Last week’s post on the election is still making the rounds. Some people liked it. Some people didn’t. Here’s an article from a writer named Gillian Branstetter with a headline that caught my eye.
Hard to ignore a headline like that, so I won’t. Here’s the article, with a few thoughts interspersed.
GB: As long as reality TV stars replace our presidents, they might as well replace our pundits. At least, that seems to be the appeal of former Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe. His latest take on the outcome of the U.S. presidential election is a doozy, too. Rowe, who has amassed a massive Facebook following for his down-home wisdom and charm, answered a fan question about the election by comparing Trump’s appeal to working-class America to his own.
Mike Rowe here, writer of folksy rants, etc. First, I want to assure your readers that their favorite pundits are safe – at least from me. I aspire to no level of punditry or public office. As for my overall “appeal,” well – there’s no accounting for taste…but I’ll take it!
GB: “Dirty Jobs said ‘Hey – we can see you,’ to millions of regular people who had started to feel invisible,” wrote Rowe in a viral Facebook post this week. “Ultimately, that’s why Dirty Jobs ran for eight seasons. And today, that’s also why Donald Trump is the President of the United States… Yeah, it was dirty job for sure, but the winner was NOT decided by a racist and craven nation – it was decided by millions of disgusted Americans desperate for real change. The people did not want a politician. The people wanted to be seen.”
This theme espoused by Rowe and others—that working-class voters responded to Trump out of economic frustration and not demographic resentment—is aligned with the same bootstraps mythology both Trump and Rowe exploit for their own gain. Both men rely on a folksy faith in hard work and ambition that simply doesn’t match the reality of most American workers, and they do so at the peril of the very people who serve as the foundation of their fan base.
MR: I believe a solid work ethic and a measure of ambition are essential ingredients to success, and readily available to anyone. Obviously, the desire to succeed and the willingness to work hard are not enough to guarantee success, but success without either is impossible. I also believe that any able bodied person can metaphorically pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. You call this belief a “myth,” and that puts us at odds over the importance of individual self-reliance. That’s fine, but to suggest that I have used this “mythology” to “exploit my fan base for my own gain” is a “doozy” of an accusation. I’ve exploited no one, Gillian. I run a scholarship program that rewards individual work ethic. I do so, because I believe work ethic is no longer encouraged to the degree it should be. We’ve trained about 500 people for a long list of good jobs, and I’m pretty sure none of them feel exploited.
Finally, “economic frustration and demographic resentment” are not mutually exclusive. I understand that racism, sexism, or all the other ism’s currently dominating the headlines are alive and well in this country, and I suspect they always will be. But I don’t believe our country is fundamentally racist. Millions of white people who voted for Barack Obama, just voted for Donald Trump. It makes little sense to accuse them of “demographic resentment.”
GB: This is not a surprising step into the political arena for Rowe, who runs a foundation to train workers for skilled labor and lobbies both institutions and political candidates to embrace infrastructure spending and skilled labor training. He’s written open letters to President Barack Obama in favor of such, and appeared with Mitt Romney during the 2012 election in a bid to advocate for worker training over four-year degrees.
“We’ve elevated the importance of ‘higher education’ to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled ‘alternative,’” Rowe told the Senate Committee on Science, Commerce, and Transportation in 2011. “In a hundred different ways, we have slowly marginalized an entire category of critical professions, reshaping our expectations of a ‘good job’ into something that no longer looks like work.”
MR: You got the quote right, but I have never argued in favor of training “over” four-year degrees – only that one form of education should not be positioned as subordinate to another. That’s an important distinction. Part of the reason shop classes vanished from high schools is because parents and teachers stopped encouraging students to explore those careers. Why? Because those careers became stigmatized. If your kid was on a vocational path, it was assumed it was because he or she wasn’t capable of anything else. That stigma is alive and well today. It’s called “elitism,” and it’s another dangerous “ism” that’s affecting millions of people. It’s also part of the reason college has become so expensive.
