Trump Is Our Fault, Too


TW Column by Steven Lewis

Apologies from a Baby Boomer


President Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy Campaigning in New York, 1964; photo by Cecil W. Stoughton; Public Domain

I began this piece last spring, in the early days of America’s descent into the Dystrumpian future. So many of us liberals of a certain age held our collective breath, preparing for the coming repressions, the planetary insults to reason and civilized behavior, the Armageddon-sans-Rapture that awaits this great country. Not even a year after the election, it’s already far worse than many of us feared.

How did this glorious experiment in democracy come to this inglorious moment?

At the risk of seeming an arrogant elitist bastard—as nearly half the country seems to believe about all liberals—I’ve come up with some answers, and frankly, they don’t reflect well on me or my generation. Let’s take a little walk back in time.

It’s 1964 or 1965, I’m eighteen or nineteen, and the world is suddenly not making any sense. I’m just realizing that my history books have told me shameless lies about the American past, censoring out every hideous thing we’ve done to Native Americans, African Americans, women, Asians, Jews, homosexuals—anyone not white, Protestant, and male. Yeah, and something is still really REALLY fishy about JFK’s assassination and that phony Warren Commission report. Plus the new president is lying through his teeth about what’s going on in Vietnam, while my high school friends are dying in rice paddies thousands of miles away. Closer to home, parents and teachers are perpetrating bald-faced lies about God, country, sex, drugs, and rock and roll—then demanding that we shut up, straighten up and fly right.

But it’s 1964 or 1965, and the inebriating rhetoric of the Free Speech Movement is wafting out of Mario Savio’s mouth in Berkeley, crossing the Rockies, blowing like tumbleweed over the Plains, and stopping overnight in Madison, Wisconsin, where my college friends and I are just waking up to all the shameful hypocrisies perpetrated by our parents’ generation.

So, thousands, hundreds of thousands, MILLIONS of my generation across the country are crowding fields many times bigger than Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York, for Woodstock, standing shoulder to shoulder, marching, chanting, sitting-in, speaking our minds. And when we get dragged off to jail, when we are beaten by cops and rednecks and National Guardsmen, jack-booted thugs with fixed bayonets and night sticks, it doesn’t matter because we are right. We are righteous.

And like all righteous people, we know God is on our side, Abraham and Isaac, the love of Jesus, flowers in our hair. It is the Age of Aquarius.

And we are the moral conscience of the country. The moral arbiters about all things good and evil. The morality police.

“You are materialistic, shallow, and self-serving,” we sneer at our parents.

“Baby killers!” we chant at Vietnam vets.

“Pigs!” we yell after cops.

All conservatives are heartless, soulless jackals unfit to walk alongside the hippie Jesus we have concocted in our own image.

Lyndon Johnson Meets with Richard Nixon, Presidential Candidate, 1968; photo by Yoichi Robert Okamoto; Public Domain

Now, let’s trace a line from 1968—Martin Luther King mowed down, Bobby Kennedy killed on TV, and the fiery anguish of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago—to the 1970 atrocities at Kent State and the bombing of the Army Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison—to body bags that kept coming into Dover Air Force Base and elsewhere throughout the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when everything—and I mean everything—was falling apart.

Then pause for a moment and take note of Vice President Spiro Agnew, who helped ignite the so-called silent majority. He got the attention of the less-educated, disenfranchised working-class people we scorned, branding liberal critics “pusillanimous pussyfooters” and “nattering nabobs of negativism.” And the silent majority not only heard him, they reelected Richard Nixon in 1972, crushing our anti-war hero George McGovern. We should have taken note.

Well, we didn’t take note. We didn’t take stock. We didn’t understand the implications of demanding free speech out of one side of our mouths while out of the other we told our enemies there were some things (many things—oh, so many things) that they were not allowed to say.

Too enamored with the beauty of our truth, we failed to predict the ugly backlash that would come at us after calling our fellow citizens fascists, racists, misogynists, bullies, fools, morons, liars, and killers. We were so blind that, in the name of righteousness, we committed our own ethical and moral atrocities.

