Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Running in TrumpLand

The month after I graduated from high school the local textile mill closed down. It was the largest single-day layoff in the history of North Carolina. The mill near my hometown had been an economic institution since the late nineteenth century. Globalization was mostly to blame for the closure: the shift of capital to cheaper labor in South Asia shut down the remaining textile plants in the South, which still had to pay for things like a minimum wage and occupational safety standards.

The writing had been on the wall for some time. Years earlier—the month my family moved to Concord, North Carolina, just outside the mill—Wal-Mart stopped buying the textile plant’s products after the owners refused to move production overseas. After that it was just a matter of time. Wal-Mart started buying their towels and bed linens from south Asian manufacturers. Creaky textile mills in India and Bangladesh, employing folks at slave wages in buildings prone to collapse, ultimately shuttered my town's biggest employer. The immediate region’s economic core was hollowed out, but hey, everyone else in the country got cheaper towels and pillow cases. The town immediately surrounding the mill declined into a series of empty brick buildings and sagging houses with peeling, whitewashed walls.

This was where I grew up.

I was twelve when the mill started to collapse under the pressures of the global economy. Like most twelve-year olds, I really wasn’t paying much attention. My parents, professional imports to the area, were safe from layoffs. It wasn’t until I started running competitively—and began logging in training miles—that I came to know my hometown on foot.

There are few parks in the South; open space is mostly contained to the Appalachians. Instead there are country roads, long streaks of shoulderless pavement curve along low-slung hills. When I run back home, I always feel close to the ground, like a marble rolling low along the features of the terrain. In the Carolina Piedmont, the horizon is short. One cannot see far beyond oneself. Thick, new-growth trees have emerged from sharecropped fields, held back from reaching the asphalt by decaying fences. One’s view is constrained and the sky is a band of blue limited to path of the road. In the winter, the ground along the road is soggy and fecund. In the summer, the air sits heavy on the road like a pressure cooker, dank with heat and humidity. It is warm and stagnant and beautiful.

I ran along roads made obsolete by the interstate system. Some streets were named after families that had settled there: Neisler, Burrage, Peninger. Other roads recalled former work commutes and destinations: Old Concord-Salisbury Road, Gold Hill Road, Mt. Pleasant Road. Still others were memories of cultures and economies that had faded from existence: Flowe's Store Road, Pioneer Mill Road, and Irish Potato Road. This was the tarmac that defined my life for eight years: neighborhoods bounded by unproductive rural spaces, small-town streets lined by homes with fading paint, burgeoning subdivisions alongside freeways.

On summer weeknights, I would run through town. My loop brought me past the methadone clinic, complete with a queue of skinny folks stretching out the door. Some would look up as I jogged past. Most kept their heads down, baseball caps pulled low over their eyes. I would pad over broken, uneven sidewalks that bounded restaurants off the freeway. Several chains rotated through the same buildings over the years: Shoney’s, Chiles, Long John Silvers, Applebees. The few local businesses here—a furniture store, a local hardware shop—eventually closed, and were replaced by gas stations and consignment stores. Others sat empty. The town wasn't blighted. It just wasn't very good either.

For a time, the housing bubble veneered over the economic rot. Contractors would zoom past me on older trucks, laden with construction gear. Sometimes they would give an encouraging honk. Usually they just leered at the shirtless white kid, boiling in the summer humidity. For me, the steady expanse of housing sprawl meant an ever-ready source of portable toilets. I could be anywhere in town and  facilities were nearby if needed. Were I to experience an unexpected quiver of the bowels, it was certain that a portable toilet rested within a quarter-mile. But it was not to last. When I graduated from college, the last big manufacturer in the area, a Philip Morris cigarette factory, was shuttered. With it the large-scale industry ended in Concord. In short order, the fake housing economy popped, and the unsustainable exurban growth outside towns like Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Raleigh collapsed. In 2008, the plastic toilets disappeared.

My parents, hoping to downsize from the house I grew up in, moved into the home of a former factory manager at Philip Morris, who was forced to move because of the closure. My folks erroneously assumed they could buy first, and then sell their old place in the ever-hot New South housing market. But they were caught out when the bubble burst weeks after they closed on the new house, stuck with the mortgages for both homes. It took them years to finally sell the home of my childhood. Between 2008 and 2012, I would return home from France, or Colorado, or England, or wherever I was in my slow transition to the “global elite,” and I would see ever more for-sale signs hanging before empty houses. Out running my usual loops, the town was quieter. Roads had less traffic. The sidewalks in Concord’s ever-struggling downtown were even emptier. Even the fast-food joints near the interstate struggled.