Our relentless obsession with “college for all,” combined with a seemingly unlimited pile of money from which to borrow, has allowed universities to charge whatever they wish. Over the last 40 years, the cost of a degree has increased faster than food, energy, real-estate, and healthcare. But we still pay it – partly because we’re convinced it’s an essential ingredient for success, and partly because the money is available to borrow. One day soon, we’re going to look back and wonder why we encouraged our kids to begin their lives with a massive student loan dangling from their necks, as millions of opportunities that require a skill in demand go unfilled.
GB: Rowe’s focus on so-called “shovel ready” jobs fits in well with President-elect Trump’s own plans to spend a trillion dollars rebuilding and updating the nation’s roads, highways, bridges, and airports. It’s the kind of job creation proposal Democrats and Americans have wanted for decades and promotes exactly the traditional blue-collar work so often romanticized by people like Rowe.
MR: What’s wrong with a little romance? For the last 40 years, our society has done a fantastic job of vilifying hard work while ignoring millions of good jobs that actually exist. That’s why we have a skills gap. People are simply not excited about learning a useful skill. Right now, employers are struggling to fill 5.8 million open positions. Meanwhile, the number of people out of the workforce but capable of working is approaching 100 million. For those who believe opportunity is dead in America, the skills gap is an inconvenient truth. Opportunity in America is NOT dead. However, the economic frustration is very real in the rust belt, because opportunity in some geographic areas has all but vanished. That’s why you shouldn’t paint with such a broad brush.
GB: If it’s the first time you’re hearing about Trump’s infrastructure plan, don’t be surprised. While Trump likes to promote himself as a builder, his supporters only seemed to have one piece of infrastructure in mind—a massive wall along the Mexican border. Trump supporters overwhelmingly support the proposed wall and it served as a greatest hit at Trump rallies, but the very idea of it disproves Rowe’s notion that economic anxiety is what comes first for Trump voters.
MR: Really Gillian? ALL supporters? Do you really believe all 62 million voters based their vote on a wall? Isn’t it possible that a reasonable person might have a legitimate concern about illegal immigration, support the building of a wall, look with suspicion upon “sanctuary cities,” and NOT be anti-immigrant? Isn’t it possible a reasonable person might want to see the existing immigration laws enforced and not be a xenophobe? If so, what would such a person do, when given the choice between a crude businessman who speaks offensively, and a career politician who promises to dramatically increase the flow of refugees from countries that foment terrorism? Isn’t it also possible that an immigration policy that’s actually enforced might have a positive effect on overall economic anxiety?
GB: While Rowe aptly points to education and skills training as the solution for poor Americans, Trump built his campaign on sheer exploitation of xenophobic skepticism of immigration and trade by poor white Americans. According to the Pew Research Center, Trump supporters blame both legal and illegal immigration for job loss and more closely associate illegal immigrants with illicit and violent behavior.
MR: It’s an interesting chart, but there’s nothing on there about legal immigration – only illegal. Besides, it’s a survey. A poll. A random sample. Given the recent and breathtaking inaccuracies of such things, do you really want to rely upon them now? With respect, I think that you and many others have your heads in a cloud of data. My experience on Dirty Jobs, though less scientific, was a lot more real. My conclusions are based upon that, and nothing more. Obviously, I could be wrong. In fact, I’ve gone out of my way to leave room for that possibility. Have you?
GB: Not only are illegal immigrants less likely to commit violent crimes than naturalized U.S. citizens, but illegal immigration doesn’t take away jobs from Americans who would otherwise take them at any scale that Trump claims. So while Rowe and others would like to imagine Trump is merely the figurehead of a populist uprising by hard-working Americans, he is actually the embodiment of misplaced and mistaken racial animosity.
MR: I don’t imagine Trump to be anything other than what he is – The President-Elect of the United States. But let’s assume for a moment you’re correct. Let’s assume he really is “the embodiment of racial animosity.” And let’s further assume the people who voted for him did so on that basis. If so, then I take it all back. We’re in terrible trouble. However – if you’re open to the idea that half the electorate is NOT really xenophobic, and if you’re willing to ponder the possibility that some other force might have compelled millions of Americans who previously voted for a black man to pull the lever for The Orange Menace, then maybe – just maybe – our country can move forward together.
