California Forum

Americans feel anger, fear, disdain and a need for change

Michelle Sweet, 72-year-old owner of an antique store in Grants Pass, Ore.
Michelle Sweet, 72-year-old owner of an antique store in Grants Pass, Ore.

The majority of Americans, we are told, are dissatisfied with the nation’s current path, and many harbor an intense dislike for both presidential candidates, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.

It is one thing to know about poll results in the abstract, but it is a far more visceral experience to encounter people who feel this way. Realizing this, I traveled this summer on highways and back roads in the West to hear what people were saying about America and who would best lead the country for the next four years.

For three weeks, I wandered far from my home in the liberal bastion of San Francisco. Traveling with my husband in our RV, I found people in small towns and out-of-the-way spots. I spoke with two dozen people and had lengthy conversations with about half of them.

I found that almost everyone I talked to, on the left and right, believe the country’s politicians have failed miserably to address the nation’s most pressing problems – from homelessness to aging infrastructure. Many feel the nation should focus on its ills and pay less heed to other countries’ problems.

Those I spoke with also often observed that the life we live today is not as comfortable and safe as it was in our childhoods. Some also felt Americans today lack the work ethic that made this nation great.

Here are their stories:

▪  Michelle Sweet gets really angry when she talks about all the government handouts she sees and about all the people on welfare. Raised by her hardworking mother, who was a registered nurse, Sweet left home when she was 16. By the time she was 19, she and her then-husband put down $100 to buy a home in Goleta.

In the years since, she has worked every sort of job – from waitress to bank teller.

“I’m all for Habitat for Humanity, but don’t constantly support people year after year,” said the 72-year-old owner of an antique store in Grants Pass, Ore.

Raising her four children, Sweet worked two or three jobs at the same time. The first time Barack Obama ran for president, she said she voted for him but later concluded he was like all the other politicians she disdained.

Sweet’s advice for her candidate, Trump: “We all know you are great and want to help America. Never mind … Hillary. You need not be throwing dirt.”

▪  Sue Sorensen, who goes by the name Sue Soaring Sun, got divorced and drove around the West until she found a place she really liked and settled down – Truth or Consequences, N.M.

Now the 61-year-old, Minneapolis-born daughter of two teachers, Soaring Sun runs an art gallery. Plagued by bad arthritis, she is waiting for a spot in a subsidized housing development.

A reluctant backer of Clinton, Soaring Sun said: “She doesn’t seem real warm. She seems kind of practiced – like ‘this is how I should put my face so I look friendly.’ But she’s a Democrat so I will vote for her.”

Soaring Sun, whom I met in a Truth or Consequences cafe, said of Trump: “I can’t see how anyone with an ounce of intelligence would vote for him. I don’t trust him with the button for nuclear weapons – he has a hair-trigger temper.”

▪  Gene Rudolf, a retired, 82-year-old movie production designer who worked on a string of well-known movies including “Raging Bull” and “The Great Gatsby,” says his wife jokes with him, “Where can we move if Hillary is elected?”

He agrees with her. Raised in Chicago where his father managed a candy factory, Rudolf said his father called Franklin Delano Roosevelt “the American destroyer.”

Rudolf, who lives in Tucson, said he didn’t vote for Obama “because he’s a socialist, and I wouldn’t vote for Hillary because she is a greedy socialist out to do everything for herself. Obama said he was going to transform the country, and unfortunately he did,” said Rudolf, whom I encountered in a coffee shop in Tubac, Ariz. “His executive orders far exceed his rights under the Constitution.”

Even if Trump won two terms, Rudolf said he didn’t know if that would be enough “to control this gigantic monster we call the federal government. It was never intended to be that big.”

▪  Joe Maguigad, the son of a Filipino psychiatrist father who immigrated to America in the late 1950s, describes himself as an out-of-the-closet feminist who is enthusiastically supporting Clinton’s candidacy.

“Hillary Clinton is intelligent, experienced and caring,” the 48-year-old Maguigad said. “She lacks charisma, spark and excitement. We are about to elect this nation’s first woman president, and I feel voters should be more excited by this.”

Maguigad, formerly an office manager in the U.S. Supreme Court clerk’s office, works today as manager of a Livermore thrift store supporting victims of domestic violence. His wife is a safety director for a contractor working on trains, and the couple are raising two teenage daughters.

Maguigad said, “Trump needs to listen to the pros, but he won’t. Once he slipped up on that Gold Star family, it showed his true colors, and that’s not what people want to see.” Though Maguigad thinks America is still great, he is bothered by the country’s lack of a sense of community.

“People don’t know their next-door neighbors anymore,” he said.

▪  Mike Melendez, the Mexico-born son of a businessman, is voting for Trump. Neither Trump’s 2,000-mile border wall proposal nor his biting characterizations of Hispanics has dissuaded Melendez.

The 55-year-old Melendez owns a curio shop near the border in Nogales, Ariz. He became a U.S. citizen through a U.S. amnesty program in 1986.

Melendez, whom I met in his shop, dismissed Trump’s wall proposal as unworkable and shrugged off the candidate’s bankruptcies, saying, “He’s a billionaire and has been doing something right to be so rich.” He also isn’t disturbed by Trump’s harsh words about Mexicans. In Melendez’s view, hardworking Hispanics living here a long time should be given a chance to become legal.

About the election, Melendez said Clinton would be “more of the same” while Trump “deserves a chance because millions of people think we need some changes.”

▪  Robert Scott Sr. didn’t take Trump seriously in the beginning.

