When the gaping holes in the fabric of US society hit a person like the asteroid that snuffed out life during the age of the dinosaurs, attention must be paid, or so says Arthur Miller in The Death of a Salesman.
Jon Shields and Stephanie Muravchik brought it all home for me in Trump’s Democrats (2020), a book that recounts three communities in Iowa, Kentucky, and Rhode Island that supported Trump in 2016.
Here are the authors in Trump’s Democrats (“This new book explores why the town of Johnston voted for Trump in 2016,” Boston Globe’s Rhode Map, September 22, 2020):
Trump was not an oddity in these communities. Many of the most beloved Democratic leaders in these places are Trumpian: They are hot-tempered, thin-skinned, and never let an insult slide. Nepotism is also accepted, since extended family ties are the basis of common enterprises, including politics.
Politics in these places is also transactional and oriented toward the local. Long before Trump ran on the slogan America First, for example, Johnstonians were preaching Johnston First.
In one section of the book, a Johnston resident complained to you about how Governor Gina Raimondo has hired too many out-of-staters, and you write, “To citizens of Johnston, even Americans from Connecticut are outsiders and undeserving line-cutters.” What conclusions did you draw from those beliefs?
In Johnston – and the other places we studied – political boundaries are not just lines on a map. They define communities, creating worlds with their own moral economy. Thus, residents from other states are always outsiders. They don’t deserve these plum jobs, because they have made no sacrifices for Rhode Island. They’ve contributed nothing to its well-being, and therefore are less deserving of its fruits.
There’s another section in the book where a Johnston resident suggests the town may have supported Trump because ‘this town likes a bully.’
I might have read all of this and shrugged about how far right the US has moved politically, economically, and socially, but there is one major difference that begs consideration. I spent a dozen years in Johnston, Rhode Island, working in its public schools as a reading specialist/consultant, a principal intern, and finally as an elementary and high school counselor. My years in Johnston were a living hell beginning in 1989 and ending in the spring of 2001. There is much I am not able to say about Johnston and its authoritarian and right-wing schools and government, but there is much that I can accurately recount. I met many decent kids, parents, and teachers during my years in Johnston.
Within a few weeks after arriving at an elementary school in Johnston, the harassment, degrading behavior, and shunning began. Told that I was in a line of several reading specialists who had left this elementary school in the town in recent years, I was in for special torment.
A fellow high school graduate taught in an adjoining room, and she informed me as to the machinations of how jobs were awarded to teachers (and to other government employees) in Johnston. There was a system of nepotism that operated among school committee members (and among other town officials) that allowed each member to appoint a person with political connections to a job opening in the district. Since no reading specialist applied for the job I filled, the process could not go on in my case and they saw me as an oddity in the community.
The school where I worked was an absolute hellhole, the first school I had ever worked in where some teachers disliked children. The guilty teachers were in a minority, but the quality of teaching in that building was generally much worse than mediocre. There was great suspicion of parents, and the principal did nothing to enforce any kind of ethical or professional behaviors in the school. He was just doing his time and the school environment was a free-for-all.
A teacher appointed to the staff after me observed a year or two later that “They (some of the teachers), hate me, but they really hate you.” There was a certain continuity of hate there.
During my first year teaching at the school, a teacher made a violent threat against another teacher for refusing his sexual advances. When I reported the threat to a central office school administrator, the offending teacher began referring to me in conversations with other teachers as “the Jew.” Readers here may see connections to the authoritarian and hate-filled Trump and the town of Johnston.
Within three years of my hiring at this elementary school, I spent a year as a principal intern as part of a master’s degree program in school administration. I had to function as both a reading specialist and principal during that academic year. Since the school’s principal was incompetent, I worked two jobs at the same time and was paid for only one.
My most interesting day as a principal intern came when the school’s oil burner shut down because of a lack of oil. The school department had been getting oil deliveries only when the level on the oil tank was low because of budgetary problems. The day the oil burner stopped running was a cold day in January, and I attempted to keep the kids in school while waiting for an oil delivery. One teacher became incensed that I did not send the kids home, but thermometers in the classrooms were above the legal baseline for dismissing school. A year later the incensed teacher was a member of the interview committee at which I appeared to seek a principal’s position within the system. The resulting decision on that job was fairly predictable.
My next confrontation with hate was when I became a school counselor. The secretary of that department typed reports about students and their families, called social histories, and counselors would leave their reports in a box near that secretary’s desk. Within months of taking this new position in the district, that secretary began calling me “Mr. Matzoh Balls” whenever I left a completed report in her inbox. When I filed an official complaint with the school’s human rights coordinator (the secretary’s boss), my complaint was largely dismissed because he found that I reacted inappropriately to the secretary’s name calling and had not taken her name calling seriously (then why the complaint?).
The final debacle in Johnston came when a student in my caseload allegedly made a violent threat against other students. Within months I retired from the Johnston schools in circumstances that I am not able to discuss. That high school would be put on probation within a few years because of irregularities in its programs.
On my last day of work in Johnston, the superintendent of schools came into my counseling office and apologized for the treatment I had received over the 12 years I had worked in the district. He was the fourth superintendent in the school district in those 12 years and a nice guy, but atypical of the staff in those schools. That superintendent was atypical of the aberrant norms supported by many in power in Johnston, many who worked in the town, and among some of those living in that town.
When I read Trump’s Democrats, I could see the frightening similarities between what happened to me and the horrific nepotism, hate, and bullying that I experienced in Johnston during my 12 years working in its schools. A person can almost taste the ethnocentrism in Johnston, Rhode Island!
Following up on an earlier article at CounterPunch, “Teaching During a Pandemic” (September 23, 2020), the quality of the instruction my grandchild is receiving online in the New York City public schools is excellent.