Reader, I drank it. And I did so in the company of a distinguished Catholic philosopher. It wasn’t pretty good. The conversation was much better.
At dinner earlier Friday night in Charlottesville, there was some conversation about Donald Trump. I didn’t check everybody’s party registration card, but I’m fairly certain that everyone around the table was conservative, and there was a great deal of concern about Donald Trump. I floated the idea that C.P. Cavafy’s poem “Waiting For the Barbarians” may explain Trump. Here’s the poem:
What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?
Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.
Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete with titles, with imposing names.
Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
Is it possible that people want Trump to blow up the system because nothing seems to work for them, or at least to their satisfaction, because everything has become decadent, useless, stuck? Is the barbarian Trump, who promises to come in and smash things up, a kind of solution for a nation that’s exhausted? Note the ambiguity in Cavafy’s phrase; the barbarians of the poem are not a solution to the actual problems the people face, but they give the impression of a solution by relieving the people of the responsibility of muddling through. Trump would “solve” our current problems by giving us new and unprecedented ones to worry about.
Daniel Mendelsohn said several years ago that Cavafy’s poem was relevant to the political stalemate then engulfing Washington. Mendelsohn’s views are highly relevant to this year’s presidential election, and I commend them highly to you. Here’s an excerpt:
Those whom the poet does judge—and judge harshly—are leaders who abdicate their responsibilities, to principle and to their people. Cavafy had little patience for those whose self-interest (and, often, self-satisfaction) lead them to dangerous delusions. … The cardinal sins in Cavafy’s vision of history and politics are complacency, smugness, and a solipsistic inability to see the big picture.
Inaction, of course, can be as destructive as ill-advised action. This is why the aimless standing around and waiting that Cavafy so brilliantly evokes in “Waiting for the Barbarians” is so contemptible. The vigor of the leaders, the effectiveness of their oratory, the political will of the citizens have been so atrophied by indolence and luxury and complacency that they can only hope for disaster as a means of renewing the state. Depending on your politics, you may be tempted to map the current political crisis onto “Waiting for the Barbarians” in any number of ways: Are the barbarians the Democrats or the Republicans? Is the “emperor” Obama or Boehner—or Reid? To Cavafy, those details would have been of little interest. The point was that these things happen again and again, and that whatever else they may mean, they are always, always tests of character—for individual politicians and for whole nations. It is even—or rather, especially—when the barbarians (whoever they are) are at the gates, when crisis is inevitable or even imminent, that right action is the only option, whether or not it’s likely to succeed. Even in politics, it’s the journey that counts, not just the destination.
See Charles Murray’s take on Trump, in which he says that his rise is not an example of working-class vituperation, but is actually rational, given how much the working class has suffered. Murray says that the cultural inegalitarianism we’re living with is without precedent:
Another characteristic of the new upper class—and something new under the American sun—is their easy acceptance of being members of an upper class and their condescension toward ordinary Americans. Try using “redneck” in a conversation with your highly educated friends and see if it triggers any of the nervousness that accompanies other ethnic slurs. Refer to “flyover country” and consider the implications when no one asks, “What does that mean?” Or I can send you to chat with a friend in Washington, D.C., who bought a weekend place in West Virginia. He will tell you about the contempt for his new neighbors that he has encountered in the elite precincts of the nation’s capital.
For its part, mainstream America is fully aware of this condescension and contempt and is understandably irritated by it. American egalitarianism is on its last legs.
In the 1960s, Murray says, most white men of the working class were married and had jobs:
Then things started to change. For white working-class men in their 30s and 40s—what should be the prime decades for working and raising a family—participation in the labor force dropped from 96% in 1968 to 79% in 2015. Over that same period, the portion of these men who were married dropped from 86% to 52%. (The numbers for nonwhite working-class males show declines as well, though not as steep and not as continuous.)
These are stunning changes, and they are visible across the country. In today’s average white working-class neighborhood, about one out of five men in the prime of life isn’t even looking for work; they are living off girlfriends, siblings or parents, on disability, or else subsisting on off-the-books or criminal income. Almost half aren’t married, with all the collateral social problems that go with large numbers of unattached males.
In these communities, about half the children are born to unmarried women, with all the problems that go with growing up without fathers, especially for boys. Drugs also have become a major problem, in small towns as well as in urban areas.
Murray says that is undeniable that racism and xenophobia informs a part of Trumpism. If you think that’s all it is, though, you’re missing the forest for the trees:
But the central truth of Trumpism as a phenomenon is that the entire American working class has legitimate reasons to be angry at the ruling class. During the past half-century of economic growth, virtually none of the rewards have gone to the working class. The economists can supply caveats and refinements to that statement, but the bottom line is stark: The real family income of people in the bottom half of the income distribution hasn’t increased since the late 1960s.
During the same half-century, American corporations exported millions of manufacturing jobs, which were among the best-paying working-class jobs. They were and are predominantly men’s jobs. In both 1968 and 2015, 70% of manufacturing jobs were held by males.
I don’t fully agree with Murray. He’s a libertarian, and quite possibly for that reason dismisses cultural factors leading to working class decline (e.g., the loss of strong communal norms and expectations post-1960s). He also can’t bring himself to violate other libertarian orthodoxies about how government policy could ameliorate the living conditions of that beleaguered working class. David Frum addresses all this in his long negative review of Murray’s book about the decline of the white working class.
Still, don’t miss the broader point: Trumpism may be crazy, but it’s by no means irrational. I don’t think it’s at all irrational either to be deeply concerned about what a strongman like Trump would mean for our country. Me, I think that we face the same problem with Trumpism that we face with Black Lives Matter: not allowing the intolerant, illiberal extremism of the leaders and some of the followers distract us from the fact that both phenomena arise out of real and legitimate grievances.