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Visit to River County

Smokestacks from factories near a large body of water.

River County borders on Big City, right across the state line. It is heavily industrial and except for being in another state belongs to the Big City metropolitan area. I went there recently to visit a friend. He used to live in Big City but had to move back to River County recently because he has fallen on hard times. The rents are lower there and he has some family nearby to offer support.

He met me at the commuter rail station. He had been mugged the night before. As someone with a very obvious physical disability, he probably made an easy mark. I said I was sorry it happened and I was. He had scars on his arms but otherwise looked physically okay.

We ate at a restaurant near the station. The price of the meal was less than it would have been in Big City. We caught up a little on what was happening in each other’s lives. His state offers low-cost and free health care services he needs. But every time he has set up an appointment, the county’s paratransit services failed to show up to take him.

He wanted to show me his new apartment. We tried calling for a cab but the wait was projected at 30 to 45 minutes. It was a little more than a mile away, so we tried to walk it. But we didn’t get far before we both agreed the walk would be too taxing for him and I felt guilty for putting him in that situation because I should have known better. We decided to call the taxi again and wait on a public bench during the half hour or so the cab would take to arrive.

An interracial (black and white) group of people were gathered at a bench near us. My memory is hazy, maybe it was only two people at first and one or two more came to join them.They looked dirt poor and unemployed and with few if any prospects for a job in the near future. I think they were sharing a bottle of booze but maybe I’m just making that up. A car drove up next to them and the driver talked to them for what seemed like several minutes. I don’t know my cars but it seemed like a pretty expensive one. The driver drove off and has he passed us he waved at my friend. My acquaintance said he’d seen that guy around and that he was probably some gang banger or drug dealer.

One person in the group came to ask us for money. I forget how much but it was a specific amount. Something like 75 cents or whatever. My friend gave him the money. Ever since I’ve moved to Big City I’ve noticed that panhandling works differently here in the Midwest than in CherryPlatte, which is in the Mountain West. Someone usually asks for an exact, but very small amount. They also often preface the request with a long story about what they plan to do with the money. As I recall in CherryPlatte, people just asked for money without specifying an exact amount or explaining themselves too much. But maybe I’m remembering selectively.

The taxi never came, but a bus finally did. My friend got on but I didn’t get on with him. It was getting late and I knew I’d probably have to walk back to the rail station, possibly in the dark. And I felt unsafe there. It was clear that I didn’t belong there. I was so much better off than any of the people I encountered. My bearing, my clothes, my backpack, and in some ways my race marked me as someone foreign to the experiences of the people in this town.

Nobody actually did anything to threaten or harm me. What I felt as danger or fear was probably just feeling different and observed in a way I’m not used to feeling. The feeling wasn’t completely foreign, though. I’ve occasionally been in less-than-safe situations where my fears were partially but thankfully never full, validated.

I know this is a clumsy transition, but as with many things these days, my visit prompted me to think of Trump and the underlying attitudes that support him. It gave me a sampling of what I imagine is a sampling some of those targeted by Trumpism taste in less diluted form.

I forget which thread exactly, but I know that commenter Pillsy has recounted a conversation with a Trump supporter in which the Trumpist made some antisemitic remark. When Pillsy told this guy he (Pillsy) is Jewish, the guy didn’t even apologize. For what it’s worth, I doubt if the individuals I encountered would have been all that welcoming if I told them my spouse was Jewish.

I also recall another post at Ordinary Times some of you may remember. It was taken down because the commenters got too nasty (and I was one of the commenters responsible). That particular post was written before the election. Among other things expressed a sense of foreboding about being in an environment where support for Trump and for what Trump represented was more pervasive than what the author was used to. That author described the sense of menace they felt. I admit I was less than sympathetic at the time, but I now think I feel at least some of it. (And I do ask the commenters here not to mention that author’s name because I don’t wish to drag them into a discussion without their permission.)

