NOTES FROM THE WORKING-CLASS: The Wildest Fire

A few fires are burning out of control in my own neck of the woods. My home in downtown Seattle is a fifteen minute walk to the controversial Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), a hot spot for the Black Lives Matter Protests. My other home on the north coast of Oregon has been deluged with smoke from the wildfires. The notion of fire has an odd way of reminding me of hatred, the burning of America, and my childhood friend Donna Donato.*

Donna Donato is nobody special. Nobody famous. We were Italian girls, white working-class, and went to the same Catholic high school in Yonkers. Our fathers were uneducated and worked with their hands. We thought we were middle-class because our mothers didn’t work outside the home, and we had washing machines and back yards instead of concrete stoops in front of walk-up tenements. Right out of high school, Donna married a Yonkers guy. I left and made a break for it, traveling to see America, bound for the West Coast, where I’ve seen the wildest fires you can imagine.

There is a lot of hate in the air right now, spewing from fires raging out of control. One underlying cause for the hatred is coming from the white working-class. The white working-class has always been largely uneducated and conservative—people I know well because I grew up with them. The same opinions they spouted in the 1970s during my childhood are the same types of opinions that the white working-class voice today—except nowadays they are often expressed in a meme or a tweet.

America is burning up with hatred. Trump does everything he can to fan the flames of hatred. Trump is not a Christian. Trump is not a genuine conservative. Nor is he a genuine nationalist. He’s an opportunist who fans the flames of hatred to stay in power. There is nothing new about fanning the flames of hatred. The lessons I have learned from my past experiences, coupled with my knowledge of history, have made me fearful of people with evil intentions, and especially of people in leadership positions who incite us to hate one another.

For a long time, it seemed unthinkable that any president could use force to take control over America’s democracy. The U.S. military takes an oath to the U.S. Constitution, not to the president. It’s always been inconceivable that any president, including Trump, could deploy U.S. troops to fight for his own personal interests, and especially to win an ill-gotten election. But things have changed. The American government is now steeped in politics based on hatred. Once hatred is embedded in a large group of people, anything can happen. The inevitable outcome is violence.

To know where hate comes from, I have no choice but to take an atavistic journey—to my own roots in working-class Yonkers. I know it is normal for me to hate someone who does me wrong. Hating someone just because of the color of her skin, her country of origin, or her religion is a form of hatred that is alien to me, but not to some of the people who I grew up with. It was through Donna Donato that I first learned about hate, the kind of hate teenage girls have for one another for no other reason other than the enjoyment derived from being mean.

In the tenth grade Donna Donato and I were Best Friends Forever. BFF. We dropped mescaline and barricaded ourselves in her bedroom, listening to music. She was the first to buy the Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach album. Donna’s first best friend, Tina Tucci,* always lurked in the background. Tina left our Catholic school to go to trade school for secretarial training. Out of sight, out of mind, Donna dumped Tina and made me her new BFF, sort of like being a made man in the Mafia. Tina always came back to reclaim her former status of BFF, wooing Donna with concert tickets, better drugs, and trips to the Jersey shore.

Then they ganged up on me. Saying nasty things about me behind my back, or to my face, zoning in on precisely what made me different from them—You’re too white to be an Italian girl. They especially hated the way I thought deeply about life. “You think too much,” they told me. They spread rumors about my honor and my virginity and worked in tandem like an assault unit, getting other kids to hate me. Back and forth, I was tossed between them like the third wheel on an old Schwinn.

Getting bullied by Donna and Tina is a far cry from the politics based on hatred in Nazi Germany under Hitler or most recently, in Rwanda under Gregoire Kayibanda. No genocide was going on in Yonkers, just the witless torture of a teenage girl. No matter how you look at it, though, hatred is hatred, especially when hatred emanates just because someone is different. Color. Religion. Ethnicity. Education. Any difference can spark a fire. Whether it’s Donna Donato pummeling me or Hitler exterminating Jews, hatred is the most effective way to build a coalition to grab power.

Hitler achieved power with the help of the Sturmabteilung, Storm Troopers, known as the Brown Shirts. Hitler founded this violent paramilitary group in 1921 to guard Nazi Party meetings. Often functioning as a security force at Nazi rallies, the Brown Shirts took an allegiance to Hitler and served him by committing violence to secure votes and beat Hitler’s enemies. The Brown Shirts lent muscle to the Nazi Party the same way Mussolini’s Black Shirts functioned as a paramilitary security force in Fascist Italy.

