Understanding the Despair of Conservative Americans
What I learned about America by Writing “ORANGE (juiced)”
When I was a child growing up in the fifties, I bought the whole narrative of American greatness: wonderful people who did amazing things and a unique government with freedom and justice for all. Just like the pledge of allegiance says. Yet, even before the modern Civil Rights Movement, a mere child could see that numerous facets of American life failed the storyline. Racism, poverty — all kinds of discrimination resulted in outcomes contrary to the tale. But I believed in my country anyway and do so today even more than in the past.
Strangely and most unexpectedly, the elevation of Donald J. Trump has brought clearer understanding of my nation, of its people, its history and the need to resist unexpected threats to its ideals. History continues to test us.
Because I grew up in a tiny farming community and small towns in Georgia, there was an active counterpoint to the American ideal readily at hand, the Confederacy. Unfortunately, that mindset not only persisted, it expanded throughout the country. During my childhood, the Confederacy was a residual southern problem, one that challenged a thoughtful youth to sort out myths and values, to determine for himself what was worthwhile and what was dross. To my thinking, the choice was clear for America.
The country, meanwhile, was making progress. On one hand, there was prosperity, easily seen as beneficial for a middle class at last surging out of the Great Depression. There was also racial conflict, solved, it was hoped, by statutory remediation, progress of a different kind. The youth and many adults saw these two areas of improvement but failed to understand the significance of their separation or the meaning of their hollowness.
On the heels of legal success and record economic levels came new threats in the guise of unpopular war and political crimes that distracted every American and momentarily overshadowed earlier achievements. Still, there was a measure of success merely in overcoming these obstacles. But decades without focus on fundamental issues permitted the separation of economic improvement and social justice to increase and their hollowness to grow.
Everyone was busy during these years, occupied with vain distractions, principally trying to perpetuate material attainment. Some vaguely, a few explicitly, realized that what much earlier satisfied us as progress, was now inadequate for the present and the future. These Americans understood that persistent hollowness was due to inequality.
Then followed, based on that one word, “inequality,” a colossal misunderstanding among ourselves that is much the cause of present strife. The fact that the word “inequality” is often preceded by “income” feeds the confusion. To progressives, inequality means lack of opportunity, while conservatives, identifying more with race and religion than class and economic reality, hear lack of identical wealth. These definitions result in each group talking past the other as if in a different language. But the problem is even larger.
Conservatives, believing their country was nearly ripped from their hands by immigrants and blacks, assume that the progressive remedy is government mandated equal wealth to be enacted by appropriating their hard-earned accumulation. They do not acknowledge the existence of white privilege and reject as preposterous the fact that whites are the overwhelming recipients of welfare benefits. They fail to see that, over decades, government policies helped white people attain better education and the goal of home ownership that comprises much of the middle-class wealth. Stuck on the issue of race, conservatives seem oblivious to the slide of wealth into the hands of those who are already rich. Worse, they fail to grasp its implications for their future.
What progressives seek is that proverbial “level playing field” that would permit equal opportunity for everyone. From equal opportunity, without resorting to theft, would arise better education and decent jobs upon which to acquire the wealth that is rapidly disappearing into the bank accounts of billionaires.
This is where I stood before the emergence of Donald J. Trump. Suddenly hurt, alarmed and disgusted by the prospect of his presidency, I thrashed about attempting to square my apprehension with resistance. Sensing that facts and logic alone were insufficient, I set out to address my concerns by speaking from deep within. My playwright aspect immediately conceived context from which soulful monologue could vanquish the brash demons of conservatism. That approach, and the resulting play available here, proved only partly right, at best.
What I missed at the outset of writing “ORANGE (juiced)” is that the demons I opposed were of despair, themselves a misreading of internal feeling instead of an object being sought ignorantly and willfully apart. What I learned was the sincerity of conservative Americans, however, shocking and misguided the appearance of their beliefs. Convinced that they have found a champion, conservatives are likely to cling more fiercely than ever to their ignorance because their leader validates their fantasies. Conspiracy theories will then abound to cover the failure of their leader to deliver mythic promises. These, too, will be believed without question and with all the tenacity of sincerity steeped in religious fundamentalism.
As I began thinking and writing, I started to pay more attention to the many facets of conservative communication, listening for the deeper meaning underlying their often discordant rhetoric. What I began to hear was a consistent theme of despair, often rendered so obnoxiously that it obscured primal fear. Who among us has not experienced despair and fear? We know the capability of these elements to mislead. We know that emotions can lead us astray. Can we not speak directly to hearts from hearts and avoid errors of the mind?
Lincoln made a valiant attempt to address his disaffected countrymen, and I was surprised in rereading his First Inaugural Address to be reminded of the amount of material there that applies to our current national situation. In creating Purple American, I attempted to reach a similar depth of understanding, although not as eloquently expressed as Lincoln’s remarkable speech. Effort was required to make Purple American consonant with contemporary issues while resonating at this deeper level. Lincoln realized, as currently obvious, that logic and reason, while important, are not wholly effective. Appeal must be made to the “better angels” of our psyche that Lincoln cited.
At the outset, I only recognized the dichotomy of values at play in our society. What I had in mind was an exposition of progressive strength that would overwhelm conservative ideology. Toward that end, I intended to employ derision and logic along with the contrast of superior understanding. In this light, Trump jokes are inescapable, and there are some zingers in the play alongside comparison and evaluation. After reading Lincoln and truly listening to what I heard from conservatives, the reaction of Purple American became more nuanced. At least, that is what I intended.
Acknowledging the sincerity of conservatives should not indicate backing away from our responsibility to resist Trump. Since the election, there has been a growing list of concerns about the Trump Administration, many of them intertwined, that should cause alarm throughout the land. National security, nepotism, conflicts of interest, foreign affairs, domestic policy, military reaction and governmental management, for example, are all swarming in a single question about Trump’s relationship with Russia. The more that is known, the clearer the horror becomes. And this is just one of many issues.
In addressing each of our concerns, we must set our sights as brothers and sisters in a proven, living nation seeking the “liberty and justice for all” that nearly everyone says they agree is desirable. To blunder ahead without making this effort would reduce our nation and debase its people.
But we must make it clear to conservatives that there are limits to our tolerance. It is noteworthy that Lincoln, while making a case for thoughtful, compassionate response, explicitly rejects minority rule. If we agree, and, like him, accept our responsibility, we, too, must engineer principled resistance.
in the public domain by Michael Driver (no rights reserved)
Follow on Twitter: @mdMichaelDriver
“ORANGE (juiced)” is available here in contemporary reading format.
“ORANGE (juiced)” is available here in traditional format.