I once interviewed my grandma — we called her Mamaw — for a class project. After 70 years filled with marriage, children, grandchildren, death, poverty and addiction, the thing about which Mamaw was unquestionably the proudest and most excited was that she and her family did their part during World War II. We spoke for minutes about everything else; we spoke for hours about war rations, Rosie the Riveter, her dad’s wartime love letters to her mother from the Pacific, and the day “we” dropped the bomb. Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.
Mamaw taught me that we live in the best and greatest country on earth. This fact gave meaning to my childhood. Whenever times were tough — when I felt overwhelmed by the chaos and instability of my youth — I knew that better days were ahead because I lived in a country that allowed me to make the good choices that others in my neighborhood hadn’t. This wasn’t just an abstraction in our family: Like millions of their generation, my grandparents found good work and economic mobility in the factories of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois. Mamaw came by her patriotism honestly; with a little hard work, she reasoned, anyone could expect to live a comfortable, happy life.
The culture that incubated this patriotic faith goes by many names. We called ourselves hillbillies, but it was an insider’s term: If Mamaw heard anyone without Appalachian roots utter the word, she would instinctively reach for one of her 19 handguns. Commentators call it the white working class.
I noticed, shortly before I began studying at Yale Law School in 2010, that my culture had begun to change. We feel trapped in two seemingly unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate share of the fighters came from neighborhoods like ours, and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream — a steady wage. The factories that took to the hollows of Kentucky and West Virginia to recruit my grandparents’ generation refused to hire mine, or closed down altogether. Our thoroughfares became ghost towns, with pawnshops or cash-for-gold traders in place of family businesses. Polls suggested that, unique among all subpopulations in the country, the white working class expected its children to live less prosperous lives.
This economic cynicism brought with it a feeling that the country we believed in could no longer be trusted. We had no cultural heroes. Barack Obama was then the most admired man in America, but even at a time when the country was enraptured by the president, most of my neighbors viewed him suspiciously. George W. Bush had few fans in 2010, thanks to a sluggish economy that many blamed on him. Many loved Bill Clinton, but many more saw him as the symbol of American moral decay, and Ronald Reagan was long dead.
We loved the military but had no George S. Patton figure in the modern army. I doubt my neighbors could have even named a high-ranking military officer. The space program, long a source of pride, had gone the way of the dodo, and with it the celebrity astronauts. If Mamaw’s second God was the United States of America, then many people in my community were losing something akin to a religion.
In its place were grim statistics: evidence that our children — more than the children of other racial groups — were using and abusing heroin at record rates; that we were losing years off our life expectancy, even as others gained; that our suicide rate had increased inexplicably. An entirely new belief system — mistrustful of American and resentful of its political elites — gained currency.
Significant percentages of white conservative voters — about one-third — believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim. In one poll, 32 percent of conservatives said that they believed Obama was foreign-born and another 19 percent said they were unsure — which means that a majority of white conservatives aren’t certain that Obama is even an American.
I regularly hear from acquaintances or distant family members that Obama has ties to Islamist extremists, or is a traitor, or was born in some far-flung corner of the world. In my new life, as an uncomfortable member of what folks back home pejoratively call the elite, my friends blame racism for this perception of the president. There is, undoubtedly, some truth to that theory. But most of the people I know dislike Obama for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color. They think of him as an alien because, compared to them, he is.
At my high school, ranked for a time in the bottom 10 percent of public schools in the state, none of my classmates attended an Ivy League college. Barack Obama attended two of them and excelled at both. He is brilliant, wealthy and speaks like the law professor that he is. Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up: His accent — clean, perfect, neutral — sounds almost foreign; his credentials are so impressive that they’re frightening; he made his life in Chicago, a dense metropolis; and he conducts himself with a confidence that comes from knowing that the modern American meritocracy was built for him.
And as president, his term started just as so many in the white working class began believing that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them. We know we’re not doing well. We see it every day: In the obituaries for teenagers that conspicuously omit the cause of death (reading between the lines: overdose), in the deadbeats we watch our daughters waste their time with, and in the fast food jobs that offer little money and even less pride.
Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities: He is a good father while many of us struggle to pay our child support. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it—not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.
It is a far cry from the patriotism of my youth. Our faith in our country fell so far, so fast, that many support a man whose very slogan — “Make America Great Again” — implicitly argues that a central tenet of my childhood was false. Our mistrust of those in power has swelled to the point that many will support Donald Trump, who offers a slogan about greatness with little substance to support it.
It’s not entirely clear how Trump plans to bring factory jobs back to southern Ohio, or rid eastern Kentucky of the prescription drug epidemic, or cure western Pennsylvania’s teenagers of their heroin addiction. Yet for people who no longer believe in the American Dream of their parents and grandparents, slogans may be enough. “Making America Great Again” may sound trite to some, but to a people reeling from the loss of a civic faith, it’s music to their ears.