The SeaChange: Sink or Swim

 

March 13, 2016  Sunday
Like many, I’ve been trying to understand the current waves of discontent that play out almost daily in these early weeks of 2016.  I wish I were more eloquent or insightful for moments like this, but perhaps if I attempt to put down a few thoughts they will be somewhat relevant.  The impetus to attempt a collection of thought comes from a newspaper column I read this morning.  If I were still teaching high school Civics, this would be the piece of writing below from the New York Times is what I would choose to print out for a class discussion.  I like it, and its tone, because it respects complexity.  It sounds like the bewildered thoughts of a Nebraska woman watching from her living room TV, like a New Jersey guy just home from work following it on YouTube, like a Florida retiree reading the morning paper.  I approve that it tries to understand the differing sides, and the real concerns each hold.  In short, it humanizes these events, which is in great need.  I tried to read this slowly, often re-reading lines or paragraphs a second time.  Supporter and protester alike deserve their due.  So, here is that column, and my thoughts, as they are, follow.


The first time I felt unsafe at a Trump event was a week ago in New Orleans.        

I hadn’t been on the Trump beat for The New York Times for very long, but the warm Friday night rally in an airport hangar on the outskirts of the city thrummed with an ominous energy. Donald J. Trump took the stage just as the sky was slipping from purplish twilight to slate black, and the mood shifted, as well, turning tense and electric.

The first interruption came early, followed by another, and another, as a constant stream of protesters disrupted the event. Some went peacefully and quietly as they were escorted out by security officers, but others did not, shouting obscenities and dropping to the ground to resist.

The crowd turned angry, jostling and pushing and jeering the disrupters. One young woman, a Trump supporter, was shoved against the metal barricades and began to cry. A group of older women left early, shortly after a man holding a “K.K.K. 4 Trump” sign was hustled out nearby.

For Mr. Trump, the rally was simply “one hell of a way to spend a Friday evening,” as he crowed from the stage.

But it was also a harbinger of future violence, and a glimpse of how Mr. Trump, who has promised to bring the country together, seems to have united Americans only in stirring their passion and anger.

What we are witnessing now is complicated, with few obvious heroes. At times, both sides have behaved badly.

Trump supporters are quick to turn on protesters, especially those who don’t look like them. They point and holler. Sometimes they spit and kick and shove. A young black woman in Kentucky was pushed and called names, her sign ripped from her hands. A black man in North Carolina was sucker-punched by a 78-year-old white man, who later looked into a camera and warned that next time, “We might have to kill him.”

To witness the crowd turn on the protesters in its midst is to watch a feverish body, bucking and writhing as it tries to eject an invading virus.

I have talked to protesters who still don’t quite have the words to describe what they felt when they were singled out and turned upon, often by their communities. Mr. Trump says he condemns violence. But he also shouts at his crowds to “Get ’em out!” And even when he urges them not to hurt the protesters, a hard edge of menace bullets his words.

Yet the protesters, too, have sometimes instigated the clashes. They fling themselves to the ground, forcing law enforcement officers — often outmanned and overwhelmed — to drag them away. They also shout and curse, making obscene gestures as they are led from events. And Friday night in Chicago, in perhaps the best-organized effort so far, they came not to simply stand quietly but to utterly halt Mr. Trump’s ability to deliver his speech.

Both sides say they feel deeply wronged and disenfranchised, albeit in different ways.

The Trump supporters I interview are almost unfailingly courteous. In the snaking lines of traffic that precede his events, they smile and wave and allow me to cut in front of them. And they politely answer my questions, explaining how their vision for the country — a place where if you worked hard and followed the rules, you could provide for your family and have a decent life — is being snatched from them.

Already, they feel as though their key rights — the ability to earn a fair wage, the right to own a gun — are slipping away. And now, they believe that the Republican Party is trying to withhold the nomination from Mr. Trump, and they are watching as protesters interrupt his events.

They are angry.

The 71-year-old woman I talked to before the New Orleans rally — who told me that “nothing short of Trump shooting my daughter in the street and my grandchildren” would dissuade her from voting for him — said she had been “forcibly retired,” part of a recent round of layoffs. To me, her comments reflected not just her genuine passion for Mr. Trump, but also the depth of her despair.

The protesters feel similarly wronged. Many of them are minorities — blacks, Hispanics, Muslims — who hear his pronouncements and are insulted, or even frightened. They, too, have a vision for this country and the American dream, believing that if they worked hard and followed the rules, they could melt into this nation that has welcomed so many.

They say they cannot stand by and do nothing as Mr. Trump calls Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals,” or threatens to bar all Muslims from entering the country.

Griselda Cardena Segovia, 20, a college sophomore, was part of a small group of young people who were removed from a Trump event on Monday in Concord, N.C., before it began, after they linked arms in silent protest.

She said she and her younger sister had come to peacefully observe the rally and support their parents, immigrants from Mexico whom they felt Mr. Trump was disparaging. But as soon as they entered, the crowd “looked at us wrong and you could feel the energy, that we weren’t wanted,” she said, adding that they found the scene — which included some of their high school teachers — to be jarring.

“We have never in our whole life, living here in Concord, we have never experienced racism until now,” Ms. Segovia said. “I never thought my town, that we contributed to, would treat us like this.”

