How the Other Half Lives

“I’m shy.”

My brother once said this when meeting one of my friends for the first time. It struck me as odd, because, well, if you know my brother, you probably wouldn’t use the word “shy” to describe him. But he was visiting me in New York to look at colleges, and this particular friend worked in college admissions, so naturally she had a million questions that he wasn’t rushing to answer. Instead of indulging her admissions interview, he said something I had never heard.

“I’m shy.”

And it worked! She stopped asking him questions. As far as she knew, he was shy, and she had to respect that.

There’s been a lot of chatter about the “shy Trump voter.” My first thought was that there is nothing shy about a Trump voter. They make noise, they wear offensive t-shirts, and they start offensive chants in the middle of teleprompted speeches, not shy about their yearning for their man to go off-script. There’s nothing shy about that Trump voter.

But then I realized I was looking in the wrong place. I was in the wrong basket. We can easily identify the contents of the basket of deplorables, mostly because they’re all hiding under white sheets like little orphan Annie escaping in the laundry.

But Hillary said that HALF of Trump supporters reside in this identifiable basket of deplorables, which means there’s another half. Somewhere out there is another basket, a shy basket. The supporters in this basket don’t wear the t-shirt in public or retweet the battle cry. But they own the shirt and wear it at home. And they read the tweet and feel it. They just don’t want to talk to you about it.

In her now infamous “basket of deplorables” speech, Hillary made the case that the other basket contains people who are disappointed in the current government, who feel neglected and feel that Trump shines a light on their needs. I think it’s deeper and darker than that, though. I think that we’re failing to see that while the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement and the gay rights movement afforded our nation tremendous progress, it removed a privilege previously bestowed upon the American white male at birth.

It used to be that being white was enough. Sure, you could go to college if you wanted to be fancy. But you didn’t have to. You’d find some sort of job and probably do just fine. And so would your kids. And your wife would be taken care of. That’s the America Trump is tapping into when he says “Make America Great Again.” It’s a pre-civil rights America, and to many it was just great. Of course it may not have been great for all, but Trump is hunting through the nation, preying on anyone who can still remember a less colorful American dream.

In a recent speech in Clive, Iowa, Trump said, “I will fight for every neglected part of the nation….On November 8, we’re taking back our country.” And he can tell you that he means EVERY neglected part, but specifically he means the part neglected by affirmative action. Throughout my lifetime alone, I’ve witnessed the changes Trump wants to reverse. I grew up hearing about the controversy surrounding affirmative action, and, as an angsty teenager, I struggled with what box to check on my college applications (spoiler alert: I left it blank).

I suppose I grew up with the political correctness that Trump has now identified as an unnecessary evil. I grew up in a world where racial stereotypes of any kind were unacceptable, but Trump would like to bring them into our highest office and works them into his speeches whenever he can sneak away from his teleprompter. On September 15 at the Economic Club of New York, he did just that when talking about China. “And I like China,” he said. “They’re my tenant. They buy condos all the time. They’re just fine. But you know what? They’re a currency manipulator…They are a manipulator, grand master level.” Where I grew up, that wasn’t allowed. Thankfully, I grew up in a world where an even playing field is, at the very least, the aspiration and where public displays of equality are expected and encouraged.

Perhaps I have taken that for granted.

Perhaps, while I was struggling with what the notion of color blind meant, someone else thought that color should matter but not in the way that I thought. Someone else thought that race should secure certain types a certain future, whether earned or not. Someone else watched the deterioration of the white-picket-fence lifestyle at first in frustration and then surely in rage. Someone else began to lose what was thought to be a birthright. Someone else never asked for universal equality. Someone else was just fine with the way things were.

Donald Trump knows that someone else. He has developed what he thinks is a dog whistle that only they can hear, but we all hear it, too. When he says “American,” we know what he means, and it’s becoming harder and harder not to read in “white.” At The Economic Club of New York, he closed with what has started to sound like a cleansing message:

“Put the American worker first, and put the American worker back to work…American cars will travel the roads. American planes will soar the skies. And American ships will patrol the seas. American steel will send new skyscrapers into the clouds. American hands will rebuild this nation. And American energy harvested from American sources will power this nation. American workers will be hired to do the job. We will put new American metal and new American steel into the spine of this country. Jobs will return. Incomes will rise. New factories will come rushing back to our shores. We will make America wealthy again. We will make America strong again. And we will make America great again.”

As scary as it is that he can speak of his “new America,” what’s far more dangerous is that he has an audience. It doesn’t even matter whether or not he believes his own rhetoric, because the truth is that there are enough people who do. Last week, in Greenville, North Carolina, he said, “In 62 days we’re going to win this state. New CNN poll was released this week, and Trump is winning. Meaning, you’re winning. I’m not winning. You’re winning.” And that’s the truth. Yes, he is an offensive man who says offensive things, but if he were alone in his offense, we wouldn’t be talking about him. He’d be on a street corner standing on top of a cardboard box painted gold. He’d be as worthless as the plastic chips in his casinos; they’re only worth the value we assign them.

Donald Trump isn’t a threat because of what he says. He’s only a threat because of how desperately a certain population has been waiting for someone to say what he says. They lost out in the great compromise called progress, but they know it’s not appropriate to say so. They are shy. They aren’t evil wizards or alt-right revolutionaries, and each of them contains only a tiny spark of the deplorable. But like he probably did as a child with a magnifying glass to ants, Trump has found their sparks and lit a fire.

Sure, they could extinguish their internal spark and be like the countless white males who embrace equality and believe that, like anyone else’s, their merit alone should earn them their spot. But this isn’t that basket. This basket may not be full of deplorables, but it’s full of people who quietly agree with deplorables, people who would like to stop competing, people who believe they shouldn’t have to. And it’s a heavy basket.

You can’t win on deplorables alone. You can’t win with only one basket. Donald Trump is just the greedy man who used his small hands to grab both baskets and carry them to a giant white house.

 

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