Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A Hard Case, For Trump

Economics, morality, and the common good in modern America

The Washington Post‘s great Stephanie McCrummen profiles Ralph Case, a struggling small-town Ohio businessman who has placed all his chips on Trump. Excerpts:

It was in so many ways the moment that 38-year-old Ralph Case had been waiting for, one building since June, when the single father with a one-truck renovation business was watching TV in his living room. A breaking news alert flashed on the screen, followed by the scene in a brassy lobby in New York City. “Rockin’ in the Free World” was blasting. A crowd was facing an escalator. And then, gliding down it, came the man Ralph recognized as the “great builder” and reality-show host Donald J. Trump, who was announcing his bid for president.

“Oh. My. God,” is what Ralph remembers thinking. As Trump spoke of an America that doesn’t “have any victories anymore,” he felt something stirring inside — “like something hit me in my gut.”

“I’m thinking, it’s time,” Ralph recalled. “Like, this is big. This is bigger than big.”

He became a Trump supersupporter. McCrummen details the hardscrabble life Ralph Case has. More:

It seemed to Ralph that the whole political world was mobilizing against Trump, and by extension, people like him — an everyman with an 11th grade education, aching knees and chronic ailments requiring four prescriptions and a monthly IV infusion to keep him going.

All of it only affirmed Ralph’s instinct: that Trump was an outsider telling the truth about America’s decline. “He’s honest,” said Ralph. “And the truth hurts.”

“Hey, Ralph,” said a volunteer named Mike, arriving at the office to pick up signs. “You see what the Republicans are trying to do to us? It’s just sad. They will never get another vote from me.”

“Me either,” said Ralph, who had actually rarely voted before but was now so energized that he had called the John “Couchburner” Denning radio show that morning, waiting on hold for 35 minutes to tell people about the new office on Tuscarawas Street, where a portable sign in the parking lot said “Tru Headquarters” because he’d run out of letters. Now people were streaming in.

Read the whole thing. I’ve read it twice, and man, my heart breaks for this guy. He’s like a walking John Mellencamp song. If Trump doesn’t make it, he’s going to be crushed. And I am completely confident that if Trump does make it to the White House … he’s going to be crushed. Him and his boys. And these people, from the story:

There was the veteran who couldn’t care less that Trump was vulgar: “I feel he’s talking to me when he talks,” said Terry Smerz.

There were Lucia Zappitelli, who worked for 30 years at Diebold until her division was outsourced to India — “He tells it like it is, and we are sinking,” she said — and Pam Henderhan, who was handing out the phone number for the Republican Party so people could complain.

It’s people like Ralph Case, Terry Smerz, and Lucia Zappitelli — 30 years at Diebold, and then her job goes to India — that make me deeply sympathetic to Trump. I don’t think the Republican Party or the Democratic Party really cares about them. The tragedy, though, is that Trump is playing these people. My friend Michael Brendan Dougherty, who has also written sympathetically about Trump’s crusade, details how the candidate is already falling apart. Excerpt:

Indeed, the transformation is already showing. On policy, Trump is caving to normal Republicanism. He’s trying to get elected by pining for someone to finish the dang fence but has amnesty on the mind. He’s promising to protect American workers from unfair competition, but angling to pass a plutocratic tax reform. By the end of his campaign the only thing he’ll have added to the Republican Party is a reputation for crudity and disorderly violence.

His nationalist challenge to the status quo is disintegrating before our eyes. Instead of the inevitable transformation of the American right, Donald Trump is just the most successful huckster, selling gold coins and survival seeds to a scared public.

MBD and National Review‘s Kevin D. Williamson got into a heated argument last month about Trump and the white working class. The WaPo’s Jim Tankersley summarizes their exchange here, and adds a few comments from his interview with MBD, which concludes like this:

(MBD says:) When conservatives think of American trade negotiators and diplomats working to lower the barriers to American capitalists investing in overseas workforces, they see it as a core function of government, not as a kind of favor to wealthy clients of the American state. But if the same negotiators had in mind the interests of American workers instead, they see it as corrupt protectionism, that coddles the undeserving. There is a huge failure of imagination on the right. And a failure of self-awareness.  It may also be that I don’t see conservatism’s primary duty as guarding the purity of certain 19th century liberal principles on economics. I see its task as reconciling and harmonizing the diverse energies and interests of a society for the common good.

