Commusings: Can Americans Like Each Other Again? with Ash AmbirgeOct 16, 2020
A native of New Milford, Pennsylvania, author Ash Ambirge often serves as a translator, of sorts, between the languages of “rural America” and “coastal elite America.” In this conversation, Jeff and Ash discuss the hidden human needs behind voters’ embrace of Trump, and how mutual understanding can offer a path to a more productive conversation.
You can read Ash’s essays that inspired this podcast at themiddlefingerproject.org.
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Jeff Krasno: I suppose that one of the reasons why we're talking today is that I was passed an article that you had written, which I thought was brilliant and led me down a rabbit hole of your writings in general, which I appreciate deeply.
Jeff Krasno: The resonant specifically in this time, given that, you grew up in rural Pennsylvania, New Milford, I believe, Pennsylvania. You have insight into rural America, which I believe confounds coastal liberal America. Obviously, there's a great chasm between the two, as we see expressed in our political invective, but you seem to be a translator, almost from English to English between the language of rural America and coastal elite America, if you will. So, could you take a maybe a few minutes, and I've read some just absolutely brilliant visual writing that you've done on this, but can you describe a little bit of your hometown and Susquehanna county in Pennsylvania and just give us a bit of a feeling for that?
Ash Ambirge: Certainly, yes. That's accurate. New Milford, Pennsylvania, located in the county of Susquehanna, is what you would categorize as modern-day Trump landia, I'm going to say. We ... Growing up there, it's a very tight-knit community and one of the things that I've been really grappling with, is trying to understand what has caused this divide, such a deep divide that's happening right now. So I've been doing a lot of research and contemplating what it was like growing up there, and how some of these messages could be appealing to this group of people.
Ash Ambirge: So to answer your question, we have got a place where ... Essentially, when you grow up there, you stay there. Leaving was something that was foreign, and it was something that I did that was ... I was kind of looked at like a question mark. What are you going to do? Why are you leaving us and there's a sense of abandonment that happens, but we're talking very small communities that were booming back in the coal ages, and have since been on this steady decline. Steady, steady decline that has never gotten better.
Ash Ambirge: Most of the population is blue collar, working class, salt-of-the-earth kind of people. They take a lot of pride in that, and honestly, on a whole, they're really good to one another and I think they really do come together as a community, which is why I think it's also very easy to look at other people as outsiders and say that, well, we're experiencing this and this, what we're experiencing is not what you're experiencing.
Ash Ambirge: So I think it's easy to create a narrative that has, as you said, like the coastal liberal elite, as the enemy and anyone who's coming from these rural towns, as the victim. I think there is a huge victim mindset and I think that's perpetuated by a lack of opportunity in general, that is felt very deeply, you know, just to go to the mall, you've got to drive 45 minutes to get anything.
Ash Ambirge: So if that's just what you have to do to get to a store, the grocery store, then of course, that has a ripple effect with what kinds of opportunities you can have, professionally, and I truly ... To paint the picture, when I grew up there, it was the kind of place where, yes, we did door-to-door fundraisers for the Washington, DC field trip, and everything was very hunky-dory, and we all went down to the local swimming pool, and we had our ham sandwiches and we were safe.
Ash Ambirge: It was very picturesque in that kind of, like, 1950s kind of way and every time I've gone back to visit, that picture has changed dramatically.
Jeff Krasno: Yeah. I was revisiting the Andy Griffith Show, in my mind, as you were talking, and I've been thinking about that recently, this kind of town of Mayberry that we romanticize in our heads. We almost see it in black and white, where the sheriff is good natured and nobody ever really goes to jail. I suppose, just to put it in a prescient context, here we are, three weeks or so from an important election. Some categorize it as existential, and while the polls certainly show the challenger, Joe Biden, who actually hails from Scranton, shows that he's significantly ahead in the polls but of course, we've been here before.
Jeff Krasno: In fact, this morning when I went to Real Clear Politics, it articulated that Hillary Clinton actually held a bigger lead in the polls of the battleground states on this day, four years ago than Joe Biden does now. Of course, given the nature of our electoral system, with its college, the outcome may very well be decided in hometowns like yours across the Midwest as it was four years ago, where all voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, who decidedly broke for Mr. Trump.
Jeff Krasno: Many liberals, I suppose, are just pulling their hair out right now, just perplexed how anyone, particularly Christians, can support the president given his rather crude and moral rudderless-ness. You wrote one particular article that just I thought was so helpful and clear on this and it was called Why Donald Trump's Crude Messaging Lands with Rural Voters, Despite Their Notorious Christian Values. As I was, I think, intimating before, this article serves almost as a translation from two different kinds of English.
