Back when I was writing The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth in 2012, I was desperately hoping that, against all evidence, the dominant white cultures of the United States could begin to cross the barriers between them. I thought that, just maybe, I could help that happen by describing the cultural split in my book. Now, I see that hoping so was as naïve as if I had been imagining that African Americans and white Americans could all sit down together and sing “Kumbaya.”
Come to think of it, I was believing something like that, too. We had our first African American president and, though there were people who I thought were simply fringe characters using race to try to bring Obama down, I thought we had passed a major milestone on the way to racial equality.
The election of Donald Trump put an end to that. It showed both that racism is alive as ever and that the divide between the two major types of white Americans (which I call the Borderers, after their cultural ancestry in lowland Scotland and England’s far north, and the secular liberals, the descendants of the Enlightenment in New England) was as deep as ever.
Not only was I naïve but I was obtuse. I knew quite well that there are incredibly competent and diligent activists on the right who have been exploiting the divide between Borderers and secular liberals at least since the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964. They had leveraged concerns among the Borderers about the Civil Rights Acts and the rest of the Great Society legislation to make reconciliation between African Americans and their political secular-liberal allies and the Borderers almost impossible. At the same time, knowing that the Borderers faced a decline in their percentage of the American population, they began to work toward disenfranchisement of those most obviously different from themselves, people of color.
I thought I was falling victim to conspiracy theories if I believed this was a concerted effort and, besides, I didn’t believe that anyone could successfully subvert the American political system in this fashion. And it’s true, there wasn’t a conspiracy—at least, not anything hidden. Very rich people started funding think tanks and ideologues who could further what was obvious the best path toward dismantling the New Deal/Great Society America they hated so. They made no bones about it and I didn’t believe they could succeed.
Until I heard that there was heavy voting in rural Pennsylvania on November 8, 2016.
Then I knew they had.
Now, let me repeat: this was no conspiracy. It was simply very rich people who resented social welfare (socialism!!!) that they felt they were paying for seeing the obvious way to destroy what had been built since the election of Franklin Roosevelt. All they needed to do was look back at what I outline in my book, to the divide exemplified by Andrew Jackson (it is no wonder Trump looked to him so quickly—his then advisor Steve Bannon knew all about Jackson), and to exploit it.
All I was doing was trying to describe it and to try to point out ways of healing it. In fact, I end the book on what I hoped was an upbeat note, describing the Borderers at Mayberry Days in Mt. Airy, NC, the home of Andy Griffith and not far from where my mother grew up. I enjoyed the people there, in part because I thought I knew them and believed that they had grown from the cultural hatreds that typified out common past. I wrote:
What they had done, I realized, was to create their own gentle study of Borderer individualism, but individualism quite different from that of the “cult” I write about in this book. What they present was and is the real individualism of Appalachia and, indeed, of Borderer culture anywhere, the individualism behind the cult. Though when they reflect stereotypes, the characters of The Andy Griffith Show rise above them. Even Barney Fife, the archetypal fool, has real human dignity that comes through just when he is looking his worst.
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 own cultlike beliefs long enough to reach out, one to another.
I hope that can happen.
It didn’t. Instead, a charlatan saw more clearly that they divide I hoped was healing had deepened to the point where he could take advantage of it and insert himself into the White House.
Like the rightwing ideologues whose fight Trump had not commandeered, I should have been struggling these past decades much more directly and urgently against the forces that I see as attempting to destroy my country. But I was not, not fully.
I did not believe they could win.
They have, though, and are in the process of destroying our country as I write.
Not only am I sad about that but I am angry at myself and all the others who identify with secular-liberal cultural touchstones. Our complaceny is part of what allowed this to happen.
If we are going to reverse the trend, all of us need to get off our rears… right now!