I’m fairly sure that, of the twenty-eight first cousins on my father’s side of the family—the Italian American side–only two of us are not Trump supporters. We grew up, all of us, in a working-class city at the northern end of a Boston subway line, a place that was racially homogenous but ethnically diverse, a place where no one had to ask how to spell Merullo. My cousins and I could walk to each others’ homes in at most ten minutes, and every Sunday for the first fifteen years of my life, we gathered, all of us, aunts, uncles, and cousins, at my grandparents’ brown-shingled gambrel on Essex Street. A large vegetable garden, a statue of Mary, fruit trees, grape arbor, bocce court, wine barrels in the cellar, meatballs and mortadella on the kitchen table—that piece of property on the city’s northern fringe might have been lifted intact from southern Italy. To say that my cousins and I were close would be an insulting understatement. We were brothers and sisters. Those Sunday afternoons were a festival of food and kisses, of warmth and blood relation, of a rare and miraculous feeling of unity that has lessened only gradually as we matured, moved away, climbed the socio-economic ladder to various altitudes, and raised families of our own.
Even now, when we gather for wakes and burials, we embrace and say “I love you” and feel again that unbreakable old connection. To my dying breath I will insist on the goodness of those people, and I’ve often done so to counter the blanket dismissals of my fellow liberals who say or post things like “All Trump supporters are either stupid, racist, or evil.”
Despite those defensive moments, and despite the strong bond of love I will always feel for those cousins, I find it almost excruciating to hear them express their political views. I’m sure they feel the same way about me. Somehow, the emergence of Donald Trump on the American political scene has managed do to something I would have believed impossible: cause deep cracks to form in the Merullo cousins’ fortress of love. Time and again over these past nine years I’ve struggled to explain—to myself more than to my liberal friends—how it could be that good people like my cousins fail to see what seems so clear to me: that the man they support embodies all the traits we used to mock and loathe. To be a phony, a cheater, a spoiled rich kid, a sore loser, a person with no respect for either the truth or others’ pain—these were, in the unwritten creed of working-class America, nothing less than mortal sins.
I blame some of it on Trump’s uncanny ability—a species of malevolent genius—to convince members of the white working class that, despite the tax policies and other tenets of his political faith, he’s on their side. “I am your voice,” he says. “I am your vengeance.” It’s a kind of magic trick, really. He knows what to say to my people, and how to make them believe it, despite mountains of evidence that he is, in our old common language, completely full of shit.
But I also blame his success partly on the actions of my fellow liberals, on the slogans they promote and the policies they embrace. Those slogans and policies make them feel righteous and compassionate, even while they alienate many of the voters who used to form the base of the Democratic Party. Despite their degrees, professional success, and sophistication, these educated liberals seem blind to the obvious fact that the inhabitant of the Oval Office has much more influence on American life than do all their earnest Op Eds, lawn signs, bumper stickers, and Facebook memes. My fellow Leftists also fail to grasp the fact that, thanks to our peculiar electoral system, American presidents these days are elected, not by like-minded friends in Massachusetts and California, but by a small slice of voters in the middle of the political spectrum in ten states. Lose those voters and you have Donald Trump in 2016. Hold onto them and you have Joe Biden in 2020.
This may be difficult for my fellow progressives to believe, but when my relatives see or hear the words “Black Lives Matter” their first thought is often, “What–my life doesn’t matter!” I find myself wishing that the slogan would have been “Black Lives Matter, Too,” because then it would have achieved the same goal of raising awareness of systemic racism, but without alienating poor and working-class whites. I have similar feelings about the idea of capitalizing the ‘B’ in Black and keeping the ‘w’ in white lower case. To comfortable liberals, members of the educated elite (I’m in that club; I have two degrees from Brown University), there is perhaps an argument to be made for that token grammatical convention. For my cousins, many of whom did not attend college, it’s just another in a long history of slights.
My question is this: does the capital B actually further the cause of racial equality in any practical way? If so, does that advancement compensate for the political shift to which it contributes, a rightward shift among mid-spectrum voters, a shift that, with the election of Donald Trump, did so much to set back the cause of harmony and social justice in our country?
The example I often use is this: if someone suffers from, say, metastasized lung cancer, and someone else suffers from a bleeding ulcer, is it a good idea for the person with cancer to say to the person with the ulcer: “Your suffering is nothing compared to mine! Don’t even mention it!”