Jeff Krasno: I'd love to get into that because it gets specific about particular language, and I think you decode this language so well, and it starts with a photo of a truck, of a semi that is traveling through Pennsylvania, or maybe through the United States. I wonder if you could just sort of tell us about that truck, paint that picture and maybe we can get into some of the language that you help translate for us.
Ash Ambirge: Sure, yeah. The truck that you're referencing is part of a series. There is a man actually based out of Scranton, Pennsylvania, who has several tractor trailers that he's decorated, for lack of a better word, with messaging for Donald Trump for president. Some of it would ... I think would be classified as quite ignorant in many people's books, but we've got language that states things like close the borders, keep Mexican dope down in Mexico, lock her up, build the wall, freedom isn't free, respect the flag.
Ash Ambirge: To them, this type of language ... Deplorable Americans, this is a sense of pride for this community in particular. So that's that's what's happening right now. I will say that there is this sort of sense of lawlessness that I think goes hand in hand with the appreciation of Donald Trump. You mentioned a minute ago, it's the kind of place where there's one town Sheriff and nobody really goes to jail. I have to say there's actually no police.
Ash Ambirge: I took a screenshot yesterday of someone's Facebook post that really, to give you some indication of where the mindset is. The post said, if one more person asks if we can do Halloween in town, I'm going to lose my mind. We do not have cops. Who is going to stop you? Do drug dealers ask if they can deal drugs every day? No one stops them and we all watch them do it every single day. So turn your lights on and hand out the damn candy. Coronavirus be damned.
Ash Ambirge: So this is where it's at. They look at themselves as rebels and they see tractor trailers like this as being rebellious to the establishment and that's where we're at. We see some of these messages, and I can understand from growing up there, why it resonates with them. We've got a lot of discussion around the flag and the current situation around kneeling. To them, they're sitting there looking at this going, we're the ones who sent our sons and daughters to battle. Innocent kids.
Ash Ambirge: We all know someone who died in Iraq and Afghanistan and this American flag represents their memory. So by you kneeling, you're disrespecting me and my family. How dare you. You must be the radical left. That's one example.
Jeff Krasno: So, just let's hover there just for one minute because I think this is a potent example. So, on one side you're saying that these are the families that last children or children made the ultimate sacrifice to go serve their country and to fight for freedom, and that now we have in the wake of Colin Kaepernick, kneeling. We have this efflorescence of disrespect for the flag, and for the sacrifices that many of these people and families have made. So there seems to be a chasm between the idea of disrespecting the flag, and peaceful protesting that is wanting to engage in a more open conversation about race.
Ash Ambirge: Yes.
Jeff Krasno: Does that message resonate at all? Is the idea that my son or daughter and cousin and aunt and uncle fought for the freedoms that now protect your ability to peacefully protest, or is that combination of ideas, just kind of too difficult?
Ash Ambirge: It seems to be lost. It seems to be lost. I did speak recently with a military veteran who also grew up in town, but who has since left town and he is a liberal. So we had a discussion where he said, "I don't think they understand that the thing that kept me going, was the knowledge that what I was fighting for, and putting my life on the line for was the ability to protest and to be able to kneel in protest." That seems to be lost in translation. The community as a whole sees the flag as being a black and white issue. If you are doing anything to disrespect the flag, you are disrespecting troops and it doesn't matter what your argument is for doing that.
Jeff Krasno: Right. I suppose, can you just give us a demographic snapshot into your hometown and hometowns like it?
Ash Ambirge: Yep. It is 98.54% white. I don't think that anyone I grew up with had any friends that were, for example, Mexican, which speaks a lot to the narrative around. Keep Mexican dope in Mexico. We had one black friend, at one point who had come from Philadelphia and he was in the foster system and that was the only type of racial diversity that any of us saw. I can testify here that I know several friends who have parents who flat out refuse to leave the county on matters of principle. Certainly do not travel to places like New York City. It truly is a different ... It's a different world.
Jeff Krasno: So let's talk about that notion of foreign or very specifically, what I remember being written on the side of that truck, keep Mexican dope in Mexico. Can you decipher that particular quotation for us?
Ash Ambirge: Absolutely. The opioid epidemic has struck places like this in significant ways. So people that they grew up with, their own kids not only went to war, and fought and died, many of them, but now, when they came back home, now they're still dying. They're dying because of opioids and they're dying because of some marketing initiatives that were taken on by big pharmaceutical companies, specifically to target rural white America.
Ash Ambirge: When they first came out with oxycodone, the idea was, hey, this is actually safe for you, because it's long ... It releases over a period of 12 hours, but they didn't want to test it in the cities where people can be ... Vulnerable to addiction. So instead, they explicitly went to rural white America to test out drugs like these. Some casual drug, users quickly realized that you could crush this stuff up, and you could get high off of it. In a place where there's so much despair, and people drink a 12 pack of beer before they go out to the bar, this was like a new fun option to relieve yourself of some of this despair.
