Over the New Years weekend, I watched Netflix’s 10-part documentary series “Making a Murderer,” which follows the remarkable case of Steven Avery – a man wrongly convicted of rape and released after 18 years, to be arrested again and convicted of murder. The filmmakers, Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, have spent countless hours at home with the Avery clan, who live in a sort of family complex on their scrapyard in rural Wisconsin.
I see a lot of documentaries, but I’ve never seen one about people like the Averys. As I watched, I was struck by the scarcity of a mainstream American film that shows how poor people actually live. We see Steven’s mom frying burgers, talking on the phone, watching local media coverage of Steven’s trial while cooking soup. What makes these scenes interesting, even revealing, is or they happen. Steven’s trailer, his parents’ trailer modest house, unlike the setting of a family sitcom or its contemporary equivalent, “reality”. If you’ve spent your life watching television, you could reasonably conclude that all Americans live like Kardashians or “real” housewives. For the rural poor, nothing is less real.
“Making a Murderer” is an exhaustive, sometimes tedious, police procedure. It is also that rare thing in American cinema, a class story. For 10 hours we are presented over and over again to the visual contrast between the Averys and everyone in the courtroom. The prosecutor and defense attorneys are dressed as you would expect, as are reporters, the victim’s family and most bystanders. But Steven Avery’s dad comes to court in brand new stiff denim overalls, clearly bought for the occasion. Mrs. Avery wears a sort of flowery blouse that I haven’t seen since childhood, worn by the elderly ladies who worked in the kitchen at church suppers.
Avery’s story is unusual in that it isolates the class variable from the powerful and related question of race. “Making a Murderer” takes place in rural Wisconsin; like the police, prosecutors and the victim, the Avery family is white. If the Averys were black, their story would be part of the conversation today – long awaited – on racial inequalities in the maintenance of order, the criminalization of darkness. We would have language as to why the police were so convinced of Avery’s guilt, or why his girlfriend was harassed by law enforcement, or how his learning disabled nephew was interrogated for hours without. lawyer. Micro-aggression, targeting, culture of incarceration: since the Averys are white, none of these terms seem to apply. The closest we’ve ever gotten to an accurate assessment of the forces at work comes from Avery himself in the third episode: “The poor lose,” he simply says when confronted with the news. charges against him. It’s hard to disagree. Yet the fact that we lack a broader language to talk about class reduces some fundamental truths about Americanity.
American society is classless, pure meritocracy: it is part of our common mythology. My parents believed in it. Raised in poverty, they joined the military, went to college on the GI Bill, and became teachers. They believed they had succeeded, and in a real way, they had. They worked and saved money, built a house, sent two children to college – the kind of gradual mobility that was possible for poor whites (and, thanks to discriminatory lending practices, largely off limits to poor blacks).
In our part of the world, these were no small things. We lived in a small coal town in western Pennsylvania where union work in the mines was a golden ticket. A miner earned double what a schoolteacher earned – at least until the early 1980s, when a miners’ strike crippled the town for months. I started college with a brand new pair of Nike’s that I was deeply ashamed of because none of my classmates had new shoes. It is a discomfort that I have carried all my life, the feeling of having been unfairly favored. I was not the smartest in my class, nor the most industrious. I didn’t deserve my sneakers, my education or (especially) my good parents, nor the next kid.
The coal mines are gone now, good union jobs a distant memory. The fracking boom has brought trucks and heavy equipment, out-of-state workers, and a godsend for tavern and restaurant owners, but so far it has not translated. by jobs for the inhabitants. Wal-Mart is the world’s largest employer. Yet even there, in the post-industrial Rust Belt, no one wants to identify with the working class, which seems to be joining a losing team. Politicians get it right, which is why they keep talking about raising the middle class. This is a fundamental truth about the American psyche: IIf you’re an unemployed coal miner, stock shelves at Wal-Mart, or live with a disability, you still consider yourself to be middle class.
Culturally, western Pennsylvania is not that different from Manitowoc County, where the Averys live. In this election year, many in both communities will vote for Donald Trump, a third-born billionaire who revolves around their sore spots. Once pro-choice, he has now declared his opposition to abortion. He promised not to take their weapons. Trump’s stance on immigration is ideally suited for people who have lost their jobs and need a scapegoat, and his strong distrust of Muslims plays well in communities that don’t. He understands how the national race conversation sounds to poor whites: Black Lives Matter implies, for them, that their own life does not matter. Not because they are racist (although some are), but because they too have been left behind – their communities gutted, their livelihoods lost – and there is no affirmative action for them.
This is how Trump presented himself, however improbably, as a populist billionaire. Bernie Sanders sings for educated liberals, but when it comes to crossing the class divide, he misses the Donald’s Sprachgefül. Candidate Sanders has strong and seemingly sincere beliefs in economic justice, but it does not have a common language with the voters who could actually benefit from it. He speaks – frequently and unconsciously – of poverty, a word that is about as appealing to the poor as Cancer. Trump’s promises may be as real as reality TV, as real as “real housewives,” but they are fantasies the poor are used to buying. In his own career as a reality TV star, Trump played the irascible tyrant (You are fired!), flex the kind of power that the poor will never know except by proxy. (Working for an asshole is miserable, but watching one on TV is pretty fun.) Donald Trump visited their living rooms; he amused them, and he does not shame them. He might be an asshole, but he’s an asshole they know.