More recently in Rwanda, the MDR Parmehutu were the revolutionary youth brigade of the far right political party. The Parmehutu were hoodlums picked up from the streets of Kigali and trained to commit violence and murder. Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, and the Parmehutu are only a few of the paramilitary groups that have achieved infamy for their violence and hatred. There are many others. 

Once hatred is galvanized in paramilitary groups who have been trained to commit violence, killing is more than a random occurrence or the result of chaotic skirmishes at street protests or at rallies. The slaughter of innocent men, women and children—genocide—becomes a very real possibility.

When it comes to hatred, I ask myself: Why am I trying to understand the incomprehensible? I try to understand hatred because Donna Donato was right. I do think too much. I often rely on other writers to teach me what I do not know or to unearth the truths that might be buried deep inside of me. I read “The Barefoot Woman and Cockroaches by French Rwandan author Scholastique Mukasonga.  Ms. Mukasonga lost thirty-seven members of her immediate family to the genocide in 1994. Every passage is a powerful meditation to ponder and reflect, revealing the most raw of human connections. She describes the death of her youngest sister, Jeanne. Eight months pregnant, the Parmehutu sliced Jeanne open with a machete, tore out her baby and used the dead infant to club her head.

La Storia by famed Italian author Elsa Morante is the slow death of Ida Ramundo, a young woman of Rome, who is partly Jewish and struggling for her life in Mussolini’s Italy. Her father’s non-Jewish bloodline gives her the Italian ethnic cloak to hide from being herded from the Roman Ghetto into the Auschwitz train from the Tiburtina Station and into the throes of the death camp.

Morante knew that all political ideologies that incite hatred are ruses used by men who want power and will ruthlessly destroy anyone or anything that stands in their way of getting it. Whether it be fascism, communism, anarchism, or even in the 21st Century what we have come to know as trumpism, all of these ideologies are weaponized by corrupt men who are intent on taking control by subjugating the masses with the cruel opium of their messianic and evil notions about humanity. In the end, it is always men of power, greed and corruption who rise to the top on the backs of the working-class people who mistakenly thought they were being saved.

Every time I see Donna Donato’s posts on Facebook, my blood boils, but I don’t unfriend her. Seeing Donna from a distance in the rear view mirror makes me understand something about myself. It’s like seeing a car wreck on the Freeway and slowing down to see if anyone needs help. I am endlessly fascinated, and simultaneously repulsed by haters—people who hate entire categories of others for no other reason than their race, ethnicity, gender or creed, et al.

When Trump was elected, Donna posted commentary on Facebook about his wife Melania—Finally there’s a class act as a first lady. Translation: Michelle Obama was not a class act. And why wasn’t Michele Obama a class act? She’s beautiful, an attorney, educated at Harvard Law School, a mother and role model who championed health, nutrition and fitness to a legion of young women. Could the barrier to her being a class act be because of her color? Too black to be first lady, the way I was too white to be Italian?

Mean girls do grow up to be mean women. Donna’s posts are full of posed photos, family reunions always taken in restaurants. She looks the happiest when she has a drink in her hand. Then there is her dark side proclaiming law and order, denigrating Black Lives Matter and the protests in Seattle. Many of Donna’s posts have been taken down by Facebook (REMOVED), which means they were political weapons—(HATE).

The white working-class has a reason to hate. They have been under siege for as long as I can remember. What has changed dramatically is the loss of good jobs, the ability to make a good living wage, and the opportunity for upward mobility and prosperity without having a college degree. Death rates for middle-aged white Americans are rapidly rising. The three leading causes of death are suicide, accidental poisoning (primarily opioid overdose) and alcoholic liver disease. Described by Anne Case and Angus Deaton in their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, almost all of those who are part of this new spike of premature deaths are middle-aged white Americans without a college degree. The great demarcation between death and despair, and longevity and prosperity has now become a college degree.

America, no longer a healthy society, has become toxic. People atrophy and perish because they don’t know how to do something or aren’t given the time to learn how to do something, or they’re not savvy enough to see what they need to do. When people are full of fear and despair and are pummeled into exhaustion, it’s not hard for an immoral leader to churn these emotions into hate. Trump identified the pain of the white working-class, and in particular their tendency to feel inadequate about themselves, their inability to make a good living or to have a good life. He gave them a much needed sense of identity, and that is why they will follow him to the ends of the earth and even die for him.

Because the white working-class is uneducated, they feel disrespected and often think of themselves as losers, and when jobs start going away, they think the system is rigged against them. (It is!) Instead of doing the hard work to understand the multiple sides and complexity of political and economic issues, they are willing to form opinions that are overly simple but far from the truth. It is easy to manipulate people who are not educated. Trump speaks to their pain. He tells the white working-class they are not responsible for their own decline. He creates an enemy, a scapegoat, a target to blame. Get them to hate the enemy. Demonize the enemy. Fan the flames.  (The radical left, Black Lives Matter, Muslims, China, Antifa.)

