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Populism And The Great Flood

I’m going to try one more time to express what I think the Louisiana flood and the response of our national media and national politicians (meaning Trump, Clinton, Obama) say about the state of the nation. I note here the news that came late this afternoon: that President Obama will finally visit us on Tuesday, after the end of his vacation.

He will be fortunate if he is not booed. He had better have his advance people find a guaranteed friendly audience. Had he come down any day this week, he would not have been booed. I hope he is not booed next week. But I’m telling you now, don’t be surprised if he is. And no, it will have nothing to do with his race, or his political liberalism, though I am sure that’s what the media and the liberal commentariat will claim. It will have everything to do with the fact that he wouldn’t leave the golf course while the people of Louisiana were overwhelmed by this flood that put 40,000 people out of their houses, and left those houses in ruins.

To put that number in terms Obama can understand: it’s as if four times the number of households in Martha’s Vineyard [1] were destroyed. Or if 10,000 more households than there are in Cleveland Park [2], the upscale district of Northwest Washington DC, were ruined. Or if slightly more than two times the number of households in Takoma Park, Md. [3] (“a nuclear-free zone”), were obliterated. Or if roughly the entire population of Berkeley, Calif., suddenly found itself homeless. [4]

If Berkeley were wiped off the map, even with almost no loss of life, don’t you think the national networks would have been all over it from the beginning? Don’t you think the president would have found a way to get there, ASAP? Of course they would have, and of course he would have. Come on, don’t make me laugh.

A couple of weeks ago, Peggy Noonan wrote a really good column capturing the current mood. It was titled, “How Global Elites Forsake Their Countrymen.” [5]Excerpts:

The larger point is that this is something we are seeing all over, the top detaching itself from the bottom, feeling little loyalty to it or affiliation with it. It is a theme I see working its way throughout the West’s power centers. At its heart it is not only a detachment from, but a lack of interest in, the lives of your countrymen, of those who are not at the table, and who understand that they’ve been abandoned by their leaders’ selfishness and mad virtue-signalling.

On Wall Street, where they used to make statesmen, they now barely make citizens. CEOs are consumed with short-term thinking, stock prices, quarterly profits. They don’t really believe that they have to be involved with “America” now; they see their job as thinking globally and meeting shareholder expectations.

In Silicon Valley the idea of “the national interest” is not much discussed. They adhere to higher, more abstract, more global values. They’re not about America, they’re about . . . well, I suppose they’d say the future.


In Hollywood the wealthy protect their own children from cultural decay, from the sick images they create for all the screens, but they don’t mind if poor, unparented children from broken-up families get those messages and, in the way of things, act on them down the road.

From what I’ve seen of those in power throughout business and politics now, the people of your country are not your countrymen, they’re aliens whose bizarre emotions you must attempt occasionally to anticipate and manage.




Affluence detaches, power adds distance to experience. I don’t have it fully right in my mind but something big is happening here with this division between the leaders and the led. It is very much a feature of our age. But it is odd that our elites have abandoned or are abandoning the idea that they belong to a country, that they have ties that bring responsibilities, that they should feel loyalty to their people or, at the very least, a grounded respect.

Read the whole thing. [5]

In my earlier “Trump On The Bayou” [6]post, I wrote that Trump’s visit to Louisiana today showed us respect — and that that meant a lot.  I am one of those conservatives who finds great fault with Trump, and who is not going to vote for him (or for Hillary), but who credits him with two things: 1) putting certain issues that the elites of both parties ignore on the map, and 2) all but destroying the Republican Party.

I quit calling myself a Republican after being infuriated by what George W. Bush’s handling of Katrina said about the GOP (meaning outrage that even after 9/11, the man Bush put in charge of FEMA was a political hack). That caused the levee to break inside, releasing a torrent of doubt and disgust with Bush and the GOP over Iraq. It was self-disgust too, because I had allowed myself to believe them, and to support the war.

I did not call myself a Democrat because I am not a liberal, for one thing, and for another, because the problems with the Republican Party do not correspondingly make the Democratic Party good. When the financial crash happened on Bush’s watch, a lot of people were very quick to blame him and the Republicans, and that was fair. But it was only partially fair. The deregulation of Wall Street that led to the crash was a project of the Congressional Republicans (chiefly Sen. Phil Gramm) and Bill Clinton. [7] There’s a reason why Hillary Clinton is totally mobbed up with Wall Street, in a way Donald Trump will never be.

