselves. That it’s their lot in life. Watch History Channel or TLC some time. What one group in America can we make entertainment fun about on a consistent basis? Poor whites. Honey BooBoo, Swamp People, Off the Grid, Hoarders…just watch. They’re all white. There’s all poor or working class. Most are southern. Let’s just cut to the chase and make a show called “The Have-Nots”. We would never, and I mean NE-VER, see a show about poor blacks or Hispanics. That would raise an outcry you could hear in the middle of the Indian Ocean somewhere. But poor whites? Fair game. And who is most likely to watch these shows? Other Have-Nots. Why? Because they can look at the folks on TV and say “Well, damn…at least I’m not them.”
Poor white Americans have been searching for decades for someone to stop telling them it's about the nail.
For years, they turned to the Democrats. The Democrats said “Well, manufacturing just isn’t where it’s at anymore; that’s reality. But here; let’s get you a better education and some better representation and take you outside in the sunshine and you know if you turned off your phone you’d sleep a lot better and that HAS to help…are you with me here? You better get busy if you’re not going to slip farther behind. You have to take advantage of what we’re giving you…and besides, you’re white. I mean, it’s not like you have anything working against you…are you sure you’re not Muslim? I can do something if you’re Muslim.” And the gap between the Haves and the Have-Nots got bigger because the world kept changing and the manufacturing jobs still weren’t there and the minimum wage still didn’t keep pace with inflation and eventually the Have-Nots got disillusioned with the Democrats.
Then they turned to the Republicans. The Republicans said “Well, the reason you are in this pickle is because the Democrats stole all your money to create these social service programs for all those damn blacks and Hispanics and immigrants! If you just vote them out of office, we can lower taxes and give the money to businesses who will hire you and you’ll be rich and fat like us in no time…by the way, the trash needs emptied. Oh, and you got a nail in your head there. Might wanna look into that.” And the Have-Nots had even less and the Haves had even more. A LOT more. And there were MORE Have-Nots than ever before.
And now we are in another election season. And there are a LOT of Have-Nots. And they look at our Congress and they see a lot of people who don’t seem to care much about them and haven’t in a long, long time.
Enter Donald Trump.
The Donald says, “Wow. Your head must really hurt. Of course it’s not about the nail.”
He says, “You poor bastards; you have gotten the rawest of raw deals here. Because it’s not about the changing economy and it’s not about education and it’s not about what they’re doing with taxes and it’s not about income inequality. It’s because the world has given all their attention to the blacks and the Hispanics and the immigrants and the Muslims and they just left you sitting there, didn’t they? How dare they do that? Let’s make all those people go away, because they’re taking up all the attention and you’re not getting any. Tell you what? We’re going to make some new reality shows. We’re going to call them ‘The Jigaboos’ and ‘The Mexican Rapists’ and ‘The Towelheads’ and our new reality shows will have electrical wire over top of a wall and you can watch people trying to climb over get electrocuted during Prime Time and you can look at all of those people on those new shows and say “Well damn…at least I’m not them.”” The Have-Nots looked up and said “See? He gets us! See? It’s really not our fault and we don’t have to do really hard work to make ourselves desirable.”
In that moment, the Haviest of the Haves became the hero of the Have-Nots. And the rest of us were left scratching our heads. How on EARTH could these people fall for this …this…BUFFOON? we all said.
All he had to do was say the magic words. “It’s not about the nail. There is no nail. It’s someone else’s fault that you’re in this pickle.”
The danger, of course, is that unlike working with individuals with depression, the working poor have not, by and large, been given a set of tools to get out of the pickle. It’s all a fallacy. But Trump isn’t looking to solve problems; he’s looking to get elected. He’s the ultimate sociopath in that regard. He will get elected on the platform of “You poor bastards” and then, because he has no actual policies, it’ll be business as usual. Or maybe worse. He’ll combine bully pulpit politics with side-show theatrics and amuse himself for four or eight years and leave it for the next guy to clean up. He will abandon the people who are following him now, because he neither truly understands them nor does he truly want to. They are a means to an end. The Haves and the Have-Nots will grow farther and farther apart, but it won’t matter to him, because he’ll be on to the next thing by then. But this time, the Have-Nots will trust no one and nothing, because they have been betrayed at every turn.
Let’s hope it doesn’t happen. Let’s hope that the majority of Americans see where this is leading and elect someone who can work in the best interest of the nation. I'm not hopeful.
If that happens, though, there will need to be real changes. It’s going to have to start with “Wow. Your head must really hurt.” But then it’s going to have to be followed up with a re-indexing of the minimum wage, some painful tax reforms, career-oriented education and perhaps just enough trade reform to break our addiction to cheap overseas crap, so we can remember how to make stuff here.
Make no mistake; it’s about the nail. But first, it’s about really hearing the needs of the American working poor and giving them a sense that somebody really cares. Because if not, we're going to see this played out over and over again in the years to come.