Not that River County is Trump Country. But compared to where I live, it’s much more pro-Trump. My state of Sangamon went for Clinton by 55%, my county went for Clinton by 74%, and my city went for Clinton by 83%. River County went for Clinton by only 58%, and Clinton lost Wabashe, the state where River County is located 37% to 58%.1

The atmosphere seems pro-Trump, too. Things seem hopeless there. Shops are closed. While we may quibble about whether the area has really “de-industrialized,” given the persistence of heavy manufacturing, it’s clearer that fewer and fewer jobs are actually available. A friend of a friend who lives in River County tells me anecdote about something that happened shortly after Trump’s election. Two people were speaking Spanish while waiting in line at some retail store. A third person, obviously annoyed, looked at them and said sternly “Trump!” as if to chastise them for daring to speak a language that wasn’t English. I caution against accepting that story at face value and generalizing too much from it, but it suggests to me an anti-immigrant sensibility that is much stronger than one finds in Big City.

The people who seemed so threatening to me probably weren’t Trump supporters. They probably didn’t vote at all, and even if by chance they did vote and voted for him, I doubt they have much love for the guy. But their own hopelessness seemed real enough. And it also seems clear to me that Clinton had little to offer them. In my opinion, though, that state of affairs owes as much or more to the Republican Party’s refusal to work with the Democrats than to any fault of hers.

What to do with all this? I as much as anyone have been an advocate for understanding and empathizing with those who voted for Trump. I still believe in that for two reasons. First, it’s tactically necessary. We can’t fight Trumpism with only anti-Trumpism. That tent isn’t big enough. Second, understanding and empathy are the right things to do, even though it’s hard an unrewarding in the short term. We need to treat people as ends in themselves and set the highest bar before naming them enemies. That second reason, however, applies all around. And I know I’ve been too lax about extending the same empathy to those whose side I ostensibly support.

Photo Credit: Factories, by Tristan Taussac Creative Commons.Attribution-No Derivatives 2.0 Generic License (Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0).

  1. My percentages are rounded. I won’t provide links, but hope you can trust me to render the facts accurately when it comes to politics. The sites from which I found the information are Politico, Ballotpedia, 270towin, and a site I’ll call “BigCitymag,” with the name of the real city in its place. []

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Gabriel Conroy [pseudonym] is an ex-graduate student. He is happily married with no children and has about a million nieces and nephews. The views expressed by Gabriel are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of his spouse or employer. ...more →

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30 thoughts on “Visit to River County

  1. I read this earlier today and have been mulling on it a bit since.

    I think what sticks out for me the most is identifying an atmosphere of economic despair, lack of opportunity, and general anomie, hopelessness, and despair as “pro-Trump.”

    I mean, Trump makes me feel like something very bad is coming down the pike, like opportunities are going to shrivel up, like there isn’t as much reason for hope for a better tomorrow as I would like. But I thought that at least to his supporters, they see him as a way out of that economic and emotional place.

    To identify an incumbent President as drawing political strength from hopelessness is… awful.

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    • Thanks, Burt. I do think the question of whether the particular area I visited actually supports Trump is debatable, or unknowable, at least for certain values of “support.” In other words, maybe the ca. 30% in the area who support him live in more affluent parts of the county and maybe my assumptions about those who I saw are just wrong. I didn’t stop to talk to anyone. But if it’s true, it’s awful.

      Thanks for reading so carefully.

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    • The history of mankind is full of examples of people rising to power by taking advantage of hopeless, desperate people looking for someone-anyone-who can help. We staved it off for a good long time in America but we are not immune to the weight of human nature and history. And it will get worse.

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      • We staved it off for a good long time in America but we are not immune to the weight of human nature and history. And it will get worse.

        What makes you say this? Demagoguery has had a fairly short shelf life in this country, present occupant included.

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  2. gabriel, good writing as always. Have you considered what minimum wage does to the velocity of money on a local level?

    I only ask this, because the ‘de-industrialization’, and some sense of ‘unsolvable poverty’ appear to be a theme.

    I propose upfront that Trump has little positive (or even negative) affect on that topic.

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    • Hi Joe,

      Nice to see you around again!

      Have you considered what minimum wage does to the velocity of money on a local level?

      I haven’t…..I’m not sure I understand the issue.

      As for what, if any, effect Trump has on minimum wages, de-industrialization, or unsolvable poverty…..I guess I’d say very little. I suppose any president could lobby for or against increases in minimum wages.

