Detroit, and Visions of the Possible

An Article for New Lines Magazine

I’m pretty sick of this election already.

Don’t get me wrong. That old truism that we hear every four years, about this election being the most important of our lives, is actually true this time around. Sometimes, though, important things are incredibly dull and ruthlessly depressing. Most of the time, even.

What has me so down about this election is that there’s no solution on offer. We are voting on whether to maintain the status quo (awful) or open the door for the destruction of our democracy (way worse). I’m going to vote for the status quo, but I understand why so many people are resistant. Are we going to choose between bad and worse for the rest of our lives? It feels like, best case scenario, everything grows greyer and shittier forever while we live in constant terror of what happens if we stop fighting for our grey and shitty lives.

Late last September, I flew to Detroit on assignment for New Lines Magazine to cover Trump and Biden and the UAW strike, which was raging at the time. It was that 48-hour time period where Biden joined a UAW picket line and then Trump held a rally at a non-union factory that I talked my way into. The UAW strike was just entering its third week, and Shawn Fain had already exacted stunning concessions from GM, Ford, and Stellantis. I spoke to a bunch of striking workers, acquired my treasured Auto Workers for Trump sign, and wrote a feature article about it, which dropped in New Lines Magazine this morning.

You can read that article here if you would like to, and I hope that you will, because I think it’s pretty great. It talks a lot about whether auto workers support Trump or Biden, who can win Michigan: stuff like that. That’s cool, I guess. But there’s also a lot of things that I think are more important. A suggestion of solution, a future less dark and less shitty. Actually livable.

I did not expect to fall in love with Detroit — or, more accurately, with the ghosts that haunt it. I did not expect to leave a city famous for urban decay with renewed hope and replenished energy. But I saw something truly beautiful down there. This is going to sound dramatic, but I think the trip might have changed my life.

When I first hit the picket line, I tried striking up conversations about Trump, and Biden, and their visits, and voting preferences, and again and again, with varying degrees of annoyance, workers told me that the UAW strike was not about politics, and that Biden and Trump were both sideshows, and that they were sick and tired of journalists swooping in and making their strike about politics. This was about solidarity and a living wage and not working 70-80 hours a week to make ends meet. This strike was about justice.

My initial reaction, which I did not give voice to, was “what are you talking about? Those all sound like very political issues to me.” But then I talked to more people, and I thought about it, and I realized that here, in the United States of America, these things are not political at all — not anymore. Democrats are better on unions than Republicans, and Biden is better on unions than Trump, but at their core, the GOP and the Democrats are both parties of capital. The things Shawn Fain gave voice to in his Eat the Rich T-shirt on livestream in October are so far outside the Overton Window that there are no nationally viable parties for anyone who believes them. There haven’t been parties like that for decades.

Because the Democrats and Republicans are both parties of capital, Fain’s radical ideas about fair compensation for a hard day’s work have become nonpartisan. Which is why these striking factories were perhaps the only place in America where you could find Trump and Biden supporters standing side by side, united, demanding the same kind of change.

If you read the article, you’ll find that the Trump voters I spoke to understand full well that Trump is an anti-union candidate at the head of an anti-union party. They’re voting for him mostly for the reasons all his supporters are voting for him — the so-called border invasion, the ostensibly stolen 2020 election, a grab-bag of other conspiracy theories, etc. They’re also voting for him because they remember that Biden voted for NAFTA and other free trade initiatives (which opened the door to their reduced condition), and they oppose Biden’s actions on climate change.

Here’s the really horrifying thing: they aren’t even wrong. There are some big loopholes and glaring impracticalities in Biden’s infrastructure bill that really do endanger these people’s jobs and pose an enormous threat to the UAW itself. Seriously, you should read the article, you would hardly believe how much I read about electric vehicle industry and policy for this article, it’s ridiculous. We can respond to climate change and address these valid worker concerns. It’s not either/or. But we aren’t there yet.

These voters are afraid and they’re right to be afraid. They don’t want to end up like Flint, Michigan or any of the other factory-towns-turned-post-apocalyptic-wastelands scattered throughout the Rust Belt. The way of life these factories make possible is worth preserving. There were people on that line with families that have worked at Ford for five generations. Almost everyone I spoke to had family who worked there too. And they were proud! God were they proud of the work they do there, as they damn well ought to be. Proud also to work for a company that, until very recently, took decent care of its employees, paid a living wage — not a survival wage but a living one, that allowed for home ownership and vacations once in a while and other things that make life more than a race against financial ruin.

That whole “at this company, we’re more like a family” bullshit that corporations feed their workers to coerce them into working stupid hours and sacrificing work/life balance? It exists. It’s real. It happened in Detroit. For generations.

And it looks like it might happen there again. Shawn Fain won crazy concessions. The two-tiered wage system is going away (read the article to learn more about that). Unprecedented pay raises. Everything the critics said were impossible turned out to be possible after all.

It’s so beautiful. It’s restored my faith in left-wing collective action. It has me tearing my hair out. Why is there no party that caters to these people? Why is no one occupying this ground and making worker’s rights political again?

There’s hope in that omission, I think. It’s small, but it’s real. The American political landscape is falling apart, and that falling-apartness may eventually create an opening for an actual working-class party that, like the UAW, includes white-collar workers and addresses worker concerns.

You know who wants that, apparently? MAGA people. A lot of them. Which is really important because, as I have written repeatedly in this newsletter, you cannot punch 74 million people into submission. We need buy-in. It’s a horrifying problem, but there’s no way around it. Collective bargaining is the first thing I’ve personally witnessed solving it.

Every time I go on this rant to one of my long-suffering friends, which is often, the first thing they say is “Are you fucking serious? You want to ally with people who hate trans people and think immigrants are poisoning the blood of our country?” Absolutely not. What I do want, though, is to invite them to leave that baggage behind and focus on things that could actually make their lives better. I’m not dreaming of allies here. I’m dreaming of converts.

MAGA hates trans people and thinks immigrants are poisoning the blood of our country because they are terrified, in the same way all hateful people are terrified. Some are too far gone to be reached. Others, though, might respond as well to a party that offers actual solutions as Republican factory workers did to the UAW strike. A party that campaigns on things like a living wage and reasonable work hours could remake the partisan landscape of this country.

(Tucker Carlson and the “National Populists” are moving to take that ground. We can’t let them. It belongs to us by right, and unlike them, we can follow through.)

As far as I can tell, most people are very simple creatures (complimentary). They would like to live a peaceful life, get married, have a family, work a steady job and enjoy some barbeque on the weekends. People like me, who would rather be skinned alive than live like that, are the actual freaks. Offer people a stable, good life and watch their fear, and then their hatred, slowly melt away.

This hope is what I wish the article could have fully been about. For a variety of reasons, that was not in the cards. I think it’s a great article, well worth reading, I’m very proud of it…but for God’s sake, please don’t read it for “Can Trump Win Michigan?” and stop there. Yes, Trump can win Michigan: can we talk about how to destroy his appeal long-term? You can spend the next nine months breathlessly following the twists and turns of this election like the world’s most terrifying football season, or you can flip to November 6th, put a big “Vote Biden” reminder on the calendar, and start looking around for exit ramps. Because the status quo is untenable. And there are ways out, if we dare to look for them.

Join the conversation

or to participate.