The Summer I Got My Union Card

The old Greyhound terminal at 6th and Los Angeles streets in downtown L.A..
The old terminal at 6th and Los Angeles streets.

WHEN I WENT to work unloading buses at the Greyhound terminal in downtown Los Angeles, there were a few guys from the average white Christian suburbs outside the city who didn’t like me. I overheard one of them muttering to one of his buddies, “I hate guys like that.” What kind of guy was I? A verbal guy, a knowledgeable guy, a witty guy, an urbanite. (I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and leave out “Jewish.”) A guy who they could see was out of place unloading buses at Greyhound. The foreman was one of them, a real redneck named Pete who loved playing the cock of the walk. Once when we were all sitting on the low railings at the unloading docks waiting for the next bus, he told us about a fight where he’d taken a tire iron to somebody’s leg and left it dangling unhinged from the knee. He described this with a toothy, ghastly grin, and his boys listened with dutiful admiration. One night Pete brought his date into the hangar where we worked, a vast, high-ceilinged, noisy, greasy, exhaust-fumed expanse, not a terribly romantic place to bring a date, but these Middle American jackasses came through for the boss. “Hey, Pete, how’re you doing, looking sharp, man …” and he just grinned and let his date presumably be impressed. He was a mean bantam rooster, and I was not his kind. Once I was five minutes late getting back from lunch break, which was standard for the unloaders, and I’m sitting on a bench in the terminal and I hear over the PA system, “Larry Derfner, report to door 11 immediately,” and it sounded like an emergency, so I hurried in, and Pete, waiting at the door, says to me, accusingly, “You’re supposed to be back at 8:30, where you been?” California cracker asshole.

This was in the early ‘70s, I was 22, and it was the first real job I’d ever had. Since pre-adolescence I’d worked at my father’s liquor store, which didn’t count, and later at a hot dog stand and briefly at a delicatessen, but those jobs were more or less for minimum wage so they didn’t count, either. Greyhound paid good money, it was a union job and not just any union, but the legendary International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union: “On the Waterfront,” strikers fighting cops, 1930s working-man socialists and communists, my idea of heaven. My ideal self. (That I couldn’t stand the actual white working-class guys right next to me didn’t disturb the image.) My father had been a communist in the 1920s and 1930s, gotten thrown in jail for it in Palestine and Poland, I’d come of age in the 1960s reading Steinbeck and James T. Farrell, but meanwhile my father had made good money at his liquor store in the black ghetto, moved us out to comfortable middle-class West L.A., and so I grew up not as a working-class kid, but as a cushioned kid, which I despised and regretted like nothing else. I’d hated college and dropped out the year before, decided I wanted to be an actor, but I was still working at my father’s liquor store – much longer than I’d ever thought I would. A close friend with a socioeconomic and psychological profile very similar to mine told me they were hiring at Greyhound, and we both got on, temporarily at first. Once he said to me how he and the other workers “sit around bullshittin’ when it’s slow,” with a smile that betrayed his glee at playing the role of the stereotypical working man – while getting paid like a real one – and likewise escaping his middle-class, educated, cushioned self. I didn’t smile back at him, though. This was something we were not supposed to mention.

The work was mindless, but that was fine – I was using my body pretty much to the maximum, tossing suitcases and heavy boxes around for eight or 12 hours a day. At worst, my lungs would burn a little at the end of a shift from breathing exhaust (on top of smoking a pack or so of cigarettes). After that first two-week Christmas trial period, I hired on for the following summer. Pete was gone, the other few white shitheads were gone, and I got along very well with everyone. I felt completely at ease. We all worked hard, except for one Mexican self-described “intellectual,” whom everyone held in contempt, including the two other Mexican unloaders, who worked like maniacs. Until then I’d always worked behind a counter or stocked shelves, using neither my mind nor my body. The shifts at Greyhound left me feeling spent, and feeling good about myself. Plus, the money was great. Also, I’d gotten the job on my own, and kept it. My father was impressed.  I’d always hated working at the liquor store and didn’t try to hide it. “This time it’s different,” he said to me.

