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Lament for the Pickup Truck

The current craze for ever bigger pickups makes them more big boy toy than tool for men at work.

“What are you doing?” Mr. Hall shouted from his tractor. He owns the farm next to my friend Dan’s. Dan was hoping Mr. Hall wouldn’t come by that part of the field today.

Oh well. There was Dan, shoveling manure out of the back of his Ford Explorer. “I’m shoveling manure,” he replied.

The old man thought it over for a minute. Then he asked, “Why don’t you use your truck?”

“Don’t have a truck,” Dan explained with great dignity.

Mr. Hall eyed him. “You’re ill equipped for farming,” he said. Then he put the tractor into gear and rolled off.

It’s not Dan’s fault. Like most smallholders, he inherited the land from his grandparents—the land, and not much else. He bought his SUV from a family friend, for way less than it was worth. It fits his wife and two kids. Lay the seats down and it will carry fence posts and firewood. Spread a tarp down on the hatch and it can even haul manure.

Sure, Dan would love a truck. But like most smallholders, money is tight. Every truck he looks at falls into one of two categories: (A) It’s the right size, but so old it’s not worth the money. (B) It’s the right age, but so big that he can’t afford to fill the tank.

That’s the irony of the modern pick-up. It used to be that, if you drove a truck, you were either a farmer, a rancher, or some kind of handyman. It wasn’t a status thing. It didn’t make you tough or macho. It just meant that…well, you needed a truck.

While productive sectors of the economy like agriculture and manufacturing continue to decline, and the trades are starved for manpower, we’ve never had less of a need for pickups. Yet sales continue to rise, and spiked even more sharply in 2020.

Trucks are also getting bigger. Way bigger. Look at the old Chevrolet C/K. It’s half the size of the new Silverado. The 2021 Ford F-150 boasts a towing capability of about 13,000 lbs., or three dumpsters. Which is cool. But you know that 99 percent of the guys driving them won’t haul anything bigger than a 2×4 to patch up their front decks.

Meanwhile, the old-school two-door is going extinct. Most of the models you see on the road now are like SUVs with a tiny bed stuck on the back. The new F-150 looks like it skipped leg day. The 2022 Denali seems to have a vestigial tail. The Hyundai Santa Cruz has a trunk underneath the bed, which is only wide enough to fit two backpacks. The promotional photos show folks riding around with their bicycle hanging off the tailgate. You can’t make this stuff up.

Then there are all of the aftermarket “enhancements.” The whistling turbo. The roaring muffler. The glaring light bar. Folks pay up to $5,000 to make their diesels roll coal, which is a huge waste of fuel.

Car and Driver says the new Ram 1500 “sounds like it ate a band of demons.” Seriously, who are they marketing these things to? Not the farmer, who has to worry about waking up his kids when he goes to work at 4 a.m. Not the landscaper, who probably won’t get much business if his truck rolls up to the client’s house sounding like the Gehenna Symphony Orchestra.

These pickups aren’t designed for work. Just the opposite, in fact. The truck market is compensating for the decline of its traditional constituents: the independent, blue-collar worker.

This past March, Bloomberg did an interesting profile on the rise of these “supersized pickups”:

Since 1990, U.S. pickup trucks have added almost 1,300 pounds on average. Some of the biggest vehicles on the market now weigh almost 7,000 pounds—or about three Honda Civics. These vehicles have a voracious appetite for space, one that’s increasingly irreconcilable with the way cities (and garages, and parking lots) are built.

Styling trends are almost as alarming. Pickup truck front ends have warped into scowling brick walls, billboards for outwardly directed hostility. “The goal of modern truck grilles,” wrote Jalopnik’s Jason Torchinsky in 2018, “seems to be…about creating a massive, brutal face of rage and intimidation.”

Fair enough. Though I’m still not exactly sure how we went from Farmer Brown toting hay bales in his little C/K to a whole culture of pickup-themed assholery.

Earlier this month, a 16-year-old in a shiny new F-250 was rolling coal at some bicyclists when he plowed into six of them. When I was his age, I was driving a Ford, too: a prehistoric two-door the size of a new Camry. It didn’t have seatbelts, let alone power windows. It didn’t sound like it ate a band of demons, either. More like a big bowl of franks and beans. But it hauled as many bushels of strawberries as I could pick in a day. Which, you know, is what trucks are for.

At least they used to be. Pickups are quickly becoming part of the whole “blue collar chic” thing. It’s like how actresses and politicians are really into wearing Carhartt jackets.

Country music used to be about going steady with your girl or getting eaten by alligators. (Or both!) Now it’s all about getting drunk, driving too fast, and blasting rap music. But in a truck! So it’s downhome, all-American, yada yada.

It’s the same with guns. As farmers make up a dwindling share of the pickup market, hunters now make up a smaller portion of the gun market. They’ve been overtaken by “shooters,” which is a polite term for collectors. That means fewer gun owners today have a real, visceral association between pointing a weapon at something, pulling the trigger, and taking its life. Which probably doesn’t make for a kinder, safer America.

Don’t get me wrong. I love guns even more than I love trucks. But the culture is changing.  More and more, trucks and guns are what my priest calls “big boy toys.” They’re not tools. They’re not for anything. They’re just another consumer good, a fashion statement, an accessory. And they look great with a Carhartt jacket.

The market is flooded with big boy toys. Men aren’t focused on starting families and buying property the way they used to be. That makes owning a truck (and a gun) harder for folks who need them. They’re more expensive and more heavily regulated. They also carry more of a “stigma” as the kids would say.

Too often, this Americana becomes a substitute for the American values they’re supposed to represent. It’s “performative,” as the libs would say. We want the strength, stability, and independence that the yeoman farmer represents—but that’s too hard, so we’ll just roll some coal on a Prius instead.

It’s easy to forget that neighborliness and modesty are small-town values, too. Just like it’s easy to forget that a nationalist loves, not only his country, but his countrymen.

Not for nothing, but truck and gun sales both spiked during the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2020 election. These big boy toys make you feel safe and strong as the world slips out of control. Like voting for Trump, they’re good in themselves. But (also like voting for Trump) they’re not going to save the country. Not by themselves.

Still, we can be too quick to judge these folks. They’re trying to be real men in a culture that despises manhood. They’re trying to be patriots in a nation racked with self-loathing. They’re doing their best to make sense of a world gone mad. Just like you. Just like me.

Those big-booty pickups are still dumb-looking, though. Fair warning, guys. You can peel out of your suburban ranch, flying the Stars and Bars from your jacked-up Tacoma, blasting that FGL on the way to your job at Home Depot. But John Wayne will be up there laughing at you from the Great Beyond.

Michael Warren Davis is author of The Reactionary Mind. Subscribe to his newsletter, “Nor’easter”.