I do not excuse or explain Donald Trump's vitriol, ignorance, violent misogyny, terrifying stances on racism and immigration, or climate denial. He is a nightmare to every tenet of my belief in what a leader of this nation ought to be and do and say. However, I dislike when people speak against his supporters as if all are the same. Here is what I think happened in a lot of hearts and minds, although I am horrified that personal fear came out stronger than any other priority in the voting booths of America:
According to the news and reports and commentary I’ve seen today, Donald Trump won the election because he tapped into the deep frustration and anger of citizens who have had their expectations of their own lives and identities severely shaken up in the past few decades, and got these people to take a chance on him, because the status quo hasn’t helped a lot of people in a long time.
My sister gently pointed out that these people, who chose a very different president than who she or I wanted, are really not so separate from us, from me. Not in the “we’re all humans, we’re all Americans” sort of way, but in the feeling of having been baited and switched between preparing for and living adult life. I’m not of the political storybook about this—there are no generations of me, relying on the local industry for a guaranteed job at a living wage to buy a house, raise a family, send my children to something better.
Instead, I was raised in the middle class, somewhere on the fringes. I went off to college with a solid student loan debt. It was naïve to borrow so much to go to the school that felt right, rather than the school that was priced right, but this wasn’t a part of the conversation in the late 1990s—you borrowed money to go to college, and your college education would give you the enhanced job opportunities to pay that debt off, within a decade or so of graduation. That, at least, was the deal I understood. There was no talk—with my parents, with the school, with the loan officers—that it might be prudent to pursue studies in fields with more economic potential. I was part of the generation that was told: “do what you love and the money will follow!”
So I did. I studied Environmental Studies. I spent my summers working in summer camps, and then at one of the largest and oldest environmental groups in the country. Although I wasn’t pursuing the straight and narrow path towards immediate student loan repayment, I was still in the field. After graduation, I struggled to find work that both paid my student loan, life expenses, and bore some connection to my education and training. Nothing really bit, and I wasn’t one of the twenty-somethings who know what they want to do and where they want to be, so I wandered a bit—partly because I was sure that somewhere out there, a job that fit my education and paid my loans existed.
I believed that because it was the story I’d grown up with.
Eventually, I decided to attend graduate school because on enough occasions, I’d been passed over for jobs for someone with a graduate degree. Not only was I interested in the material and of continuing to study, it seemed like a better job market would open up.
Again, in hindsight, none of this makes much sense, and I feel like I’ve been duped by a system that favors wealthier people. The thought that only rich people can afford to passionately study something that may never make them any money but is fascinating and beautiful fills me with a white hot fury. That education is, more and more, a means to an income and not a marriage between income, interest, and opportunity is equally maddening.
But, I fell for it. I fell for the idea that education improves prospects, that it is worth the interest rates of student loans, to be able to find a discipline that improves your understanding of how to be in the world and provides employable skills.
And, now that I’ve finished graduate school, I’ve often found myself in the bizarre donut hole of being “too educated” for some jobs, while not having enough “hands on” experience because I went back to school. Meanwhile, the student loans really don’t care if you are working in the field you’re educated in—they just want their money back, which is fair. But there is a distinct sense of failure, personal and systemic, in that I have yet to earn a full-time, year-round, living wage within the field of my degrees.
It’s been twelve years since I graduated from college, six since I got my Masters degree. The economy has gone up and down, and the availability of environmental jobs is closely tied to both the economy and politics. I also have some geographic and family limitations that keep me in the highly populated Northeast. So, yes, of course, I have brought some of this lack of job security on myself through poor choices, bad luck, and the errors of being a human with multiple priorities.
But, some of the reason that I am thirty-four, deep in student debt, unlikely to purchase a home, or save wisely for retirement for a very long time, is because the system I believed in, the system I bought into with my financial and professional future, this system no longer exists. Because of my parents and my degrees, I am not counted as a Detroit autoworker, a Berlin papermill worker, a Rust Belt or Blue Collar anything. All the same, I know very well the exhaustion and fury and frustration that things have shifted, that you are not living the life you were groomed for, that the rules changed while you were mid-play. And I have to think that this is the rage and fear and discontent that Trump tapped into, because it is a potent fuel.
The feeling that what you have been educated to give the world is not wanted, will not feed you, that is one of the worst I know. And I can understand how, for someone with a different worldview, friends, library and social media feed, the answer to this deep sense of identity betrayal would be the loud angry rich white man who looks like Presidents have almost always looked, and says he’ll fix everything.
Other than what connection my personal employment and identity struggles give me to fellow citizens who I might be tempted to further disregard in a liberal fear-fury panic—I find myself today not caring about that as much. Of course, I want to do the work that I want to do in the world, but more than that, I want to keep the country safe for everyone—all colors and faiths and genders. I want healthcare to be affordable. I want there to be jobs that people want to do, that pay enough that the economy doesn’t crumble. I want climate change to be addressed on a personal and policy level, across the world. I want sexual harassment and discrimination to end. I want marriage to be available for anyone who wants it. I want everyone to have the time to enjoy sunrises and sunsets.
And all of that wanting doesn’t go away, regardless of who is in the White House, in Congress, in my local government offices. And if the wanting doesn’t go away, neither does the burning call to action—on all levels—to build the world the way we want it to be.
I believe we can do this, uphill though progress will be. It begins with understanding, and this is my hope of that start. Because I don't know what else to do. Giving up on America isn't an option.