THE HANGAR AT Greyhound was a man’s world. The only women around were the passengers who got off the buses, and the pretty ones naturally became the objects of our jokes and boasting, strictly among ourselves. (Occasionally we’d flirt with them, but I never saw anyone score.) For the most part, we talked like men do when they’re on a crew doing hard physical work out in the open with no boss sitting on top of them: We all acted like macho men to one degree or another. One night an assistant terminal manager, a black guy named Ed, came over and drew a crowd of us around him as he described what he did after his little daughter got raped by some 13-year-old boy in the neighborhood. “I went over to his house and told his folks that when I find him, I’m gonna kill him. Went home, got my shotgun, got in my car, and I see him walking around. I got out of my car,” he said, and mimed aiming a rifle. “Boom, boom, and that was it for that motherfucker. Killed his ass. Didn’t do a day in jail, either.” I was a little taken aback – the kid was 13 years old, after all. Ed didn’t seem too upset about his little daughter getting raped, either, he was just bragging about how he’d taken revenge. (Now that I think of it, he probably was lying. He didn’t do a day in jail? And he just kind of drops that story on us out of nowhere? Ed got fired later on for stealing, which puts his credibility all the more in doubt.) But I wasn’t going to voice any reservations in that crowd. There was one real intellectual among us, a junior college instructor with a master’s degree – and a daughter – making some extra money on the side. “I would have done the same thing,” he said. “Anybody touches my little girl, I’ll blow him away.” This was how we talked on the job.

Another time we were all sitting around on the railing listening to two black workers engaged in a seemingly mild session of what black people used to call “the dozens” and the Sopranos called “breaking balls.” Some of the spectators were laughing and calling out when one of the jousters got off a good line. I was sitting next to my best friend at work, a 30-year-old black dude named Bill, who was joining in the chorus, egging the two on. I quietly told Bill to cool it, and pointed to the older, thinner one in the ring, and said he was about to go off, and you didn’t want to become one of his targets if and when he did. Bill glanced at me, not understanding, and turned back to the match. In a couple of minutes, the older, thinner guy pulled a knife out of his pocket, opened it up and threatened his opponent. The game was over, everyone dispersed, and Bill said to me with wonder, “How did you know that dude was going to get crazy?” I told him the guy was losing and he knew it, he was getting humiliated in front of a hooting crowd, and that’s a combustible situation. “Larry, man,” said Bill in his high-pitched, uproarious voice, “you are the most streetwise white boy I’ve ever seen,” which to this day remains one of my most cherished compliments.

Bill was a charismatic, silver-tongued, brilliant, funny guy, the center of attention at all times among the crew. He’d studied political science at UCLA, but was also a dedicated hustler of older women with money, and his success was a testament to his personality, because from the waist up he looked like Oliver Hardy. Any woman he wasn’t impressed with, or who was clearly out of his league, was a “fly-drawin’ bitch.” At one point he decided that “Bill” was too common a name, he wanted something with a classier sound, so he told everybody to start calling him Charles. Then he wanted to go for something more exotic, so he announced that from now on his name was Ahmad Ishmael. He didn’t drink, smoke or take drugs; his vice was gluttony. “I like to greaze,” he explained. He worked hard most of the time, sometimes crazily hard; he was 6’3,” strong and athletic despite his upper chubbiness, and when he wanted to, he could pretty much clean out a bus loaded with baggage all by himself in the time it would take three guys. When these fits of productivity seized him, he’d get motivational with me, saying, “Get involved, Larry Derfner, get involved!” He had one additional vice – money, which was emphatically not one of mine, so he tried to set me straight: “You got to start hanging around rich women, Larry, and the way to start hanging around rich women is to stop hanging around poor ones.” Once, in connection with my indifference to wealth, he told me, “You’re just a jack Jew.” My ears pricked up and I asked what he meant. “You’re just playing at it,” he said, grinning, and I had to laugh. One late night after work, we sat in the car and he went into a long monologue about racism in America, about what it had done to black people, and I was transfixed; he was gifted, inspiring. Another time a few of us were sitting in a bus, playing a genuinely friendly, harmless game of the dozens, and Bill told somebody, “Man, you look like you been whupped with a sack of quarters.”

There was another black guy I was friends with, Claude, who was a couple of years older than me, had a master’s degree in public administration and clearly a big future ahead of him. An evangelist about Jesus Christ and body-building, he was the nicest, squarest, steadiest, hardest-working guy you could find. We used to do Richard Pryor bits together. Yes, I had a special affinity for black people, going back to my childhood, which is another story, and which went together with my hazy notion of what I was doing and who I was becoming by working at Greyhound.

