Driving through Trump country and understanding empathy

On a recent fall morning, I drove from DC to State College, Pa., a commute I made with regularity years ago as a Penn State doctoral student to visit my girlfriend (now wife).

As the sun rose over I-70 and I crossed the Mason-Dixon line from Maryland into Pennsylvania, the Trump-Pence signs along the backroads grew more numerous. By the time I reached McConnellsburg, an old manufacturing town just at the foot of Tuscarora Mountain, the Trump-Pence signs were lining the front yard of every house.

Near Orbisonia, at the midpoint of the stretch of U.S. 522 between Fulton and Huntingdon counties, a ¼ mile of flea market stalls sells virtually everything - and virtually all the stalls had Trump-Pence banners.

After spending the better part of the last year and a half caricaturing Trump supporters and the GOP for feeding the beast of vitriol and violence, I was hit with an emotion I never thought I'd feel, especially as a Hindu driving through Pennsylvania's "clingin'-to-God-and-guns" corridor: empathy.

Seeing the other in us

As a native Pennsylvanian, one of the things I am so used to hearing is the old saying, "Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between." Other terms like "Pennsyltucky" have also been used to describe my state, which at one time was a bastion of blue-collar jobs, a hub of manufacturing, and home to widely dispersed share of the American dream.

I grew up in Lansdale, a Philadelphia suburb that straddles between an urban identity and a not-too-distant rural past. Lansdale wasn't just one of the first stops in white flight from the inner cities. It was home to black flight and, by the time my family arrived in the 1980s from Ohio, a small but growing number of Asian-Americans. To say I experienced racism in a mostly white environment would be an understatement, but ironically, my family began to fit into a region where class trumped race and any other consideration. My dad worked two white collar jobs, but like many immigrants from India who arrived post-1965, he was self-taught at virtually everything. He would change the oil on our 1989 Plymouth Colt while I pursued my hoop dreams on a driveway with an invisible basket, or go to the local yard sales and flea markets to pick up broken things that he would fix to functionality. Our home became the land of half-working vacuum cleaners and toasters, or random nicknacks my mom had to have.

While my family was closer to the small black and brown communities in Lansdale, it didn't mean we were without white friends, especially those who connected with our lifestyles. Over the years, my dad made lifelong friendships with his mechanics, the nearby Triple-A representative, and the Bible-thumping owner of the local farm store where I got my first job scooping ice cream. Summers for me by the time I was 15 were filled with daylong basketball games and riding in the back of my friend Chris's pickup truck. In retrospect, it was probably awkward to anyone driving next to us to see two white guys (Chris and Matt) riding in the truck's cab, while my best friend Dan, an African American, and I were sitting in the open cargo. In any case, those days were great, even if the blasting of White Zombie or Ministry made me partially deaf.

Growing up as a minority in a largely white, conservative area, I learned the art of code switching at a fairly young age. Even when white folks made racist remarks, I was also able to detach their comments from who they were as people. For the most part, the people I knew were good and kind, and they were ready to help my family whenever we needed.

While I've come to understand white privilege and some of the boundaries that make it hard for people of color to access certain spaces, I also realize that I forgot the very humanity of so many of these people. The folks who would offer to help us shovel snow, or the parents of my friends who drove me home without question when I was stranded after missing the late bus. These people helped shape who I was, directly or indirectly, and yet for the decades I have been out of Lansdale, I came to view them as caricatures.

Trumpism and the silos of discourse

There are many reasons Donald Trump has emerged as an unlikely presidential candidate, and racism and xenophobia are probably among the leading factors. But dismissing Trump supporters as a bunch of angry racists, sexists, homophobes, and xenophobes not only misses the deeper issue, it underscores Trump's populist critique (which I doubt he himself believes): that we are out of touch with the "real" America.

For starters, the idea of a real America is imbued with this mythical ideal that American society never experienced, and its heteronormative and racial implications aren't that difficult to pick up. But there is a very real section of the American population that has not only felt ignored, but laughed at. Struggling factory workers aren't just being trivialized - they're literally vanishing from our public conscience.

To be sure, the American public sphere is now dictated by a number of key gatekeepers, but education, class, and even geography are now factoring just as prominently as race and gender have for the past few decades. Today, a high school diploma does not carry the same economic or social capital as it did 20 years ago, leaving many displaced from the same opportunities their parents and grandparents enjoyed. While many of the folks voting for Trump might have understood their racial privilege (and indeed, his flirtations with white nationalists and neo-Nazis are emblematic of his campaign's undertones), they never saw themselves as being exposed to significantly more opportunities than their people of color and immigrants. Many never left the small towns they grew up in, and as the world changed around them, they became imprisoned by geography.

