Paul Thayer didn’t just stop speaking with me. He lumped me together with people he believes are pushing the United States into a second civil war.
This was a sobering experience since it rekindled my own concern that we’re headed toward some immense social crisis. I started glancing at all the Lincoln biographies in my bookshelf and wondering how Father Abraham would want me to respond.
Here’s how the breach occurred: I’m a journalist, and I’ve been interviewing Thayer off and on for twenty years. He has always been friendly, always good for a quote on what Detroit’s blue-collar workers were thinking. However, he ended our long-running dialogue after I wrote an article saying Trump had been prancing around Michigan and posing as a working-class hero.
“You asked me what I thought was dividing the country,” Thayer wrote in the email informing me I’d been cut off. “At the time, I could not tell you. Now I can: the exact things you are doing, writing negatively about the president of the United States who has done nothing other than better the country’s economy, lower unemployment, and protect its citizens.”
Paul Thayer expects and hopes that Donald Trump will get reelected as president.
Thayer didn’t mind that after retiring from eight years of building cars and thirty-five years of “just the facts” journalism, I’m reinventing myself as an opinion writer. But he said I hadn’t marshaled enough facts to prove Trump is a phony, and so had insulted anyone who supports the president.
As it happens, I’m afraid I disagree with Thayer on the facts. When I called Trump a phony, I said the president wouldn’t help Michigan workers by cutting taxes on the wealthy and imposing tariffs (aka taxes) that slow the economy for everyone else. I still think this is correct, and for good measure, I could have added that Trump won’t help workers by gutting Obamacare.
And because I write opinions now, I feel compelled to push back on other aspects of Thayer’s views, including attacks on black and brown Americans that continued even during Christmas. On December 22, he posted a picture of Trump dressed as Santa Claus with the caption, “He’s making a list and checkin’ it twice; gonna find out who gets deported by ICE.” This came on the heels of a post that said, “Hey Muslims, Merry Christmas. We’re having HAM!”
Using Lincoln as a guidepost, my first desire is to avoid responding with prejudice of my own. That’s was Lincoln’s goal during a speech in Peoria, Illinois, in 1854. “I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people,” he said. “They are just what we would be in their situation.” And like Lincoln, if I disagree with Thayer and others, I want to determine what I do and don’t owe them as members of the same democracy as me.
I last interviewed Thayer in December at Dragonmead, a suburban Detroit microbrewery with beers like Final Absolution, Sin Eater, and Under the Kilt Wee Heavy. At age 62, he arrives wearing a gray t-shirt and beige work jacket. He combs his silver hair down over his forehead and keeps his beard and mustache neatly trimmed. He’s not bombastic but likes to have his opinions noticed. He remembers arguing at age 14 with his uncle, a devout Catholic, about whether people need to actually be inside a church to worship God. He says he’s been in the manager’s office of his factory three times in recent months to complain about shoddy quality.
Thayer grew up in Clinton Township, Michigan, a place to which white workers fled after the Detroit riots of 1967. Ever since, it’s been ground zero for reporters chasing so-called Reagan Democrats, or blue-collar workers who vote Republican. They’re a critical voting bloc in a state Trump won by less than 11,000 votes four years ago, and where he now narrowly trails Joe Biden and other Democrats.
Thayer’s father was an assistant controller for the city of Roseville and his mother, a landscaper. He hired into Fiat Chrysler’s Warren Stamping Plant as a machine repairman in 1992. He’s now one of the most elite skilled tradesmen in the entire company, programming robots now that will weld the hood of the redesigned Ram pickup – the company’s crown jewel – starting in 2022. He’s also a lifetime NRA member who shoots competitively, and who hunts elk, moose, deer, and bear with a single-shot Thompson Contender handgun.
Donald Trump rallies supporters in Sterling Heights, Michigan on November 6, 2016.
Thayer alternated between political parties before 2016, but he can’t say enough bad things about the Democratic leadership of that vintage. Barack Obama, he said, set back the cause of racial harmony in the U.S. by fifty years. Hillary Clinton, he said, put an ambassador to death by deliberately turning away during the Benghazi attack. And it was Clinton who, as a presidential contender, failed to address the pain of Detroit’s endless downsizing. “I heard nothing about what she was going to do for the working class,” Thayer said. But he did hear such appeals elsewhere. Just two days before the 2016 election, he attended a suburban Detroit rally in which Trump attacked auto executives for shipping jobs to Mexico.
