Today’s video was from four years ago, right after Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States.
Four years later, here we are.
It’s been a grueling week. Perfectly fitting for the grueling kind of year this has already been….
“It feels like the entire country has been waiting for biopsy results,” says one wag.
Above all, for people of the liberal persuasion, right now it’s a very painful time, even as there is joy and literal dancing in the streets in response to Joe Biden being elected as the 46th President of the United States. The reason for the pain is because the vote was so, so very close. “It shouldn’t be this close,” says writer Don Winslow. “Not after caging children. Not after selling out our soldiers. Not after 230,000 dead. Not after 4 years of breaking every law on the books. It should not be this close.”
My colleague the Rev. Sean Parker Dennison, who is transgender, puts it like this: “The hardest thing is seeing that millions of people voted for someone who is an openly mocking, disrespectful, insatiably egomaniacal, and hateful person. The second hardest thing is knowing that I, and so many I love, will be in the direct line of his cruelty. So many will suffer and die. And so many people don’t care. I read a post last night that dismissed the coronavirus because it had only a 1% death rate. That’s 3.28 million deaths in the US alone. But no big deal to this person who berated everyone who wore a mask or took precautions.”
Says another colleague, “Trying to love all my neighbors in this country, knowing that half of them voted for more of what we’ve got right now.”
“Trying to see that spark of the divine in everyone today.”
People of the liberal persuasion—even plenty of conservative Republicans who can’t stomach Trump—wanted to see a resounding coast-to-coast repudiation of where this country is going, and it did not happen. It didn’t.
Do you feel pain about this too?
I do. Absolutely.
I want to understand why it happened.
I want to understand, first of all, how some people could vote for Trump and think their vote could just be about taxes or just about some other isolated issue—that, somehow, their vote wouldn’t amount to affirming the entirety of Trump’s egregiousness, which they will tell you they don’t approve of. But they vote for him anyhow. Somehow they don’t see that a vote for even the smallest part of Trump is, practically speaking, a vote for all of Trump and enables the full spectrum of his noxiousness to continue unchecked. Somehow they don’t see that. Somehow they think that we can disagree and still be friends, even though the disagreement centers around voting for someone who is avowedly racist and misogynist and anti-democratic and anti-science and on and on.
How can some people not see the problem with this? I want to understand!
I also want to understand how people who claim they are all-American patriots could vote for Trump and they do want their vote to be a positive affirmation of the entire Trumpian ethos—even as that means the death of something as all-American as democracy and the sanctity of the vote. So self-contradictory! So irrational!
I am desperate to understand! You too? (If you were here in the sanctuary with me, at this point I would put my hand to my ear and pause and wait for you to cry out, YES!)
Today I want to share with you some of my reflections about something which I think can help us understand, at least a little bit.
The full picture is admittedly complicated. Of course. One factor that I can’t get into here but which I think is crucial is the breakdown of commonly-held facts. Historian Heather Cox Richardson speaks to this when she talks about the division between “those who are living in a fictional world, created by generations of right-wing media, and those who are living in the real world, the so-called ‘reality-based community.’” Everyone is afraid, but the scary films running in people’s minds depends on which news outlet they happen to follow and what social media they happen to consume. The scary films therefore can be very different—and that, to me, is truly scary. How can anyone communicate or reason across such a chasm?
That’s a key problem. But the problem I want to focus on here is class. In particular, the middle class, because, as research shows, Trump voters are not primarily poor folks but middle and upper middle class folks. In the last election, Trump voters had a median household income of $72,000—higher than those voting Democratic.
Focusing on the middle class is the something which can help us understand.
But I want to start with the insight that being middle class is not centrally about how much a person makes, financially. The telling fact is that most Americans identify as middle class despite actual earnings. From The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, centered at the Ohio State University, comes the observation that “All but the wealthiest Americans and those who are truly impoverished consider themselves middle class.” “It is … striking that half of those in households with six-figure incomes define themselves as middle class; and that even among those with incomes below $30,000, a third define themselves as middle class and another third as lower-middle class.”
A report from The Middle-Class Working Families Task Force led by then Vice-President Biden, back from 2010, agrees. It says it like this: “Middle class families are defined by their aspirations more than their income.”
