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[Easy Chair]

Losing My Religion

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In the Seventies, when I came of age politically, being a lefty was all about believing that “the people” would always save us, if they just knew the truth. We were still immersed in the Century of the Common Man. We believed, as Henry Wallace once put it, that “the march of freedom of the past one hundred and fifty years has been a long-drawn-out people’s revolution.” The moral arc of the universe might be long, but the people, united, were pushing us more and more quickly along it.

This view was bred in the bone, our national religion from “We the People” through Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” to Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes:

Yes to the paradoxes of democracy,
Yes to the hopes of government
Of the people by the people for the people,
No to the debauchery of the public mind,
No to personal malice nursed and fed . . .

That all the peoples of the world, gathered here in peace and in freedom, would know what to do: this was the bedrock faith of America. Yes there was slavery, yes there was the destruction of the Indian nations—there were many horrors and mistakes—but these were just the inherited ills of the Old World. Never before had there been anything like America, and we the people would make it work. The People, Yes.

It is a hard notion to let go. For the past three years, it has been almost touching to see how tenaciously so many commentators on the political scene still cling to it. Since 2016, there has been a steady drumbeat from commentators insisting that something must have gone very wrong for the people to have allowed the election of Donald Trump. Something must have been done to them, the people, to make them so desperate that they would empower a president as puerile, unqualified, and openly venal as this one.

“America’s working class is in desperate shape,” wrote the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. In another op-ed, he noted that mortality rates for working-class whites had soared in the twenty-first century, surpassing those of black Americans. “Democrats didn’t do enough to address this suffering, so Trump won working-class voters—because he at least faked empathy for struggling workers,” Kristof explained. What’s more, he has written, Democrats “have a knack for antagonizing the working class by coming off as condescending, angry elitists” with a “progressive wing [that] has tarred all Trump voters as racists, idiots and bigots.” The trouble is that “many Democrats live in an urban blue bubble, without a single Trump-supporting friend” and their “hatred for Trump voters also leaves the Democratic Party more removed from working-class pain.”

Elsewhere on the Times op-ed page, Timothy Egan informed us that “Democrats can no longer connect to the white working class.” He cited a sister who ekes out a living in a janitorial job but who is convinced that “many Democrats . . . are dismissive of her religious beliefs and condescending of her lot in life. She’s turned off by the virtue-signaling know-it-alls,” he wrote. So are “many others [who] simply feel insulted and dismissed” and hence won’t so much as listen to Democratic plans to better their material circumstances with proposals such as free health or child care, or an affordable college education.

“For decades, Democrats, intoxicated with the elixir of global trade and its stock market wealth, ignored the cries of the Rust Belt,” the journalist Mike Kelly wrote in USA Today last December, reporting as part of a three-year project of traveling around the country and listening to Trump voters. He went on:

Democrats promised to retrain factory workers and miners. But to what end? Some coal miners I met were earning more than $100,000 a year. Can training programs, dreamed up by office-bound intellectuals in Brooks Brothers suits or Eileen Fisher dresses, find jobs to match those salaries? . . . Bet on the Rust Belt voting for Trump until the Democrats figure out how to get their hands dirty and actually pay a visit.

The crowning example of such analyses came, predictably enough, from David Brooks, who in a Times column last October created a fictional dialogue between two characters designated as “Urban Guy” and “Flyover Man.” The virtuous, working-class, Midwestern Flyover Man rages against the Democrats—simultaneously socialists and elites—who have abandoned him to economic penury, and declares undying devotion to Trump, telling Urban Guy, “See ya’ in hell, brother.”

The fact is, though, that the average Trump supporter today is neither a raging nihilist nor a blameless victim, and that he or she did not turn to the Republicans out of desperation. Such assumptions are the real condescension, robbing Trump voters of agency and responsibility. The hard truth of the matter is that Donald Trump and his party are exactly what much of white America has wanted for a long, long time.

