Around 1900 a young man from Poland with an unpronounceable name emigrated to the United States. As he passed through Ellis Island a semi-literate clerk shortened and anglicized his name to Joseph Donutski. We’ll just call him “Joe”.
Joe arrived with nothing but the clothes on his back and a few personal possessions in a cheap grip bag. America was a strange and wonderful place and he didn’t know any English, but with the help of some other Poles and with the directions in a letter from his cousin he found his way to Smalltown.
Smalltown is a community located somewhere in the region that begins in New York and traverses to the west through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, ending in northern Illinois and eastern Wisconsin. It used to be know as the industrial heartland of America.
Smalltown was just a dot on the map until Robert Barron decided to build a factory there in the later 19th Century. He chose Smalltown because land and labor was cheap, raw materials were locally available and there was a railroad line passing nearby. In addition to the railroad there was a highway and a navigable river.
Barron could have started most any kind of business. All through that region were coal mines, iron mines, steel mills, and factories. Barron decided to manufacture tools. His factory took in raw steel and turned out hammers and wrenches and screwdrivers, along with many other hand tools.
Joe’s cousin was hired when the factory first opened. He wrote home and urged Joe to join him there. He told Joe that in America the streets were paved with gold. He may have exaggerated a bit.
Work at the factory was hard and dirty, and the hours were long. But the pay was better than anything back in Poland, and Joe was able to get married and start a family. Soon after he arrived in America Joe had married a local Polish girl and she began producing kids, starting with Joe Jr.
Joe Jr. grew up in Smalltown. He went to school with kids whose parents were from Poland, Hungary and Italy, as well as some American kids. They all spoke English at school, but some of them spoke other languages at home. They went to different churches – there were two Catholic churches (one Polish and one Italian), one Eastern Orthodox and one Baptist. Their parents talked about “back home” but all these kids knew was America.
Joe Jr. was too young for World War I, but soon after the war ended he was working at the factory with his dad. Just as his dad had done he got married and started having kids. The Roaring Twenties were good times for Smalltown, but the Great Depression was hard on some people. The factory stayed open, but there were some layoffs.
Things began to pick up at the end of the Thirties, and the factory became unionized. Joe Sr. started talking about something called “retirement”. Several members of the family were working at the factory, and others were working at related businesses that serviced the factory, like trucking companies and suppliers.
Joe III didn’t go to work at the factory right out of high school because he enlisted in the Army and went to fight World War II. The war years were profitable for old Robert Barron because he shifted over to war production and got a fat government contract.
Wages went up due to the labor shortage and the factory even began hiring women. When the war ended the town prospered because American industry wasn’t devastated by the war.
Joe III was one of many returning veterans who came home and resumed their lives. They got married and began having kids. They went to work at the factory. (The factory no longer needed women of course.)
The times were really good. America was a prosperous nation. Every family had two cars and a television and a 3-bedroom house full of labor-saving appliances. The kids played baseball and football and went to movies and they listened to rock and roll music. They all ate pizza and hamburgers and fried chicken.
Joe IV was too young for Vietnam, but he grew up watching the turmoil of the Sixties on television. He graduated from high school a couple months before Nixon resigned. Old Joe Sr. died when Joe IV was little, Joe Jr. was retired, but Joe III was still working at the factory.
Joe IV managed to get a job at the factory when he was 20, but the whole region was beginning to dry up. A combination of automation, environmental regulations, increased competition and high labor costs began to take its toll.
Joe IV survived the first couple rounds of layoffs, but in 1990 the factory closed. Joe IV was lucky enough to get a job dismantling and shipping out all the saleable assets and fixtures. By 1992 the factory was a skeleton and the only people working there were the security guards who kept trespassers out.
When the factory closed so did all those businesses that depended directly on the factory, like the local trucking company. The loss of wages hurt the whole town, and soon the government became the largest employer. The second largest employer was the Walmart out by the interstate. The car dealership and the lumber yard closed.
Joe IV was unemployed for a while, then got hired working the night stocking crew at the Walmart. They lost their house and had to move in with his wife’s family. The community has been ravaged by meth and Oxy. On the upside they now have cable and internet.
The tools they used to make at the factory now get made in China.
Joe IV has heard for years that free trade is good for everybody, but it hasn’t been good for the people of Smalltown. He has also been told that many of his anxieties and concerns are racist. He keeps hearing how he needs to give others a bigger share of the pie.
He has watched the GOP and the Democrats take turns running the country, but things aren’t getting any better. In many ways they are getting worse. He is scared to even think about retirement. If Social Security goes broke he’ll have nothing.
Then one day Joe IV reads this crap:
It is immoral because it perpetuates a lie: that the white working class that finds itself attracted to Trump has been victimized by outside forces. It hasn’t. The white middle class may like the idea of Trump as a giant pulsing humanoid middle finger held up in the face of the Cathedral, they may sing hymns to Trump the destroyer and whisper darkly about “globalists” and — odious, stupid term — “the Establishment,” but nobody did this to them. They failed themselves.
If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that.
Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.
And the sneering coastal elites wonder why he is angry.