Sunday, November 26, 2017

Johnstown, Revisited. Or The Plight Of The White Working Class Trump Voters.

Isn't it fascinating how much the media writes on the Trump voters, even a year after his crowning as the Emperor of Everything?   These stories are not about the average affluent Republican voters who did go for Trump, but about one type of Trump voters:

Those living in dying ghost towns which once had thriving factories, those living in the epicenter of the meth and opioid abuse epidemics, those who are white, often older and retired or permanently unemployed, those who are grieving for the death of the local economy and the premature deaths of many, those who fear (and therefore hate) immigrants and minorities and those who have been reduced in standing by the changes happening in the global economy.

It is not that these stories shouldn't be written.  All marginalized people deserve some publicity, and the declining real incomes and shrinking life expectancy of many working class whites is important to cover.  But few similar stories are written about the troubles in the lives of women of African ancestry, to pick one example.

That silence is partly due to Trump's seeming victory (with a little help from Vlad the Impaler Putin).  That he managed to win must be explained, preferably in interesting tales.  But even if Hillary Clinton had won I doubt that we would read equal amounts of reporting on those African-American women, the spine of the Democratic Party.

That could be because stories about the death of small white towns and the despair of their inhabitants make for more click-worthy news:

Something new in its focus on white poverty (when whites are less likely to be poor than most other demographic groups), something different in what kind of a political protest that newfound poverty seems to have caused (the support of a crooked playboy millionaire born with a silver foot in his mouth, the song of white supremacy as the anthem of the movement),  yet something familiar in its focus on white Americans, still the numerical majority.  It's as if the familiar stories are turned upside down, but only superficially.

I understand the appeal of those plots in story-telling, I do, and I even understand the importance of answering the question how the Emperor of Everything ended up running this country.  If that understanding requires us to repeatedly visit the Johnstowns* of this country, so be it.

But do those frequent visitations really clarify?  The reference in the previous sentence to Johnstown has to do with a Politico article earlier this month.  It described the dying white factory town in Pennsylvania and interviewed many of its Trump-voting inhabitants, concluding that they were still enamored of Trump, that they still got most of their news from Fox and that they regretted nothing about their vote.

The article left its readers with the impression that the problems of Johnstown are not amenable to any quick fixes and that the inhabitants of Johnstown are not reachable by Democrats.**

And all that may be true.  At the same time, the piece fails to pursue these important sentences:

George is a Democrat, but he voted for Trump, and he would do it again, he said. His whole adult life, essentially, he’s watched potential customers leave, as the population of the city has plummeted from more than 70,000 to less than 20,000. Now he sees the names and faces of some of his customers in the newspaper. In the obituaries.

The emphasis is mine.

A town that used to have 70,000 people now has less than 20,000.

This is very important.  It isn't the case that Johnstown and all its residents just went down the drain.  Rather, when the writing was on the wall about bad economic times coming, the majority voted with their feet and left an area where jobs were disappearing.  Those who left were more likely to be young, more likely to have training and skills which allowed them better economic prospects elsewhere, more likely to be healthier.

Thus, what we see in Johnstown now is not the suffering of all its initial residents, but the suffering of those who could not or would not leave.  As I wrote above, it's worth describing their plight.  But that plight is not the plight of all working class white voters, including the ones who left.  Journalists should make that clear in a way they mostly have not, because failing to do so exaggerates what is going on.


*  Why not the Flints of America?  What is different between Johnstown and Flint in terms of poverty and suffering? 

** Both because they have been captured by the Fox News and other right-wing sites of similar ilk, but also because of opinion like these, from the Politico story:

More than anything, what seemed to upset the people I spoke with was the National Football League players who have knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Frear told me, “if I was the boss of these teams, I would tell ’em, ‘You get your asses out there and you play, or you’re not here anymore.’ They’re paying their salaries, for God’s sake.”
“Shame on them,” Del Signore said over his alfredo. “These clowns are out there, making millions of dollars a year, and they’re using some stupid excuse that they want equality—so I’ll kneel against the flag and the national anthem?”
“You’re not a fan of equality?” I asked.
“For people who deserve it and earn it,” he said. “All my ancestors, Italian, 100 percent Italian, the Irish, Germans, Polish, whatever—they all came over here, settled in places like this, they worked hard and they earned the respect. They earned the success that they got. Some people don’t want to do that. They just want it handed to them.”
“Like NFL players?” I said.
“Well,” Del Signore responded, “I hate to say what the majority of them are …” He stopped himself short of what I thought he was about to say.
Schilling and her husband, however, did not restrain themselves.
“The thing that irritates me to no end is this NFL shit,” Schilling told me in her living room. “I’m about ready to go over the top with this shit. We do not watch no NFL now.” They’re Dallas Cowboys fans. “We banned ’em. We don’t watch it.”
Schilling looked at her husband, Dave McCabe, who’s 67 and a retired high school basketball coach. She nodded at me. “Tell him,” she said to McCabe, “what you said the NFL is …”
McCabe looked momentarily wary. He laughed a little. “I don’t remember saying that,” he said unconvincingly.
Schilling was having none of it. “You’re the one that told me, liar,” she said.
She looked at me.
The NFL?
“Niggers for life,” Schilling said.
“For life,” McCabe added.

Added later:  I should have pointed out that Johnstown actually narrowly went for Hillary Clinton, according to this story.