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Trump On The Bayou

Candidate's tour of flood zone showed respect -- and that counts for a lot here

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration on the Orthodox Old Calendar, so I’ve been in church up in Starhill most of the morning. When I got out, I saw on my iPhone that Donald Trump had turned up in Greenwell Springs, in the flood zone, and heard a rumor that he was headed to Livingston Parish. I thought about chasing his entourage to hear what he had to say, but decided I had more important work to do. I’ll hear it through the media.

I’ve just arrived home, and have not yet checked the Trump news, though I’ll do so after I make the point I’m about to make. I don’t want to prejudice my opinion by a read of what he’s already said to the media here. Unless he really blows it (always a possibility), this visit will likely be a big plus for Trump politically, for reasons that J.D. Vance, author of the new #1 New York Times bestseller Hillbilly Elegy, mentioned in his Fresh Air interview a couple of days ago.

Excerpt from that interview:

[HOST TERRY] GROSS:You describe yourself as conservative, and you’ve written for The National Review, a conservative magazine. You’ve become kind of famous for an article or two in which you try to explain why, you know, a lot of poor people would be voting for Trump. And in your writing and in your discussions, you’ve called Trump’s promises the needle in America’s collective vein. You’ve described Trump as the new pain reliever, trying to make comparisons between, you know, narcotizing pain and what Trump is trying to do in explaining things away, easy solutions. Do you know a lot of people who are going to be voting for Trump or – yeah.

VANCE: I do. A lot of people in my family are going to be voting for Trump, a lot of my neighbors and friends from back home. So it’s definitely a phenomenon I, I think, recognize and frankly saw coming pretty early. You know, it’s interesting that I don’t think the Trump phenomenon is exclusively about the white poor.

I think that it’s more about the white working-class folks who aren’t necessarily economically destitute but in some ways feel very culturally isolated and very pessimistic about the future. That’s one of the biggest predictors of whether someone will support Donald Trump – it may be the biggest predictor – is the belief that America is headed in the wrong direction, the belief that your kids are not going to have a better life than you did.

And that cynicism really breeds frustration at political elites, but, frankly, that frustration needs to find a better outlet than Donald Trump. And that’s why I’ve made some of the analogies that I have because I don’t think that he’s going to make the problem better. I think, like you said, he is in some ways a pain reliever. He’s someone who makes people feel a little bit better about their problems. But whether he’s elected president or not, those problems are still going to be there, and we’ve got to recognize that.

GROSS: So when you’re having a discussion about the presidential race with someone in your family, someone who’s going to be voting for Trump, what is that conversation like?

VANCE: It typically starts with me making a point that I just made, which is, look, maybe Trump is recognizing some legitimate problems. He’s talking about the opioid epidemic in a way that nobody else is. But he’s not going to fix the problem. You know, better trade deals is not going to make all of these problems just go away.

And typically my family actually recognizes that. That’s what I find so interesting. They don’t think that this guy is going to solve all their problems. They just think he’s at least trying and he’s saying things, primarily to the elites, that they wish they could say themselves. So it’s really interesting. There’s a recognition that Trump isn’t going to solve a lot of these problems, but he’s, at the end of the day, the only person really trying to tap into this frustration.

And it’s, you know, I – so my dad is a Trump supporter, and I love my dad, and I always say, Dad, you know, Trump is not going to actually make any of these problems better. And he says, well, that’s probably true, but at least he’s talking about them and nobody else is and at least he’s not Mitt Romney. At least he’s not George W. Bush. He’s at least trying to talk about these problems.

And I think it’s amazing how low the bar has been set by the political conversation we’ve had for the past 20 or 30 years that this guy, who many people don’t think is going to solve the problems, is still getting a lot of support from people who are blue-collar white folks.

I find myself exactly where J.D. Vance is politically (as he indicates elsewhere in this interview): unable and unwilling to vote for Hillary Clinton, grateful to Trump for raising issues that standard Republicans have ignored, but having no trust at all in his ability to make any real difference at all in the lives of the people whose hopes he has excited.

Having said that, this is why Trump’s visit today will have been politically smart.

As I’ve been detailing all week, the people in south Louisiana are seething with anger at the national media for ignoring or downplaying the immensity of the suffering we’ve been enduring here since the floods started a week ago today. And not just at the national media: President Obama has been playing golf all week on Martha’s Vineyard while nearly half of Louisiana is underwater, or struggling to make sense of destroyed lives in the wake of the flood. He hasn’t said diddly about it, nor, except for one tweet, has Hillary Clinton, despite her big talk at the Democratic convention about how we’re all stronger together. She (or rather, her staff) found it more compelling to tweet about US women gold medal winners in Rio than tens of thousands of Louisianans now homeless.

I have not seen a poll, obviously, but anecdotally, I can tell you that lots of people here are furious at elites in the national media and in national politics, and I’m talking liberal Democrats here in the Bayou State too. The broad feeling is that we don’t matter to them, that we are just a bunch of rednecks and coonasses and country people in flyover country whose problems are far less interesting than Donald Trump’s tweets and Ryan Lochte’s misdemeanors. Trump has been part of this dynamic too in the past week, more preoccupied with his self-demeaning, pissy fight with the media than in paying attention to the country he supposedly wants to govern.