Ash Ambirge: So, people quickly became addicted to oxycodone, which didn't seem like that, "big of a deal." Then the drug makers got smart, and there were some federal regulations put into place and those pills were made more difficult to crush, which meant that users who are now addicted, had to turn to something that was more easily available, and cheaper and that became heroin.
Ash Ambirge: Then heroin dealers, in an effort to make more profit started cutting that with fentanyl. So now we've got a very big crisis, a lot of which is also the result of fracking, and the gas industry moving into communities like mine. They were traditionally in places like Kentucky and that's where this drug issue originated but then when fracking started, and those gas companies started moving into places like Pennsylvania, with that came this new addiction.
Ash Ambirge: So when we hear things like keep Mexican dope in Mexico, I think it is based on a lot of misunderstanding about why the opioid crisis exists. When you have someone like Donald Trump openly blaming Mexico, and stating out loud our southern border is a pipeline for meth, heroin, cocaine, fentanyl, what do you think they're going to believe? These are not people who are doing their own independent research or journalism. They hear the President and they think to themselves, why do I have any reason to doubt him?
Jeff Krasno: I suppose some of the rhetoric coming from the president, about foreigners, beyond the specific issue of drugs, but more related to crime in general, only sort of exacerbates that feeling. Certainly we've all seen the clip, ad nauseam with the president talking about Mexico not sending their best, and sending criminals and rapists across the border. So this ties into one of the ... I think, one of the most prominent slogans of 2016, which, to be honest, has kind of disappeared from the dialogue this time around, but, build that wall, which seemed to resonate deeply in the rural Midwest. So maybe dissect that one.
Ash Ambirge: Oh, gosh, I've got my own theories about it but a lot of that is phobia, I think is a function of an unconscious fear that people who don't speak my language and who have skin that's different than me are going to come in, and they're going to change what I know to be true and what I know to be true, is the only thing I got going for me. It's all I've got. I've got my belonging in my community, and I know what's what here. So I don't want someone to come in here and change who we are and what I know. I think this is an identity crisis more than anything, and unfortunately, that's being manifested in really hateful, racist language, that is an attempt to defend their good name and who they are as people.
Ash Ambirge: I also think that ... This is my own personal thought, but I do see, in relation to the war, in relation to ISIS, I understand that there was that narrative around hating foreigners, and we had September 11 and this idea of, "the Muslim community being bad." Then you see other folks who have dark skin and speak a different language, and I think there's being a false association.
Jeff Krasno: Yeah. Certainly, when you target people that have a tremendous amount of despair in their lives, and you instill that despair with a deep sense of fear around a problem, and then ratchet that fear up, consistently day after day, and then present a reason or scapegoat for that fear, you can rule the world. I believe that has been what we've seen and I suppose it's like, I don't want this podcast ever to be sort of an indictment of conservative America, because that's actually undoes the entire point.
Jeff Krasno: When we look at the ground conditions for why this chasm exists, I think that the democratic party or liberals need to look in the mirror quite a bit, because rural America or blue collar America had for generations been a sturdy part of the Democratic Party, but it feels like the Democratic Party abandoned the interests of blue collar and rural America or a lot of these towns wouldn't have gotten boarded up. So, in many ways, there's this kind of, I guess, arrogance versus ignorance dialectic that seems kind of in stark relief, but when you-
Ash Ambirge: That's a great way to put it.
Jeff Krasno: Yeah, but when you sort of dig under that, I think we all share some culpability for the kind of tribalism that we're seeing right now. Anyways.
Ash Ambirge: Can I comment on that quickly?
Jeff Krasno: Please.
Ash Ambirge: I think that relates so much to the dialogue we're seeing around all lives matter. From what I read on that it did, my read is just simply that there's this sense that, yes, rural America has been left behind. They feel forgotten. It's not like they don't know, they feel very much forgotten. I think it's kind of like, hey, man, I've been waiting patiently my entire life for someone to give a damn about me, and my plight and guess what? Nobody ever does. We are ignored. I've been on my own my whole life, but you don't see me complaining.
Ash Ambirge: I've kind of worked hard, and I figured it out every single day. So I'd say the same thing to anyone else who wants to try to skip the line and get some kind of special treatment just because, for example, you are black. The attitude is like, take a number buddy, work hard the way the rest of us have. I struggle with this so much, but I think that's how they're viewing the Black Lives Matter movement as something that's trying to skip ahead of the line.
