BY AARON BARLOW
The focus of discussion on Donald Trump is, understandably, the man himself—but the phenomenon of his success arises elsewhere. What Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, that “there is no there there,” applies to the man: all we have “there” is a massive ego. Trump is simply a skilled entertainer, Howard Beale of the movie Network brought to life. He exhorts people to yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” but doesn’t even care what “it” is. The applause, the votes—that’s all that matters to him.
Trump’s supporters, however, are something else again. Finally feeling a spotlight on themselves, they are people who have felt forgotten for generations. They are not descended from the American identity as it was imagined and written in New England and imagined and crafted separately by the southern white elite. That identity was only endured by them. The great debates of the 19th century only saw them as grounds for extension of the North/South conflict, as they moved west, or those debates ignored them. Ignored them, that is, until they were useful to the new myths concerning the West, ones crafted by the intellectual elite of New England and by East Coast writers generally. But those myths had nothing to do with the real lives on the prairies or in the mountains—and the people there knew it.
While New England and New York were developing the first real American intellectual and artistic culture and the South was building its antebellum “paradise” on the backs of slaves, the poor Americans of the Appalachians and then of the West were busily engaged in a genocide of Native Americans that no one wanted to praise or even admit was happening. At the same time, they were eking out a living on land that often, as soon as they tried to lay claim to it, turned out to be “owned” by someone from the East. They had no time for what Leo Marx calls the ‘fully articulated pastoral idea of America’ that had emerged on the back of the Enlightenment and that was popular as an ideal in the East. Whatever garden these poorer Americans could find or create or conquer or defend was not often even theirs for very long. More frequently than we imagine, they were forced once again to move farther west and to start from scratch—again. Poverty breathed down their necks; little of their lives would ever qualify as ‘pastoral.’
Numerous theories have been put forward to explain the differences between the uncouth of the frontier (and then settled) ‘interior’ of America and the civilized East (and then, West) Coast. Some writers blame the land that had seemed so promising, others blame class distinctions, and still others see the lack of civilizing government as the problem. Unfortunately, all the writers were from the East (or from Europe) until well into the 19th century; those actually from the frontier culture had little voice in the discussion, no ability to ground the debate in the actual facts of the matter as seen by the people there. As they would remain for generations more, these people had been made mute. Few outsiders understood either their perspective or their background, allowing erroneous conceptions to be put forward unchallenged and then to become received wisdom. The anger of the Bundy family and its supporters, for example, is real, even if we on the coasts see it as misplaced.
Trump’s campaign is giving such people voice in a way that their “champions,” those already stalwart in the Republican Party, never have. Trump is not telling them what they believe or even what they should believe but is reflecting frustrations that have been bubbling up within them for generations. The leaders of the party, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Kasich and the others, are acting on old assumption about the mass of white America, that it has no real culture of its own—believing it their duty to impose one.
This belief in bringing culture to the masses has an old pedigree: Reflecting views popular as the 19th century progressed to its end, Andrew Carnegie, an immigrant himself (like Trump’s mother, from Scotland), saw Americans as one culture, writing that ‘they are essentially British.’ Those who could not live up to the coastal Anglophone ideal were ignored or seen as debased anomalies. At best, they needed to be taught and changed. Though we no longer see that culture as British, pretty much the same view holds true today among the Republican elite. They don’t understand that those they wish to lead are often fundamentally different from their leaders.
The distinction goes back even further into America’s past. Though today’s Tea Partiers and fundamentalist Christians try to gainsay it, the United States was founded on Enlightenment principles that excluded religion, for example, from the public political sphere and made science and “rational thought” the pillars for what was hoped would be a new type of society. Though the secular-liberal founders of the country themselves tried to deny it—even going so far as to construct the Constitution in both a populist and an elitist fashion (witness the distinct structures of the House of Representatives and the Senate)—most of them were elitists in terms of both class and culture. They believed that the vast majority of their fellow Americans were not as “enlightened” as they were and that many of them needed instruction as well as learned guidance. Our leaders today, both Republicans and Democrats, are the inheritors of that attitude.
Many Trump supporters, on the other hand, base their attitudes on a Calvinist (and pre-Enlightenment) vision of individualism that starts within each of them, with faith in the person and in their God. It next moves, in a spreading circle, to family, to friends, and only then to others in the broad realm of human interaction and politics. If each person acted responsibly, by these lights, there would be little need for government—each individual having a tempering effect on those they interact with. The secular-liberal vision starts in a different place, with a structured base created and maintained by the group. Once responsibilities to it are met, the individual is free to—is encouraged to—act on his or her own to whatever ends seem appropriate, as long as those ends do not threaten or compromise the group structure.
The secular-liberal sees a duty to resist the state when it becomes corrupt, while these others seeks to remove it or to avoid it, or to move away from it, as has been done since first arrival in America, if not before.
In these ways and others, Trump supporters are fundamentally different from the Americans of the coastal cities and the media and political elites, even if they do overlap in political goals a great deal of the time or end up looking the same to political pundits with no real experience with this large portion of white America. Though the words used to describe many of the people on the right are the same, the meanings assumed by those people are not. There has long been two cultures within the conservative movement, one manipulating the other. These two cultures, today, are speaking at cross-purposes, neither one able to understand how the other half lives.
The manipulated among the conservative Americans have finally found their voice. Unfortunately for the rest of us, its articulation comes through a circus entertainer of little substance. This is driving the Republican establishment crazy—and may well do the same to the Democrats in the general election this fall. Neither group knows how to deal with the Trump phenomenon. Both are seeing the man, not the movement.
In the 1960s, science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick created a ‘news clown’ in a trademark flaming-red wig who runs for president. Donald Trump is that clown brought to life by the inchoate anger of a pressured and politically abused section of the American populace. To understand the ‘movement’ he represents, we need to look at them, not him. Otherwise, their candidate is going to become the president of all of us.
The above is loosely adapted by the author from sections of chapter 5 of Aaron Barlow’s The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth (Praeger, 2013).