These days, Thayer counts himself among the beneficiaries of Trump’s efforts to secure U.S. borders and renegotiate NAFTA. “I’m feeling good economically,” he said. “I’m single. I’ve had tons of overtime.” Because of the strong economy, he said he hopes and expects Trump to get re-elected.
Even so, for Thayer, the fires of racial antagonism never seem to stop burning. His ancestors include Chippewa Indians on his father’s side and Canadian, English, and German immigrants on his mother’s side. But he adds quickly that his family’s immigrants came legally and didn’t mind blending in.
Nowadays, he said, illegal immigrants draw welfare checks while combat veterans are homeless. In the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, schoolkids can pray and study Islamic history at taxpayer expense. But he remembers being barred from saying the Pledge of Allegiance in his school because it invoked the word God.
It’s this kind perceived double-standard that’s at the core of Trump’s appeal to workers like Thayer. As Adam Serwer wrote in 2017, a lifetime of these perceived affronts “decreased the value of what W. E. B. Du Bois described as the `psychological wage’ of whiteness.” And these are wounds Trump continually reopens with his non-stop complaints about double-standards that reach even into the Oval Office.
When defending his threat to flatten Iranian cultural sites on January 6, Trump complained that he was being criticized for advocating war crimes while Iran was still doing state-sponsored terrorism. Two days later, Thayer posted a weather forecast showing mushroom clouds over Tehran. He marches lockstep with the president on many other issues.
The impeachment is a witch hunt, Thayer said, since most politicians would make similar demands on the Ukrainian president. Climate change isn’t really happening, he said, because the amount of ice in the Arctic Sea is growing, not shrinking.
Like many Americans, Thayer feels a sense of dread about the future. “I think we’re heading for a civil war,” he said. The most dangerous divisions aren’t along prominent fault lines like black and white or rich and poor. Instead, he said, Americans are divided into political factions that don’t even try to compromise, and government officials bent on self-aggrandizement. “Everyone wants it to be their way,” he said.
The factionalism Abraham Lincoln confronted when he moved from corporate law to sustained activism in 1854 was far worse. Abolitionists and slavers were already fighting in what was became known as Bleeding Kansas. But the crisis meant ordinary people – farmers, laborers, shopkeepers – would listen to Lincoln speak for hours. A lifetime of courtroom advocacy had prepared him to talk about both legal arcana and great moral issues in the simplest of terms.
Lincoln called the union among U.S. states, “the last best hope on earth” and said it must be defended even if the Founding Fathers had tolerated slavery within its original borders. But he refused to accept slavery’s spread to the territories. “If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that `all men are created equal;’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another,” Lincoln said.
So how can reading Lincoln help us defend the Constitution in 2020? What can it teach me about Paul Thayer?
The first thing I’d say to Thayer if he’d allow me would be to plead with him to resume our dialogue and reject the idea of civil war as inevitable. If words like prance offend Trump supporters, I’ll seek to avoid them. If Hillary Clinton failed to address the roots of blue-collar rage in 2016, then she was the wrong candidate. And if the global free trade consensus has always been aimed at rewarding capital far more than labor, then it’s time for a new approach.
But I’d also tell Thayer that blue-collar workers like him are junior partners, far down the ladder, in a Trump electoral coalition that also includes religious conservatives, small-business owners, and conservative plutocrats. And if his goal is to stop America from becoming even more of a multi-cultural country, then I’d say he’s not only facing impossible odds. He’s embarking down the same moral path as slaveowners who denied the humanity of their captives in Lincoln’s day.
A portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the Little Havana district of Miami, Florida, in 2013.
So please, Paul, no more posts with mushroom clouds and no more turning a blind eye to the violence and grinding poverty that await deportees. And in a time of galloping climate change, we should paraphrase Lincoln and say, “if men and women are human, then my ancient faith tells me there can be no moral right in denying them their right to breathe.”
Finally, we should follow Lincoln’s example and defend the Constitution even if it now provides Trump with a host of ballot-box advantages, including the disproportionate clout of rural voters in the Senate and Electoral College. But, like Lincoln, we should fight efforts to expand these advantages through illegal tactics like voter suppression and foreign interference in elections.
As Lincoln said of the expansion of slavery itself, “this result we do not FEEL like favoring, and we are under no legal obligation to suppress our feelings in this respect.”