Let me tell you about my grandfather. He was raised on a farm in rural Posey County near the point where the Wabash and Ohio Rivers meet, and was a blue collar man as an adult who became modestly wealthy through a generous retirement plan and company stock options. He was my hero as a child, and a good person, though in hindsight, far from enlightened.
That brief description more or less fits many Republican voters in southern Indiana today, and his story illustrates a lot about the political mess they have gotten us into, though in ways I’m confident you will not expect. More importantly, I think his story shows us a way to triumph against the flood of Republican hate and unreason that has flooded so much of our land, and sank the morals of so many otherwise good people into the foul smelling muck underneath the cesspool of Republican high crimes, misdemeanors, and lies.
The picture above is of me wearing my grandfather’s hard hat. When I was a kid, he was a construction foreman for L.E. Meyers, a company that built high tension power lines across the midwest. I spent many vacations riding around with him in a battered old work truck from construction site to construction site throughout rural Iowa and Wisconsin. Back then, mobile homes were truly mobile and workers like him had theirs towed from small town to small town, often several times a year. I spent a lot of time in trailer parks and met a lot of nice people in those places, both workers like him, and older, retired people. I know times have in many ways changed, but I still cringe anytime I hear anyone use the term “trailer trash.”
My grandfather suffered a severe stroke, probably caused by sleep apnea, in 1972 and he and my grandmother moved back to Indiana when I was 12. At that time, no effective treatment for stroke, or sleep apnea for that matter, existed. He lived another difficult 10 years, first fighting to regain the full use of his body, then slowly succumbing to despair, and eventually lung cancer.
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During those years, which were junior high and high school for me, I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. He tried to live the life he had always lived. He bought a speed boat, a truck with a camper, and a lot of guns. But as his health failed to improve and he couldn’t do the things he wanted, he tried to live vicariously through me.
He was, what they called back then, an outdoorsman. He hunted and fished and went boating and rode motorcycles. He had always been a hunter, particularly a bird hunter, and he wanted me to enjoy the sport as well. One of my earlier memories of him was taking me pheasant hunting up in Wisconsin. Over the years, he thoroughly trained me in gun safety and use, and to this day I cannot stand to see someone point a gun at someone else, no matter how unloaded I know it to be, or even if it’s just a toy. After he moved back to town, I took care of his bird dog, and went out and shot quail from time to time. Back then there were a lot of quail around here, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen any. Quail fly fast and are difficult to hit, even with a shotgun when the dog points out where they are hiding. I got a lot of ribbing if it took me more than one shot to bring one down. He was as happy as I ever saw him when I aced it and hit three with three shots. I think because of those early bird hunting experiences, I’ve never had any interest in sitting up in a blind and shooting a deer that’s just standing there. I’ve considered hunting deer for the healthy meat, but hardly consider it a sport.
As his health worsened and he was able to get out less, he became a gun collector and had a nice little arsenal when he died, which he left to me. I sold most of them to fund a trip to Europe after college, which broke my grandmother’s heart. But I kept the ones he had hunted with before the stroke. I take them out and target practice about once every decade, then take them apart and clean them, remembering my grandfather and saying a little prayer for him. I abhor the NRA and their murder weapon-centric agenda, but I have great respect for traditional hunting and target practice, and gun collecting as well when it’s not a psychopathic obsession, more a tax or tribute paid to hate groups than a genuine appreciation for the craft. Although I’m not much into it anymore, and really never was, mostly doing it to please him, I think hunting is a great activity, and a great family activity at that. And as someone who has had many close calls with deer on the highway and know people who have been seriously injured in run-ins with them, I recognize hunting deer to be a public service that saves lives.
As I mentioned above, my grandfather was raised in the country and worked on farms throughout his youth during the 1920’s. It’s hard for younger people to imagine, but in that time and place few people had electricity or indoor plumbing, and children were educated in one room schoolhouses. There were no Black people, or anyone from other countries down in the point. It was a thoroughly racist society, and as a product of that society, my grandfather was a racist. He wasn’t the active virulent type who joined the Klan or flew the traitor flag, but sadly, it was part of the fabric of his being, and he never much questioned it. Politically, he was against the civil rights movement, hated the hippies, supported the Vietnam War, and thought the anti-war protesters should be shot. When I started growing my hair long, he was seriously angry and disappointed and said I looked like a queer. When All in the Family came out, we all saw the resemblance to Archie Bunker, and he was proud of that.
Given all that, you’d probably assume that politically he was part of the Goldwater wing of the Republican Party, a Nixon supporter during the last years of his life, and that he would have voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980, which was the year he died. After all, he agreed with the far right of his time on just about everything.
