Pulling Back from the Brink of Fascism by Listening. And Eating Pizza.
The analysts bemoan their epiphany that half of America was willing to vote for a man with fascist leanings. In their eyes, voting for a racist makes you a racist, voting for a misogynist makes you no less pernicious than Jeffrey Epstein, voting for a Luddite makes you a science-despising, wacko Bible thumper.
This week, I observed an eighteen-year-old, dark-skinned woman of Mexican ancestry defend her vote for Donald Trump on economic grounds. Although most of the people I'd seen defending her viewpoint were white and male, hearing it from someone whose application to join the Klan wouldn't get favorable treatment spurred me to collect such arguments into the most cogent defense of this political behavior I could, as a prelude to looking for the flaws.
I previously posted on the culture of Southern white male Protestants (here, here, and here), an endeavor undertaken as a way of clarifying my thoughts prior to considering a sequel to the book I'm currently shopping around that would be set in a post-Second Civil War Christian Republic. In my current novel, I mention this region as a bogeyman to scare characters in the part of America that still called itself the United States into accepting militarism and economic inequality. Fleshing out details was left for the sequel.
In these posts, I have yet to address the economic thinking driving the contemporary Southern white male Protestant. I left it because it is not unique to this group, as evidenced by my encounter with the atypical Trumper, but it does predominate.
So, now I will. I am drawing my conclusions from first-hand observations and conversations as well as reading the right-wing literature.
The first thing to realize is that most people in the South who voted for Trump on economic grounds are small businessmen, aspire to be small businessmen, or have friends/family who are small businessmen. Small businesses include sole proprietorships and closely held corporations, and their profits are taxed as ordinary income. If the government raises taxes, profits disappear, so a tax cut nearly always looks good to this group, and it's often the personal income tax rate rather than the corporate tax rate that Google and General Motors learn to avoid paying that matters. It's a lot harder to avoid paying personal income taxes.
Small businessmen also seek to avoid anything that would raise the cost of their inputs. Often, the most expensive input is labor. So, raising the minimum wage? Bad. Mandatory health insurance as in Obamacare 1.0? Bad. The right to unionize? Way bad.
Enforcement of immigration law? Also bad. In Florida, right-wing businessmen have at times paid for buses to ship their undocumented workers to protests of crackdowns on undocumented workers. This isn't Arizona. Businessmen have learned to put aside their racism if the bottom line is at stake. As a result, the immigration debate does not have the rancor it does out West. Texas is more of a mixed bag, but the rest of the South is not necessarily anti-immigrant.
Government regulation is another big baddie, as requiring paperwork or, worse, restricting the ability to pollute, hire and fire at will, or maintain quality control in a market that doesn't demand it all cost the small businessman money.
Bottom line: the anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-labor parts of the Republican economic agenda do serve the immediate, narrow interests of the types of small business owners that predominate in the South. I'm not talking about technology-based businesses because most of them are located outside of the South. I'm not talking about the bed and breakfast the union organizer couple runs in their retirement in Burlington or the vintage clothing shop in Madison with the lefty bumper stickers in the window. The guy who hires undocumented workers to do landscaping. The guy who hires non-union immigrants from Eastern Europe to sell and repair air conditioning units. The woman with a boat who runs a fishing charter company to take rich folks who fly down from Chicago deep sea fishing. The woman who owns a hair cutting place that competes with the chain stores by offering more coupons. The dude who makes the best pizza in town and pays college kids to deliver it.
"I'm in it for me, so I'm willing to ignore the kids in cages and persecution of trans folks and shout-outs to white supremacists and raping of twelve and thirteen year olds and science denial that led to pandemic deaths" is not a life-affirming narrative likely to inspire anyone. Sure, businessmen take on these attitudes for their own self-interest, but if they didn't tell themselves something different, they couldn't sleep at night.
Here's a positive view of a small businessman: he risked all the capital he had, taking a second and third mortgage on his house, worked night-and-day with his own hands, produced the best possible business or service anyone could have, and CREATED JOBS. He is a pillar of the community—a Scout leader, a Rotarian, a Kiwanis member, on the local Chamber of Commerce, a coach for the Little League—and, yes, those volunteer gigs all drummed up business, but hell, it wasn't like the professor at the university was doing those things. She was too busy professing, you know, indoctrinating college students with her lefty subversion. And probably sleeping with some of them. And the artist—man, forget it, what the hell did he contribute to society? Just a lot of paintings of weird crap and nekkid women that nobody wanted to buy. And don't get our businessman started on social workers and city government employees and teachers and all those others living off of his tax dollars.
