Over at The Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty has the best — and most accurate — analysis of the phenomenon of Donald Trump that I have yet seen. Trump is channeling the late Sam Francis, paleo-conservative advisor to the Pat Buchanan campaign and white nationalist, according to Dougherty. Trump’s no conservative … he’s simply a patriot and a nationalist.
To simplify Francis’ theory: There are a number of Americans who are losers from a process of economic globalization that enriches a transnational global elite. These Middle Americans see jobs disappearing to Asia and increased competition from immigrants. Most of them feel threatened by cultural liberalism, at least the type that sees Middle Americans as loathsome white bigots. But they are also threatened by conservatives who would take away their Medicare, hand their Social Security earnings to fund-managers in Connecticut, and cut off their unemployment too.
Dougherty goes on to quote Francis from a 1996 piece in Chronicles:
Middle American forces, emerging from the ruins of the old independent middle and working classes, found conservative, libertarian, and pro-business Republican ideology and rhetoric irrelevant, distasteful, and even threatening to their own socio-economic interests. The post World War II middle class was in reality an affluent proletariat [emphasis mine CHF], economically dependent on the federal government through labor codes, housing loans, educational programs, defense contracts, and health and unemployment benefits. All variations of conservative doctrine rejected these…
Yet, at the same time, the Ruling Class proved unable to uproot the social cultural, and national identities and loyalties of the Middle American proletariat, and Middle Americans found themselves increasingly alienated from the political left and its embrace of anti-national policies, and counter-cultural manners and morals.
An affluent proletariat. More importantly, an affluent proletariat that understood how dependent they were on the New Deal (and post WWII) welfare state for their affluence and economic security. Beginning with Nixon, they voted for Republicans not because they embraced GOP economic policies (Nixon was still a Roosevelt/Truman liberal in that sense anyway) but because they saw “welfare” as extended by the Johnson Administration as breaking the implied social contract. The welfare state that supported this affluent proletariat was a welfare state one worked for and earned in. You paid into Social Security for decades before receiving your pension, you achieved something with your educational benefits (such as better paying work), you cared for your family and invested in the future with a government-backed home loan, you contributed to the defense of the country and its overall security by working on defense contracts. All of the “benefits” of the FDR/Truman welfare state were linked to participation in the workforce and in civil society, while too many of the “benefits” of the Kennedy/Johnson welfare state were seen to go to people who did not work for them, who did not hold up their end of the societal bargain that state and social benefits require something from the one who receives.
It’s true that the New Deal, and Truman’s Fair Deal, were largely and purposefully designed to benefit white, male labor. But this is how welfare states, even in Scandinavia (perhaps especially in Scandinavia) work — to receive, one is also expected to give, if only their best effort. Successful welfare states require a great deal of shared cultural cohesion, expectations, and a common sense of obligation and responsibility — something almost utterly lacking in the America of today. Something that began to unravel in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
I come from these people, grew up in their midst, both as a child in the Army and then in the suburbs of Southern California. And I think Francis explains why the conservatism of this this group of people made no real sense to me. Because it wasn’t an ideological conservatism, but rather a cultural and communal tribalism that easily and readily condemned “dependence” on government while at the same time defending and promoting military services (and military pensions), government employment, the GI Bill, VA and HFA home loans, and the like. None of those things were “dependence” because they all involved honest labor, a sense they were earned through work, and were a contribution to the greater good of the community.
The affluent proletariat was racist — as American nationalists almost always have been — but was more than willing to accept non-whites into their midst if those non-whites “earned” and “secured” the same benefits they did through the same labor they did.
These folks voted Republican not because they believed in supply-side economics, or wanted the New Deal repealed. They voted their social and cultural resentments and hoped Republicans would restore the FDR/Truman social and economic order (something Republicans always hinted at in promises) — an order in which security and stability were tied to honest work and participation in community and society.
And that’s where the deal has unraveled. For nigh on 50 years, this affluent proletariat has voted its cultural resentments, hoping for some restoration of social and economic order and getting only economic and social chaos and destruction in return.
But the response of the predominantly-white class that Francis was writing about has mostly been one of personal despair. And thus we see them dying in middle age of drug overdose, alcoholism, or obesity at rates that now outpace those of even poorer blacks and Hispanics. Their rate of suicide is sky high too. Living in Washington D.C., however, with an endless two decade real-estate boom, and a free-lunch economy paid for by special interests, most of the people in the conservative movement hardly know that some Americans think America needs to be made great again.
In speeches, Trump mostly implies that the ruling class conducts trade deals or the business of government stupidly and weakly, not villainously or out of personal pecuniary motives. But the message of his campaign is that America’s interests have been betrayed by fools.
It would have been interesting to see what would have happened in 1992 had Pat Buchanan followed Sam Francis’ advice. It would have made a difference then. Such a campaign, based on resentment and fear, in unlikely to work now, largely because demographic change makes their victory unlikely, even as plurality. I have little sympathy for Trump and his supporters (I will likely not be voting in this year’s general election), because he is a crude, boastful, and ignorant candidate leading a crude, boastful, and ignorant flock, but I do appreciate what happens when a people — the people I come from — understand that for too long, they have been told by elites and the underclass alike: “Lie down and die. You are inconvenient and in the way. Your lives and your wellbeing don’t really matter.”
This has a political consequence. The message of Black Lives Matters, of those seeking “safe spaces” on campuses, is largely the same — Black lives matter, brown lives matter, queer lives matter, and we will no longer accept a political and social order that treats us as less than human, gives us anything less than dignity and acknowledges our rights as human beings and as Americans, denies us safety and security. We will not accept this anymore. The Trump movement is, I think, something similar, the rage of a formerly (but precariously) privileged people who also see their lives as having little or no social or political value. And who are tired of voting for politicians who throw away their livelihoods and their well-being for ephemeral ideological reasons. Whether it’s true or not (it possesses elements of truth, especially in economically and socially shattered parts of the country where life and economic flourishing was always tenuous to begin with), it’s how many in this affluent proletariat appear to see things today. That makes it a force to be reckoned with.
But this is 2016 and 1992, and Trump’s movement will likely lose. And lose badly. What is going on in America is something akin to civil war, as a changing demographic forces the country to alter the implied social contract in ways our founding ideals (this includes the New Deal) don’t easily allow for. I always think of Lebanon when I think of demographic change. The Lebanese National Pact of the early 1940s carved in stone the power and privilege of the then-majority Maronite Christians. But rising birth rates among Sunni and Shia Muslims, and an influx of Palestinian refugees, strained the country’s power relationships, and 15 years of bloody communal war ensued. The Maronites responded with a slide into communal fascism, and supporting the Israelis when they invaded and occupied the country — never a wise move for a nationalist, even an ethnic one. As I understand it, Lebanon’s national pact has never been formally altered, even as Sunnis — and then the country’s relatively poor Shia — were unofficially acknowledged as the majority.
No ruling majority gives up power and privilege without a fight.
Whites still constitute a solid majority of Americans, but are very divided politically. And the appeal of Trump to America’s growing non-white population is tiny. Anything is possible, but some outcomes are more likely than others, and it is unlikely the Trump “coalition” will win. This is the first of what will be many — and likely many very ugly — dying gasps of a people whose America has long passed from the scene. People who will fear more than hope. There was something noble and wonderful about FDR/Truman America, especially if you were white (both sets of my grandparents lived very well in that America), but that day is gone. The sun began to set 40 years ago.
And no amount of braggadocio, no amount of deal making, no amount of bluster, can ever bring it back.