Rust & Rage in the Heartland
On the first anniversary of 9/11 I went to a mosque in Chicago and found a smaller repeat of what had happened for three nights after the attacks, when thousands of whites had rallied near this building in the suburb of Bridgeview. This time, vehicles sprouting giant US flags raced down Harlem Avenue. There were horns and peeling rubber. Two bare-chested men had flags painted neck-to-navel on their bodies. Hundreds of flag-waving white people roared in unison, "USA! USA!"
Out of the cacophony Nancy and her son Jim stood out. They clutched American flags and sputtered indignantly when the cops ordered them home. I later trudged through the snow to their front door, hoping to peel back the curtain on their anger.
Nancy, 56, was reserved while her son, 35, talked harshly about Muslims. This went on for an hour, and then the conversation took a turn away from race and religion. Nancy spoke for the first time. From both now poured a deeper animosity. Her knee is blown out, and the HMO to which she belongs through her job selling window coverings for J.C. Penney had been refusing an implant. Nancy pulled back her top and showed a pain patch on her shoulder. She was battling to get the operation.
Jim excused himself. He returned with a shopping bag stuffed with papers. It dropped with a loud thud on the kitchen table. "These are my bills. Two hundred of them. Ten thousand dollars, one of them. Fifteen thousand, another," Jim said of some $200,000 in medical bills that followed two heart attacks.
Jim had no health insurance. He remains alive by dint of a sympathetic doctor who secretly slips him the $96 biweekly regimen of medicine.
Nancy had long ago made a foray into the stock market, losing $10,000. Then she watched the market going up at the end of the 1990s and decided to plunge back in. "My neighbor said buy this one stock. He bought it for $4. I bought it for $72, just before 9/11." She laughed a sick laugh. "Now it's worth $4."
Nancy and Jim were typical of those who marched at the mosque--every person I interviewed was unemployed, underemployed, hurting economically in some way. This group of Americans, who number in the millions, harbors deep-seated anger over corporate shenanigans, their lack of healthcare and good jobs, yet in interview after interview I found they are often the most fervent in their support of George W. Bush and his tough rhetoric.
Why? One answer is that Republicans have used "social issues" such as school busing, Willie Horton and gay marriage to speak to these Americans; they mine the anger in the code-language way they have been doing since Goldwater ran for President in 1964, deflecting attention from the true cause of their problems. And the Democrats have been timid, or unable to form a message to break through to them. Another is what happens in any wartime period, including World Wars I and II and the Vietnam era. Any time the nation is at war, there is a tendency toward nationalism.