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After the rally, Ms. Segovia’s group stood on the grassy curb, holding signs. It was unseasonably warm for March — the sort of day when you might sneak out of work for a long lunch outside — and as cars exited, dozens rolled down their windows to shout obscenities and slurs at the young men and women. “Go back to Mexico,” someone hollered from an S.U.V. as it peeled away.

The group, clad in solid black and white T-shirts, replied with “God bless you,” but some of them, too, got caught up in the moment, chasing the cars and hurling their own invectives back.

The unnerving energy began infusing Mr. Trump’s rallies in recent weeks, just as I started covering him after several months on the Jeb Bush beat, where what constituted drama at a night rally was the candidate politely imploring his crowd to “please clap.”

As a reporter, I always try to anticipate where the story is headed, so I can get there first, or at least right alongside the news. And I quickly began jotting down notes on scenes of violence and near-violence, and gathering voices of angry, frustrated Trump supporters. Sometime soon, I warned my editors, someone is going to be seriously wounded — or worse — at a Trump rally, and we’ll want to have a story ready.

The images broadcast to the world Friday evening from Chicago — of people shouting and swinging at one another, of others lying bloodied in the streets — felt like a nation many of us didn’t recognize, or didn’t want to recognize.

The sights and sounds felt foreign and far away to me, too. But they were also right there, all in my notebook, gathering and growing and waiting to explode.

Because, in many ways, what happened Friday night in Chicago felt less surprising than it should have, and utterly inevitable.


So, thoughts.  I would like to begin by exploring my dissatisfaction with the rally protestors, broadly.  For fairness and in good faith.  Protest can be extremely effective, both in the actual act, and in the symbolism.  Think the Chinese man in 1989, walking home from the market, who stopped a column of tanks by himself.  That is the pinnacle of true protest, because it takes on the weight and danger, the risk.  The man who stopped the Chinese thanks was killed, after all.

It is not the fault of the protestors that they have not been trained to better reflect the values they honestly protest for.  Those of the Civil Rights era were taught over time in churches and in school basements how not to react, to allow danger upon yourself.  Effective protest must always be passive and peaceful, or the message and moral high ground is lost.  Gandhi purposefully had supporters walk towards club-wielding British soldiers with the intention of being struck.  Then sympathy would ensue.

At best– because some, and of course not all– actively engaged or even taunted Trump supporters the best they can hope for, today, is a mulligan—a tie—with their intended target.  The protestors can do better, be more constrained and committed; it is in everyone’s best interest to be completely still and peaceful.

I have also been thinking for several days about what draws an individual to Donald Trump’s campaign.  In truth, I am fascinated: I read across the horizon, from the conservative National Review to the New Yorker to get a fuller perspective.  And I have found myself more sympathetic and empathetic to several of the fears and frustrations many do feel, that starts the initial interest in Trump.  The regions that most gravitate to Trump: small towns, the Rust Belt, and swathes of the South, have hurting for a long time.  Most, if not all, of my life these struggling, poorer groups have been weakly served by parties of every stripe.   The Great Recession only exacerbated  the strain of these same areas.  It reminds me of the colony of Jamestown, and when the tobacco crop would occasionally fail.  The wealthy planters always had enough resources to get through the rough patch well enough, and could be first to reinvest when things brightened, but the poor Virginia farmers were devastated.  People have now also have come to better understood this current and inherent disparity in opportunity, which engenders a general sense of unfairness.  I believe this problem bothers nearly every American today, and we differ only in how we would like to address it.  There are similar shades to both Trump and Sanders’ economic message (very board) when you stand back, after all.

The added sense of loss that seems apparent from many Trump crowds is a secondary sense of cultural/general loss: being knocked off an age-old pedestal by an emerging future that looks, sounds different.  This change will play out for the rest of my life, certainly, into succeeding generations.  I cannot tell anyone else how to feel about this.  Everyone has to decide this for themselves.  But I am personally optimistic of such a sea change.  At the very least I get to watch something important play out, and I believe it will play out like all other changes have in the past.  If the goal, now, is to make a 21st century house we can live in, all of this breaking of dishes and chairs is a wasted step.  But maybe America has so much in the attic that it must be.

Beyond these real concerns, as I have tried to place myself within the mindset of a prospective Trump supporter, I fail to recognize the final embracing buy-in, to their candidate.  Is this borne of desperation?  A wager with too high a promised pay-out to ignore?  I just can’t follow that far.  The chasm separating me from understanding what it takes to sign on the Trump-ed line is too gaping for me to see the other side, let alone leap across.  Is it for lack of imagination, or childhood-grafted morals?  But I take seriously that they see what they do.

Connecticut does not have an open primary, so when ours arrives in April, I, as a registered independent, cannot take part.  So this Sunday I think of Illinois, which does have an open primary.  If I were still a resident of Illinois, I would use my one vote this Tuesday to cast for John Kasich.  It is where I feel my vote might do the most overall good.  We could use more overall good.


…In other news, I had an interview last Friday morning at Electric Boat.  It was a position with Training.  I would develop lessons for and teach sub inspectors how to inspect/work on/ find flaws in the subs being built.  I would be trained first.  I felt it went well, and the head interview guy said “great interview.”  Maybe I will know in 2-3-4 weeks.  It is now sunny and 60-degrees warm, so I have been biking about 14 miles a day.

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