Jeff Krasno: Right, like what about my life? I'm struggling too, and it's not only your plight that needs to be amplified. My plight needs to be amplified too, hence all lives. I think the disconnect here is clearly that the slogan or the movement for black lives, or Black Lives Matter, is about specifically calling out the plight of a racial group in the United States that has suffered from great inequity, and still does but I suppose that rural America is suffering from many of the same things. A wealth gap, an income gap in education gap. Incarceration, to some degree, certainly, drug abuse. It is a very difficult-
Ash Ambirge: Yeah, it makes you up in arms that, but I will say this also points to another significant difference. I think that this is really highlighting the lack of agency that rural America has, as a population, but also an internalized sense of agency. They've lost that. We have the Black Lives Matter movement, because people decided that enough was enough, and we're going to do something about it and this is our recourse. This is what we're going to do. We're going to make some noise, whereas rural America, I think, is really lacking this fundamental sense of ownership over their ability to change things.
Ash Ambirge: I think that a lot of that comes from the sense of helplessness that you feel when you're in isolation. You don't see a lot of people being successful. This is what you know, and you do end up with this sensation that other people are responsible for your happiness. So when someone like Donald Trump comes in and says, "You know what? It's not you guys. I'm going to help you guys. It's these Democrats over here." They really want to believe him.
Jeff Krasno: That's a insightful point. I suppose you could say that Donald Trump has given this community agency.
Ash Ambirge: Sadly, and I think it's the wrong kind of agency. I think that's what we've been fighting against on the liberal side of things is that looking at folks who are still voting for Donald Trump again in 2020, and going, how can you do that, but not understanding that this to them is their way of protesting in many ways.
Jeff Krasno: I suppose some of the twisted thing right now is that agency, Trump's, no pun intended, almost anything that essentially both sides of the political spectrum are in some ways willing to vote against their own self interest in the name of agency. That if you are in New Milford, Pennsylvania, you will likely vote for Donald Trump, despite the fact that he is working hard to take away your health insurance.
Jeff Krasno: The fact that he has propelled you and your sense of purpose, and your recognition and the recognition that you exist, and that you are important, that psychological component is actually more powerful than any policy, or any end result from the policies of Donald Trump and the Republican party at this juncture.
Ash Ambirge: Yes. I think we've got a lot of un-logic happening here and I think it's a product of ... Gosh, man, I hate to say it, but Fox News is the channel. It's what's on the lower cable channels. It's just there. It's what people watch. I interned at a Fox News affiliate station in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in college. It's just their number one and then number two, Facebook has become the dominant source of people's information. It's where they hang out and spend their time and try to get outside of this community.
Ash Ambirge: So we all know what's happening with social media and the algorithms and then you combine that with a fear of other people and a lack of opportunity and no travel. It's this bubble, and what is truth in the end? Truth is what you see, it's what you see around you. In terms of not understanding the greater world and what's at stake here, I do think that there's a lot of un-logic and misinformation.
Ash Ambirge: I don't understand the voting against yourself piece, but I quote someone leaving a comment from my hometown the other day in response to something I posted, said, "No thanks. I'm not in the mood for taxes to be raised, to become a communist country, to see a pedophile in office, a man who has voted for racist laws in his last 47 years. A VP who prides herself on locking up people for cheap labor, and to see our economy tank when he forces another closure and makes masks mandatory and wants to take guns from law-abiding citizens and leave us all defenseless. No, thanks, Biden. Trump, pro Second Amendment, pro life and pro economy."
Jeff Krasno: Yeah, that sums it up.
Ash Ambirge: Right. It's interesting that that is the perspective and it's just ... It's the narrative that's being fed to these communities and they're putting it on repeat. They're repeating it.
Jeff Krasno: I suppose that litany of indictments against Biden rose up into the great slogan of them all, which is make America great again. Which is like you just said, it's pro Second Amendment. It's pro business. It's...
Ash Ambirge: Yes.
Jeff Krasno: Without being delicate, pro white and it is this kind of ... Just the language in and of itself makes one look backwards and imagine, in their head, a time when America was great. To me, what that feels like, is this kind of 1950s fantasy, this kind of post war, military-industrial complex fantasy, when there was tremendous amount of wealth accumulated in the United States and certainly suburban and rural economies were thriving. Of course, this was, pre civil rights movement, pre environmental catastrophe, pre tech, et cetera. So despite anyone's best intentions, I don't feel that it's possible to go back to that version of our society.
Ash Ambirge: I would also argue that a lot of the folks who are carrying on this rhetoric are too young to remember that time, and I actually think that their vision of what it means to make America great again, is actually when America didn't have to face hard questions and hard problems. When no one was talking about any of this stuff, and they could just hide it and just ignore it. I think that's really what it comes down to is like, life was way better when none of this stuff happened and we didn't have to have hard conversations.
