Friday, July 9, 2021

The Challenge of a Nation in Pain

Five years ago, when the author of the widely read Hillbilly Elegy was still presenting himself as a serious thinker before donning his new MAGA hat to serve as altar boy in the idolatrous Trump cult, J.D. Vance effectively analyzed our national Trumpist malaise. "Trump is cultural heroin," he famously wrote. "He makes some people feel better for it. But he cannot fix what ails them" (

What makes Vance's very well formulated former views still relevant, despite the depth to which he has since fallen, is that they really did diagnose at least some of the economic, aesthetic, domestic, political, and cultural dysfunctions that have brought our country to this crisis, which, like heroin itself, has "crept slowly" into American "families and communities - not by invasion but by invitation."

Employing his heroin/opioid analogy, Vance diagnosed the pain that so many seem to be seeking to dull. He identified economic pain, "as the factories that provided many U.S. towns and cities material security have downsized or altogether ceased to exist." He identified aesthetic pain, "as the storefronts that once made American towns beautiful and gave way to cash-for-gold stores and payday lenders." He identified domestic pain, "as rising divorce rates reveal home lives as dependable as steel-mill jobs." He identified political pain, "as Americans watch from afar while a government machine that rarely tries to speak to them, and acts in their interest even less, sputters alone. And he identified cultural pain, from the legitimate humiliation of losing wars fought by the nation's children to the illegitimate sense that some fall behind only because others jump ahead." 

The result has been what he calls "the vengeful joy of a Trump rally. That brief feeling of power, of defiance, of sending a message to the very political and media establishment that, for 45 years, has refused to listen. Trump brings power to those who hate their lack of it, and his message is tonic to communities that have felt nothing but decline for decades."

Meanwhile, of course, the establishment has continued to enjoy the opposite of decline. While jobs and homes were being lost, the Bush and Obama Administrations saved the perpetrators of the 2008 economic collapse. While riding to office in part on the unsatisfied anger of the victims of global capitalism, Trump promptly passed a tax cut for the richest elite in modern American history. And so on. Even now, as the hapless "infrastructure debate" drags pointlessly on, the political process continues to prove itself unable to repair our collapsing country, while the dysfunctional political elite remains enthralled by bygone fictions like "bipartisanship" and destructive elite rituals like the Senate filibuster.

There is more to the story, of course. All this largely unnecessary pain inflicted upon the many by the wealthy and powerful few has happened at a time of demographic and cultural transformation. Increased immigration and the election of our first non-white President did not cause these crises, but they triggered the neuralgic reactions long ago wired into our society by our national original sin of racism. No one needs to study "critical race theory" (whatever those words might actually mean outside academia) to know these basic facts of American history. One need only remember the violent overturning of Reconstruction (thus undoing what the military defeat of Confederate treason could have accomplished for fulfilling the American dream). Likewise, one need only remember the racist and anti-immigrant violence in the aftermath of World War I a century ago and the infamous anti-immigrant legislation of the 1920s.

That said, the pains Vance identified were real then and remain real now, intensified by the real and symbolic violence of the past five years, pains made even more acute by the economic, aesthetic, domestic, political, and cultural costs imposed on the overwhelming majority of Americans by the covid pandemic. Candidate Joe Biden's almost miraculous come-from-behind victory in the 2020 primaries opened a path for a majoritarian coalition to reclaim power. Yet, as long as government keeps proving itself increasingly incapable of resolving our nation's problems (even when a majority of voters have voted that way), we are in increasing danger of serious system collapse, culminating in extremist neo-populist tyranny.

It remains to be seen whether the Biden coalition can acquire sufficient political power - and relearn how to use it - in time to make a difference.

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