Archive for January, 2017

White Trash and Democracy in America

I set to reading White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg, a significant book of 2016, in light of the disastrous election of Donald Trump to the presidency. After finishing the book, I immediately began re-reading Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America. I wanted to revisit what de Toqueville had to say about American culture and society in the era of Andrew Jackson when the Frenchman wrote his observations. The first volume was published in 1835 and the second volume in 1840. I first read the book in the late 1960s.

Isenberg argues that there has been a permanent underclass in the United States from the colonial period through the present-day. The powerful echelons of society have manipulated the underclass to preserve the existing hierarchy. As she traces the history of the underclass, her purpose is to dispel the myth that the United States is a classless society and that the permanent underclass represents an Achilles’ heel that may cause democracy’s eventual downfall. As in Jackson’s time, the underclass rebelled and voted into office a clearly unfit man for the presidency, similar to what happened in the elevation of Trump. Andrew Jackson is responsible for genocide and deportation of Native-Americans from their homes to west of the Mississippi, a policy that appealed to both plantation owners and the poor whites without property, who quickly occupied tribal lands.

De Toqueville’s book concentrates on analysis of how equality operates in the new republic. He dissects the strengths and the weaknesses of a popular majority. An aristocrat, he admires much about the fledgling American democracy but also expresses reservations over democracy’s susceptibility to the rise of mediocrity both in government officials and in the arts. He is prescient in so many areas, predicting a conflict over slavery and the rise of the United States as a maritime and commercial giant. Early in our republic, he notes frequently the anti-intellectual bent in America with a populace suspicious of the elite and convinced that one’s man opinion is as good as another one’s, because every man is equal. He sees a leveling in society and extols a system of political checks and balances. Yet, he interlaces some warnings. He writes:

Thus democratic nations have neither time nor taste to go in search of novel opinions. Even when those they possess become doubtful, they will retain them because it would take too much time and inquiry to change them; they retain them, not as certain, but as established.

As for the durability of our democratic institutions, he ventures this prediction:

 When the American republics begin to degenerate, it will be easy to verify the truth of this observation by remarking whether the number of political impeachments is increased.

Aha! on the presidential level, we’ve had two impeachments, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, and one threatened, Richard Nixon.

In his pursuit of what he likes about the operation of equality in America, De Toqueville comments in passing that “the picture of American society has, if I may so speak, a surface covering of democracy beneath which the old aristocratic colors sometimes peep out.” He fails to elucidate on what he means, unlike Isenberg, who provides a great service by delving deeply into the existence of a permanent underclass in America. What we are seeing day by day, which supports Isenberg’s contention, is Donald Trump maintaining and enlarging the present power structure by including in his administration billionaires, vested interests, and people who have a record of opposition to the policies that would lift up the underclass.

In their everyday struggles to earn a living, the underclass only have time for sound bites and packaged opinions; so that I find de Toqueville’s analysis of public opinion accurate. He writes:

“The people have neither the time nor the means for an investigation of this kind. Their conclusions are hastily formed from a superficial inspection of the prominent features of a question. Hence it often happens that mountebanks of all sorts are able to please the people, while their truest friends frequently fail to gain their confidence.”

That’s why the common working man must have confidence in the credibility of the major reputable news outlets and steer clear of unreliable sources. The perpetual denigration of the White House press corps is the first tactic to undermine a democracy. Red lights should be flashing all over the country, from tiny rural community to urban metropolis.

Lastly, I offer this passage from Isenberg’s book, closer to our time in history. Lyndon Johnson’s quote has been cited before, but it deserves frequent repetition:

Poor whites are still taught to hate–but not to hate those who are keeping them in line. Lyndon Johnson knew this when he quipped, ‘If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.’
We are a country that imagines itself as democratic, and yet the majority has never cared much for equality. Because that’s not how breeding works. Heirs, pedigree, lineage: a pseudo-aristocracy of wealth still finds a way to assert its social power. We see how inherited wealth grants status without any guarantee of merit or talent. To wit: would we know of Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Jesse Jackson Jr., or such Hollywood names as Charlie Sheen and Paris Hilton, except for the fact that these, and many others like them, had powerful, influential parents? Even some men of recognized competence in national politics are products of nepotism: Albert Gore Jr., Rand Paul, Andrew Cuomo, and numerous Kennedys. We give children of the famous a big head start, deferring to them as rightful heirs, a modern-day version of the Puritans’ children of the Elect.

In 1964 Lyndon Baines knew that the permanent impoverishment of the bottom strata of our society had to be corrected.  Here it is 2017, and the underclass is still down and out–under-served, under-represented, and under-funded. The swamp is overflowing with oligarchs. The underclass has been used again; the hierarchy is strengthened and expanded.

Finally, answer this question: As used by de Toqueville, does Trump fit the following definition of a mountebank?  A hawker of quack medicines who attracts customers with stories, jokes or tricks; a flamboyant charlatan.