For a Nation on the Edge and in the Margins, There Are Swindles or Solutions

By Lee Saunders, AFSCME President

Donald Trump’s message preying on people’s fears found a foothold in a country battered by economic chaos. (Photo courtesy Gage Skidmore)

“The best way to fight against terrorism is to invest in education.”

That sentiment from Malala Yousafzai, a young woman horrifically familiar with terrorism, has been making the rounds on social media this week and with good reason. Its nuance and call for a viable, sustainable solution gets at something otherwise absent from our current national debate about just about everything. Whether it’s terrorism, violence in our communities, immigration or the economy, there are two very different approaches advanced by those currently seeking our votes.

The first is a blunt instrument touted without much explanation or thought about the implications, offered by those who have nothing else to give but bombast and even hate. Every problem and every voter looks like a nail, to be slammed over the head, because they wield only a hammer.

By contrast, many of us actually working on the frontlines improving the lives of ordinary Americans know that addressing our country’s profound challenges requires more complexity and commitment than a soundbite or a scapegoat. Our nation’s public service workers — the caregivers, the social workers, the educators, the law enforcement officers, the librarians and the nurses — labor to help our fellow Americans who survived the Great Recession but are not yet thriving in its aftermath.

When we talk about problems vexing our country, we speak candidly and with the authority of our experience on the job every day. We focus on facts, and the humanity of the communities we serve, not ideology. We advocate for investing in people and infrastructure, not slashing budgets without regard for our most vulnerable. We don’t have the time or inclination for politics as blood sport. Our jobs are demanding, our work is never done, and at home there are bills to pay and homework to check.

Donald Trump is boiling years of extremist attacks on working people, immigrants and the poor down to a bitter sludge and serving it up to a thirsty, unsettled public that decreasingly believes it will ever have a shot at a thriving middle-class existence.

Our solutions for restoring balance to our nation’s economy are rooted in the belief that those who work hard deserve a chance to make a better life for our families, whether it’s sending our children to college, or simply offering them a safe harbor, free from violence and fear.

In short, we do not share the values of Donald Trump.

It’s tempting to relegate what Trump is saying to the pile of entirely unfunny political jokes. But there’s an underlying reality about his performance in the polls that we ignore at our peril: His message preying on people’s fears found a foothold in a country battered by economic chaos.

His dangerous rants about Mexican and Muslim Americans and Syrian refugees ignite something in potential voters because when the billionaire CEO folds up his tent and heads to the next town, there may be little else for them to cheer after they drive home. We got definitive proof this week that for the first time in decades, the American middle class has now withered to less than half of the country’s total population, outflanked by the very rich at the top and overtaken by the growing poor at the bottom. What was once the vibrant core strengthening the American economy is now hollowed out to its lowest point in four decades, according to findings from the Pew Research Center.

AFSCME members will not waver in our work to build and better our communities and keep them moving every day. (Photo by Tessa Berg)

The folks who say Trump’s troubling ideas make them more inclined to vote for him don’t live in some mysterious 51st state of which we were all previously unaware. They are our neighbors and family members and coworkers, and they are sitting squarely in that hollowed-out middle. They are Americans so weary from trying to provide for their own families that they’re willingly distracted by a candidate yelling about boogie men and building 90-foot-high walls.

Trump’s political performances overlook the fact that bringing about real solutions to balance our country’s economy requires active participation by all of us and the candidates we put into office at the local, state and national levels. That only by coming together will we build power for workers through unions, make the rich and big businesses invest in our state and local economies rather than dodging taxes and outsourcing jobs, and ensure that all children can access affordable health care and quality education.

America’s workers and their unions won’t be deterred in this divisive political or economic climate.

This week, Trump’s anti-American attacks on all Muslims, including U.S. citizens, simultaneously dropped jaws and the bar for public discourse in this country. It sent his fellow right-wing Presidential candidates and party leaders scrambling to microphones to denounce him as some sort of outlier. Yet this comes in a Presidential primary season where his peers have otherwise cowered from his bullying while more quietly peddling the same divisive ideas at town halls and their own campaign events.

Trump is boiling years of extremist attacks on working people, immigrants and the poor down to a bitter sludge and serving it up to a thirsty, unsettled public that decreasingly believes it will ever have a shot at a thriving middle-class existence. But when it comes to viable plans that will actually improve incomes and rebuild the middle class, Trump and his ilk have nothing to offer.

America’s workers and their unions won’t be deterred in this divisive political or economic climate. The members of our union will not waver in our work to build and better our communities and keep them moving every day. Or in our renewed, revitalized conversations with colleagues and neighbors about how unions are the proven way to build power for working people across this country and restore the middle class. Or in our demands for civility and respect for all Americans.

Donald Trump likes to brag about building walls to keep people out. “That’s what I do,” he said with a smirk and a shrug to an audience in Manassas, Virginia, last week.

That’s not what we do. We build bridges to get Americans where they really need to go.

Lee Saunders is President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).