Something has happened to us, coarsened us, made us more uncaring. It’s not something we saw happening, but one day we saw an unfamiliar face in the mirror. That’s what moral decay is like. We discover with a start that we enjoy something that would have revolted us in our more innocent days, such as the voyeuristic thrill of reading J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy or watching television series such as Breaking Bad and Justified, about a passively rotten working class that quite deserves our contempt.
Not that I have a problem with J. D. Vance. Rather, it’s with the people who enjoyed his book.
After the 2016 election, when white working-class voters turned out for Trump, the New York Times and the Washington Post sent their reporters to the hinterlands of Pennsylvania and West Virginia to see just what had happened. And off they went, like D.C. commuters sent horribly astray by a GPS that mistakes Buffalo for Bethesda, like cultural anthropologists dropping in on a particularly primitive society. That’s how the Post’s Wesley Lowery came to spend a few days slumming in McDowell County, West Virginia. Lowery’s editors had chosen well, for the county has the lowest life expectancy and the highest rate of drug-induced deaths in the United States. Males live an average of 63.5 years and females 71.5 years, while the national average is 76.5 for males and 81.2 for females. Between 1985 and 2013, the national lifespan increased 5.5 years for men and 3.1 years for women, but in McDowell County it declined 3.2 years for men and 4.1 years for women. The county gave 75 per cent of its votes to Donald Trump.
McDowell’s coal mines had closed, and the unemployment rate was more than double the nation’s average. Without work, the county’s young men got their kicks at a Friday night fight club where they tried to beat each other up in return for a chance at a prize. That was the subject of Lowery’s story, one long sneer at his social inferiors. ‘That $1,000, that’s a whole lot of beer, man.’ The fights are scheduled just after the government welfare checks are delivered, which enables the spectators to buy their ‘$3 hot dogs drenched in warm chili.’ Between rounds, scantily clad ring girls dance for the crowd, with what Lowery unchivalrously described as ‘varying degrees of rhythm,’ and the reader was encouraged to enjoy observing their humiliation through photographs meant to make them look trashy.
Lowery’s essay in redneck porn played to the prejudices of the Post’s readers. It invited them to hug themselves in self-delight for their social, educational and moral superiority, and reinforced their belief that the pollution-spewing coal-mining industry that Trump had praised deserved to die. It told its readers that the lower orders had brought their degradation upon themselves through their broken marriages, their illegitimate birth rates, their drug dependency, their general beastliness. And better still, it told its readers what to think of Trump voters in general.
Stories like that don’t come out of the blue. The class divide they reveal has been around for a while. One famous example came after the rise of the Religious Right in the early 1990s, with televangelists such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. In 1993 the Washington Post heard the rumbles from the boonies and sent reporter Michael Weisskopf to visit the moonshiners, snake handlers and creationists and see what was happening. What he discovered was that the preachers had understood how to adapt to television, and that their followers were ‘largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.’ The Post apologised the next day, but the story got Weisskopf shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize.
Politicians are supposed to know better. And yet Obama let his guard down in 2008 when he asked himself why voters in economically depressed regions voted Republican. Very simple, he said. ‘They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.’ His chief rival, Hillary Clinton, quickly took him to task. But in 2016 she took the elitism one step further when she described Trump supporters as deplorables. Both candidates had committed the gaffe of telling us what they really thought about us.
In a way, Obama’s condescension was more infuriating than Hillary Clinton’s contempt. When Clinton tells you she despises you, she at least pays you the backhanded compliment of candid odium. Those who condescend, like Obama or David Brooks in the New York Times, are less honest. They profess a false sympathy while asking to be admired for their public display of concern. Here’s Brooks, on the embarrassment of taking a member of the underclass to lunch.
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named ‘Padrino’ and ‘Pomodoro’ and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
If Brooks’s friend read the Times, what do you suppose she would have thought of his betrayal?
Those who tell you of their contempt don’t ask you to agree with them. Condescension is different. It asks you to accept your inferiority, as the obsequious Mr. Collins did in Pride and Prejudice. That’s bad enough, but what really bothers Trump supporters about insolent, liberal condescension is the thought that their ostensible superiors aren’t superior in the things that matter most. True, they have their prestigious jobs, the prizes they give each other and all the marks of success the world can offer, but what if other things count, such as loyalty, kindness and piety? Saint Peter was merely a fisherman, and we have it on good authority that John the Baptist was not altogether tidy in his personal attire. But they had other things going for them. Cleverness isn’t a substitute for goodness, and well-credentialed sepulchers can’t be prettied up with a coat of white paint.
The wretched of the earth
People like Wesley Lowery invite readers to feel contempt for the white working class. But when Hillary Clinton called them deplorable, she meant something a good deal more hateful. ‘Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it,’ she said. Among the NeverTrumpers, even National Review agreed with her, with Jonah Goldberg telling us that the nationalism of Trump supporters came down to ‘white identity politics.’ Racism, in short.