Antifa is a concept, a philosophical mindset, that is a reaction to organized hate groups. Antifa comprises a group of independent individuals who oppose Fascism. Prior to 2016 Antifa were anarchists and far left. Since Trump came to power, more mainstream people have joined the cause. Their belief system is rooted in the assumption that the Nazi party would never have come to power if people had fought them during the 1920s and 30s.While most of their counter-protests have been peaceful, there have been numerous instances where encounters between Antifa and the far-right have turned violent.

Trump frequently cites Antifa as a terrorist organization, but not the far-right hate groups Proud Boys or Patriot Prayer. Right-wing hate groups have consistently committed domestic terror in the United States for many years and have murdered hundreds of people in this country.  Trump has repeatedly denounced his political opponents and has referred to the media as the “enemy of the people.” His political rallies veer into aggression and violence against anyone who opposes him.  The opposition is anyone and everyone who is not for Trump: Republican, Moderate Republican, Libertarian, Moderate Democrat, Social Democrat, Liberal, Progressive, Socialist, Communist, Green and the Media. Did I miss anyone? It does not matter. Bottom line: If you’re not for Trump, you are the enemy. And that means there’s a whole lot of hate going on here.

Since Trump’s first year in office, there has been, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center,  a fifty-five percentage increase in white nationalist hate groups. While it once seemed inconceivable that America would give rise to a new resurgence of white supremacist hate paramilitary groups, it is even more incredible that an American President would court their favors. Bikers for Trump, which boasts 370,000+ members on Facebook, is not a paramilitary group per se, but they do believe Trump is the only person who can save America from a dark alliance of socialists and Black Lives Matter activists, undocumented immigrants (imported to vote Democratic) and Muslim Congresswomen.

All along Trump has curried the favors of Bikers for Trump. His frequent shout-outs for this massive group is an intentional rallying cry. Chris Cox, the Founder of Bikers for Trump, organized the wall of meat around Trump for his inauguration in January 2017. The group also helped Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a fervent Trump supporter, with security issues five times. The bikers are big and beefy. Many are armed. Trump revels in having a force of tough people who are personally loyal to him. Their presence sends a message to the enemy: America is not going to be overtaken by cry-baby liberals.

In August 2018, Trump invited about 180 bikers to his clubhouse in Bedminster, New Jersey and fed them sausage and beer. Even though military veterans and select members of law enforcement were also invited, the event was described as a “Bikers for Trump” rally. John Balazek, a member of Bikers for Trump, says, “We like him because he says what he thinks, he loves America and he doesn’t take any shit from anybody. That’s how bikers are too.”

Trump isn’t the only world leader who has a fondness for bikers. Outlaw bullies are also favored by Vladimir Putin, who has been photographed riding with the Russian bikers’ gang The Night Wolves. An almost paramilitary army, The Night Wolves fought alongside the Russian army in Crimea, set up a base in Slovakia and most recently rolled through Poland on the way to Berlin. Night Wolves have more than 5,000 members and branches in several European countries, including Serbia, Romania, Macedonia and Bulgaria.

In 2019 The Southern Poverty Law Center Tracked 940 Hate Groups across the U.S. Two relatively recent additions to the growing list of hate groups include Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys. The far-right group Patriot Prayer is based in Vancouver, Washington, just across the Oregon state line, a short jaunt to Portland. The group has organized pro-Trump rallies and targeted protests predominantly attended by liberals. Often working in tandem with far-right groups, inevitably violence erupts when they show up on the scene of any rally or protest.  Proud Boys, another newcomer to the hate game, is far-right and neo-fascist. Notorious for glorifying violence, the group believes white men and western culture are under siege.

For someone who is habitually known for operating haphazardly out of chaos, Trump does, indeed, have his Brown Shirts. He has cultivated support from organized hate groups as well as by inciting individuals who attend his rallies. In the past few years, Trump has called directly on his supporters to use violence  He once said at a 2016 rally in Las Vegas that he'd like to punch a protester in the face. At another event, he also encouraged his supporters  to "knock the crap" out of any protesters causing trouble and promised to pay for the legal fees stemming from criminal charges.

