The Washington Post ran a powerful piece that has gone viral these past 24 hours, a profile of a Brownsville woman who supports Donald Trump. Melanie’s story is painful and resonates very deeply – she’s struggled with anxiety, sexual harassment in the workplace, poverty, and the pain of her courtroom victory around the harassment being sucked away from her on procedural grounds.
She’s lost a lot and hurt a lot. She was involuntarily committed to a mental health facility after posting horrible content on social media, content that was threatening and violent and just awful. She has filled the gaps in a society system that has brutalized her with a distorted logic of right wing lies that offer her something no one else has – hope. Validation. She spins a ridiculous tale about conspiracies and the Obamas and, of course, Hillary Clinton that is flat out laughable if it weren’t being validated by other Melanie’s around the country.
Someone shared this with me “This is the rustbelt story that needs to be told. How the pain, dislocation and crisis of meaning people experience is seized on and manipulated by sociopaths.”
The issue isn’t Melanie. We don’t need to figure out if she’s a villainous hater or an object of pity. She isn’t the problem. She warrants compassion and a different narrative. She is culpable for her decisions, but she also deserves hope.
The problem is the people who create the toxic rhetoric and deliberately prey upon Melanie and others who crave an explanation, an anchor in a chaotic world. She knows it, too. She just thinks that they are right and doesn’t realize she’s being manipulated by lies and distortions
She was looking for news about the death of Scalia. She googled “Scalia murdered by prostitute,” and soon she was awash in stories about secret White House plots and embalmed bodies and the murder of one of the nation’s most powerful people. “Like so many other people around Hillary Clinton,” she said. “What are we supposed to think?”
She finished her last cigarette and listened to a song about surrender. A fan was blowing. The lights were glowing.
“So you see, the media, everybody helped me get to February,” she said, referring to the day the state police took her off to the hospital. “I didn’t get there on my own. But I’m supposed to be the one to pay the price for it for mouthing off? I need to learn my lesson?”
We talk so much about the erosion of the middle class, but I’m unsure we really flesh out that concept. Did the middle class really include rust belt working class families for more than a minute? Melanie’s neighbors seem to be aware of her struggles and try to get her help, but they also struggle with similar economic and social challenges.
On the surface, Trump offers nothing to Melanie – he has no actual proposals to revitalize manufacturing jobs, especially in rural areas like Brownsville; his tax cuts do nothing for her; he has no plan to expand safety net services like Social Security or disability programming; and her certainly has shown no respect for women.
I’m not sure that it is just the economy. Melanie’s life reminds me of the story told by J.D. Vance in his memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” where he voices the thought that the lack of social capital combined with the cultural context of the rural rustbelt mountain communities has created this class of working poor and poor white folks who look past their best interest to cling to hope for a vision that doesn’t line up with reality.
There’s a point in the article where Melanie decides it is her turn to vent her frustration and she proceeds to unload a virtual tsunami of vitriol, hate and anger. She’s resentful, bitter and frustrated. And where can she turn? How does she learn another way – where is the social capital invested in the lives of Melanie’s to help them step out of that vicious trap and into a better future? We barely invest in the most basic infrastructure around her life.
It may be arrogant on my part to hope that projects like #AMPLIFY can provide other narratives to humanize the LGBTQ community, especially those living in Washington County, and undercut the homophobic and transphobic content fueled by the emotions I described above. But perhaps when people see their LGBTQ neighbors as human beings, they won’t be so quick to attach our identities to the things that they hate, to the people that they hate.
In the meantime, I urge you to check out HearYourselfThink.Org to better understand the impac tof toxic media on our neighbors.