Our New Podcast: The United States of Anxiety

Our New Podcast: The United States of Anxiety

Our New Podcast: The United States of Anxiety

Sometimes it feels like a huge swath of the country has lost its mind. We partner with WNYC to ask: What’s going on in Election 2016?


Patty Dwyer is a respiratory therapist and a mom from the suburbs of Long Island. Her parents migrated there from New York City amid the panicked white flight of the mid-20th century. For most of her life, Patty has lived what she understands to be the American dream: a good career, a family, a house in a leafy suburb with neighbors she knows and understands. In 2008, she voted for Barack Obama; she thought a mixed-race man would be uniquely positioned to usher in a postracial America. She was optimistic.1

But that was then. Patty’s had a tough run ever since. Her son has struggled with addiction, and she knows too many families who have been touched by Long Island’s surging heroin epidemic. Meanwhile, her job has become less secure as the hospital where she works adapts to Obamacare. She got divorced and lost her house. Worse, she was forced into rental housing— a stark loss of status in a place like Long Island, where four out of five residents are homeowners.2

So Patty entered this election season frustrated—until she heard from Donald Trump. She considers him an altruist, who has gone out of his way to see and acknowledge the struggle in communities like hers. “I just can’t believe that this man, with all his money and all that he could be doing right now…that he’d want to make a difference here,” she marvels.3

Trump’s follies as a general-election candidate have dominated the news this summer, and he appears to be headed toward a historic defeat in November. Even so, the message upon which he built his astonishing success in the primary campaign has resonated deeply with millions of Americans, almost all of them white. Whatever motivated these Trump supporters won’t simply vanish when the next president is sworn into office.4

So The Nation and WNYC, New York City’s public- radio station, have created a new podcast, The United States of Anxiety, which will debut on September 22. We have set to one side the more carnivalesque aspects of Trump’s campaign—his stagecraft, his Twitter feuds, his regular flirtation with self-avowed white supremacists. Rather, we’re spending time with Patty and her community in the suburbs of Long Island, a place where the two cultural realities that have animated Trump’s campaign uncomfortably coexist: longtime white residents who look back longingly on what feels like a fading American dream, and the growing ranks of brown and black immigrants who are striving to make their own dreams real.5

Pollsters and pundits have spent the past several months working mightily to define Trump’s constituency. Some say it consists of “working-class” whites, largely meaning people who lack college degrees. Others say it actually consists of pretty well-off whites. During the Republican primary, FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver put their median household income at $72,000, about $20,000 above the national average. More recently, Gallup researcher Jonathan Rothwell concluded that purely economic descriptors aren’t particularly useful when it comes to Trump’s base. Looking at Gallup data from the first half of July, Rothwell found that Trump’s backers are in fact less likely to have a college education, but are nonetheless more likely to be working or to have their own business, and are making more money at it.6

So material factors aren’t enough to explain the Trump phenomenon. Economic collapse has been a sadly widespread experience since the 2008 crash, one from which a great many people of all races, ideologies, and political affiliations have not yet fully recovered. Seventy percent of Americans report feeling like they’re still living in a recession, according to a June poll from the Brookings Institute and the Public Religion Research Institution. Gallup hasn’t reported a majority of Americans as satisfied with the country’s direction since January 2004.7

Instead, race seems to be the defining factor in how Americans think about their nation and its greatness, or lack thereof, in 2016. In several black communities, poverty has shot up to levels not seen since the beginning of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. And yet black Americans are consistently and significantly more optimistic about the direction of the country than their white peers. This irony, of course, is likely due to the fact that a black man is president for the first time in our history. Black people have taken to heart Obama’s message: Yes, we can.8

Trump, of course, began his flirtation with alienated, anxious white America by questioning Obama’s legitimacy. In the birther craze he fanned, many of us rightly heard a rejection of ourselves: This black man cannot be an American; he doesn’t even have an anglicized name. No, you can’t. But by the time Trump descended from his Manhattan tower and declared his candidacy, his message had evolved to include an affirmation. To some listeners, his vow to make America great again sounds angry and ominous. But it is rooted in an important assumption for the listener who embraces it: You actually are great, and if you don’t feel that way right now, it’s because these other people won’t let you shine!9

That’s the message Patty Dwyer heard from Trump. “It wasn’t until I went to his rally and realized that the media was only presenting 5 percent of what he was saying,” Patty recounts. The experience “totally blew me away—I left there crying and, you know, choking up.”10

When Patty was growing up, foreign-born residents accounted for just 8 percent of Long Island; today, they’re nearly 20 percent. As it is for the majority of Trump’s supporters, immigration is a paramount concern for Patty. In the July Gallup data that Rothwell parsed, 57 percent of Trump supporters opposed any kind of immigration reform, compared to 28 percent among Republicans who didn’t back him. And whatever Trump’s proposed immigration policy finally turns out to be, there’s no mistaking the fact that expelling undocumented immigrants is a defining concern among those voters who gave him the GOP nomination.11

Since 9/11, the Long Island suburbs have witnessed some of the country’s most charged political and cultural battles over immigration—including deadly anti-immigrant violence. When Trump campaigned on Long Island during the primary, he held his rally in the town of Patchogue, where Ecuadoran immigrant Marcelo Lucero was murdered in a 2008 hate crime that many credit with galvanizing the immigrant-rights movement.12

Lucero’s death made the stakes of this debate starkly clear—at least for immigrant families. The last eight years have been unquestionably brutal for them. The Obama administration has deported more people than any of its predecessors, largely in an attempt to calm the political winds that powered Trump’s rise. And yet, like black Americans, immigrants report consistently more optimistic views of the nation’s future than do whites.13

Trump’s exaggerated rhetoric aside, he, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama—like most of the political class—actually share a foundational idea about immigration: We don’t want criminals here; they should be deported. The problem is, the “criminals” who fill Obama’s deportation pipeline are people with low-level, nonviolent infractions, many of whom have lived here for a very long time and have family members who are US citizens. They are people like Juan (not his real name), who lives on Long Island with his wife Leni (also a pseudonym), a Dominican immigrant who obtained her US citizenship in 2007. Juan was arrested in February at a traffic stop with Leni’s brother. He wasn’t driving, according to his lawyer, but cops found marijuana in the car and discovered Juan’s fake license. Now he’s facing deportation.14

Perhaps because of the pressure that families like Juan and Leni’s have faced during the Obama years, they have moved from fearful to unapologetic in their demands for recognition as Americans. And ironically, despite the grim realities of the present, the immigrant families we met on Long Island have far more faith in that dream than their white neighbors. “America don’t gonna deport my husband,” Leni insists. “God don’t let that happen.”15

Perhaps not. But if he stays, whoever wins in November, Juan will find himself in a community and a nation where a significant number of his white neighbors feel that they’ve lost their own piece of the American dream, and that his presence is part of the problem.16

Subscribe to The United States of Anxiety on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts, and check back each Thursday for new episodes.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy