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A Liberal in Trump Land

While there are certainly many here in far upstate New York who trust Fox News as they would the word of God, and who really would give Donald Trump a pass if he shot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue, it is more complex than that. And I think there are openings.
Lockport, New York, view with Erie Canal locks

Lee Williams/Pugbullystudio

The Pine Street Bridge over locks on the Erie Canal, Lockport, New York

Lockport, New York—Much has been written in the era of Trump about the dividing of America. Statistics tell us that we have retreated into enclaves of the like-minded, liberals with liberals, conservatives with conservatives, each side shielded from the experience of daily interaction with people who do not share our political views. I do not have that problem.

Lockport is a small city of twenty thousand inhabitants that sits astride the Erie Canal in the far northwestern corner of New York. It is possible to arrive here solely on streets named after Republican presidents. A left turn off Lincoln Avenue will put you on to Nixon Place. Then, in a shortcut through history, Hoover Parkway will carry you directly to Eisenhower Drive—without any pesky Democratic FDR or Truman in between. There is a Roosevelt Drive farther along, but I am pretty sure it is named for Theodore not Franklin.

The city is a creature of two major waves of history that have both come and gone. The first was the construction of the Erie Canal in the 1820s, one of the most impressive engineering feats of its time. Stretching 363 miles, it connected the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean via the Hudson River. Its route here was carved out of dense rock using nothing but hard labor and gunpowder (the invention of dynamite was still forty years off). To lift its small boats up the same steep rise that created the nearby Niagara Falls, its builders deployed a set of giant wooden locks (hence the city’s name), essentially elevators for boats. Today, they are a small tourist attraction.

The second turn of history was the rise and fall of the General Motors plant. It once employed more than ten thousand union workers and, for six decades, produced most of the radiators in GM cars and trucks across the nation. It also made Lockport a thriving small town. That ended over the Christmas holiday in 1991, when GM announced closures at twenty-one plants nationwide, Lockport’s among them. The city was economically gutted overnight. The plant is down to fifteen hundred workers now, and many stores and offices along Main Street still lie vacant. My first Lockport haircut was from a man named Todd who used to make twice as much working on the GM assembly line. Today, one in six people here live below the poverty line and a good many others live right on the margin.

If you want to understand something about the struggling working-class towns that helped make Donald Trump president, Lockport is a good place to do it. Niagara County, for which Lockport is the county seat, voted for Trump over Clinton in 2016 by a margin of 57 percent to 38 percent. I live in a place where many houses have permanent lawn signs promoting gun rights and where many more have pickup trucks in their driveways. The surrounding area is dotted with conservative, solid-Republican, agricultural communities. In 2018, our local GOP congressman, Chris Collins, was voted back into office even while under federal indictment for securities fraud (he has since resigned and been sentenced to more than two years in federal prison).

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For sure, Lockport was an odd place for me to move on the eve of my sixtieth birthday in 2017. I’m a native Californian, studied political science at UC Berkeley, and lived for two decades in the progressive bastions of the Bay Area. After that, I lived another two decades in the mountains of Bolivia, a country in the midst of leftist revolution. I’ve been a progressive political activist my entire adult life.

You can credit my family’s move to Lockport to the magical powers of our granddaughter Bella, who summoned us here from the womb. Our eldest daughter, Elizabeth, moved here after college, for an administrative job in that same shrunken GM plant. She walked into Applebee’s one night, started flirting with a nice local fellow named Mike, they got married, and on New Year’s Day, 2017, called to tell my wife, Lynn, and me that we were becoming grandparents. The two of us, along with our youngest daughter, Mariana, arrived that following summer planning to stay for our granddaughter’s birth and her first few months. Then, when winter came, we would escape back to summer in rural Bolivia.

That was the plan. Instead, we stayed.

My granddaughter is also the reason that I stumbled into becoming a biweekly opinion columnist for Lockport’s venerable daily paper, the Union-Sun & Journal. If it survives, the USJ will turn two hundred years old next year. On the day that Bella was born, I decided it would be nice to buy and save a copy of the day’s local paper, so I stopped in at Walgreens and picked up a copy. Its editorial page contained a ridiculous column by a local professor calling on Congress to hold up the national budget until funding was secured for President Trump’s Mexican border wall. I spent my first evening as a grandfather angrily typing out a response column, and sent it to the paper.

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Shortly after my article was published, I sat down for a coffee with the city editor, Joyce Miles, in a café that sits in the corner of the old 1920s vintage Palace Theatre. That was when we cooked up the idea of my doing a regular column and how I became a left-leaning opinion columnist in Trump Land. It has proven to be a remarkably valuable journey into the minds of those who elected him as president.

