The Republic, divided

A letter from America’s fault line, a warning of what may come.

By: /
November 18, 2020
Relics from The Rust Belt:  Decaying Factories Sit Idle In Waterbury, CT
The grounds of a shuttered factory in Waterbury, CT. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

My tiny, shuttered house sits beside a lake in the middle of a green, New England forest, but it is situated on a political fault line. On either side of my front door are the social tectonic plates, the sounds of which divide so much of America.

To the right is the beginning of Trump Country. It is mostly rural farms and small Connecticut towns. Its soundtrack is the two private gun ranges whose practices echo over the valley.

To the left are the beginnings of the big cities that hug the Long Island Sound shoreline. Earlier this month, they were awash with a cacophony of car horns and shouts of liberal triumph celebrating Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election.

It is these social plates that divide Connecticut, whose per-capita income, and wealth disparity, are among the highest in America. It is this seismic divide that stretches across the United States. Sadly, the socio-economic reasons for the split show little sign of vanishing no matter who is president.

The bedroom of New York and the real Connecticut

My house is near New Haven. The city is the social balancing point of the state. To the south and west of the city, Connecticut is, effectively, a New York City bedroom. The countryside is Martha Stewart territory, where the rich who do not like the Hamptons or the Berkshires flock and send their children to expensive private schools. The towns are full of hard-working commuters too poor to pay Manhattan or Brooklyn rents but with enough energy to do the four-hour daily commute to New York and back.

This division between the wealthy and the desperately hard working is seen across the state. For north and east of New Haven is where real New England begins. Across this region are a series of towns and villages that were once the world’s industrial heartland. At the centre of these places are red-bricked, crumbling factories that are creaking monuments to a manufacturing past. Around them are pools of desperation.

“This division between the wealthy and the desperately hard working is seen across the state.”

New London is a ruin of a once-robust port. Its ships traversed the oceans. The only financially stable thing the town has now is a navy submarine base. The rest of New London is stuffed with broken-down houses and people whose lives are spent waiting for an economic hope that never comes.  

At the centre of Bridgeport is a post-nuclear bomb apocalypse. At least that’s what it looks like, with the rows of enormous factories that employed tens-of-thousands of people now standing silent.

In contrast to these urban wastelands of the industrial walking dead are a series of neighbourhoods near Yale University, or shoreline villages established by the Puritans in the 1630s. I live near one of these towns. They are quiet oases of greens, coffee shops and olive oil boutiques. Here the inhabitants, mostly, sip decaf lattes, drink Chardonnay, and all, ostensibly, vote Biden, when not discussing the trouble with their latest nanny.

Shy Trump supporters

She glared around the little village café. She was a middle-aged woman in slacks and an expensive sweater. She slammed the table with her closed fist and shouted loud enough for everyone else on the patio to hear: “White male ego! That is Trump’s problem. White male ego! I can smell it on him.” The rest of the people on the patio, many of whom were white men, nodded in agreement.

It was not an unusual scene here. It would take real moral courage to admit at a village social gathering that you supported any of Trump’s policies. If you admitted to actually voting for him, questions couched in such neutral terms, as ‘Why are you such a racist?’ would start. Invitations to parties would dry up and friends would leave you.

It is this pushback that gives rise to the “shy Trump supporter” phenomenon. As a Canadian, I am regarded as neutral, so at parties, various people have glanced over their shoulders, lowered their voices and, using the same tone they might when confessing to enjoying fondling bicycle seats or sniffing bags of natural fertilizer at the back of garden centres, tell me they actually support Trump.

The phenomenon was certainly seen in an election in which most of the mainstream pollsters — like Quinnipiac, a Connecticut private university — grossly over-estimated Biden’s lead. The faulty polls exposed many of the problems of making generalizations. For one of the surprising things about the “shy Trump voter” was that, after all the voting numbers had been crunched, it seems that many of them were in the demographic of the fist-pounding coffee drinker: white women. Among this group, 54 per cent voted for Trump, an increase in his vote from 2016, and this despite the near-constant tirade of stories about sexual harassment, infidelity with porn stars and the #metoo movement.

