Did John Updike Foresee the Trump Era?
It’s been more than a quarter-century since Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the protagonist of John Updike’s sweeping quartet of middle-class life in America, died in the final novel of the series, Rabbit at Rest. In Rabbit, Updike presented an everyman who inelegantly navigated the political, social, and economic coordinates of his time. The glance of a newspaper headline, an overheard song on the radio, the survey of a changing neighborhood—these were the plot elements that directed Rabbit’s dysfunctional march into modern time. Revisiting Updike’s Rabbit novels is a rendezvous with prescience, for no collection of postwar fiction could help us better understand how working-class populism—in the form of Donald Trump—prevailed on Election Day 2016.
In the course of four decades (1959–1989), we read how Rabbit travels through life in a fictionalized Brewer (Reading), Pa. We view him as a jaded ex-high school basketball star, an instigator of dysfunction, an inheritor bound for excess, and finally, a middle-aged man overcome with nostalgia. Rabbit’s life parallels the political and social milieu of postwar America, whether it’s rebellion against conformity in the 1950s (Rabbit, Run), racial conflict and cultural anarchy in the 1960s (Rabbit Redux), financial excess in the late 1970s (Rabbit Is Rich), or uncertainty about the country’s future in the late 1980s (Rabbit at Rest).
We learn how Rabbit’s political thoughts evolve throughout Updike’s tetralogy, a time capsule of how Americans responded to the current events of their time. Rabbit and his Diamond (Berks) County ilk are conservative Democrats, products of the New Deal who support entitlements, defend Vietnam, possess an unbending patriotism, question their country’s economic future, and nurture a working-class intuition. “I’m a conservative,” Rabbit proclaims in Rabbit Redux. “I voted for Hubert Humphrey.”
Although Rabbit supported Humphrey in 1968, he later has a “Reagan Democrat” conversion, voting for George H.W. Bush in the final novel. If anything, he’s the fictional embodiment of a political prototype, a cross-party coalition infuriated by the loss of what communities like Brewer once symbolized: economic prosperity and a shot at a stable middle-class American life. The Rabbit novels could serve as the fictional companion to any social-policy book by Charles Murray. The realism of Updike’s characters and plot lines is a tribute to Updike’s understanding of this durable voting bloc, one that determined Hillary Clinton’s fate.
Updike’s insight stems from his childhood, rather than some removed anthropological immersion. A native son of Berks County, Updike was the prodigy of a region he fondly profiled throughout his literary work. As Adam Begley wrote in his biography of Updike, he was “very much preoccupied with Berks County (Plowville, Shillington, Reading), both in his stories and in his novels; it’s not too much of a stretch to say that he lived there most mornings.” Updike’s knowledge produced not only groundbreaking fiction, but an accurate portrayal of his home base.
A short drive from Philadelphia, Berks County is a magnificent vista of sprawling lowland underlain by rich soil and limestone. Its valleys contain meandering streams, tributaries of the Schuylkill River, once a canal system that delivered anthracite coal from the state’s northeastern cities and towns to Philadelphia. The broad line of the Blue Mountain ridge is a constant presence, while gently sloping hills bound the county’s southern tier.
The urban focal point is Reading, the county seat and Pennsylvania’s fifth largest city. From a distance, the city is an impressive layout of turreted row homes and Romanesque churches, their colorful brick and stonework amplified or shadowed by Mount Penn. In the city’s center is the courthouse, an Art Deco structure strikingly reminiscent of Los Angeles City Hall. A bridge on Reading’s Penn Street links the downtown to its leafy suburbs, towns like Wyomissing or West Reading that could easily blend in to New York’s Westchester County.
Berks County is also the cultural pulse of the Pennsylvania Dutch, a group of German-speaking immigrants who settled in the south-central and eastern portions of William Penn’s colony in the early 18th century. They settled not only in farming communities, but also Reading, which was far more ethnically homogenous and Protestant compared to most urban centers. The passage of time never diluted their heritage, a tenacious combination of conservatism, family tradition, geographical contentment, and Protestant sensibility. As a political force, they tended to deliver the county to Republican candidates at the presidential level, while supporting Democratic candidates for lower offices. Their support for labor often resulted in perplexing electoral outcomes. During the Depression, Reading was the nation’s only city whose council was completely controlled by the Socialist party.
It’s upon closer inspection that one can discern the socioeconomic dynamics of Updike’s literary protectorate. Reading’s impressive architecture fails to conceal the city’s many challenges, from strained municipal resources and corrosive blight to rampant crime and drug use. Once a hub for railroads and textiles, Reading now confronts the realities of urban decline. During Updike’s youth, flashing theater marquees, lively nightclubs, and bustling hotels defined “The Pretzel City.” But this reputation had faded when Updike described his hometown in the 1970s and 1980s. By 2011, Reading earned the unfortunate distinction of being the country’s poorest city, with U.S. Census Bureau data showing the population of 88,000 having the largest share of residents living in poverty.
A few weeks before the election, the Wall Street Journal’s Bob Davis and Gary Fields profiled Berks County’s fraying social institutions in their “Great Unraveling” series. They noted the county’s 30 percent decline in manufacturing jobs, compounded by a 6 percent decrease in inflation-adjusted median income since 1995. They also noted the changing demographics, with Latinos comprising a majority of Reading’s population and the white working class moving into its sprawling suburbs.
In April, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders carried Berks County in their respective party’s primaries. At a Sanders rally in Reading before the primary, a New York Times reporter asked a retired steel worker whom he’d support in a Trump-Clinton matchup. He responded, “I would probably go for Donald Trump.” A drive along Interstate 78 in the succeeding months clearly signified where the county’s political preference was heading. Countless Trump signs adorned the barns and equipment of farms lining the highway. Trump ultimately won Berks County, significantly outperforming Romney’s victory in 2012 and nearly reaching Barack Obama’s winning margin in 2008.
If Updike’s novels taught us anything, it’s that the Trump coalition is the consequence of the budding frustrations found in the Rabbit novels. The problems that Rabbit encountered were decades in the making. As a political force, their populist strand just happened to reach its explosive point at the polls this November. They represent an economic bracket burdened by financial insecurity, negatively impacted by trade deals, and resentful over current immigration policies. They’re also voters, like Rabbit, who still constitute the largest demographic group in the U.S. But as David Frum wrote earlier this year, this group of “noncollege-educated people of European descent, are not only earning less than a generation ago, they are marrying less, raising more children outside marriage, taking more drugs, and dying earlier.”
In places like Berks County, Trump’s supporters personified a labor movement, comprising Democrats and Republicans who were devoid of ideology and believed Hillary represented the policymakers who eroded the state’s working class. They’re voters who drive through their hometowns, see the structural carcasses that housed steel mills and textile factories, and lament the shuttered churches and dilapidated homes that once provided spiritual and physical shelter for their ancestors. They’re witnesses to how communities like Reading have suffered from decades of job loss and rising poverty. They’re the reason Trump became the first Republican to win Pennsylvania since 1988.
Updike passed away only a week after Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration in 2009. The author’s departure from this world, where he sought to “give the mundane its beautiful due,” robbed him from observing the economic tumult, technological change, and political gridlock that ultimately led to Trump’s presidential victory. We’re left wondering how this chronicler of post-industrial America would interpret the Obama years and the subsequent populist revolt. Would Updike have created a fictional character, like Rabbit, who would listlessly traverse the unrepentant speed of automation and globalization, and the resulting erosion of working class life? In a year of unforeseen events and surprising political developments, this time Rabbit’s fellow Pennsylvanians didn’t run—they voted.
Charles F. McElwee III works in the government affairs sector in Harrisburg.