That’s how I see things too. Now, KDW has excoriated the Ralph Cases of the world in the pages of National Review, in an essay that has enraged some on the Right. It’s behind a paywall now, but here’s an excerpt:

If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that.

Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.


If you haven’t read KDW’s reporting from Appalachia’s white ghettos, you really should. He is not a guy writing from the comfort of a Manhattan office. For one, he lives in Texas (he was born in the Texas Panhandle), and for another, he has been out into the field. KDW’s verdict in his new piece is far too harsh, and somewhat misguided, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment. But let me say what I think he gets right.

My late father was born and raised in rural poverty in the Deep South. He spent most of his career working as the chief public health officer in our parish, which is the most rural one in the state of Louisiana. Nobody gets rich working as the state public health officer. He dealt with real poverty every single day, both in the course of doing his own work, and in the parish health unit, where his office was. He was a compassionate man, but also an unsentimental one. For him, poverty and human behavior was not an abstract problem. It was one he lived.

My dad made a fool of me from time to time, and I deserved it. There was a time when I was a snotty college student, and having a good old time with my buddies making fun of a poor, simple man. Daddy let me have it good, shaming me for looking down my nose at that man. That man had lived a hard life, and was not smart. He had made mistakes. But he did not deserve the scorn of smart-ass college boys like me and my friends. Daddy didn’t make that man into a Bruce Springsteen hero. He just saw him as a human being who deserved respect.

During my crusading liberal days in college, I was full of ardor and right-thinking on the subject of race and poverty. I dismissed my dad’s conservative views as typical hard-hearted Reaganism, and fumed over how someone like him, who was raised working-class and was culturally working class, could sympathize with Reagan, that old racist. What it took me years to see was that however shaped my father’s views on race and poverty were by his generation’s attitudes, they were also deeply informed by years of observation of how poor black people, like poor white people, lived. He would try to explain to me how nobody who lived the way so many of the black (and white) poor did in our parish could ever hope to break the cycle of poverty. It took education, and hard work, and self-discipline, especially staying off of drink, drugs, and avoiding having children outside of marriage. You had to be sensible with your money, he would tell me (I didn’t know until many years later how hard he and my mom, a school bus driver, struggled financially during my childhood).

I didn’t want to hear it. I had my theories from my books and my favorite magazines and op-ed writers. What did my dad know, anyway?

I’m not retrospectively canonizing him. Like every one of us, my dad’s take on the world was limited by his circumstances. The point is, my dad’s lack of sentimentality about the lives of the rural poor came from the inside out, and from working with and among them. They were by comparison only an abstraction to me, a kid born in the late 1960s at the end of the long postwar boom that had propelled people like my dad into the middle class.

The thing I remember most about my dad was how much contempt he had for people who would not work. He was an old-timer who really didn’t respect office work as “real work” (you can imagine how much stress this caused in our relationship). He had to work at a desk when he was the public health officer, and hated every minute of it. He preferred to be working with his hands, and literally, until the day he died, would tell anybody who would listen what a damn shame it was that we lived in a society that devalued physical labor, and tried to push everybody into college.

All of this is to say that when I read Kevin D. Williamson’s essay, I hear in it the voice of my father. Daddy would take the side of a hard-working man, white or black, in a heartbeat, but a man he judged as lazy, or wanting a handout — they were nothing but trash to him, whatever their race. And if you didn’t live by a code of honor — hard work, self-discipline, respect for self and others — you were no kind of man in his eyes. I remember once passing the house of a poor white family down one of our country roads, and remarking on the ramshackleness of their house. Daddy did not feel sorry for them. He told me that the mother and father of that family were struggling, but that the father drank all his wages up, and was “no-account.” The mother, she had her own problems. He pointed out how hard they made the lives of their children by their slothful, self-indulgent behavior. Daddy was as hard on them as he was on the rich people in town that he thought didn’t do their duty to their kids and their community.

Worst of all in my father’s eyes were those people who were content to sit on their butts “like a stump full of owls eating dirt daubers,” in his memorable phrase, allowing their kids to suffer and everything to fall apart around them when they could be doing something, anything, to provide. My father would at times point out people in our town to my sister and me as examples to emulate, or to avoid imitating. “That sumbitch wouldn’t hit a lick at a snake,” he would say about a fellow who was lazy (and who might be rich or poor).