I have never been an Obama-basher, even though I didn’t vote for him either time. (I wrote in Wendell Berry as a protest in ’08, and didn’t vote for president in ’12 — not acts of political virtue, given that the Republican was guaranteed to win the states I lived in at the time). Obama has been a better president than I expected him to be, overall, and heaven knows the Congressional Republicans have far too rarely made one sorry that the GOP doesn’t have the White House.

I say all this to let you know that even though I’m a conservative, I don’t have much faith in politicians of the right, or the left. In fact, it’s hard to think of a major institution in American life that I do trust at the institutional level — not even the church, even though I am a devout and practicing traditional Christian. I wanted Trump to be a game-changer, and he has certainly been that, but again, the mediocrity and awfulness of the GOP and the Democrats don’t make Donald Trump into our political savior. He’s not. Once again, I don’t expect to cast a vote in a presidential election. I have no confidence in any of them.

I’m not asking you to share my dispiritedness. I’m just telling you where I’m coming from. But I digress.

So, let’s return to the quoted material from Peggy Noonan, especially this:

From what I’ve seen of those in power throughout business and politics now, the people of your country are not your countrymen, they’re aliens whose bizarre emotions you must attempt occasionally to anticipate and manage.

In that light, consider how people here in Louisiana would interpret the fact that on Tuesday, while local rescuers were still pulling people off of roofs, and after a long, hot weekend that stretched law enforcement in the city and region to the max (half of BRPD officers lost their houses to the flood), the Obama Administration issued a memo telling Louisiana agencies that we had better not be racist [8] in providing disaster assistance. The administration says in the memo that there is ample evidence from Katrina, Rita, and disasters elsewhere that agencies at the local level discriminated against minorities.

If true — and I assume it is — the administration is right to be watching out for this. It shouldn’t have happened, and it must not happen again. But man! After spending a day in a shelter and around the city watching local law enforcement, the National Guard, and others busting their butts to help people of all races, to see that memo made me furious. It’s like, Is that really what you think of us? That we’re just a bunch of rednecks dying to discriminate? 

It’s like: The people of your Louisiana are not our countrymen, they’re aliens whose bizarre emotions we must attempt occasionally to anticipate and manage.

In a Wednesday post, I looked at themes in the collected tweets of Obama, Clinton, and Trump since the floods started on Friday. [9] If all the houses and businesses of Berkeley, Calif., had been washed away in a tsunami, would President Obama not have troubled himself to make a public appearance to talk about what happened? Wouldn’t his staff at least have tweeted out a semblance of sympathy? His staff, in his name, put out 14 tweets in that period of time. They were about:

Climate change: 2

Judge Merrick Garland: 5

DREAM Act (for immigrants): 1

Paid family leave: 1

Vehicle emission standards: 2

Gun violence: 3

Louisiana floods: 0

Obama doesn’t manage his Twitter feed personally. I get that. But he surrounds himself with people who didn’t see us. Nor did he see us. Not really. And this was noticed.

If all of Takoma Park burned to the ground in two days, wouldn’t Hillary Clinton’s staff cared enough to tweet about it? Of 84 tweets she and her staff put out in her name in that same time period, exactly one had to do with the Louisiana flood (in it, she recommended that people donate to the Red Cross). She tweeted congratulations to US women Olympians three times, and tweeted out about immigration seven times.

As for Trump, it was what you would imagine. Nothing about Louisiana’s floods, but ten of his 35 tweets in that time period were him whining about how unfair the media are to him.

Look, I get it: social media is not real life.  [10] The real work of rescue and recovery was and is being done at the local level. Yay, little platoons! But what presidential candidates talk about, on social media, on TV, and in their speeches, reflects their priorities, political and otherwise.

… At its heart it is not only a detachment from, but a lack of interest in, the lives of your countrymen, of those who are not at the table, and who understand that they’ve been abandoned by their leaders’ selfishness and mad virtue-signalling….


Mad virtue signaling. You can just see the Hillary social media staff thinking, “Let’s tweet about female Olympians to show that Hillary really cares about women’s empowerment.” At least with Trump and his signaling (vice-signaling?) there is no real pretense of interest in the lives of his countrymen, except insofar as he can see his own reflection in them.

But: Trump got to Louisiana before Obama or Clinton. And in so doing, he struck a chord resonating profoundly with the emotional and political climate of the moment. The president is coming down on Tuesday, but he’s missed his moment. Trump got here first. When Obama arrives, the thing a lot of people will be thinking is, “You’re the President of the United States. What took you so long? How come you let Trump beat you here?” As for Hillary, forget about it.