Ash Ambirge: I think that goes back to a lack of agency, a lack of critical thought and where does that go from? Education is a problem, education is a huge problem. We need to encourage our people to learn how to think critically. There's a lot of bitterness that exists, and even when, to your point about how can someone argue against stuff that benefits them? I had a conversation with a young woman who, in response to my discussion of like, "Hey, but wouldn't it be great if the minimum wage was $15 an hour? "
Ash Ambirge: Her response to me in this bitter fashion was, "Yeah, well, I want to know how a Burger King worker deserves $15 an hour when I busted my butt to go get a degree from community college, and I barely make over 10." So you see, there's this very big contrast between, even though that would benefit everyone as a whole. It's very much self centered, and well, I didn't have that benefit. So I don't want other people to, too because it's not fair.
Jeff Krasno: Right. Then I suppose, on the left ... And I'll use myself as an example in this particular regard, that I'm actually willing to, "vote against my own best interest and pay higher taxes," though I don't meet the criteria of Biden's $400,000 a year sadly, but still, for me, I have a different understanding of patriotism. For me, patriotism is sort of a willingness to share. For me, I see my plight, my self interest in the collective good as one in the same thing, that our liberation is bound, that I can't be free until everyone is free.
Jeff Krasno: That if my daughter has a proper education, and someone else's doesn't, well, that's not a good society make. These are very ... But that idea of kind of the collective good seems to get kind of lumped in to socialism or communism or Marxism, certainly on Facebook, and there doesn't seem to be any room for a thoughtful discussion around it.
Ash Ambirge: Yeah, and the surprising thing that I've always noticed is that for as much as I started off this conversation talking about the small town community and how people do feel very loyal to that community, I will say that there's also this other renegade sense of independence, where we've got people who live out in the sticks, they live miles and miles from their neighbors. Sometimes the buses don't even go out there to get their kids for school. They just cancel school instead, because it's too icy for the buses to get in the back roads, the dirt roads.
Ash Ambirge: So there is this rugged sense of individualism where people go out, they hunt their own deer, they butcher the deer, they eat the deer, they keep it in the freezer. It's kind of weird if you don't have a freezer full of dead deer. Everyone had ... Unless you live in a trailer, like I did. Everyone had the first day of hunting season off, as a rule and people, including little girls go hunting with their fathers and their mothers actually, and they're very independent in a different way but something that's always struck me is this conversation about the guns.
Ash Ambirge: Now I get why having a gun in that kind of environment is useful if that's your thing. If you're a deer hunter, for example, that's what you do. But I also can't help but notice, this fear, this fear that is embedded with everyone there who needs to carry a gun. I have an old high school classmate who is a state trooper. So naturally, he's got a gun but he's also got an arsenal of guns and his wife, who is this dainty little beautiful thing, she carries a small gun, like in her ... I don't know what you call it. In like a little holster underneath her clothes.
Ash Ambirge: When we talked about this, at one point, several years ago, when Trump was getting elected, I said, "Well, what's the deal, because I feel like in the city, you'd have more fear over maybe in dangerous encounters or something going wrong, but out here you guys don't even lock your doors ever. No one locks their doors at night, they don't lock their car when they go into the restaurant. But yet, you are so worried that someone's going to break into your house in the middle of the night," and I don't understand it to this day. I can't actually translate that.
Jeff Krasno: Yeah, that's interesting. I felt the same phenomena in the wake of 9/11. So I lived in New York, when September 11 happened in 2001. In the aftermath of that tragedy, New Yorkers really came together around this kind of collective grief and there was this kind of period that I'll always remember as being kind of beautiful in the aftermath of real community, like people giving each other hugs on the subway and high fiving on the sidewalk. People of all creeds and races and religions and backgrounds and I will say that, while certainly it shook us, there wasn't a tremendous amount of fear, in comparison to the fear that was being felt in other parts of the country, that had no threat of terrorist action against them.
Jeff Krasno: There was ... I remember really, feeling kind of shaken by that of like, here we were in New York, kind of the epicenter of anything that would happen from an attack perspective and there just wasn't really the kind of xenophobia or kind of DEFCON 5 levels of anxiety and fear that there was in rural Virginia. I don't fully understand that phenomenon, other than to understand how you described it before, this sense of otherness where you just don't know anyone who is a Muslim, or who is a Mexican. So it is easy to cubbyhole them in a particular way that involves a tremendous amount of fear.
Ash Ambirge: Yep. I will say I don't think most people do it on purpose. I think there's this generalized fear of outsiders. I wouldn't call it a dislike. I mean, I don't know that there's actually been opportunity in person to have dislike, because there's really not a lot of diversity in those areas, but from what I've experienced, people in general are just not fans of outsiders. I think that that's why at the moment someone like Joe Biden, who is from Scranton, becomes what one would classify as a politician. He now has a new rank in society and he's now someone fancy from Washington, DC, and he now is no longer one of the group.
