November 17, 2016
Earlier this year, on “The United States of Anxiety,” WNYC's series on the 2016 election, a reporter went to leafy, mostly white Garden City to ask voters whether they were Trump or Clinton. He honed in on a white nurse, a mother, sitting outside in a cafe sipping a smoothie after yoga. She was going to vote for Trump. Why?
“I’m worried for my son's future,” she explained. “Everyone else will get an opportunity to go to college except him.” Here she paused. “Because you have to let a certain amount of … ethnicities in.”
And I said, “Oh, shit.”
I was raised in northern New Jersey, and I’ve known that nurse my whole life. She’s the one who says, as if it's a compliment, she doesn't think of me as Black; she's every classmate at my Ivy League, coastal elite college who always wanted to talk about “them”; she's the genteel lady at a dinner party who snorted at the idea of African-American literature, then asked, “Is there enough to study?”
She's also the boss who told me “Black people don't read”; she's every glare my interracial family got at a restaurant; she's the person who soaped a crude epithet on my mother's car; the girls who followed our bus after a volleyball match, shouting, “Nigger!” She's the parent who said she was sorry for me because, half-Black and half-white, I wouldn't know what I was. She's this question, personified: “Was he Black?”
It's true the coasts are filled with white elites, but the coasts' white elites are not uniformly Hillary supporters. The bulk of Trump supporters make over $70,000 a year. They do not live in rust-belt towns. They don't work in manufacturing, and they have not been hurt by NAFTA. They don't need economic change, and they won't get it—except for a fat tax break.
But they weren't voting for Trump for that tax break. (Though I'm sure it didn't hurt.) Like that nurse, these well-off Trump voters embrace the idea that they are the victims: of minorities taking their kids' places in college; of welfare queens living off their paychecks; of criminal immigrants taking their jobs; of Syrian immigrants bringing terrorism with them.
Most of these ideas are so self-contradictory they don't even make sense. (Are the “ethnicities” on welfare the ones taking their kids' spots at Harvard? Aren't Syrians escaping terrorism?) But well-off Trump voters need to believe they are the victims, because then they do not need to see the harm they do. They are buying into Trump's narrative, not his opposition to NAFTA. Trump is against “political correctness”; he says “what I'm thinking.” In Trump, they're looking for someone who agrees.
It's not surprising that no one is talking about these Trump voters, because a shattered Democratic party is focused on those who tipped the election for Trump against Hillary, the clear winner of the popular vote: working-class whites. Bernie Sanders, on his I-told-you-so tour, has said that despite Trump's racist agenda, they're on the same page about why he won. On Morning Joe, Michael Moore, in a truly astonishing moment of race-splaining, insisted Eddie Claude, head of the Center for African-American Studies at Princeton, admit that these voters could not be racist, because they had voted for Obama as well. (Go to 23:00.)
A few reporters have been working overtime to explain that working-class white votes were not about NAFTA either. At Slate, Jamelle Bouie is doing God's work, noting that the populist side of Trump's campaign was actually a vision that catered only to white working-class men, that there is no innocent Trump voter, and why white voters could think Obama as a nigger and vote for him at the same time. (I would add here that we shouldn't forget that, while liberals loved Obama for overcoming racism, conservatives loved him because he promised they wouldn't have to think about it anymore.) In Salon, Amanda Marcotte has emphasized that the transparent rage of white working-class does not make it valid, while an incisive piece which appeared on Medium by writer Jessica Kaufman challenges the myths, asking why we need to show empathy for working-class whites when they have none for the rest of us.
Casting Trump as a “change” candidate whose win was due to working-class whites scorned by liberal elites is dangerous for two reasons. The first is the one cited by Bouie: You can't separate Trump's populist promises from his racist rhetoric without rewarding the latter. The second is that it exposes an uncomfortable truth: if the Democratic party aligns itself with Trump's populism to woo working-class voters, they are ignoring the bulk of Trump voters for whom that excuse doesn't fit. It's not only the Right that likes to pretend physical infrastructure, not our infrastructure of racism, is the problem.
I live in diverse New Jersey, which is, like many Hillary-voting states, still terribly segregated—and by design. Years of housing laws and white flight have left cities divided into black and white and poor and wealthy, many literally by railroad tracks or a river. Even in integrated Englewood, where my parents moved us so that we wouldn't be the only interracial family, cashiers followed my mother in the supermarket, and a white girl soaped “nigger” on our car. (The girl's classmate, an Indian girl and our neighbor, brought her over to make her apologize.) Our state may have the Dem numbers, but we're still pockets of “ethnicities” in a sea of white.
I live in one of those pockets, Jersey City, and it's great. Every day, I drop my child off at his bilingual school, where many of the students are children of biracial couples, which abound here. On my way, I say hi to my neighbors, who are all different races. Standing at the swings, I meet other single mothers who used my sperm-donor agency. I just attended a school concert in which—I'm not kidding—a multiracial raft of kids decked out in sombreros and tam o'shanters performed a slate of songs, Filipino and Hebrew among them, while a girl with a Japanese mother and a Russian last name played Beethoven in an obi. Here, the lady in the burqa is just the overprotective mom in my son's soccer class who hovers over her son while the dad looks on, eternally resigned.
But I wasn't surprised to find New Jersey was fourth in the country in hate crimes. This election has made me realize my neighborhood in Jersey City doesn't only make me feel happy. It makes me feel safe.
Here, there are no secret white supremacists, ready to put we gay, liberal, welfare-queen aborting upstarts in tam o'shanters back in our places. But there are also, perforce, fewer of the middle-class white Trump voters affirming that they are the ones who are being stolen from, are discriminated against, are themselves not safe. Once, they merely irritated me. They made me depressed. Now I can see they are deathly serious about making sure the future is not more Jersey Cities, but more status quo.
I heard there was a lot of ugly crying last week. I was surprised to find that I didn't cry at all. I think it's because, though I'm terribly disappointed Hillary Clinton will not be president and terrified how Trump will, I have no fear that the lady who was up and walking the dog the morning after losing the election in a shocking upset will continue to exercise global power and influence. She is hard at work against the forces of the B of D, and she conceded the presidency, not her will.
But that nurse. I keep coming back to that nurse—that nurse who has all the opportunities in the world to know better and still chooses not to. She was the one keeping me up in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, while I was lying next to my 3-year-old, wondering what kind of world I was ushering him into. I once felt pretty confident the Jersey City I live in is a rough approximation of the future. Now, I can't be sure. That nurse is all around me, and right now, this is her country. Make no mistake: Though she isn't the one who tipped the election, she's the real face of the Trump voter. And she bears watching.