I’m looking at the old white woman with a “Make America Great Again” hat looking into the newspaper photographer’s camera.
She doesn’t smile at the camera.
She looks like she could work in a diner or a supermarket. She looks tired, but also proud.
She is one of millions of older white people – mostly older men who never finished high school – who have found an outlet for their long simmering anger and frustration in the media savvy real estate merchant Donald Trump.
This is probably the first time she has been to a political meeting. It’s also likely that this is the first time she has seen a candidate live who is not a politician; a man who speaks her language, who speaks plainly and is not afraid of telling it like it is. At least that’s how she feels about it.
Her hat says that the world she thought she knew it is gone. Everything is changing and it is getting worse. She has a job, but her husband lost his when his company moved to Mexico. And her brother drank himself to death after he lost his job. It was just recently that she began to pay attention to politics. It was not the Tea Party and it was not the white furor over the fact that America elected a black president and then re-elected him.
No, it was Donald Trump that woke her up from her political slumber. He came right out and said it the way it was. It was the Mexicans and the Muslims and the Blacks. It was them. Trump gave her hope. He was rich, but he spoke to her and didn’t sound one bit like a politician.
In her mind, white folks like her are hard working, church going and know their place. But there are too many people who don’t and that is something she doesn’t like. It is as if nobody fears God anymore.
On January 31, 2016, Bill Clinton spoke in Des Moines, Iowa. He referred to an article in The New York Times about middle-aged white Americans. They were dying of suicide, alcoholism and drug overdoses. In another article, the newspaper reported that the number of young white adults who die from drug abuse is exploding, while death rates for young blacks and Hispanics are falling.
“The Times analyzed nearly 60 million death certificates collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1990 to 2014. It found death rates for non-Hispanic whites either rising or flattening for all the adult age groups under 65 — a trend that was particularly pronounced in women — even as medical advances sharply reduce deaths from traditional killers like heart disease. Death rates for blacks and most Hispanic groups continued to fall. The analysis shows that the rise in white mortality extends well beyond the 45- to 54-year-old age group documented by a pair of Princeton economists in a research paper that startled policy makers and politicians two months ago.” (Drug Overdoses Propel Rise in Mortality Rates of Young Whites, New York Times, January 17, 2016)Worst affected are young whites without a high school education. Their death rate rose by 23 percent for the five years leading up to 2014 compared to 4 percent for those with at least college education.
"The drug overdose numbers were stark. In 2014, the overdose death rate for whites ages 25 to 34 was five times its level in 1999, and the rate for 35- to 44-year-old whites tripled during that period. The numbers cover both illegal and prescription drugs.”Why?
“No one has a clear answer, but researchers repeatedly speculate that the nation is seeing a cohort of whites who are isolated and left out of the economy and society and who have gotten ready access to cheap heroin and to prescription narcotic drugs.These are conditions one would normally associate with Indian reservations and inner city slums, but the newspaper is talking about white people, people who according to Bill Clinton are dying of “broken hearts”. He didn’t compare with the fate of the Native Americans, but it seems obvious that whites with broken hearts suffer feelings similar to those the American Indians felt when their world was destroyed and the things they held closest to their hearts lost their meaning.
‘There are large numbers of people who never get established in the economy, who live outside family relationships and are on the edge of poverty,’ Dr. Hayward said. Many end up taking prescription narcotics, he added.
‘Poverty and stress, for example, are risk factors for misuse of prescription narcotics,’ Dr. Hayward said.
Eileen Crimmins, a professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California, said the causes of death in these younger people were largely social — ‘violence and drinking and taking drugs.’ Her research shows that social problems are concentrated in the lower education group.
‘For too many, and especially for too many women,’ she said, ‘they are not in stable relationships, they don’t have jobs, they have children they can’t feed and clothe, and they have no support network.’
‘It’s not medical care, it’s life,’ she said. ‘There are people whose lives are so hard they break.’”
Jonathan Lear, a psychoanalyst and professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago describes this process in his book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Harvard University Press, 2006) The book tells the story of how the Crow Indians faced and dealt with the existential loss under pressure from rival tribes like the Sioux, cholera and smallpox, the white man who killed the buffaloes, then their horses, stole most of their land, only to force them into reservations where traditional life became impossible.
Lear learned much of how the Crow Indians felt and responded to their crisis from the interviews that the Crow Nation’s greatest chief, Plenty Coups, gave his friend Frank B. Linderman a short time before he died. However, the story ended when the Crow people were forced to live on a reservation:
Plenty Coups refused to speak of his life after the passing of the buffalo, so that his story seems to have been broken off, leaving many years unaccounted for. “I have not told you half of what happened when I was young,” he said, when urged to go on. “I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere. Besides, “he added sorrowfully, “you know that part of my life as well as I do. You saw what happened to us when the buffalo went away.” (Frank B. Linderman, Plenty-Coups: Chief of the Crows (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962, p 311 quoted from Lear, p 2.)It may be hard to understand the meaning of his statement about the buffalo – “after this nothing happened” – but maybe not if we allow it to sink in. The Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor reviewed Lear’s book nine years ago for the New York Review of Books and compared the fate of the Crow Indians to that of people left behind by the market system today:
“On the contrary, we make a virtue of the kind of ‘flexibility’ that enables people to change jobs, professions, skills. The development of the modern capitalist economy has long been imposing less drastic versions of this kind of culture death on mining villages in Wales and West Virginia, on formerly large and stable workforces of companies that manufacture objects that become obsolete or can be made more cheaply elsewhere, and on many communities in the developing world. The message to younger people today is: don’t become totally invested in one set of skills, you’re bound to have to change your line of work, perhaps many times in the course of your career.” (A Different Kind of Courage, New York Review of Books, April 26, 2007, p 4)When the Crow elders discussed what to do, they reached back and interpreted two dreams that Plenty Coups had had at age 9 and 10. These dreams offered an alternative to Sitting Bull’s – the great Sioux chief – brave, but ultimately futile attempt to fight off the white intruders. Sitting Bull would later scorn Plenty Coups as a collaborator and a loser, but Plenty Coups would lead his people through the devastation and allow them to survive by modifying their culture, sacrificing key signifiers of pride, while leveraging traditions such as the belief in the wisdom of the Chickadee bird to show a path that involved acquiring the white man’s learning as a way to move forward. Sitting Bull on the other hand could not find a path forward and grasped for mysticism and dreams of a new messiah while dancing the Ghost Dance, which many Indians believed would bring the buffalo back and restore the world they had known and lost to the white man. Lear writes that “…Sitting Bull used a dream-vision to short-circuit reality rather than engage with it.” (Lear, 2006, p 150.)
It didn’t work, and on December 15, 1890, the great Sioux warrior was killed by the police, who were trying to suppress the Ghost Dance movement.
Life would never be the same for the Crow Nation or any other Indian Nation faced by the destruction brought on by the European immigrants and invaders. But Plenty Coups found a way forward where a Crow could still be a proud Crow, even while working in the new and strange world wrought by the white man.
Today millions of white working class men and women are pinning their hope to a White Knight while dancing a 21st Century version of the Ghost Dance. It is easy to feel their pain, but their mystic-laden and nostalgic dreams and the hope they are investing in this new and odd Messiah will never “Make America Great Again.” They would do better by learning from Plenty Coups and to listen to the Chickadee bird, who probably would tell them to start taking classes at the nearest community college.
Charles M. Blow: White America's 'Broken Heart' (New York Times, Feb 4, 2016)
Thomas B. Edsall: Donald Trump's Appeal (New York Times, Dec 2, 2015)
Jonathan Lear: Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Harvard University Press, 2006)