On Tuesday night, as the final tendrils of orange and red light faded from the evening skies in Washington D.C., I packed my bags and left my apartment for Dulles International Airport, ready to enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday with my family in California. Loaded up with a backpack and a small duffel slung over my shoulder, I ducked into my waiting Uber, exchanging the usual pleasantries with the driver.
Mo was quiet. His smooth olive skin and earnest eyes belied his years. He drove cautiously, but with the classic impatience of a Washington D.C. resident, nudging the nose of his van into crosswalks to exploit openings in the stream of pedestrians. We chatted idly for a few minutes about my time in Washington, the weather, and the gridlocked rush-hour traffic.
But then our talk turned to the election.
“America is the land of opportunity,” he told me. “This is the only place where you can go and do anything.”
In addition to driving for Uber, Mo arranges shipments of produce to the Washington D.C. area from Florida and other major agricultural states. He makes a good living this way, and he is proud of it. “I make good money,” he said several times, his face beaming.
Mo is an immigrant. He came to the United States on a green card in the late nineties and has lived and worked in Washington ever since. He has been able to renew his green card in the past, but he fears that under the new administration, he might lose his residency and be forced to return to his country.
“I don’t know if what he says is just rhetoric,” he explained, referring to president-elect Trump. “What he says about immigrants in this country illegally, who are committing crimes; I agree. But a lot of these immigrants are good people, hard-working people. They contribute to this country.”
As we came to a halt at another red light, Mo shifted his gaze to the Washington Monument, rising up out of the ground only a few hundred yards away. “I have met many undocumented people in my job,” he said. “All of them are good people, making an honest living. Their families are here. Their children go to school here. They are afraid that they will be taken away and sent out of this country.”
Even though President Obama has deported more illegal immigrants than all of his predecessors, Mo pointed out, the rhetoric of the fierce 2016 campaign has terrified his undocumented colleagues. Last November, Donald Trump promised to build a “deportation force” to send all illegal immigrants, regardless of whether they had committed crimes in the U.S., back to their countries of origin. He has since softened his position.
“I’ve been here for several past elections,” he said. “I was here for Bush and for Obama, both times.”
He looked directly at me in the rearview mirror.
“But this fear? I’ve never seen it before.”
I have had trouble grasping the true extent of the emotions that have roiled this nation over the course of the election season. Before Election Day, I sensed the anger of conservatives with the status quo, but I never understood its depth until Donald Trump swept the Rust Belt on November 8th to become our president.
Conservatives have long chafed at the derision and condescension of the left, but recent years have deepened their frustration. To President Obama and other progressive icons, Republican political opponents do not simply disagree about how to make America a better place; instead, they occupy “the wrong side of history,” as the president himself has often said. They are bigots, misogynists, and racists, and their economic grievances and political anxieties are without merit. And someday, only a few decades further along the arc of history, their evil, backwards political inclinations will perish from the earth, and the good—progressivism—will triumph at last.
Coastal liberals, ensconced in their ivory towers in Washington and the university, continue to claim that they know best. They are the self-appointed defenders of truth and justice, visionaries bent on fixing our deeply flawed and broken nation. If only the hapless hicks supporting the Republican Party would wise up, absorb the teachings of the enlightened class, and understand how good they have it, the nation might make progress in helping those facing real hardship. As one bitter columnist at Jezebel wrote in the days following the election, the “grievances” of Donald Trump’s working-class supporters “ranged anywhere from distrusting Hillary Clinton as much as they did Obama to believing in racial stereotypes and feeling put-upon by ‘PC’ culture.”
But to the middle-aged factory worker in the Midwest who has lost his job and does not know where to turn to provide for his family, these criticisms are nothing short of insulting. He voted for Barack Obama, believing in the promise and hope of the young then-senator’s presidential campaign. But since then, things seem to have only gotten worse.
President Obama has overseen the weakest economic recovery since the Great Depression, with most of this rebound benefitting America’s urban hubs. Meanwhile, the globalized economy grinds on, sweeping middle-class industrial jobs out of America’s heartland and into the cheap labor markets of China, Mexico, and southeast Asia. In the factories that have survived, automated technologies have replaced bustling crews of laborers with robots and an occasional human overseer. To the victims of these powerful waves of change, blue-collar America is dying—and Barack Obama’s hope and youthful idealism did nothing to stop it.
This election manifested the desperation of middle America. Few Americans actually liked Donald Trump. Nearly seven-in-ten voters viewed Donald Trump unfavorably. They found his behavior to be beyond the pale. His proposal to ban all Muslims was inexcusable, and his vow to build a wall was laughable. Yet nearly half voted for him anyway—because in the end, Donald Trump meant change, and change was what they needed. It’s as simple as that.
But with the turmoil of change comes uncertainty and, for immigrants like Mo, the frightening prospect that they no longer can pursue their dreams in the land of the free. Which Donald Trump should they believe: the one who promised to deport every illegal immigrant and to stop issuing green cards for foreign workers, or the one who will only deport “criminal” aliens and will “reform” legal immigration?
Mo is worried that it might be the former.
“When I was seventeen, eighteen, as a young guy, I came to this country, so you know that adjusting—that will be really hard for job adjustment in my old country,” he explained. “I am right now sixteen, seventeen years in this country. What will I do if I go back?”
“When I drive for Uber, I pay my insurance, I pay my road taxes, I pay my rent,” Mo continued, an edge creeping into his soft-spoken voice. “I contribute to America. Someday, I might buy a house. But if I’m not here, how can I do that? How can I contribute to this great country?”
He glanced at me in the mirror. “The undocumented immigrants, they contribute too,” he added. “Without them, this country’s agriculture would be nothing. The fields would be empty—and no one would take those jobs.”
In the end, as traffic finally began to pick up, Mo expressed a hint of optimism. “I am lucky,” he mused as he steered the car onto the freeway. “I have a wife here who is a U.S. citizen, so I will probably be okay.”
“But I really don’t know.”