The number of American adults who smoke has fallen to the lowest level ever recorded, a mere third of what it was 70 years ago. Decades of aggressive public health campaigns and advertising bans are responsible for this remarkable decline. As norms and mores changed, smoking became situated somewhere between bear baiting and regularly dining at Cracker Barrel as a form of utterly deviant behavior.
Those who continue to smoke belong to the struggle towns and junklands of Middle America. They are usually adult men without much of an education, living below the poverty line; they are the very backbone of Trumpism. Of course during the golden age of American smoking in the years after World War II, Marlboro men were just as easily found in Madison Avenue and Wall Street as they were in Texas Hill Country or Youngstown. Smoking – before its deleterious effects on health were properly known – was a truly egalitarian practice that bound the country together as much as compulsory civics education ever did. Big Tobacco even played a surprising and largely forgotten role in the emancipation of women in the 20th century.
That our elites have left smoking to the cast of Hillbilly Elegy in order to embrace meditation and veganism makes some sense medically but not philosophically. It is yet another example of the way in which they manage to combine faddy lifestyle choices with a glib moral certitude. The rich are not only richer, they also live longer than the poor. Not content with succeeding meritocratically, they have managed to turn life into a longevity race too. What exactly is the point of living to the age of 110 still being able to do a Kapotasana? It is simply another kind of greed, going by the name of ‘wellness’.
It’s not as if elite replacements for smoking (for that’s surely what Peloton actually is) make them particularly happy. Take, for example, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, a man with influence, power and capital beyond imagining. Despite this he almost always looks as if he’s being forced to scale a large mountain with a grand piano tied to his waist: pained, appalled and genuinely hoping to be put out of misery by an avalanche or a pack of ravenous wolves. Proof of his deep gloom arrived last month with a tragic multi-tweet thread about a trip he made to Burma for a Vipassana retreat.
Dorsey, like many others, is so brittle that he cannot let experience simply wash over him, rather he must document every last heart beat of his days. Seventy years ago a man in his position wouldn’t need to parachute into another country and sit on a hard wooden floor in silence in order to chill out. He would have smoked 40 or 50 or 60 cigarettes a day instead. Sure, he would have ended up dying earlier, but the effects of nicotine – regular hits of dopamine, raised alertness, speedy reaction times and powerful anti-anxiety and antidepressant qualities – would have given him everything he gets from meditation and more.
Americans – particularly Americans in positions of power and influence in politics, the media and the academy – need to start smoking again. The sourness and fury that has stalked these frustrated power-brokers and tastemakers ever since 2016 is past the point where it can be resolved by ‘self-care’. The moment when the upbeat, glittering Obama years curled away at their edges to reveal the grinning orange face of Trumpism was the exact time they should have swapped their iPhones for a few cartons of cowboy killers.
The derangement of the discourse every since then, which sees white supremacists in every tweet and fascism behind fairly modest proposals for immigration reform, has made it increasingly hard to read the Atlantic or The New York Times with a straight face. Practically the only sensible op-ed about Trump last year was written by Michel Houellebecq for Harper’s Magazine. To read a piece about the President that does not compare him to Mussolini or Hitler inside the first paragraph is a pleasure, if only because it is so rare.
Houellebecq does have a serious advantage over the lanyard wearing wonks who usually commentate on US politics: he is a serious smoker. Here is a man who looks as if he lights each cigarette with the butt of the last cigarette, somebody who began mainlining Gauloises – like every other Frenchman since time began – as a toddler. That he is able to understand Trump’s presidency with more clarity and style than the likes of Ezra Klein and Jonah Goldberg is a testament to the inspirational power of a fine, earthy, combustible tobacco blend.
Let us hope, for the sanity of the elites, if not for their health, that in the year to come we see the stigmata of the true smoker – yellow nails, papery skin and phlegmy coughing – come to replace the tedious health fashions and social media whinging that have gone on far too long. Then, perhaps, they will understand the wisdom of Robert Musil, who once wrote that ‘life is an unpleasant affair that we can get through by means of smoking.’ It’ll certainly help them get through the next two years of Trump.