Election 2016: Jews and hillbillies

Supporters celebrate as returns come in for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on Nov. 9. Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters

Supporters celebrate as returns come in for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on Nov. 9. Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters

For over a year, I’ve been writing about the anti-Semitism the Donald Trump campaign inflamed and inspired. I followed it because it’s despicable, and because its Jewish defenders, like Jared Kushner and David Friedman, should be made to answer for it, if not by voters, then, through the lasting magic of Google, by their children and grandchildren.

But anti-Semitism isn’t even close to the deepest problem this presidential campaign has revealed. Jew hatred, Islamophobia, misogyny and xenophobia all played supporting roles in Election 2016. But the star is income inequality.

When Hillary Clinton said in a September speech at a fundraiser in New York City that she puts 50 percent of Trump voters in “the basket of deplorables,” she sank to her opponent’s level, attacking people, not policies.

Is it 50 percent of his support? Doubtful. And even if it were, Clinton could attack their positions and beliefs all she wanted but not smear the people who hold them. She should have apologized, and, to her credit, she did.

But it’s the second part of her statement at that event that should grab and keep our concern. Because the fringe alt-right movement that rallied behind Trump will eventually fray, but the deeper economic and social problems that have powered Trumpism are only going to get worse.

In the other “basket” of Trump supporters, Clinton pointed out, “are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

I’m not quite sure why Clinton was hung up on the basket metaphor — maybe it was her pneumonia talking — and I’m not sure there’s no overlap between the baskets. But her point should direct us away from the relatively easy-to-solve problem of hate groups to the far more difficult call to confront economic disparity.

That is the challenge of this depressing election season. And that is the challenge of our time.

Every indicator shows the gap between haves and have-nots grows wider and wider. The result is two Americas: those who enjoy the bounty this country offers, and those suffer by the inability to make ends meet.

In his excellent election post-mortem, CNBC commentator Jake Novak nailed the answer to “Why Trump?”:

“The real reasons Trump won have been real in America for at least the last 40 or so years,” he wrote. “The largest single economic group in our country has been sold out and ignored by the leaders of both parties for more than a generation. They are the hourly wage-earning Americans who have been bounced around from good manufacturing jobs, to service jobs, to seasonal work without the rest of us noticing that much. And that’s even though there are a lot more of them than the college-educated white collar office workers out there.”

That explains why more Latinos and blacks voted for Trump than they did for Mitt Romney in 2012. And it explains why so many women voted for Trump. Not because of Hillary’s e-mails. Not because they hate women. Because they feel that they are clinging by their fingernails to the American Dream, and Trump promised them a hand up.

Whether Trump succeeds in helping them or not, it’s a problem we all must take on. Because if we don’t figure out a way to help more people help themselves, the problem will drag the economy, and the country, down with it.

And make no mistake, the problem is only going to get worse. In September, CNN presented a series of videos by a new group called WorkingNation, launched by philanthropist Art Bilger.

The thrust of the group’s message is that a perfect storm of factors is leading us to a society of even greater and more ensconced income disparity. New technologies that will replace even white-collar jobs, an educational system that trains students for last century’s economy, the increase in lifespan and the rise of globalization will lead to a future of 25 or 30 percent unemployment.

Though it’s not clear to me American- Jewish leaders or institutions see this as their problem, it is one the American-Jewish community is perfectly situated to address.

In the new (and must-read) book “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” (Harper), J.D. Vance describes how he managed to leave behind the poverty of his native Appalachia. Entering Yale University after serving in the Marines, Vance felt like he didn’t belong among the elites who denigrated “white trash,” or back among his folks who distrusted the elites.

“It’s not just our own communities that reinforce the outsider attitude,” Vance writes. “It’s the places and people that upward mobility connects us with.”

Vance’s story should resonate with people whose own families arrived two or three generations ago — it’s an immigrant’s journey.

No matter how deep their American roots, the people in Clinton’s other basket are foreigners in a land of opportunity.

As a community whose immigrant journey has been wildly successful, American Jews can lead in figuring out ways to welcome those who are “tempest-toss’d” by the modern economy. We can engage our youth in the task of making our country work for everyone. Our social and political action can focus not just on important short-term aid — soup kitchens and homeless shelters — but on the kind big-picture ideas WorkingNation advances.

Mention Trump in most Jewish circles and you’ll immediately hear the disbelieving response, “Who could have possibly voted for him?”

I have a suggestion. Let’s find out. And find a way to help.

This is a revised post-election version of my Jewish Journal print column that went to press before the election results were in. You can e-mail me at robe@jewishjournal.com and follow me @RobEshman and @foodaism.

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