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‘Come back, Little Sheba’: The myth of lost opportunity in Trump’s America

The horrific violence visited on Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani – two Indian immigrant engineers whose death and assault respectively are now being investigated as a hate crime – places the American workforce and immigration, particularly the notion of the immigrant as demonized other, at the intersection of crisis in the America of President Donald J. Trump.

To recap, the two engineers – who worked for Garmin, a GPS navigation and communications device company – were enjoying a workday-ending whiskey at Austins Bar and Grill in Olathe, Kan., as was their wont, when Adam W. Purinton began hurling ethnic slurs at them. After patrons complained, he was thrown out but returned in a rage and shot the two, killing Kuchibhotla and wounding Madasani and Ian Grillot, who intervened. Purinton, formerly with the U.S. Navy and Federal Aviation Administration, fled to Missouri but has since been extradited to Kansas, charged with premeditated first-degree murder and two counts of attempted premeditated first-degree murder as the FBI investigates the crimes as a violation of the victims’ civil rights. (Ya think?)

Let’s leave aside the easy access to guns that makes such crimes unbearably routine, shall we? The crimes play into a motif of the Trump campaign and administration and that is the decline of the American workforce (meaning the white American male workforce) thanks to foreigners, who are taking American workers’ jobs both at home and abroad.

But the narrative, whose underpinnings include our uneasy transition to the digital world, is more complex than that. It’s significant that Kuchibhotla and Madasani were engineers. That’s a career that requires a certain amount of brains, talent and education, particularly in math and the sciences. That Garmin hired them and not, say, two native-born Americans suggests that they were more qualified than other candidates. And therein lies an inconvenient truth of the Trumpian lost American opportunity narrative: There are jobs out there in America. There are just not enough qualified workers to do them.

According to a 2015 Manufacturing Institute study cited in The New York Times Magazine’s cover story “The Jobs Americans Do,” seven out of 10 manufacturing executives said they can’t find workers with adequate tech skills. You meet these unqualified people in the excellent work that “Frontline,” PBS’ documentary series, is doing, along with that of economist Paul Solman in his “Making Sen$e” reports on the “PBS Newshour.” They are either an older white man with an oxygen mask who’s been waiting for manufacturing/mining to come back since the 1970s or a younger white guy with two babies he can ill afford who’s waiting for his factory/mining job to come back.

 Poster for the 1952 film “Come Back, Little Sheba.” Paramount Pictures.

Poster for the 1952 film “Come Back, Little Sheba.” Paramount Pictures.

I feel like we’re all starring in a bus-and-truck company production of “Come Back, Little Sheba,” without, you know, William Inge’s writing and Shirley Booth’s Oscar winning performance. (For those who are not of a certain vintage, the play-turned-movie is about a loveless marriage represented by the couple’s dog, Little Sheba, who has run off and is clearly never coming back.)

And that’s the truth of many of these jobs. Ten, 20, 40 years is a long time to wait. “What’ve they been doing all this time?” one of my true-blue state neighbors wondered.

Well, they’ve apparently been seething, self-medicating with opioids, watching Fox News and hoping for a messiah to come along who would avenge their loss, emphasis on the word “avenge.” I’ve never seen such meanness in this country as I’m seeing now. It’s as if the vulgarian-in-chief has given us a license to be uncivil.

 The Boott Cotton Mill and Museum in Lowell, Mass.

The Boott Cotton Mill and Museum in Lowell, Mass.

What these former workers haven’t been doing and could be doing, need to be doing, is retraining and reinventing themselves. Not all, of course, have been taking the passive-aggressive approach. One heroic young man in depressed Kentucky, interviewed by Solman, said he didn’t buy the idea that economic depression led to psychological depression and increased drug use. The fault lay within. He still believed in the American dream, he said, and, having lost his job, was working harder than ever in the growing health-care sector. Bravo. And bravo to one of my ancestral hometowns, Lowell, Mass., a former mill city that has resurrected itself thanks to Cambodian immigrants and the arts.

And a shoutout, too, to my neighbor, who having lost his job on Wall Street and suffered a life-threatening condition, reinvented himself as a psychiatric nurse.

It isn’t easy. If I’m hard on these whiners who sit around complaining about Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the Democrats, trade, globalization, everything but what they’re doing about it, it’s because I do resent them for what they have visited on the rest of us. It’s as if they have cancer and expect us to take chemo as well.

They also remind me of President Ronald Reagan’s much despised welfare queens. I wish Reagan were around to see this “help me, help me” bunch.

If I’m hard on these people, it’s also because I have been there.

I lost a job that was the great love of my professional life while I was losing my aunt, the great love of my personal life, to dementia and coping with the seemingly endless effects of a tree falling on our house. I found new work first as a business reporter and then as the chief writer and editor of a luxury lifestyle publication. Neither was a job I ever imagined doing, but I realized both were the keys to my salvation. And if it meant working virtually around the clock for the year it took to settle into my new career, shore up and improve the house and, most important, see my aunt safely off to the other side, then that’s what I was willing to do.

I’m no hero and, God knows, no saint. And I want to be fair. Many jobs have been lost to the lack of Alexandrian leadership evinced by heads of small businesses, companies and corporations, who are only looking at the profit margin and the cheapness of overseas labor. Trump is right to call them on the carpet at the White House to brainstorm. And if Ivanka Trump wants to be a voice for working women, who still earn less than men for the same work, even better.

But by suggesting he’s going to bring back mining and manufacturing to the pre-digital, pre-1970s days, Trump is doing the American worker a disservice.

That dog is dead.