‘Conservatives unwittingly side with the social forces that contribute to the destruction of traditional values.’
So wrote the Midwestern populist social historian Christopher Lasch, once upon a time. (Were it up to me to post again, the only word I would change or redact in the quote would be ‘unwittingly’: at this point I don’t think it’s quite plausible that the œconomic damage our contemporary conservative politicians do to the dense social fabrics that sustained the very norms and conventions they claim to champion, is anything other than self-interested and intentional.) I made a meme of this quote, back in 2015 when the primaries were still happening and Barack Obama was still president, superimposing the quote over an image of Trump Tower in New York.
The message, I had thought, was fairly clear. I was baffled at how so many people, evidently – and coastal New York Times-reading liberals most of all! – could ever confuse Donald John, twice-divorced real-estate tycoon and reality TV star, a true creature of Hollywood, Wall Street and Madison Avenue, with the ‘salt-of-the-earth’ types whose tribune he falsely claimed to be. But that bafflement soon gave way to a sickening realisation. That ‘confusion’ serves a double purpose: both for Trump and for his well-heeled liberal critics. Firstly, as far as the Orange Occupant is concerned, it gives him precisely the status and recognition he seeks. Secondly and more importantly, the narrative which looks first to the ‘white working class’ for an explanation of Trump’s rise offers the culture-producing and new-class élite both plausible deniability and a scapegoat. Trump isn’t our responsibility – blame those bum-end yokels, hicks and yahoos who voted him in!
I watched as ‘populism’ became a dirty word, a word connoting a grim heart of darkness in the American heartland, a byword for the groundswell of racism and misogyny which alone could be responsible for the triumph of the monster of Mar-a-Lago. The word became a symbol, on both sides, of a new culture war: Deplorables versus Pussy-Hats; MAGA versus The Resistance. The old culture war was History. Enter the Age of Farce, stage (far) right. But that’s not the whole story.
First of all, the white working class didn’t come out in droves to vote for Trump. It’s been established time and again that DJT’s base is wealthier and better-educated than the median American voter. The problem – again, this has been shown repeatedly – was that Clinton couldn’t cajole her constituency off the couch. White working class voters in the ‘flip states’ of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio simply stayed home.
For a small personal digression: I’ve lived in three of these ‘flip states’. I’ve lived in well-maintained, hip liberal university towns (Madison and Kalamazoo), but I’ve also spent a couple of my politically-formative years in what are quaintly called ‘transitional neighbourhoods’ in the old Rust Belt city of Pittsburgh. Even in Kalamazoo or Madison, the proverbial ‘tracks’ aren’t that far away: though it’s an effort to ask college students to do so, one doesn’t have to look far to see the signs of the ‘hollowing out’ of our shared œconomic life–the dilapidated housefronts, the chain-link fences on treeless potholed streets, the abandoned factories and warehouses. Political candidates offering more of the same would always have had a tough row to hoe out here, and few people actually articulated that better than that other baseball cap-wearing Hollywood would-be tribune of the Rust Belt, Michael Moore.
But rehashing 2016 doesn’t get us very far. And words take on new meanings as their users and the events, people and things they signify change them. Should we then write off ‘populism’ in its latest incarnation as yet one more turn of the widening gyre, the figment of a stony sleep vexed to nightmare, a rough beast which had slouched toward Bethlehem only to be stillborn? I wonder.
American society would appear, even from my own humble vantage point, to be caught in just a centrifugal dialectic. We have an oligarchic mode of governance supported by democratic rhetoric. We set no value on moderation and worship excess, but retain a sense of piety that often baffles visitors to and observers of our country. (By this ‘we’, by the way, I include myself as well. I’m very guilty of every single one of these failings. I’m a fast-food eating and Target-shopping Christian who puts on a ‘churchly face’ too often, and I often find myself involved in public debates on social media, offering opinions on matters that don’t directly involve me.) Governance reflects the character of the governed, and I fear that a ‘populism’ of the American polity would inevitably accentuate these failings rather than diminish them. And from there, well… let’s just say that I fear our culture’s troubled, unexamined relationship with isōtes can yet take us into some very strange and very dark corners.
And yet… and yet… why is it that I find the most humane and the most insightful voices speaking about and to the American polity right now would not flinch from the word? Thomas Frank of The Baffler is one of the contemporary American journalist-author-culture-critics whose work I’ve found most particularly poignant at this moment, even though he began writing and speaking about our current cultural ‘moment’ over twenty years ago with The Conquest of Cool. Frank consciously follows Christopher Lasch, and his work rings with much the same tenor of sympathy, satire and dialectic irony. He says in all seriousness, and I believe him when he says so, that his main concern is with material factors: the realities of class and not the ‘performative’ fantasies of the sort entertained by David Brooks and the rest of the New York Times op-ed brigade. But – and I feel that this is a fairly large ‘but’ – he seems so sympathetic to the spiritual wants (and even the neuroses and projections) of the common Middle American, that his self-portrait as first-and-foremost an analyst of class seems slightly belied. Even at his most caustic and sarcastic, Frank seems to be possessed of this love of neighbour which lends his work a peculiar kind of power.
Perhaps I’m again being a typical American, convinced as I am that the lion’s share of our societal ‘escape’ from our present confusion, if it is to come at all, has to be spiritual and self-reflective. I say further that this spiritual and self-reflective ‘escape’ must involve a greater love and understanding of our neighbours. The more genuine populism of Lasch and Frank, therefore – which seeks first and foremost to listen to the ‘intimations of deprival’ in the stressed and seemingly-forgotten areas of the country – I feel has to have some place in our national discussion, and a more prominent one than it currently enjoys. That place may be temporary, and it may be fraught with the dangers of an overswollen public thumos (or worse, epithumia). But if our nation’s soul cannot even listen to itself, how can we even begin to hope for a more just or more humane arrangement arrangement for its political body.