THE BUS TERMINAL was at Sixth and Los Angeles streets, a block from the heart of Skid Row. The passengers waiting on the benches in the harshly-lit, drab lobby and getting off the buses pulling into the hangar were mainly poor people, many of them Mexican. (The main exceptions were the Japanese tourists, with their conspicuously sparkling luggage.) I was the only guy on the crew who spoke enough Spanish to have a conversation with the two Mexican workers (not counting the “intellectual,” whom nobody talked to, and who quit soon enough), which I was proud of and which earned me a few status points. Of the two Mexicans, the insanely hard worker rarely said a word, while the other, merely extremely hard worker limited his conversation with the others to “mucho trabajo.” (Bill naturally started calling him “Mucho Trabajo.”)

We were masters of our domain. Like I said, nobody was watching over us, at least not closely; we could shout, curse, spar and honk with laughter as much and as loud as we wanted. The hangar was so immense that the noise we made echoed. We were free men, hard at work. Unloading buses had a rhythm – when they were pulling in one after another, you couldn’t wait to tear into one and get all the suitcases and boxes onto the carts and into the sorting room, then tear into the next one, then the next. We competed with ourselves to see how fast we could get them unloaded. But that’s when they were streaming in rapidly; when traffic was slow, you’d sort of sink down into the railing, get comfortable and then curse when you heard the sound of another bus coming up the ramp. The greatest day I remember at Greyhound was when the NFL playoffs were on TV, and it was a holiday, which meant there was both very little traffic and time-and-half pay. George, an ordinarily by-the-book assistant terminal manager, came over to the unloading docks and told a couple of us to stay there and mind the store while the rest of us went into the maintenance room to watch the games on a portable TV. At half-time the guys out working would switch with a couple of us in the maintenance room. That day I watched 1½ NFL playoff games and got paid very well for it.

But as free and open as it was unloading buses, there was another job in the hangar that was death: the sorting room. This department was run by Eddie House, a black man of about 60 who’d been working at Greyhound forever and who never talked, only screamed and cursed hoarsely. Actually it was kind of a yowl. Where should I put this package, Eddie? “Put it over there in that Riverside cart, goddamn it,” he’d yowl, storming past you. Nobody took it personally, and everybody, black, white and brown, imitated him behind his back. But Eddie wasn’t the problem in the sorting room, the problem was the work. You stood in one spot in front of a line of conveyor belts coming at you with packages, and you took the packages off one by one and tossed them into the carts standing next to you, one cart for Los Angeles addresses, another for Riverside/San Bernardino, another for Ventura, another for Chicago and so on. You stood there in one place taking packages off belts and throwing them into carts for two hours at a time, with lunch and two breaks per shift. They sent me in there one day and after two hours, I went up to Eddie and told him I couldn’t handle it, I was going crazy, I had to get out of there and go back to unloading. “Then go on, get the motherfuck out of here,” he yowled, and I almost swooned with gratitude.

Being master of your domain, though, can lead to what the late Senator J. William Fulbright called the “arrogance of power.” We saw the words “handle with care” written on packages, often in capital letters, underlined, with multiple exclamation points, sometimes augmented by the word “Please” and even “Of Sentimental Value.” Yeah, well, we didn’t go out of our way to bang those packages up worse than usual when we dragged them out of the belly of the bus and flung them into the carts, but believe me, we did not handle a damn thing with care. Myself, I took a perverse, mildly sadistic pleasure at treating those packages marked with pleas for mercy in exactly the same swinging, swaggering, concussive, rackety, chimpanzee manner as I did every other.

The worst thing I ever did at Greyhound: During Christmas season, people would send small, brandied Christmas cakes with nuts and raisins in them, packed to stay fresh and moist. During a slow stretch, a couple of guys took a pair of Christmas cakes out of the baggage hold of a bus, kicked back and ate them. Those gifts would not be arriving at their destinations for the holiday. I was sitting with the two guys, and they urged me to take one for myself, and I begged off. But when you’re working with men in a rough environment, you don’t feel comfortable when they’re breaking the rules and you’re playing Dudley Do-Right. Also, I love Christmas cake. So I pulled back the edge of a package and took a little piece. Then another, and then fuck it, I ate the whole thing and threw the package away. I have a friend, Catholic born, who loves Christmas and makes an amazing Christmas cake every year; I told him that story and he gave me a look like Karl Malden gives Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront” for betraying his conscience and going along with the mob.

