The Ballad Of Flyover Man
David Brooks is an original Never Trumper, but in his new column, he imagines a conversation between “Urban Guy” and “Flyover Man” who is sticking with Trump. He’s onto something for sure. In this excerpt, Flyover Man has just accused people like him of caring more about Trump than about dealing with the serious problems that brought Trump to power in the first place:
U.G.: We became Trump-O-Centric because his daily outrages undermine norms, spread xenophobia, degrade public morality.
F.M.: You think that because you have the kind of jobs that allow you to follow Twitter all day. I don’t have that luxury. So all that passing nonsense seems far away. I have to deal with the actual realities of life.
One, mass immigration is changing my town, region and state. Two, the cultural liberalism you preach but don’t practice is leading to the breakdown of families up and down my block. Children out of wedlock. Young men with no dad when they’re young and no wife in their life when they’re grown. Third, an Ivy League elite running government and the economy for itself and shutting out those of us who actually make things with our hands. Fourth, China is replacing us.
U.G.: I’m happy to talk about these big problems.
F.M.: Like hell you are. The media fixates on scandals because they’re easier to talk about than complex issues like why urban and rural America are drifting further apart. You wasted billions of hours speculating about the Mueller report, and now news about Adam Schiff overshadows everything else while my world burns. Let’s face it: Bashing Trump is the media’s business model. That’s what drives eyeballs and profit.
U.G.: We can’t have a productive conversation with Trump around. He lies with abandon. He slanders and insults. He pollutes the water near and far.
F.M.: We can’t have productive conversations if every time I open my mouth you call me a bigot. You may not realize this, but you have Trump supporters around you all the time. It’s just that we’ve learned to keep our mouths shut in your presence. The crushing climate of blue cultural privilege is too strangulating.
Or better yet, read the entire book about Flyover Men (and Women): Chris Arnade’s Dignity. It’s not an imagined conversation. Arnade spent five years interviewing actual Flyover People — including black ones and brown ones — and hearing the same kinds of things that Brooks imagines. It’s real. And Arnade is a leftist! But he understands that class and culture are the real dividers here.
Along these lines, here is a version of an e-mail I received from a reader yesterday. I had published a portion of an earlier e-mail from him on the Trump’s Big Mouth post; he wrote further to clarify his views. I edited it to protect his mother’s privacy, but otherwise, this is what he wrote. He has approved this version for publication.
The reader writes:
I don’t support Trump. I did not vote for him in 2016; like you, I was fairly appalled at the choices. I’m not sure I can bring myself to vote for him in 2020. If things keep getting worse, then maybe, but not yet. But, also like you, I am quite familiar with those that support Trump, and my email was an attempt to see things their way.
I’ll share some personal details that provide context for my previous letter. My parents have been devout Catholics my entire life; dad is a white man raised in the rural South. My mom is a first-generation Asian immigrant, a war refugee. Guess which one is a die-hard Trump supporter? Spoiler: the first-generation Asian immigrant. I don’t fully understand it, and because I never learned her language, there is a language barrier between us, keeping her from fully articulating her reasons to me. But I think I could sum it up as, she hates, and I mean detests, what the liberals stand for, and hates almost as much what the Republican response pre-Trump has been, because they weren’t standing up for the things they said, and she believes, are of immense and sometimes literally eternal importance. She sent three sons, including myself, off to Iraq. She took war protests personally. When there is an “evil regime”, it takes on a different meaning for her than it does for us. We see its existence in the abstract: pros and cons of toppling it, what can be gained, what is realistic, what the cost will be. She sees it viscerally, because such a regime literally uprooted her young life, took everything her family had, and forced them to flee across the ocean. In her mind, her sons were risking their lives to make sure that what happened to her once would not happen again. She’s not a deep political thinker or what you’d consider an intellectual–but she sees our current situation for what it is: those who love the country for its ideals, and those that seek to destroy it for its flaws.
She learned English while cleaning floors and toilets at a nearby university. She took on every odd job she could. She was always working, even though, as my dad grew more successful, she didn’t have to. She taught herself accounting, and even though the highest academic credential she ever earned was an associate’s degree in bookkeeping, she was so good at what she did that employers begged her to stay with them and let her work a flexible schedule so she could raise us, her four sons. I remember being picked up at school every day and brought to a seedy bar where she did the bookkeeping (it could have been the inspiration for Moe’s bar in The Simpsons). The bartender would give me a little dish of jalapenos; the regulars thought it was funny a little kid liked such a thing. She didn’t have to go back to work after picking us up, but that was her work ethic. She wanted to make the most of her American opportunity. She started her own business, and has become one of the most successful in her line of work, in her region. Clients love her. She is proud of her accomplishments, and in my opinion, she absolutely should be. It means something to her that she was given an opportunity. Not a guarantee–an opportunity, and believe me, she recognizes the difference. And she made good on it. She’s a hustler, in the good “attaboy, hustle!” sense of the word.
In her business dealings, she interacts with many immigrants, some of them illegal. They go to ‘underground’ classes–not kidding, actual classes–on how to game the system, what to claim to maximize tax refunds when they’ve paid nothing in. A lot of folks in her line of work will gladly help these immigrants cheat the system, as long as they have plausible deniability. My mom kicks them out. Now why would one immigrant not help another?