“I thought it was a joke until he knocked down 16 other candidates by calling them names or making up false stuff,” said Scott, 65, who lives in San Francisco. “Now, thanks to Trump, some people really believe Ted Cruz’s father had something to do with JFK’s assassination. That’s horrible.”

Growing up in Monterey, Scott had a father in the military and a mother who worked for Firestone. He enlisted in the Army but got discharged for drug use. After years in and out of prison, he kicked his drug habit.

Scott, whom I met in line at a Safeway where I bought food for our road trip, told me he will vote for Clinton to preserve Obama’s legacy. Of Trump he said: “I believe he is a racist. … I was angry when he disrespected the Khans (whose son, a U.S. Army captain, was killed by a car bomb in Iraq in 2004). He disrespected John McCain, who is an American hero.”

For America to thrive, Scott said, it has to face its race issue. “Until we get where all people in this country are treated equal, the situation in this country will get worse and worse.”

▪  June Vangie, a retired Riverside elementary school teacher and onetime social worker, considers herself “a liberal-hearted” person. But she can’t stomach Clinton and finds Trump too over-the-top.

The daughter of a high school teacher father and a mother who worked in a welfare office, Vangie will still go to the polls but says she won’t vote for Clinton or Trump.

“Hillary tries to act like she identifies with the poor, but she really doesn’t,” the 68-year-old Vangie said. “She is really quite wealthy.” Vangie said Trump isn’t suited to be president: “He makes comments that are so outrageous.”

Today she wants to see an America where “people to want to work. I think that’s what’s wrong with our country – too many have given up.”

Thinking back to her childhood in Riverside, she said, “When we were little, we’d go horseback riding and never worried about being kidnapped. It’s different nowadays. But they say you can’t go back. What are you going to do? You hope something will happen so we can still make it as a nation. We’ll see.”

▪  Ed Lee-Eng is a Guadalajara-born Republican who lives near the U.S.-Mexican border in Nogales, and he thinks Trump’s wall proposal won’t work. But Lee-Eng is voting for him anyway.

Trump’s wall “won’t be effective,” said the 63-year-old Lee-Eng. “Do you think you can control those miles with a wall when they can’t stop the illegal crossings at Nogales?”

The son of a sugar mill operator, Lee-Eng moved to the United States three decades ago as a legal immigrant. He now works as a supervisor of a state park store and a marina.

In politics, Lee-Eng supports “Republicans because I don’t like it when people take advantage of the system. Unfortunately, the Democrats have always helped people take advantage.”

To Lee-Eng, Trump is attractive because “he is not a political guy, and he knows what it means to try to make a dollar.”

▪  Mary Ann Gonzalez sees Sept. 11, 2001, as a wake-up call for America.

The daughter of a father in the military, Gonzalez said after 9/11 “we started questioning how much money the U.S. spent outside the country and why more wasn’t being done for people in this country.”

“It is kind of difficult to know we are supplying aid to other countries when we have people in this country who are poor and can’t make ends meet,” said Gonzalez, who at 59 has spent 35 years in the Navy. Now a captain in the Naval Reserve, she will retire in two years.

So far, Gonzalez, who works as a dentist in Redwood Valley north of Ukiah, hasn’t decided whether to vote for Trump or Clinton.

“You have Hillary Clinton, who has had some dealings in politics, and some of her stuff is questionable. Then you have Trump, a self-made man who is very opinionated, but his heart is in the right place. He wants the U.S. back on top again,” said Gonzalez, whom I encountered in a small store in the town of Williams.

▪  Dee Kinney, a real estate agent in Crescent City, is leaning toward voting for Trump – even though she was bothered by his negative comments regarding the family that had lost a son in Iraq.

“That was horrid,” said the 59-year-old Kinney. “He is too prickly. You can’t say the first thing that goes off in your head.” But she said Trump would likely win her vote “because I am tired of all the political professionals.” She added there was no way she would vote for Clinton.

Obama also angers her. “I blame Obama for the majority of all this turmoil we are seeing in America,” she told me after I met her in the bar of Patrick Creek Lodge, a property that she is trying to sell. “Obama has done nothing but divide us.”

Today the world has changed so since her idyllic childhood in Paso Robles. Then the town was small, and everyone knew everyone. Her family’s ranch had cattle, barley and almonds.

Decades ago, she moved to Crescent City, which had the same small-town feel she liked, but it wasn’t like the old days. She said much of the land around Crescent City is government-owned forests where homeless people can hide. “We actually have communities living back in there. Drugs have taken over everywhere. It’s crazy.”

▪  Marvin Simmons is sitting in his small thrift store in Parker, Ariz., explaining why he doesn’t vote: “Politicians make promises, but then they get in office and just do what they want to.”

Outside it is 122 degrees, and so far Simmons had made $2 that day; the day before it was $21 and the day before that $14.

Simmons, now 71, is used to hard times. His father died when Simmons was 3, and his mother relied on welfare to help raise her four kids. Today he lives off his truck driver’s pension and some Social Security, but he said he doesn’t have enough money to cover his bills. “One bill gets paid one month and another bill the next.”

With the confrontations occurring now with police across America, Simmons said, “It looks like we could get another civil war on our own ground.”

Then there are all the refugees. “We have enough people in America,” he said. “The elderly and low-income people need help – we should take care of our own people who helped build this country. ...

“We used to have Kaiser Steel in Fontana,” Simmons recalled. “It used to employ 10,000 people; it was like a small city over there. Now the work has gone overseas. It’s sad. It would be good if we could put more people back to work.”

Susan Sward is a freelance writer in San Francisco. Contact her at sward.susan@gmail.com.

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