Ash Ambirge: So I think when you see someone like Donald Trump, who obviously we know, is not one of the group at all, but who can market himself as such, it's a simple matter of putting on the right lipstick. That's what marketing does for companies and brands, and make no mistake, that's exactly what Donald Trump is. He's a brand, and it's a brand that they've bought into, because I think it reinforces who they are as people, gives them their sense of pride back and makes it okay to be a country ... Oh, God. I was going to say bumpkin.
Ash Ambirge: I can say it because I'm from there. It makes it okay, again. You don't have this pressure to do all the things, the smart things that all the smart kids do. You can just be you and it's totally fine and there's some appeal on that.
Jeff Krasno: I want to go back to that point about what you said that there is not really a dislike around the other. There's just maybe like, an unfamiliarity with it. This is a bit of an indictment of the left or what some people might call the woke left. It is ... I guess the banner for this is the basket of deplorables or deplorable Americans that of course, was part of Hillary's downfall. I think that from everything that I read, where the New York Times will send reporter out to Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, and they'll ask an earnest question of like, well, how do you square your Christian values with a leader who arguably cannot recite a single verse of scripture and not only that, but engages in sexual abusive behavior, et cetera. Just go on with a litany of things.
Jeff Krasno: What I most often read is that folks that have maintained a fealty to Trump, do so because they do not like being called racist. They do not like being called ignorant, and post civil rights movement ... For a very good reason, the worst thing that you could call someone was a racist. In the 70s, and 80s, that were just rooted in as the most evil thing that you could be, and that's good. That's good for society, that's good for the vision of equity that almost all of us share, but when that word became so toxic, it became a weapon.
Jeff Krasno: There is a tendency on the left to expand the definition of racism, almost all the time, because ... And a lot of it is rooted in good intention, like, we want to eradicate it. But because we keep expanding the definition of that word to include almost anyone who is not engaged every single day in tearing down the systems and structures that perpetuate inequity, people feel attacked. They feel like they're being cubby-holed as this awful, toxic thing.
Jeff Krasno: I felt that that really took root in that comment that Hillary made around basket of deplorable. Again, I would really question the left, and our use of vocabulary in this regard, that it might not be the best strategy to continue to point at people from Susquehanna County and other counties like it and deem them racist.
Ash Ambirge: Oh, yeah. There's an interesting notion of decorum. For all of its lack of decorum as a place in general like I just cited drinking a 12 pack before showing up to have dinner with your family or whatever, there is also a sense of decorum where I think people in general are polite. A part of this is an intimidation factor. If you don't know how to talk about something and you don't understand the complexities of it, then it becomes much easier to say, you know what, no, screw that. This is all a bunch of political nonsense.
Ash Ambirge: They're very anti being PC because it feels too fragile, but I will say, I can remember from personal experience when I first studied abroad when I was in college, and I came back, I actually came to Costa Rica for my very first experience. I have ... Of course, I'd fallen in love. I was 19 years old. Of course, I came back just all oohing and ahhing about this Latin lover, if you will. I distinctly remember my best friend in the world, I was at her home and they were from a good family. Her mother said to me, "That's great, that you had such a nice time, and I'm glad you fell in love. Just remember though, you're not going to bring them home and marry them."
Ash Ambirge: It was very Matter of fact, but it wasn't out of disgust necessarily. It wasn't an angry rant. It was just very factual. Later, I went on and I brought a ... Actually, I brought a Mexican guy to her daughter's wedding. There's no ... It's very polite. No one is saying anything racist. No one is actually acting racist, but there is this subtle question in the back of everyone's minds. Is she really going to be with that guy? I think it goes back to this fear of outsiders, they don't trust anyone who's not from there.
Ash Ambirge: When I first left town, and I had a certain set of accomplishments under my belt, I came back to town to visit a couple times thinking I was going to be welcomed like a football player who goes back to their hometown, and there's like ... People are excited. I got a book deal. I'm writing stuff. I'm doing good, whatever. Instead, I was met with a lot of whispers. Who does she think she is? Kind of a conversation. So in many ways, there's just a closed-minded, closed everything kind of area, and Donald Trump ticks off the boxes.
Jeff Krasno: Let's go back to guns for a minute. Because I think the last statistics I read, there are more guns than people in the United States. I think somewhere around 400 million guns, which just as a visual seems completely insane. Given the plot that was just uncovered by the FBI to kidnap and I suppose potentially assassinate Governor Whitmer of Michigan. This was a militia group and obviously, kind of the vigilante justice pursued by folks like Kyle Rittenhouse. Does it concern you, given that we're careening towards an election, that has been heralded by the president as a fraud or potentially a hoax, kind of riddled with mismanagement of mail in ballots, et cetera. There's a worry, are you legitimately concerned that we may see that libertarian ethos flex its muscle in the wake of the election through militias, armed militias in places like Pennsylvania, and Michigan, and Wisconsin, et cetera?