The Baton Rouge Advocate is not a particularly conservative newspaper, ideologically speaking, but it is temperamentally very conservative. Today, unusually,  it hit Obama with a second editorial today, denouncing his absence. [11] Excerpt:

After Hurricane Betsy ravaged Louisiana in 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson flew to New Orleans to comfort the victims. Standing in one evacuee shelter darkened by an electrical outage, LBJ shined a flashlight into his face so that his fellow Americans could see the leader of the free world who had come to bring them hope. Speaking into a megaphone, he offered encouragement to residents who had lost everything.

“My name is Lyndon Baines Johnson,” he told weary listeners. “I am your president. I am here to make sure you have the help you need.”

Those were the days. Then again, LBJ grew up in rural Texas.

Here is the world Obama and Hillary live in. [12] It’s a link to a pathetic column by an SJW turning the flood into a chance to beat his own, um, dead horses. Excerpt:

In launching these critiques, some have contrasted the coverage of the flood with wall-to-wall coverage of the Olympics, the ongoing presidential sideshow, and the riots in Milwaukee. Having your suffering ignored or cast aside only intensifies the pain you feel. And, yet, comparing one’s suffering with the suffering of others, calculating them according to hierarchies of pain, reinforces the logic of oppression. In other words, the standards that determine what belongs on the news (so-called “news values” [13]) are deeply rooted in oppressive ideologies—regional biases, financial capital, racism, classism, sexism, and more—which constantly rank whose lives (and deaths) are more valuable, more “newsworthy,” more profitable for mass distribution.

Comparing the newsworthiness of our suffering to that of others is the precise method by which the news devalues the lives of black, brown, poor, immigrant, transgender, and queer people.

I am not, in other words, only frustrated by the lack of national news coverage or public awareness of the floods in Louisiana. I am frustrated by the lack of coverage and awareness of how the floods in Louisiana do now and will continue to disproportionately affect poor people, immigrants, people of color, people affected by de facto segregation, homeless people, and queer people.

How, exactly, does this guy know anything about the demographics of this flood? Does he know that Livingston Parish, the hardest-hit parish in the entire state, is 95 percent white? He should; his mother lives there, though he concedes that he’s only visited the house once. How, exactly, does this flood disproportionately affect queer people? He’s gonna queer this flood? The Baton Rouge area doesn’t have many immigrants, relative to many other cities. There were some at the shelter I worked at on Sunday — a few Vietnamese folks, a handful of Latinos, but the shelter’s population looked like this region of Louisiana: a bit more than half white, the rest black. But God forbid that demographic facts should get in the way of progressive prejudice. He concludes:

I hope these will not be the only stories the media will miss. I hope there will also be stories of renewed awakening and commitment to the liberation of all people; stories of Louisiana finding ways to rebuild that don’t compound its histories of racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism; stories of people joining together to address systemic injustice; stories of a recovery where no one is left behind.

The story of the Louisiana flood is of people joining together to address the fact that 100,000 people, more or less, suddenly didn’t have a place to live, and have lost almost everything they own. But this guy can’t see that, because he’s not looking. I don’t believe that Obama and Clinton are quit so ideological as that, but I think that’s how they see the world. And there’s no place for a lot of us in that world.

Trump is Trump: he only sees himself. But the Republican Party elites may well go back to their own blindness, their own not-seeing-us, after Trump passes. Republican commentator and bona fide #NeverTrumper Pete Spiliakos warns: [14]

Let me tell you about some of the Trump supporters I know. They aren’t the cartoons you see on the internet. They would sooner cut their own throats than send a tweet. They don’t believe that Trump is going to Make America Great Again. They are undeceived about Trump’s many flaws and they aren’t shy about admitting them.

What they see in Trump is someone who has at least some hope of getting a response out of a sluggish political system. They would agree with Martin Gurri [15]that Trump is a wrecking ball, but they would argue that only a wrecking ball will get the attention of our comfortable and self-serving political elites.

But Trump is not just a wrecking ball. They also see Trump as a businessman who has actually done things. This is what can’t be erased by all the talk of Trump’s bankruptcies. While some of Trump’s companies went out of business, he still built those companies. He built residencies in which people lived, and casinos in which they people were entertained. Even if some of those businesses eventually went bad—even if all of those businesses had gone bad—Trump would still compare favorably with politicians whose only visible skills are giving speeches and cashing checks. These Trump supporters suspect that, one way or another, things are going to end badly with Trump. But they are absolutely certain of being utterly ignored by any of the conventional politicians who ran for president this cycle.

That doesn’t make these Trump supporters right about Trump. He is too unprincipled, reckless, and malicious to be trusted with any kind of public authority. But it also doesn’t make them wrong about the unresponsiveness of the political system. As Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out, increasing immigration is very unpopular [16] with both the general public and Republican primary voters, and yet most [17] of the 2016 Republican presidential candidates supported increasing immigration.

