OP-ED: If we want to undo Trumpism in Butler County, we have to reckon with class | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

OP-ED: If we want to undo Trumpism in Butler County, we have to reckon with class

click to enlarge OP-ED: If we want to undo Trumpism in Butler County, we have to reckon with class
Photo: Andre Carrotflower, Wiki Commons
Downtown Zelienople
Despite knowing that facts don’t change people’s minds, I still use them all the time, especially when I’m talking to my family about politics: “Joe Biden is a Catholic, not a Scientologist,” or “The government isn’t hoarding a secret coronavirus vaccine,” knowing full well that my claims are not persuasive.

Mostly, this is OK. Except this election year, when I wanted to persuade my working-class, Western Pennsylvania family to vote for Joe Biden. My mom and her husband own their own small business, and the two of them have worked their already disabled bodies into calluses, remodeling homes for wealthy clients in the Pittsburgh exurbs. Talking with my mom one day, I tried, midstream, to dig at some of our shared values.

“But Mom, tax cuts for rich people don’t actually help you. You have grandkids who go to public school. We need people in office to fund those schools. Rich people don’t have to worry about shit like that. We have so much wealth in this country. Wouldn’t it be nice to spread it around?”

My mother, an intelligent woman, paused.

“Yeah,” she scoffed, “but there have to be rich people.”

My mom’s immediate answer to “Why?” was that if there weren’t rich people, we’d have socialism. Her comment illuminated something to me about what it meant to be a person who lives where I was born. What she meant is this: there have to be rich people so that she could someday also be rich, so that she can keep believing that all the back-breaking work she does will eventually pay off. Communism, as they say in the movie Clue, is just a red herring. The love of Trump is deeply personal. The people at the top, the highest earners in this country, are the people we need to hold accountable if we’re in the same place four years from now. I’m tired of blaming my family.

I grew up in Zelienople. After President Trump’s pre-election rally at the Butler County Airport, much of the national news painted the citizens of my home county as people who follow Trump blindly into the fog of his charisma because they don’t truly understand the state of the world. Trump is a “stern, but all-knowing father.” This, without elaboration, leads to only further obscurity among liberals who have never met a small-town conservative or a person from a place like Butler. Rob Gleason, former chair of the Pa. Republican Party, once said in The New York Times of Western Pennsylvania Trump supporters: “The people here still feel forgotten.” And while that sentiment is very true, it falls short. 

What the national coverage about my home county fails to acknowledge is the heart of the matter: forgotten places breed forgottenness into their cultures. Forgotten places teach you that you aren’t worthwhile. Forgotten places surrounded by so many other beautiful, bright, shining, better places absolutely suck to be from. And if you find yourself one of the lucky idiots who is from a forgotten place, you learn quickly to believe that you are forgettable, too. Worthless. Inconsequential. Trashy. And this is what power structures demand of the working class: that they stay in their places — and that they do so willingly. Punishment is more elaborate and expensive than store-brand self-loathing. But I grew up in that kind of a place, and I can tell you just how hard it is to shake those notions of worthlessness.

And let me be clear: I love my hometown. Zelienople is a charming hills-and-valleys little hamlet full of other people who barely believe in themselves, just like me. And that’s a nice feeling, isn’t it? To be surrounded by people who understand you?

This is what Trump offers to voters in places like Butler County. This is why, when Trump goes to Erie and says things like, “I wasn’t gonna come here, Erie ...” they laugh and love him, much to liberal consternation. It’s a coping mechanism: when you don’t have control anywhere else, you can still laugh at your own trashiness. Trump is a trashy guy who wasn’t going to let anyone else take his power or wealth away. Trump, to so many Butler County citizens, is a trailblazer for exactly what they would like to do because conventional paths to success are still blocked to them by privilege and status. And until the gate-keeping class learns to understand what it feels like to be told — not with words, but with actions, which are worse — that you and the place you are from are worthless, ritualistically and forever, then we will be back here again, four years from now, eight years from now, sixteen years from now. Butler County doesn’t give a shit about how well-heeled you are. It cares, in a world that has shown itself to be ruthless, about staying alive. Doesn’t it make sense that these people want a fight?

Facts don’t change people’s minds, and that’s OK, because what we need now is direct action: a radical shift in the way we view one another and the way we demonstrate our care as citizens.

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Ignoring this phenomenon means that those who stand to profit from the discord will only continue to profit from it, and those of us who stand to lose will really lose. So what do we do? Die-hard Trumpers hate Biden, and the knee-jerk reaction to politicize every decision in this country leaves public officials inert.

At the same moment that this country has a reckoning with race, it can have a reckoning with class. The top earners in this country can start modeling behaviors that exhibit respect for their fellow citizens. People who make more than $400,000 need to start saying publicly, and to the right audiences, that they are excited to start paying their fair share, that “tax” isn’t a dirty word, and that they’d like for their taxes to improve schools, towns, and infrastructure outside of their property tax district. Corporations that rely on fossil fuels can shift to renewables and start getting honest about the true cost of their goods and profits. University presidents and Never Trump legislators can slash bloated salaries at state universities and refund desiccated coffers, lowering tuition and reinvigorating faith in this most essential public good.

Facts don’t change people’s minds, and that’s OK, because what we need now is direct action: a radical shift in the way we view one another and the way we demonstrate our care as citizens. If you want right-wing protesters to put down their military-style rifles, then drop your own violent mechanisms, too: the ones that allow you to hoard, to withhold, and to keep hard working people at arm’s length. Our ability to actually heal over the next four years depends on it.

Brittany Borghi is a Zelienople native and 2018 graduate of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where she currently teaches. She is working on a memoir about growing up in Western Pennsylvania.

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