Struggling rural America proved disenchanted with the country’s trajectory into something like a continental version of Belgium or the Netherlands: borderless, with a global rather than national sense of self; identity politics in lieu of unity and assimilation; a statist and ossified economy with a few winners moralizing to lots of losers—perhaps as a way of alleviating transitory guilt over their own privilege.
The full lessons of the 2016 election are still being digested (or indeed amplified), but one constant is emerging that the world outside our bi-coastal dynamic, hip, and affluent culture is not very well understood by those who lead the country.
The doctrinaire Right advises the interior losers of globalization to hit the road in search of good jobs and take a hard look in the mirror and cure their self-inflicted pathologies. Such stereotyped pessimism about rural America are no exaggeration. Recently Bill Kristol, former editor of the Weekly Standard, seemed to dismiss the white working class as mostly played out—an apparent argument for generous immigration that was critical in replacing it: “Look, to be totally honest, if things are so bad as you say with the white, working class, don’t you want to get new Americans in?” He went onto imply that poor whites were purported lazy and spoiled in comparison to immigrant groups—a fact not born out by comparative rates of reliance on government aid programs. PBS commentator and New York Times columnist David Brooks earlier had suggested the white working classes who were voting for Trump did not exercise independent judgement, but as the less educated were just “going with their gene pool.”
The plight of the contemporary rural America in a word was not due to an epidemic of laziness or of innate genetic ineptness, but more likely the onslaught of globalism, a sort of Tolkien master ring that gave its coastal wearers enormous power to create and manage worldwide wealth, prosperity, and power, but by its very use proved corrupting to those in its midst.
As I look outside the windows of my farmhouse this morning and scan a 360-degree panorama, I can absorb globalization, its success and failures. The countryside is now devoid of farmers who used to anchor small-town life—everything from the school board to the Masonic Lodge—of the San Joaquin Valley of California. In its place is a mosaic of huge vertically-integrated corporate farms that have swallowed up the tesserae of failed small acreages and turned the land into the most productive and profitable food production units in the history of agriculture.
But who am I to look out the window at others, when the story is my own as well? All my siblings went belly up in small farming. I held on to the old homestead and a remnant 40 acres only by renting out to a superb farming corporation while earning my living from the coast. Such a strange Faustian bargain globalization proved to be: unlimited affluence for some without shared prosperity, instant electronic social media and communications without much to communicate, and hip culture without much cultural transcendence. I could assure Bill Kristol that my siblings who could not make a living when peaches went from $9 a lug to $4 and raisins crashed from $1,400 a ton to $450 were not lazy. And I would say to David Brooks that their genetic material did not preclude rational judgment.
America’s rural class was gobbled up in a variety of ways. The consolidation of agriculture, the outsourcing and automation of manufacturing, and franchising of retailing created an underclass dependent on social services and low wages. A smaller and mostly younger group got with the plan, left rural America, fled to the coasts or regional big cities, obtained the proper credentials and became successful. Some in between stayed on and went about their old ways, often confused that the familiar but often empty landscapes and infrastructure might still mean that business could go on as usual.
But the rural shakedown did not mean that our red-state interior tuned out from politics, big business, universities, government, popular culture and mass entertainment. Far from it; cable TV, the Internet, and smart phones plugged rural America into coastal culture as never before. And what fly over country saw and heard each day, it often did not like.
The Great Divides(s)
The first disconnect between coastal and interior America was the elevation of race over class—with a twist of scapegoating the losers of globalization as somehow culpable winners because of their supposed “white privilege.” Fairly or not, the lower middle classes heard a nonstop message from mostly affluent white liberals and well-off minority activists, virtue-signaling one another by blaming those far less well off as somehow beyond redemption.
So-called middle and rural America—oddly people more likely to put their children in public schools and assimilate and integrate than was the elite—grew accustomed to being insulted by Barack Obama as clingers, or by Hillary Clinton as “irredeemables” and “deplorables,” as popular culture became fixated on privileged whiteness. And that tired message soon became surreal: coastal white people with the money were liberal and accusatory; interior white people without it were conservative and thus culpable.
