Social media is afire this week following a long article written by Kevin Williamson at National Review about the phenomenon of struggling White America, and in particular the dying towns of Appalachia, the Rust Belt and the South which have predominately caucasian populations but don’t fit the cultural Left’s formulation of “white privilege.” To the contrary, these areas – Williamson uses the dying little burg of Garbutt, New York as his example, since that locale was brought up in another piece written by Michael Brendan Daugherty in The American Conservative to which Williamson’s is an answer – are every bit as poor and contain most of the same social pathologies as the urban deserts of Detroit, Chicago and Newark containing the minority populations we’re conditioned to associate with poverty of spirit and economics.
And Williamson’s assessment of Garbutt, and places like it, is most charitably described as “tough love.”
Dougherty invites us to think about Mike, an imaginary member of the white working class who is getting by on Social Security disability fraud in unfashionable Garbutt, N.Y. Conservatives, in Dougherty’s view, don’t give a damn about Mike. They care a great deal about Jeffrey, “a typical coke-sniffer in Westport, Conn.” Jeffrey pays a lot of taxes, both directly in the form of the capital-gains tax and indirectly through the corporate tax, and tax cuts “intersect with his interests at several points.” Republicans want to encourage private retirement investments, which might send some business toward Jeffrey’s “fund-manager in-law, who works in nearby Darien.” (For those of you unfamiliar with the econogeography of Fairfield County, Conn., going from Westport to Darien is moving up in the world. Next stop: Greenwich.) “If the conservative movement has any advice for Mike, it’s to move out of Garbutt and maybe ‘learn computers,’” Dougherty writes in the magazine The Week. “Any investments he made in himself previously are for naught. People rooted in their hometowns? That sentimentalism is for effete readers of Edmund Burke. Join the hyper-mobile world.” The piece is headlined “How Conservative Elites Disdain Working-Class Republicans,” and I suppose I should mention that my own writing on the white working class’s infatuation with Donald Trump is Exhibit A in Dougherty’s case.
Never mind the petty sneering (as though the conservative movement were populated by septuagenarians who say things like “learn computers”) and the rhetorical need to invent moral debasement (tax cuts are good for the rich people in Connecticut who don’t use cocaine, too) and Dougherty’s ignoring out of existence those capital-driven parts of the economy that are outside of the Manhattan–Connecticut finance corridor. And never mind the math, too: It is really quite difficult to design federal tax cuts that benefit people who do not pay much in the way of federal taxes. Set all that aside: What, really, is the case for staying in Garbutt?
There was no Garbutt, N.Y., until 1804, when Zachariah Garbutt and his son John settled there. They built a grist mill, and, in the course of digging its foundations, they discovered a rich vein of gypsum, at that time used as a fertilizer. A gypsum industry sprang up and ran its course. Then Garbutt died. “As the years passed away, a change came over the spirit of their dream,” wrote local historian George E. Slocum. “Their church was demolished and its timber put to an ignoble use; their schools were reduced to one, and that a primary; their hotels were converted into dwelling houses; their workshops, one by one, slowly and silently sank from sight until there was but little left to the burg except its name.”
Slocum wrote that in . . . 1908.
The emergence of the gypsum-hungry wallboard industry gave Garbutt a little bump at the beginning of the 20th century, but it wasn’t enough. The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t even keep data on Garbutt. To invoke Burkean conservatism in the service of preserving a community that was exnihilated into existence around a single commodity and lasted barely a century is the indulgence of absurd sentimentality. Yes, young men of Garbutt — get off your asses and go find a job: You’re a four-hour bus ride away from the gas fields of Pennsylvania.
Stonehenge didn’t work out, either: Good luck.
It’s a long piece, and it goes into a rather uncomfortable topic – namely, that places like Garbutt are overwhelmingly Trump country – the phenomenon of the real estate magnate’s success has, in places like North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Michigan, Illinois and others, has run largely through counties where economic decline has married to social and cultural decline. Within a growing white underclass. And Williamson argues, and probably correctly though he is being pilloried for it, that what Trump has offered to the people who most acutely feel this decline is a voice and a potential leadership.
The Republican Party has fantasized about making these people its voters, but has done very little to reverse their decline. Williamson would argue, and does in the piece, that the free trade Trump decries has made their lives better – they get far cheaper goods at Wal-Mart than they did 30 years ago – and the failure of prosperity in America’s dying small towns has more to do with the lack of productivity among their people. As he says, if there is no economic mobility where you are, invest in a U-Haul.
