Editor's note: This commentary is by Avery Book, who is vice president of the Vermont Workers’ Center and a resident of Burlington.
[I]’m a working class Vermonter who grew up in Worcester. I was at the demonstrations in Burlington when Donald Trump came to town, and have some reflections on what this all means for us here in the Green Mountain State.
Racism, sexism, and xenophobia was on full display. However, Mr. Trump himself is not the biggest challenge before us. The challenge is a trend of growing fear-mongering, divide and conquer tactics, and what some are calling 21st century fascism on the rise across this country and around the world.
The challenge is that the rhetoric of right-wing populists has struck a deep chord with many of our neighbors who are scared and hurting from a system that divides our communities and fails to meet our fundamental needs. Many of Mr. Trump's supporters are white working class people across the country and in Vermont who have lost their jobs, are in debt, and struggle to pay the rent and keep the heat on.
I think of my own family’s experience. My dad was a merchant marine for 12 years until his ship was "reflagged" from an American company to a Japanese company. He then spent several years working for Bombardier, a manufacturing company that builds trains, until he and thousands of his co-workers were laid off when they shut down plants in Barre and in upstate New York. He's now spent over a decade working for the postal service, a once secure public sector job now constantly under attack.
But it’s not immigrants who bailed out Wall Street to the tune of billions of dollars. And it’s not Muslims who are responsible for the stagnation of wages or the dismantling of our social safety net, casting millions into homelessness and poverty.
These ideologies exploit the fears and insecurity of the thousands of people in Vermont like those who lost their jobs at that Bombardier plant. They resonate with folks with life experiences like my stepdad, who spent 20 years as a dairy farmer in an economy where more and more small farms go under in the face of corporate giants like Dean Foods and Agri-Mark. Many of these people are fed up and looking for someone to blame for their predicament, and right-wing populists have a ready answer: Immigrants. Muslims. Women. People of color.
But it’s not immigrants who bailed out Wall Street to the tune of billions of dollars. And it’s not Muslims who are responsible for the stagnation of wages or the dismantling of our social safety net, casting millions into homelessness and poverty. At the end of the day, immigrants, refugees and communities of color are often hit even harder by the same issues dealt with by folks like my dad and his coworkers -- in addition to the insidious impacts of racism and xenophobia.
We need to have the hard conversations with our neighbors who are suffering but have been led astray with a vision that blames members of our own community instead of the true creators of inequality, the 1%.
As a member of the Vermont Workers’ Center, we’re trying to have those conversations. A couple Saturdays ago, I joined other members as we went door-to-door in Burlington’s New North End with an inequality survey, hearing firsthand about the ongoing crises of access to health care, low wages, and ever-rising cost of living. This winter and spring we’ll continue to have these conversations all over the state. We’re also joining with our Vermont Human Rights Council partners to host a People’s Convention and Just Transition Assembly on April 30-May 1, bringing together hundreds of Vermonters to build a shared vision of an economy that works for people and the planet.
Ultimately, we must reject the divide and conquer rhetoric, and come together all across Vermont to fight against the billionaire class for a Vermont and world where every person’s human rights are met and we all can thrive.