On Flag Day last year, I bought red, white and blue cupcakes to take to work. The cashier, a nice, older white lady, said to me, “I’m so glad people are free to love America again.” She wasn’t being ironic.
For a long time, I had the sense that Bernie Sanders might be the only Democratic presidential candidate who could tap that sense of grievance. He’s their age, he’s white, he supports gun ownership, and, like them, he’s mad as hell about the loss of their American dream.
The polls tell a different story. Sanders hasn’t connected with that generation at all, at least in the Pittsburgh area. When they hear that he’s a socialist, they don’t think of modern-day Denmark or Sweden. They remember 1970s Poland and Czechoslovakia.
My wife gets a monthly magazine from the William Penn Association, a fraternal organization in Pittsburgh for Hungarian-Americans. A few months ago, one of their columnists wrote of traveling to Hungary to visit relatives, and looking through artifacts they’d saved from Communism — ration books, identity cards, etc.
That’s what people here remember about socialism: sending blue jeans and toys to relatives behind the Iron Curtain, and hearing horror stories from relatives who had escaped to the West.
To them, Sanders is a big unknown, and that makes them more fearful, not less. They don’t want to see any more radical changes, because all of the ones they saw in their young adulthood—deindustrialization, corporate raiding, stock manipulations—worked out badly for us.
Trump, besides tapping into their grievances, also promises there are no unknowns, because he knows everything, whether he’s discussing the economy, the military or COVID-19.
For a lot of people in Western Pennsylvania, President Trump hasn’t represented three years of fear. He’s represented a return to a romanticized pre-1965 America—the America of the first few seasons of TV’s “Mad Men,” when white men might often be wrong, but were never mistaken.
It’s no wonder that so many conservative Christians flocked to Trump, because evangelicalism too, promises certainty—that everything, from a stock-market crash to COVID-19, is part of God’s plan.
Sure, the voters who most connect with Bernie Sanders today are those aged 18 to 45, for whom the American economic system isn’t working. But the American economic system failed 18-to-45-year-olds in Western Pennsylvania more than 30 years ago. Those people are now 48-to-75-year-old Donald Trump voters—and, it appears, possibly Joe Biden voters as well.
Where Sanders and Elizabeth Warren promise change, and people like Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris are themselves types of change (one is young and openly gay, the other is Black and female), Joe Biden is white, cisgender, straight—and old.
In an essay for the New York Times recently, Jennifer Finney Boylan touched on another aspect of Biden’s appeal—that he represents the “happy warrior” strain of American politics. She suggested that after three-plus years of Trump’s endless rage, Americans aren’t looking for another angry man in the White House, even if that man (Sanders) is justifiably mad as hell about the same things that have made them mad for the past thirty years.
Can Biden help alleviate those voters’ fears through positivity, while still connecting with their sense of nostalgia for a familiar (but imperfect) past? We’re likely to know well before Pennsylvania’s primary, scheduled for April 28—assuming concerns over COVID-19 don’t lead the state to postpone voting, as Ohio did.
On March 22, the mayor of Clairton confirmed that the resident who had been hospitalized died the day before, on March 21. His was the first death in Allegheny County attributable to COVID-19.
COVID-19, of course, represents our ultimate existential fears—illness, incapacity, death. On this front, too, Biden is trying to reassure anxious voters by promising them that a Biden Administration would have handled the early stages of the pandemic far better than the Trump Administration.
At this point, I suspect that all but the most hardcore Trump supporters in Western Pennsylvania—say, my neighbor with the “NO MORE BULLSH-T” flag, and the types of folks who attacked us for pushing a “hidden agenda” by even reporting on COVID-19 cases—would agree.
Next Week, Chapter 8: In the Rio Grande Valley, a border closes, and signs of a wall as the pandemic spreads