Last week the NYT‘s Tom Friedman wrote the most profound first half to a column I’ve read in awhile. Then Thomas L. Friedman took over, and blew the second half.
Dave Murray to the rescue.
After eloquently establishing that many working-class people who voted for Donald Trump did so to shove it up the ass of college educated pricks who look down on them, Friedman suggested they’ll probably do it again, because even though Trump is exactly who they knew he was, the elite pricks haven’t gotten any better.
Maybe, Friedman suggests, Joe Biden should go on “a tour of Trump country, focusing on rural counties and towns in the Midwest, and just listen to Trump’s base, both to learn and as a sign of respect. Then, at the first presidential debate, Biden should ignore Trump and his buffoonery and speak about what he had learned by talking to likely Trump voters.”
I like where he’s going with this—although Studs Terkel didn’t report and write Working over eight weeks in the middle of a pandemic while being outwardly despised by all of the people he was interviewing.
But then Friedman reveals himself to be the college-educated prick he is, continuing and then concluding: “Biden could talk about where he agrees with them and where he disagrees with them and why—the ultimate sign of respect. Biden’s goal should be to separate Trump from Trump voters by showing that he respects them and their fears—even if he does not respect Trump.”
No, telling someone where you disagree with them and why is not the ultimate sign of respect. Telling them how you respect them and why is the ultimate sign of respect.
And what’s this bullshit about respecting them and their fears? Who respects another person’s fears?
Here’s what you have to respect—and show that you respect—in working-class people: The physical courage of iron workers, the exquisite skill of construction machine operators, the sheer adventure of a local handyman who, unlike you, tackles a new problem in an unfamiliar setting for a new customer every day. The earned wisdom of farmers. Hard physical work, long hours and monotony—and going home and helping the kid with homework instead of kicking the dog.
We used to celebrate that shit in this country, in our culture. Seriously, watch this commercial and try to imagine seeing anything like it now.
When I was a kid we all wanted to be train engineers, firemen, cops. Not because we “respected their fears,” but because we idolized their courage. Because they were fucking cool. Because our culture told us they were cool, our movies showed they were cool. Every 1970s singer-songwriter had a song about long-haul truckers.
“I am a lineman for the county, and I drive the main road, searchin’ in the sun for another overload.”
“There is a young cowboy, who lives on the range. His horse and his cattle are his only companion.”
“In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed, in the maritime sailors’ cathedral. The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times. For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
Was that a lot of romantic bullshit? Yes—and actually, no.
The son of two college-educated pricks, I came by my personal acquaintance with such men after college, as a college-educated prick myself. I’d taken my Kent State English degree to Chicago and found a job with a little publisher filled just the kinds of urban intellectuals I’d left Ohio to seek. On many weekends, though, I found myself in Cleveland, visiting a friend who was establishing an environmental consulting firm there. He was working with his brother, who ran an underground construction company that pulled out the huge underground oil and gas tanks. His other brother ran an industrial plumbing company that put sprinkler systems in factories. They were surrounded by heavy equipment operators, painters, pipe fitters, construction workers. (No iron workers that I remember. Iron workers are on another level.)
I’d stand in a circle of those guys at Hooples Bar in the Flats at Miller Time, the red soles of my tan bucks crunching peanut shells on the wood floor, listening to these guys tell impossible, dangerous, dirty, funny, mad, gigantic, teetering stories about their work days. Not work days of yore, long-remembered as legend. No, they were talking about shit that had happened that day.
The fuck-head new kid popped his eardrum with a cue-tip this morning and called to ask if he could get worker’s comp, can you believe that? And then without the Fuck-Head’s help, Billy managed to fix a frozen water main on East Ninth all by himself in the middle of rush-hour traffic, five-below zero with a back-hoe that was leaking hydraulic fluid. On the way back to the shop, the lowboy came loose and passed the tractor on the Shoreway. Oh, did you hear that old man Carney got shot in the forehead with a .38 last night at his bar? Yeah. It bounced off, and Carney’s supposed to be back at work tomorrow.
“We have more problems before nine o’clock,” went the mantra of a couple of these guys, “than most people have all day.”
Did these same guys have “fears”? Well, sure. Lots of them also had missing fingers. Did they harbor beliefs, about Blacks and immigrants, about gays and English majors, that I “disagreed” with? I’m sure they did. But I did not feel I needed to explain this to them, as “the ultimate sign of respect.”
I listened, wide-eyed, to their stories as the ultimate sign of respect. I genuinely and with awe, respected how capable they were of manipulating the real, brick and steel world to make things happen—on time and on budget. I understood their world was very different from mine—and yet every bit as complex and difficult. Once I understood that, it wasn’t hard for me to feel the same way about an ER nurse I came to know, or the Chicago school teacher I’m married to. It’s sentimental to call them “heroes” all the time. But it’s only correct to respect their work and honor their contribution.
Joe Biden knows all of this, of course—as well as Studs Terkel himself did. And Biden knows a million people like those Hooples guys. Rather than tiptoeing across the Midwest in his COVID mask and getting an earful from truculent Trump voters, maybe Biden could be seen in colorful conversation with real working-class heroes he’s known for years. How about a televised town hall, convened of smart, thoughtful, charismatic, funny Scranton plumbers and Amtrak workers, union workers he’s known, cops who have worked with him, Army buddies of his son Beau and waitresses who have served him breakfast at his favorite Wilmington greasy spoon. Gather these people for a conversation—about the conversations they’re having with other working-class people who are supporting Trump.
And then hit Trump with the big hearts and persuasive views of those people, who are working class and voting for Biden anyway—but who live and work with Trump voters and understand their point of view, too.
That seems like something that could actually be gotten together with about a week’s notice. And it’s also something I would love to see—and something that could become a real cultural moment in America.
If you think it’s a good idea, pass it on.