The media was only too happy to take up the bait, and this led to a search for the Great White Nazi, for which true white nationalists were only too happy to oblige. Emerging from under their pet rocks, a few moral lepers began to talk up white pride, and quickly found themselves in a symbiotic relationship with the Nazi-hunters in the liberal media. Here I am, said the racist, an authentic representative of the Trump movement. What think you of me!
For liberals, alt-right white nationalists became what Communists had been for the John Birch Society, a convenient tool to slander political opponents with conventional beliefs. The Birch Society’s founder, Robert Welch, said that Dwight Eisenhower was a conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy. To which William F. Buckley responded: He’s not a Communist, he’s a golfer. Thereafter the John Birch crazies were consigned to the right-wing loony bin. Their equivalents today are the leftists who see Nazis and fascists everywhere. But no one on the left has tried to expel their own lunatic fringe, such as the so-called ‘antifascists’ of Antifa. Instead, Welch’s red-baiting tactics have been mimicked in hysterical smears by liberal pundits.
Ordinary conservatives found themselves portrayed as alt-right fascists. It became so unhinged that the charge of fascism was pinned on a conservative commentator who is an observant Jew and who had refused to vote for Trump. When Ben Shapiro planned to speak at UC Berkeley in September 2017 and Antifa protesters threatened a riot, the university sent a letter to students, faculty and staff offering counseling services for those who might feel threatened or harassed. Not by the Antifa rioters, mind you, but by the presence of a conservative speaker on campus. ‘We are deeply concerned about the impact some speakers may have on individuals’ sense of safety and belonging,’ said the letter.
A classic case of passive aggression, it suggested that university members were probably moral slugs if they weren’t in need of counseling. For the occasion, the university fittingly closed off Sproul Plaza, the place where the Left’s Free Speech Movement began in 1965.
Meanwhile, liberals had been writing puff pieces on Antifa thuggery. ‘No enemies on the left’ is what Alexander Kerensky said, and we know where that got him. No enemies on the left is what many liberals still think. But I had enemies on the right, the real neo-Nazis out there who had crawled out from under their rocks, and I wanted no part of them. In the fall of 2016, I organised a group of scholars and writers for Trump, as much for the sheer perversity of the thing as for the support it would give the candidate. Surprisingly, it wasn’t too hard to get people to sign aboard, a few courageous younger scholars, some emeritus professors who had nothing to lose, a careerist or two. What I didn’t want were the alt-right types who might discredit the candidate, the white nationalists, the neo-Confederates, the people who thought that Marshal Pétain had gotten a bum deal. I wasn’t going to have anything to do with them.
The charge that Trump voters were racists fell flat when so many counties flipped from voting for Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. There were 22 of them (out of 72) in Wisconsin alone, the state that put Trump over the top. As for the gender gap, white women proved themselves traitors to their sex in 2016, and while more women voted for Hillary Clinton than for Trump overall, Clinton actually received a smaller portion of the women’s vote than Obama had.
McDowell County in West Virginia also flipped from Democrat to Republican. It had given Obama 54 per cent of its votes in 2008, but in 2016 Hillary Clinton got only 20 per cent. Voters remembered her boast that, in pursuit of clean energy, ‘we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.’ Over in Harlan County, Kentucky, another coal-mining county a hundred miles up the road, people felt even more strongly about their jobs, and gave Clinton only 13 per cent of their vote.
Harlan County is where the television series Justified is set, and it’s sacred ground for the Left. It was the site of a bitter 1931 coal miners’ strike that Pete Seeger sang about in ‘Which Side Are You On?’ Written by a coal miner’s daughter, the song described how Sheriff J. H. Blair tried to break up the miners’ union.
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair
Tell me, which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?
There was a time when, in any class divide, we would instinctively side with the underdog, with the struggling families, the coal miners, the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath. We would have been ashamed to mock them, as Lowery had. But that was before we were instructed by our betters to despise them.
How different things were in the older literature of poverty. In 1936, Fortune magazine commissioned James Agee to report on the lives of three southern sharecropper families. The piece was never published, but it later became Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the most celebrated account of Depression-era poverty. Agee took the assignment, and unlike Lowery he was sufficiently abashed to recognise the obscene voyeurism behind it. How curious it was, reflected Agee,
to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of ‘honest journalism’ (whatever that paradox might mean), of humanity, of social fearlessness, for money, and for a reputation for crusading and for unbias which, when skillfully enough qualified, is exchangeable at any bank for money.
A generation later, Michael Harrington told us in The Other America that little had changed for the poor. He brought his readers face to face with the hidden poverty in America, in the ghettos, sweatshops and small farms of America, and his book is credited as the inspiration for Medicaid and Medicare.