      De-industrialization: I’m not sure what effect he’d have. He seems to be taking protectionist steps, or at least talking the protectionist theme, which some people (not me) might see as addressing de-industrialization. However, I don’t think the effect will be all that large, unless he’s actually successful as closing off trade, say, to levels of the Smoot-Hawley days. The effect, I think, would be overall negative in such an event, though some sectors might benefit.

      As for “unsolvable poverty”: no, I don’t think Trump will appreciably move things one way or another. My theory is that to the extent he does, it would be negative.

      In some ways, though, my hypothesis is that Trump himself is an “effect,” or at least “symptom,” of those forces you mention, or that are there by implication in what you mention: stagnant wages, loss of jobs, and structural poverty. Like others, I’m not sure how much I really believe he’s an effect/symptom of all those economic ills and how much racism and xenophobia play. My guess is that it’s an unsavory mix of all those.

      I’m not sure that really answers your question. But again, it’s nice to see you back.

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      • Thanks, I appreciate the welcome back, and have missed your perspective over the last year.

        I see the current loss of industrial activity attributed to minimum wage. If the minimum wage were to be deconstructed, then wages would have a chance settle to equilibrium across nations, and industrial activity would pickup here again.

        Admittedly it would not be easy, but it took years for the imbalance of wages to occur and playing one nations wages against another to get to the wage stagnation we are seeing here today. The velocity of money will not increase in the lower strata of the economy until the wages once again reach a equilibrium with competing nations. Our wages need to become globally competitive again, or we will not be competitive in producing industrial goods on the global market. The way I see it minimum wage created this problem, and is suppressing the solutions to re-igniting industrial opportunity.

        Without being able to compete, we have long term structural poverty. Trump may be trying to create better deals, but with the wage imbalance, all he has left to leverage (other than minimum wage) is tariffs, which will eventually lead to higher prices incountry, and will artificially raise the wages even higher to be even less competitive in global equilibrium.

        I don’t know if his ‘policies’ have actually generated competitive jobs, as much as created artificial scarcity through tariffs and trade levels. I do know the last three presidents have avoided talking about making the wages here competitive with other countries. As the structural poverty in the lower strata has been going on for decades, it makes talk of a competitive wage more difficult, if impossible.

        As for racism and xenophobia, when the economy is working better it is easier for factions to get along, as there are plenty of resources and jobs. Factional friction increases when the economy is not doing good, and all the legal barriers to create artificial scarcity exist and are in place.

        There is the other problem, when a government is progressively manipulated into ‘rule by force’, every faction wants to control it. That model historically leads to a very dark path, which it has.

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        • “As for racism and xenophobia, when the economy is working better it is easier for factions to get along, as there are plenty of resources and jobs.” (emph. added)

          I have read a lot about the Troubles in North Ireland* (and spent some time there during this period) and this was one of the main drivers of the increased violence starting in the ’60 with Bloody Sunday, which was a protest for greater access to gov’t housing. Catholics were denied a fair share of a shrink economic pie.

          *The IRA; a History – Coogan, is a great starting point.

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        • I’m curious as to how poverty would be reduced by reaching ‘equilibrium’ in lower strata wages with other nations. Mostly because I can’t think of anywhere in America where making $1/day or even $1/hour wouldn’t still mean living in poverty.


          As for racism and xenophobia, when the economy is working better it is easier for factions to get along, as there are plenty of resources and jobs. Factional friction increases when the economy is not doing good, and all the legal barriers to create artificial scarcity exist and are in place.

          I think this falls under ‘facts not in evidence’. The 1950s are remembered as idyllic only by white people. An in the 1920s when everything was booming the KKK reached such heights of popularity and power that in the mid-1920s thousands of Klan members marched down Pennsylvania avenue in DC . Demagogues may be better able to play up xenophobia and racism when there is perceived scarcity, but keeping ‘those people’ on the outside thrives in times of prosperity too – sometimes more so because increased opportunities mean those others have more ability to rise economically and socially, which is very threatening to the sort of people who find the idea of a non-white and/or non-Christian living next door or sending children to the neighborhood school very, very uncomfortable.

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          • It’s not easy to see things after all the parameters that led to this particular moment in time have fully developed into the path dependency we are familiar with.

