Blowing Up the System

Still trying to make sense of the Trump debacle. This is a bit long, but bear with me.

My father and grandfather before him had an embroidery company in the garment district in New York City. It went by several names over the years, but for most of my life it was called Weidman & Weidman (the other Weidman was my uncle Joel). Growing up, I remember visiting and working on the 20-yard long embroidery machines in their factory in North Bergen, one of the many such factories in Northern New Jersey. But then came NAFTA and the WTO and the massive displacement of the American garment industry in the late 1990s. My father spent years trying to make his business work, but the industry transformed and relocated, unable to compete with multi-national companies whose low-wage factories paid a fraction of the hard-fought wages of American workers. We were lucky - my father was able to close his business in 2001 and retire comfortably to California. But, like much of American manufacturing and the workers it employed, his industry is a shell of what it once was.

It would be easy to look at my father's business in isolation, but really it's a microcosm of the millennial American economy. For decades, globalized trade has led to massive displacement of the American workforce. Millions of people lost good jobs, factories closed down, farmers lost their land, entire communities were impoverished, especially in the Midwest. It wasn't pretty - I'm reminded of the horror stories of multi-national companies that didn't just close down their U.S. operations and move them overseas, but forced their workers to train their overseas replacements.

Stack these indignities on top of other structural changes in the American economy (the withering of the American labor movement; a massive shift in the way we produce energy; a huge transfer of wealth from the middle class to the top 1%; institutionalization of corporate hegemony), and you can see how the people left behind would be angry, resentful, and alienated from an economy with no place for them to earn a decent living, support their families, and live the American dream. This anger is felt viscerally by the people who've lived it. And, say what you want about Donald Trump, but he was able to capture it, communicate it, and make it a dominant, motivating force for millions of Americans.

It was not unforeseeable that the systematic disempowerment of a large segment of the American population would lead to the rise of a candidate promising to smash the system. But the fact that it took Trump to persuasively make the case against global corporatization says a lot about the Democratic Party and its priorities. And the fact that Trump's rise was accompanied by the racism, misogyny, intolerance, resentment, and xenophobia he fanned was entirely predictable given the political vacuum left by a Democratic party that nominated a candidate for President who, whether you agree with the characterization or not, was perceived as the embodiment of the status quo and ran a campaign congenitally unable to address the lack of opportunity and concentration of wealth resulting from a corporatized global economy, leaving those who were angry and alienated with no viable alternative.

In the Grapes of Wrath, a tractor driver comes to bulldoze a tenant farmer's home. To defend his farm and his family, the farmer threatens to kill the tractor driver. The tractor driver says you can kill me, but you'll be hung, and even before that, there'll be another driver taking my place. The farmer says he'll kill who gave the orders, but the driver says his boss was only taking orders from the bank. Well then, the farmer says he'll fill up his magazine and go kill the bank's president and board of directors. But the driver says they're just getting their orders from out east. The farmer asks "Where does it stop? Who can we shoot?" But there's no one to shoot, and nothing the farmer can do. In the end, the farmer is left powerless to watch with his family as the tractor bulldozes their home.

For decades, we've been acting like the tearing of America's social fabric was the inevitable cost of progress, a casualty of the changing global economy, without consequence. But it turns out there IS something people can do when they're angry and organized and put their mind to it: they can blow up the system. And without a viable alternative focused on justice, fairness, equity and community, blowing up the system looks a lot like electing Donald Trump.

It's not that the Democratic Party didn't work hard enough or didn't focus on the right states or didn't have the right messaging. It's that the party has spent more than a generation thinking we could put band-aids on the innumerable indignities of a globalized economic system that doesn't account for its human wreckage.

I don't believe that all, or even most, of Trump's supporters are as racist, sexist, anti-semitic, and xenophobic as the campaign he ran or his most hardcore supporters. But I do believe that for many of his supporters, those weren't the dealbreakers they would be for many of us, when compared with their longstanding, built up, systemic grievances. Whether we find that attitude acceptable, it does present an opportunity for building the lasting majority we were promised.

We already know from the popular vote that there more of us than there are of them. But we can't be content to just talk to people on the coasts or in the cities or the people who agree with us - we need to make the case to every American in every hamlet, town, and county in the United States that we're on their side, that their futures are as bright as ours, and that our collective futures are inextricably intertwined. It will not be enough for Democrats to tell rural and rust-belt Americans how we're going to help them with health care or child care or paying for college: we need to show them how, working together, we can build an America where prosperity is so broadly shared that they don't need the help.

This could take some time. We need to get to work.