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Sneering at the Yokels in the Age of Trump

Joel Stein, who wrote his In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better Than You and You’re Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book with large amounts of snark and small amounts of irony,recently visited NPR to explain to listeners why they are superior to people in red states. Stein averred that the election of Donald Trump left him “very, very, like, legitimately scared.” Why? Because it not only meant the possibility of nuclear war, but even more damningly the fear “that globalization was going to end.”

Visiting the heart of Trump country, Stein discovered that the people there exactly matched his disdainful preconceptions of them. Pretty much all they do is fight. “Dignity is their most valuable nonboat possession,” he said. “If their girlfriend gets insulted, they fight. If their friend gets in a fight, they fight. If their fighting ability is questioned, they fight. When they get cut off, they honk. Then they yell at the other driver to get out of their car and fight.”

Why are they so angry? Because their inability to adjust to the wonders of the modern world, by which Stein means the wonders of globalization that have occurred since 1985, has left them fearful. Trapped in the time warp of wistfully watching “The Andy Griffith Show,” the scared denizens of red America naturally recur to racism, sexism, and nativism as ways of shoring up their declining power. As a result, they put incompetents such as Trump in charge, instead of the intelligentsia who alone can be expected to run things well. The ingrates have no respect for their superiors.

Closer to home, Sam Tanenhaus left his New York digs to study conservative Midwesterners in their native environment, and reported his findings back to the intellectual elite via an article last year in Vanity Fair. (Disclosure: Tanenhaus came to Hope College, where I am a professor, for three days at my invitation and my expense.) Tanenhaus’s essay on siblings Betsy DeVos and Erik Prince references the rise of Donald Trump as both “brutish” and a “threat” to America. Behind this unwelcome development sit the DeVos and Prince families, “the Medicis of Michigan.” One doesn’t know exactly what Tanenhaus thinks of the Medicis but one suspects his remark is not a compliment, the operative assumption seeming to be that the Medicis were responsible for the fall of the Florentine Republic just as the DeVoses and Princes will be for the American Republic. 

Tanenhaus referred to the Prince siblings as “strong featured and blond,” thus saving the editors the trouble of striking the more obvious “aryan,” even if his accusation remains quite clear. Like Stein, Tanenhaus sees us as living in a past he has happily discarded, which he alludes to when he refers to Holland, Michigan, as a “1950’s time capsule of Candy Land façades.” Neither do I know what Tanenhaus thinks of the game Candyland, but one suspects again this is not a compliment. The façade over the 1950s time capsule is hiding…what? Tanenhaus points out in the previous paragraph that the only time a majority of the area’s citizens voted for a Democrat, it was against (his emphasis) Abraham Lincoln. His accusation is pretty clear.

Just as in Renaissance Florence, where powerful families married their offspring for political advantage, so in West Michigan do the DeVoses and Princes marry off their eldest children to form an alliance for the purpose of “advancing the revolution.” The young Betsy Prince cleverly found herself in the “gilded lap of the super-rich” and soon dwelled in the “snobbish heights of Grand Rapids”—a facetious qualifier sure to draw a chuckle from Tanenhaus’s New York readers.  And what is the revolution? Since Betsy DeVos, according to Tanenhaus, doesn’t believe in civil society—a claim he presents without evidence except on the “authority” of one of her critics—she desires to gut government of all its functional offices, destroy good things such as labor unions, and leave the individual on his or her own in a libertarian paradise with Hillsdale College as its intellectual center. 

Tanenhaus tellingly draws attention to the fact that people refer to this area as “West Michigan” (not Western Michigan), and this too is part of a façade that is reflected back in the “West Michigan nice” of Betsy DeVos, which in turn masks a “sense of entitlement commingled with Calvinist certitude.” With a little bit of research and reflection, Tanenhaus would have realized that the term “West Michigan” derives from the specific usage structures of the Dutch language and not “a separate state of mind” that results from a toxic combination “of arrogance and piety.” Even then, why not simply accept the term as a delightful example of local usage and thus the rich diversity and variety of American life? 