It got better. My hometown transitioned into the Obama-era service economy with some success. Several big box stores opened up. These sprawling parking-lot warehouse complexes hawk cheap Chinese-made computer and electronic widgets. Low-scale eateries offer starchy sandwiches. The area's endemic diabetes and cholesterol-induced diseases can be treated at a local hospital, now part of an ever-growing corporate hospital system that employs my father. The post-industrial pivot to the boutique is also happening in Concord, albeit haphazardly. An old mill warehouse is transitioning slowly into a mixed commercial-residential site. The town’s first couple breweries have opened there. A bar with decent beer has actually survived downtown. My brother plays there with his country-music band. And, to my utter shock, a bike lane was painted onto a major thoroughfare…though it ends abruptly and without warning at a clavicle-smashing storm drain. Coming home for visits recently, there is a tangible optimism in my hometown that has developed in the last five or six years. Ask anyone, anywhere and they will say that their hometown is doing great. It's just the country that's in the wrong direction.

Class, however, is not just about money. It is about sensibility—perspectives of relationships to others. It is how one experiences the world as an embodied self, one related in situ to a network of operating forces. Class is a story of people and, from my perspective, people in motion.

Large numbers of my high school friends served overseas in the military, usually the Marines. Many of these people were my teammates on high school track and cross country teams. I ran intervals with these guys, got rides to practices from them, sat beside them on smelly school buses to meets all over North Carolina. We held each other up after races, keeling over in oxygen debt. I recall being on a 1600-meter relay team that won our county championship meet. I was the only person on the relay team that didn't go to Iraq.

2016 revealed how startlingly far apart we had traveled since graduation. Judging by what they post online, many of my old friends hold deeply authoritarian views. They are skeptical of American democracy as set of norms, beliefs, and Enlightenment practices. They are deeply invested in the jingoist cult of violence that has festered since 2001.

Donald Trump speaking in Concord, North Carolina on November 3, 2016.  I got my high school diploma on that stage. Getty Images.

When I went to college, to run at Furman University in South Carolina, I descended deeper into this worldview. To describe upstate South Carolina as "more racist" is not quite correct—though its legacies of white nationalism are well known—rather its peculiar cultural mythos is more intense. The lapel-pin patriotism that developed during the Bush years was acute. Evangelicism was vocal and present, a form of identity one wore like a Gamecocks sweatshirt. This was a culture of militant Americanism—one defined by portly white men, extreme skepticism toward non-Christians, fear of ethnic urbanism, and anger toward smug, white liberals. In the Carolina Piedmont, the horizon is short. One cannot see far beyond oneself.

Elites from the coastal cities cling to Berkeleyish sentiment that the white-working class, despite the flaws in its worldview, consists of fundamentally good people. This has not been my experience. People are not fundamentally good or bad. People are not fundamentally anything. People are fundamentally plastic: shaped by the cultural, communal, and social values out of which they are constructed. And when those values appear threatened, people can be utterly vile.

Running along Carolina roads between 2000 and 2010 was an experience of sustained hostility, punctuated by moments of real violence. While out running in rural Carolina I have been spit on, had lit cigarettes and bottles of beer thrown at me by passing cars. Both men and women have called me a “faggot” more times I can count. (Being the target of homophobia is an inherent risk if you wander outdoors in running shorts.) I have gotten into scuffles with white men of all ages. Running with my college team in Greenville, an old man in his seventies once pulled off the road to curse us out because we forced him to swerve around us. How do you argue with a 70-year-old about whether you have a right to run down a road? This kind of harassment was constant. Almost weekly, a car would swerve toward us at high speed, forcing us to scramble off the shoulder. When we traveled to northern California for the Stanford Invite, my team was utterly baffled when cars actually stopped to let us run through a pedestrian crossing. “Can you believe it?” my teammate asked, astonished. “They would have simply run us over in South Carolina, before calling the police to report us for jaywalking.” It was a nice reprieve. Two weeks later, back in the South, a carload of high school kids nailed me with a Solo cup filled with beer. The year after I graduated, two guys came up from behind me with their car and knocked me over with their door. They gave me the bird as they drove off. I used to joke with friends that, while I couldn’t be certain of the exact details of my death, I knew it would involve an angry white guy and a pre-owned Chevy Cavalier.