            Looking at your comment, there appears to be two topics that are somewhat interlinked, the first being economic, the second being racism, factionalism, or out-grouping.

            On the economic, particular nations are suppressing their wage rates because other countries have legal elevated theirs. If minimum wage never existed as a parameter, the wages would have risen in equilibrium, and industry would be developing in equilibrium between countries. There maybe some trade because of comparative advantage, but there would be no loss in the velocity of money in the distributed industrialization that occurs in the equilibrium. The concept of ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’ countries would only minimally exist from chance processes occurring in comparative advantage, instead of legal and forced parameters.

            I don’t feel any real need to go into all the -ism that people may or may not hold. I don’t remember the 1950s, or the 1920s. There may be a cultural/social construct of ‘societal memory’ you may wish for me to acknowledge, but I am reluctant to recognize any authority invested in social constructs. To begin the premise of a cultural/social memory we would have to agree on what social objectivity is, past and present, and we would be very far apart on that matter(not that I don’t think a discussion on that would be interesting, just not particularly fruitful).

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  3. On the Turkeys and Drumsticks thread Saul linked to the Vox article about the California crop of Trumpists, who have become perversely wedded to their stature as powerless outsiders.

    What is critical is that this isn’t a “political” movement, where we can talk about it like it has some ideology and coherent vision of what a Just Society would look like. Their entire political program begins and ends with inflicting pain and humiliation upon someone.

    Maybe that’s what gives it such a menace, that it is a religion with a devil but not a god.

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    • I’m not sure I agree, but I’m not sure I disagree, either.

      If I don’t agree, it’s because I suspect quite a large number of political movements are negative and not inclined to offer a vision of a just society. By negative, I mean they are framed mostly against something. In that sense, much of the support for Trump seems to me to be “against” certain things: certain kinds of immigration, “liberals,” certain kinds of norms, freer trade. In that sense, Trumpism isn’t as unique as your comment seems to imply, if I’m reading you right.

      Another reason I might not agree with your comment is that maybe Trumpism isn’t quite as negative as I’ve just said. One person’s opposition to some kinds of immigration is another person’s support for what that person might call a “coherent society of shared values.” One person’s opposition to liberals’ supposed classism is another person’s plea for tolerance for less advantages persons. One person’s opposition to freer trade is another’s support for American industry. I’m not saying I agree with that “another person.” I readily admit that those “positive” features embody some questionable assumptions or assumptions I believe are outright wrong or dangerous. But they’re “positive” in the sense of being framed “for” something.

      If I agree with your comment, it’s because I’m inclined to say that Trumpism’s success on the national stage (call it a fluke of the electoral college system, but the fluke has fluked, so it’s been a “success”) makes Trumpism a “successful” and “now to be considered seriously” movement in a way that other movements weren’t. So in that sense, it’s unique, or has attained a unique degree of success.

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      • There isn’t a contradiction here.
        Opposition to something implies support for something else.

        What Trumpism supports is not a conventional political program, but a society defined by hierarchies of ethnicity, gender, and class.

        All conventional political frameworks of economics, law and philosophy are filtered first through the lens of how it affects the hierarchy. This is why his moves frustrate conventional pundits looking to fit him into some Cold War framework of economics.
        On this issue (e.g. regulation) Trumpism prioritizes market freedom, on that issue (e.g. tariffs) it uses command and control government action. But the real common thread is prioritizing the interests of his base of white male property owners.

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    • Hey I just got back from my Thanksgiving and read this, and thought it was quite good. And not just because you quoted my anecdote.

      I think there’s a regional character to Trump support, and that definitely includes the extent to which support for him is linked to economic disaffection. I live in a pretty nice NJ suburb all things considered, and my town went for Trump, though not overwhelmingly. Some of that is just being Republican from way back, but some of it isn’t. And of the vocal pro-Trump types I’ve run across, several are rather successful small business owners.

      The guy who had it in for the Jews wasn’t, though, so there’s that.

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      • Thanks for reading and for your comment, Pillsy. I know I implied otherwise in my OP, but River County technically went for Clinton, although by a lower margin than Big City (its neighbor) did.

        I will say the only vocal Trump supporter I know personally (that is, the only one who personally has disclosed to me they voted for Trump) is actually a quite successful accountant.

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