I once loved a man who hung a huge Confederate flag on his living room wall. This was a strange turn of events for me, a woman who at various stages of life has been described as a commie pinko, a bleeding heart liberal and a vegan, un-American Femi-Nazi. And yet, I not only hooked up with this guy; I started a relationship with him and stayed with him for almost a decade. He was a punk dude I met in the grocery store, a wily intense artist. These days I’m thinking of him--and his flag—to try to figure out the people in the crowds cheering for Donald Trump.
The first time I walked into this guy’s living room, I got an eyeful of that huge, red, hateful symbol, and stood stock-still, eyes wide. I felt every muscle in my body tense. I felt nauseous and confused. I had been considering kissing this guy. He had made me laugh, and now I would unfortunately have to first hold an intimate teach-in for one and then set his living room on fire.
“Dude,” I said. “That is so fucked up that you have that hanging on the wall. That’s so racist.” I could feel my dream of a perfect alterna-boyfriend shattering, my crush withering inside me. In vivid detail, I prepared the arguments I’d used against racist white people throughout my life. I felt myself tensing for the battles I’d experienced at anti-Klan demonstrations in Boston and anti-Nazi demonstrations in Minneapolis and arguments with racist relatives around the holiday dinner table. I’d always loved the underdog—whether it was a cause or a sweetheart—and that trait definitely delivered its share of adventures.
This guy, whom I’ll call Abe, looked at me with a mixture of horror and consternation. “I found it in a Dumpster,” he said. “I just thought—oh, badass. Like Dukes of Hazzard and the General Lee.”
That’s right. He had just turned 30, and he had absolutely no idea what the Confederate flag actually represented. For him it was an accessory, a decoration, not a symbol of hundreds of years of racial violence and brutality. This might seem hard to believe; it certainly was for me. But I also remembered a time back in my childhood when the General Lee was just a car with doors that didn’t open right. I stood there in his living room and thought about all the times I had needed someone else to stand in front of me with a scowl, to tell me something I thought was messed up—and then to decide to stay and talk with me about it. At the time, I felt like it was finally my turn. Now, when I look back on this unlikely romance, I feel something else unexpected; I feel like I have a window into the mind of the kind of man who makes up Donald Trump’s voting base.
Back before I met Abe, I was a bookish nerd in college, but also an anarchist and a labor activist. Even as I studied radical democratic theory in anarchist study groups, clutching my crumpled photocopies of articles by Paulo Freire and Saul Alinsky and Pierre Bourdieu, I thought hard about my family’s own background in Europe and in this country, where lack of education had consistently denied every person a chance to pursue a career or develop intellectual interests. The first women in my family to get college degrees were my aunts, who did so courtesy of the convent. My dad was the first man to get a degree, and my mom got her GED after immigrating to the U.S. I thought about what it meant to have descended from German miners on both sides of my family and from a butcher in rural Arkansas. Because my entire family was of German descent, it felt all the more urgent that I think about the appeal of fascism in all its forms.
Abe was like many of the members of my own family in that he worked with his hands and hadn’t been to college. His high school experience was not especially rigorous, either, and he was decidedly labeled a “bad kid," not “college material." He was raised in a conservative, religious, single-parent household at the edge of poverty. But from the first conversation I had with him, I could see that he was intelligent, quick-witted and introspective. I fell immediately in love with him, and I think part of why I did so was that I felt at home with him, with his rough story that somehow reflected the story of my own family.
When he told me that first day that he hung up the Confederate flag because it seemed “badass,” I swallowed my nausea and decided to see if he would change. The next time I came over, the flag was down. He said, with honest forthrightness, that he’d had no idea how offensive it was.
I believed him. He worked in a wood mill with immigrants from Somalia and Russia and interacted on a daily basis with a much more diverse cast of characters than I did in my safe, homogenous graduate school classrooms.
He’d thought about what I’d said, and he took down the flag. And then he thanked me for explaining everything without making him feel like shit.
Only, I kind of did make him feel like shit, at least in my book. I wanted to make sure he understood that this was important. In response, he could have told me to go to hell, but instead he thought about everything I told him.
Now, I’m not saying that every racist is an innocent who needs to be understood and humored. I believe—because I’ve seen it in my own family—that some racists are hardened and unteachable. I’ve had conversations where I was reduced to staring in open-mouthed horror as I realized that common ground was a fantasy, that the other person seemed to take delight in his or her extreme views. Abe was not that way; he honestly didn’t know enough about history. But from this place of not-knowing, he was looking for any symbols of rebellion he could find. He drove a loud muscle car, listened to punk and heavy metal at ear-shredding decibels, and wore a jean jacket vest covered with patches. At night we snuggled together to watch movies, he wanted to show me the world that he cared about, the men he’d chosen as cinematic replacement fathers: Dennis Hopper in "Easy Rider," Al Pacino in "Scarface," Clint Eastwood in everything. Guys who went out with guns blazing.
