This is not a Christmas story, though it happened that time last year. In some ways it’s more of a Halloween story, though I’m trying not to let fear overtake me. It’s about the cultural—and political—divide after this election, not just in America but even as close as eastern New Jersey versus western New Jersey and a little bit farther in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
It started when my wife bought tickets to a dinner theater Christmas spectacular in Hampton, New Jersey, less than an hour’s drive west from our home in Montclair, and close on the Pennsylvania border. We both love Christmas, theater and road trips, so a perfect evening, right?
The night before, some good friends we met for dinner invited an old friend of theirs, who happened to be a retired law professor from a Pennsylvania college. He’d just been to Bethlehem, where he said he went often to enjoy a little gambling and a good show—Tony Orlando—at the Sands Casino there. He painted a very descriptive picture of the town that piqued our interest, from the old steel mill cranes that now held the Sands signage, to the famous Bethlehem star to a Christmas emporium called Christkindlmarkt nestled among the ruins of the old mills.
Then he waxed nostalgic a bit about what had become of the steel town, what a powerhouse it had been, and almost sadly said he hoped he—meaning incoming President Donald Trump—“really could bring back a lot of the steel jobs.” What’d been a very jovial conversation stopped cold. No one replied, and we moved on, and pretty soon we were jovial again.
Our friends, you need to know, are diehard conservatives, friends of Fox News and fervent admirers of the Trumpster. It’s been interesting being their friends, we being from the Socialist Republic of Montclair and admittedly diehard liberals and Obamites. It’s unlike any friendship I’ve ever had. We, like many of us these days, tend to live in an echo chamber, ostensibly “debating” politics or anything important only with those we largely agree with, or at least who have a similar worldview. We all pretty much preach to the choir.
How have we maintained this friendship? Largely by studiously avoiding any subject remotely political. We do have serious conversations, like about life—you know, that thing that really matters. That fact is we love this couple. We immensely enjoy spending time with them, they are good people—that is not even up for debate—and I seriously think we would go to the ends of the Earth for them, as they, I think, would do for us. Yet I find their political views downright poisonous, and I get the sense they feel the same way. Go figure.
So there we were, once again, biding our unwritten rule. But we enjoyed their friend’s description of Bethlehem, and decided we’d visit it before our play, since it was just 28 miles farther west.
Ah, Christmas town, as it’s apparently known. Our visit—and the play itself—turned out to be quite the education in the nature of Trumplandia for we near-coastal quasi-socialists.
What struck us is Rust Belt–well,y’he nature of Trumplandia for these Eastcl. Gfirst was the city’s stereotypical Rust Belt—well, rust. It was sadly fascinating, and much like the ad nauseum pundit descriptions of manufacturing gone all to hell. Our first view was of that Sands sign, and that was a fun, resourceful take on the area’s past. But it was downhill from there. The remnants of the steel industry had not been replaced by anything at all, for the most part, but left to deteriorate. Countless broken windows—not even boarded up—long crumbling brick facades, reddish brown hulks of old machinery, cranes, including the famous (or now infamous) giant Bethlehem Steel blast furnace.
It was all out there in the open, as if purposefully unfixed, part strange memorial to Glory Days—the Springsteen song comes to mind—part plaintive plea for jobs and lifestyles gone by to come back, come back, we miss you. Even the Christkindlmarkt area was surrounded by this in-plain-sight brokenness, pathos wrapping around seasonal jollity.
I had understood—intellectually—the Rust Belt communities’ pain, economic and otherwise. But it’s something else to see if in front of you, at least the physical, structural outlines. No doubt Democrats needed to do a much better job of acknowledging that suffering among the white working class, especially in these areas. Bernie Sanders certainly tried, and I bet he could have inspired and gotten a lot of these votes in Wisconsin-Michigan-Pennsylvania (what I only half-jokingly call The Traitorous Troika).
Has there been any attempt to move on from that storied past? I get the pain, I even get the long grieving process for a life gone by. First, seemingly superficial but I believe actually very important, does all the rust and brokenness need to stay? Isn’t it depressing to be around every day, a constant stab at both personal and regional economic confidence?
I don’t know the particulars of why this first step hasn’t been properly taken—is it lack of resources, or of leadership, or is there a subtext of “if we don’t replace it they will come back?” That’s another part of the mystery, what exactly is behind the lack of economic nimbleness in the region? I’m sure many Rust Belt communities have moved on from steel to high technology, other manufacturing or some type of service basis.
What’s holding back those that haven’t? Who’s to blame? The locals seem to think it should be the federal government, the uncaring D.C. bureaucrats, but where is the local accountability for their own situation? The Rust Belt’s economic distress began long before NAFTA or any other fed policy supposedly stole steel’s thunder. How long did states and municipalities fail to see what was happening economically, both there and in the larger world?
