By Carson Starkey
Hans Fallada’s “Little Man, What Now?” was first published in 1932. Johannes Pinneberg, the protagonist, faces constant economic anxieties, petty humiliations, and social disillusionment in post-World War One Germany. He travels through a broad range of emotions, but most of all, he feels disconnected and abandoned…abandoned by faceless, uncaring “leaders.” As he sees it, somebody should be looking out for him. He doesn’t hold grandiose, sophisticated ideas about public policy, history, economics, or politics. He wants a steady job, a place to live free from his repulsive mother-in-law, affordable healthcare for his wife Emma, and food for his son Horst. He’s not angry about socialism, trade unionism, or fascism. He’s angry that self-declared “serious” people in government can’t or won’t protect him from avoidable misery. A fair number of scholars assert that the book acts a broad explanation for the future political success of fascism in Germany. Johannes Blue Collar wasn’t obsessed with waging expensive, seemingly endless warfare or subjugating everyone that disagreed with him politically. He just wanted to pay his bills and maintain some measure of human dignity. Of course that was true in 1932. It has been true throughout the course of human history. It’s true today. Which brings us to Joe Blue Collar in contemporary America and his broad interest in, if not sympathy with, Donald Trump.
What has been most intriguing, in my view anyway, about the rise of Trumpism (broad, detail-free populist declarations about making America great) are the reactions among Establishment or respectable conservatives. “Establishment conservatives” has come to mean Republican Party voters that favor millionaire welfare checks, eternal warfare with Muslims, and racial segregation without the burden of supporting a politically inexperienced, orange-skinned, toupee-adorned grifter who plies shoddy products at Macy’s. Now that Trump is going to be the Republican presidential nominee, respectable conservatives are melting down in highly public, Mel Gibson-esque spectacles that reveal the ugly yet honest ideological foundations of American conservatism. Respectable, establishment conservatives claim to care about intellectually serious matters like Supreme Court nominees, small government, or fiscal restraint…although no evidence exists to support the contention that those same conservatives have ever worried about such matters in the past three quarters of a century, unless we mean preserving low tax rates for rich people or criminalizing the existence of non-white people. No, what rankles self-proclaimed grown-up conservatives about Trump is that he’s giving away the inside game by verifying an uncomfortable suspicion that Heritage Foundation “scholars” have always attempted to suppress during campaigns. That is, most self-proclaimed conservative voters don’t care about the Ayn Rand agenda. While abolishing taxation, dissolving social insurance, and building Pax Americana are important causes to people who work at The Wall Street Journal, all that Jane or Joe Blue Collar care about relates to making financial ends meet. Which makes conservative aristocrats angry bordering on hysterical.
The most recent iteration of #NeverTrump fury is manifesting itself in the form of Kevin Williamson‘s most recent National Review piece, which his colleague David French endorses in a companion article. I’m obligated to repeat the comically discredited claim that National Review is the flagship of intellectual conservatism even though there is no such animal as a conservative intellectual anywhere in America. If I’m wrong about that, I challenge readers to point one out. Spoiler alert-we’re going to find ourselves in a situation akin to identifying advanced forms of life beyond our planet or identifying a better live music performer than Bruce Springsteen. Both possible, but with no verifiable evidence to support either. Unlike the magazine’s January broadside that takes aim at Trump’s qualifications and liberal heresies, Williamson and French deliver morality lectures to white working-class Americans, the beating heart of conservative political strength, in ways that are usually verboten among the leaders of movement conservatism. Williamson denounces poor whites as economically useless, dole-addicted hypocrites who have nobody to blame but themselves for stagnant wages, declining health outcomes, and loss of socio-political importance:
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. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that.
Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence—and the incomprehensible malice—of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. 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.
French provides even more simplified conservative…um…wisdom. He tells America’s working-class white welfare queens and drug addicts to “get a job.” Because of course he does. Self-awareness and irony are liberal myths. So to summarize, both articles are magnificent, glorious caricatures delivered without a hint of satire. When we get right down to it, conservative thought leaders hate everyone. They don’t believe in the forty-seven percent framework. They believe in the ninety-nine percent framework. Ninety-nine percent of Americans are lazy, stupid, overly-medicated, obese, denim-clad rubes that deserve to be separated from their money (using sophisticated grift machines that populate the conservative alternate bizarro universe) and require strict moral guidance from the corpse of William Buckley. Let’s travel down that road for a few moments.
I want to point out briefly that Kevin Williamson knows as much about Bruce Springsteen as he does about public policy. Conservatives, not just Chris Christie, make a deliberate point of not understanding Springsteen, and most any other popular music that clearly doesn’t endorse their disgusting views. Williamson’s decision to sneer at an icon, nay, national treasure, like Springsteen speaks volumes about his paucity of cultural knowledge. Take note Sean Hannity enthusiasts. Confine your absurdity to Pat Boone and Clint Eastwood references during family gatherings. Straying beyond your limited areas of expertise will never end well.
Consider some important facts. Conservatives, regardless of political party titles, have always been and will always be the prime fomenters of white rage. Bacon’s rebellion. Revolutionary America. Civil War America. Jim Crow America. Both periods following the World Wars. Post-Civil Rights America. Present day. That’s another significant caveat. Trump’s hostility to The Others is not a new phenomenon in the conservative bubble, just a more precise rendering. Ask Paul Ryan or or Steve Scalise. Every conservative political victory in American history depended/depends upon aggressive white bigotry, anger, anxiety, or hysteria. Without scary, nonwhite welfare queens, Black Panthers, and anti-Vietnam War protesters, Ronald Reagan would not have succeeded. Our society would look and function differently today. No doubt about it. Another article or series of articles for other days. These shotgun blasts of conservative contempt for white working-class Americans are most important because of what they leave unsaid.
Lower middle class/poor whites have spent the entirety of American history trusting conservative elected officials to look out for their economic interests. That meant and continues to mean that economically disadvantaged white people empowered/empower conservative elected officials to cheat or impose misery on nonwhite people with reckless abandon in order to make their unenviable stations in life a little more tolerable. Sure, impoverished white people will admit that their lives suck…stagnant wages, drug addiction, poverty, but thank the good Lord, at least we aren’t black. But with definitive evidence that conservative elected officials and their donor class enablers hate poor white people with just as much fervor as poor nonwhite people, to whom will The Blue Collar Family turn to in the American political storm? In a society without zero-sum racial economic warfare, what does the way forward look like?
I would argue that Jane and John Blue Collar should link arms with their nonwhite, non-Christian, non-English speaking neighbors, and demand economic policies that benefit everyone rather than a negligible percentage of millionaires or billionaires. Jane, John, and their newly discovered, diverse allies should further demand that elected officials invest in American futures located in places like Detroit, Milwaukee, Baltimore, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh before they throw cash in the form of infrastructure projects or cruise missiles at Kabul, Baghdad, or Tehran. They might also propose that if Americans can’t have wages or collective bargaining rights that provide dignified existences, we should at least have robust institutions of social insurance that offset the cartoonish, obscene iniquities of the hallowed “free market” (a euphemism for groups of aggressive criminals that steal from people who work for livings).
In the spirit of fairness, maybe I should keep my advice to myself. The folks at National Review might accuse me of being a clueless elitist.
Updated Reference Note: My undergraduate professor and eternally blazing intellect Margaret Sankey is the inspiration for my Hans Fallada appetite.