The earlier writers described the poor with compassion, as fellow Americans. At times the programs they proposed — the war on poverty — were ill-conceived, but there was no sense of moral superiority in this literature, even with those who might have brought their poverty on themselves. The desperately poor were broken in body and spirit, and while they didn’t belong to anyone or anything, they still were our brothers, with whom we shared a common humanity and citizenship. If they lived their lives at a level beneath that necessary for human decency, we were called upon to do something about it. In Harrington’s case, that had meant living with them in one of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker hospices, not an experience any of the purveyors of today’s redneck porn will have shared.
We’ve left the world of James Agee and Michael Harrington and entered a very different one. We’ve always been divided along racial lines, and it was a sign of moral progress to know that this was wrong. But today our class divisions are broader, and we’ve lost the sense that this is something of which we should be ashamed.
The members of the New Class have isolated themselves from the rest of America by the schools they attend, the movies and TV shows they watch, the restaurants where they dine. Cocooned in their ‘Super Zips,’ in D.C., New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, they think they have earned their privileges and that those beneath them deserve their subordinate status. When they’ve bothered to think of those left behind, they’ve wondered why they can’t be more like themselves. The conceit that the answer to the country’s social ills lay in turning the working class into proper little left-wing intellectuals was wonderfully ridiculed by Thomas Frank in Listen, Liberal, but somehow the New Class missed the satire.
The New Class lives in what Charles Murray calls the ‘bubble’, a network of high-income people with similar educational backgrounds and cultural tastes. Theirs is a separate country, with little connection to the formerly encompassing institutions of schools, churches and military service that used to bring Americans together. If they happen to belong to a church, it’s likely to be one where everyone shares the same political beliefs — in which case one might ask if it’s actually a church. ‘All are welcome here,’ the signs announce. But what they mean is, ‘All are welcome here who think that all are welcome here.’
If you’re wondering whether you live in a bubble, here are some of Murray’s test questions that might provide an answer.
- Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American neighborhood in which the majority of your fifty nearest neighbours did not have college degrees?
- Have you ever walked on a factory floor?
- Have you ever held a job that caused something to hurt at the end of the day?
- Have you ever had a close friend who was an evangelical Christian?
- What does the word ‘Branson’ mean to you?
American class differences were starkly apparent in the 2016 election, with the geographical divide between the 487 counties Clinton won and the 2,520 ones Trump won. Most of Clinton’s votes came from the East and West coasts, and there her support was so strong that she outpolled Trump by nearly three million votes in the entire country. Hers was the country of a bicoastal liberal elite, his of a conservative heartland, two solitudes that neither protect nor touch nor greet each other. America had become Disraeli’s Britain, divided between two classes and two regions, between Two Nations,
Between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets…the Rich and the Poor.
Trump might have won many more counties, but that’s not where the money was, or where the New Class lived. The counties Clinton won — only 16 percent of the total — accounted for 64 percent of America’s 2015 economic activity. That was a statistic that made Hillary Clinton and her fellow liberals feel smug. It shouldn’t have.
The geographic concentration intensifies the polarisation of American politics. Over time, liberals become more liberal, conservatives more conservative. When everyone you know belongs to the same party, the instinct for moderation disappears, and when that happens, observed Robert Dahl, ‘the man of the other side is not just an opponent: he soon becomes an enemy.’
And that’s what politics feels like, when you read the press or watch television. Sometimes I’d catch one of the late-night comedy shows, where audience members were invited to revel in their hatred of Trump. I couldn’t watch for more than a few minutes, but that was long enough to wonder where the comedy might be. It seemed more like communal sadism, the laughter of the schoolyard bully who smacks his victim around. If it was supposed to be funny to depict Stephen Miller’s head on a spike, as Stephen Colbert did on The Late Show, or to hold up the bloody head of a decapitated Trump, as Kathy Griffin would later do, then the anti-Semitic cartoons in the Nazi Völkischer Beobachter were a barrel of laughs. In the Atlantic, a shocked Caitlin Flanagan looked at our late-night television shows and asked, ‘My God…What have we become?’
Flanagan’s question was answered on June 14, 2017, when a left-wing gunman tried to kill Republican congressmen on a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia. When that happens, there’s only one criminal: the shooter. But it’s still fair to ask whether he had listened to Ben Rhodes, who wished for the death of the Republican leadership. Or Sarah Silverman, who suggested that the military stage a coup against Trump. Or Madonna, who said, ‘I’ve thought a lot about blowing up the White House.’ Or CNN, which speculated about who would take over if Trump were assassinated on Inauguration Day. Or the Washington Post editorial board, which compared Trump to Hitler. Or Hillary Clinton, who announced that she had joined the ‘resistance.’ She didn’t meant it literally, of course, but the subtleties might have been lost on the gunman.
Now, with the tragedy in Charlottesville, where an anti-Trump protester was killed, each side has its victims, and each must learn to mistrust that most terrible of all delusions, the belief that, since one is virtuous, everything is permitted.
The Republican Workers Party: How the Trump Victory Drove Everyone Crazy, and Why It Was Just What We Needed by F. H. Buckley is out now.