My early political columns, admittedly, were exercises in provocation.

In the aftermath of the mass shooting at a Las Vegas country music concert, I wrote about guns: “The US now has more guns than people, and if one thing is clear, our sea of guns is not making us safer, far from it.” On President Trump’s tax bill I wrote: “Two thirds of the proposed GOP tax cuts would not be steered to families, but to corporations.” I wrote about the seizure of immigrant children: “Ripping toddlers from their mothers’ arms to keep desperate people from coming here is a very long way from the America that let my Jewish refugee grandparents in a century ago.” I wrote about the president, and after laying out a list of his easily provable lies, asked, “Do you believe that all this, despite the hard evidence otherwise, is simply cooked-up fake news?”

All of these seemed like quite reasonable arguments—if you lived in Berkeley or Brooklyn. In Lockport, not so much.

Amid this writing, I discovered a way to make my columns into something else, a catalyst for community debate. I began posting my pieces to the “Lockportians,” a Facebook group in which more than half the town’s inhabitants participated, sharing everything from complaints about potholes to a heated debate about whether the local Tim Horton’s was purposefully screwing up its grilled cheese sandwiches.

The reaction to my columns was both intense and enlightening. Local gun-owners shot back with ferocity. Many cut-and-pasted the usual NRA slogans (“The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”). I was accused of being just another liberal who didn’t actually know anything about guns. One reader invited me to go shooting (I declined). But buried among the re-posted NRA memes was an argument of a different kind: “If it’s three in the morning and you hear a window break in your house and you have two small children in the next room and you want to rely on 911, go for it. Me, I keep a handgun near my bed and you aren’t going to take away my right to defend my family.”

I shared this argument with my friends in the liberal enclaves to see their reaction, and more than one of them suggested I point out that, as a matter of statistics, the chances are greater that a gun in the home will harm you than help you. “Oh yeah,” I thought, “that argument will work.”

I was met with equal ferocity when I wrote about immigration, including my suggestion that putting migrant children in cages was not a very American thing to do. Hundreds of people commented. I was informed that caging migrant children had begun under Obama, not Trump, and that it was their parents’ fault, not the president’s: “The illegals knew the risks when they broke the law trying to invade the US.” Some commenters were quite comfortable in expressing overt racism.

But again, in between the blaming immigrants for everything and blind loyalty to Trump, there was something to be learned. Some of those who took a hard line on immigrants saw the issue as a zero sum that took away from helping others close to home. One woman wrote, “I don’t mind giving DACA kids help as long as it’s after every single legal citizen receives help including all the homeless veterans. Take care of citizens first.” The hurt of working-class people who have slipped off the edge is not a theoretical or distant thing here, and for many, this theme of “take care of our own” is not just rhetoric. People do that in Lockport. We have a local homeless shelter, food pantries, and a stream of grassroots fundraisers for families who find themselves in trouble.

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Mayor dedicating restored clock, Main Street, Lockport

Connor Hoffman/Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Mayor Michelle Roman, one of the city’s few elected Democrats, dedicating the restored Main Street clock dating from 1920, Lockport, New York, December 21, 2019

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My personal positions on these issues remained unchanged as a result of being the biweekly target of Lockportian invective, but it did make me think about whether the left has lost its ability to listen beyond the comfortable echo chambers of The Nation, CNN, and our friends. I have tried to raise this question with my own friends. An artist I know in San Francisco told me bluntly: “They all just need to die off, the racists just need to die off.” A journalist friend cautioned me against falling victim to Stockholm Syndrome, in the closed world of a small Trumpian town. Clearly, not everyone is buying the possibility of dialogue.

Politically speaking, however, we do not have the luxury of ignoring the people who live in places like these, not if we wish to pry Donald Trump out of the White House in November. The question of what to do about these voters is again a major strategic debate among Democrats, and there are different points of view on the matter.

An old California friend of mine, Steve Phillips, the founder of Democracy in Color, has argued that the Democratic Party’s priorities are better placed elsewhere. “Many people in Democratic leadership are more concerned about alienating Trump voters, white working-class voters, than they are about inspiring voters of color,” he told The Washington Post not long ago.