But unlike the president or Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump is here today, viewing the devastation and visiting with victims and relief workers. Donald Trump is at present not in a position to do anything other than write a personal check for relief work. If he were president, as a bureaucratic matter, he probably couldn’t do much more than what Barack Obama is doing, which is to open the floodgates of federal disaster aid. But as a presidential candidate, he has done something much appreciated, besides bringing the media down here to show the rest of the country more of what we’re dealing with: he has shown us respect.

In June, only five days after the horrendous massacre at Orlando’s gay nightclub, Obama went to Orlando to console the relatives and friends of the dead. As CNN reported at the time:

The role of consoler in chief was a repeat assignment for Obama, was has now traveled to 10 American cities — including four in the last year — scarred by mass shooting events. In Orlando, he met at a downtown arena with both families of victims and survivors of the terrorist attack, many of whom suffered serious injuries but emerged from the massacre alive.

I applaud Obama for going to Orlando, and for going to all these places. It’s part of his job. But it has not escaped notice here that Obama has managed to beat a path to the sites of horrible events like the one in Orlando, but he hasn’t even emerged from his Martha’s Vineyard vacation to make as much as a public statement about Louisiana’s suffering. Why don’t we merit the same respect?

Maybe it’s true that, as Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said yesterday, it would be too much of a hassle to the rebuilding efforts to have to deal with a presidential visit right now. I don’t believe that for a second. If the president wanted to come, he could come. Everybody knows that. Louisiana just isn’t a priority to him, at least not as much of a priority as the golf greens on Martha’s Vineyard.

You can call it mere political theatrics if you want, but symbolism is important. It’s very important. There are some things you can’t just phone in, or demonstrate by sending a card and flowers. Not sure how it is where you live, but around here, going to a wake or funeral is called “paying your respects” to the dead and his family. There is nothing you can do to bring the dead back. Maybe you’ve sent food or flowers to the family, or made a generous donation to his favorite charity. All that is great. But there’s no substitute for being there. One’s presence says, “I am sharing your suffering. You matter to me.”

Once again, here’s J.D. Vance from Fresh Air. We are not “hill people,” but this is very much true of the culture of south Louisiana, by the way:

And when I was a kid, the first time I realized that there was something really unique about Jackson and its people, as I write in the book – there was a funeral motorcade passing by. And my grandma said, we have to get out. We have to stand at attention. And I said, you know, why, Mamaw? Why are we all doing this? Why does everybody stop and stand at attention when a funeral motorcade passes? And she said because, honey, we’re hill people, and we respect our dead. And it made me realize that there was something very important about this identity of hill people that both my grandma and the rest of Jacksonians took on as a certain, you know, as a certain self-identifier.

Here in Louisiana, I’ve never seen anybody get out of the car when a funeral motorcade passes, but people do pull over if they can, and if they can’t, they turn on their headlights as a sign of respect. Not as many people do it as used to, but it’s still done. It’s considered low-class and callous not to.

J.D. Vance’s people are Scots-Irish, as are a lot of people in my part of Louisiana (the Cajuns are a different people). Scots-Irish culture is very, very proud. They cannot stand taking charity from anybody. It’s a shame/honor culture. In J.D.’s book, he talks about white welfare scammers he knew back home who had convinced themselves that they weren’t scamming at all, that welfare cheats were other people, not themselves. The point is, it’s considered shameful not to be able to do for yourself. One of my friends who has been going out into Livingston Parish this week doing relief work said the church team has encountered lots of people who wanted to pay for the free dinners they were passing out. These are people who have lost their houses, and probably didn’t have insurance. Still, they considered it shameful to take a hot meal from a church. They did so, in the end, but that little fact tells you a lot about the culture of a people. They have been rendered all but helpless by the flood, and they despise that about themselves.

There is a connection between that feeling and the incredible sense of personal and communal responsibility you’ve seen around here in the past week — of the Cajun Navy rushing into the flood waters in their boats to rescue people. Of folks setting up shelters without waiting for the government to tell them what to do. Of churches not waiting for instructions from on high, but responding instantly. After church in St. Francisville today, I stopped by a local hotel to check on a friend who had been flooded out of his house. Talking to the manager, she said the hotel was jammed with flood refugees.

“I tell you what,” she said, “that Methodist church and Healing Place [a non-denominational charismatic church] have been coming through every day. They have been feeding people, now. It’s something.”

It’s not just the Methodist church and Healing Place alone. I know that other churches in town, like the Baptists and the Episcopalians, have been very active too. She was just mentioning the ones who have been into her hotel. I’m sure the churches have divided the hotels in town up among themselves. The point is, for all our many problems, there is still a strong civil society down here, and you’re seeing it in action now. Most people — not everybody, but most people — are moved not only by a sense of compassion, but by a sense of respect: respect for their neighbors, respect for virtue, and respect for themselves. You do not want to be the kind of man or woman who looks away from your neighbor’s travails, and does nothing, and gives nothing, even though you have things you could do or give. It’s low-down.