The villains of television and Hollywood, when not corporate conspiracists, Russian oligarchs, or South African residual Nazis, were often redneck Americans with southern drawls. The new minstrel shows were reality television’s ventures into the swamps, the seas, the forests, the Alaskan wilderness, and the empty and endless highways, where each week with condescension we saw smoking, overweight and gap-toothed fishermen, loggers, and truckers do funny and stupid things with boats, saws, and semis.
The second unwelcome message was the politicization of almost everything. Beyoncé turned her 2016 Super Bowl show, traditionally non-political entertainment, into a peaen to Black Lives Matter and the old Black Panther party. Multimillionaire Colin Kaepernick deflected attention from his own poor play on the field for the San Francisco 49ers by scapegoating America for its supposed -ologies and –isms—but of course himself did not take the trouble to vote. Hollywood actors, who make more in an hour than most do in a year, periodically finger-pointed at Middle America for its ethical shortcomings. Turn on late night talk shows or early morning chat sessions to receive the monotonous message that entertainment is properly indoctrination.
Even charity became progressive politics. The locus classicus of multimillionaire moralizing was the Clinton team: she selling influence at the State Department, he collecting the ensuing checks at the Foundation; both veneering the shake-down with left-wing moralistic preening. When Hillary lost her reins of power; Bill had no more influence to sell; the Foundation lost its reason to be, and the entire criminal enterprise was exposed for what it always was: QED.
Third, the gulf in America between concrete and abstract things widened. Banking, insurance, universities, government, social media, and programing were reflections of the work of the mind and well compensated; fabrication, construction, transportation, drilling, mining, logging and farming were still muscular, essential for the good modern life—and yet deprecated as ossified and passé. The ancient wisdom of the necessary balance between thought and deed, muscle and mind, was forgotten in the popular culture of the coasts. Yet rural America assumed it could still learn how to use iPhones, search the web, and write in Microsoft Word; but coastal America did not know a chainsaw from a snow blower. A tractor or semi might as well have been a spaceship. And those with expansive lawns soon had no idea how to mow them. That divide by 2016 posed a Euripidean question: What is wisdom and who were the real dullards, who were the real smart ones: the supposed idiots with Trump posters on their lawn who swore they were undercounted, or the sophisticated pollsters and pundits who wrote off their confidence as delusional if not pathetic?
Finally, speech, dress, and comportment bifurcated in a way not seen since the 19th century. Ashley Judd and Madonna might have thought screaming obscenities, vulgarities, and threats established their progressive fides, but to half the country they only confirmed they were both crude and talentless. What do Ben Rhodes, Pajama Boy, and Lena Dunham have in common? They all appeared to the rest of the country as arrogant, young, hip, and worldly without knowing anything of the world beyond them.
‘The Last Shall be First, and First Shall be Last’
Some object that Trumpism is pure nihilism and a vandal act rather than a constructive recalibration. Perhaps. But red-state America shouted back that if those who demanded open borders never themselves lived the consequences of open borders, then there would be no open borders. If those who proposed absolute free transfers of capital and jobs always expected others to lose money and jobs as the cost of the bargain, then there would be no such unlimited free flows. If the media were continually to stereotype and condescend to others, then they themselves would be stereotyped and talked down to.
For a brief moment in 2016, rural America shouted that the last shall be first, and first shall be last. Before we write off this retort that led to Trump as a mindless paroxysm, remember that it was not those in Toledo, Billings, Montgomery, or Red Bluff who piled up $20 trillion in collective debt, nearly destroyed the health care system, set the Middle East afire, turned the campus into Animal Farm, or transformed Hollywood into 1984-style widescreen indoctrination.
Trump was rural America’s shout back. One way or another, he will be its last. Either Trump will fail to restore prosperity and influence to the hinterland and thus even as president go the way of a flash-in-the-pan, would-be president Ross Perot—or he will succeed and thus make a like-minded successor superfluous.