I understand the appeal of populism. I am experiencing the pain and loss, the desperation and fear that accompanies late middle age unemployment. I drive by the empty mills and factories in Waterville, Dexter, Pittsfield, Skowhegan, Millinocket and Bucksport. I walk down the Main streets of dying towns in Washington, Somerset, Waldo and Aroostook counties, where the good days are decades behind us. I live in rural America, where the schools close from a lack of students, where deaths outnumber births and depression drives many to seek narcotic oblivion.
We are the remainders, the reminders of better times, the redundant workers. We have arthritic hands, ruptured discs, bad lungs, hearing loss, high blood pressure and carpal tunnel from years of working overtime in buildings now occupied by industrious rats and mice. We are doomed to work low-wage, part-time jobs with no benefits that remain in our communities.
Our lives — once filled with hope for a restful retirement, hope that our children will move back after military service or college to work and raise families — are filled with worry. Will we lose the house? Will the car last another year? Will I be able to pay for heating oil, my prescriptions, the blood tests the doctor ordered or gasoline to get to that lousy $8 per hour part-time job? When will I ever stop waking up in the middle of the night, wondering if my days will end in an overcrowded nursing home, covered in bed sores and longing for death?
We persevered. We stayed on the treadmill, proudly employed and paid into the social safety nets, hoping we would never need to ask for government assistance. We went to work at all hours and in all weather, with aching feet and tired eyes. We paid our bills, bought a nice double wide and a few acres or a little house in town. We went to town meetings, voted in every election, bought 50/50 tickets and Girl Scout cookies and helped our neighbors.
Wall Street and Washington have sold us down the river, and now we cannot even proudly call ourselves the working class, for there is precious little work left for us to do, aside from selling low-quality goods with foreign labels to others in the same boat. People call us takers, entitlement seekers, greedy, lazy and ignorant.
This is the worst of times, which history proves drives resentment, fear and mistrust — especially fear and resentment of the other, who we suspect has had a hand in our short fall from prosperity to dire straits. This is the world Bernie Sanders understands and the world in which Donald Trump has presented himself as the Great White Hope. The mainstream political establishment does not understand this world and my people. America is no longer divided by right and left but by our economic prospects, and the people on the bottom have spoken.
When people understand this, they will understand what happened at the ballot box on Nov. 8.
Donna Twombly is a student at the University of Maine at Fort Kent. She worked at the former UTC plant in Pittsfield until it shut down in 2015. She lives in Eagle Lake.