The Worse Angels of Our Nature

Susan McWilliams over at The Nation has penned one of the best pieces on Donald J. Trump and Trumpism that I have seen in quite some time. Possibly ever.

McWilliams said that Hunter S. Thompson, in his essay (and later book) on The Hell’s Angels, saw the kind of culture among disaffected white people that would become the wave Trump rode into the White House.

For Thompson, the Angels weren’t important because they heralded a new movement of cultural hedonism, but because they were the advance guard for a new kind of right-wing politics. As Thompson presciently wrote in the Nation piece he later expanded on in Hell’s Angels, that kind of politics is “nearly impossible to deal with” using reason or empathy or awareness-raising or any of the other favorite tools of the left.

[Thompson’s book] Hell’s Angels concludes when the Angels ally with the John Birch Society and write to President Lyndon Johnson to offer their services to fight communism, much to the befuddlement of the anti-Vietnam elites who assumed the Angels were on the side of “counterculture.” The Angels and their retaliatory militarism were, Thompson warned, the harbingers of a darker time to come. That time has arrived.

These are people who are unwilling to play nice because there’s no point for them to do so. They’ve already lost, and they know it.

Thompson’s Angels were mostly working-class white men who felt, not incorrectly, that they had been relegated to the sewer of American society. Their unswerving loyalty to the nation— the Angels had started as a World War II veterans group—had not paid them any rewards or won them any enduring public respect. The manual-labor skills that they had learned and cultivated were in declining demand. Though most had made it through high school, they did not have the more advanced levels of training that might lead to economic or professional security. “Their lack of education,” Thompson wrote, “rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy.” Looking at the American future, they saw no place for themselves in it.

In other words, the Angels felt like “strangers in their own land,” as Arlie Russell Hochschild puts it in her recent book on red-state America. …

The Angels decided not to be polite losers, however. Believing everything — politics, society, the economy — was rigged against them, they fought back with an intense nihilism, a nihilism that deliberately sets out to provoke the genteel and educated through, among other things, coarse, offensive, and racist speech.

Therein lies the ethic of total retaliation. The Angels, rather than gracefully accepting their place as losers in an increasingly technical, intellectual, global, inclusive, progressive American society, stuck up their fingers at the whole enterprise. If you can’t win, you can at least scare the bejeesus out of the guy wearing the medal. You might not beat him, but you can make him pay attention to you. You can haunt him, make him worry that you’re going to steal into his daughter’s bedroom in the darkest night and have your way with her—and that she might actually like it.

Thompson would want us to see this: These are men and women who know that, by all intellectual and economic standards, they cannot win the game. So whether it be out of self-protection or an overcompensation for their own profound sense of shame, they lash out at politicians, judges, scientists, teachers, Wall Street, universities, the media, legislatures—even at elections. They are not interested in contemplating serious reforms to the system; they are either too pessimistic or too disappointed to believe that is possible. So the best they can do is adopt a position of total irreverence: to show they hate the players and the game.

Understood in those terms, the idea that Trumpism is “populist” seems misplaced. Populism is a belief in the right of ordinary people, rather than political insiders, to rule. Trumpism, by contrast, operates on the presumption that ordinary people aren’t going to get any chance to rule no matter what they do, so they might as well piss off the political insiders using the only tool left available to them: the vote.

There’s a lot of insight here, about why such folks might hate government and still think very highly of the police and the armed forces (because both institutions legitimize and draw their legitimacy from the use of brute force, and the Angels both appreciate and respect brute force), and how there’s no reasonable or polite or even civilized way of dealing with such politics. Now that it has been unleashed electorally (Nixon, who also rode such sentiments to the White House, faced a Democrat majority Congress that could check and eventually vote to impeach him; Trump will face no such impediment to his power, at least not for the first two years), it will be intriguing to see how progressives will cope with and adjust to this. My guess is: badly and incompetently. The Left will have to learn a street-fighting fearlessness I don’t see in those busy policing language. The seeds of that fearlessness are there, but the American Left spends too much of its time appealing to power rather than fighting it.

(The time has come to study Act Up! and Queer Nation.)

Anyway, read the piece. It’s worth it.

To be honest, I sympathize an awful lot with the resentment that Thompson describes here. I did a lot of work, got a lot of education, and have failed spectacularly within polite society and respectable institutions. I have a whole raft of useless education, skills and talents no one is willing to pay for. In  the end, that’s my fault, but honestly, I’m not all bad or disreputable, despite what some religious leaders have concluded. (Jen and I lived next to a biker gang in San Francisco; that chapter didn’t make it into my book.) But it’s bad enough for me, I am disreputable enough and almost completely useless even with my Georgetown education, my master of divinity, and my solid middle-class upbringing, to see the class problems at work in bourgeois and elite America. Really, on many days I too wouldn’t mind bringing the whole the thing crashing down upon itself.

I remember when the Department of Homeland Security, the Pentagon, or some similar agency, was test flying a giant, white, antenna-and-camera-covered blimp over Washington, D.C., testing out the device’s intelligence gathering capabilities. I was taking a mid-morning break from The Oil Daily, had gone down to the Starbucks in the lobby, gotten some coffee, and was standing at the corner of 14th St. and New York, watching this spy blimp drift over the city.

Everyone knew what it was. We’d all been warned it was being tested.

I don’t recall if anyone else gave it the finger, but I did.

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