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Washington burning: Trump’s bitter path to the White House

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Cartoon by Mark David/@markdavidcartoons

Progressives must take away the allure of Trump and other populists by offering prosperity to all, writes Dr Alex Vickery-Howe.

*Also listen to the audio version of this article on Spotify HERE.

THERE'S A BRILLIANT SCENE in the Alan Parker film Mississippi Burning where Gene Hackman’s grizzled and world-weary Rupert Anderson delivers a monologue about his father. The scene begins with Anderson’s younger, more earnest colleague, Alan Ward – an equally terrific Willem Dafoe – asking “where does it come from? All this hatred"

Pausing thoughtfully, Anderson replies with the tale of his father’s wounded pride and jealousy upon discovering that his neighbour, an African American, had procured a mule. The tale ends with Anderson’s father poisoning the water and killing the mule, and his chilling excuse to his son: “If you ain’t better than a n*****, son...who are you better than?”

Reflecting on this memory, Anderson describes his father as “an old man that was just so full of hate that he didn’t know that being poor was what was killing him".

It’s one of those scenes that stays with you. Impeccably acted. Flawlessly written. True in a painful way.

Former American President Lyndon B Johnson said something very similar:

“If you can convince the lowest White man he’s better than the best coloured man, he won't notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

Much has been written – and there is much still to be written – about the rise of Trumpian politics, the division of contemporary America and the decay of democratic norms that has taken root not only in the U.S. but in Europe and Australasia as well. I think when future generations look back on this peculiar historical period of conspiracy nutjobs and mass hatred, the truth will be no more complicated than the story of Anderson and his dad. This is, at its heart, the story of people who don’t know that being poor is what’s killing them.

As Johnson put it so concisely and so eloquently, the Trump con is all about convincing these people that they have “somebody to look down on". Trump has given them a few targets: Muslims, "illegals", the LGBTQI community, "Libtards", coastal elites, soy boys (that’s me) and pretty much anyone north of the Mason Dixie line.

It's ridiculous that Donnie Trump – a New Yorker with inherited wealth ­– has somehow waved his little mushroom and convinced them that he is anything other than the most pampered and princely elitist, but exposing that blatant absurdism hasn’t really changed anything, has it?

Like it or not, the con is working. Telling them they’ve been fooled isn’t waking them up. Telling them their idol is a stunning moron isn’t making a dent in their zealotry anytime soon. Maybe we now have to *gasp* start looking in the mirror.

Why? There are a few reasons. Let’s start with a forthright acknowledgement of the health, wealth and education gaps. The Trump supporters are not winning. Neither are comparable political movements the globe over. We are winning and we need to own what that means.

Actor Roseanne Barr recently opened a Trump rally and screamed her head off, almost as ear-piercingly as when she tried to sing the Star-Spangled Banner to a shell-shocked crowd some years back. It’s a matter of public record that Roseanne is not well and her career is in ashes. She is, nevertheless, the creator of one of the few American sitcoms to talk honestly about the class divide that is still eating her country from within.

Unlike every other popular, propagandist depiction of American life (remember Steve Martin’s insanely lush house in Father of the Bride), the series of Roseanne showed life as it is for many blue-collar workers. That life – the life of lack, of thwarted ambition, of illness, of abysmal literacy and numeracy standards (don’t even bother with geography), of not being able to feed your children, of working manual jobs until you’re 65 and beyond – is what has led to desperate people worshipping a snake oil salesman.

It’s no wonder they hate anyone who works in an air-conditioned office, who can afford health insurance, who can pay their mortgage and who – again, like me – sips soy lattes while scrolling through The Guardian.

I’m using clichés as illustration, but the hard data backs this up. The same is true in Australia where renting a home is a fantasy for many and the prospect of buying one is a punchline. Can you blame people for putting themselves and their immediate family first? For not caring about social cohesion, truth-telling, or even a dying planet? I don’t know. I’m as guilty as anyone for baiting and mocking Trump’s flock.

We may not consider their bigotry justifiable, or their sexism, or their conspiracy rants, but we’re being dishonest if we can’t recognise that some of their resentment is systemic and that they are – in the true, empirical sense – severely disadvantaged.

If we put ourselves in their position, unable to pay bills, unable to turn lack into plenty, we may begin to understand how they’ve been misled. We may begin to appreciate how this inequitable and unjust environment makes it too easy for Trump – the poor man’s idea of a rich man, the stupid man’s idea of a smart man – to sweep in and lie his way to power.

Here in Australia, the insulated Reserve Bank Governor Michele Bullock pivots between denial of reality and open disdain. This won’t end well. Progressive politics stalls – and dies – when people can’t afford a roof over their heads. Leaving class out of the sociocultural equation is as foolhardy as it is offensive.

Trump says “This isn’t your fault” and for those raised on the venom of the American dream believing, naïvely, that everyone has a shot of climbing that ladder from poor to plentiful, this message that someone else is to blame is nothing short of seductive. If you don’t like that reason to look in the mirror, let me move on to another one.

Self-preservation. America is headed for civil war, Europe is fracturing and we have some absolutely terrifying political splinters closer to home. Our choice now is to hold tight to our cotton wool blankets and live in a world of politically correct posturing – what the brilliant Salman Rushdie so perfectly calls 'bien-pensant censorship' – or we can, carefully, without compromising our values, enter into a dialogue and begin to actually do something about health inequality, wealth inequality, and the education debacle that has led us to this hellish corner of the multiverse.

Some of this needs to occur at a policy level – I’m looking at you Biden and Albo – but some of it can start at a grassroots level. It’s difficult to publish anything on class. People find it uncomfortable because it forces all of us to acknowledge our own privilege and acknowledging our privilege means losing our social capital.

In fact, everything I’ve written on this subject has been rejected at an editorial level by several publications, at least one of whom is no longer returning my emails. If looking in the mirror is this painful, and this taboo, then I’m convinced it’s the conversation we have to have both domestically and internationally. There is no progress without introspection.

If, on the other hand, we choose to be smug and superior, and morally just – at the expense of genuine empathy – then we’re headed for a stunning fall. The insurrection in Washington should have given us pause and reminded us that Trump thrives on social division. He didn’t create these class differences, but he’ll dine on them.

When trying to describe Trump’s grift to a friend recently, I dug up this proverb:

‘The forest was shrinking, but the trees kept voting for the axe, for the axe was clever and convinced the trees that because his handle was made of wood, he was one of them.’

Until people see the axe for the destructive force that he is, we – that is, sane, rational, free-thinking citizens the world over – need to offer an alternative to his bile and his deceptions. An alternative that gives everyone an even chance to live each life to the fullest.

Because if we answer hate with hate, we all lose.

*This article is also available on audio here:

Dr Alex Vickery-Howe is an award-winning playwright and social commentator. He teaches creative writing, screen and drama at Flinders University.

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