Ash Ambirge: I think there's a good reason why you could make the argument that this could be a concern, for obvious reasons ... But I don't actually think it will come to fruition. The reason for that is because a lot of these folks are family-oriented people. They want to be home with their families. I don't think ... Just like we talked about the sense of agency, I don't think that this would be something that ultimately grows into a civil war, requiring folks to leave their families and go fight for this thing that they believe in, because that's not the pattern.
Ash Ambirge: I think that it's easy to talk about it on Facebook, and it's easy to be a pro Trump supporter, but I don't think it's going to come to that, but I do think the greater concern is viewing the government as the enemy and that's exactly what the problem is. When you think about history in America, it made sense when we made the Second Amendment because we were fighting for our independence from Britain, and they were trying to wage war and we needed to defend ourselves, because we didn't have a military to begin with.
Ash Ambirge: It was every man on his own. That made sense and that's where some of these conversations are happening, that is reminiscent of like, hey, well, if they're going to come for us, we got to be ready. But now it's their own government and there's this really dangerous sense of mistrust. No one trusts the government. They don't trust a single word of it and that's where the problem is. So how do we fix that relationship?
Jeff Krasno: Yes, and this is where I'd like to go in the remaining time that we have is that, I think you've done an extremely articulate job, articulating the chasm that exists between urban liberal America and rural conservative America. I would say part of that division is the degree to which each group actually believes in traditional conventional institutions that have historically provided stability for our country, often at the expense of complete equity and justice, but stability nonetheless.
Jeff Krasno: Those three institutions are media or journalism, science and medicine, and government. Obviously, it's not just the president, but the president has done his fair share in undermining the credibility of the media, sometimes for good reason. Undermining the legitimacy of science, for plenty of good reasons, sometimes and we already talked about Big Pharma. Oddly, he undermines his own government in a way by appearing rogue and not part of it, while also running it.
Jeff Krasno: So it's always the deep state, the FDA, the CDC. He's always trashing the thing that he runs in a way to appear separate from it, and to undermine confidence in it. To be honest, it's fascinating if it wasn't so dangerous. So given that chasm, what do we do? Is there a way to bridge this chasm, to repair these relationships that we have between this [inaudible 00:58:13] culture, this kind of extremism that we see on both sides?
Ash Ambirge: Well, I've thought about this a bit and the one institution that still holds authority, in folks minds, is the institution of religion. In many cases, a lot of these people are just single-issue voters who are voting black and white, pro life. That's it. They don't know about politics, they aren't reading the New York Times, they're not getting involved. It's just simple and straightforward for them. So religion plays a very large part, so much so that I had a conversation with an old classmate of mine who is a Trump supporter, in an effort to understand. She flat out said to me, "I don't know anything about politics, so I can't debate them with you. But I will tell you that our church pastor said this week, that the only political party that matters is Jesus. That's the one we should be following."
Ash Ambirge: So I thought, well, okay. Maybe there could be something said about ringing back traditional Christian values.
Jeff Krasno: Jesus for president. No term limit.
Ash Ambirge: I think it's interesting that that time of the week, that's where their attention is. That's where their loyalties lie in many ways. It's not everybody, but it's a lot of people and there's a lot of hypocrisy with this, but at the same time, I wonder, how much that institution is either contributing to or helping, I wonder if it's helping. That message sounded relatively nice in many ways. The idea was, listen, don't fight with your friends, because this is the only party that matters. But I think there's just a lot of ... There's a lot of ignorance in un-logic and misinformation happening and if you can't trust the media, and that's how usually you get your information about presidents to vote for, this is a huge problem. Once Donald Trump is out of office, I think, over time, things will become more normalized, but I think it's going to take a real big effort.
Jeff Krasno: It's interesting that you bring up religion, because I think about the utility of religion often. I don't think people necessarily rely on it because in the Scripture, in Leviticus, it says, we should stone apostates, or something. I think it's something more logistically useful is that every Sunday, it actually brings people together in communion, and reconnects them with their higher selves, and with their community and with the people around them.
Jeff Krasno: I feel like, that's kind of what you are doing every time you reach out and try to have a conversation with people from your hometown, or that you may not agree with, but it is that sense of communion and coming together in an atmosphere where you are your highest moral self. I'm sort of a secular humanist. So I can write off religion from a textual basis, quite flippantly and I tend to, and then I catch myself when I think about it for its utility in this way. I wonder if we can't use our churches, and by extension, our yoga studios, or any place of community gathering ... Of course, that's hard and COVID right now, but as places to heal, to actually really have these hard conversations, that you seem to be resolute on having.