But that’s not an easy solution. Economics isn’t the only driver of human decision-making. You can’t tell the people of Garbutt to abandon their homes in search of Mammon; they will resist. And Republican doctrine offering the free market as the answer, while correct, has major holes in it for those being left behind.
Which is why Williamson has struck such a nerve.
His point is that too much of the failure comes from a breakdown of the family in places like Garbutt, where illegitimacy rates are climbing toward the appalling numbers in the blighted urban deserts and government dependency and therapeutic do-gooderism has replaced the traditional role of the male as breadwinner. The attendant alcohol and drug abuse has set in for so many of these people, and the familiar cycle of social failure is beginning. We’ve seen it all before.
Will Trump fix these things? Of course not. He’s the cheerleader for the people of Garbutt, though, and when he talks of winning they feel it. That has value, particularly after eight years of Obama essentially making them feel like The Other in their own country. The effect of this is pronounced; there may have been racism embedded in these communities, but it had grown latent enough that Obama had carried enough of their votes to win the presidency. Now, the same tribalism and militancy Obama has promoted in the black community has taken hold in these places and Trump has benefited from it.
This isn’t to say Trump is racist or even that his supporters are. It is to say that Obama’s divisiveness was going to provoke a reaction and there is some percentage of Trump’s support which is manifesting itself as such. And as unsavory as some might find it, there are real concerns driving a more aggressive white tribalism. These people hate political correctness, they reject popular culture’s disdain for traditional American patriotism, they don’t see the great benefits of immigration, they see “leading from behind” and a globalist foreign policy view as bowing down to some un-American world order and they want an end to economic and cultural decline. To call those concerns racist is an illegitimate argument and a demeaning one; many of these people are tired of being demeaned.
But the facts are on Williamson’s side. Voting for Trump might make you feel good, but to improve the quality of your life you have to take the same steps whether you’re white or black – don’t have kids out of wedlock, don’t drink to excess or take drugs, get married and stay married, learn and hopefully master a marketable skill. As bad as things might be in Garbutt, there are places even in this lousy economy where those steps will result in an upwardly mobile life and in those places the concern isn’t for the white underclass or the non-white underclass; it’s where to find enough quality employees to staff the plant.
Williamson can be interpreted to say those Trump voters in Garbutt aren’t going to be quality employees, just like the Hillary or Bernie voters in Detroit are not. And he might be right in that. But he won’t make people happy in saying so.
It is a viable critique, however, to note that Williamson isn’t giving quite enough emphasis to the role of government in accelerating the decline both of Garbutt and Detroit. The reason there are fewer U-Hauls leaving Garbutt than there perhaps should be is the federal government, which makes far too many people who could be moving on for their own good comfortable in sloth and poverty.
Welfare pays more than menial work, though welfare is a barrier to advancement in the labor force.
And we spend much time tut-tutting the effect the welfare state has on the urban deserts of Detroit, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Newark and St. Louis, and not without reason – the effects over two generations since the formation of LBJ’s Great Society are undeniable. But in all that time there have been far more white people drawing welfare than blacks or other minorities. Did anyone really believe that the effects of the welfare state – the alcohol and drugs, the out-of-wedlock childbirth, the poor educational attainment, the misspent time and energy, the hopelessness, the petty and soon violent crime – would be limited to inner-city blacks? Of course not. Garbutt, and other predominantly white towns littering the landscape where dependency and failure are the rule, was entirely predictable. And while tough talk aimed at changing the choices which lead to that failure is laudable despite the controversy it causes, the role bad public policy has played in enabling that decline should not go unnoticed.
– Speaking of long articles, I wrote one myself at The American Spectator on the atrocious display the desperate Republican establishment has offered this week…
Already, a gaggle of Washington movers and shakers advertised as having vetted Republican candidates for decades had agreed to appear on Showtime’s political reality series The Circusat The Prime Rib, a tony K Street steakhouse, to discuss their alarm at the Trump phenomenon, with the results playing out all over cable news. The three-minute video segment of such long-time establishmentarians as former Republican National Committee chair Mike Duncan, former Congressman Vin Weber, and GOP pollster and McCain adviser Ed Goeas complaining about Trump and telegraphing their efforts to torpedo his campaign is dumbfounding in its tone-deafness and breathtaking in its snooty arrogance.
“He’s not articulate, he’s not poised, he’s not informed,” complains former Reagan and Bush advisor Ed Rogers, currently partners with former Mississippi governor and ex-RNC chair Haley Barbour in the prominent K Street lobbying firm BGR. “All he has going for him is a lot of votes.”
