It’s not about making a deal. It’s not about immigration. Want to know why Trump can’t give up on his wall? I met two reasons why.
The story starts with me walking into our local Democratic headquarters a few weeks before the midterms and asking for a packet. A young guy there helped me load an app on my phone, did his magic, and handed me a fistful of reelection brochures for a Democratic state representative. Then he flashed his phone to me, showing me his screen with a tiny map of the blocks I was to walk. Okay, I said, not really seeing it with my middle-aged eyes. Later, after I’d found my reading glasses, I opened the app on my phone and pulled up the map again.
I knew the neighborhood, a few blocks of small frame homes. We’d lived one street east of my assigned blocks when my husband and I moved back to the Midwest decades ago, a rebuilding moment for us after the Houston recession had knocked us around and a newborn had wedged new obligations into our family budget. It was a safe but cheap street. The guy across the street worked as a janitor and the lady two houses over was 90 years old, which pretty well represented the mix of fixed-income and low-income residents of the neighborhood. Our janitor had been offered a higher paid position by his manufacturing employer but he’d refused because the company made beer vats and the janitor’s religion didn’t permit drinking. And, even after many hours spent eating cookies, drinking lemonade and admiring our toddler daughter with the elderly neighbor, the sweet old woman still called me Carol. My name is Karen. Hold on to that mix of misunderstanding and conviction over self-interest, because it came up again as I walked my blocks.
First, let me explain my assignment. I wasn’t to knock on every door, but only the addresses on my list, which, in theory at least, belonged to confirmed Democrats. My goal was to motivate the already motivated Democratic voter, like adding fizz to their commitment. I was to ask them to vote for their representative, hand them the brochure, and make a check in a box if they also wanted to volunteer. And that’s the way it worked at a few doors, but mostly the Democrats turned out to be Republicans or whole housefuls of people said they weren’t going to the polls—that all politicians are the same and we’re screwed no matter how we vote. They were polite and they took my brochure, but they didn’t see the connection between their vote and their circumstances. And their circumstances became more problematic as I worked my way west on my assigned streets.
Nobody wants to live on a crappy, high-traffic road on the low-rent side of town. If your home is nestled in a neighborhood, even a low income neighborhood, there are flowers in the spring. Trees turn red and gold in the fall. Neighbors wave. Your house may only be 1,000 square feet, the paint may have peeled off years ago, and you may not have access to health insurance, but you can convince yourself you’re living at least a reduced version of the American dream. That can’t be the way it is for the last three addresses on my list. Those were on a busy through street between old Route 66 and the suburban south side of town, a street lined with empty lots, boarded up concrete buildings, a church, and a few leftover homes and duplexes. If anyone on my list needed help, if anyone was vulnerable, it would be the people living at these addresses.
At the first address, I climbed a set of concrete steps from the street to the tiny porch of the home. I knocked and a grey-haired lady in a house coat answered the door. She looked to be in her 90s, shriveled but bright-eyed. Yes, she said, she was a Democrat, and yes, she would vote for the state representative. But Trump was her guy, because he’s standing up to the North Koreans. Trump is tough, he doesn’t back down, and the rest of the world knows he means business. He’s strong, her man Trump.
Nobody answered at the second address.
The third address was a duplex, an odd little place with a walled courtyard sheltering two doors from the street. I knocked on the first of the doors and a black-haired, tattooed young woman answered. Thin, a bit gaunt to my eye. Yes, she, too, was a Democrat, and sure, she would vote for her state representative. But for the rest of the Democrats? Not so much, because she loved Trump as well. It was his strength that did it for her, too—that he would hold his ground and beat the world. That he would win, no matter what.
The young woman offered me a chair in the courtyard and we talked for a few moments, long enough for me to learn that she’d had three brain tumors removed and still suffered from seizures. And that her house was bugged and her conversations broadcast on local radio, although she couldn’t tell me who was doing it or why. She was certain it had nothing to do with her tumors though. I wanted to hug her and make it better, but of course it wouldn’t be better and the nice guy at the Democratic headquarters might not like me hugging Trump voters.
Hateful people exist, people who want the wall because they’re racist and want to keep what’s theirs and never share it with anyone who doesn’t look or speak like them, but that’s not who I met knocking on doors that day. Instead I met two women living on the edge of society who needed a rock to cling to, someone who would hold his ground. Someone who could make them feel powerful. We have two brains—the one we keep dressed up for polite society and the reptilian one that sees a saber tooth tiger behind every door. We like to believe we think with our fancy brain and our choices are all smart and well-reasoned, that we would never allow misunderstanding or unfounded fear to stand in the way of an intelligent decision, but the reptilian brain knows better. Trump knows better, too.
If he wanted to improve border security, Trump would be taking experts’ advice to beef up ports of entry, upgrade electronic surveillance and increase the number of border patrol officers, but he’s not doing that. Or if he wanted to make a great deal, Trump would be playing the negotiation game of pretending to desperately want the wall only so he could surrender it for a pile of bigger concessions. But he’s not doing that either. So the shutdown isn’t because Trump cares about immigration or being the great deal maker. It’s about saber tooth tigers. It’s about looking strong. It’s about two women, one very old and one young, and all the millions like them, living on the edge of the American dream. If he loses this fight, he loses them.
So this is where we are—at a stalemate between a president who cannot afford to be moved and a Democratic House that must make him move. I think we all need a hug.