I like Bernie Sanders and you like Donald Trump, can we be neighbors? In Wisconsin? Mike Magnuson examines some local history and tries hard to answer these questions.
I’ll give this much credit to the new neighbors in the Trump house: their vehicles are not only American-made but represent a diversity of the major American automobile manufacturers—Ford, GMC, and Dodge—and an American flag hangs pleasantly beside their garage door, which I guess means they love our great nation without reservation and are loyal to it and want everyone to know it. They have five vehicles, I think, maybe eight, maybe twelve, or maybe it’s just three. Lately, there’s been so much coming and going at the house that I can’t figure out who is visiting or showing up to work on the construction project in the backyard or who actually has a bedroom inside.
The house does have a three-car garage and its doors are always open, day or night, but I’ve never seen a car parked in there, only some boxes and lamps and chests of drawers and other items that have not yet been allocated their proper place. At the front end of the garage, a couple of lawn chairs face the street with an old boom box on the ground nearby. I’ve never heard any music coming from the boom box and never have spoken with the new people, other than to wave hello when I’m walking my dog past their house and trying to hurry away while my dog’s hair stands on end and their two dogs bark and growl at us.
These new neighbors moved in about six weeks ago, about two weeks before the presidential primary elections here in Wisconsin and, as we all know, Ted Cruz won the Republican primary handily here, which means Republicans hate Donald Trump here. And we all know Democrats hate Republicans here, because Governor Scott Walker has instigated a number of changes that are either wildly popular or wildly unpopular, depending on who you talk to or whose eternally outraged Facebook timeline you might read. Democrats hate Democrats here these days, too, on account of the death match between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and the refusal of Sanders to capitulate in the race for the nomination, even though, when Hillary ran for the nomination against Barack Obama in 2008, she didn’t capitulate until far later in the election cycle than where we are now. But in a way, that’s all beside the point. If we’re to be honest about life in Wisconsin, we have to admit that everyone secretly or not-so-secretly hates everyone else here, at least when politics are involved, and it’s not worth rehashing the reasons why. We need to spend more time drinking beer and listening to music. I’ve heard a lot people saying that. I’ve also heard that if we do not remain vigilant, Donald Trump will take over the world and we’ll fall asleep one night in 21st Century Wisconsin and wake up in the late Anglo-Saxon period, covered in dung in a cow stall along the coast of the North Sea.
Behind the Trump house, it seems that the new owners are digging a rather imposing trench around the house’s backside, down to its foundation. A giant worm of dirt that’s easily ten feet high stretches the back length of the lot and the tops of a few scrawny ornamental firs appear to peek over the pile as if admiring the effort involved in whatever these industrious people with their American-made cars and back-hoes and shovels are creating.
I’m a curious person—as most of us are—and consequently spend too much time wondering about the exact nature of that trench. My guess is that it has something to do with repairing a crack in the foundation, a crack that may leak during intervals of heavy rain. The procedure for this repair generally involves digging all the way to the footings and determining the nature of the crack and the extent of it and then troweling some concrete patch into the crack and filling the trench with dirt and hoping the patch holds. Twenty-five years ago, I worked for a basement waterproofing company and, instead of concrete patch, we smeared black mastic tar on the cracks and covered it with plastic sheeting and then filled the trench with dirt again. I have no idea whether that method was successful in repairing cracks or keeping water from seeping in. I remember that working in trenches was miserable and that most of the people in my crew were American citizens with criminal backgrounds, some of them ex-cons, some of them on work release from the county lockup. We were paid $4.25 an hour.
So today, I stop with my dog at the end of the Trump house’s driveway and take it all in. In the front yard’s middle stands a small, very cute metal yard ornament in the shape of a watering can, hand-painted a homey white, with a dozen or so healthy purple crocuses rising from the ground behind it. The inscription on the watering can in blue cursive reads “Love Blossoms Here.” About twenty feet past that, propped against the living room window, there is a 2 x 3 foot poster that reads “Trump: Make America Great Again.” From my angle, because the watering can and the poster are in a direct sightline, it appears as if the Trump poster rests on top of the spreading fireworks of the flowers, and it occurs to me that this is beautiful and horrible all at once.