Now we have (some) anti-Trump conservatives arguing for a purge and humiliation of Trump’s current supporters. Political consultant Rick Wilson’s twitter account produces a steady stream of Trump criticism. All of it is deserved, but Wilson goes too far when he promises: [18]

So when it’s over, Trumpkins, remember: You’re not purging us. We’re purging you.The problem is that there are far more Trump supporters than conservative dead-ender Trump opponents. (Disclosure: I am a conservative dead-ender Trump opponent.) Any center-right majority is going to involve former Trump supporters as a majority or near-majority of the coalition.

A bigger problem is the smug and unjustified moralism. Wilson says that the lessons of the “detailed” 2012 Republican National Committee autopsy [19] were ignored. But that autopsy was not so detailed that it offered any advice on how the Republicans could update their obsolete and rich-centered economic agenda. That part must have slipped their minds.

Read the whole thing. [14]Elitism is not just a problem with the Democrats. As Peggy Noonan said. I was e-mailing with an anti-establishment conservative friend the other day, who said that the real danger is that after Trump flames out, there’s a very real risk that the GOP will learn all the wrong lessons from the Trump phenomenon. Yep.

I wish I could adequately express to you how exciting it has been to watch and to be part of the little platoons all over this region, not waiting for the government to tell them what to do, but getting busy helping their neighbors. I’m just finishing up writing the Benedict Option book, in which I talk about the politics of our future being localism and the “anti-politics” of Vaclav Havel, Vaclav Benda, and the Czech dissidents. This flood experience feels vindicating.


114 Comments (Open | Close)

114 Comments To "Populism And The Great Flood"

#1 Comment By DGJ On August 21, 2016 @ 3:16 pm


Louisiana is only one of many crises they are ignoring. If wasn’t election year they would not come. See above.

#2 Comment By Adamant On August 21, 2016 @ 3:56 pm

[NFR: I’m not sure who “you” is.

My apologies, both comments were directed to Michael above. We desperately need a real conversation abut the downsides of the Washington consensus on trade and immigration; the way Trump has handled those issues makes that less, not more likely, and so a policy environment that is great for our ruling class, and terrible for our small communities here in the Rust Belt will continue to remain unchallenged. Even in the 16 years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen towns where you could raise a family with a decent job in manufacturing, turn into towns where the leading industries seem to be methamphetamine production and heroin trafficking. The clock is ticking on the viability of these towns, and the stupid way Trump has managed those issues will put off, perhaps indefinitely, that conversation.

#3 Comment By Michael Guarino On August 21, 2016 @ 5:26 pm

The only actual policy proposal on the table is a retaliatory 45% on products from China, and a 35% from Mexico. If this counts as a ‘serious’ proposal in your mind, able to stop/reverse the slow bleed of manufacturing jobs, having done exactly nothing to prep the ground for the political fight that would take, you’re not paying attention. I take it as mere virtue signaling, preying on thode communitis fearful of losing what few manufacturing jobs remain.

Why wouldn’t that stop the bleed of manufacturing jobs or incentivize new manufacturing growth in the US to take advantage of our market without the tax costs? It clearly could, in fact very likely would. The reason manufacturing moved in the first place was to arbitrage on slave wages in the third world. There is no magical productivity genie there; they just pay people pennies on the dollar. A significant tariff eliminates that opportunity.

But here is the biggest point: you simply have no argument that that tariff is too high besides pattern matching against tariff rates from the past. Which is a crappy argument. The only decent argument is trying to do the econometrics on increasing consumer costs, but that is short-sighted and should be overridden in favor of developing a more diverse economy, especially in sectors with very high multiples like manufacturing.

#4 Comment By Adamant On August 21, 2016 @ 8:12 pm

“There is no magical productivity genie there; they just pay people pennies on the dollar.”

No there isn’t, likewise there is no magical political genie that is going to allow a pitch geared solely to a smallish, and shrinking demographic to overturn the Washington consensus on ‘free trade’ (or labor cost arbitrage in a race to the bottom as you correctly identify it).

Trump has pitched his plan (as with his immigration plan) in a way that ensures his allies outside the WWC will be few to nonexistent. It’s a machine perfectly designed (one might say intentionally designed) to not accomplish the very goal it purports to achieve.

