Power to the People

Choose today whose side you will be on.

“The fact of the matter is most of them are childless single men who masturbate to anime.” 

Thus spake Rick Wilson, co-founder of the Lincoln Project, in January of 2016 (and again in September of 2019). Naturally he was reacting to the election of Donald Trump, which turned him and his colleagues at once into minor celebrities and parodies of themselves. Wilson is peak #NeverTrump. Like others whom it would be tedious to name, he has perforce abandoned his role as a Republican consultant and become a leader in the “principled” (a word apparently meaning “domesticated”) opposition. 

“Never Trump intellectuals,” wrote Victor Davis Hanson, “can be every bit as crude as their detested nemesis.” Quite so, and the particular way in which they are crude merits attention, even if they do not. It is a heightened version of Obama’s notorious gaffe at a San Francisco fundraiser in 2008: 

You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them... 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. 

Obama, who later scoffed that it would take a “magic wand” to get those rubes their jobs back, apparently never considered that contemning people for problems you don’t have and won’t deign to solve is a great way to get yourself succeeded by somebody like Donald Trump. But the grand irony is in Obama’s speculation that the troglodytes of America’s heartland fall back on “antipathy to people who aren’t like them...as a way to explain their frustrations.” 

I’m no psychoanalyst, but I believe this is what we call “projection.” It was people like Obama and Wilson—the supposed meritocrats of the old guard—who found themselves completely at a loss to understand or even begin fixing the crises they were faced with in the early 2000s. They were meant to be the A-team, the experts with the wits and the training to meet the moment. But when the people in those cratering towns cried out for help, when their spiritual bereavement and deracination drove them in record numbers to awful extremes of drug addiction and suicide, all their leaders could do was mask their incomprehension with scorn. As if it was beneath them to do anything. When really the truth was: they had no clue what to do. So they got bitter. They clung to antipathy to people who aren’t like them as a way to explain their frustrations. 

That was easy for them to do, because people who aren’t like Barack Obama are the sort of people toward whom it is not only excusable but fashionable to show casual prejudice and disdain. It was ever thus. In 1964 Wendell Berry, then a promising young faculty member at New York University, decided he would move back to his farm in Kentucky. Berry recalls in “A Native Hill” how this decision was greeted by one of his mentors with a mixture of astonishment and concern—a reaction “based on the belief that once one had attained the metropolis, the literary capital, the worth of one’s origins was canceled out; there simply could be nothing worth going back to.”  

Decades later, when his rural life had proven not the ruin but the making of him, Berry wrote again about “The Prejudice Against Country People”: “I have seen few things dumber and tackier—or more provincial—than this half-scared, half-witted urban contempt for ‘provinciality.’” He would have known, I’m sure, that the phenomenon is not limited to America. Catullus scoffed at “the rustic’s half-washed legs” and exposed the upstart Arrius—whose uncle was a freed slave, you know—in his attempts to put on sophisticated airs. Even Livy, now widely revered as Rome’s greatest historian, was needled by his contemporaries for his blunt prose style and his humble origins in the country town of Patavium. 

I know that plenty of city folks, in an effort to avoid this rather unattractive sort of bigotry, have overcorrected and romanticized the unwashed masses. The most harmless version of this is the idyllic sentimentalism of Theocritus or the Georgics. The most cringe version is a sort of reverse affectation, in which pampered urbanites represent themselves as men and women of the people: “how do you do, fellow bumpkins?”  

But none of this is necessary. In the last analysis, the error of classism isn’t undervaluing regular folks so much as overvaluing the elite. I live in Nashville now myself, where it doesn’t take too long a drive to find communities far different from the ones in which I was raised. The people out here in the South are by and large generous, considerate, and upright; they also have their blind spots and their excesses like everyone else. I like them, but they are not like me—I have blind spots and excesses of my own, which are different from theirs.  

This is actually a source of joy to us all, as long as none of us—and here’s the key—indulges in the sort of arrogance that would tempt us to consider our own brand of shortcoming inherently less distasteful, or our own kind of merit inherently more virtuous, than our neighbor’s. That arrogance seems presently to be the default setting of our failed ruling classes. It is unchecked in them by anything like the Christian humility which in America long ago made us brothers and sisters.  

The horror that the Rick Wilsons and the Barack Obamas of the world cannot bear is that on some very fundamental level we are all of us regular folks: quirky, shambolic, often buffoonish regular folks. The cartoonish parade of pink-haired experts and Hunger Games lookalikes on CNN these days is amusing in its way, and sad: not too far beneath the glamorous veneer are scared, desperate, befuddled people who will do anything to resist confessing that they are not, in any essential way, special. 

Desperation turns to anger, anger turns to vitriol, vitriol turns to...what? As I write this, it is turning into a clownish sort of despotism. The internet has made the charade impossible to maintain for much longer, and the players on this worn-out stage have been forced into their endgame. They are more willing to shut down the stock market itself than to admit they were outsmarted by a bunch of Reddit bros who figured out the game was rigged.  

Alexis de Tocqueville, meditating on the rise of democratic sentiment in Europe and the leveling-out of the social classes, observed the reaction of those who stood to lose power by the transaction: “Some assisted the democracy by their talents, others by their vices. Louis XI and Louis XIV reduced every rank beneath the throne to the same subjection; Louis XV descended, himself and all his Court, into the dust.” The internet is, like it or leave it, a democratizing force. People who neither talk nor look like the upper classes now have access to information and power which was formerly the preserve of a privileged few. They will be better able to talk to each other now, and organize, and think for themselves. And though there may be furious or even violent efforts made to stop this state of affairs from becoming permanent, eventually it will anyway. 

“God must have loved the common people,” said Abraham Lincoln, “he did make so many of them.” If this thing called America means anything at all, it means those people—not some abstract fantasy version of them, not some perfected upper crust chosen from among them, but they themselves, flaws and foibles and all—get to be free. To believe this you have to love the common people as God does: not on the condition that they conform to your aesthetic, but here and now and as they are, different from you though they may be. I am not a country boy; I never will be, and I would be foolish to pretend. But I am an American. And I know whose side I’m on.