It’s delusional to believe that this ancient economy is going to somehow return, that the high-paying manufacturing jobs and the services that supported them are going to be magically brought back by this strongman, simply because he says so. In the new global economic reality, trade deals or no trade deals, that just isn’t happening. Perhaps around the edges a few companies can be bully-pulpitted into keeping or adding a few hundred jobs here and there. But certainly not enough to make a real difference, without a more solid, realistic plan coming from either local or federal leaders.
No situation is ever that simple, of course, I’m sure there are complex answers that might explain forces out of their control. So I accept that these regions, and most especially the workers and families there, deserve our empathy, and most of all everyone’s hopes and effort for solutions.
Yet, from many of them, where has the empathy been for similarly suffering communities in the inner cities? I deplore Hillary’s too-broad declaration of the horribleness of Trump’s supporters, though I understand the point she was trying to make. Yet it’s obvious many of his voters came from an attitude of at least some racial/ethnic resentment, and at least some of the white working class has all too easily subscribed to a whole range of ugly stereotypes—from welfare queens to Mexican immigrants stealing jobs to much, much worse. Underneath a thin veneer of respectable debate about issues such as entitlements, the ACA, immigration and so on, is a belief that “they” have been taking advantage of “us” and so it’s time to take this country back.
Bethlehem is actually a beautiful city. Around the rust there is a tonier main drag, and it was bustling with Christmas activity, though one wonders how much of that is merely seasonal and not sustainable year-round. But another thing we noticed is that it is very white. I saw very few other minorities there.
That’s the divide we live in. A relatively short drive from our semi-coastal town and there is a different America, Trump’s America: white, working class and economically distressed, and with much different cultural attitudes than us “easterners.”
We saw that when we finally got to our Christmas show, in New Jersey’s far-west Hunterdon county. I won’t bother with a theater critique—I’ll stop at “awful.” But one thing I’ll note is that the last three songs before the intermission—after which we quietly left—had a heavy military lean. They expressed wonderfully patriotic and melancholy sentiments about soldiers being away from home during the holidays.
I want to be careful explaining why this bothered us so, because it’s one of the big indicators of the red-blue cultural divide. Besides differences on substantive hot-button, emotional issues such as reproductive rights or immigration, or economic issues—which it’s still my hope might actually unite much of the 99% someday—nothing gets some people more riled up than issues that speak to our attitudes toward nation.
What I mean by “nation” is the whole range of symbolic feeling around, for example, the military. The flag. Patriotism. Going deeper, underlying it all, what it means to be an American. And yes, that can mean, for some, whether they admit it or not, being white versus embracing a more cosmopolitan diversity.
I think these feelings are maybe the hardest for each side to understand the other. Let’s be honest, the “riled up” is more on the red divide; on the blue side it’s often more “eyes rolled.” It’s the Big Misunderstanding, and often a point of great disrespect for each other.
I’m painting with broad, stereotypical strokes here, but I maintain they’re largely accurate. Liberals see conservatives as at the least overwrought on these issues, at the worst nationalistic, worse than that racist, and all the symbols just serve to wash the basest instincts in a veneer of national pride.
I’m not a conservative, so just by observation, I get the sense that on these same issues they feel as if liberals are disrespectful, flip at best, at worst anti-American and self-loathing of their nationhood, and again at the very worst, “reverse racist” in their own ways against the “real Americans.”
So, each from our own camps, felt differently about the same musical performance. Frankly, we found it overbearing and at times distasteful. If there was just one military-related song we might have just shrugged it off, not our cup of tea, but no big deal. But the overemphasis, especially when the last song, a church favorite of ours, “Let There Be Peace On Earth,” had all branches of the military represented marching around to a martial beat, was a bridge too far. Really, is that supposed to say “peace through strength” or something?
And of course there were much different views overheard as we marched out through the lobby. One older woman was actually softly sobbing, “Can you believe that, it was just beautiful?”
That is our cultural divide, in a nutshell, in a musical. It is not my intention to mock, but to understand. If we’re going to build bridges, we need to know what we’re building them over. On some specific political issues, it might be just a stream, where maybe we can meet somewhere in the middle. On others, a little wider, and wider, until some are like the mighty Mississippi.
On emotional issues, which may just be the most important, it may be an impossibility of ocean width. We may just have to accept that each side views flag/military/patriotism in vastly different terms, and that it may affect how we feel about so many specific issues.
Hunterdon county, where that play took place, was one of the few New Jersey counties that voted for Trump, by 55%-41% (Clinton won the state by the exact opposite numbers). I won’t try to analyze, at least not here, the relationship between all these factors: whiteness, economic dislocation, attitudes toward nation, and vote count. But I do know, in this very anecdotal experience, we entered another world when we went just 49 miles west, into Trumpland. We are aliens to each other, in so many ways.
Good luck with that bridge.