Many Americans increasingly seem psychologically, if not materially, disengaged from their own country. A few vote with their feet and move to quieter enclaves in the American rural West or to no-income-tax states in the South and hinterlands. More withdraw with their minds, by shutting out most of the noise emanating from American popular culture, politics, and the media.
I spent my vacation in September in small towns in southern Michigan, and a few days of October traveling to a number of communities in rural California, as well as talking to a variety of people on my farm. In all these venues, I kept meeting the same sort of detached American. Though these men and women came from varying class and ethnic backgrounds, they were united by a sense of malaise. Let me sum up what I think is the new Americanus alienatus.
The American stranger embraces a pessimistic view of this country, rather than the therapeutic view shared by most Americans. Given the nation’s cultural and financial profligacy, he assumes things are going to get worse. Or at least he accepts that they cannot go on as they are. The medicine (that will fall on him to administer) will be as catastrophic as the lethal disease (which he thinks was caused mostly by others).
Stereotyped as a “deplorable” “clinger” and “everyday American,” the stranger certainly has no wish to dispute the new politically correct orthodoxies of open borders, Black Lives Matter, the euphemisms that mask radical Islamic terrorism, record deficits, unsustainable entitlements, and chaos abroad. All of that, he believes, is now the concern of the members of the coastal establishment, whose incestuous lives are glimpsed in the latest WikiLeaks trove.
The disengaged American’s own existential business is survival. It takes all his energy and resources to navigate around the concrete ramifications of what elites have wrought, like failing public school systems, crime-ridden cityscapes, and Kafkaesque bureaucracies. The elites, meanwhile, have far better ways of insulating themselves from the injurious effects of their own ideology.
The stranger believes we are running out of answers to increasing racial and ethnic tensions. As a drop-out himself, when he reads daily of shootings, stabbings, riots, and assaults, he makes a mental note of where they take place, knows enough to keep quiet about them, and plans to stay a safe distance away.
Politics is a turn-off, epitomized this year by the crude Donald Trump and the refined and inveterate prevaricator Hillary Clinton. Both seem to reflect our long-standing hubris, in which we glorified empty celebrities and overlooked the high crimes and misdemeanors of professional politicians, who made their own rules of behavior that ultimately (and logically) permitted destroying government documents, recklessly trafficking in classified information, and selling government influence to the highest bidders. To the extent Trump wins sympathy among estranged Americans, it is largely because he represents the nihilistic choice: the idea of a humiliated and doomed Samson pulling down the pillars of the Philistine temple upon us all apparently has a sort of psychological and vicarious attraction for the American stranger, especially when he reads of the contempt that the elite hold for people like himself.
Neither candidate talks about the financial Armageddon ahead, when raising interest rates will make it nearly impossible to meet existing outlays and service a $20 trillion national debt. In contrast, the quiet American assumes that the remedies of inflation or catastrophic budget cuts in defense and entitlements—or more likely both—are inevitable. He assumes his own financial future is bleak, and his children’s even bleaker. In paranoia, he readies himself for anything, whether that means European-level tax rates or the loss of his private 401K to the insolvent Social Security trust fund. Sometimes, the nuts who advocate buying gold do not seem so nutty to him.
Hypocrisy is the national creed, and the turned-off American survives by navigating around or ignoring it. Illegal aliens, seen as an important new political demographic, are increasingly immune from federal immigration law. Many new immigrants assume that America is the choice destination of the world, but when they get here, they find that the lure of lodging grievances against their generous host is the better path to political influence and government largess. Assimilation, in contrast, is written off as proof of inauthenticity.
The turned-off know well enough to keep quiet about political correctness. They accept that just one wrong word can at any time end careers as a clerk, cop, or teacher. The disaffected also still trust that college is a future investment for their kids, but have no clue how to pay for it. They are also unsure how to weigh the pluses of receiving a bachelor’s degree against the minuses of being indoctrinated by a small, bitter subset of the population.
The quiet American is also cynical. He expects elites to be pretenders. The hacked emails of insiders Colin Powell and John Podesta, and Hillary Clinton’s $250,000 Wall Street chats confirmed what most believed about low-bar Washington values. Trump’s eleven-year old hot-mic vulgarities rebirthed Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual assaults, reminding the cynical that in the age of Miley Cyrus, Chris Brown, and Kim Kardashian, America is both crude and sanctimonious at the same time.
So the drop-out American turns off the media, and not merely because of its 24/7 hyperkinetic frenzy, but because he is fed up by its superficiality and hypocrisy—and its abject partisanship dressed up as edginess. Most journalists assume their role is either to further their own careers or to convince the supposedly ignorant masses to endorse the progressive views embraced by only 20 percent of the population. Either way, millions of Americans have checked out, retiring instead to the blogosphere and comments sections of articles. The alienated American also does not go to the movies much. The reason is not just because excellent entertainment is easily available at home on his various devices. The problem, rather, is the message. A politically warped Hollywood is, like the media, trumpeting political ideas that do not resonate with most viewers.
The alienated American is touched by, but avoids, popular culture. He cannot figure out the attraction of the harsh voices, grating beat, and glorification of misogyny, racism, and violence in rap music. He knows of a Kanye West or Miley Cyrus only to the degree that such entertainers sometimes intrude into the mainstream media, causing confusion over exactly how such untalented exhibitionists ever won an audience, and why, in such a Victorian society such as our own, their obscenities still remain politically correct.
The quiet American was once devoted to televised sports, but increasingly is losing interest there as well. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who refuses to stand for the national anthem on the ground that America is racist, hardly represents speaking truth to power. He is another pampered multimillionaire athlete who has manipulated his sport for personal attention and gain. The alienated American also avoids ESPN and similar sport channels. He believes that life is too short to listen to half-educated jocks posing as Socratic philosophers as they politicize their analyses and try to turn gladiators on the field into heroic progressive humanists.
The media, contemporary politics, sports, Hollywood, popular music, government policy, political correctness, the pretenses of the elite—all of these have driven a sizeable minority of the population into a psychological underground. Every once in a while, I see the alienated American, who gives me a nod or wink at the supermarket or gas station—a confirmation that he has become a stranger in his own strange land.