Picture of a rundown factory

Economic Anxiety is Existential Dread

For as long as I could remember, my dad worked in radio and my mom stayed at home with their four kids. We had as comfortable a life as can be had living paycheck to paycheck on the bottom end of the middle class spectrum. Neither of them had college degrees. Our trajectory out of the lower middle class had a razor-thin margin for error.

Dad had a real talent for radio. He was good on the air and good at managing the day-to-day operations of a station. He took a middling adult contemporary station in central Illinois, changed formats, and turned it into the area’s most popular station.

When I was a teenager and my dad was around 50, he lost his job at the station. The details aren’t important, but there weren’t jobs for him in radio any more. He bounced around. He sold siding. He was the manager of a dollar store a hundred miles away that he commuted to every morning. But those were jobs, not careers, and he was an old dog desperately trying to learn new tricks.

Almost overnight he went from being The Bread Winner and head of his household — something society taught him was his job as a Man — to someone struggling to put food on the table. My mom had to get a job. His confidence, his pride, and his sense of self-worth were all shattered.

After a decade of riding this downward spiral, my dad killed himself1.

When I see people mocking poor, uneducated white folks in the rust belt for not sucking it up and voting for Hillary, it makes me angry.

This is the thing that rich white folks on Twitter don’t get: “economic anxiety” is existential dread. Rust Belt factory jobs drying up, in the aggregate and abstract, is just a minor detail in a growing and changing economy. To the people in their 50s who have been working at those factories for most of their adult lives, it’s not just a punch to roll with: they see it as a threat to their lives and their families. For many of them it is.

I don’t believe that Trump has the power to bring manufacturing jobs back. I also don’t think he has any intention to try. But he told a story people in the rural Midwest understood and believed. Hillary didn’t.

There is no denying that a certain portion of Americans voted for Trump because of his in-your-face brand of white supremacy and misogyny. We’re hearing that message loud and clear and it’s critical that we stand together against it in all its forms. Still, lumping all Trump voters into that “basket” would be a critical mistake if the goal is to take back control of the government.

Related: What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class

Photo Credit: stu_spivack

  1. This wasn’t just about his career. He’d been battling PTSD he picked up in the Vietnam War for decades, but I firmly believe that if he had continued to work in radio, he’d still be alive.