Divided America: Seeing options shrinking, white men ask why

To many others, the notion of white men being marginalized is ludicrous

Radio talk show host Rick Roberts speaks will a caller during his program in Dallas on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016. “I want America to be America,” he says. “I want some semblance of what this country used to be. It’s worth... (AP Photo/LM Otero)
during his program in Dallas on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016. "I want America to be America," he says. "I want some semblance of what this country used to be. It's worth protecting. It's worth defending. I don't recognize this country anymore." (AP Photo/LM Otero)

DALLAS (AP) — The voices cascade into the studio, denouncing political hypocrisy and media bias and disappearing values. Hillary Clinton is a liar and a crook, they say; Donald Trump is presidential and successful. By the time the 16th caller reaches the air, Rick Roberts’ show has reached an impassioned crescendo of anger and lamentation.

What has happened to this once-great land? What has happened to the better lives our children were promised?

What has happened?

Roberts, WBAP’s bearded, rodeo-roping, husky-voiced host, has heard enough.

“I want my country back,” he begins.

EDITOR’S NOTE – This is part of Divided America, AP’s ongoing exploration of the economic, social and political divisions in American society.

He repeats that sentence a half-dozen times in a 4½-minute rant that darts from fear of crime to outsourced jobs to political correctness. He pans soulless politicians and has-been celebrities and psycho-babble hug-a-tree experts; he pines for a time when everyone spoke English and looked you in the eye and meant what they said. It’s a fervent soliloquy that dismisses transgender people and calls for faith to regain public footing and for economic opportunity to return.

“I want America to be America,” he says. “I want some semblance of what this country used to be. It’s worth protecting. It’s worth defending. I don’t recognize this country anymore.”

This is a white male voice preaching to a largely white male audience that has expressed many of the same sentiments, in dribs and drabs, in hushed watercooler conversations and boisterous barroom exchanges, around kitchen tables – and most of all, in the course of a presidential campaign in which Trump has become their champion and their hope.

Certainly, not all white males agree. But at this moment in American history, to be white and male means, for many, to question what happened to the opportunities once theirs for the taking, to see others getting ahead and wonder why, to feel centuries of privilege and values slipping away.

“They’re taking everything from us,” says one of the day’s callers, Stephen Sanders. “I don’t want my community changed.”

The callers express resentment of immigrants who came here illegally, suspicion of Muslims, disdain for gays. They rail against a coarsening of culture, while backing a man who brags about making unwanted sexual advances. They voice bitterness toward a society they see as rallying to save an endangered animal or to lobby for the bathroom rights of transgender children, while seeming to ignore their own pain.

To many, the notion of white men being marginalized is ludicrous, their history a study in power and privilege, from the Founding Fathers to the “Mad Men” era and through their continued dominance in boardrooms and government. Yet they have suffered some real losses, even as they maintain advantages:

-Whites saw their household net worth fall from a median of $192,500 before the Great Recession to $141,900 in 2013, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. (The declines of blacks and Hispanics were far larger, and whites still have an average net worth about 13 times greater than blacks and 10 times greater than Hispanics.)

-Factoring in inflation, white men’s salaries have barely budged in the past decade, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. (Still, they cash paychecks, on average, far larger than those of women, blacks and Hispanics, and have a lower rate of unemployment.)

-The home ownership rate for whites, 71.5 percent in the second quarter of this year, is down from the same period a decade earlier, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (Black and Hispanic home-ownership, already lower, dropped at a far sharper rate.)

-White women have overtaken men in earning college degrees, according to census data. (White men still hold a big educational advantage over blacks and Hispanics.)

-The number of incarcerated white men has ballooned, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. (Black and Hispanic men remain far more likely to be jailed.)

-Fueled by suicides, drug overdoses and alcohol-related illnesses, mortality rates for middle-age whites have increased even as they continue to fall among middle-age blacks and Hispanics, a shift recorded in a landmark study last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Still, white men continue to have a longer life expectancy than black men, according to Centers for Disease Control data, though shorter than Hispanics.)

These are among the changes that have sent white men to Tea Party gatherings, to fractious town hall meetings and, more recently, to Trump’s rallies. Some argue, though, that their rage has been misplaced.