I WORKED AT Greyhound for a total of four months – two Christmas vacations and a summer, and in the summer I got my union card. I was thrilled. It gave me a feeling of security, and of solidity; I felt like a man. I wasn’t sure, but I was thinking that maybe I could work at Greyhound until I made it as an actor, or a writer. One day at the unloading docks, somebody mentioned a guy named Horace, and a couple of other guys kind of smiled, and I asked who he was. “You don’t know Horace? Oh, you should meet him, you’ll have a lot to talk about – well, he’ll have a lot to talk about, at least.” “Yeah, when he starts talking …” Horace, they said, was a Jehovah’s Witness who worked in the sorting room. I naturally had to meet him, so the next day or so I went up to him, introduced myself and asked why he’d become a Jehovah’s Witness. He was older than me, late 30s, and black. He must have seen a glint of mischief in my eye – another unbeliever who wants to come meet the freak – and he gave me a very flat, serious look. Answering my question, he didn’t talk about religion, he talked about life, a person’s life, what he wants to do with it. “Like you,” he said. “I can take one look in your eyes and see that you’re not going to be working here much longer.” Touche, Horace.

What did he see in my eyes? Intelligence, too much for me to be unloading buses for a career. Maybe sensitivity. Maybe innocence. Maybe a basic sense of well-being, a fundamental, unthinking trust that everything will work out for me, that even if I fall, somebody or something will be there to catch me. No, I wouldn’t be working at Greyhound much longer. Later I would lose that innocence, and realize that I really could fall – for good, beyond anybody’s ability to catch me – and I decided to take my intelligence and do something with it. I’d always regretted that my father had worked his way into the middle class, always wished I’d grown up poor so I’d have to struggle like he did, and when I finally did have to struggle – when I reached my late 20s, saw I was nowhere and that ultimately there was no net underneath me – I fled, terrified, from a future in anyplace like the unloading docks at Greyhound.

I have some highly enjoyable memories of my time there. It also showed me something about the world and its people that you don’t see from inside the bosom of the educated middle class. And I love being able to say I once unloaded buses at the Greyhound terminal on Skid Row in downtown L.A. – it impresses the chattering classes. A lot of the times, it even fools me.

Hillary breaks a great taboo

Hillary Clinton speaking in New Hampshire in January.
Hillary Clinton speaking in Manchester, NH, January 22, 2016. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Finally, somebody said it (“somebody” meaning somebody who depends on public opinon): Donald Trump’s supporters are bigots, or tens of millions of them are, anyway.

Not just that Trump himself is a bigot; there’s no risk in saying that. But to say that the masses of Americans who support this candidate who has been blaring his contempt for Mexicans, Muslims and women, and, to a lesser extent, the handicapped and black people, in the highest-profile way imaginable for the last year – to say that not all of them but that tons of them are bigots themselves: This is something no mainstream politician or media figure has said until Hillary Clinton, God bless her, said it at a New York fundraiser Friday night.

“You know, just to be grossly generalist, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”

Then she talked about the other half.

“That other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for a change. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

This is about as generous and compassionate a description of Trump’s electorate as any intelligent, honest person could make. To let fully half of them off the hook, to say that half of Trump’s voters are not bigots – I think Hillary was being charitable (or politic).

Trump rally in Reno
Trump campaign rally in Reno, Nevada, January 10, 2016. Photo: Darron Birgenheier

But can anyone honestly take issue with her claim, which she prefaced as being “grossly generalist,” that half of Trump’s voters are bigots? Or that bigots are “deplorables”?

I don’t think so. I think everybody outside Trump’s camp knows that what Hillary said was absolutely true and at least fair. The thing is, though, she broke a taboo, one of the most powerful ones in politics: You never criticize the public. The public is always good. The public is always wise.

