I was told this election was supposed to be a landslide. For weeks I had been consuming political podcasts, checking five thirty-eight every day and listening to NPR in the evening. I knew how this was going to turn out. Everyone knew. So many polls had Clinton winning easily, no way they could all be wrong.
As the results crept in, I went from confident, to curious, to concerned, to stupefied. How could this have happened? Who would vote for Donald Trump? I though his supporters were a fringe group. I had seen enough coverage of his rallies to get an idea of who his supporters were. I saw them as racist, sexist islamophobes that believed whatever FOX news told them. They were simpletons, a basket of deplorables, some even called them, “white trash”
And somehow their candidate won.
When I went to bed on election night, there were four states that had not yet been called. Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. These states are known as part of the “Blue Wall”, states that have gone democratic since the first Clinton took office. These are states with manufacturing jobs. Cars, textiles and steel. They are the home of labor unions, a group that has traditionally supported democratic candidates because those candidates protected workers from being exploited. These blue collar states were supposed to be true blue.
So why were they red on Wednesday morning?
Because in their mind, their government forsook them.
The jobs have been drying up for decades. Steel has moved to China and coal production is down thanks to the EPA. The highly skilled labor jobs have gone and these people are left either unemployed or underemployed. Small cities that depended on the coal plant or steel mill to keep the economy going struggle to stay on the map.
Many of these people voted for Obama 8 years ago, hoping for change. And as much as I loathed Trump’s language and actions, his message was one of change. He told these people that he could bring their jobs back, that he could help them regain the livelihood they lost years ago. He would make their lives great again.
This is what we need to take away from this election. Many of those working-class people who voted for Trump did so because they felt they had been cast aside by society. Once upon a time they were the backbone of our nation, but now they were considered simpletons, deplorables and some even called them white trash.
The Unitarians have struggled with the working class in America since colonial times. (the Universalists are a different story) Prizing education and research and the quest for knowledge above all else separated the Unitarians from those who labored for a living. One of the greatest ironies in Unitarian culture is that their champion of self-reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had servants to do his laundry. According to a 2008 survey, our congregations have three times the post-graduation rate of the national average. On average, we earn more and have less unemployment than the rest of the country. Just like it is hard for a white man to fully grasp what it is to be black, for a straight person to grasp what it is to be queer, for an able-bodied person to grasp with it is like to be handicapped, it is hard for those who live comfortably to understand what it is like to be consistently and eternally poor.
These are people who are living on the margins. Yes, they are white. Yes, they have privilege. Yes, it could be worse. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt to be where they are. For me, this election was a wakeup call for us. It was to remind us that while we continue to fight for Black Lives, for Transgender lives, for immigration rights and the environment, that there is another group that feels ignored and marginalized. When you get down to the very core of their being, all they want is the same thing everyone wants. They want to live their lives, love their families and provide for them and make sure their children have a fair shot. That is what we need to remember in times such as these, that common core of wanting make a good life for those who come after.
That common good, that divine spark, that image of what is holy resides in all of us. It resides under deep layers of culture and nurture that make us all beautiful and different on the outside. We need to remember that when we see a Trump/Pence bumper sticker on a car or a red make America Great Again ball cap. Most of these people came to these decisions because they honestly believe it will help. Instead of discounting their views and experience as ridiculous, maybe it’s time to listen to them and find out how they came to these beliefs. This doesn’t mean we stop fighting for civil rights and stand up against oppression. It means we stop discounting them as people.
After all, the polls discounted them and they still found a way to be heard. So let’s listen.