[guest post by JVW]
Up until now I have adhered to a policy of not blogging about President Donald J. Trump. In fact, I believe this is only the second time I have typed out his name (I have been willing to use it when pasting in a blockquote), with the other time being somewhat by accident. We know that he is a lightning rod for fierce argument here, as he is throughout our entire country and, indeed, planet. I did not vote for him (I voted for Evan McMullin which I have frankly come to regret), though I have family and friends who either gladly voted for him or who held their noses and pulled the lever for Trump, and I have family and friends who absolutely loathe the man and want him out of the White House post haste. So, with all that out of the way, I am going to cautiously dip my toe into the pool.
Kevin Williamson at National Review Online is one of the conservative media’s best known and most emphatic Never Trumpers. As such, I realize that many on the right have disdain for him. I confess that I greatly admire his writing, which I think stylistically is always engaging, mordantly witty, and consistently forceful and direct. As an opinion columnist he has, well, opinions and he is not shy about sharing and vigorously defending them. Even when I don’t agree with him or I think he is trying to stretch a single into a triple, I respect him as a virtuoso in his craft.
So I was thus struck by Mr. Williamson’s column today in which he locks all torpedos upon the dysfunction and self-defeating behavior of the white underclass, from which he himself escaped. To begin with, he is careful to differentiate the white underclass from the white working class:
White people acting white have embraced the ethic of the white underclass, which is distinct from the white working class, which has the distinguishing feature of regular gainful employment. The manners of the white underclass are Trump’s — vulgar, aggressive, boastful, selfish, promiscuous, consumerist. The white working class has a very different ethic. Its members are, in the main, churchgoing, financially prudent, and married, and their manners are formal to the point of icy politeness. You’ll recognize the style if you’ve ever been around it: It’s “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” but it is the formality of soldiers and police officers — correct and polite, but not in the least bit deferential. It is a formality adopted not to acknowledge the superiority of social betters but to assert the equality of the speaker — equal to any person or situation, perfectly republican manners. It is the general social respect rooted in genuine self-respect. [emphasis in original]
That’s a pretty nice encapsulation of the difference between the two. I grew up in a town where there was a large working class, both white and Latino, and the habits that Williamson describes provide a clear dividing point between those who remained in the working class and those who slipped into the underclass. My own background is middle class, but I recall that my father always treated men and women of the working class with respect and dignity, believing that anyone who provides food and shelter for their family is worthy of it. Mr. Williamson then contrasts the mores of the white working class with the anti-elite populism seen in the modern right:
Its opposite is the sneering, leveling, drag-’em-all-down-into-the-mud anti-“elitism” of contemporary right-wing populism. Self-respect says: “I’m an American citizen, and I can walk into any room, talk to any president, prince, or potentate, because I can rise to any occasion.” Populist anti-elitism says the opposite: “I can be rude enough and denigrating enough to drag anybody down to my level.” Trump’s rhetoric — ridiculous and demeaning schoolyard nicknames, boasting about money, etc. — has always been about reducing. Trump doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to duke it out with even the modest wits at the New York Times, hence it’s “the failing New York Times.” Never mind that the New York Times isn’t actually failing and that any number of Trump-related businesses have failed so thoroughly that they’ve gone into bankruptcy; the truth doesn’t matter to the argument any more than it matters whether the fifth-grade bully actually has an actionable claim on some poor kid’s lunch money. It would never even occur to the low-minded to identify with anybody other than the bully. That’s what all that ridiculous stuff about “winning” was all about in the campaign. It is might-makes-right, i.e., the politics of chimpanzee troupes, prison yards, kindergartens, and other primitive environments. That is where the underclass ethic thrives — and how “smart people” came to be a term of abuse.
I confess that I am often guilty of this anti-elitism myself, but here I think Mr. Williamson gives short shrift the damage that our largely self-appointed elite — the kind of people who view themselves as the modern heirs to Ward McAllister’s “The Four Hundred” — has done to our society, especially over the last quarter century. From convoluted and ineffective social programs to misadventures overseas to a relentless undermining of the bourgeois middle-class values upon which this country was built, the academic/media/bureaucratic/political/entertainment elite of this country has had a considerably negative impact over that period. But putting that aside, I think there is a great deal of truth to the analogy of President Trump to the fifth-grade bully. The white underclass, of course, usually sees itself as the victim of the bully — the bully being all of those intellectuals and bureaucrats who fail to appreciate the needs and (more accurately) wants of that community. President Trump’s supporters of all social classes understandably think of their guy as being the one to finally stand up to the bully and punch back, and they expect that the bully will now slink away and stop bothering us, just like our dads promised us they would. But of course what we seem to have instead is just an old-fashioned donnybrook in which both sides are punching away at each other, and it would appear that the brawl won’t end until one side is knocked out.
There’s a reason beyond grandstanding politicians and petty score-settling for why we can’t get an Obamacare repeal or serious entitlement reform: it’s because so much of the white underclass (and, let’s be honest, a significant portion of the white working and middle classes) loves government programs whose benefits vastly exceed whatever little they pay in federal taxes. GOP politicians understand this and realize that reforming these costly programs will prove to be unpopular, and they are aided by an incurious and unserious (at least policy-wise) President who inexplicably promises an even more lavish entitlement. Something for nothing has always been a popular political platform and it is not limited to progressives. It’s why, as our host reminded us this morning, the ostensibly conservative party is incapable of coming up with a reasonable budget. There has always been an element of annoying hucksterism within the Republican Party, but this seems to be the moment where it has completely taken over the party. More from Mr. Williamson:
The populist Right’s abandonment of principle has been accompanied by a repudiation of good taste, achievement, education, refinement, and manners — all of which are abominated as signs of effete “elitism.” During the Clinton years, Virtue Inc. was the top-performing share in the Republican political stock exchange. Fortunes were made, books were sold by the ton, and homilies were delivered. The same people today are celebrating Donald Trump — not in spite of his being a dishonest, crude serial adulterer but because of it. His dishonesty, the quondam cardinals of Virtue Inc. assure us, is simply the mark of a savvy businessman, his vulgarity the badge of his genuineness and lack of “political correctness,” and his pitiless abuse of his several wives and children the mark of a genuine “alpha male.” No less a virtue entrepreneur than Bill Bennett dismissed those who pointed out Trump’s endless lies and habitual betrayals as suffering from “moral superiority,” from people on “high horses,” and said that Trump simply is “a guy who says some things awkwardly, indecorously, infelicitously.”
Thus did the author of The Book of Virtues embrace the author of “Grab ’Em By the P***y.”
I know many of you are tired of our harping on the crass vulgarity of the President. It’s like continually pointing out the zit on the homecoming queen’s forehead: yes it’s ugly, but you would much rather focus on the more attractive parts of her. He’s not the first, nor will he be the last, loutish buffoon to occupy the Oval Office. But for as much as we rightfully blame Bill Clinton for inuring us to the tawdriness of the President being orally serviced by a college-aged intern, we owe it to ourselves not to get comfortable with Donald Trump’s crude insults and boorish behavior. Nor should we celebrate or defend the destructive behavior of some of his most dysfunctional supporters. The glamorization and mainstreaming of ghetto culture hasn’t worked out too well for the black community; let’s not repeat that mistake by celebrating the white underclass.
Cross-posted at The Jury Talks Back.