Trump Rally, Concord, NC, November 3, 2016. Getty Images.
We might explain this hostility as the result of broken economies and broken spirits. This is the explanation trending now as metropolitan elites struggle to process the presidential election of a bigoted, misogynist incompetent. I certainly saw the communal breakdown that enabled Trump out along the streets and roads of the South. Once out running through rural Kentucky, I made the mistake of cutting through a trailer park. Old furniture and appliances in various states of decay were strewn across lawns. Eyes stared out from darkened windows. Eventually, a pack of skinny dogs set after me and chased me half a mile beyond the park’s boundaries. A few years later, wandering through the Appalachian foothills near Caesar’s Head, I stumbled upon a meth lab set up in an RV. Another time, running strides on my high school’s soccer field, I stepped on a set of used syringes. Thankfully, the needles did not break through my shoe. Once eating a post-run brunch at Cracker Barrel, our waitress went into insulin shock because she hadn’t had time to eat during her shift. After sipping on some orange juice, she was back waiting tables before we left. In 2010 I took a detour on a run through a new subdivision outside Charlotte, one built two years earlier on the eve of the Bush recession. For two uninterrupted miles I ran past empty, bank-owned houses. Here was the American dream, indefinitely deferred. Trump’s America was in plain sight if you were moving through it on foot.

The Left is now overcompensating—as it usually does—scrambling to find new empathy for the white working class. But if the Trump voter deserves empathy, she does not deserve lionization. It's easy for me to fall quickly into scorn. I think of a college teammate, who once told me on a run he would never vote Democrat because “they only help niggers who don’t want to work.” But for all his valorization of white labor, I never once saw him studying in the library. I also think of the guys in high school, who told me every semester they were going to join the track team, but ended up not having the grades because they skipped trigonometry to huff chemicals in the boy’s bathroom. I recall conversations on runs with Republican chickenhawks, who put yellow ribbons on their cars in support of the troops, but bristled at the idea of raising more taxes to pay for their body armor.

Finally I recall Matt, one of my first training partners from high school. Matt talked a big game about his running goals, how he was going to get super fit the next season. But whenever I would call to ask him about joining for a training run or some interval work, he would opt out, citing a party, or tendonitis, or some girl. A few years ago I was home for the holidays, running around town on a long run. Matt happened to drive by in his car. He noticed me and called out hello. I waved in response. The car drove past, then Matt strangely slammed on his brakes and pulled the car over in front me. To my surprise, he stormed out, screaming, “What the fuck was that man? What the fuck? Are you wanting to get messed up today?”  It was, yet again, a moment where a white southerner had me utterly flummoxed. “Oh, I thought you gave me the middle finger,” Matt eventually confessed, after I explained I had no idea what he was talking about. I hadn’t seen the guy in years, but a perceived slight led him to nearly take my head off.

This is the honor culture that has infected America through Appalachian migration, motorsports, and Benghazi memes. My brother, who went to Clemson and now lives in Salisbury, North Carolina, (which went for Trump by 37 points) knows the culture better than I do. He once told me, “People call southerners, ‘rednecks’. But they should know that the rednecks aren’t just in the South. They are everywhere... And they are really pissed off.”  He was right. A couple years ago, I was up in rural New Hampshire for the US mountain running championships. After the race I jogged through a tough looking neighborhood in the hosting ski town. I came up on a group of kids, all of them no older than nine or ten. They sat on bikes and eyed me with suspicion as I ran past. “Go on back to Boston, you fairy,” they called out after me. I figured explaining that I actually live near San Francisco wouldn’t help matters, so I ignored them.

This was my experience running through Trump’s America. Even in my hometown, where I spent fifteen years of my life, if I leave the house in running shorts I become a foreign import. My jogging body is another example of the cosmic forces besieging local lives: NAFTA, hipsters, Mexicans, headscarves, Obamacare, liberal professors. Coastal elites discovered this year how deep the resentment runs. Run through rural America and you’ll quickly find a zero-sum worldview, one in which leftist-populist ideas of social democracy, tolerance, and fair trade hold little appeal. These will be tough sells.

More worrying is the evisceration of the values that, until last November, defined America. For me, running is hopeful audacity made manifest. Competitive running is a sport in which the fastest person wins. It doesn’t matter if you are black or brown or purple, if you worship Christ or God or snakes, if you are gay or straight or celibate, if you like burritos or meatloaf. Being the best, the fastest, the smartest, that is what truly matters in running. Everything else is just background.  But after this year, being the best doesn’t matter as much. Anyone can be president. Anyone. Being a decent person matters less, holding onto moral decency matters less. Being the fastest, being the smartest, being the strongest, these things are less important after 2016. Cruelty, bigotry, blind zeal, and double-think are the order of the day. We are now in the wilderness. Thankfully, I have spent a great deal of time there already.