In the Afterword to The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth, I quote the character Lonesome Rhodes (played by Andy Griffith) in the 1957 Elia Kazan movie A Face in the Crowd:
To those morons out there? Shucks, I sell them chicken fertilizer as caviar. I can make them eat dog food and think it’s steak. Sure, I’ve got them like this. You know what the public’s like? A cage full of guinea pigs.
That was in late 2012, and my point was that Rhodes’ is the attitude of many outside of the ‘heartland’ (the people I call ‘secular-liberals’) toward the Borderers, the descendants of the Scots-Irish and Calvinist culture that has so influenced much of contemporary white American culture.
I knew there was truth in it, but I never believed there was enough for a new Rhodes to ride all the way to the White House.
It bothers me a great deal to see my estimation of a sizeable percentage of the American public proven wrong, especially since these are, one might say, ‘my people.’ Though I no longer live among them, my ancestry and theirs is identical, and I often find that I share fundamental values with them.
So strong was my desire to bridge the gap between American cultures that I ended the book with this:
If there is ever going to be a reconciliation between the two dominant white American cultures, it is going to have to be through recognition by both sides that what they see of the other is not the entire story. There may be—there are—cults of individualism in America that are strong enough to destroy the country, but there is also a great deal more, even in the realm of individualism. Seeing this may allow each of us to emerge from our cultlike beliefs long enough to reach out, one to another.
I hope that can happen.
Four years and the election of a con artist later, and I am not so optimistic. I had believed that the two sides of white America could begin to speak to each other and to understand each other. If anything, the opposite has happened. One side, allied with the range of other American cultures, calls the other ‘racist.’ The other retorts, ‘liberal hypocrites.’ Neither is willing to try to understand the development of the views of the other or the reality those views hold.
To make matters worse, with the election of Donald Trump, there is less reason than ever to think that his supporters will be willing to compromise or even talk. They feel they have won a ‘landslide’ victory that heralds in a new age of restoration for the old American middle- and lower-middle classes. Those on the other side are angry and resentful that their candidate lost through deceit and trickery, that the other side is grinning, believing they have bought a pig in that poke when the bag, really, contains nothing but junk.
Though the nation is more divided than ever (hard to believe, given the animosity toward Barack Obama these past eight years), we cannot give up on the possibility of reconciliation. Both sides have suffered real harm at the hands of the other, but that does not mean these cannot be put behind in an attempt to salvage a nation now teetering on the brink of becoming a kleptocracy with only the trappings of democracy. Trump’s supporters may not see that now, but they will. If those who opposed Trump do not continue to act toward completely alienating his supporters, that could possibly become the wedge for bringing the two sides together in support of our traditional system of government. As Trump’s policies, as I think the will, fail to turn around the long and slow decline of the fortunes of so many Americans, there will be room for new alliances.
But those can only happen if we refuse to turn our backs on our enemies.
Trump himself is trying to forestall that, tweeting for the 2017 New Year, “Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!” His very sarcasm is an attempt to stir of anger instead of reconciliation, for it is anger he manipulates best. Understanding and compassion are his greatest enemies.
One of the purposes of The Cult of Individualism was to start a thread running counter to that of that great and influential Richard Hofstadter book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Though there is much to be said for the book, it does shut out at least half of white America, buying into and promoting the divide between the two white cultures that goes back (as Hofstadter himself shows in his depiction of Jacksonian culture) to the early 19th century—and actually before.
What I did not do was consider that other great work of Hofstadter’s, his “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” an article that appeared in Harper’s Magazine in November, 1964. He begins with a truism: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.” This is universal, as true on the left as on the right, though it is the right that has harnessed that anger most effectively in the half century since Hofstadter’s essay.
There is a great deal we can learn from Hofstadter, even today. He writes that:
the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.
All of us should remember that as we try to write off our enemies as simply crazy. There is, after all, often something real sparking paranoia, especially if it is widespread enough. It is in all of our best interests to find that something and address it—something we on the left have not done, certainly not since Hofstadter’s time.
Though the conspiracy theories have changes since the early years of the American Republic, their style and impact remains. Illuminati, Masons and Jesuits have faded as threats while new ones have arisen. They are different today from what they were in 1964 though their intent and impact are the same. They arise from a sense of dispossession, something Trump speaks to with his ‘Make America Great Again’ caps. The implication is that the greatness (and the greatness, specifically, of that certain strand of white America) has been stolen away. Even in 1964, as Hofstadter writes:
America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals.
Sound familiar? It should. This feeling continues to be real and is, in large part, responsible for Trump’s victory. If any-thing, it is stronger today than it was half a century ago.
With jaw-dropping accuracy, Hofstadter enumerates the elements behind conservative theology from the time of Barry Goldwater, elements still in place today (though “Communist” can probably be replaced by “leftist” or even “black”):
First, there has been the now-familiar sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism….
The second contention is that top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy, at least since the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, has been dominated by men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.
Finally, the country is infused with a network of Communist agents, just as in the old days it was infiltrated by Jesuit agents, so that the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media is engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.
Sarah Palin’s ‘lamestream media’ has a long pedigree, as does Newt Gingrich and Paul Ryan’s attempt to turn the clock back to a pre-New Deal time.
More chilling still is Hofstadter’s depiction of the paranoid leader in America, for it resonates too perfectly with the personality of Trump:
He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised. in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated-if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.
This is exactly the personality of the 45th President of the United States. That this personality has long been yearned for by half of America is the clear reason Trump won the 2016 election. Everything else is secondary.
It is easy, today, as an opponent of Trump, to retreat into the emptiness of MacBeth’s short speech from Shakespeare:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Or to fall into the desperation and exasperation and failed expectations of William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming”:
…somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
When we pull our blankets of art about us, though, we lose.
In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote:
Youth is the seed-time of good habits as well in nations as in individuals. It might be difficult, if not impossible, to form the Continent into one government half a century hence. The vast variety of interests, occasioned by an increase of trade and population, would create confusion. Colony would be against colony. Each being able would scorn each other’s assistance; and while the proud and foolish gloried in their little distinctions the wise would lament that the union had not been formed before. Wherefore the present time is the true time for establishing it. The intimacy which is contracted in infancy, and the friendship which is formed in misfortune, are of all others the most lasting and unalterable. Our present union is marked with both these characters; we are young, and we have been distressed; but our concord hath withstood our troubles, and fixes a memorable era for posterity to glory in.
If we Americans really want to reclaim our national youth, we need to look back to the struggles and words of the real founders of our country, not in the hagiographies that warp our vision but in examination of the real struggles and hatreds that we, as a nation, tried to overcome with varying degrees of success. We need to relearn the value of listening and of compromise, of putting our hurts aside in a quest for the common good.
That may sound idealistic but, if we don’t, we are going to find we have been sold to the highest bidder, recourse evaporated.