I’ve been blogging a lot here about the white working class and its travails, with reference to Donald Trump’s candidacy. I’ve generally taken the line that however wrong they might be to vote for Trump, and to think that he will do anything for them, their alienation and their instincts ought to be at least understandable, given how things have gone for them, in general, in this country over the last generation.
I want to put up a caution, though. We must not think of the poor and the working class, of whatever race, in the abstract. To regard them mere objects of pity is as mistaken as regarding them as mere objects of scorn. That is, to see them as in no way responsible for their fate is the flip side of seeing them as entirely responsible. It is truly despairing to tell a man that he has no agency to change his life, that he is stuck without hope. It is also, in most cases, a lie, and a seductive lie.
We on the other side of the class divide may look at poor people — white, black, Hispanic, whatever — and tell ourselves that they got what they deserve; this serves the purpose of relieving us of any sense of responsibility to help. Or, we may look at them and tell ourselves that they are innocent victims; this serves the purpose of relieving them of any sense of responsibility for their own lives. Both instances rob both them and us of human dignity.
It’s simply a fact that some people can’t be effectively helped, because their way of life is so destructive, and self-destructive, that they will always be poor, chaotic, and miserable. An extreme example is the White clan of mountainous West Virginia, who were the subject of a documentary a few years back (trailer here). They are so outrageous and dysfunctional that they make the average Jerry Springer Show episode look like the Congress of Vienna. The movie was produced by the people who brought us Jackass, and that makes it kind of a celebration of these crazy hill people and their rebel lives. The Whites keep it real, 24/7.
The thing is, there is nothing beautiful or dignified about their lives. It’s nothing but chaos, drug and alcohol abuse, broken marriages, poverty, law-breaking, and violence, always violence. They are a threat to their neighbors, and a threat to themselves. A more anti-social family you can hardly imagine. There’s a point in the movie in which one of the clan looks around at the disaster of their collective life, and wonders how in the world it got to be that way. And you, the viewer, may be thinking, “Are you serious? Nobody could live the way you people do and expect anything else.”
All the welfare money and job training in the world cannot overcome what cripples the Whites. It’s an intergenerational culture of poverty — or rather, an intergenerational culture that guarantees poverty for anyone who stays within it. You may well pity the Whites for being so lost — and are they ever; God help the child born into that mess — but when it comes to considering justice for people like that, you would be hard pressed to imagine any other outcome for them, given the way they choose to live.
Granted, the Whites are an extreme case, but they do raise the question: What is a just society? What does a just society owe to people like the Whites? A basic income so they don’t starve, certainly. The opportunity to escape their degradation. But you cannot compel people to change. It is hard to look at the White family and think of their fate as society’s failure. Again, that is not to say that we, as a society, should not try our best to help them. It is to say, though, that their failure to thrive is largely their own fault, and that they will never change anything for them until and unless they change the way they live.
It’s easy for middle-class people and above to look at the very poor, and the nearly-poor, as a Rohrshach test, failing to see the complexity of their lives. For many of us on the other side of the class divide, they are either 100 percent victims of society, or 100 percent to blame for their own misery. But this is rarely the case in real life.
I used to know a guy I’ll call Bobby. White guy. Working-class family. Hard childhood. We all went to the same school. I didn’t know Bobby that well, but I knew him well enough to know that he had it rough at home. His dad was the kind of man who drank and blamed rich people for all his problems. But Bobby was also smart. Problem is, he had a habit of feeling sorry for himself. I know this because I would hear our teachers over the years tell him that he really could do better, and offer to help him. Bobby got really good at giving excuses for why he couldn’t change, why the world was stacked against him.
I haven’t seen Bobby for many years. He doesn’t live in our town anymore. Last I heard, he was barely making it. If he’s anything today like he was back then, he’s still believing that the world has it in for him. To be fair, I don’t know precisely what has happened to him since school days. Maybe he really has been the victim of unjust circumstances. I’m thinking of him this morning, though, because in retrospect, you could see that his personal culture, the one handed on to him by his parents, has been a tremendous burden to him. His parents crippled his imagination. I would not be surprised if Bobby had turned into his dad, and sabotaged his future.
Now, it is true that there aren’t as many opportunities for good working-class jobs around here today as there were when we were kids. But they are still there. Is it Washington’s fault that Bobby suffers? Maybe, to some degree. On the other hand, what responsibility do Bobby’s parents have in what their son became? What responsibility did, and does, Bobby have?
Friends of mine who teach in public schools that have a lot of poor kids in them tell bleak stories, stories that don’t have a lot of hope. The kids see no natural connection between their worldview and their practices — I mean, how they see the world and how they live in the world — and their ultimate fate. They believe, generally speaking, that everything is rigged. They and their parents — or more often than not, parent — are sabotaging their own future by training them to see the world as random, chaotic, and disordered, and to believe that an ordered life has no natural connection to stability and prosperity. It’s very, very hard to break that illusion, I’m told.
Anyway, I just wanted to bring some balance to the Trumpsplaining. Go back and take a look at two Julian Sanchez posts from 2009, about Palin, conservatism, and the politics of ressentiment (resentment). Excerpts from the first post:
Ressentiment is a sense of resentment and hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, an assignation of blame for one’s frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the “cause” generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one’s frustration. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability.
The elevation of figures like Palin represents an attempt to reappropriate an oppressive stereotype, akin to the way some hip-hop embraces a caricaturish racist vision of violent black masculinity. To be sure, most of what gets cast as “oppression” here is just the decline of privilege, but the perception is what matters for the social dynamic.