But no, he never once voted for a Republican. He was a fervent Democrat and one of my last memories of him was bragging on his death bed about how he got an absentee ballot so he could kick Ronald Reagan’s ass from the grave.
Roosevelt, you see, gave him a job during the Great Depression, which was caused by Republicans, and he never forgot it.
There are some lessons in that for Democrats today, as Great Depression levels of catastrophe rain down upon us, and people like my Grandfather have again been betrayed by Republicans.
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My grandfather’s irrational political loyalties play a big part in my thoughts about why so many normal, decent people around here support the human shit stain that is Donald Trump, even though they would have found him abhorrent and completely unfit for office throughout the great majority of their lives. If Trump were their neighbor, up at 3 a.m. yelling crazy conspiracy theories, racist drivel, telling lie after lie, cheating small businesses, insulting their wives and daughters, and generally carrying on as he does, they would assume he was a meth addict and call the police. My grandfather would have probably kicked his ass.
But they don’t call the police, or kick his ass. They put the meth addict in charge of the city, and as anyone with eyes that can see would predict, it goes to hell in a hand basket. Still, their irrational loyalty to the meth addict next door blinds them to the things he says and does. They somehow come to believe that any of his outlandish acts are justified, and they do not waver, at least not publicly. Just like my grandfather’s loyalty to the Democrats never wavered, no matter how different their core beliefs were from his.
So clearly, political loyalties are not rational, particularly for those who have had some kind of strong conversion event. For my grandfather the conversion event was the Great Depression, and getting a job during the mass unemployment and rural poverty that it caused. For a lot of stolid Republicans today, it may have been the Vietnam war or 9/11 that set their political beliefs in stone. Or more likely it wasn’t just one event, but constant bombardment of hate and fear and lies and disinformation from right wing media.
Being a traditional Republican is one thing, being a Trump supporter – which is in so many ways the opposite of being a traditional Republican – is something else. A traditional Republican’s beliefs are based on solid values and facts. They may be wrong, and I’m happy to argue that they are wrong, but they come about their wrongness honestly, their opinions are based on facts.
But those days are long gone. Current Republicans values change with the whims of their leader, and they literally argue that there are no such things as facts. And our constitutional democracy that they spent so many years defending, is something that must be overcome, if not overthrown, to keep the shit stains in power.
The reasons why we’ve arrived at this sad state are many, but the fall of legitimate media and its replacement for Republicans by rank propaganda outlets is the off-road vehicle that got us here. Unlike in my grandfather’s day when all the news came from a local newspaper and three half-hour news shows on three television channels that were governed by the Fairness Doctrine, and a basic respect for the truth. nowadays, right wing media subject their victims to 24/7 barrage of propaganda and lies that are not governed by anything legal, much less moral or ethical. The incessant use of fear is how they convert people to beliefs that are totally outside of factual reality, and the opposite of their long held values. Hate is the grotesque offspring of fear, and its equal when it comes to getting people to believe false and terrible things they ordinarily wouldn’t.
As Orwell showed so brilliantly in 1984, and has been confirmed by numerous studies and experiments, a human being’s core beliefs can be changed radically through an incessant barrage of hate and fear. You, me, any human is susceptible to conversion, albeit some much more than others. Subjected to enough hate and fear, we can all be taught to believe that two plus two equals five, that we have always been at war with East Asia, or that Trump cares about the working class and cuts in the capital gains tax will benefit people who don’t sell stock. And yesterday’s news can go straight down the memory hole if the leader tells us to believe something entirely different today.
Fox News and other extremist right wing media have taken Orwell’s two minute hate and turned it into 24/7 hour hate. All day, they tell their viewers to be afraid, to be very afraid, that there are enemies everywhere trying to destroy everything they hold dear. Orwell’s Goldstein has become a host of Goldsteins, from George Soros to George Floyd to whoever makes a convenient enemy on any particular day. There is always someone to be afraid of, someone who’s going to take something from you, be it Black Lives Matter or some other imaginary threat like anti-Fascists, or the Mexicans working on your neighbor’s roof. The message told over and over again is that “They,” with a capital T, and those “Others,” with a capital O are coming to get you, so you’d better hide the women and children and be afraid. Be very afraid. All day. Every day. And in the middle of the night.
Orwell knew what that meant. So does Fox News and Russian intelligence. Hate and fear open the human mind to conversion. Make people afraid enough, and they will believe anything.
That’s how Republicans have reduced a large, educated, and basically decent population to the homogeneity of an angry mob. But politics that depend on hate and fear, and ultimately violence, are doomed as a means will not work for long as a way of coping with society’s ills, because eventually most people will wake up and learn that it is the hate, fear, and lies that cause those ills.
