When Trump proposed his 20 percent tax on Mexican imports to defray the cost of a border wall, my parents called me because they had a question about the proposal:
“Won’t this make our groceries more expensive?”
(I’m no expert when it comes to produce supply chains, but given that a large amount of the fruits and vegetables that my family — and millions of other Los Angeles families — buys are imported from Mexico, it would appear that this move will indeed raise grocery prices.)
I was, in all honesty, taken aback by the question. I had expected their question to be something about the importance of border security, or about the efficacy of the wall, or even about the larger question of what America’s stance towards immigration ought to be, because these were the sorts of questions that were bouncing around here at Stanford.
But to my lower-middle class parents, all of those questions are comparatively irrelevant. Sure, America’s increasingly hostile attitude towards immigrants will not bode well for them in the long run, but that is not a pressing issue. But a potential 20 percent increase in their food budget, on the other hand, is a cause for immediate alarm and concern. That was the real life-or-death issue.
And all of a sudden, I felt profoundly out of touch.
To be absolutely clear, Trump’s divisive, bigoted policies towards immigrant and minority communities are reprehensible and have dealt profound harm to countless people and families in this country, which is why they must be vigorously opposed at every turn. We resist Trump today to stop his policies from hurting our brothers and sisters, and that is the most pertinent and salient task at hand.
But we cannot rebuild the left based on moral outrage alone. The thousands of protesters at airports all around the country are a beautiful sight to behold, but they are just one piece to a much larger puzzle. After all, we just had an election, and the left was defeated resoundingly. We may attribute that defeat to any number of factors (bigotry being one of them), but that doesn’t excuse the left from attempting to improve. (And let’s not forget, bigotry is worsened during difficult economic times.)
When my parents asked me about their grocery bill, the ideological vacuity of the Democratic party hit me like a brick. The rhetoric of inclusivity and diversity is important, but it cannot become the mainstays of a party (as it did with the Democrats last election cycle) in a country with profoundly pressing concerns that demand immediate and decisive remedy.
In a country where wages have been stagnant for more than a half-century, the percentage of children growing up in poverty is trending up, an opioid epidemic is killing over 30,000 people per year (more than double the number of deaths resulting from gun violence), etc., etc., etc.
To pretend that the country does not need robust economic change is both elitist and self-deceiving. Indicators for economic growth like the Dow Jones index may have looked rosy both now under Trump and under Obama before him, but that cannot be used to hide the fact that this hasn’t materialized into tangible benefits for most Americans.
Under these circumstances, as delightful and important as the idea of a diverse, inclusive, welcoming America may be, maintaining that America is simply not the priority for millions of struggling Americans who must contend with a broken system that has not delivered them the good life that America promises. And it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t believe that idea isn’t important.
For example, my parents caring about their grocery bill more than the implications of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric doesn’t mean they are not also perturbed by the latter. It’s simply a reflection of the sad fact that until they (and millions of Americans like them) can be assured of their survival and well-being (that is, the cost of food does not suddenly skyrocket and become unaffordable), every other issue is unfortunately a non-starter.
And until the left can find and sell America on an economic policy that provides constructive solutions that will actually address these real problems facing millions of real Americans, all the beautiful rhetoric and celebrity star power and Trump-fueled anger in the world won’t be enough to create an enduring political movement that can stop the likes of Trump.
Today, we watch and protest the Trump administration with (well-deserved) anger, horror, sadness and frustration. But this administration will one day depart — maybe in four years, maybe in two, maybe tomorrow. It matters very little when it leaves. Because when it does, it will have to be the left’s turn to showcase to the country what we have to offer, and why what we are offering is superior.
You might scoff at this suggestion and say, “Well, of course we’ll be better! For starters, we’re not bigots!” And you’d be right. A non-bigot is undoubtedly better than a bigot. But if that is the only substantive improvement we can offer, it would be a shamefully low bar indeed.
Day 13 of 1461. Resist.
Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.