So, how dare you vote for someone who will make it harder for this honorable citizen?
And don't tax capital gains either. When business is booming, our businessman plows his extra cash into equities. The stock market always trends upward in the long run. And, hey, you working stiffs benefit, too—your 401Ks are what allow you a comfortable retirement. Since companies stopped giving pensions, but we won't talk about that, because our historical memory is short.
If our businessman makes money and gets to live in a nice house in a gated community with a pool and a golf membership, then he is to be respected because he earned all that with his labor and his risk taking.
And that's the only vision of the good life open to some. Think about the popular guy who slept through most of his classes in high school and lived only for sports. Think about the popular girl who spent high school stoned. They have neither the desire nor the SAT scores to get into a decent college and immerse themselves in the richness of world culture and thought. Their families own businesses, they worked in them on the weekends and in summers, and there's a job waiting for them when they graduate high school. Hard work during the week, party on Saturday night, church on Sunday morning, and a barbecue lunch afterward in the yard of their heavily mortgaged, three bedroom house (that they lose in a contentious divorce driving both into alcoholism and alienation from their 2.3 pansexual children with neon green hair who wear Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez T-shirts, but let's not let reality ruin their perfect country-song existence—go get the Bud Light out of the pickup truck, dear).
I'd wager that there are more small businessmen, friends of small businessmen, and folks aspiring to be small businessmen among Trump voters than there are white supremacists, religious fanatics, refugees from dictatorships, and conspiracy theory nutjobs put together, by at least a factor of three or four. And how is pursuing their own interests—not wanting to be driven out of business—a bad thing? It's not like other groups aren't prioritizing their issues, especially when threats are existential.
These people aren't going away. And I'm not sure I want them all going away—maybe, I want to patronize that family-run pizza place on the corner.
So, how do you reach out to those folks and bring them back from the precipice of voting for an avowed fascist?
My argument: emphasize the parts of the progressive platform that should speak directly to them. Single-payer healthcare. How else do you explain the first choice Sanders, second choice Trump voters in 2016? It makes sense. It works. It saves money. European companies have a huge advantage in not needing to pay workers benefits—taxes take that off the balance sheet. Moreover, healthier workers mean less losses to absenteeism.
Science. Your small businessman can see the benefit of government response to the pandemic. You can sell him on the need to keep scientific research going—a cure for COVID-19 would undoubtedly be seen as a good thing. Beyond that, many small businesses rely on environmental protection, and the conservation programs in the fish and wildlife department, and food inspections, and safety of medicines; all of these science-based government functions are necessary to keep small businesses running, especially in regions with substantial eco-tourism.
Response to the climate catastrophe. This one may be generational—teachers have actively taught our current youth about the threat from a changing climate, and by and large, they buy in. There's not much you're going to do to avoid bankruptcy as a businessman when your buildings get destroyed by a hurricane or you get flooded out by sea level rise, especially when your insurance company dumps you as our planet's crisis becomes personal.
Infrastructure. It's falling apart, and if you're going to rebuild it, rebuild it green, and then leverage the experience to sell green construction to an export market. A businessman will understand why decent infrastructure helps their business.
One-fifth of all small businesses have disappeared during this pandemic. Many were previously lost with the real estate collapse and subsequent recession in the late Bush II years. Climate change threatens to dwarf either in its ability to destroy small businesses. An Eisenhower Republican would have understood these things. A Nixon Republican would have understood these things.
The Trump Republican does not. Until they do, the US will be perpetually on the brink of fascism.
But it's a hard sell. The businessman sees himself as John Galt: macho, decisive, one to be admired for his risk-taking, independence, and hard work that gave him all his success. Telling him his existence is fragile and completely dependent upon a government willing to bail him out during periodic and frequent economic catastrophes will threaten his worldview. People don't like to have their worldview threatened. They put up walls and stop listening.
The first step is listening. The small business class have valid concerns—any progressive vision should address them. As much as the auto shop owner who insists on blasting FOX News in the waiting room looks like the enemy, she has something to contribute to society.
With apologies to Rosa Luxemburg, if I can't get a decent slice of pizza, it's not my socialist utopia.