Someone who was content to wallow in self-pity instead of getting up and going somewhere to find work to provide for his family — that kind of person would have been contemptible in my dad’s eyes. Life, for him, was about struggle. To win at life was to struggle honorably. That was the main thing. To have to leave your town would be a tragedy, maybe, but better that than to pity yourself and depend on the charity of others. His was a code of honor held by many of the white working class in his day, and he believed in it fiercely. He would have had nothing but scorn for the “vicious, selfish culture” of some poor and working class white people — and black people too. My father would have given KDW a thumbs-up on that.

But here’s the part of my dad that I don’t find in KDW’s essay.

Daddy was one of those people referred to on retirement plaques as a “dedicated public servant.” Thing is, he really was. He never bragged about it; he just did it. He thought the honorable thing for a man to do was to help out his community, to be of service to others. Now that he’s gone, I look back on the things my dad did for this place, and I marvel. In his job as the public health officer, he helped bring running water and sewerage to the houses of poor people who had never had it. He set up and administered programs that did real good for people. When I was a little kid, I would go with him on his rounds of our parish during the week he would provide free rabies vaccinations for the dogs of country people. He didn’t have to do that; he knew that it would help folks out. And on and on. He helped start our neighborhood volunteer fire department, and served as its first chief — this, in a time when he could have relaxed in retirement.

In short, he loved this place and its people, and believed that being a good man meant caring about the common good. Towards the very end of his life, he despaired of this at times, but the sum of his life’s work was to leave his community better than he found it. For my father, this was a real thing. He often became frustrated with what he regarded as the foolishness of people to get caught up in parochial, self-interested concerns, at the expense of the greater good, and at times, towards the end of his life, confessed to despairing of the work he had done over the decades. As readers of my Dante book will know, I think my dad made a false idol of community, family, and place, one that caused him and me a lot of heartache, though we worked it all out before the end. Still, the life he spent in service to his community is a model to me of the public-spirited man.

I know that in his final decade, he was concerned about how hard it was for young people born and raised here to stay in the parish. The kind of jobs that were available to men of his generation had largely disappeared. We had (and still have) a problem with affordable housing here. In his eyes, it was bad enough that my generation would leave here in search of work because we chose to do so. Much worse were his generation’s grandchildren who wanted to stay here, but could not because there was no work for them.

What do the winners in the information economy owe to those who have not done well? A man used to be able to make a good living by the strength of his back and his willingness to work. That’s the world my dad grew up in, and that shaped his outlook on life. Now, many Republicans have lost touch with how hard it is for people who don’t have the education or the natural intelligence to navigate this new world. Back in 2005, when George W. Bush, fresh from his re-election triumph, undertook a crusade to privatize Social Security, I found myself thinking about my dad and the people back home. That scheme was for people like me: successful middle-class professionals who knew how to take advantage of investment opportunities, or (in my case, because I’m an idiot on math) afford the professional advice on how to manage investments. Most of the working people back home would have been set upon by the kind of people who pay big money to political campaigns, and been fleeced. I don’t think that G.W. Bush intended to hurt these people. But I think Republicans, especially policy people in DC, suffer from what MBD calls a failure of imagination. They don’t understand that not everybody is an A student, and not everybody can figure the complexities of modern life out. There is among a lot of Republicans a contempt for the working poor and working class — a contempt of which that the people who hold it are unaware — that says people not smart enough to be self-contained, successful individualist libertarians kind of deserve what they get. Too stupid to figure out how to invest your Social Security allotment? Sucks to be you.

That’s part of what I hear in KDW’s essay, that attitude. Having trouble reaching your bootstraps because you were born with arms too short, or you threw your back out permanently? Sucks to be you.

I wish my dad were still around to talk to about Trump, and the Ralph Cases of the world. I wonder what he would say. Again, he was not a sentimentalist, but rather a practical man. In fact, he was so uninterested in tradition that if it had been up to him, he would have bulldozed antebellum houses to make a shopping center if the land would be more profitable that way. He and I got into a hot argument a couple of decades ago about whether or not Wal-mart ought to come to town. I think he got the best of me, to be honest. He pointed out that it was easy for me to decry the potential aesthetic spoil of our town, because I didn’t live here, and I didn’t have to drive way out of the way to get things because most of the small stores in town had long since closed. And during the last big political controversy in our parish, he was adamantly on the side of the forces of progress, because he believed that the “let’s keep everything the way it is” people, whether they realized it or not, were dooming our parish to obsolescence and permanent decline. I say all this to you to point out that he did not believe in the idea of a permanent arcadia.