How could we ignore that they’d hate us for that? That they might never forgive us for our elitism, our snottiness, our holier-than-thou-ness? That we had turned into social bullies and abusers? And how could we have missed the utterly simple notion that they would someday come to despise us and everything we believe in so much that they’d elect another narcissistic baby boomer like Donald Trump to pay us back?

How arrogant we were! How wrong.

Because so many of us on the left now seem to be blaming them for this dismal state of affairs, I speak only for myself when I say I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I’ve been such an arrogant elitist bastard. I’m sorry I have showed no respect for your beliefs, for your fears, for your pain. I was wrong. And, mark my words, I will work every day for the rest of my life to make sure this kind of national horror never happens again.


Publishing Information

  • Spiro Agnew, William Safire, and impact on the press: “Nattering Nabobs” by David Remnick, New Yorker, July 10, 2006.

Art Information

Steven LewisSteven Lewis is a contributing writer and columnist at Talking Writing, a former mentor at Empire State College, current member of the Sarah Lawrence College Writing Institute faculty, and longtime freelancer. His work has been published widely, from the notable to obscure, including in the New York TimesWashington PostChristian Science MonitorLos Angeles Times, Ploughshares, Narratively, and Spirituality and Health.

He’s also literary ombudsman for 650: WhereWriters Read. His books include Zen and the Art of Fatherhood; Fear and Loathing of Boca Raton; If I Die Before You Wake (poetry); a novel, Take This; and a generational sequel, Loving Violet, due out this fall from Codhill Press.

For more information, see Steve Lewis’s website. You’ll also find him on Twitter @LewisWrite4hire.


I appreciate why and how you

I appreciate why and how you wrote about this, as it has troubled me for some time. Our own culpability...what a concept! Yet, I wondered why, upon reading it, I could not give a full-throated endorsement, so I thought about it overnight, and discovered the source of my reluctance. It is this; I am equally troubled by the fact that my quest for enlightenment is viewed as elitism. That my faith in education is ridiculed and science is considered voodoo art. And really, if I can put these things aside, does anyone truly want to meet in the middle? I have mediated too many discussions in the past few years to think that is possible. Your piece, on the other hand, brings to mind a favorite quite from Coach Jim Valvano as he was dying..."don't give up, don't ever give up" I know you will keep writing, and I will keep reading, and then maybe, it will never happen again. Thank you Steve.

Thanks so much for writing,

Thanks so much for writing, Eva. Amid all the deafening noise we all live with every day, and despite the temptation to give into despair or magical thinking, this very human "space" in Talking Writing provides enough hope to honor Valvano's plea: "... don't ever give up."
So ... there's this to add: I, too, am troubled--have long been made furious--by the cultural assaults against my ideas and beliefs. They're hateful and dehumanizing. However, I remain steadfast in my determination not to be dehumanized by my assailants, just as I am steadfast--with the writing of this piece--to stop dehumanizing my enemies. If I don't stop calling them names, if I continue to consciously and self-righteously fail to see the human struggle behind their hate-filled slogans, we will never meet in that middle, and they will never hear what I have to say. Hopping down off the soapbox now, with thanks ....

While we on the left need as

While we on the left need as many people on our side as possible, we also need to move beyond the narrative that you provide here. So how do we reach out to Trump voters?

Rather than apologies from academics, working people need the ability to organize themselves into strong unions, a government that values them more than corporations, and candidates with a clear, cohesive vision of how the people of this country can work together to eradicate poverty and injustice, halt climate change, and create an environment of “we” rather than “me.”

Since this issue of Talking Writing is entitled “Truth Telling,” here is my truth: I will never apologize for calling a fascist a fascist, or for calling out misogynist and racist behavior when I see it. In fact, all the misogyny and racism I've observed in my jobs, which have included factory work and various positions in academia, nonprofit, and for-profit organizations, has come from MBAs and other white-collar workers. And when our increasingly militarized police force is pepper spraying and flash bombing people who are protesting Nazi rallies, I won’t be putting any lipstick on them, either.