The charges of the columnists are so outlandish that it’s hard to know where to begin. Democrats abandoned working people? The only economic group that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 was Americans making $50,000 or less. The working class in this country includes many African Americans, Hispanics, and other people of color, a fact that so many journalists seem to have trouble getting their heads around (Whites are living as bad as black people do now! Something must be done!).

The idea that working Americans are, as Kristof puts it, reeling from “the mockery of Democrats who deride them as ignorant bumpkins” is one manufactured largely by Fox News and other right-wing media outlets. Bernie Sanders—among the major candidates, probably the least favored by the national columnists—speaks rapturously of working people as his heroes. Deindustrialization and our conversion to a globalized, high-tech economy have indeed devastated great swaths of America and millions of the country’s working families. Who opposed this? Not Ronald Reagan, nor the Bushes, nor any other leading Republican in the past half-century. Not Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who was recently revealed to be firmly in the corporate pocket of his wealthy Chinese in-laws. Between the two major parties, the only serious objections to offshoring the American economy over the past few decades came from liberal Democrats such as David Bonior and Dick Gephardt. No Republicans rallied to their cause.

Today the only governmental proposals designed to help working-class Americans, white or black, are contained in the dozens of bills that Nancy Pelosi’s Democratic House shoots over to McConnell’s Senate, where they are dead on arrival. “Infrastructure Week” has become a tired joke. Nobody is yelling “Rebuild our roads!” or “Give us health care!” at Trump rallies. Instead they’re still chanting “Lock her up!” about Hillary Clinton or, infinitely worse, “Send her back!” about the Somali-born Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota. Or, as Trump’s “very fine people” have shouted at other rallies, “You will not replace us!”

So determined are otherwise intelligent commentators to believe in the people that it warps their political judgment. Their favored candidates in the Democratic presidential primary hail from the very same “elitist,” “globalist” Clinton-Obama wing of the party that supposedly drove the working class to Donald Trump: Joe Biden, who has spent decades carrying water for the banks and credit-card companies of Delaware; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, the son of college professors who reads novels in Norwegian; and Mike Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman from New York who is the very archetype of the overweening, nanny-state elitist, trying to ban your Big Gulp and your gun while waging an open “war on coal.” Last summer, Timothy Egan lauded former president Barack Obama for his recent scolding of Democratic radicals and urged Democrats “to rebuild the Obama coalition.”

The Obama coalition? With all due respect, that coalition had the life span of a mayfly. Obama was probably the most admirable individual ever to be elected president, a paragon of moderation who spent eight years trying to reach across the aisle to Republicans. They responded with an avalanche of ugly, racist slurs. (But don’t call them bigots!) And during Obama’s presidency, Democrats lost both houses of Congress, most of the nation’s governorships, and a stunning 968 seats in state legislatures around the country.

Donald Trump, for his part, has proved himself to be nothing if not a master political anatomist. In his short time in politics, he has neatly dissected the modern Republican Party, cutting away what were supposedly its most revered principles like so much obfuscatory blubber.

Respect for the military? Trump spent the 2016 campaign and much of his term gibing at a dying John McCain (“I like people who weren’t captured”) and the family of Humayun Khan (“I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices”). The party of faith? (“I don’t like to have to ask for forgiveness . . . I drink my little wine—which is about the only wine I drink—and have my little cracker.”) The party of national security? Of morality, of basic civility and public decency? All that has been sliced away, without a word of complaint from the Republican base.

What is left? Race, in a word.

This should not surprise us. For all the advice proffered about what exactly the Democrats should or should not do to bring the white working class back into the fold, only one Democratic presidential nominee, Lyndon Johnson in 1964, has won a plurality of the white vote since the last run of the old Roosevelt coalition.

