How MAGA ate my hometown
There was a time, not so long ago, when I could confidently say in polite society that, yes, I was a Republican — but from New Jersey. Meaning: not insane or extreme or overzealous. Kind of like New England, with way less gravitas.
This no longer holds. Trumpism is consuming my heartland.
Consider the evolution of the state's 2nd congressional district. It includes all or portions of eight counties that constitute the geographically and culturally distinct region of South Jersey (personally, I consider anything north of the Mullica River to be North Jersey, where people unpardonably root for New York sports franchises). Barack Obama won the district twice. But in 2016, President Trump carried it by 4.6 percentage points.
The district — mostly rural and coastal with the exception of the urban concentration around Camden — was represented for 20 years by a Democrat, Bill Hughes, but flipped red in the Gingrich revolution of 1994. Hughes' Republican successor, Frank LoBiondo, was a relative moderate of that congressional class, however. He enjoyed support from labor unions. And though he voted with his party on granular abortion-related legislation, he is nominally pro-choice. He also champions antipoverty programs like Meals on Wheels, which recently faced steep cuts from Trump's budget proposals. The 2nd district is also environmentally sensitive, with its barrier islands, wetlands, and large pine reserve.
LoBiondo is one of dozens of House Republicans who are calling it quits this year. "Those of us who came to Congress to change Washington for the better through good governance are now the outliers," he lamented. The Republican primary race to succeed LoBiondo ended earlier this month with a shocking victory that poetically validated the incumbent's choice to leave the jungle of polarization that is Washington, D.C. His party chose to nominate the insurgent and underfunded Seth Grossman, an attorney from my corner of the district, Atlantic County, and the executive director of a nonprofit that espouses a brand of "constitutional conservatism" that would, if he's elected, place Grossman squarely in the company of the merry band of U.S. House pranksters known as the Freedom Caucus.
Though I've lived in northern Virginia for nearly 20 years, I routinely visit and still like to keep tabs on local politics back home. Grossman's victory was a nasty jolt. I remember his handiwork in a local dispute that is like a portrait in miniature of the Great American Freakout of the Obama era.
The Great Recession of 2007-8 hit Atlantic County hard. In many ways, it has yet to fully recover. Such a crisis can bring out the worst in human beings. In my hometown of Absecon, it surely did. At the heart of this town near Atlantic City (a bundle of dysfunction even in the best of times) is a typical small-town main street with a bevy of storefronts. Roughly seven years ago, a real-estate developer succeeded in lifting an over-55 age restriction on a nearby condominium complex.
An outfit that called itself the Save Absecon Committee was born. Officially its adherents were concerned about traffic, school overcrowding, and crime, with a strong and very telling emphasis on the latter. I'm not omniscient; I can't divine the true motives of any human heart. But I can tell you what I heard with my own ears all over town: They were afraid the condos would fail to sell in a down market. The complex would become a Section 8 housing project … and the blacks and Hispanics would move in.
One of the more vociferous store owners adjacent to the complex got herself entangled in a defamation lawsuit filed by the developer. She was defended on free-speech grounds by none other than Seth Grossman. I urge you to read in full Grossman's perfectly obnoxious and incoherent editorial on behalf of the Save Abseconites. Or I can save you the hassle: He opens by railing against New Jersey zoning laws that create a scarcity of affordable housing for young families. He scoffs at the notion of a 55-and-over community ever taking off in Absecon: "[W]hy would retirees want to live in New Jersey these days? They can rent a nice condo in a red state like Florida for about what they pay for just property taxes here, and avoid income tax on their pensions. And when they die, their kids don't get stuck with our 35 percent estate tax on anything over $675,000."
Sounds like someone in favor of the no-age-restriction redevelopment project, no?
Actually … no: The lifting of the age restriction rightly "infuriated the neighbors, who believe that this project is so overcrowded and poorly designed for young people that mostly subsidized, low-income, high-crime families would live there. They believe this would lower their property values and quality of life, and raise their taxes as dozens of new school-age children flood their public schools."
Of course, none of these horror scenarios came to pass. "High-crime families" (wink-wink!) did not flood the town. School enrollment did not swell. The whole controversy eventually blew over.
But I haven't forgotten. I haven't forgotten that the Save Abseconites were coterminous with the local gang of Tea Party Patriots. From the moment that Barack Obama's inauguration was greeted by hysteria by white men in tricorn hats, it has become abundantly clear that when you scratch a "constitutional conservative," you will find someone who is panicked about increasing racial diversity in America.
Grossman made support for Donald Trump and a crackdown on immigration the centerpiece of his primary campaign. I do not believe he will prevail in the general election, but the fact that he secured the GOP nomination is proof of the strengthening grip of Trumpism even in places where moderates once thrived.
Extremist ideologues like Grossman like to couch their racialist panic in the language of constitutionalism: that "diversity" is a racket that divides rather than unites us. But their public actions speak louder than words. The often hateful things they say in private are louder still.
The Tea Partiers were Trumpists all along.