I don’t want to put words in my mom’s mouth, but I believe it is because she sees “American” not as a race or birthplace, but as a symbol for something bigger, a way of being. To her, your nation of origin or skin color doesn’t matter one bit. That doesn’t make you American, or not. To her, there’s the American way of doing things–God and Country, work hard, claw your way up, defend freedom–and the non-American way. To her, the non-American way is to treat certain groups better than you treat others. Discriminate (and she couldn’t care less whether you claim it is for a ‘good cause’). Lie down, don’t work hard, blame someone else. Expect a handout. I’m not even saying I agree with all of this, but here this person exists.
When Trump came along, I was extremely surprised to find her as one of his biggest supporters. Here was someone that spoke to her, an immigrant. He spoke directly and simply. He didn’t use weasel words and phrases or artfully dodge thorny subjects like the rest of the GOP field. She saw what liberals were doing and saying to and about people like her: on the one hand, a conservative Christian mother. On the other hand, an immigrant. And she knew in both cases they were lying. Of the two categorizations I gave, the former (conservative, Christian, mother) is by far more important to her. Donald Trump didn’t attack her for holding conservative views, or call her a racist (which, ironically, lefties would) for having them. He didn’t try to silence her expressions of faith, or promote the celebration of abortion. He didn’t shame her for being a mother and undoubtedly sacrificing so much for four rambunctious boys. And he didn’t try to be politically coy on the matter, either. He bluntly spoke up against the Democrats, and like him or loathe him he called them on a lot of their bullshit. And my mom saw that as someone speaking up for her.
I can’t tell you how many times people have said to my mom, “You’re an immigrant! How can you support Trump?!” But my mom cares for borders because she knows what happens when they fall. She cares for equal opportunity, because she knows you can leverage that to rise above a mediocre handout. She cares for fairness regardless of your identity group because that ensures she’ll have opportunity. Like I said at the beginning, I am not a fan of Trump. The man has serious flaws. I couldn’t even hold my nose and vote for him, knowing full well that from an ‘existential threat’ perspective the DNC is far more dangerous. But he offered my mom a choice no one else in the GOP field did.
What surprises me more than anything in all of this is that, though you would never guess it by looking at her, my mom fits the mold of Hillary’s “deplorable” or Obama’s “clinging to guns and religion” better than your reddest Southern redneck ever could. She has her own serious flaws, but she is not alone: an immigrant, brown, die-hard Trump supporter. They’re out there, but you’re unlikely to see them because the media doesn’t want you to. That would cut against ‘the Narrative’.
And that’s why I wrote, as you said, “in defense of Trump”. That’s what I meant by not playing by the rules of a rigged game and calling the emperor naked. Not to defend the man, but to understand people I respect and love and care about.
You said that if this is an existential fight, then the country is already a thing of the past. Do you really think it otherwise? I’m asking honestly, not critically. I would wager that you already know, deep down, that it’s over, and that this is in part why you wrote the Benedict Option to begin with (incidentally, it is one of my favorite books and I’ve given or coerced friends into reading at least 10 copies). What possible scenario would you have to believe in to think otherwise? Maybe people will get fed up with certain elements of the progressive culture–the shouting down or deplatforming “cancel culture”, for instance–but there is some toothpaste you’re never getting back in the tube. Traditional marriage, an end to abortion, the religious ‘enchantment’ of the world that for so long provided deeper meaning than mere self-identification. Good luck getting our culture to re-embrace those. There will be perverse bizarro-world simulacrums that will rise to take their place (isn’t that what the Antichrist is a metaphor for?), sure. But those ships have sailed. And if you really do believe that these things are fundamental to a functioning society, then the conclusion is self-evident. If these things really matter, and the things happening to these things are really happening, then if this isn’t existential on both sides, what is?
The sense of frustration as we watch Trump do whatever crazy thing he’s doing, and the Democrats respond in an equally crazy manner, with the insane media gleefully spinning it all, comes from a place of powerlessness. These big forces are beyond our control, and all we can do is wring our hands and write about it. Trump (and again, you now know my position on him) is in some ways a rational response to a powerful system completely and utterly out of control: blow it up, because the consequences from the blast will be at worst equal to the consequences of not blowing it up (after all, to borrow from Keynes, in the long run this culture is going to kill us anyway). And who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky and end up with something better. I’ve had to ask myself honestly: in a world where Trump wasn’t elected and the system kept on churning down its former path, do we really end up anywhere different?
I’ll close by thanking you for the Benedict Option. I really do get frustrated by the decisions being made across the country from where I live, that seem to eat away at all I hold dear for both myself and my family. BenOp is a message of hope, something tangible I can do, even if only in a small way. Something is better than nothing. I want to cling to that, and not the latest news cycle. Regardless of what you think of my rantings here, I am grateful for that.
I am so grateful for this letter. You never see people like this reader’s Asian mother in the media. She sounds a lot like my late father, who died before the 2016 election, but who would have voted for Trump for the same reasons.