Like the Medicis, the DeVoses and Princes are principally warriors. In this case, however, they are waging a war against their own country and people, as manifest in Ms. DeVos’s battling the public school system. Tanenhaus asserts that DeVos “defies the long-established principles of public education” without articulating what these principles are, whether they still operate effectively in our current environment, whether they are defensible, or how she defies them. What he does seem to believe, however, is that they are incontestable. 

With a minimal amount of serious journalistic research, Tanenhaus could have corrected many of the factual errors in his essay. For example, he notes that when the Prince corporation sold for $1.3 billion, Erik Prince “now had a sizable inheritance.” Tanenhaus could easily have discovered that, after taxes were paid on the sale, $380 million of it was disbursed among the 4,500 employees, many of them receiving six figure bonus checks. Nor does he offer evidence that any of the Prince children received any funds from that sale.

Tanenhaus and Stein seem oblivious to how their writings contribute to polarization and the rise of politicians such as Trump. If Tanenenhaus wants to write a serious piece about us and our region, he’d avoid observing that “the Michigan heartland” is “angry, even truculent.” Instead he’d note that we reasonably don’t want decision-makers in faraway places telling us how to live and then resenting us for not accepting their superior wisdom. 

He might instead model his reporting on the sympathetic essay about another Dutch enclave, “Where the Small-town American Dream Lives On,” written by Larissa McFarquhar in The New Yorker. Orange City, Iowa, the subject of her essay, bears many similarities to Holland, right down to its Dutch roots, Tulip Festival, and Reformed College in the center of town. McFarquhar’s reporting has none of the smugness of the other two authors; instead she sympathetically engages the place and its people, admiring them for what they do well and not dismissing them for what they do differently. She respects their self-perception as an intrinsic part of the rich and meaningful lives they have created for themselves, thus respecting the variety that constitutes a healthy America. Every person with whom I shared her essay admired her skill and sympathy.

Maybe even more dramatically, there is the wonderful episode of “Parts Unknown” where the late, lamented Anthony Bourdain decided to leave the comfort of his upper-class New York domicile to visit the heart of Trump country. It’s a remarkable piece of television, in part because Bourdain had a remarkable gift for entering the world of the places he visited—with food being the focal point. Mainly, Bourdain understood that people love their places, caring both for them and for the people who live there. As with a spouse: you don’t love it because it’s perfect, you love it because it’s yours. 

Unlike Stein and Tanenhaus who have contempt for places that don’t keep up with the times, Bourdain understands that “the times” have not been friendly to some people. As one interviewee in the show says: “The traditions in this place, the things that we value—whether that be family, interpersonal communication, not having cellphone technology to distract us—those type of things sort of butt up against America’s idea of progress, and it’s why we’ve always been looked at as being backwards.” 

Bourdain allowed his hatred of Trump to be an invitation for his understanding rather than his scorn, which he accomplished by taking on the virtues of a guest. “Here, in the heart of every belief system I’ve mocked or fought against, I was welcomed with open arms by everybody,” he said. He came to understand those who have suffered the costs of exploitation while people on the coasts enjoy the benefits. Instead of offering advice, he listened and broke bread with the locals, admiring and perhaps even envying their sincere prayers to the God he doesn’t believe in. 

Reporters from the coasts might want, when coming to our parts of the country, to consider getting out of their designer pumps and walking in our work shoes rather than mocking us. They might want to consider appreciating our rock-ribbed conservatism that seeks to preserve what we love against their dreams of progress and globalization. That kind of diversity will make for a better America than the kind they’re always yattering about.

Dr. Jeff Polet is professor of political science at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He is the author of works in American political thought, contemporary European political thought, religion and politics, and constitutional law. He also helps direct the academic program for The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. 

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