So, look, about respect: if you are in south Louisiana this week, and you are witnessing all around you suffering like this state hasn’t seen since Katrina, and you personally know someone (usually more than one person or one family) who lost a house or more — and just about everyone knows somebody like that — you are overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. You know too that this is not going to end quickly, that tens of thousands of people here have months and months of agony to endure. You don’t understand why outsider elites in the news media and in national political leadership don’t seem to care. It’s a great thing that the president wrote us a check — seriously, it is needed and appreciated — but there’s no substitute for showing up. There’s just not.

President Obama has not shown up. He’s been golfing instead. Maybe it’s just me, but I hope he doesn’t come now. He’s shown his hand already.

Donald Trump was late to get here, but he’s here now. What’s Hillary Clinton’s excuse?

Trump no doubt certainly came here out of crass political motive, but the point is, he came. 

The fact that so many people in the elite national media, and among elites generally, don’t understand why this matters only validates the sense of alienation and outsiderness that gave rise to Trump in the first place, and that kept the media and the GOP elites in Washington from seeing him rise. I’m reading things online, people saying things like, “Surely nobody in Louisiana thinks Trump is going to do a thing for them. They can’t be that stupid, can they?” No, we’re not that stupid. But really, are you so dumb and disconnected from what it means to be human that you can’t understand that there’s more to life than writing a check and sending out government bureaucrats to fix things? Read your J.D. Vance!

OK. Having written that, I just checked Google News to see what’s being written about Trump’s visit. From the Washington Post‘s dispatch:

“We knew you’d be here, Mr. Trump! We knew you would be here for us!” one young woman shouted.

“We lost everything, but we knew you would come! This makes it all worthwhile,” said another woman.


Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, said Friday that she spoke with [La. Gov. John Bel] Edwards by telephone and called the situation in Louisiana heartbreaking. She also made a thinly-veiled reference to Trump’s visit and the questions about Obama not coming to the region.

“My heart breaks for Louisiana, and right now, the relief effort can’t afford any distractions,” Clinton, the Democratic nominee, said in a statement posted on Facebook. “The very best way this team can help is to make sure Louisianans have the resources they need.”

Boom, there it is.

Assuming that it really would make things more difficult for Obama to be here this week, he could at least use his bully pulpit from Martha’s Vineyard to talk about our situation. But honestly, Hillary Clinton has no excuse at all. If Trump can fly in on a dime, visit a relief operation at a church, drive around some of the devastated area, what’s her problem?

UPDATE: Reader Buck Farmer comments:

It is good Trump showed up. I despise the man, I fear for what disease he represents for our society and our Republic, but I am glad he showed up.

I grew up in New Orleans. After Katrina, my family fled with three or four others to friends in Baton Rouge. The loss, the confusion, the helplessness combined into a staggering unreality. One of us refugees who used to have a restaurant coped with it by cooking gumbo. That was the best I have ever had, and I would not be surprised if it is marked in my memory as the best I will ever have.

One of our hosts is in hospice now. My mother wants to visit, but the interstate is closed. We all know the importance of being present.

I’ve lived among and within the global transnational elite for nearly a decade now, nestled in the cosmopolis that knits together that “fabled nexus of money, influence, and condescension” that makes every world city parochially similar. I believe in the good of the Cathedral that neo-reactionaries scorn, in liberalism, in prioritizing humanity above our tribes, in the fundamental priority of personhood. I am a universalist in the tradition that stretches back to the struggles of early Christianity even if my universalism has abandoned much that is Christian.

And despite all that, I am beggared to explain the obliviousness of my fellow elites. We need Jonathan Haidt’s message and J.D. Vance’s. There is more that binds us together than keeps us apart. A society that has an “unnecessariat” is not a human society.

Our media has abdicated any duty for the welfare of the whole in favor of the entertainment of the individual and the reinforcement of the banalities of an atomized and stunted life.

Thank you, Rod, for continuing to cover the situation on the ground.

UPDATE.2: Uncle Chuckie comments:

I think you are touching on it but still missing why this is so important for the Trump image and what he means to people.

“We knew you would come.”

It was not, “Thank you for coming.” It was, “We knew you would come.”

Abandoned by the media. Ignored by the President and the Clinton thing. Forgotten, left to die in the muck and their ruined homes. But not forgotten. There is one man who does not forget. One man who cares. And they knew he would not forget them. He would come. And he did.

Yes, for us cynics a cynical, political gesture. But not for the people who said that. They put their faith in him and he did not fail them. Don’t waste time talking about Obama’s FEMA director. Forget Hillary who can barely stand up much less risk getting the cuffs of her pantsuit dirty. Forget all the rhetoric about things that the voters could not care less about.

Remember this. The image of a giant of man standing in the dirt hugging someone who has lost everything saying that everything was going to be all right because he was there and he had not forgotten them when everyone else has.

And when Hillary watches the returns on election night knowing that prison doors await her, when the pollsters shake their heads wondering how they could have been so wrong, when Trump wins, know that this image, and the words, “We knew you would come,” was the reason.

I don’t believe Trump will win, not by a mile. But Uncle Chuckie has spoken truth here.