Of course not. And yet, that’s precisely what my fellow liberals so often do. In focusing on the very real—let me repeat, very real, excruciatingly real—suffering of Americans of color, liberal pundits and the liberal media too often neglect the equally real if considerably less grievous suffering of poor and working-class whites. I don’t hear enough Democratic politicians saying things like: “So many millions of Irish, Italian, Polish, German, Chinese, and Jewish immigrants were victims of terrible prejudice when they arrived in this nation. That pain, still remembered generations later, is minor compared to what African Americans endured, yes, of course. But it is also worth noting.”
The prevailing liberal opinion is that it’s not worth noting. In fact, you open yourself to charges of racism if you even mention the plight of the millions of poor white people whose kids go hungry in the richest nation on earth. That quick condemnation comes from African American activists, but also from well off white liberals, many of whom had grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents who weren’t the victims of any kind of prejudice at all when they arrived in this country. Members of those families, with their accumulated generational wealth, are so much more likely to have benefitted financially from slavery than are relatively new American families like my own.
These are upsetting messages, I know. They make my fellow liberals bristle and accuse me of every manner of bias and blindness. But I’m addressing what those people persistently fail to acknowledge: the kind of behavior that has contributed to the well-documented leakage of white working-class voters from the Democratic ranks. Altering the liberal elites’ guilt-easing slogans and foregoing their token virtue signaling, would be at least a nod to class inequities and to the white working poor—and this is key—without in any way diminishing or ignoring the country’s horrific racial history and the racism that continues to this day.
My cousins and people like them—good-hearted voters who certainly can be criticized for not probing deeply enough into the injustices of our system, the ramifications of legislative activity or inactivity, and the actions of Republican politicians rather than their rhetoric—face a panoply of struggles, like all of us. Health, money, relationships, jobs. They’re not blind to the struggles of others; they only tend, like most of us, to keep their own challenges front and center. Unlike some of the real haters in the Trump camp—and there are plenty of those—the people I’m describing don’t, for example, wish eternal damnation on those whose sexual preferences differ from their own. In fact, several of my conservative cousins have beloved gay children. Those cousins feel, however, that the Democratic Party spends too much time and effort speaking to the pain and challenges of, say, illegal immigrants and transgendered people, and that it ignores the pain and challenges of poor whites, and of the working-class and middle-class grandchildren of white immigrants. These compassionate liberals shout about lung cancer without even whispering about bleeding ulcers. A wise and charismatic left-leaning candidate should be able to address both kinds of suffering in proper perspective, but I don’t see any candidate like that on the current political landscape.
I want to say to my Trump-supporting cousins, “He talks a good game, but if you actually look a little more deeply into the things he does, the tax breaks for the rich, for one good example, the undermining of the pillars of our democracy for another, he’s screwing you and wrecking our country.” They’ll counter with, “What about all those illegal immigrants crossing the border? Why did our grandparents have to have documents and pass a medical exam in order to be let into America and these people don’t? Trump cares about us. He puts America first. He supports the military. When he was president, eggs didn’t cost eight dollars a dozen.”
I’ve given up arguing. It’s already cost me a relationship with one of my dearest cousins, a high price to pay, a loss with no gain. Like most of my liberal friends, I’m tremendously concerned about a second Trump presidency. More conservative Supreme Court appointments, more erosion of environmental protections, more divisive rhetoric, more trampling of the norms of decency, a weakening of NATO, an emboldening of both Putin and white supremacists, pardons for the January 6th criminals and the violence that will encourage—the list goes on. Most of my cousins don’t pay attention to such things. Trump has cast a spell on them, and his cowardly band of elected Republicans haven’t objected. But liberals who come up with sayings like “Defund the Police” and who insist on keeping the ‘w’ in white lower-case have helped create an environment in which that spell will not be broken anytime soon. In the marrow of my bones, in the place where those warm and loving Sunday-afternoons-on-Essex-Street emotions will always live and breathe, I feel a profound tearing. No one will ever convince me that every person who votes for Trump must be stupid, racist, or evil. I know my Trump-supporting cousins too well. I love them too much. But, to use a pair of words from our old neighborhood: Madonna mia, does it hurt to feel that deep love for them and, at the same time, to know how they’ll vote come November.
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