Isn’t that interesting? The video from earlier is characteristic of how a lot of people think class is just a matter of income. Just about the numbers. But it’s time to go deeper than “just the numbers.” Aspirations and beliefs—the stories a person tells about themselves, others, and the world at large—are even more central than actual income to a person seeing themselves as middle class.
But which aspirations? What beliefs? What stories?
My answer is: the ones tied up with the American Dream. As in: If you work hard and play by the rules of decency, success is yours. Most Americans identify with the middle class because most Americans still believe in this Dream. The Dream is part and parcel of the middle-class mindset that unifies most Americans from sea to shining sea.
Three basic beliefs help make up this mindset. The first is about people and power—that everyone has equal access to the sort of freedom that enables people to overcome obstacles to success. If a person can’t bypass obstacles and get to success, well, they must be lazy. Something must be wrong with them.
Call this the story of unlimited personal freedom.
This immediately leads to the second middle class belief: There are no insurmountable barriers in society, blocking a person’s ability to change their life status. There are, rather, endless possibilities out there and people just need to work to find them.
Call this the story of social fairness, according to which injustice is more about particular situations and particular people rather than oppressive structures and systems which are reproduced over the years no matter who the particular actors are, or the times. Which is why, for the middle class mindset, a sign like “Black Lives Matter” is deeply offensive. It runs contrary to the story it tells itself of social fairness. What a middle class point of view demands is that the only sign people should be displaying is “All Lives Matter.”
Yet a third middle class belief falls closely on the heels of the first and second: people are independent agents whose well-being is best served by focusing on themselves and the people they care about. Success is having your own space, your own house, your own car, your own things, you don’t have to rely on anyone else or go borrowing anyone else’s things, you have enough money for a vacation now and then, you are saving up for retirement so that you can continue to remain independent in your golden years. That’s success. I will go my way and respect your right to go your way. But if you try to take away my independence, there will be hell to pay. If you try to take away my sense of myself as an independent agent and assume anything about who I am on the basis of group categories like race or gender, how dare you! If you try to take away my hard-earned money in service to what someone calls “the common good”—if you try to constrain my self-expression in service to what someone calls “the wellbeing of the community,” well, I’m going to come out fighting.
Call this the story of independence.
“Don’t tread on me,” says a classic Revolutionary War flag from hundreds of years ago. The middle class still hangs this flag up high. So, for example, if some governor says you have to wear a mask, the middle class impulse is to gather with your cronies with guns at the state capitol and protest the governor as being egregiously unAmerican. Yet another example is that the whole world might be bearing the excruciating signs of climate change—extreme weather events, rising sea levels, species extinction, and more—but don’t you dare take away my rights to continue living as I please. Don’t you dare.
This is the American Dream. To live as one pleases, undisturbed by the needs of the larger community or world. To be able to work hard, and to trust that one’s hard work will earn success.
This middle class mentality unites most Americans, from sea to shining sea.
But it is a dream that is not for everyone. For the wealthy, it’s irrelevant. Their wealth makes it possible for them to make up their own rules. Honor and hard work and decency are for so-called “suckers.” (This is language Trump likes to use).
As for the working class poor, the American Dream is not even within possibility.
That this is so for the working class poor is reflected in their characteristic aspirations and attitudes. Social psychologists have documented that the working class “tend to believe that external, uncontrollable social forces and others’ power have … greater influence over their lives. Success for them, therefore, depends on how well they can ‘read,’ rely on and help out others….” That’s from a 2012 article in the scholarly journal Psychological Review. From a 2010 article, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, comes this related insight: “people with less income and education are more generous, trusting and helpful than their wealthier, more educated counterparts.”
So here’s the series of contrasts. The middle class says people have unlimited freedom for personal expression in a world that is fair. The working class, on the other hand, experiences a world that is unfair, with lots of oppressive forces that push back against individual expression. So, while middle class people act as self-focused, independent agents and strive for freedom from outside interference in their affairs, working class people survive by other-focused efforts to build and maintain relationships, to build trust, to build community through generosity.
