Many white men are in trouble. Wages for them have been flat for decades. They see challenges to their supremacy from women, from minorities. Gone are the days when there were enough good blue collar jobs to support a family in a decent middle-class life. The death rate for white men is increasing even as it falls for all other demographics.
I read all this in the news, but it feels like something far away. After all, I live in a comfortable middle-class suburb outside the biggest economic engine in the country. People here tend to be white collar and college educated. Everyone has a shiny late-model sedan in the driveway. This is the land that rolls its eyes at the “guns and religion” crowd.
This weekend I went to two holiday parties (mercifully the last of a busy season). I grabbed my wine, I settled in for the party chatter I normally find so mind-numbing. We ran through the usual topics: the taxes, the new developments we’re fighting (we’re always fighting new development). Schools. How big our kids have gotten. And then the conversation turned to Donald Trump.
I expected a good liberal laugh-in of his ridiculous statements. There are so many, I figured it would be easy. I was in for a shock. Time and again I heard (mostly from the white men) that they didn’t agree with everything he said, but that someone had to do something to “make America great again.” It was interesting to watch Trump’s propaganda ripple through a crowd I knew, with whom I’ve been attending holiday parties and soccer games and school concerts for the better part of two decades. This was the crowd I’d never have imagined would be susceptible to that kind of hate speech. It was easy to trace it through fracture lines I was familiar with: there the guy I knew had been laid off and couldn’t find a job for a year was saying that we really do have too many immigrants. Here a man I knew had been struggling with high health care bills was saying illegal immigrants were siphoning off social services from people who needed them. They had real pains, and someone had come along and misdirected their anger and confusion. Not far away, in some scary land of Open Carry and ignorance, but in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge at a snazzy cocktail party. I saw their vulnerability and their fear, these guys who were supposed to be the big, strong providers but who were facing their own limits and aging in a changing society. I saw how that vulnerability could be exploited by ugly rhetoric.
It was a troubling revelation.
We are a mass of needs and wants and fears, all of us, barely concealed by a veneer of civility. When I was young, I used to wonder how entire nations could stand by while atrocities happen. Now I understand. We live in incredible prosperity, but even relatively small strikes against our security can make many of us accept awful ideas. What if the challenge got bigger, if attacks got more horrific and the death toll mounted? What if the economy got ugly, even uglier than in 2008? How far would we go then? What would it take for the people at a holiday party like this one to argue in favor of more liberal gun laws? Of mass deportations? Of internment? Of worse? How far will we go when our security is really on the line?
One thing that has always captivated my imagination about the United States is the outstanding human achievement of founding a country on lofty ideals, not just a collection of people who have shared a land since time immemorial. Due process. Equality. Freedoms. These are beautiful to talk about, but difficult to uphold on an ongoing basis, especially in the face of challenges. But it is exactly in these moments that our ideals matter most of all.
In this holiday season and all through the year, I’ll work to understand human nature. And pray for the better angels of our nature to win out in the end.