“What’s made their lives more difficult is not what they think,” said Michael Kimmel, a Stony Brook University professor who studies masculinity and wrote the book “Angry White Men.” ”LGBT people didn’t outsource their jobs. Minorities didn’t cause climate change. Immigrants didn’t issue predatory loans from which they now have lost their houses and everything they ever had. These guys are right to be angry, but they’re delivering the mail to the wrong address.”

The clock hits 2 p.m., and the top-of-the-hour headlines at WBAP advise of a hurricane swirling in the Pacific and a new poll on the Trump-Clinton race. Roberts’ show begins every day with the sounds of the country duo Big & Rich.

“I ain’t gonna shut my mouth,” they sing. “Don’t mind if I stand out in a crowd. Just wanna live out loud. Well I know there’s got to be a few hundred million more like me.”

The host is authoritative but genial. He doesn’t yell, hears out the occasional liberal who dials in, sometimes corrects a caller’s inaccuracies. He hands a huge swath of his airtime over to listeners.

Fifteen minutes into the broadcast, Roberts reminds his audience he’s a registered independent, not a Republican, though he can’t recall the last time he gave a Democrat his vote.

“Let’s go to Bill in Garland,” Roberts says.

The caller dismisses Hillary and Bill Clinton as “liars, cheats and thieves” and says he doesn’t think he could vote for the Democrat even if his three grandchildren were held hostage.

Reached by phone three days later, he conceded to a reporter that he used an alias. His name is Jim Drahman and he’s a 70-year-old computer technician.

“People are afraid to say anything in public,” he says, for fear of offending. “They’ve got to worry about everything they say.”

He just wants to be able to go to work and live freely, he says. He doesn’t want the government telling him what he can drink or smoke or drive. He knows taxes are a necessity, but believes they should be lower. He views things through his grandchildren’s eyes, and worries about terrorism and the economy, but most of all, about the U.S. maintaining its status in the world.

“I just want them to have a country that I can be proud of,” he says.

Calls come in at a steady clip, and when Stephen Sanders dials in, he’s enraged by a poll showing Clinton making gains in Texas. “Sir, stop yelling,” the show’s producer says, before typing in a summary of Sanders’ tirade for the host: “Allowing illegals to vote is treason.”

Sanders is no calmer a day later. He rages against illegal immigration. The media and most politicians have been co-opted into accepting open borders, he says. Those who came here illegally are “continuing to suck on the labors of people who are contributing.”

Sanders’ father worked in a warehouse but was able to give his family a life of abundance. Jobs were everywhere. You didn’t need a college degree or the resulting load of debt. He misses the simplicity of those times, and laments today’s pervasive sex, the tattoos and body piercings and bright blue hair. He is 49 and was once an X-ray technician. He says his skill and years of seniority were ignored when he applied for a supervisory job that ultimately went to a black candidate he said “walked right off the street.” He later fell into depression and now receives a disability check.

“You’re white, you’re male, you’re the least considered,” he says. “As far as white privilege, I see it. I would think it was there if I went to Princeton or Yale or if my name was Hillary or Clinton. As far as me, no.”

Despite Trump’s privileged upbringing and Ivy League education, Sanders was pleased when the billionaire announced his candidacy; he was thrilled to hear someone give voice to his feelings about immigration and outsourcing and restoring opportunity for guys like him. It felt, he said, like seeing decades of painful history starting to be reversed. He wants to return to work. He wants to be productive. He wants to live a better life than his father, but he doesn’t.

“The theme about the American experience is to get better and to do more,” he says. “I’ve never experienced it. I’ve always struggled.”

Roberts’ show breaks for the news again (a highway accident, a missing man with dementia, more hot weather). He plays a clip of Trump insisting he’ll build a border wall and returns to the air calling Clinton “the Teflon mom” before going to a caller – “Jon in Cedar Hill” – who says the former secretary of state should be convicted.

Jon Hayes is deep into his daily radio routine, a listening marathon that starts with the midnight-to-5-a.m. “Red Eye Radio” and ends with Roberts’ show, which wraps up at 5 p.m. For Hayes, sleep comes in spurts, including an extended nap during Rush Limbaugh’s time slot.

