It’s so easy to denounce Trump supporters as rabid racists and misogynists. Yet more Hispanic voters cast ballots for Donald Trump than Mitt Romney, despite his anti-Mexican rhetoric. More white women voted for Trump than Hillary Clinton, despite his “Grab them by the pussy” comment. On the left, we continue to ask why. Why are these people voting against their interests? That question fundamentally misunderstands that those voters are voting in their interests, as they understand them. The same way that those of us who didn’t vote for Donald Trump voted in our interests, as we understand them. As an African American, who lives in a city, with friends and family members across a wide range of races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations and religions, it was in my best interests to vote for Hillary Clinton, the candidate that I thought could best protect those people, and myself.
But you know what? If you took Jamil Ragland, changed my race and the race of my friends and left everything else the same, I would probably be a Trump voter.
I’ve been told, at every point in my life, to work a little harder, push a little more, try something different. I went from part time, to full time, to working two jobs, to working three jobs. I went from high school grad to college graduate. I raise myself up, through my own efforts and with help from others, and then the water rises up to catch me. I can feel it lapping up over my mouth and nose, and I’m coughing and sputtering, wondering, when will I finally be able to breathe?
I don’t have a dining room table. I’ve never bought new couches. My dishes are a mitch-match of sets I’ve bought slowly over the years. I sleep in a one-bedroom apartment with my son in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Hartford. My ex-wife gave me my TV. I bought my washer machine from my downstairs neighbor for $50. I ride the bus on a bus pass my friend got for me. The same friend bought me the shoes I wear every day. I haven’t been on a vacation since 2006, save day trips to New York City a couple of times. I don’t have cable. I don’t have an air conditioner. I like to eat out. I buy videogames. I like to buy gifts for the people I care about.
I don’t lead a crazy, expensive life. I try to live within my means as best I can. I’ve made mistakes, and I know that I’m paying the price for them. But then there are the things that happened that I don’t have control over. My son was born when I was 21, with no college degree and a part-time job at a gas station. “Well Jamil,” you might say, “You should have been more careful!” But I was. My ex-wife and I used condoms, until one broke, and we switched to the pill. You know, that form of birth control that’s 99% effective. Gabriel was conceived despite our good-faith attempts to prevent it.
I lied on my subsidized housing application three years ago, because even with a rent subsidy, it was still almost impossible to pay my rent and my bills and have some semblance of a life I enjoyed. I didn’t tell my landlord that I had a second, part-time job when I moved in. They found out about it this year, so that’s three years’ worth of rent I owe now.
I took a job earlier this year that I hoped would be my path to success and financial security, and it turned out to be one of the most miserable experiences of my life. I tried to work there, to care for my family, and became the eighth person in two years to be let go from that position. Instead of making more money than I ever had before, I plunged into unemployment for six months as bills piled up. I’d have been better off staying at my old job and struggling the way I was used to.
Today, I write this from a job that isn’t as viscerally painful as my last one, but which drains me a little more each day. I work here because the jobs I really want to do have consistently rejected me, despite my education, intelligence and accolades. I use this job to pay off the thousands of dollars of debt I’ve accumulated in the last few years, even as I spent whole summers lying in front of a fan in my dark apartment to escape the heat, eating cereal as another meal to save what few dollars I had for the weekend when my son came to see me, hoping that the eviction letter would come the next day instead of today.
I’m beginning to sincerely doubt if any of my effort will allow me to escape from that drowning feeling. It’s pretty easy to be upset with evil Republicans who want to overturn Roe v. Wade or whatever. But I’m also increasingly upset with all of the progressive people I know too, who couldn’t seem to hire me or anyone I know, who ask for my services for free and who apparently have no idea what to do to help solve problems with a place like the North End of Hartford. I want solutions. I want things to be different. I want to feel better about my prospects for decent work at a decent pay that I actually enjoy.
I want something to change.
Whereas in 2008 change took the form of a freshman senator who appealed to our better nature, this time change was embodied by a selfish, petty man who trades in racial fear-mongering, threatens the stability of the international order as we know it, and seems completely unprepared for the demands of the office he won. I value all of those things. I am interested in racial opinions, because they directly affect me and my loved ones. I am interested in the stability of the post World War II global order, because as crappy as its been in some cases, I do believe it has prevented even more people from dying. I’m interested in the office of the presidency, because as that office becomes more powerful, we not only have to worry about what Donald Trump will do, but what the next president will be able to do as a result of changed norms and expectations.
I rejected that change for those reason., Yet there are people who have it worse than me. I don’t have outstanding medical bills to pay, or a crippling addiction to opioids, or a junker I have to pour money into to get to work each day, or a chronic disease, or daily child care costs, or alimony, or property taxes, or an abusive spouse, or a sick child. Some of those people are not concerned about threats to people they don’t know, or fulfilling treaty obligations, or the normalization of a president sharing political and business power with their children. They are concerned with how tomorrow can be better for them after thirty years of bad yesterdays. They are worried about how they’re going to eat tomorrow. I completely get it, and if my circumstances were just a little different, I’d be right there with them.
Do not dismiss these people as racists, even if they are. These people are desperate, and they’re willing to try anything to escape from the desperation of their lives. Think about this: the United States elected a black man whose name is Barack Hussein Obama. It had nothing to do with post-racial America, and everything to do with his message of change. Things didn’t change, and now we’ve elected a man named Donald Trump who knows nothing about government, but promises change as well. These voters are telling us why they voted how they did. We need to listen to them. If America doesn’t get what we’re looking for this time, I’m really frightened to think of who we’re going to get next.