So, yes, we need to move away from this kind of thinking that puts the blame on both sides. Indeed, many of our young people have already blown way past it. For example, my 31-year old, activist son, who doesn't mince words, had this to say upon reading this post, and I quote with his permission.

“ I don't really know where to start in critiquing this piece except to say that he should be apologizing to our generation for this kind of complacent bullshit that allowed the left to lose so much power, leaving it to our generation to have to fight not just this far right wing administration, but milquetoast liberals like him that stand in the way.”

I’m with him.

Thanks for taking the time to

Thanks for taking the time to write, Judith ... and for backing me up against my own wall. It's where I do my most soulful thinking.

Anyway, I do hear you. And I think you're mostly right about the critical need to find ways to reach out to Trump voters. But you completely misunderstood what my apology was about--I am not apologizing for or condoning fascism, racism or misogyny in any fashion. I am not equivocating about those who perpetrate fascist, racist, or misogynistic acts, Ever. They should all be locked up. But I am saying that the knee-jerk self-righteous response of progressives calling everyone with whom we disagree any of those names is simplistic, naive, and self-defeating, It is also dehumanizing to them--and to us. It's all in the language. We hate them, so they hate us. They hate us, so we hate them.

We have all spent our lives in the middle of a despicable American mythology, one that long predates Vietnam. But it is coming clear to me now that if we progressives had simply climbed out of our holier-than-thou heads and found the language over the last fifty years to speak from the gut to the middle class and working class people of this country ... and, rather than tell them how stupid and cruel they are, explained just how they were being fucked over by the Wall Street-Madison Avenue-K Street Republicans, we might have avoided Reagan--Bush--and the current killer-in-chief.

Self-righteousness is the singular scourge of this country--and the liberal progressive establishment, young and old, is not and has not been immune from its poison. It's time we showed a little humility, stepped down off that bullshit pedestal of purity, stopped back-biting amongst each other, and took some responsibility for our roles in the abject failure of the war on poverty, the rise of racism, the dismal state of the feminist movement, the unending misogyny, on and on. And yes, Donald Trump.

Steve thanks for your

Steve thanks for your thoughtful response. I do feel that this piece inherently assumes that all progressives are academics or hold college degrees like yourself. They are not. My father-in-law, a high school graduate, was a union organizer in the auto plants (and thank you, Harry, for fighting to give us the 8-hour day), thus my husband, who also does not hold a college degree, grew up in a blue collar household. When he attended a meeting about how to apply for CO status during the war, his father showed up at the meeting to help counsel the young men in his community. Most of my own community organizing in the Boston area was done alongside people who worked on the assembly line at GE, for example. I realize that TW doesn't exactly write for a blue collar audience, but perhaps you might want to revisit some of your assumptions about who is working on the left. In fact, a higher ratio of whites voted for Trump who had incomes that would be considered upper middle class than did those in the "working class" level income bracket.

Right back at you, Judith,

Right back at you, Judith, with thanks for continuing the conversation. Just a clarification about the 'inherent assumptions" in the piece: I do assume that the readers of Talking Writing are primarily college educated and that some are academics--and because it's critical for any writer to know her or his audience, the focus of the piece is narrowed by that understanding. However, I do not in any way assume that progressives are either college educated or part of the academic community. I know firsthand that is not the case. With respect to this piece, though, my focus is not necessarily on distinguishing between the upper middle class and working class whites who voted for Trump, but on those of us on the left whose patent disrespect for others' perspectives have so isolated the progressive movement from exercising real power in this country that heroes like your father-in-law (yes, thank you, Harry!) have seen much of their good union work flushed down the toilet by ideologues on the right who draw much of their
support from the people who are most hurt by their corrosive anti-union sentiment ... the very same people that progressives hold in such contempt.

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