The last column I wrote was about a lifelong Republican, Chuck Hardwick, who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and is unsure how he will vote a year from now. I'd gotten to know Hardwick and concluded he was an interesting man with an open mind, and a good bellwether for how centrist Americans view the election.
I've never had much time for telephone interviews for the simple reason that you don't know much about anybody until you look them in the eye. I'd spent time with Hardwick. The first requisite for understanding is an open mind. At least it was. Today, I'm not sure. At 78, Hardwick's easy to stereotype as just another old white guy. That unhappy state of privileged irrelevance is of course compounded, in the same exercise in caricature, by a successful career in pharmaceuticals — that industry being uniformly evil.
Here were some readers' comments on the column. Hardwick is "an oligarch, glad to have the world tilted in favor of the ultrarich." He's a man who "made big money in Big Pharma." Like other "old white ex-big pharma executive men" who voted for Trump, Hardwick is among those who have "disqualified themselves as either too prejudiced, and/or too incompetent to judge who the next president should be." In the same vein: "Anyone who can still be undecided on Trump is neither sane nor moderate." Hardwick is a "plutocrat who is only interested in maintaining his power and his fortune."
I could go on. To state the obvious, I disagree with Hardwick. I could never have voted for Trump and never would, whoever the Democratic candidate is. I think Trump is a disgrace. His quid pro quo abuse of power, set out on Wednesday by Ambassador Gordon Sondland, is grounds for impeachment. The Republican-controlled Senate will not agree. I fear for the republic if he is re-elected.
Still, I find the almost complete inability of opponents of Trump to grapple with who supports him and why to be deeply alarming. We are talking about tens of millions of such supporters. This failure, this abandonment of curiosity, this rampant intolerance, this blindness, increases the likelihood of Trump's re-election.
Hardwick's is very much an American story. He was born in rural Kentucky, where his father, Joseph, was a grocery store manager. His mother, who was manic-depressive and underwent electroconvulsive therapy, died when he was 5. His dad eventually remarried and borrowed heavily to open a truck-stop restaurant in Burnside, Kentucky, on a busy highway. The restaurant failed. It took years to pay off the loans.
Hardwick's father moved the family to Akron, Ohio. Wonder Bread hired Joseph as a bakery worker. He was 50. He was happy because you had to have 15 years of experience to qualify for the pension plan, so he would just qualify if he retired at 65.
"We had no car and he walked to work every day for 15 years," Hardwick told me. "He was crushed in an elevator accident when I was in the eighth grade and he didn't work for over a year. I dropped off the basketball team and got a paper route delivering The Akron Beacon Journal and essentially became self-supporting. I also gave money to the family from the $15 a week which I earned, good for a kid in the mid-1950s."
Hardwick's break came when Wonder Bread supported a new program at Florida State University that granted degrees in baking science and management, and chose to jump-start it with scholarships to four children of employees. Hardwick was one of those children. He eventually earned an MBA in marketing, worked for two years for Wonder Bread and joined Pfizer in 1966. Over almost four decades, he rose to the highest echelons of the company.
The American dream? Looks pretty like it to me. Along the way Hardwick was involved in the civil rights movement in Florida in the 1960s. At the end of his Pfizer career, he worked for several months in Vietnam on a program to eliminate trachoma. He does not rule out "Medicare for All" one day, and he thinks there's a case for a wealth tax, but he's convinced Elizabeth Warren's program shifts the United States leftward too far, too fast, denying some essence of the country that gave him and countless others an opportunity to get ahead through hard work.
There's not much point denying that Trump, foul as he is, has released Keynes' "animal spirits" in the United States. The challenge to the next Democratic candidate is to keep the economy strong while returning the country Trump has dishonored to decency. The task is immense: reasserting American values, widening opportunity, reinventing education, tackling the climate crisis, reestablishing the meaning of truth. It needs the involvement of all Americans of good will.
Hardwick is such an American. Plutocrat? Oligarch? Big Pharma? I don't think such labels help. I don't think they tell you anything about the human being so labeled. If there's one sure route to a second Trump term, it's more of the liberal contempt that produced the "deplorables." It's more of the knee-jerk stereotyping that denies that Trump supporters have reasons for thinking as they do. We know exactly how that movie ended in 2016.
The New York Times