As a rebel myself, I think a lot about the few ways that working-class people have left to express their outrage. I came to my politics via anger at the status quo, but it was often hard to find spaces to let loose and express that anger. I’d lived in a vegan co-op where I had never felt pure enough with my dietary choices, and then I’d gone through several years where I could never reach my ideals as a responsible, engaged citizen. I didn’t go to all the meetings I felt I should have, I bought the grapes during the boycott, and I used the Amnesty International address labels without sending in a donation. Political virtue seemed like an endless list I could never complete. Maybe that was why it was so satisfying and necessary to find movements and moments, here and there, where I could metaphorically set things on fire: string angry sentences into a microphone, yell myself hoarse outside the house of a strike-breaking business owner, or get together with hundreds of other people to block a street and stop traffic. Those actions fit with my principals. Plus, stepping far outside the status quo delivered a jolt of raw adrenaline. I found those fellow loudmouths through what I’d learned around college campuses, and Abe hadn’t fallen into those circles of organized rebellion.
As schools have become mills of standardized testing, and as funding has been drained away from urban school systems as well as poorer suburban and rural schools, precious few encounter options for political activism in their K-12 education. Some working-class people—including many of my friends in various cities whom I’ve worked with in labor coalitions—come to develop left-leaning politics through union membership. If you’re not a union member, you might not know that unions put a lot of energy into political education and provide a great community in which to understand the world.
But unionization has dramatically declined or been restricted in places where Trump now has appeal, partly through limitations to organizing and through the relocation of manufacturing beyond U.S. borders. One side-effect, in addition to causing incomes of many middle-class people to tank, is that the education, historical awareness and class-consciousness-building that unions used to provide for people like Abe have now been filled by right-wing hate-mongering personalities like Trump. Add to that a history of repression of activist organizations—from the Red Scare to surveillance in the '60s—and arrive at the place we now find ourselves: a weird, nightmarish place where Donald Trump looks like Che Guevara.
I often hear people wondering what is the matter with those who would choose someone like Donald Trump as their candidate, and why, as Tom Frank explains in his book, "What’s the Matter with Kansas?," the machine of the far right took over the populist language of the left. I don’t think there’s one answer, and I do think that some voters were swayed by political arguments about guns and abortion from well-funded and savvy right-wing organizations.
On the other hand, political scientist Richard M. Skinner pointed out that many voters don’t choose their candidates based on ideological positions but instead partially because they don’t have an ideological framework.
I’m going to take this one step further and argue that though they might not have a framework, they have a need to rebel and to see themselves as part of a compelling narrative, to cast themselves in some sort of heroic light. I’ve heard this so often from family members and friends who support Trump: “At least he’s shaking things up.”
After I heard this enough times, I started to think about Abe and his flag and his "Scarface" and his Clint Eastwood. Then I saw commentary written by Okla Elliott, a professor and author of "Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide," who describes a conversation with an Uber cab driver and Trump supporter. Elliott booked a series of rides with this driver, and they got to talking about politics. As Elliott described Sanders’ positions bit by bit (calmly, without insulting the drivers’ intelligence), the driver was won over to Sanders’ position.
That would seem—by traditional political frameworks—to be impossible. But these conversations are relatively common today, and they happen because some voters are choosing Trump purely out of a need to rebel. That need is real, and it is something to cherish as much as it is to fear. Trump tells a story in which the white worker is a rebellious hero with a mission. Trump seems to give voice to that story, to flip the bird to the establishment—and that is more compelling to voters than any of his ridiculous, racist, dangerous or contradictory political standpoints. I know this from my own experience: The sense that something is wrong starts in the gut. Then you can get lucky and find people to talk to about that desire to rebel, but for the white working-class, finding the left-leaning alternative has become an obstacle course. And they are so often seen as a faceless mass: the racist, hopeless, backward, rural enemy.
Over our years together, Abe and I taught each other many things. I talked about race in this country, and he taught me about the ever-present appeal of the "outlaw" for working-class white males, the only remaining identity refuge after losing economic standing. He'd later shake his head at himself and wince that he ever had a Confederate flag on his wall. I'm glad I didn't dismiss him out of hand, because he was teachable, as was I.
Now, we all have a critical opportunity. While it might be satisfying to deride Trump supporters as idiots, racists and rubes, history shows we’d be better served by figuring out how to re-knit the country around the only fable we have left, the “outlaw” in all its incarnations, our version of the kokopeli trickster that refuses to be tamed. Trump’s appeal rests in his appearance of outlandish untameability, and the fact that left-wing rebellion has been erased from public consciousness. Rather than mocking anyone’s stupidity, we should understand the campaign of cultural impoverishment that has led to this frightening and critical moment—and we need to remind people there are outlaws and bad-asses on the left—from Howard Fast to Joe Hill to Mother Jones to Paul Robeson to the protesters of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter… and on and on and on.