Jeff Krasno: It's the abortion issue, which when you talk about the single-issue voter and I wonder how you feel about this, because I have been debating this with many of my liberal friends, and for a man to talk about this, it's almost like I'm galloping down the third rail. I wonder sometimes, if the Democratic party could not be more open to a broader set of conversations around abortion ... Recognizing that many people that hold a very strident pro life opinion, are doing it, not from a place of denying women their rights, but doing it from a place of deeply held morality.
Jeff Krasno: It's almost like we have to strip back the exterior, the policy and almost reconnect with people on a heart level. Then also, just kind of from a practical point of view, if the Democratic Party were open to a plurality of opinions around abortion, it very might be the dominant party for generations. So I don't want to put you on the spot about abortion necessarily, and I say this as someone who supports a woman's right to choose, but I'm also trying to kind of open my mind and look at it, both from a perspective that recognizes the intention of a person's policy, and also from sort of a politically pragmatic one.
Ash Ambirge: I'm analyzing this in my mind in relation to what I've experienced, personally in rural America, and I have to say, I don't know a single person from there who's ever had an abortion. I'm also observing that it is very much the cultural norm to simply have kids. It's kind of what you do. There's not a lot to do. So I think that kids bring a certain sense of meaning and purpose to their lives. So I'm looking for the deeper layer here. Beyond the religious argument, I'm looking for the deeper layer of how this really contributes to their identity and why it matters.
Ash Ambirge: There's also a certain thing flicking around in my brain here, about going back to the sense of unfairness where we talked about the girl who was mad about the idea of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour because it's somehow unfair to her. There is a victim mentality. So in this way, I almost wonder if there's a sense that, I had to just suck it up and do my duty, as a person and a human being and a mother and this is my lot in life. So by you having an abortion, you're cheating. There's almost this sense of like, you're getting one over on me. You're not doing what's right, and I had to suffer and I am suffering, even though I'll never say it out loud. It's food for thought. Food for thought.
Jeff Krasno: That is interesting.
Ash Ambirge: Yeah, but abortion is a big issue. The two big ones are abortion and the right to bear arms. Those two for me are the most that would move the needle for voters in rural America, were there to be some kind of compromise.
Jeff Krasno: So where is there a glimmer of hope? Is there one?
Ash Ambirge: I think liberals and Democrats, for as hard as we're trying to have conversations and point things out, point things out that are glaringly dangerous and obvious about the current administration and what's happening here, and every single report is this other bombshell, I think that's only serving to further cement our own beliefs about why this is problematic. I do think that in order for this to improve, we need to start having conversations, not about Donald Trump, but about people as a whole and really what rural America means to our society. It has to mean something. It's a very large chunk, and we cannot simply neglect it.
Ash Ambirge: There have been articles written by certain scholars who have just flat out said, "Hey, man, if you live in a small town that's dying, it is your duty to get out of there, because nothing's going back. Manufacturing ain't coming back and you just ... It's, you have to leave." But where does that leave us as a nation? I think you're only as healthy as the whole. If you've got a cancer in your stomach, you're not going to be healthy. So I think we need to consider more about people instead of just Donald Trump and what needs to happen to make people feel like they matter. All of us need to have different conversations and not be so quick to rule someone as right or wrong as hard as it can be sometimes.
Jeff Krasno: Yeah, I agree with you. It'll take a significant effort to have those conversations and to change that dialogue, and I'm grateful that you're doing it.
Ash Ambirge: I'm trying. I think I've been blocked by many people, but I'm trying.
Jeff Krasno: It's okay.
Ash Ambirge: I thought so often, there's an organization called mainstreet.org and they are on a mission to go into formerly thriving towns that had these main streets and work with people in the local community, to start their own businesses and become entrepreneurs and take ownership over their town and see if we can revitalize some of these areas and there's something to be said about that. I think this is very important. Giving people back their sense of agency. It's what I focused on in my book. It is very much about understanding that you can absolutely do anything you want. You can.
Ash Ambirge: The internet has empowered us in ways that no one realizes because all they're doing is sitting around still chatting on Facebook, but it's not just a tool to communicate. It's really a tool to create and to better oneself. You don't have to be in a big city anymore and I don't think there's enough conversations about that. I think more conversations about that need to be had. So that way you're not sitting in a small town in rural America, depending on other people to come and save you, depending on the church to tell you how to be a good person, depending on whether or not someone's going to give you a refund check and if that's going to let you survive. There needs to be more discussion and more action around agency and I think that will be a great, great healing mechanism for folks when they feel like they are not victims anymore. Then they can vote according to things that aren't a matter of survival for them.
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