Dec. 9 2015 01:36 PM

A trolley ride to enlightenment in jumpy political times

Donald Trump to Kevin Faulconer: “Shove your happy talk here, mayor!”
Photo illustration by John R. Lamb

So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.

—John F. Kennedy

While recently enjoying the view of shimmering, quilted cloud patterns rolling past lush Mission Valley hillsides as my trolley ride clattered toward downtown, my seatmate was visibly seething.

Dressed in khaki slacks and a vibrant Hawaiian shirt, the gentleman looked like a tourist. But then he tossed a back cushion that bounced off me and landed square in the adjoining seat—tight quarters that we would share for 10 minutes. Experienced rider, was the reassessment.

This was the day following the horrific shootings in San Bernardino, when social media spewed rhetorical lava from all directions as authorities were still combing through the lives of the mysterious assailants.

It would be an understatement to declare that connectivity has given voice to an entire subculture of armchair detectives, all dead certain in their conclusions and impervious to questioning. Someone on Twitter doubts your narrative? Hey, just block ‘em. Dissent quelled!

Unfortunately in the real world, random interactions are just a fact of life. This may be an inconvenience to some who crave certainty and routine, but Spin Cycle looks at these events differently: as nurturing, instructional moments in a world growing less predictable.

If you’re going to spend some time bumping into another trolley passenger, might as well strike up a conversation. I learned my temporary travel partner lives in East County, served in the military and studied history at San Diego State University.

But upon learning Spin’s occupation, the small talk erupted into political fire and brimstone. At one point, Obama was a weak leader. The next, he was a monster. And what do you know, Donald Trump would make all bad things go away.

Spin asked about the other Republican hopefuls. “Why would you ask me about those people? I told you I support Trump,” he said, somehow turning in our cramped space to make his point.

The gentleman offered few specifics about why he was sold on Trump. “He said he’d bomb the hell out of Syria,” he offered. But when asked about what would come next—World War III, perhaps?—he’d clearly had enough chatter. “You’re just flippant,” he said, and the walls began to form. Even attempts at a return to small talk—“How about those Aztecs!”— elicited nothing.

This chat had run its course.

He was now focused on the young man in the Boot Camp t-shirt carting three garbage bags full of aluminum cans. At the next stop, he grabbed his cushion and departed.

“Everyone’s a little testier than they used to be,” explained Carl Luna, a political-science professor at Mesa College and director of the Institute for Civil Civic Engagement at the University of San Diego. “Whenever the going gets tough, people get grumpy. For a big hunk of the population—even college-educated and above—you haven’t seen the quality of life go up as fast as everybody thought it was going to. The ’90s were the last time it was going good.

“When it’s supposed to be better than it is, your initial gut reaction is you want to blame somebody,” he continued. “And who do we want to blame? Someone else! If you can’t find your car, you think somebody stole it, not that you can’t remember that you parked it on the other side of the parking lot.”

And that is the beauty of Trump, Luna said. “If you’re under 65, you’re probably a guy whose economy has been consistently underperforming,” he said. “That’s what I call relative deprivation, when people really get angry, basically saying ‘I don’t have what I want and somebody must have taken it, and I’ll find them, beat ’em up and I’ll get it back.’ That’s the big wall across the border. That’s go-bomb-the-hell-out-of-the-ISIS [thinking]. Do something to punish ‘them’ because I deserve better than I’m getting.

“Who’s to blame? That’s what Donald Trump is about in general politics,” Luna continued. “He is Rush Limbaugh with better hair and more money. He’s a showman and a self-promoter. He’s a Huey Long. But you can’t sell it unless they’re buying it. He has all that nativist, anti-immigrant, protect-the-promised-people sort of rhetoric, playing off our worst interests.”

Luna said he hasn’t seen this sort of “populist, nationalistic rant” on the right since the David Duke era of the 1990s. On the left, he added, a Bernie Sanders “wouldn’t have been allowed at the table 20 years ago” when the Democratic Party shifted to the center. Those dynamics and a “blah economy,” Luna said, makes “everybody nervous, because they look at their kids and they wonder what’s going to happen?”

San Diego, meanwhile, remains a relative “sanguine oasis” compared to other more socially active cities. “We’ve got poverty, but luckily for the people in the nicer areas, they don’t really have to look at it that often,” he said. “So nobody’s mad enough to challenge the system, and a politician like [Mayor] Kevin Faulconer is smart enough to realize he doesn’t have to risk too much because nobody’s put together the organization to take him on.”

How else to explain the mediocrity that grips this naturally resplendent city? Perhaps this holiday season we can all reflect on what we want San Diego to be when it grows up. Oh, it’s easy to hunker down in your own comfort zone, practicing civility among one’s own perceived enclave while vilifying and/or ignoring “them,” whomever that may be.

It was clear on that trolley ride that people are jumpy. Hell, at one point a transit cop popped through the door, walkie-talkie in hand, in search of a “suspect” dressed “all in black.” That got everyone’s attention. But that moment also passed, and the quilted clouds in the sky once again became mesmerizing.


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