Examples of random individuals who have taken Trump’s warmongering to heart and gone berserk include Cesar Sayoc, who in 2018 mailed pipe bombs to  several Democratic Party politicians and other prominent critics of Trump. In August 2019, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius shot and killed 23 people and injured 23 others in El Paso, Texas after posting a manifesto with white nationalist and anti-immigrant themes. The shooting was described as the deadliest attack on Latinos in modern American history. And most recently, in August 2020, Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, a lone wolf with an AR-15 rifle, crossed state lines from Illinois into Wisconsin and shot three protesters, killing two in Kenosha. Both his attorneys and Trump have said his actions were in self-defense. Never mind the fact that he came to a protest armed with an AR-15 rifle.

During a time of global pandemic and multiple civil rights protests, many more Americans are arming themselves. The images of looters and of hate groups inciting violence and causing damage at otherwise peaceful protests, have caused Americans to be fearful for their own personal safety. Since 1998 when the FBI began keeping statistics, the pattern of buying firearms spiked at an all-time high this past July 2020. According to the FBI, more than 3.6 million background firearm checks were made up from just over 2 million checks made the prior year.

Because Americans are buying more firearms does not mean they are trained to use them. The FBI started collecting firearm background check data to track accidental firearm deaths. After mass shootings, there have always been spikes in gun sales.  For example, the spike in firearm sales following the Sandy Hook school shooting also led to a spike in accidental firearm deaths, particularly among children. No one yet knows the consequences of having more firearms in the hands of private citizens who are being goaded by Trump to commit violence.

Trump spews invectives, distorts reality and incites violence. He tells the white supremacist hate group the Proud Boys to “Stand Back and Stand By,” and instructs his followers to go to the polls on election day to “watch very carefully” to prevent voter fraud. His call to his followers to monitor the polls prompted an outcry from state and local officials who are concerned about voter intimidation, chaos and the eruption of violence on election day. The hue and cry for voter fraud is Trump’s way of laying the ground for a most certain violent outcome. You can rest assured that voter fraud will be committed somewhere, somehow, in America on or around election day and there is no way to know whether the fraud will be bonafide or staged by desperate Trump supporters.

There is no rational reason to explain why Trump is increasingly unhinged as we draw closer to the 2020 Presidential election. There is no understanding his incompetent response to the Covid-19 pandemic and why he has dug in his heels, locked into a flagrantly absurd position even now as Covid-19 runs rampant in the White House and he, himself, has contracted Covid-19. We've all witnessed his cockamamie Liberate Michigan rants and his rallying cries to heavily-armed crowds that violating stay at home orders, not wearing masks, and not social distancing is a very good thing. Flag-waving. Patriotic. Freedom. 

If Trump is not reelected, he stands a very good chance of being indicted on multiple counts of fraud by the Southern District of New York. But this is not reason alone for him to use violence as a tool to stay in power. He’s been in trouble with the law so many times in the past that it matters not. He knows how to effectively use the legal system to walk away scot free. A greater reason for his call to violence might be because he cannot bear to walk away from the enormous power of being President of the United States.

I have no easier time trying to understand Trump than I have of understanding unbridled hate.  I do know that you can never underestimate the destructive power of hate. Whenever you minimize Trump’s ranting as sheer rhetoric, chest pounding and bullying, might makes right antics, then keep in mind that no one believed Hitler’s ranting against the Jews would result in genocide. As rational human beings, we tend to deny what is unthinkable and sweep it under the carpet as a mess we can deal with some other day. Keep in mind that in the 1930s, the New York Times convincingly reassured its readers that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was all posture.

I remember taking a political theory course in college and studying social justice. The course narrative was framed by John Rawls’ epic work The Theory of Justice. As a sidebar, the topic of Nazi Germany came up for discussion and we pondered the reasons why the German people accepted Nazism and became complicit in the genocide of the Jews. I wasn’t satisfied probing why people became fascists; I wanted to set forth the criteria of why some Germans did not become Nazis. The reason boiled down to one important fact—people who have a highly evolved consciousness and a genuine compassion for humanity do not get swept away in the rhetoric of evil leaders and become embroiled in the type of hate that becomes complicit in violence.

Donna Donato was right about people like me. Those of us who think too much, or at least use our brains to think, find it unconscionable and morally repugnant to hate entire groups of people solely because of the intrinsic nature of who they are. Today Donna is an administrative healthcare worker, over sixty and obese—at high risk for developing serious Covid symptoms. She posts memes of Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity proclaiming that the virus is less deadly than previously thought. She will tell you that she is educated. She does have a degree in nursing. But being educated is more than having academic credentials. Education is lifelong learning. And sometimes it does mean thinking too much. It means doing the hard work to check sources and to verify facts. It means taking the time to distinguish reality from gaslighting. If only she would stop watching Fox-TV long enough to recognize that Trump is only an opportunist who fans the flames of hatred to stay in power.

