Paul Theroux is the author, most recently, of “Figures in a Landscape: People and Places.”
I have quite a lot of sympathy for certain Trump voters, and (wait, please, let me finish) I've been making a list of some concerns that Donald Trump the candidate (I beg you to stop interrupting me — this won't take long) raised when he was on the campaign trail and in the White House. If the Democrats (thank you, I appreciate your patience) ignore these subjects, they risk losing next week and in 2020.
The president got my attention in September when the subject of new tariffs on China arose — tariffs on $200 billion worth of goods. Certain Apple products that might have been affected were ultimately excluded after the company objected. Still, Trump had told Apple, with a characteristic snarl on Twitter, "Make your products in the United States instead of China. Start building new plants now."
Apple obviously would regard the demand as a punitive one, likely to reduce the profits of a trillion-dollar company that depends on the sweat of poorly paid Chinese labor and the connivance of Chinese commissars whose oppressive policies are well-known and widely publicized. Yet Trump's point is a fair one: Why not make Apple products here? Anyone driving the side roads of America sees towns put out of work because manufacturing went elsewhere.
One of Trump's winning pitches as a candidate called attention to these towns, and he was cheered as he gave speeches in them, promising to revitalize them by renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. Having just spent two years traveling in Mexico, I agree that NAFTA was deeply flawed, though not in ways that Trump cares about.
Companies that moved their manufacturing to Mexico are prospering, but their workers there barely make ends meet. The exploitation of labor in the maquiladoras in border towns is a disgrace — the visible obscenity of American factories a few hundred yards over the border at, say, Mexicali or Ciudad Juarez or Reynosa, merely to allow these companies to pay workers $8.50 a day, making everything from airplane components to automobile seat belts.
Trump's recent renegotiation of NAFTA won't do much to change things, which makes it all the more important for Democratic candidates to understand the deal's inequities, the fundamental one being that it put American workers out of jobs while exploiting Mexican workers.
Immigration policy is flawed too, and the subject of migration misunderstood. No, the answer is not building the Murus Hadrianus Trumpus at the border, but the problem is far greater than the stereotype of Mexicans swimming across the Rio Grande.
In fact, Mexican immigration has plunged in recent years, but there has been a surge in undocumented migrants from Central America, as with the thousands of Hondurans making their way north through Mexico en masse toward the United States over the past several days. Add to these unfortunates the many so-called special-interest aliens , Chinese who pay a small fortune to sneak through tunnels into California, or the undocumented Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Indians, Syrians, Iraqis, Nigerians and Afghans sitting in detention centers. The creators of so-called sanctuary cities who embrace migrants might rethink their role if they considered harboring the Chinese migrant who paid $70,000 to be guided by a cartel member under the border through a tunnel to a safe house in Calexico or San Ysidro.
Trump's hostility to immigration and his appeal to old-fashioned Americana is seen as nativist and sometimes racist. This is a delicate subject, but the question of roots has been a theme in elections in Italy, Austria, Germany, France and Britain, and to say it is irrelevant is a mistake. Anyone who came of age in 1950s America has witnessed a doubling of the U.S. population and an enormous cultural shift. Its upside is diversity, of course; its downside is an erosion of historical memory, and culture shock.
Yes, it's a pity that young immigrants, and plenty of young people generally, have never heard of Elvis, Screamin' Jay Hawkins or Annette Funicello. It's of greater concern to me that the names Emmett Till and Rosa Parks are so seldom invoked; that there is so little awareness of America's tradition of dissent, or of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s hope to live in a nation where people "will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
To write off Trump's message, or to see his voters as racist and deplorable, is to miss the point. It is not that the Democrats' elite are geriatrics, though they certainly are; it is that they are too entrenched, too tone deaf and out of touch in myriad ways. The Clintons need to retire to discover the ambiguous pleasures of obscurity that the rest of us already know. Barack Obama is as eloquent as ever, and inspirational, but he needs to understand the dismay many of us feel when seeing him and his fellow Democrats taking money from big companies that outsource work and exploit foreign workers, all the while sucking up to celebrities.
A blue wave is predicted for the midterms. I'm not convinced of it. Trump proved most polls wrong for a reason. In Britain, a shy Tory is someone who will not reveal his or her intended vote to a pollster. There are many loud Trumpers, but there are shy Trumpers, too. So I distrust polls more than ever, especially as — after Trump won, and voters became more vocal — I discovered that many in my large and lovable and liberal-minded family, and maybe yours too, revealed themselves as shy Trumpers.