Tuesday, as speaker after speaker took a turn at the Teleprompter at the Republican National Convention, their remarks were interrupted periodically by a groundswell of chanting: Build that wall. Build that wall. Though the camera panned the crowd anxiously, lingering conspicuously on the rare brown or black face, it was clear that the chanters were mainly white people—middle-aged and older, and disproportionately male.
Watching, I found myself thinking of the 2008 film Gran Torino, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski, an ornery old man who feels aggressed by his immigrant neighbors, Laotian Hmongs who’ve taken over his white working-class neighborhood in Detroit. In the film’s most iconic scene, after a brawl at the neighbors’ spills onto his front yard, Walt emerges from the shadows shouldering the M1Garand rifle he brought back from Korea, growling, “Get off my lawn.” Behind him stands his prized possession, the eponymous ’72 Gran Torino. His young Hmong neighbor has already tried once to steal it. Fool me twice, shame on me.
His performance is truthful: Walt’s simmering anger, his sense of injustice and hair-trigger hostility toward his immigrant neighbors, who make him feel like an endangered minority. That he’s managed to live most of a life without feeling that way is the very definition of white privilege, though it seems inadvisable to point this out to an embittered old man who paces around the house with a rifle, waiting for someone to make his day. Walt Kowalski would never call himself privileged. The very suggestion would offend him, a man who came up poor, went to war for his country and worked hard all his life, 30 years at a Ford plant that no longer exists. Gone, all gone.
Growing up in western Pennsylvania, I knew plenty of Walt Kowalskis: gruff, hard-headed coal miners and steel workers left dazed and confused when their livelihoods disappeared. Don’t talk to them about privilege. Since the mines died in the 1980s, Cambria County, Pennsylvania has been struggling. Decades of unemployment have led to generational poverty. Drugs are everywhere, and in this largely Catholic county, the clergy sexual abuse scandal has hit recently and hard. In the past three months, two fellow graduates of my parochial high school have died young and violently, each by his own hand. One, an abuse survivor and victims’ advocate, hanged himself. The other—a former All State running back—overdosed on heroin.
Forty years ago, in more prosperous times, Cambria County voted Democratic, thanks to the strong presence of organized labor—the United Mineworkers, the Steelworkers. If you ran a sewing machine at the Barnesboro Shirt Company, you belonged to the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (whose members exhorted us, in song, to “Look For the Union Label,” in a much-parodied 1970s TV commercial) Those unions are now largely irrelevant in Cambria County, which has turned from deep blue to purple to red. In 2008, Barack Obama won it narrowly. Four years later, Mitt Romney took it in a landslide.
And Donald Trump holds even greater appeal for local voters than Romney did. In his past life as a reality TV star, he entered their living rooms. He’s learned how to pay lip service to their conservative values. They trust him to protect their jobs from immigrants, and he’s promised not to take away their guns. Trump’s plain-spoken tough talk delights them, but equally important to them is what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t call out their failings or their racism; he does not shame them. The phrase ‘white privilege’ will never escape his sphincterous mouth.
It seems fitting that this convention is being held in Cleveland. If Detroit was the original motor city, Cleveland was the second: the home of Fisher Body, which made GM chassis; the giant Ford factory at Brook Park. The city is emblematic of what’s happened to the American economy in the last 50 years, the social and economic transformations from which a wide swath of the population—the Walt Kowalskis—feels excluded.
This week, in Cleveland, they make their stand.