Nobody believes this swill, either, but there are two kinds of people who will never admit it: Those in politics and those in the mainstream media. The reason is obvious: They both depend on public opinion. They cannot go ragging vast sections of their constituencies, or audiences, as bigots and deplorables because that will alienate them. The politicians will lose their votes, the media will lose their viewership or listenership or readership. So while politicians will rag those of the rival party, and MSM people will rag those of either party, none of them will rag the public or any part of it that keeps those ragged politicians afloat. For politicians, it’s bad politics; for the MSM, it’s bad business.

And since politicians and the MSM dominate the public discussion of politics, this ridiculous notion that the public is always wise and good, and that it’s always wrong to criticize them, is allowed to stand.

What this lie does is infantilize voters, who are, remember, adults. It absolves them of all responsibility for whom they elect. It’s a view of adults in a democracy not as citizens, but as customers – who are always right, which means there’s no good politics or bad politics, there’s only the kind that sells and the kind that doesn’t. Which eventually lands us with the likes of Trump.

On Saturday, the day after she spoke her mind about her opponent’s supporters, Hillary retracted. “Last night I was ‘grossly generalistic,’ and that’s never a good idea. I regret saying ‘half’ — that was wrong. But let’s be clear, what’s really ‘deplorable’ is that Donald Trump …” bla, bla, bla.

Oh well. For one brief shining moment …

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Further reading: 

“Clinton says half of Trump supporters fall into ‘basket of deplorables,’ Thehill.com, September 9

“Clinton: It was wrong to call half of Trump supporters ‘deplorable,'” Thehill.com, September 10

“Hillary Clinton calls many Trump backers ‘deplorables,’ and GOP pounces,” New York Times, September 10

Trump and Netanyahu: Rich, selfish, haughty heroes of the common man

Trump rally in Reno
Trump campaign rally in Reno, Nevada, January 10, 2016. Photo: Darron Birgenheier

I understand that America’s white working class, in general, gets a charge out of Trump because he channels their hatreds. What I don’t get is why they also think he’s going to deliver them economically, that he’s going to get them better paying, more secure jobs, a better deal all around.

Don’t they see that he doesn’t care about them, that his whole life is about me, me, me and nothing else? He hasn’t exactly tried to hide it, after all. Don’t these white people without college educations, who are hurting for money and whose lives and futures are pretty shaky, understand that they are part of that wide swath of humanity whom Trump refers to as “losers”?

To the white working class, Trump is not “one of us,” to say the least, not economically or any other way – and he doesn’t pretend to be. He’s had the cushiest life imaginable; there’s nothing about him that anybody but another rich asshole could identify with. So why do these throngs of “common,” often suffering American men and women believe he’s the answer to their economic troubles and fears? I get the hatred he brings out in them; I don’t get the love.

And this leads me to a very dark speculation: that the “common man” doesn’t want a leader he can identify with, and who treats him as an equal – he wants somebody “better” than him, somebody “above” him, somebody untouchable, somebody to whom he is eager to subordinate himself.

These white Americans wait by the thousands for his “TRUMP”-emblazoned plane to land while the loudspeakers are blaring Wagner or some other heroic symphonic theme – it’s like Elvis in Vegas. Trump is rich, he retains traces of his former handsomeness, he’s vain, he has beautiful women, he makes strong men quake, and he wears a permanent expression of haughty disapproval – this is what the American common man and woman have been lapping up for the last year. They don’t want a president, they want a king, somebody they can bow to.

It grows out of the authoritarian, disciplinarian traditions of America’s white working class, it comes from a culture of hierarchy and obedience.

2009 Netanyahu poster
Netanyahu campaign poster, 2009: “Strong on defense, strong on the economy.”

What does this remind me of? It reminds me of how the Israeli counterpart of America’s white working class – the Jewish, largely Mizrahi, working class – worshipped Bibi Netanyahu when he rose to become prime minister in the 1990s. (Their ardor has since died down; after all this time, working class Jews no longer pin their personal economic hopes on Netanyahu, but they still trust him to bash the Arabs and the Left for them.)

Poorly educated Jews, most of them Mizrahi, went crazy for Netanyahu in those days – and he bore no resemblance to them. A professor’s son from Jerusalem’s upper-crust Rehavia neighborhood, high school in America, degrees from M.I.T., rich, famous – and with an unmistakably superior air. Plus, he was by far the most pro-business, anti-union, anti-poor-people leader Israel had ever seen. Yet the amcha, the working class, notably the Mizrahim, idolized him.