There is a clash of existential storytelling here, in other words, with very practical consequences. Middle class people tend to behave more selfishly and less empathetically and ethically than working class people. A 2012 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports on two studies “in which observers watching from the street recorded driving behavior over two days. In the first study, drivers of high-status vehicles were far more likely than others to cut off other drivers at a busy four-way intersection. In the second study, approximately half of the drivers in the highest status vehicles drove illegally through a crosswalk as a pedestrian was waiting to cross, versus none in the lowest status vehicles.” One of the scientists who was part of this study, Dacher Keltner PhD, draws this conclusion: “These findings suggest that cultural context and its resulting mental habits allow people of higher classes to disconnect from others’ concerns. To be compassionate, you have to carefully attend to other people — to what they’re thinking, feeling and saying. The wealthy don’t do that as well as poorer people — not because they don’t have those capabilities, but because the context of their lives allows them to disengage.”
Dr. Keltner is talking about the relatively wealthy here—the middle class and above. “The context of their lives allows them to disengage.”
And here we have it: the explanation for the millions of middle class Trump supporters who feel that their vote can just be about isolated issues, like taxes, as opposed to a blanket affirmation of his entire hateful ethos. It’s to be found in how middle class culture tends to make people tone-deaf towards the harsher realities of collective life and self-focused to the point of disengagement.
It opens the door to a fundamentally good-intentioned person saying that we can disagree and still be friends, even when we are disagreeing about things that lead to people’s oppression and a denial of their humanity and right to exist.
It opens the door to people who have a Spark of the Divine within saying that it’s ok to disagree about things like wearing masks, even when Covid-19 anywhere is a threat to all people everywhere.
It opens the door to Children of God not batting an eye about America having fully withdrawn from the Paris Accord, even when climate change anywhere is a threat to all people everywhere.
The middle class mentality is one that just has a hard time grasping things like the common good. Oh, it likes the common good, for sure. It takes the common good for granted. When the common good takes a nose dive, real pain is felt. But the middle class mentality makes it easy for individuals to step back from owning their part in supporting the common good and to shrug off making sacrifices for its continuance.
The implications of the middle class mindset trickle down all the way to something as mundane as a church pledge. It’s quintessentially middle class to benefit from a community like this, but when the invitation to financially support this community through pledging goes out, a lot of people don’t respond. It’s also quintessentially middle class to make excuses about not having enough money to pledge where, by contrast, in the churches of the working poor, money flows. Money flows because the working poor are who they are: they belong to the sort of social class that understands generosity and counts on community solidarity and embraces self-sacrifice for the common good.
I am asking all of us to do better around this.
Don’t mistake me. I see intentional and malicious intent in none of this. No one is not a Child of God. Trump voters who just wanted to make a statement about limited things like taxes really do not mean to be hateful. But there are consequences to having a class identity. Class is a major lens through which people see the world and see themselves. The middle class lens helps a person see some things—and to completely miss out on other things.
And now let’s turn to the other issue that begs explanation: how people who claim they are all-American patriots can vote for Trump and they do want their vote to be a positive affirmation of the entire Trumpian ethos—even as that means the death of something as all-American as democracy and the sanctity of the vote.
This death—this terrible death—is what we saw the current President of the United States, speaking from the sacred space of the White House, urging on. The death of democracy. The death of every vote’s sanctity. Trump has been casting doubt on the democratic process for a long time now, has worked to keep voters from the polls, and he enlisted Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to weaken the mail system so ballots would not be delivered on time. But in this sacred, sensitive week, with the election underway, he has only ramped up his fake news, falsely asserting election fraud, falsely claiming victory, saying that we should stop counting all the votes, saying that the election is being stolen. Donald Trump Jr. himself tweeted at one point that counting all the votes was akin to America being a “banana republic,” and that “The best thing for America’s future is for [his Dad] to go to total war over this election to expose all of the fraud, cheating, dead/no longer in state voters, that has been going on for far too long.”
This fake news is chaos. This is what chaos looks like.
This is also what it looks like for a member of the class of the very rich to despise the rules of decency the rest of us must follow—which are for “suckers”—and to make up his own rules. Take control of the narrative. Lie so often and so fast that the truth is buried under an avalanche. If he doesn’t get what he wants, well, inundate the opposition with litigation and lawyers.
How in God’s name–Buddha’s name, Krishna’s name, Moses’ name, Mother Theresa’s name–could any American patriot follow him here, to this very place of chaos and subversion of democracy and the creation of something that every other President from George Washington on down has hated: tyrannical rule. Kingship.
