‘Does the America I’ve Fought For Still Want Me Around?’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Fallows is traveling again, this time in Wyoming, and he’s also busy working on a new piece for the magazine, so he passed along several “powerful” emails from a reader named Vasav who served in the U.S. military and is the son of Indian immigrants. His first note is from a few weeks ago:

Yes, let’s not demonize Trump voters as a “basket of deplorables.” And no, we shouldn’t give in to their demands that sacrifice our basic, democratic tenets. But a widening income gap and a lack of opportunity, a political class more and more removed from the average voter, and the never-ending wars that seem to be the fate of winning the Cold War and our politicians try to ignore come election time—those are all legitimate gripes that I actually find myself nodding along when Trump talks about them. I would never vote for him or his solutions to these problems. But rather than completely ignore Trumpers, as tempting as it is, they have legitimate gripes that ought to be heard. Their mouthpiece is an oaf and a threat to democracy, women, minorities, and a world order I believe is beneficial to our country and freedom around the world. But their gripes are real, and the price of not listening at all may be more dire than any of us could have imagined.

Yesterday, following the stunning news of Trump’s win, Vasav followed up:

There is one exceptionally annoying narrative that has started to come down, about how rural voters were “making themselves heard” with Trump. The last couple of emails I wrote to you talked about why there is some validity to the claim that middle America is ignored by coastal elites. And to put it in personal perspective, I am a man of color and child of immigrants who was born on one coast, got college degrees, and traveled to work in one of the bougiest parts of the world on the other coast. It is ridiculous for me to tell a poor kid living in a trailer who has no real path to college in today’s America that he’s benefiting from white privilege.

But the flip side is, considering their candidate lost the popular vote, considering in 2012 more votes were cast for Democratic congressmen, and yet despite that the party that has lost raw vote totals controls the totality of two branches of government—well, it’s ridiculous for anyone to say they haven’t been heard. Republicans have disproportionately controlled the government since 2000. The deck is stacked in their favor. And rural Americans have chosen Tea Party candidates and now Donald Trump as their standard bearer.

Everything I said before remains true: There’s a gap that needs to be bridged. I hope Donald Trump can do it. But it should be noted that bridge needs to flow in both directions. It’s not just about listening to the concerns of blue-collar whites; it’s about listening to the concerns of coastal people of color who are now wondering whether middle America will let us stay in this country.

From a personal perspective, I’ve loved and believed in America for a long time, and was inspired that Barack Obama called Chicago his home. Since before I started college in Michigan and just imagined setting foot in the Big House, I believed in middle America. I experienced some racism in the military, but on the whole my love for every part of this country grew.

And now I have to ask: Does the America I’ve always loved, and specifically the middle of this country—the part I’ve defended, gone out of my way to understand, endorsed as a place to live to my skeptical friends—does the America I’ve literally served and fought for still want me around? It’s hard to look at the results and think the answer is still yes.

In another email sent before Election Day, Vasav detailed “some harebrained ideas” for addressing “the fragility of American democracy that is becoming more and more apparent”:

In the short term, enforce the Hatch Act. If members of the government are using their professional position to affect the election, they’re not just violating federal law, they are undermining their oath of office: “To protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” A series of firings are too close to a purge for anyone’s liking, but there must be teeth to this law. I believe, perhaps naively, that enough of our public servants will actually feel remorse if pulled to the mat and being told their actions question their integrity to their oath of office and their love of country and constitution. Public apologies won’t do much, but a thorough independent review—as the AG’s office did of Ferguson PD’s emails and correspondence—will force the country to confront the FBI. There’s no disinfectant like sunlight.

Longer term, the gap needs to be bridged. Why is it that growing up in Jersey and now living in Cali, I am far less exposed to Republicans than when I served in the military? Why don’t more liberals join the military? Why do so many Republicans join the government but have no faith in the powers and controls of the federal government as headquartered in D.C.? There is both a socio-economic and a geographic segregation in this country. It needs to be addressed aggressively.

But how? For one, public service looks a lot worse when you’re part of the economic ladder that expects to go to college and earn a boatload of money from the new economy. We need government officers from everywhere and every breadth of society. Government needs to reform by trying to attract the best talent to civil and military service—and not just as campaign consultants.

For another, Fallows’s series on America by air highlights how hard people are working throughout the forgotten heartlands of this country to remake and rebuild their communities to link into and actively push forward the new economy. Investments in education and infrastructure were a boon to the economy throughout the country in the 1870s and 1950s. We are due for another round so that the centers of growth aren’t just where there’s oil and increasingly elite metropolises.

Most importantly, more Americans need to be aware of why and how the levers of power work the way they do, in D.C. and elsewhere. I’m an engineer, with two degrees in the subject and my experience in the military was engineering too. So you know I believe in the value of a technical skill set. But I think every high school senior should learn and debate civics and government. Start with how ours works and has evolved instead of dropping it at the fifth-grade version that children learn and forget with broad strokes on the constitution. But also how democracy, government and politics works around the world and has evolved throughout history. Talk to them about fascist strongmen, about how and why the classical republics gave way to military dictatorships and then feudal systems, tie it into the changing economics, and include lessons in how a parliamentary system works. And do it at an age where they can actually think and process and challenge and learn to buy-in to our system of government.

Finally (and admittedly this is both costly and probably only cosmetic), how annoying is it that the elites of our government sit on the coast, a short train ride away from the elites of our private sectors? Both of our presidential candidates base themselves in our largest city and metro, and naturally the teams they’ve put together have strong ties to NYC as well. It’s literally a morning’s ride on the rails to D.C. I propose Congress and the Supreme Court (and possibly the president) move to either East St. Louis or Kansas City, Kansas. Missouri is a great state that’s both east and west, north and south, Midwest but not. Either side of the state has a large metro that too many of my coastal friends would not be able to find on a map of the U.S. If we moved Congress to the middle of the country, we can both give D.C. voting rights and create a small, federal “District of Lincoln” that forces coastal political and economic elites to worry about their brethren in the middle of the country.

Update from Vasav:

Chris, I’d like to add one addendum. I just talked with a buddy of mine who I served with. He is, like I was, an officer. Unlike me, he stayed in. Also unlike me, he voted for Trump.

I’ll try to keep this short, but he frankly didn’t believe a lot the Trump rhetoric that has me nervous. He also took the time to listen to my concerns and understand how I don’t have the luxury of ignoring that rhetoric. In a small way, Justin restored my faith that, while some Trumpers would not make this country safe for me, there are plenty who would stand by my side if things every really got crazy.