We haven’t seen rain for several months now in south central Tennessee. There’s been day after day during week after week of pretty weather, and while the turning leaves have been lovely, the dryness is increasingly a cause for concern. Some mornings you wake up to the faint smell of smoke, a thing you do not want to be smelling when you live in the woods as we do.
There’s a metaphor in that, I think. In the air we sense trouble because we know how big a tinderbox we’re on sitting on. On Tuesday evening, we turned on our TV’s in the full confidence that we would see at long last the smash-up of the Republican party. The polls and pundits assured us that the conservative movement was in its death throes, that the boor at the top of the ticket would lose badly and all those down-ballot would suffer along with him. By midnight we saw that it was the Democrats who had been completely and utterly routed, with the GOP in control of both House and Senate, Donald Trump unbelievably the President-elect, and the Supreme Court soon to be packed with Scalia-like ideologues. It was as if the screenplay for election night had been written by George R.R. Martin.
On Facebook, the mood among my friends swung wildly but predictably from giddiness to grief. “I don’t like this,” one wrote, as Florida was called for Trump, and then a little later, Pennsylvania. The West Coast could be counted on for 70+ Electoral votes, somebody else pointed out, but Hillary would need more than 190 before she got there, and all she had was 131. The horrible truth started to crash in on my friends and me: ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US, for make no mistake, the voters this week have made a decision that will resonate for a generation. That burning smell? That was everything progressives had thought to achieve on climate change, on women’s and minority rights, on healthcare, on support for the middle class, all of it gone up in smoke.
On campus the next morning, the shell shock was palpable. A colleague noted that it was 11/9, but the mood was like 9/11. Students of color seemed overwhelmed. Did America really just elect an unapologetic bigot? I would later hear of professor of color being told by a student, “It’s a great day for white people,” and another being accosted by a Trump supporter. The students in my small Latin class Wednesday morning–all young white men–wanted to talk about the election, and so we did for a few minutes. They were as shocked as I was. What good were the polls if they failed to predict this? We all felt that our faith in the mainstream media had been misplaced, our sense of what was true was very badly shaken.
Not everyone on campus was unhappy. I talked to my friend of mine who’s a manager in the cafeteria, standing in his usual lunchtime perch where he keeps an eye out on things. “A lot of students are walking around in a daze,” he said. “There are others, a bigger component than you might think, who are pretty happy, giving each other high fives.” He and I looked out at the students milling beneath us, still largely a white population. I asked about his staff, the folks who cook and serve the food and clean up after these students. “Well, most of them got the outcome they were hoping for.”
Almost all of the cafeteria workers are Franklin County locals, I should point out, where Trump won 70% of the vote. I was in Estill Springs yesterday, taking the dog to have some blood drawn, and there seemed to be a spring in everyone’s step I met.Last summer, the Rebel flags flew defiantly down the main street from pick-ups in agitated protest. By the side of the road this week, I saw a pick-up parked with the Confederate flag, an American flag, a Don’t Tread On Me flag, and a black American flag with a blue stripe on it that I have come to learn is the “Thin Blue Line” emblem. In the vet’s office, there’s a sign noting that the high price of medicine for dogs was a result of Obamacare and if we didn’t like it, we should let our Congressman know. Not that our Congressman would need any further convincing on this topic–he’s a member of the Freedom Caucus, and his policy positions are tailor-made to please deplorables by the basketful.
For four years, I myself was on the School Board in this county. My fellow board-members and I got along fairly well, but at times an issue might flare up that showed what a cultural divide we lived on either side of. When I tried to have our corporal punishment policy struck down, on the grounds that I think a principal paddling a student is barbaric, I lost the vote 7 to 1. “It’s like you’re trying to be Big Brother,” I was told by one of them, though how my desire to prevent government employees from striking children is a Socialist nightmare is beyond me. More bruising was the time we had a large public meeting over prayer before PTO meetings, a practice that an ACLU-like group had demanded the county put a stop to. Again, I lost 7-1 on that, but not before hearing 400-person crowd loudly intone the Lord’s Prayer and later boo and tell me to go back to Sewanee.
One thing my fellow board-members and I were of one mind on was the need for a slight property tax increase to fund the schools. That went nowhere, year in and year out, as the County Commissioners steadfastly refused to believe there weren’t cuts to be made in operating expenses. “You can’t tell me,” one of them said in a meeting as he held up a copy of our 30-page budget, “that there isn’t fat that can be cut out of this.” He had no suggestions, nor did he want to “get into the weeds” on specifics, but he just knew. For most of the commission, taxes are the work of the devil, and the connection between them and public services is not fully understood. Again, I recall talking with some agiatated parents one time about a school bus line that was being cut–they were outraged about this, and rightly so as it was going to introduce a major inconvenience into their lives, as they would now have to drive their kids to school each morning. On the back of those cars, I could see Sarah Palin bumperstickers. I refrained from pointing out the irony to them.
At the end of the day, my sense of my fellow public servants in Franklin County was mixed. These were almost all hard-working, church-going people who went out of their way to be nice to me–their good opinion was something I truly relished, but while I know most of them were on Facebook, we never became friends on social media. I understand that, I guess. On social issues, we nearly never agreed, and their suspicion of progressive issues like marriage equality or climate change was near total.
It bothers me to think that a large part of the reason I was surprised by Trump’s election is because I don’t hear the opinions of anybody I really disagree with online. I’m still not sure we might have talked about had I friended some of my School Board collagues on Facebook. Hunting? Alabama football? I had no desire to hear about those things, nor they in any of my interests. I suppose there’s always the weather, but even there, who knows? Some might say that the lovely days we’ve enjoyed are part of God’s grace, while others see in the long drought not divine favor but human folly and worry that it all might end in a conflagration soon.