Most human beings have a strong tendency towards rationality and decency. That tendency can be subverted for a time, and manipulated to a certain extent at any given time, but eventually people will come back around to what is right. A movement that wallows in the lowest and most repugnant human emotions cannot remain acceptable to normal, decent people for long.
In the long run, the Orwellian strategy is bound to fail. But of course in the long run the sun will explode and we’ll all be dead. In the meantime, a lot of damage can be done before that ship of fools inevitably breaks up on the jagged rocks of reality.
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The sad fact is that due to the success of right wing media in converting the weaker minded to their cause, and to traumatic events that set some people’s beliefs in stone, we have to acknowledge that many people are simply lost and are never going to find their way back to reality-based politics. The 25 percent or so of voters who honestly think the Republicans have done an excellent job handling Covid-19 obviously too far gone and are never coming back. Of course we need to do what we can in government to help make their lives better, but there is no need to listen to their opinions, as they don’t really have any outside of whatever lies and horse shit they are told to believe on any given day.
But we also have to realize that not all Republican voters are lost, and that there are strategies the could help them escape the right wing moral cesspool in which they are mired. Many of these Republican voters are still connected, however tenuously, to good solid moral values and at least a smidgen of independent thought. These people can be reached.
Trump wasn’t their first choice. They may have even voted for Obama in 2008. In 2016, they were for Bush or Kasich. They were for anyone but Trump. But after Trump won, they stayed silent, or maybe even they joined the chorus, just to avoid being left out, or thought disloyal. When history called for them to stand up, they laid down. They turned a blind eye, stayed willfully ignorant while extremists and grifters tore down everything they had ever thought good and proper.
Evil, it has been said, asks nothing of good people except their silence. These Republicans were silent. But now they are embarrassed and ashamed, even though they may never admit it publicly, or at Thanksgiving dinner. Therein lies the opportunity.
To seize that opportunity, I believe it is important that we sincerely feel empathy for those who are still capable of change, rather than publicly condemn them. They have built a castle, and they will defend it from a direct attack. We need to understand why so many went over to the dark side, and to understand the underlying concerns that paved their way to this hellish Trumpscape.
There are very real reasons for people in these parts to be uneasy. Society as they know it has been crumbling for some time now. The present is bleak for a lot people they know, if not for themselves. And the future is bleaker.
The older white people who overwhelmingly vote Republican have arguably led the best lives of any group in the history of the human race. They had great job opportunities and affordable healthcare and education. They had better lives than their parents and grandparents, and expected their children and grandchildren to have better lives than themselves.
But it hasn’t worked out that way. Their children and grandchildren do not have the same economic and educational opportunities as they did. Life expectancy for middle class whites is falling precipitously due to what sociologists describe as a culture of despair. And we see this culture of despair all around us. What family in southern Indiana doesn’t have a struggling single mother or grandparents raising their grandkid because the son or daughter is mired in the drug culture, or just doesn’t want to work? How many of our high school acquaintances are drinking themselves to death on disability because their bodies are no longer up to manual labor and they have no useful job skills in the modern economy?
These affluent older voters can’t understand how all this can be happening. It doesn’t occur to them, or they will sublimate it if it does, that many younger people have little hope of a better life, even if they work hard and follow the rules. Working long, hard hours in a job with low pay, crappy benefits, and no real chance of advancement will not get them the nice house and speedboat that they feel is their birthright.
Older Republican voters, being on Medicare, which is a single-payer system, or are wealthy enough not to notice what they pay for health insurance, are unaware, or cannot quite grasp that for most people health insurance is a scam, a huge cost that provides no benefits. They can’t fathom that normal people pay hundreds of dollars a month for insurance that covers nothing more than a single checkup a year, unless something catastrophic happens, in which case it doesn’t pay for enough to stave off bankruptcy.
These older Republicans went to college when it was easily affordable, perhaps even on the GI Bill, or they had good jobs with generous benefits. It is inconceivable to them that young people graduate college with bigger loans than if they had bought a nice house, paying significantly higher interest as well, leaving them unable to afford a house, or maybe even an apartment. It is inconceivable to them that a young person nowadays can work hard and follow the rules and not have squat.
They don’t recognize that they got to where they are because the society of the 50’s and 60’s was structured in such a way as to make their good life possible. Much less do they realize that so much of what made their good life possible was dependent on laws and customs that made good life impossible for minorities, whom they were raised to believe were inferior, but who now that they are overcoming racist laws and customs, are successfully competing with whites in jobs minorities were historically barred from working.