That said, he was the kind of man who would almost certainly have taken Michael Brendan Dougherty’s side here:

It may also be that I don’t see conservatism’s primary duty as guarding the purity of certain 19th century liberal principles on economics. I see its task as reconciling and harmonizing the diverse energies and interests of a society for the common good.

He was one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever known, but he hated theory. Hated it. The only Shakespeare he knew or cared anything about was the company that made fishing reels, and he couldn’t have given a fig about Aristotle or even Tocqueville. What he understood in his bones was that the things that make life worth living are goods that come to us in family, and in community. A good life is something that ought to be shared, and shared across generations. He used to talk with bitterness about the merchants who left the parish after the catastrophic 1927 flood, which followed a long period of economic decline. He was born in 1934, and was too young to remember any of it, but he had it fixed in his mind that those people had abandoned us.

Whenever this would come up, I would explain to him that those merchants back then almost certainly had no choice but to leave for the city, because there was no economy around here anymore, not after the flood and the boll weevil, and certainly not during the Great Depression. He was a smart man, and at some level must have understood what I was saying. Still, he was convinced emotionally that they ought to have found some way to have stuck it out. Because you know, they were us. We were one community. That’s how he saw it. Where was their loyalty? To the “almighty dollar,” as he would put it? Or to, you know, all of us?

I don’t know what my dad would have thought of Trump. He died late last summer, as Trump’s campaign was taking off. The last thing we watched on TV together was Trump’s rally in Mobile, but he didn’t comment on it. I think that my dad would have instinctively taken the side of Ralph Case, and Terry Smerz, and Lucia Zappitelli. But he wouldn’t have agreed that they were owed a living in their town. I suspect his view would have been that the best policy is one that makes it easier — not easy, but easier — for people to stay where they were born and raised, and where their family’s roots are. That’s what I think it meant to be conservative, to my dad: to give decent men and women willing to work hard and live honorably — not like common trash, sponging off their neighbors — the opportunity to make a decent life for themselves in their hometowns. He was a George Bailey kind of guy. He unquestionably shared KDW’s low opinion of “no-count” people whose poverty he saw as largely the result of deficient character. But he reflexively sided with the little guy with the hard work ethic, and he would give people a chance if he thought they were salt of the earth folks doing their best.

Here’s who my dad was. He owned a trailer park for a couple of decades (money from those rental spaces helped put my sister and me through college), and kept the monthly rental fee somewhat below market rate. He knew the people who rented spaces from him were hard workers, and that they struggled to pay their bills. He had a soft spot for working men and women — and if they were working at the mill or the plant, they were making more money than he was at the health department. I can remember my mom complaining to him from time to time, quite reasonably, that really, Ray, you can’t let So-and-so keep taking advantage of you like that. They’re way behind on their rent. Don’t you see that they’re cheating you? There were times when my dad had to face that fact and evict people. But he hated to do it, because, I think, he remembered what it was like to have little, and to fight to hang on to that. He was a soft touch as a landlord, not because he was dumb, but because he stood with the little guy, always. He was a Reagan Democrat all the way.

We were watching the news one day during the last year of his life. I don’t know what the particular story was, but I remember watching him sit in his chair, shaking his head. “I’m glad I’m not going to be around to see much more of this,” he said. The world had long since passed him by. He did not believe America was headed towards greatness, that’s for sure.

My heart hurts for Ralph Case. He’s the kind of man my dad would have befriended, helped, and fought for. He’s the kind of man my dad did befriend, help, and fight for. And he’s going to get run over.

UPDATE: To let you know that my father wasn’t a one-off, here’s an excerpt from an e-mail I received from a local reader:

Daddy was a generation ahead of your Dad, but I felt their and our culture to my very bones when reading your piece.  Yes!  This is how we were raised.  Daddy was born in 1910, so his years were marked by the poverty of the early 1920s and the depression.  Daddy said nobody had any money, and my grandfather’s country store dealt heavily in bartering for goods.

His attitude toward life was the same as your father, and when he saw behavior he disapproved of he would say:  “He knows better than that.”  I grew up hearing those words.

Thanks for taking me down memory lane.  It was a hard life, but our parents’ generations knew right from wrong and our parents were defined by a code of honor.  There is little more I can say; we’ll be grateful to them forever.

It’s true. What a gift.



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