GB: Job-training programs like those promoted by Rowe are a good start toward moving low-skill workers into the kind of sustainable jobs that the future holds. Rowe likes to talk about the skills gap in the context of old-fashioned “shovel ready” jobs, but most of the jobs that will be created in the coming decades will come from technology and IT sectors. Likewise, the real threat to the jobs of Trump supporters aren’t illegal immigrants but automation—a study by Oxford University suggests half the jobs in America will be computerized or performed by machines by 2025.
MR: Actually, I like to talk about all that stuff as well, and I have. At length. “Shovel ready” is not my term – that was made popular most recently by President Obama. I merely argued that filling those three-million “shovel-ready” positions he touted in 2008 would have been a lot easier if the country was more appreciative of people who work with shovels, as opposed to the “vocational consolation prize” mentality so often assigned to those jobs today. It’s tough to promote that which you don’t admire.
GB: Trump’s infrastructure plan rests on nostalgic ideals about craftsman and laborers—that the honor and grit of elbow grease alone can raise good people out of poverty.
MR: I’m not so sure that’s true, but again – I’m not privy to his marketing strategy. I just hope he has one. The skills gap proves that millions of good jobs can exist that nobody wants. Jobs, like anything else for sale, need to be sold. And if the President is really going to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure, we’re going to need a skilled workforce a lot more robust than the one we have. Personally, I think honor and grit still matter, but I’ve been very clear that elbow grease alone is NOT enough to achieve any measure of success. There has to be an element of training, education, and desire. What’s really surprising though, is that such an obvious thing needs to be articulated today. Do you really suppose that Trump doesn’t think training and education are important, simply because you didn’t hear him spell it out?
GB: According to Trump and many of his supporters, immigrants are the only thing keeping Americans from reaching that aspiration. Trump stripped himself of the censorial, dog-whistle nature of politicians and embraced the xenophobia of some of his fans head on, calling Mexicans “rapists” upon throwing his hat into the presidential race.
MR: Even before he clarified those comments, I assumed that Trump was referring specifically to those Mexicans who come here illegally and commit rape. I did not assume he meant that all Mexicans are rapists. Likewise, when President Obama talked about people who “cling to their guns and their religion,” I didn’t assume he was talking about everyone who owned a firearm or worshipped a supernatural being. I figured he was talking about a much smaller group – specifically, those who’s entire worldview revolves around guns and religion.
It’s funny, how pundits will take a candidate’s comments literally when it suits them, and figuratively when it doesn’t. Again – I’m not making excuses for his phraseology. I’m just saying that I believe a lot of reasonable and rational voters made an honest determination that he was not referring to all Mexicans. But, I could be wrong.
GB: Americans deserve to be anxious about the fate of blue-collar work, but to ignore the way Trump has used racism as the cure is a disservice to the kind of workers Rowe promotes.
MR: “Deserve to be anxious?” You really do have an interesting way of putting things, Gillian. Anxiety is not a thing anyone “deserves.” It’s just a feeling, and like all feelings, it’s ultimately a choice. Sometimes it’s justified, sometimes it isn’t. But it has less to do with the facts in evidence, and more to do with what scares us as individuals.
You and I for instance, are both anxious about President Trump. I’m anxious because the man has never held office, he’s never worn a uniform, and he’s frightened millions of people with irresponsible rhetoric and bad behavior completely inconsistent with the leader of the free world. That makes me uneasy, no doubt about it.
You on the other hand, are anxious because you have taken everything he’s said at face value. Moreover, you seem to believe that everyone who voted for him did so because they agree with everything he’s said and done. Surely, you have to know how absurd that is. Do 60 million votes for Hillary Clinton means 60 million Americans approve of lying under oath, mishandling classified emails, and blatant “pay for play” shenanigans with her foundation? Of course not. I know many Hillary supporters who were disgusted by her behavior, and voted for her anyway. I know many Trump supporters who followed suit. You should take comfort in that. I’m not ignoring Trump or the things he said. But you – and many others – would have us believe the character of the country is no better than the character of the candidates.
And that’s enough to make anybody anxious.
Keep it folksy,