I think that story was the same one we’ve been seeing with Trump and his crowds. It’s the story of people from an authoritarian culture of obedience wanting a leader who’s above them, a king they can bow to.

This, as much as anything, is what’s soured me on the worldview of the Left: The masses really are asses. They don’t care about equality, they don’t care about justice, what they want most is to march behind an invincible leader who will wipe out the enemy tribes. I don’t believe in the working class, I believe in educating them into the educated class, and then maybe they’ll become less racist and less smitten with the likes of Netanyahu and Trump.

Have Trump’s working-class whites really embraced ‘class warfare’?

Trump rally in New Hampshire
Trump supporters at rally in Nashua, New Hampshire, December 28, 2015. Photo: Marc Nozell

For liberals, one of the lessons of the Trump campaign is that they and the Democratic Party have to start paying more attention to the economic pain of America’s white working class, which Trump has turned to his advantage in such a startling way.

These people without a college education are the ones left behind by the Obama recovery, left behind by the modern global, high-tech economy in general, and the Democratic Party, which used to speak for this class, doesn’t any longer and this has to change, according to the new liberal consensus.

I don’t doubt the economic pain of people who have no job security, whose salaries and benefits have steadily declined, and whose prospects for the future look no better. What I do doubt, though, is that Trump’s economic pitch – to bring back the good old days of American factory work – is up there among the main reasons why he’s getting such huge support from these people.

I doubt it because blue-collar America didn’t just start declining now; it started in the 1980s, and even a little before. Where have these working-class whites been all this time with their demands to reverse free trade?

These Trump voters are Republicans and right-leaning Independents; why have they been supporting pro-free-trade, pro-1%, anti-union, anti-safety-net Republicans for decades? Why did they, and why do they still, worship Reagan, who broke the mold on this economic policy, and who did more to screw American workers, not to mention the American poor, than any other president?

GOP’s old name for Trump’s economics

Before Trump, the Republicans had a term for the complaint that workers were getting hammered and Wall Street was the enemy: “class warfare.” Only Democrats preached class warfare, and the white working class wasn’t having it – if they voted, they voted Republican.

So why have they suddenly woken up? Why, for the first time since they left the Democrats and flocked to Reagan in 1980 (if they hadn’t left as part of Nixon’s “silent majority” in 1968, or as part of his 1972 landslide over the Bernie Sanders of the day, George McGovern) are they talking like proletarians?

Because the new, working-class economics that Trump is serving them comes packaged in the good old Republican wrapping that they always grab for – hatred of Washington, politicians, the media, the Democrats, Obama, the Clintons, immigrants, Muslims, as well as blacks, women and gays who aren’t grateful for all their advantages.

Plus, many if not most of them really like Trump’s style, which is also new. Many respect his wealth, seeing it as proof of his ability and believing he’ll use it to get them a better break. Many also see his beautiful women and his exciting life, and hero-worship him.

Take away Trump’s Republican political and social themes, take away his personality, his billions and his celebrity and make him a Democrat running against free trade and for bringing back factory jobs to America – would working-class whites be interested? I don’t think so.

Sander NY rally
Sanders at rally in Manhattan, September 18, 2015. Photo: Michael Vadon

I know, Bernie Sanders also appealed to working-class whites with the same basic approach to trade and jobs. But I’m convinced that many of these people didn’t know he was a holdover from the late-‘60s New Left, and that once they found out – as they most certainly would have in a general election – they would have fled in droves to the Republicans, to the Libertarians or stayed home.

By and large, America’s working-class, high-school-educated whites are not proletarians, or anyway that is not an important part of their identity. No, they’re nationalists. And nationalists need enemies. That’s what the Republicans have given them, it sure as hell is what Trump has given them, and this is the decisive reason they love Trump.

Protectionist economics? That’s icing on the cake.

I have to wonder if these voters even believe it, if they believe there’s something a president can do to get their jobs back from overseas, to rebuild the factories and revive industrial unions and guarantee their employment, good wages and benefits, regular raises and the rest of what was once on offer in blue-collar America. It’s gone. It’s been dying in pieces for almost 40 years. The technological revolution and globalization killed it off; how do you reverse that combined force?

