My husband, Kevin, was an almost Trump voter. We live in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, a predominantly white rural area and part of the “Rust Belt” that’s gotten so much attention from Donald Trump and the media in the past year. Kevin suffers from epilepsy, mental health issues and arthritis. He has been fighting to get Supplemental Security Income for over 10 years now and has continuously been denied benefits.
Kevin can’t work a 40-hour week because of medical restrictions which include no kneeling, pushing, pulling, lifting, walking up or down stairs, and no standing for more than 30 minutes at a time. Even with these limitations, and a family of five to care for, he was still denied disability benefits. Cambria County already has very few jobs, and it’s nearly impossible for him to find a job he can do.
Throughout the presidential campaign, Kevin was a Trump supporter. I disagreed with him, but I also saw what resonated with him: a promise to change politics and bring back jobs. That’s a change that most of us want to see, though we have different ways of getting there.
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The appeal of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is that they gave people an actual answer to the question, “Who is my enemy?” For Trump, it’s Muslims, immigrants and the government elite; and for Sanders, it’s Wall Street. Both messages resonated strongly with people in my county. Where jobs are scarce, people are afraid of being pushed out of the market by folks who are even more exploitable. When there’s constant war being waged abroad and a stream of news designed to terrify us, people fear the bogeyman that they’re given.
With less exposure to people of many different ethnic, racial, gender and religious backgrounds, an educational system that doesn’t teach our real history, and limited internet access in rural areas, people’s perspectives are limited. It may not be right, but it’s also not inevitable. Sanders put forward a different source for our problems, one of Wall Street elites controlling the system for their own benefit while the little guy suffers.
Last year, Kevin and I joined Put People First! PA, an organization building statewide power across lines of division like race, geography and political affiliation to fight for our basic needs like health care, housing and education. We recently won a campaign to make the Pennsylvania Insurance Department hold their first ever public hearing on insurance rate review, and I know we are becoming more ambitious in our campaigns as our community grows.
Being part of this deep community organizing has impacted my own views, and I know that meeting someone like me has impacted others’ views. We have a long-term commitment to each other, one that’s pulling us through this present moment. We learn from each other’s struggles, and support one another on a level of respect and understanding that every person should receive, regardless of their views and opinions.
We know that unless we build a broad-based movement inclusive of everyone who’s struggling, we’re not going to win. That means rural and small town people joining up with urban people. Cisgender people joining up with trans people. Citizens joining up with undocumented people. Christians joining up with Muslims.
We respect people’s intelligence, build trust through learning each other’s stories, develop leadership and study together. Working-class and poor people are as intelligent as anyone else. When we get a chance to learn about global capital and racism, we connect our individual life experiences to the broad sweep of history. We know what’s right and wrong, and we can strategize about how to change it.
In June 2016, a group of us from across Pennsylvania organized a candlelight vigil for my mother, who had passed away in October 2015, from lung cancer. Though she lost this battle, it was the inadequate treatment that she received that took her so quickly. We stood publicly in front of her provider’s office demanding an apology, and with support from people all over the state, we made our voice heard. I, a poor white woman from Johnstown, stood arm in arm with my friend and fellow member from Philadelphia, a poor Black Muslim woman from Philadelphia wearing hijab.
Kevin was in attendance, and although he has views that are different than many of ours, he is still very supportive of the work I do and understands the reason I fight. Mourning in community is essential for healing, and I feel many people including Kevin were healed at this gathering. New doors opened, bringing new opportunities for organizing and strengthening relationships. This experience was one that ultimately made it more difficult — and later, impossible — for Kevin to continue supporting Trump.
The more conversations we had, the more Kevin revealed some of his apprehensions, such as hearing Trump say that he wants to deport immigrants, only to find out that Trump’s own wife is an immigrant. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that there’s no easy answer to the problems we face. Donald Trump is in over his head, and it became obvious to Kevin that Trump does not understand poor people — never having been one — or politics, two things that are vital to run a country.
We are not red or blue. We are not a token for political transactions, and the strength of our bonds will resist that designation whether it comes from hate-fueled Republicans or neoliberal Democrats. Resisting these binaries is not only possible, it is the only way we can unite as the bottom with enough strength to challenge the top.
It is possible. And perhaps that’s the message of hope and change we really need.