He wonders where the tear-down-this-wall strength of the Reagan era went. He sees modern-day America as an internet-governed, me-me-me culture. Tired of political correctness, he sometimes wears a T-shirt that says, “Prepare To Be Offended.”

Hayes once had his own construction business, but he said it folded and he lost his house when it became impossible to compete against the cheap labor of immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally. He fell back on his knowledge of auto mechanics. Though he is 55, he had hoped to retire this year; he has put it off. A grown son still lives at home, and for all the setbacks Hayes has had in his life, he believes he’s still able to say something that he’s not sure the 29-year-old will: He achieved a better life than his parents.

“I just don’t think the opportunity is out there now that there used to be,” he says.

He’s far from alone in his pessimism. A Kaiser Family Foundation-CNN poll released in September compared white college graduates and the white, black and Hispanic working class. Working-class whites were least likely to say that they’re satisfied with their influence in the political process, that the federal government represents their views, and that they believe their children will achieve a better standard of living than themselves. They were most likely to say it has become harder to get ahead financially and find good jobs in recent years, and most likely to blame economic problems on the federal government and immigrants working here illegally.

WBAP estimates Roberts’ audience is about two-thirds male and overwhelmingly white, though women and minorities also call in on this day and you needn’t look far, even in Roberts’ own studio, to find a white man who doesn’t subscribe to conservative orthodoxy.

On the other side of the glass from the host, monitoring a bank of four screens and a large audio board, is Randy Williams. Roberts says he’s a “hair-on-fire liberal,” but the 65-year-old Navy veteran calls himself a fiscal conservative and a social progressive, but mostly a disaffected American.

“Nobody represents my interests,” he says. “There’s the 5 percent on the far left and the 5 percent on the far right and 90 percent of us are stuck in the middle.”

“Ken in Dallas. Ken, I appreciate your patience.”

Ken from Dallas is Ken Hindman, a 57-year-old gas tanker driver. He tells Roberts that Clinton is like mobster John Gotti.

Later, he takes a break from driving his 18-wheeler toward Dallas Love Field, pulling over to a rest stop to expand on his views.

He says he doesn’t “feel one iota of responsibility” for the wrongs committed against black Americans. When filling out a form asking his race, he checks “other.” He’s tired of labels; when he opposed Obama, he complains, he was branded a racist. Trump, he admits, was not his first choice. But he has earned Hindman’s fervent support.

“He says the things that a lot of people that I know feel,” he says.

There was a time when white men were the ones earning the paychecks and deciding who pulls the levers of power. Now, many of them say they’re just looking to be heard. So when they amass in arenas to hear Trump, or call into Roberts’ studio to share their thoughts, their voices carry more than anger. Here, they say, is a wisp of the respect and validation they long to regain.

Roberts sees his “I want my country back” monologue as a tonic for that despair. When you’re on the air three hours a day, five days a week, the listener angst can be overwhelming. It was about two years ago when he delivered the rant, impromptu, on a day when he reached a saturation point.

He feels that same anguish. Roberts says his parents were never in his life. He was raised by grandparents and, when they grew too old, he was emancipated at age 15 and landed at a boys’ ranch. “I fell on my ass more than I can count,” the 53-year-old says, dismissing any thought of privilege he may have inherited. “I didn’t feel real privileged at the time.”

He scraped his way up, earned an MBA and law degree, and made a career negotiating offshore oil contracts. He started in radio 22 years ago and now presides over a kingdom of white man’s woe, listening to talk of disappearing jobs and ballooning debt and fading morals.

He can’t remember precisely what prompted his unscripted oratory – maybe what Roberts calls Barack Obama’s “apology tour,” or perceived pushback against American exceptionalism. It resonated, though, and he keeps an MP3 of the audio on his computer and airs it every now and again.

He clicks the file and it begins to play:

“I want my country back, and the only way, the only way I’m ever going to be able to get this country back is if I reach out to the brothers and sisters that all feel the very same way and say, ‘Hell, no, you can’t have the country.'”

“Stop it! How many different ways do we say stop it!?”

Sedensky can be reached at msedensky@ap.org or https://twitter.com/sedensky .

 

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