I remember this same debate in 1984 when we argued about how to stop Ronald Reagan’s reelection. Is it about attracting the middle or changing the face of the electorate? Then and now, I think we have to do both, to walk and chew gum at the same time. This is especially true given the historical trap we find ourselves in with an electoral college wildly slanted toward small, conservative states. In November, even if we manage through mobilization to double Hillary Clinton’s three million-person popular vote victory in 2016, it will be of little solace if Trump wins by another seventy-thousand-vote margin in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—thanks to people who live in communities just like Lockport. The Democrats don’t need all of these people, but they need some of them.

Not everyone here falls into the stereotype of the old white guy who proudly wears his red MAGA hat to the supermarket (though we have those). I know that because people who think otherwise seek me out, usually in odd ways. There was the older woman who passed by our table at a bar one night, as Lynn and I sat having a drink. Without even introducing herself, she quickly leaned over and whispered, “Thank you, I love your columns.” This happens a lot, actually—people stopping me to ask if I am “that guy who writes for the paper” and to thank me: the lady who delivers our mail, the checkout guy at Walgreens, a young man in line at a local pizza takeout.

So while there are certainly many here who trust Fox News as they would the word of God, and who really would give Donald Trump a pass if he shot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue, it is more complex than that. And I think there are openings.

Some are about focusing on the local. Of all the things I have written about these past two-and-a-half years, by far the one that has gotten the most attention—locally and now nationally, too—is our school district’s foolish decision to blow a fortune on spy-quality facial recognition cameras in our schools, the first district in the country to adopt this kind of system.

I stumbled across this story by accident when it was mentioned briefly in a news article about our schools budget. In a district with just one high school and slightly more than four thousand students in all grades, the project cost $2.7 million. The Board of Education tried to sneak the plan through by taking it up at a meeting held on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-summer. The project itself was a solid scam, justified as a school safety measure but sold to the district by a sweet-talking salesman who masqueraded as a “security consultant.”

I wrote about the cameras project in a series of articles, as did the young beat reporter at the paper. In the nearly two years since, the Lockport spy cameras story has been picked up by The New York Times, Wired, Forbes, NPR, NBC’s Today show, and many others and has come to be seen as a cautionary tale about official foolishness and the perils of putting artificial intelligence tech into the hands of people who haven’t a clue what they are doing. Some time in the next few months, in response to the Lockport debacle, the New York State legislature will likely pass a new law freezing systems like this for three years so that their implications can be studied.

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Here in Lockport, however, the spy cameras scandal was a lesson about something else as well: how to build a bridge to Trump voters.

“Hey, I disagree with everything else you write, but you have a good point on those stupid spy cameras.” This is how I was greeted one day by the checkout clerk in a local store. I thanked him. Comments just like his grew every time I wrote about the system. At this point, I knew pretty well who the Trump people were, and on this issue, they were mostly on my side. This is because the spy cameras embody two things that really aggravate them: public officials wasting their tax dollars and Big Brother nosing into their business. Even in the face of other sentiments such as, “Whatever we have to spend to keep our children safe, we should spend it,” most people could still smell stupid.

One of the things that people like about Donald Trump is that he calls a lot of things stupid (even if they aren’t stupid, like, say, the science of climate change). Democrats rarely call things stupid. They call them “unfair” or “unjust,” which ends up sounding to some people more whining than strong. “Stupid” resonates better with people who are mad—and there is no shortage of stupid things to point out being done by the Trump administration. This includes its recent decision to allow more chemicals to be spilled into our groundwater. We have a Superfund site here in Lockport, the result of decades of industrial dumping. At a public meeting last year, I listened to a long stream of vulnerable people who told hard-to-hear stories about incidences of cancer in their families, even among their pets, and about being warned not to let their kids walk barefoot in their yards. People here know what contamination is.

I have also tried to put a light on other local matters that are hidden. Last summer, a black man named Troy Hodge died in a struggle with police officers (the case is currently under investigation by the state attorney general). In the aftermath of Hodge’s death, the Union-Sun & Journal handed me the front page for three days in a row for a series titled “Black in Lockport.” It featured in-depth interviews with some members of the black community, which makes up about 8 percent of Lockport’s population. They talked about the varied forms of racism they encounter every day: from feeling surrounded by “white spaces” to persistent tensions with police. Reaction from black Lockportians to the coverage was positive, and there was less negative reaction than I had anticipated from the pro-Trump crowd.

For a time afterward, I would be approached by white people who told me that they had never understood that their black neighbors felt that way. The series was no magic wand to change things, but it was a start, another reminder that local bridges are the easier ones to build. And, in the wake of Hodge’s death, the African-American community here has become more visible and more vocal. This May, strong black candidates will seek at least two seats on Lockport’s all-white Board of Education.