And they will never admit that it was their votes for Republicans and weak Democrats that made achieving the same good life for their children or grandchildren next to impossible. That it was they, themselves who dismantled everything that made their lives so good, and condemned their progeny to a culture of despair. So they are afraid, and angry, and easy marks for right wing propagandists. It’s always easy to believe that your success was due entirely to your superior skills and wisdom, and that your failures are entirely someone else’s fault.
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But if there is one thing we should have learned by now, it’s that rational appeals to Republican voters’ economic interests, at least lower income Republican voters’ economic interests, is not the least bit effective. History has shown again and again that people will sacrifice their health and well-being for their easily disprovable beliefs, if those beliefs are built on a solid foundation of hate and fear, and that they are more likely to act on emotion than they are to act based on reason.
Thus we have thirty to forty percent of the electorate supporting a human shit stain that could not possibly care less about them, their families, their communities, or their country. They have been so thoroughly indoctrinated by right wing media that they will support him no matter what he does, no matter how far his actions are from what they believed throughout most of their lives – or even yesterday. They support him no matter how much it hurts them in their own lives. As he famously bragged, he could shoot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue and his supporters would cheer. Not only would they cheer, they would believe that they had always thought that it was okay for the President to shoot a stranger for no reason. And in real life, he can bungle a health crisis, be responsible for the needless deaths of multitudes, and tank the economy, all while funneling money to himself, his family, and his cronies.
So between people’s beliefs being converted by traumatic events like the 9/11, and by being propagandized into imbecility with hate and fear by the right wing media, it may seem that all that is left to us to change people’s minds is the use of reason.
Reason is the Democrat’s biggest strength, as the policies we advocate are fact-based and mostly proven by real world experience. Or as Paul Krugman often points out, facts sure seem to have a liberal bias. But presenting a reasonable, fact based argument whose truth is easily observable in the real world is not enough to change people’s minds. No, they need to be reached and converted on an emotional level, to feel grateful for good job opportunities, health security, and a good education. That kind of honest conversion is ultimately more effective than being suckered by hate and fear.
So thinking more long term, we have to realize that these reasonable Republicans and independents who might vote for an Obama in one election will always snap back and vote for a Trump in another. They can turn an election, but cannot be counted upon to be part of a lasting movement, not by means of reason alone anyway.
No, for Democrats to have long-term success, to effectively take back all branches of government and get the opportunity to truly make the country a better place, we need a lot of newer voters, those whose beliefs have not been settled, as well as a lot of people who are not yet voters, but will be when they understand it matters.
For long-term success, Democrats need to convert these people emotionally as well as intellectually, like Roosevelt converted my grandfather when he gave him a job during the Great Depression.
Today we have the opportunity to do just that, and in a big way. We are in the midst of a deadly, economy-destroying pandemic that has been thoroughly botched by Republicans. Unemployment is at Depression era levels. The streets are filled with protesters like in the 1960’s. On top of those similarities with the past, we are besieged by new and more dangerous crises that are exacerbated by Republican incompetence and corruption. Republicans ignore, and even encourage, devastating climate change that is already doing great damage to the country, will ultimately kill millions, do untold economic damage, and make life even harder, much harder, for our children and grandchildren.
Just as Roosevelt won my grandfather’s vote, and most of his generation, by providing economic opportunity and security in a time of trouble, the Democrats now have the opportunity to do it again. Just as my grandfather became a life-long Democrat because Roosevelt gave him a job during the Great Depression, these current crises provide another opportunity to save the day and convert many of those who are suffering into life-long Democrats.
If Democrats can get their act together and provide decent jobs at decent wages, healthcare security, and affordable education, as well as solutions to social problems that are causing so much unrest in the streets, then whole new generations will feel gratitude and develop political loyalty that can last a lifetime.
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Of course in the 1930’s we had Franklin Roosevelt who was a strong Democrat who took the fight to corrupt and crazy Republicans and their plutocratic sponsors on behalf of normal, decent people, while now we have Joe Biden, a career hack whose voting record in Congress seems to be dictated by the political winds and campaign contributions more than any core convictions. And even if we grant that Biden has changed and that there’s nothing wrong with someone’s ideas changing for the better as they age; his experience with, and fealty to, President Obama and his ideology of incremental change is a bad sign, cause frankly, we don’t need no stinking incremental change. That trick never works. But sometimes people rise to the necessities of the time, and hopefully Biden can do that, or Harris.
Nor likely, I know. But on the positive side, there is a large and growing contingent of Democrats who are demanding vigorous change. And vigorous change is what we need. Millions of young people and their families are suffering, just like my grandfather and his family suffered in the 1930s. Cure what ails them, and they can become allies for life.