For years, the GOP capitalized on white middle America's fears of changing demographics and the increased political power of minorities. Their outreach relied on coded language and dog-whistle racism. To those who had never interacted with other groups, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and now the alt.right movement - as conduits for the GOP's elites - told them that the very society they idealized and the country they loved was being destroyed by lazy minorities, criminal illegals, terrorizing Muslims, and predatory homosexuals. Their base was a tiny crocodile they put into a tub, feeding it every four years (or two, during midterms) with red meat. Now, that base is a 20-foot saltwater crocodile that's not only threatening to bite the hand that feeds it, but eat the GOP as a whole. Populism doesn't mix with elitism, and the tenuous but steady alliance between the country club Republicans and Evangelicals has all but come apart in the wake of Trumpism. And it's left an entire subsection of this country angry as hell.

Trumpism is anger at a way of life that was lost, or perhaps never was. It's distrust towards and frustration with a dysfunctional status quo that seemingly expands the government and the power of corporate elites at the expense of the workers. What Trump's supporters see is that their homes are declining in value, their jobs are disappearing, and their character being questioned. It's making them angrier and angrier, and those of us who live in the bubble of Metropolises, reading our New York Times analysis pieces or listening to NPR before we head to our offices, are more and more disconnected from that anger. We don't see it, so we assume it either doesn't exist or it's limited to some fringe segments camped out in the woods west of nowhere.

But Trump has attracted people - good people - who are just frustrated by an America that's not recognizable to them anymore. Every time I return to Lansdale, I go back to my barber shop, owned by the same Italian family for decades. I can talk Philly sports and reminisce about the times we could race down Main Street without some high-falootin' traffic camera checking our speed, but I can also hear the anger begin to emerge. And I stop talking. Sometimes I listen for the veiled jab at President Obama's legitimacy, or the swipe at the parade of started-and-failed Vietnamese businesses across the street. These folks may or may not be voting for Trump, but their anger and frustration is real. And I've personally spent way too much time looking down on them and lampooning them for possibly supporting someone whose greatest talent is his ability to rouse genuine emotions (mostly anger and fear) with no substance.

The road to the hinterlands - or hope?

When I was making my return trip from State College, I passed by the same flea market stalls, and the same Trump-Pence signs that now glowed in the setting sun. As I was on the phone talking to one of my friends in Minneapolis, I told him how much we had failed to understand the disconnect that had been there for years. Blue collar America had lost its shirt, and we were simply trying to re-fashion it with a chiffon top, oblivious to its sensitivities and protests.

There are many who assume that when Hillary Clinton likely wins handily, that Trumpism will be crushed. I doubt that. In fact, like the crocodile that's been hit with slingshots, the Trumpists will be angrier than ever, feeling ignored or cheated out of their America. And we'll continue to trivialize them as racists, unreflective of that multicultural social fabric we see in our cosmopolitan interactions or on the media texts we choose to consume. Slowly, the two Americas could diverge into two alternate realities, each becoming a caricature of itself. While the Trumpist America hunkers down for the apocalypse, many of us try wrapping ourselves in the cocoon of safe spaces, avoiding anything that might offend us. And we each have been stripped of our empathy, mistaking whatever we see as a fault in a person for the totality of their being and common humanity.

I also wonder if those who are laughing at or dismissive of the blue collar Trumpists are the ones who will be laughed at and dismissed in 30 years. Even when I visit Lansdale, it's unrecognizable from the town I remember in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, it's a hodgepodge of Bangladeshi, Honduran, and Jamaican neighborhoods adjacent to new homes for recently affluent white and Asian millennials. The factories I remember from my youth are now luxury lofts, and I find myself complaining about the traffic and new mass of unrecognizable people that have "invaded" my hometown without noticing the irony of my remarks.

As I stopped at a traffic light and saw the smiles on the faces of the folks at the Orbisonia flea market, I smiled to myself. There was something oddly soothing about that scene, just as there was something comforting riding in the back of a pickup truck in Lansdale going over 60 miles an hour listening to death metal. I hope, for me, those smiles at the flea market or my own empathy isn't fleeting.