As we look at the fault-lines that divide America today—of right and left, white and black, rich and poor—I think there is another we are missing. It rests in the metaphor of the GoogleMap: click on that little plus symbol and you zoom in; click on the minus sign and you zoom out. In the enclaves of America’s liberal coasts, a lot of people have the luxury of zooming out and casting their vision in the form of big, bold ideas like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. But in much of the country, including here in Lockport, most people don’t have the luxury of zooming out. They live lives that are closely zoomed in every day on struggles like how to pay for gas to get to work, where to put their baby daughter while they’re at work, and how to cover their $5,000 health insurance deductible. For many, all the “big plan” stuff, even if it actually addresses the things that affect their lives, sounds like liberals far away trying to tell them how to live. Trump gets that. Democrats seem not to.

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Striking workers picketing Lockport’s GM plant

James Neiss/Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Striking workers picketing Lockport’s GM plant as news of a tentative deal between the UAW and GM came through, New York, October 16, 2019

Finally, I offer one lesson more. When my family and I arrived in Lockport in summer 2017, it was mid-July and all around us were houses flying the Stars and Stripes. Many families have permanent flagpoles in their front yards. “Hey, Mike,” I asked my son-in-law, a Lockport native and my guide to all things local. “Are those flags all still up from the Fourth of July?”

“Nope,” he told me. “They are pretty much up all the time.”

People in Lockport—and I think this is true for countless communities like it—are not shy about expressing their love of the United States of America. Community meetings all begin with a somber recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance (and, in some cases, a prayer). Photos of local veterans adorn the streetlamp posts on Main Street, and Veterans Day here is not just a random Monday off in November. In national politics, Republicans often say that they love their country. The current crop of Democratic candidates rarely do, as if it might make them sound too, well, Republican. I’ve come to the conclusion that one way to build a bridge to people who don’t think the same way we do is to at least establish that there is something that we love in common.

Last fall, I was given an opportunity to test my theory when I was invited to speak at a community rally in Somerset, a village that sits on the shore of Lake Ontario, about twenty miles from Lockport. Somerset has a small coal-fired electrical plant that is scheduled to shut down this year under state environmental rules that have been championed by the Sierra Club. This closure will mean a substantial hit of job losses and a bigger one in the tax base that supports the local schools. I had written a column supporting Somerset’s call on state officials to back its proposal to repurpose the plant as a data center, to replace both the lost jobs and lost revenues. The then town supervisor, who doubled as a crewcut Niagara Country sheriff, asked me to come and speak at the rally.

As I drove myself out there I thought: “What am I supposed to say to a field full of conservative farmers, standing beside the local Republican assemblyman?” Even from a distance, they would smell San Francisco on me. Most would be readers of the paper and familiar with my radical theory that climate change is real. So, as the rally began and the local television cameras rolled, I began by talking about what we loved in common.

“You live in one of the most beautiful places in the country,” I told them, and I meant it. “Just last week, we were out here with my granddaughter Bella. She’s almost two now and she loves blueberries. We were down the street over at Russell’s You-Pick.” I paused. “And I have to tell you, I have never seen any human being ever put so many blueberries in her mouth at one time.” Everyone laughed. Even the Republican assemblyman.

But it was more than laughter. It was an acknowledgment that we could be as different as we were and there were still things we loved in common—the open fields of a small town on the Great Lakes, the joy of a toddler picking her first blueberries, and maybe more.

“And it is because I love my granddaughter so much that I worry so much about climate change and the planet we are leaving for our children and grandchildren.” I can’t profess to having changed any minds that autumn afternoon on Lake Ontario, but people were willing to listen.

I love living in Lockport. I like the people. I like the simplicity and basic-ness of it. I like the opportunity to be not just a global activist but a local one. And I especially appreciate the opportunity to listen to and know people who do not think the way I think.

I have come to believe that the operative metaphor of our time may be the old Indian parable of the three blind men and the elephant. One grabs its tail and says it’s a snake. Another grabs a leg and pronounces it to be like a thick tree. The third touches its side and declares it to be a giant boulder. Each has hold of one part, but none the whole truth.

That is really the lesson I have learned in my strange two and a half years in Trump Land: to listen to the people who come to the elephant from a different perspective. There are reasons that people think what they think and feel what they feel, and if we ever hope to find common ground and actually work together toward solving the huge problems we face as a nation, it will not be because we beat those on the other side, but because we find a way to hear them—and be heard by them in return. And it might start while waiting on line at the drug store.

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