This is what I think: Yes, the middle class is centrally about aspirations. But economy is still important, and this is what the middle class is increasingly coming to know: that the equation of “work hard + play by the rules = success”—which is America when it is great—is breaking down. In the news we constantly read of the “shrinking” middle class. You’ve already know about that. You’re living that. I won’t rehearse statistics here.
The part that I do want to highlight is the cognitive dissonance in all of it. On the one hand, we are talking about the American Dream which, for the middle class, is as certain as God, freedom, and apple pie. On the other hand, there’s lived reality. There’s income that continues to fall behind expenses like housing, college, health care—no matter how hard a person works. The class of the powerful—the oligarchy—has gamed the economy and is getting richer, while the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is on the decline; but the world is also supposed to be a fair place–right?–so if the middle class is in decline, doesn’t that suggest that there’s something wrong with the middle class—that they are lazy or something else? But that can’t be right, since the American Dream is as certain as God, freedom, and apple pie….
Cognitive dissonance! Pretzel-like logic! Contortions of intellect!
Shot through and through with intense desperation and fear.
To resolve this tension between Dream and lived reality—to soothe the underlying desperation and fear—here’s what middle class folks (at least the ones voting for Donald Trump) don’t do, and do instead.
What they don’t do is address the real problem. The real problem is how the class of the powerful—the oligarchy class, to which Trump belongs—has gamed the system to guarantee that the rich only get richer. For hundreds of years now, this oligarchy class has implemented a strategy of divide and conquer. Racism in America was created 400+ years ago to ensure that Black slaves and indentured servant whites would not combine forces and overthrow the wealthy, oppressive landowning class. Today, we have an economic system where most people find themselves in a long line waiting for scarce resources—both the poor and the middle class—and when the poor and disadvantaged cut in line so that they can be helped, the white middle class is outraged. The white middle class calls them lazy. The white middle class wants more “law and order.” People in this long economic line start fighting among themselves, while the crucial question that is not being asked enough is, Who created the line in the first place, and who makes sure it stays put? That points to the real problem. Oligarchs like Trump ARE “the swamp.”
But the real problem stays hidden.
What middle class Trump supporters do instead—spurred on by all their desperation and all their fear—is give their unconditional loyalty to a leader who says he can Make America Great Again. This leader is decidedly not middle class and will not play by middle class rules of decency, but his middle class subjects (no matter how religiously conservative they happen to be) give him pass after pass after pass because his indecency, to them, is evidence of his power. Indecently, he will lead the country into chaos. Indecently, he will kill democracy. But Trump supporters will let him—they will!—because the American Dream equation of “work hard + play by the rules = success” must be shored up no matter what, and it seems like the things other decent politicians have tried to do in the past have never worked.
The Trump-supporting middle class goes all in. All in. All chips in. They bet everything. In this way, desperation is transformed into exhilaration. Fear becomes power. Despair becomes mania.
Make America Great Again—whatever it takes.
What I most want you to see here, West Shore, is the misery underlying this whole terrible thing. Trump is a magnet for people’s trauma. He exploits it. He uses it to manage his own personal traumas, of which there are many. That’s a huge topic in its own right.
All this just makes me so sad. Maybe you too.
And now it is time to wrap up. The week has just been grueling. I’m just exhausted and I know you are too. With Joe Biden and Kamala Harris elected, it is indeed a new day. But the fact that almost 70 million Americans voted for more of what we have seen in the past four years is painful.
So here we are, trying to love all our neighbors in this country. Trying to see the Spark of the Divine in everyone.
When we bring awareness to what it means to be middle class, maybe it’s easier to understand where those almost 70 million votes for Donald Trump came from.
Healing means, for us and for all, naming the middle class’ tendency to disengage, together with the resulting problems—and balancing it with the vision of mutuality and interdependence. In this regard, our Unitarian Universalist values make all the difference. How our church experience brings a constant reminder that sacrifice for the common good and for community wellbeing matters.
Healing means this, and it also means naming middle class despair and the desperation driving people to sell their souls to Make America Great Again. Healing means: focus on the real problem. Work on the real problem. Drain the swamp, really—don’t just swap out one swamp for another swamp.
Beloveds, the journey continues ever on.
And we are in this thing together.