I also appreciate this reader’s challenge to me on the Benedict Option and the future of the country. He asks, “In a world where Trump wasn’t elected and the system kept on churning down its former path, do we really end up anywhere different?” No, I really don’t think so. Trump was inevitable. If it hadn’t been Donald Trump, it would have been someone else. The establishment has been driving this country into a ditch. It would be great if Trump were actually a competent politician who could get things done. Is the alternative a competent Democrat who wants to host federally-funded Drag Queen Story Hour at abortion clinics, and fire people for not being au courant with whatever the pronoun of the week is? Then vote for the crook; it’s important.
This is why I don’t know that I would support impeachment even if Trump is guilty of impeachable offenses. Maybe I would. I don’t know. I think he’s bad news. But I don’t know that he’s the worst news. We’ll see.
The reader’s e-mail got me to thinking, though, about, in his words, “what possible scenario” I can come up with that causes me to believe that the America we knew is not “a thing of the past.” That it can be recovered in some way. The truth is, I really don’t see that happening. If I did, I wouldn’t have written The Benedict Option.
It is true that I wrote it in the expectation of a Hillary Clinton victory, and had to revise at the last minute. But I don’t think Trump fundamentally changed the course of the country, in the ways that matter most to my critique. We are losing our Christianity, and with it a way of understanding what human beings are. You cannot vote that back into existence. I wish you could! For traditional Christians, the best reason to have voted for Trump is that he stood a chance of slowing down the inevitable, with his policies and court appointments. The best reason to vote for him in 2020 is the same.
To be clear: I don’t believe that we are going to pull out of this decline-and-fall trajectory.
So why do I resist going full Flyover Man regarding Trump?
There are several reasons.
First, I could be wrong. The system might be more resilient than I think. I believe, with John Adams, that our Constitution cannot survive the decline of religion and morality among the people. Maybe it can, though, or maybe religion and morality will reappear.
Second, if I’m right, then for as long as the Republic lasts, the First Amendment (and a judiciary willing to interpret it traditionally) is the only thing that will protect minorities like me. This is what David French gets that Sohrab Ahmari doesn’t. Ahmari wants to fight, but it is not at all clear that he can muster enough people to fight for the things that matter most to him (and to me). We can’t agree on the common good. And if we get politicians favorable to us into power, the good they can do is limited by the nature of their office. As Viktor Orban has said, a politician can only give you things; he cannot give you . meaning. Anyway, if the system falls, then what will protect unpopular minorities — as traditional Christians will surely be in much of the country.
Finally, and most importantly, conservatives must, by definition, be suspicious of radical change. You can’t have read modern history without being acutely aware of how much worse things can be after a revolution. For all the problems of tsarist Russia, what followed it was infinitely more savage. The US establishment is failing? I’ll buy that. But what are we going to replace it with?
Trump’s brash behavior invites contempt for the system. You don’t have to convince me that the failures of the system prior to Trump — I’m thinking mostly of the Iraq War, and the financial crash — invited far more contempt for the system. (By the way, here’s a fun fact: consumer debt is now greater than it was just before the 2008 crash.) This, as we know, is how we got Trump. We have never known any other governing system in the United States than the one we have now. My fear is that allowing Trump’s flagrant abuses to go unpunished is going to bring the entire thing crashing down. I think lots of people might like that. They have not thought of the alternative. It could get very, very bad. We take stability for granted in the United States. We shouldn’t.
I wrote The Benedict Option not as a guidebook for what Christians should do if the system collapses — as the Roman Empire in the West did — but for what to do if Christianity itself collapses. This is what is happening in the West today. For believing Christians, the collapse is well underway, though many of us don’t see it because it hasn’t reached us yet, or because we are still living in a prosperous society, or because we just flat-out don’t want to see it. Reality is not going to wait for our permission to assert itself. The Ben Op is a project not for political collapse, but for religious collapse — which, as modern Europe shows, can happen amidst peace and prosperity.
Politics, as the saying goes, really is downstream from culture. A culture that has ditched its Christian morality is one that will not be able to sustain liberal democratic norms in the long run. The British historian Tom Holland writes about how his work studying the ancient world made him realize that even though he does not believe in God, his morals and ethics are “proudly Christian” — this, because of the cruelties of the Greco-Roman world, which came to an end (or at least diminished) as those civilizations Christianized. Our de-Christianization will occasion a re-barbarization. My despair is such that voting these days has to do with whether we want to fast-track it, or slow it down. If that’s the choice, I’ll go for the slow route, and hope that something unforeseen happens to change history.
The question is: is Trump an accelerant, or will he slow things down? Or can he be both?
From the reader’s letter:
…blow it up, because the consequences from the blast will be at worst equal to the consequences of not blowing it up…
As a conservative, I can’t accept that. Again, history demonstrates that it could always be much worse. But I get why people who have been left behind, and who feel dispossessed in their own country, would come to think this.
Anyway, some solemn thoughts for you to ponder.
Readers, I will be traveling for most of today to Miami. I will be speaking on Saturday late morning (10:30am) at the OCA Cathedral in Miami Lakes. Get your tickets here. I’ll be back to approve comments as soon as I get settled in my Miami hotel on Friday afternoon.