‘What work is’ in the time of Trump

Carnage or Crossroads?

by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

In the autobiographical poem “What Work Is” by former U.S. poet laureate and Detroit factory worker Philip Levine, he thinks he spots his brother in the rainy line that he and 200 other men are being made to wait in for two hours to apply for work. 

Though it’s not him, Levine is nonetheless suddenly overwhelmed with love for his sibling. But he writes that his brother is “home trying to/sleep off a miserable night shift/at Cadillac so he can get up/before noon to study his German./Works eight hours a night so he can sing/Wagner, the opera you hate most,/the worst music ever invented.” I’ve always loved that in the dig at his brother he is also chipping away at the assumption that a blue-collar worker must like low-brow art.  

It’s a unifying poem whose fierce humor, humanity and solidarity shine through its anger: It acknowledges that, despite their differences, these men ultimately stand in the same place. They are both at the mercy of the man at the end of the line who may tell them, “No,/we’re not hiring today/for any reason he wants.” 

Though American unemployment numbers are back to pre-recession levels (under 5 percent) and our manufacturing output continues to be strong, many fewer people work in American factories like the ones in Levine’s Detroit. Automation allows us to produce the same products with fewer workers, and globalization has played a role, as well.

People who have lost those jobs feel it viscerally, and President Donald Trump appealed to their anger, fear and sense of loss in order to gain entrance to the White House. For all of Trump’s cynical attempts to paint the entirety of America with the same carnage-dipped brush, this part is real, and America needs to find meaningful work for her people.

At issue is what that work will be. Will it be coal mining jobs or jobs building windmills? Guards in a vast and increasingly privatized prison-industrial complex, or well-paid teachers at properly funded public schools? Construction of walls or of bridges? And as we build new companies, will they be social entrepreneurships—community-centered agents of change—or hollow shells that send the value of our work elsewhere? 

We are standing at a cultural and economic crossroads, and by all accounts Donald Trump wants to sell America’s soul.

And yet. There were half a million people standing together—with overwhelming love for their sisters, brothers and country—as they marched on Washington to protest his vision of America. Downtown Philadelphia shut down by a crowd of 50,000. New York City shut down by a crowd of 400,000. Protests on every continent.  

I think again of Levine’s poem, and that all of these people, too, were standing in line—for work. For the same work of Levine’s poem: celebrating our dignity, our self-worth and solidarity. And at the end of the line at Pennsylvania Avenue is an aspiring tyrant who thinks that he can, for any reason he wants, say, “No” and put an end to that work. But Donald Trump and others who would demean and dismiss these rallies underestimate what’s actually going on, because it’s not all poetry and pageantry, and it’s certainly not all up to him.

Make no mistake that while these millions are raising their fists in defiance and anger, they are also raising money and rearing progressive children. They are painting signs, and also training more women to run for office. The energy of participating in these artful celebrations of our shared humanity has also been channeled into organizing: Both, in the time of Trump, are what work is.