Beyond the Pale

In medieval colonial Dublin — occupied by the English — the city and surrounding region were “the Pale.” What was outside was “beyond the Pale,” a land purportedly inhabited by Celtic savages replete with a pagan version of Christianity, little clothing and fewer table manners. The attitude among the middle-class villagers to the surrounding, Trump-voting countryside is similar: “Assholeland,” as one man told me, when describing Connecticut’s hinterland.

At a neighbouring farm — whose products are never marked “organic” — a motorcycle-riding farmer spoke with disdain about village residents who give their pets different foods depending on where in the property they slept. Trying to blend in and hide my proclivity for drinking lattes, I said, “Only in Madison could they have a class system for their dogs.” The farmer whooped in approval and roared off on his Harley Davidson.

On the country highway to Willimantic — once a flourishing mill town in upstate Connecticut — on a Saturday afternoon, many of the inhabitants stand on the side of the road waving “Support the Blue Line” signs. Most of the cars that pass honk in favour of the police.

The surrounding areas of Willimantic are the poorest in the state, the median income less than a fifth of some of the “bedroom of New York” areas. The mills were shut down decades ago and now the main industrial area is a vast recycling center surrounded by acres of plastic waste.

It is the same division across the country. The rural poor and small-town populations — if white — support Trump in overwhelming numbers; the middle class and “ethnic” voters largely, but with some strong exceptions, support Biden.

“It is a movement that is the reverse of decades in which the Democrats were seen as the political party that would help the working class.”

It is a movement that is the reverse of decades in which the Democrats were seen as the political party that would help the working class. Now their supporters often repeat the “deplorables” charge of Hilary Clinton when speaking about Trump supporters. As for the Republicans, as Missouri Congressman Josh Hawley said on election night, “We are a working-class party now. That’s the future.”

The more it changes …

One of the architectural symbols that are sprinkled across the state are buildings sponsored by the Sackler family. They are the founders of Purdue Pharma, which designed, manufactured and marketed Oxycontin, the drug that sparked the prescription drug epidemic that has killed over the last two decades almost twice as many Americans as the current COVID-19 pandemic.  

One of the servers at the local diner is a muscular weightlifter. He says he does not speak to most of his family and lives paycheque to paycheque. Three years ago, when his life was good, he injured his back and went to a doctor, who prescribed him Oxycontin. He spiraled into addiction. The doctors and the system that helped him destroy his life are still unchanged and unchecked.

He is not alone. 

The American Society of Addictive Medicine estimates that over 20 million Americans have what they call a “substance use disorder.” The job-finding website CareerBuilder commissioned a poll in 2017 that found nearly eight in 10 American workers, like the weight-lifting server, live paycheque to paycheque. That was before the current pandemic. There are, compared to Europe or Asia (although not Canada, but that is another story), few effective public transportation systems. The infrastructure of America feels, in general, like the broken factories of New England: dirty, disused and long past their best days.

Amidst this long-term economic stagnation, the legal drug epidemic and the lack of a credible public health system, American life expectancy has, according to the United Nations development program, fallen to 38th in the world — just between Lebanon and Cuba.

Meanwhile, America continues to send its troops — disproportionally from the Trump territory of small towns and countryside — to foreign countries. American soldiers are serving on every continent across the globe. For a country staggering under enormous debt and social problems, this foreign policy overreach is unsustainable.

The Philippines, America’s mirror?

The danger is if these problems are left unchecked. If there is no substantive change, if there is no real solution to the endemic challenges of America’s Trumpland, then the country may mirror the Philippines of the early 2000s.

At that time, the country had a similar drug epidemic, a lack of infrastructure and large pools of disenfranchised rural poor. President Joseph Estrada was a popular TV star turned politician. He swept to power backed by much of the working class. However, when he began minor changes to the existing system, the ruling establishment turned on him and forced him out of office. 

The country’s endemic poverty and corruption were left unchecked. Fifteen years later, the exhausted voters turned to Rodrigo Duterte, a genuinely corrupt, human rights-abusing dictator. It may be the path that America takes in the next generation, if the refusal to fully deal with the problems and basic division of this great country continues.