That so many high-end Republican establishment figures would appear on television in a setting designed to look like they’re conspiring against the party’s frontrunner is a perfect manifestation of how brainless the GOP has become.
No sooner had the conspiratorial cabal played out on Showtime than even more questionable antics were to follow. By Wednesday, a day after Trump’s victories put GOPe favorite Marco Rubio out of the race and made Ohio governor John Kasich a mathematical certainty not to be the nominee, the latter was all over television openly discussing brokered conventions and how he would win in Cleveland without the support of any voters outside of his home state.
That was amplified by a foolish statement out of the mouth of Curly Haugland, a North Dakota businessman and longtime RNC member, who went on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” and declared “The media has created the perception that the voters choose the nomination. That’s the conflict here,” implying that it’s party bigwigs and not the GOP electorate who have the real power. Haugland’s dumb statement was a follow-up to a letter he wrote to all the presidential campaigns back in November suggesting a rule change opening the convention to whomever would like to engage in a floor fight in Cleveland, regardless of whether the voters had rejected said candidates.
Then Mitch McConnell, the radioactively unpopular Senate Majority Leader whose record of failure in stopping Barack Obama’s agenda since Republican voters had given him his current position in the 2014 elections created Trump and Ted Cruz as GOP frontrunners, demanded that Cruz apologize for rightfully calling him a liar in exchange for the support of his Senate colleagues virtually nobody in the Republican electorate believes has much value. When McConnell’s deposed House counterpart John Boehner emerged from a cloud of spray-tan and cigarette smoke in his retirement to declare his support for current House Speaker Paul Ryan as the nominee, something Ryan had to quickly disavow, the explosion of political stupidity was complete.
I go on to note that the Republican establishment exists in large measure as a racket designed to separate rich and upper-middle class donors from their hard-won lucre, and far less so as a vehicle to political power to be used for the advancement of the conservative cause. As such, those donors, who I describe thusly…
It’s not that they’re stupid people, or some species of rube. It’s that the donors are out of touch with regular folks and unable to see the big picture.
Here’s why. Your standard big-money Republican donor is a self-made multi-millionaire, who built a terrific company with his bare hands and is now enjoying the fruits of his labors. He lives in a mansion, in a gated community on a golf course in a tony section of town. He’s successful, which means unlike the rest of us he doesn’t watch a lot of TV and what he does watch is CNBC and Fox News. He never listens to Top 40 radio, he goes to the movies only once in a while, and he vacations in exclusive locales. He and his wife shop in upscale retail locations, even for groceries. He has season tickets to the local NFL team; he’s in a suite. His kids go to expensive private schools and, rather than hooping it up on a public basketball court in town, play tennis or golf at the club in the afternoons.
In short, he has bought himself out of regular American culture. What he knows of the status quo is that it’s great — that status quo is what enabled him to make his millions. And all he really needs to do, he thinks, is to buy politicians who’ll keep things as they are.
He has no idea that his status quo, along with American culture, is melting beneath his feet. He has no idea who Big Freedia or Lil’ Wayne are. His knowledge of meth comes from the one time he watched Breaking Bad and decided it wasn’t his thing.
And that donor can be had by a consultant selling snake oil — “we’ll inundate the airwaves with 30 second ads and seal up the election; just make that check out to XYZ PAC.” He’s shocked to find out that the American people are buying what Trump is selling. He’s appalled that the working class, which he might even have originated from, is resentful of Pedro, the hard-working and respectful young man who immaculately manicures his lawn. And so he writes another $10,000 check to the PAC which the consultants swear will insure Trump won’t win in Tennessee. Or Kentucky. Or Illinois.
…are given over to check-writing at political fundraisers and seldom bother with efforts at changing the culture. They end up scratching their heads over why the bigwigs at The Prime Rib can’t figure out how to beat Trump.
These two things are tied together. The Democrats are in touch with America’s underclass; they should be, as it’s mostly their policies contributing to its growth. They know how to talk to these people, though increasingly their appeal is restricted to non-white Poor America. Republicans don’t, but Trump does. And after seven years of Obama, this is increasingly an underclass country.
That’s what decline feels like. It’s interesting that the fatcats at The Prime Rib are starting to perceive the same frustration and hopelessness the folks in Garbutt and Detroit have felt for quite some time.
We’ll all go down together, apparently.
Cruz catching Graham’s endorsement now that he’s the only one who can beat Trump in the GOP primary race is at best a mixed bag, and he’s going to get the grudging endorsement of a lot more Republican Beltway types. And he won’t have to apologize to McConnell to get them.
Which is why I thought of this…