Ultimately, this is a doomed project: Even if conservatives retook power, they wouldn’t be able to provide a political solution to a psychological problem, assuming they’re not willing to go the Pol Pot route. At the same time, it signals a resignation to impotence on the cultural front where the real conflict lies. It effectively says: We cede to the bogeyman cultural elites the power of stereotypical definition, so becoming the stereotype more fully and grotesquely is our only means of empowerment.
Hence Trump. You people think we’re trashy anyway? OK, we’ll show you — we’ll be who you think we are. Excerpts from the follow-up post:
As for the specific claim that the populist right is currently animated by ressentiment, I don’t think this is a matter of excavating hidden drives from the subconscious; I’m talking about what’s right out in the open. In fact, I want to suggest we need to read a lot of our current political rhetoric more literally and less symbolically. When Fox anchors make fun of Barack Obama’s choice of fancy dijon mustards, or the way he pronounces “Pakistan,” or say he’s “apologizing for America,” we naturally read these as coded claims about something else—as implying effeminacy and insufficient toughness for a commander-in-chief, or a class divide that shows he’s out of touch the concerns of ordinary workers, or an inability to project strength in foreign affairs. I want to suggest that we take them absolutely literally: This guy eats different mustard than you do, pronounces words differently than you do, and doesn’t share your affection for national symbols. The coded meaning is actually a red herring—it’s just there to obscure the fact that the surface message is the one that matters.
We don’t need to do some kind of probing psychoanalysis, because this stuff isn’t subtext; it’s text. Remember Palin’s infamous “death panels” post? It wasn’t just a claim that the government would deny care; the fear was that this was Obama’s “death panels” getting to decide how worthy you are. Liberals treated it as a generic argument about “rationing,” but by its own terms it was an argument about being judged. Conservatives’ favorite photo of Obama has him with his nose in the air looking down on the hoi polloi, testifying to his purported arrogance. Then the outrage over a strained reading of an Obama remark about “putting lipstick on a pig”: He’s calling Sarah (and therefore you!) a pig! The message is pretty insistent: They think they’re better than you. It’s not, again, that I’m asking why people hold certain policy views and concluding that it’s really about this kind of cultural resentment. I’m asking why the political coalition organized around this set of views is putting so much emphasis on this frame, and whether it isn’t ultimately a bad idea to.
Maybe because I write a lot about technology and media, I’m biased toward an account of where this is coming from that stresses those changes. When people want to talk about how television changed politics, they invariably cite the Kennedy/Nixon debate, where folks who heard it on the radio thought Nixon won, but those who watched it favored Kennedy. The effect of a media form, however, may depend significantly on the degree of media saturation: We don’t just see the official debate and a few news clips in the months before the election. We see national political figures constantly—and maybe we’re even Facebook friends or Twitter followers. And when they appear for those big-ticket events, we’re often networked with fellow-travelers in realtime dissecting every gesture and expression. It seems to be offline now, but recall Jon Chait’s New Republic piece about hating George Bush? That smirk! That swagger! The way he mangles English! The visible and audible signifiers of group membership loom much larger. At the same time,demographic clustering is probably increasing the correlation between political ideology and these other cultural markers.
It’s a bit of a truism that new transit technologies always have their greatest transformative effect on those who were previously at the periphery. If you sat in on the media and tech forums at the last CPAC, this was a source of great excitement: Liberal elites used to hold all the levers of media power, and the great boon of the Internet for the right is that they now have a way of bypassing Hollywood and New York. So no big surprise that a lot of what’s initially released will be tinged with previously suppressed resentment aboutnot having that media power, about being immersed in an alien-seeming media stream where the image of who’s glamorous or cool or important or serious doesn’t match your friends, and the admissible moves in the public conversation don’t sound like your conversations. People have read racial undertones into the rallying cry “I want my country back!” and its cognates—probably because this is a strange way to present opposition to a policy agenda, however misguided you might find it. The instinct is right, but I think the conclusion is wrong: Race—and communism, as Tim Curry would remind us—is another red herring. What we’re seeing is the natural sentiment of people who think of themselves as quintessentially American looking at an American popular and public culture that presents them as marginal. Palin or Joe the Plumber reintroduce to politics the promise of reality television: You too can be a celebrity—if not personally, at least by proxy!
Donald Trump is a reality show presidential candidate.
What’s so difficult about all this is that the Trump phenomenon is speaking to real, legitimate grievances, but at the same time is working the politics of ressentiment. How do you discern one from the other? The Republican Party elites have preferred to think of Trumpism as being only about ressentiment, because that delegitimizes it. I think this is a mistake. But it is also a mistake to make it only about the white working class and threatened middle classes finding their voice, and demanding reform. People generally don’t get passionate about politicians on rational grounds. They respond to the story the politician embodies. Barack Obama’s story was irresistible to many Americans in 2008. The Trump narrative is too, for many Americans, in 2016. The left, in particular, never can seem to grasp that cultural identity matters just as much to white working class people as it does to gays, to racial minorities, and other demographic groups that they favor. When people feel dispossessed, throwing more money at them, and treating them as if they were nothing but materialists who would feel differently if only they had better jobs, does not address the problem.
Trying to figure out when to say to Trumpism, “yes, you’re right, we have to change,” and “no, you’re wrong, get over yourselves” is at bottom a question of social justice. And that, in turn, is a question of the common good. Our problem in this country is that we have no real conception anymore of the common good.