Anybody who tells Americans with no more than a high school diploma that there’s a way to get them into the middle class – other than by upgrading their education – is lying through his teeth. Leave that to Trump; Democrats don’t have to imitate him.

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For further reading:

Shhh, don’t tell Donald: Trump is not the first Republican to champion white working class, MarketWatch

Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump. Here’s why, The Guardian

Head of the class, New Yorker

New data: Why white working class voters back Trump, Newsweek

What Democrats still don’t get about George McGovern, New Republic

 

 

 

 

Brexit’s lesson for the Left: There really is such a thing as too many immigrants

brexit

As disastrous as the Brexit vote was (so disastrous that I can’t believe Britain will go ahead and actually leave the EU), there was one message sent by the “Leave” camp that I think progressives in Europe and the U.S. should heed: There is a limit to how many immigrants a country should try to absorb.

For all the xenophobia in the “Leave” campaign, the average, working-class, white Britons outside the big cities, who made up the bulk of the “Leave” vote, cannot be blamed for feeling that their country is being swamped by immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. They can’t be blamed for fearing the future in an EU where everybody living in it has “freedom of movement” from one country to another, and to which masses in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East are desperate to arrive. Some 630,000 immigrants settled in Britain last year – 1% of the population – after the same number moved there the year before. In the U.S. last year, 1.7 million newcomers arrived, about 0.5% of the population.

It’s the “common people” – the whites who tend not to have college degrees, whose income puts them in the precarious middle class or lower, and who tend to live away from the big cities or certainly from the more prosperous urban neighborhoods – who believe that their jobs and wage levels are threatened by the new arrivals. Whether or not that threat is real – different economists say different things – the cosmopolitan achievers don’t have to worry about it.

Also, it’s the whites of the heartland, who’ve grown up in fairly homogeneous, conservative communities, who tend to care most about such things as national character – language, culture, patriotism – and who feel alienated when they see the immigrant population growing up around them. For liberal college students and professionals in the big cities, white and non-white, their idea of the national character is diversity, or multiculturalism; more immigration doesn’t change the country for them.

Incidentally, it’s not just struggling whites who have a problem with mass immigration; in America, poor and lower-middle-class blacks have been known to bridle at Mexican immigrants moving into their neighborhoods. Also at Korean immigrants opening up shops in their communities. (The enmity between poorer blacks and the new immigrants in their midst is known to run both ways.)

It’s not racism

You don’t have to be a racist in Britain or America to think there are too many immigrants coming in. Over the years I’ve been surprised to hear some of my ultra-liberal Jewish friends in L.A., two of whom have had close personal relations with Mexicans their whole adult lives, say with a lack of enthusiasm that around the city they seem to hear as much Spanish as English.

Any one of them would rather cut off their arm than vote for Trump. But not so the whites of Middle America. They feel inundated by foreign arrivals,   especially Latinos, and the Obama administration offers them no relief, so along comes Trump who speaks to the worst in them and promises to wall off Mexico and kick out 11 million illegal immigrants. Finally, they figure, somebody’s listening to them.

Maybe the cosmopolitan liberals in the U.S., Britain and Europe should recognize that the Brexiters, Trump voters, Le Pen supporters and the like, even though they’ve chosen radical, destructive, xenophobic solutions, do have a real problem: There are too many immigrants around for their comfort.  Racist appeals should not be listened to, but appeals of economic fear and bruised national identity should be, especially when they’re coming from such a huge number of people in the West, from tens upon tens of millions of citizens who evidently feel very insecure at home.

So Western liberals should listen to the white people who mistakenly voted for Brexit, who voted Trump and will again, who support Le Pen in France, Wilders in Holland, Pegida in Germany and the other European anti-immigration  movements – and show a little solidarity. Stop being afraid of being called racists; it’s not racist to say there should be limits on immigration and that these limits have been passed. It’s not even “nationalistic” to say this, it’s just a matter of recognizing that nations are different and want to remain different, at least to some extent, which is something progressives need to learn.

Western left-liberals should come out for reasonable curbs on new immigration – and stop handing the field to demagogues who turn vulnerable people’s frustrations into fascism, and who offer not limits but expulsion, walls and disastrous retreat from the world.