The Puerile Wrath of Republican Elites
Thomas Edsall’s recent piece in the NYT documented in elaborate detail the deep disaffection of traditional Republican, conservative elites with Trump voters. Most notable, he quoted in detail from an article by Kevin Williamson in The National Review. Williamson’s work focused on what he considered the cult of victimization that he sees at the heart of Trump’s support. The two paragraphs from Williamson’s work quoted below summarize the gist of his horrific piece as well as any might:
“They [Trump supporters] failed themselves. If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog— you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be.
The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.”
I also grew up in the hardscrabble of West Texas. My neighborhood housed home owners as well as renters. One neighbor was what Williamson and his family probably called “oilfield trash.” He had three fingers fused together on one hand from an accident on a rig, but he was still working. My other neighbors were plumbers, carpenters, electricians, retirees, with a few teachers sprinkled in here and there (the neighborhood had gone downhill a bit since they moved in). I see the people at Trump rallies, and they look very much like modern versions of the people I grew up around.
My neighbors were not feckless; they weren’t drug addicts; they didn’t “whelp” children (what an enormously offensive phrase); they had jobs; some had bad knees, shoulders, or backs from their hard labor; they were basically southerners in their attitudes about race, culture, and social change; some had pensions, largely social security; many regularly went to church. Physical labor and physical violence weren’t strangers to them.
My neighbors were very much like Donald Trump’s main body of support in this election; they were white; overwhelmingly, their education had stopped at or before high school graduation; they were southerners. Were they alive today, they would, Like Trump supporters, find this world and its woes enormously disturbing.
I have these roots, and I think a reasonable intuitive and intellectual perspective on the dynamics of Trump’s support. Nonetheless, I have no love for Trump supporters. They, like many of us, are frustrated and deeply troubled by this world in which we live. But, they are almost tragically naïve about cause and effect relationships and dangerously delusional in the simplicity of their thinking. That makes them far more likely to accept a loud, entertaining argument over meaningful analysis, and a small minority of them are too easily urged to physical violence.
But, they are not the people that Williamson describes with so much arrogance, vehemence, and disdain. So, from whence comes the level of deep anger and vitriol exhibited by Williamson and his ilk?
The answer is not really so complex. The Republican establishment, especially the crowd at places like The National Review and The Heritage Foundation, have spent decades living off the political surplus of the American working class’s misplaced commitment to the Republican party. This commitment has occurred despite the strong evidence that Republican administrations have continually fostered policies that increase economic inequality. They are the party that fought programs that are the mainstays of economic security and progress for much of the working class ─ Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Affordable Care Act.
According to right-wing rhetoric, entitlements are things that people get without really earning them. Someone simply occupies a status that grants them this entitlement, or undeserved benefit. This is something that all good conservatives rail against almost incessantly. Yet, these same people saw the political devotion of those for whom they had done nothing as their party’s entitlement.
Now, those once-upon-a-time Republican voters have finally caught on. The party has offered them nothing but what Mike Huckabee’s book identifies as, “God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy.” The party activists have sold their voters a plate filled with portions of anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, and anti-immigrant rhetoric seasoned with a big dash of thinly-veiled racism. To top it all off, for the last eight years “their” party has not raised its hand to do anything but throw rotten eggs at Obama.
Seriously, the true republican conservatives’ new hero, Mr. Cruz, is a guy whose greatest claim to fame, besides eating bacon he fried on the hot barrel of an AR-15 assault-style rifle (it’s true), is that he fought tenaciously and in isolation to shut the government down.
So, along comes a man with a plan, Donald Trump. He could give a fig about The National Review and all those “true” conservatives, but he has spent his life cannily building his “brand,” and he is taking that brand and that promotional savvy on the road in the Republican primaries. The eminent political scientist, Robert Dahl, noted over half a century ago that “politics is a sideshow in the great circus of life.” This election season Donald Trump, carny-barker extraordinaire, has opened up his wildly entertaining version of that sideshow (“Aren’t we having fun here! My rallies are more fun than anyone’s!), and it is drawing record crowds.
Williamson and his crowd are, at heart, acting like teen lovers lashing out viciously after being jilted by someone whom they felt was really beneath them. They married “down,” and then their unworthy mate left them, taking the good china and the keys to the Mercedes.
To badly misquote William Congreve, who understood this emotion roughly half a millennium ago: “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like Republican elitists scorned by the ungrateful masses.”