Democrats lost the white vote to Richard Nixon and George Wallace at the nadir of Vietnam and urban unrest, in 1968. Jimmy Carter—a white, moderate, Southern evangelical, running amid a recession and in the wake of the Watergate scandal—lost the white vote to Gerald Ford, an unelected president whose approval rating never recovered from his decision to pardon Nixon. Another white, Southern moderate, Bill Clinton, lost it to fusty old Bob Dole in 1996, and Al Gore lost it to George W. Bush, by 13 points in 2000, at a time of peace, prosperity, and unchallenged, worldwide American hegemony. Donald Trump’s 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton came by a margin of 58–37 percent among whites, though for all of Trump’s supposed magic, he actually received 1 percent less of the white vote than Mitt Romney did in 2016.

Call white voters bigots or don’t. But in good times and in bad, in peacetime and in war, in sunshine or in shadow, white America votes for those candidates it believes are most likely to keep people of color “in their place”—either outside the country altogether, or in the most servile and subordinate condition possible within it.

There is another, early narrative of the people, one voiced by Benjamin Franklin in support of that same document that begins so boldly with “We the People.” It was an odd speech, a backhanded defense of the Constitution that he and the other Founding Fathers had just drafted, in which Franklin admitted that he did “not entirely approve of this Constitution at present,” but that “the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own Judgment, and to pay more Respect to the Judgment of others.”

Besides, Franklin conceded, any form of government “may be a Blessing to the People if well administered, and I believe farther that this [Constitution] is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years, and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”

Here is a startling idea: the people can be corrupted.

Have the American people been corrupted now, as so many of our commentators imply, by their suffering and desperation? But how could that be? The people have been much worse off in the past, and they have at times responded by joining together and taking action. A handful of bankrupt men started the original Populist movement in a humble Texas farmhouse one night in 1877, when the nation’s farm economy collapsed. Workingmen occupied General Motors’ Flint plant in 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression—the culmination of a labor movement that had struggled for decades to win workers’ rights. Women won the vote for themselves after seventy years of agitation.

Another thesis is that social media, tilted with the help of the Russians, has polarized us, “tribalized” us, as we have not been divided since the Civil War. Yet we have always been divided.

“All right we are two nations . . . America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have bought the laws,” John Dos Passos wrote, on the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927. But were Dos Passos’s strangers really strangers?

America has always hung in the balance. America is exceptional in that there is no other place where so many people have come from so many other places to live in relative peace and democracy for so long. People all over the world have seen the United States as a light unto the nations, and with their strength our country has done many great and good things in the world. But we did not banish human nature.

That other America has always been with us, too: those “strangers” who have invariably seen America—the land and its other peoples—as something to be exploited, to be subjugated. The idea of America has often been a close-run thing between us, with the same battles for human freedom and dignity needing to be fought again and again, and in that sense, our nation is not exceptional at all.

There have always been the Nativists, the Know-Nothings, the Klan, the John Birchers, the Knights of the Golden Circle, the Tea Party, the Proud Boys. All the believers in manifest destiny, and the white man’s burden, and a thousand conspiracy theories, going all the way back to Jamestown and Plymouth Colony.

It’s true enough that most white conservatives are not monsters, and that some of them are not bigots—though they have demonstrated no unease whatsoever with the bigotry of their leaders. It’s true that we should go on trying to persuade them, with restraint and respect. Contrary to what every columnist in the country seems to believe, no one I know lives in a “blue bubble.” We have right-wing acquaintances, relatives, even friends, and we listen to what they have to say.

But it’s important to understand that they have been voting the way they have for decades not out of despair or bruised feelings but to get what they want. It does no good to pretend otherwise. A people can be corrupted as well as a man, and our people can be corrupted as much as any other people. Red America is responsible for most of their own problems—and ours—thanks to the policies and the candidates they have supported for decades. But rather than acknowledge any of that they have simply doubled down, foisting upon us this wretched, hollow man, this constant liar who vulgarizes all he touches, who smears and mocks, and who sells himself at every turn, even to foreign dictators. The people, yes—they did this.


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March 2020