I lost my brother in the run-up to election day, 2020. He didn’t die of Covid. He didn’t get killed fighting a fire. (He’s a fireman in our neighboring state). I lost him by talking politics and by not supporting Trump.
Neither of us have a college degree, though we both have children with degrees or who are finishing them. So, we fit the ”non-college-educated” white men demographic. Sans degree, I have nevertheless been an insatiable reader on a variety of topics from the time I learned the skill at the age of four.
My younger brother didn’t acquire the same voracious appetite for learning, nor the insatiable curiosity to discover truth that I did. This is not to say that I am smarter than my brother or better than my brother. I’m just different than him in regards to the comparative volume of information we have respectively consumed. He is much smarter than I am in the fields he does know about.
However, like many people who consider themselves to be “conservative”, my brother is easily triggered by buzzwords and slogans like these: Socialist, Antifa, Black Lives Matter, Systemic Racism, Communism, Law and Order, Left-wing Radical, Elitist, Universal Health Care.
By triggered, I’m saying that he has a visceral, violent reaction to the very mention of these terms. This happens because he feels personally threatened from what he thinks these ideas represent. His reaction is to defend against these intrusions attacking what he considers it means to be a free American.
In the course of our discussions, I routinely asked him to define terms. ”What is socialism?” I’d ask. Or, “do you know what fascism is?”
And almost without exception his response would be, ”Why don’t you tell me what it is”.
So, I discovered early on that my brother did not understand the political spectrum. He did not know that Communism is at the far left, and Fascism is at the far right. He just knows they’re both “bad”. And he somehow equates both to what he calls “Liberal Democrats”. He’s not alone in this. A surprising number of American citizens are politically ignorant.
Like my brother, many don’t understand what each of the governmental types mean. They don’t know the differences in economic policies, societal effects, or the effects on taxation or wealth distribution. And they are ignorant that some aspects of these feared political ideas already exist in the United States system.
I tried in vain to explain to him that his job as a fireman was almost purely socialist. He agreed that local government, and not private companies, owns all of the fire station properties and equipment. He acknowledged that tax-payers fund his salary, not “market forces”. But, even so, he struggled to grasp the implications. In the end, he refused to concede that some services that serve the public good need to be run by a government, not by a board of directors whose primary motive is profit.
The US economy is not as “free-market” as he’d been led to believe
I told him in a purely free-market economy, a house fire would be an opportunity to make money. The owner of the station would be within his rights as a capitalist to negotiate the costs of service. He owns the trucks, and employs the firemen. So he sets the prices according to how much he can charge. He could even refuse service if the home-owner couldn’t pay. Proceeding, I asked him to consider how dangerous to communities fire-service would be as a capitalist venture.
I tried to get him to see that some services such as fire service and health care do not best serve the public interest as for-profit ventures. I explained that our military and our police departments are set up on the same ”socialist” principles with regard to ownership of the physical plants, facilities, equipment, and ”means of production”, and without regard to profiteering as the ultimate end of those institutions.
He struggled with the concept of tax-breaks for corporations and subsidies for farmers also being socialist policies. All of these concepts strained my brother’s understanding of political reality. Contrary to what he has been led to believe, we don’t have a free-market economy based on pure capitalism. To him and many like him ”socialism” equals evil, and that’s the end of the argument.
These discussions led invariably to discussions of health care and taxation. My brother doesn’t want his taxes to go towards paying for anyone else’s health care even when I pointed out to him that my taxes already go to paying for his government provided health care through his job at the fire department. Brushing that off, he argues that we do not want government involved in health care because the government is incapable of doing anything well. Again, I pointed to the fire department as an example of a government run enterprise that seems to perform its mandate quite well. But he sees universal health care or a shift to a single-payer government administered system as the hand of big government in his pocket taking away his American Dream and giving it to someone who hasn’t taken ”personal responsibility” for their own life and well-being.
Vulnerability to fear-mongering
My brother is not unique in his belief that his ”American Dream”, as he puts it, has come under assault by left-wing, radical socialists and communists who are just a bunch of elitists that want to give lazy people and illegal immigrants his money and provide them with free health-care for sitting around and doing nothing.
He credits Donald Trump with increasing the value of his modest stock portfolio. Tax-payers, and not free markets, pay for and subsidize his fire department pension fund, just like his salary, yet he is afraid that Democrats ”just like Obama” will take it away. He says it is so much higher now than four years ago when Trump took office and gives all of that credit to Trump, not realizing that the increases in the value of his portfolio have been almost entirely due to Apple’s inflated stock valuation, that they pale in comparison to the ultra wealthy, and that his actual salary has been stagnant.
My brother does not understand that the current capital gains tax laws favor the ultra wealthy by taxing those gains at a lower rate than their income tax rates. (This would not affect my brother). He does not understand that Biden’s plan to raise taxes only on those who earn above $400,000 annually would have no effect on him whatsoever.
To be fair, my brother did recognize and express reservations about some of what he called ”un-attractive” traits about Trump. These were mostly related to his tone. But he justified those as the outcome of Trump having to defend himself against illegal ”spying” and a ”fake dossier” from even before he took office. Trump is a victim in my brother’s eyes, and is therefore justified to do whatever he has to do to fight back against his unjust attackers.
My brother was even sometimes willing to admit that some of Trump’s actions were unsavory, such as his many bankruptcies, his unwillingness to release his tax returns, and his nepotism. But he found no fault with Trumps phone call to the Ukrainian president that led to his impeachment. He praised Trump for sending federal agents into Portland and vowed that if anything like that happened in our community he would be out with his gun and he didn’t care who was on the other side, even if it was my kids or myself (several of my older children took part in local BLM protest marches).
Personal “Trumps” Principle
My brother has been passed over for promotions in the fire department on a couple of occasions in favor of minority firemen, and is therefore infuriated at the very idea of the existence of ”systemic racism”. This is a deeply personal issue to him. Unfortunately, he conflates the term ”systemic racism” to mean ”universal racism”. When he hears the left decry ”systemic racism” he thinks they are claiming ”universal racism” which he rejects as not true. He will point to work relationships he has with black firemen as proof that he isn’t racist. When I asked him if he ever did anything with them outside of work he refused to admit that my question was relevant. I don’t think he is alone in this belief and reaction on this topic. Again, a failure to understand terminology.
As our relationship deteriorated over many weeks, my brother began to call me ”crazy”, or ”un-hinged”, a ”radical leftist”, and finally a ”communist”. I told him that prior to this election, I had never voted for a Democrat candidate in my life. Nevertheless, he said that I was un-American, and that if I hated the United States so much I should leave the country. He said that my ”hatred for Trump” had made me ”dangerous” and that he was ”worried about my sanity”.
I could not get him to believe that for me, politics is certainly personal, but that it is also more than that. That even though many of the actions Trump took and words he said really had no personal impact on me or my life, I was looking at history, principle, the Constitution, and the ideals that make America the country that it is and the country it can still become. And that on that basis, regardless of my personal portfolio or bank account, I couldn’t possibly support someone clearly on the path to dictatorial autocracy if not outright fascism.
I asked him if there was anything that Trump could do that would be so serious that he would reconsider his support and he said ”No” there wasn’t. I could go on, describing our discussions and the withering away of our relationship, but what finally severed us was when he said that thanks to Donald Trump, he could ”buy and sell me”. That made politics intensely personal for me. Too personal, in fact. Thank you so much Mr. ex-President.