#5 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 21, 2016 @ 8:33 pm

It’s no good blaming Trump for not being the ideal person to take up populist issues, as if that imperfection means the status quo of ordinary Americans’ decline is therefore the only viable choice. Where are those perfect representatives of the common will ready to step up? Status quo elites on both sides of the aisle, far as the eye can see. Whomever would try, would be disposed of forthwith, similarly, regardless of character. Whatever are Trump’s weaknesses, others’ weaknesses would be sought, found or invented. Focusing on the candidate rather than the issues is distraction. The crisis is bigger than one person, by about 300 million of us.

Dude, where’s my country?

#6 Comment By Michael Guarino On August 21, 2016 @ 9:38 pm

The clock is ticking on the viability of these towns, and the stupid way Trump has managed those issues will put off, perhaps indefinitely, that conversation.

And again, this is just ignorant. If you talk to Republican insiders now, they will say that any candidate that takes an accommodating stance on trade policy is being chewed up by their constituents. Trump has realigned the party thoroughly on this issue, whether he did it with bold overstatement or by highlighting NBER research on the economic effects of China’s entry into the WTO does not matter.

#7 Comment By Adamant On August 22, 2016 @ 5:53 am

‘Trump has realigned the party thoroughly on this issue, whether he did it with bold overstatement or by highlighting NBER research on the economic effects of China’s entry into the WTO does not matter.’

Best of luck with that hypothesis.

#8 Comment By Elijah On August 22, 2016 @ 7:16 am

“Trump just used the tragedy as a cynical photo op, and he is playing the people of Baton Rouge for suckers.”

So why is it “good for him” that he went, then?

Look, the only thing the people of Louisiana will get out of Obama is a photo op as well. But that photo op will bring with it some encouragement, some hope, and in some sense a shared sense of loss, the old “we’re in this thing together” spirit.

Sometimes those things add up to a lot.

For those of you who can’t bring yourselves to criticize HRC for not showing up, for (again) choosing to attend fundraisers with the super-rich: please don’t ever play the hypocrisy card against conservative candidates. Hillary’s behavior stinks; she may still be the best candidate, but a balanced person ought to be able to hold both thoughts simultaneously.

[NFR: Funny, but I’m not sure the people of Baton Rouge feel that they’ve been used cynically. The Democratic governor and our Democratic former senator both thanked him publicly for coming. He brought a tractor-trailer load of supplies, gave $100,000, and didn’t hold a press conference to denounce Obama and Hillary (as he easily could have done). And he brought press attention, which is greatly needed to encourage donations to the relief effort. — RD]

#9 Comment By Clint On August 22, 2016 @ 12:11 pm

Bottom line: Trump showed up for Louisianans, while others decided that they didn’t need to

#10 Comment By JonF On August 22, 2016 @ 12:26 pm

Re: Louisiana is only one of many crises they are ignoring. If wasn’t election year they would not come. See above.

We’ve discussed this here before, albeit sometimes under the mistaken notion that it is is white working class men who have seen a drop in life expectancy. I don’t know if there’s a definite and widely accepted explanation for this troubling development, but the closest I have seen to one is the epidemic of opioid abuse. If that is the case, then it’s wrong to say that the problem is being ignored: the federal government has moved Vicodin et al up a notch on the narcotics Schedule and is doing its best to educate physicians as to the risks and in best practices when prescribing these pain killers. I’m not sure what else we can do however: treating addiction is one of the hardest things to do, and anyone who has had addicts (including alcoholics) among their family or acquaintances should know this hard fact.

#11 Comment By JonF On August 22, 2016 @ 1:15 pm

Re: The only actual policy proposal on the table is a retaliatory 45% on products from China, and a 35% from Mexico.
and: Why wouldn’t that stop the bleed of manufacturing jobs or incentivize new manufacturing growth in the US

I am leery of starting a trade war, since, just like a real war, we could lose– and at the very least we will suffer unintended consequences some of them potentially severe. At the very least everyone needs to be aware that in a trade war we would lose good, middle class lose jobs too, and those losses would not be puny.

#12 Comment By JonF On August 22, 2016 @ 1:21 pm

Re: “Dude, where’s my country”

A Latin word from the state motto of Michigan: “Circumspice”.

#13 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 23, 2016 @ 3:53 am

Re: “Circumspice” – looking around, we the people can see we are not the lords of all we survey.

It’s not “my country” any longer when its ownership has been sold to elites for a mess of pottage.

#14 Comment By JonF On August 23, 2016 @ 4:53 pm

Re: It’s not “my country” any longer when its ownership has been sold to elites for a mess of pottage.

If you think the country can only be “yours” if it kowtows to your dictates then you’re in the wrong place and time. You need to be sitting on a throne a few centuries back. That’s not the way the world works today. We all get a say in these things.