My neighbors must be like anyone else. They must enjoy sunshine and favorable breezes and family and friends. If I admit it, that’s all I want, too, to enjoy life with people I love. The rest of it is drudgery.
Long ago, after I had moved on from the basement waterproofing business, I took a minimum-wage job driving a laundry truck for a nursing home, delivering clean laundry to a series of homes owned by the same company and bringing the dirty laundry back to a central facility. Sometimes, I would finish my route early and would be still on the clock, so I’d wander into the basement area and fold towels and sheets with a crew of older ladies who were down there forty hours a week, making the same wage as me. One of these ladies had grown up in Germany during the Hitler years and had come to America after the war and had become an American citizen. She was very nice and fun to listen to, with her thick German accent and way of twisting her English into unintentionally amusing expressions, and one time I asked her what it was like living in Nazi Germany. She said, “Ah, it wasn’t what you think. People were nice. They didn’t so much speak about Hitler always.” She didn’t want to talk about the subject after that and I respected her wishes, even though I couldn’t find it in me to forgive her tangential connection to the horrors of World War II. Was she guilty? Probably yes and probably no. But that sort of moral question is beyond my scope to answer. Besides, I had no idea what her true story might have been.
I suppose, according to everything I hear on the radio and TV or read in my left-leaning social-media corner of the world, that my neighbors in the Trump house are the embodiment of pure evil, and I also suppose, were my neighbors in the Trump house to visit my house and see the Bernie Sanders sticker on my pickup truck and discover the stacks of books by Karl Marx and Che Guevara and Subcomandante Marcos in my basement office, that they would think I am the embodiment of pure evil.
It is perhaps an odd irony that the boyhood home of Wisconsin’s infamous anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy lies about a thirty-minute walk from the exact spot where I’m standing. He grew up in a simple farmhouse with a barn next to it and a swampy area and a creek to the west of its meager fields. The property looks about the same today as it did when he was a boy. It’s a nice, peaceful place with majestic trees and beautiful sunsets all year round. But in the early 1950s, when Joseph McCarthy led America’s charge to defeat the Red Scare, to find the communists living in our midst and out them and jail them all, how many lives did he ruin, how much hate and paranoia did he stir across the nation? How much hate and resentment lingers against him to this day? Still, almost exactly fifty-nine years ago, in early May of 1957, when he died too soon, only in his forty-eighth year, more than seventeen-thousand local people showed up to pay their respects. They loved him, and across the country, millions loved him, and in turn, millions hated him and were glad he was dead. Maybe time has resolved that issue, or maybe people have forgotten just how bad it was, or maybe the same issues are still in play and are manifesting themselves in different ways. I can’t say for certain, but what is clear is that things have not improved since then and they show no signs of ever improving. In this country, we are always at odds with one another. If Trump wants to make America great again, well, it was broken back then, too. It has probably always been broken.
What is the solution to this? When comes the point when we can extend the olive branch of understanding and, as a people, find a way to work it out? Are the Trump supporters really the new Nazis? Are the Bernie Sanders supporters really the new Bolsheviks rising from the potato fields to take everyone’s land away and make it their own? Is there really one version of goodness? And one version of evil? Religious people might say there is, but they as sure as hell will never agree on it.
All of us know—especially in the inexhaustible, instant-hate social media environment where most of us dwell—that the point to reach out and find common ground will never come. We want the hate to end, we give lip service to that grand dream, but it’s pointless.
For that heroic reason, against all of the hateful social-media odds and against all of the hateful human history that has led to this moment, I decide that today is the day I’m going to take matters into my own hands and do something friendly to stop the hate.
“Well, dog,” I say. “Shall we knock on their front door and introduce ourselves?”
The hair rises on my dog’s back, the dogs in the Trump house start barking, and I feel suddenly terrified and lead my dog away from there as fast as we can go.