Trumps demonizes anyone who is not for him. He preys on people’s fears, both real and imagined. He intentionally incites hatred, cruelty, and violence. He intentionally foments hatred among the disenfranchised, the disenchanted and the displaced who would otherwise have no identity, no sense of self-worth, no self-respect, other than to believe in him. Trump does everything he can to fan the flames of hatred. There is nothing new about fanning the flames of hatred. In the last century, it’s been done many times. Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Kayibanda, Milosevic. There are others now too. Trump. We have a wildfire burning out of control. Anything can happen. Violence is a most certain outcome.

Like Donald Trump frothing with hatred at a campaign rally, Donna Donato gushes at the Bikers for Trump and is one of the 370,000+ who likes their Facebook Group Page. A recurring theme of her life is rooted in her philosophy—that she is a really good person unless you do her wrong, then she will get you back, bad. She is sort of like Trump. She talks of Law and Order, and, ironically, of morality, but she does not understand morality in all of its complexity.

I have come full circle and learned something by exploring my past in working-class Yonkers. America in all of its diversity, with its multiple belief systems, and its full range of ethnicities and economic stakeholders cannot afford to have a President who is immoral, a hater. A hateful President who intentionally fans the flames of hatred is creating the biggest wildfire any of us have ever seen. More people will get hurt. More people will die. We can hide hate, push it down and squash it, but we can never completely eliminate it. Hate will always rear its ugly head and rage as an uncontrollable fire when it’s given ample opportunity. Trump has been exactly that opportunity. Here is what I do know for certain—the President of the United States must be above all else, moral, a peacemaker, the arbiter of a more perfect union.

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About Patricia Vaccarino                                                                                                                                                                      Patricia Vaccarino has written award-winning film scripts, press materials, content, books, essays and articles. She is currently writing a collection of essays NOTES FROM THE WORKING-CLASS. She has written two works of fiction about Yonkers: YONKERS Yonkers! A story of race and redemption and its sequel The Heart of Yonkers. Book Three in the Yonkers series is in development. In addition, she frequently writes about libraries, and has written a monograph about the circumstances that led to the razing of the Yonkers Carnegie Library in 1982. She has an audience of 40,000+ followers on social media.

Research Sources:

The real names of *Donna Donato and *Tina Tucci have not been used.

Buzz Feed, James Pogue, Biker Leaders being trained in voter registration techniques.

Think Trump Can’t Win In 2020? These Bikers Want To Change That, September 5, 2019

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/jamespogue/bikers-for-trump-2020-campaign

My Central Jersey, Bikers for Trump meet with President in Bedminster, August 12, 2018

https://www.mycentraljersey.com/story/news/politics/2018/08/12/bikers-trump-meet-president-bedminster/971280002/

The Sun, PRESIDENT Donald Trump on Friday welcomed a rowdy group of riders who revved their Harley Davidsons to the White House's South Lawn, May 22, 2020

https://www.the-sun.com/news/871500/white-house-trump-bikers-veterans-event-south-lawn/

The New Yorker, Can Biden’s Center Hold? August 31, 2020 Issue

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/08/31/can-bidens-center-hold

The Mercury News FBI reports Firearm Spike in June 2020, July 13, 2020

https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/08/03/fbi-us-firearms-sales-boom-during-pandemic-lockdown/

The Brookings Institution, Three Million More Guns, July 13, 2020

https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/07/13/three-million-more-guns-the-spring-2020-spike-in-firearm-sales/

New York Times, Trump Renews Fears of Voter Intimidation as G.O.P. Poll Watchers Mobilize

Republicans are putting together what they call an army of Trump supporters to monitor election procedures, September 30, 2020

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/30/us/trump-election-poll-watchers.html

The Hill, Trump Suggest that thing could get bad if military, police, biker supporters get tough, March 14, 2019

https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/434110-trump-suggests-that-things-could-get-very-bad-if-military-police

You Tube Video, Donald Trump - 'Knock the Crap Out Of Them, I Will Pay For The Legal Fees'

https://youtu.be/S3HUVIZQc-Q

You Tube Video, Donald Trump Says He’d Like to Punch a Protester in the Face

https://youtu.be/1es9MZyyPOA

Antifa

https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounders/who-are-antifa

Patriot Prayer

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patriot_Prayer

Proud Boys

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proud_Boys

List of Genocides by Death Toll

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_genocides_by_death_toll

 

 

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Patricia Vaccarino

Patricia Vaccarino is an accomplished writer who has written award-winning film scripts, press materials, articles, essays, speeches, web content, marketing collateral, and eight books.


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