No matter who wins the election Tuesday, the story of 2016 is that great swaths of the American people spanning the political spectrum have given themselves over to a myth, which is that our problems come from afar—from impersonal economic forces, great migrations, and foreign powers. A powerful part of this myth is that no one and nothing can be trusted, from the media to the banks to the government and law enforcement, because these institutions are corrupt and exist primarily to serve themselves and an elite few.
The 12 million Democrats who voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primaries believe America’s problems come from Wall Street and multinational corporations that have rigged the global economic system to enrich themselves at the expense of working people. The Democratic Party has so completely absorbed these ideas that its nominee, Hillary Clinton, whose entire career has taken the form of rigging the system to enrich and promote herself, now repeats them without irony.
Donald Trump captured the Republican Party nomination by declaring, bluntly and without apology, that America has been sold out by corrupt elites like Clinton, that immigrants and foreign countries are taking advantage of us, and that our leaders are complicit in this. In a crowded GOP field, he channeled the discontent of a Republican primary electorate, or at least a vocal portion of it, that accepts without question the myth of 2016.
Although it’s true that Trump’s primary voters on the one hand, and Sanders’ supporters on the other, do not speak for most Americans, they have revealed the basic myth that most Americans now believe about themselves and their country. After this long general election, with all its scandal and intrigue and outrage, it is impossible to believe that the myth belongs only to a faction of the Democratic Party’s base, or a plurality of GOP primary voters.
Rather, it now defines us broadly as a people, for better and for worse. How we respond to the dictates of its logic will determine much for our country in the near term, regardless of who occupies the White House. Breaking free from this myth and preserving the republic will be America’s great challenge of this century.
We’re All Communists Now
For all the talk of this election being unprecedented—the most important in our history, the one that will decide the fate of the country and so on—something like this has happened before. It has happened more than once, actually, but one era is particularly analogous to our situation today: the 1930s. Not just because of the Great Depression and the upheavals and privations it brought, but also because of what some Americans came to believe about their country and its institutions.
In 1955, the columnist Murray Kempton wrote a short book profiling prominent members of the Communist Party in America during the 1930s. Kempton knew something about his subjects, having dabbled in communism himself during that decade, and he wrote about them with sympathy and candor.
His book is about the myth of the ’30s, which clothed itself in impersonal economic and historical terms but was primarily social. It was this: individuals are nothing, society is everything, and history is moving with inexorable force in a certain direction. Moreover, one must be on the right side of history, or be swept aside. “The heart of the myth of the thirties,” wrote Kempton, “was that there were no neutrals.”
The reality was that most people were indeed neutrals, and the proletariat that American communists sought to mobilize were not as desirous of revolution as they were of other things. But for a certain subset of America’s intelligentsia, the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression brought enough shock and misery to justify this social myth, and it prompted some of them to join the Communist Party. Their names are well known to students of that era: Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, Lee Pressman, Walter Reuther, among many others.
Writing in the 1950s, in the heat of the Cold War when former communists were under investigation by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, Kempton reminded his readers about the strength of that myth: “It is already very hard to remember that, only a generation ago, there were a number of Americans, of significant character and talent, who believed that our society was not merely doomed but undeserving of survival, and to whom every one of its institutions seemed not just unworthy of preservation but crying out to be exterminated.”
The difference between then and now is that our myth is not limited to a small but zealous cadre of intellectuals and labor attorneys; it is rather widespread, embraced by Americans on the Right and the Left, who, like the communists of the ’30s, believe that our political and economic system is not merely doomed but undeserving of survival.
The myth itself, although most often expressed as policies against immigration or free trade or international finance, is at bottom social. Like the myth of the ’30s, our social myth posits, among others things, that individuals are powerless in the face of corrupt institutions, that those institutions cannot be reformed or saved, and that in order to reestablish our rights, the system they support must be torn out, root and branch.
We Blame Our Problems On Outside Forces
The hard part is that our myth isn’t without some merit. The shocks of the past decade-and-a-half, from 9/11 to the Iraq War to the financial crash and the slow recovery, have done much to confirm the view that our sclerotic institutions and the elites who run them are either incompetent or corrupt.
But these observations, although more or less accurate, invite distortion and exaggeration on other matters, like immigration. A report in the Wall Street Journal last week found that regions of the country most unsettled by rapid demographic change are more likely to support Trump. Waves of Hispanic migration to small, mostly white Midwestern towns like Arcadia, Wisconsin, are transforming communities that were, until recently, more or less ethnically homogenous.
Residents of Arcadia, where the share of Hispanic residents increased from 3 to 35 percent between 2000 and 2014, worry that illegal immigrants are crowding the schools and sapping welfare resources. “There is a high suspicion that people coming into our country without citizenship status are entitled to things that we have to work for,” one man told the Journal. “When a politician says that needs to be addressed, we listen.”
Places like Arcadia tended to vote for Trump in the Republican primaries, drawn to his tough anti-immigration rhetoric. But of course many other places across the Midwest and Appalachia that aren’t dealing with an influx of Hispanic immigrants, or any immigrants at all, also voted for Trump in the primaries. What they have in common, besides being overwhelmingly white, is that they are often in a state of decline, and have been for a long time.
Surveying the ruin of their once-prosperous communities, many residents of such places have decided that outsiders and forces beyond their control must be to blame. The irony, of course, is that areas with high levels of immigration are often those that are beginning to reverse decades of decline, as newcomers bring new life and economic growth.
The overarching desire of many Americans, not just those in struggling cities and towns, is change. They want something to change for the better, even if they’re not sure what’s wrong or how to fix it. How else does one explain the phenomena of Obama-Trump voters — those who supported Obama because they wanted change, but when that change never materialized they turned to Trump? The New York Times interviewed a bunch of these voters, and they all said they felt let down. One man, a sales trader from Cleveland, told the Times he is voting for Trump for the exact same reason he voted for Obama: “He is the only person who can get in, I believe, and really bust out the Washington establishment.”
The Problem Is Our Culture, Not Our Politics
Economists and policy wonks will reply that, in fact, we’re not doing all that bad. Our standard of living is higher than it’s ever been. Fewer Americans are in poverty than ever before. The economy might be sluggish, but it’s recovering. And they’re right.
Yet the main stream of America doesn’t feel it. The national mood is dark, and getting darker. From where does the darkness come? The problem is partly a question of proximity. We blame our problems on external forces and faraway things, and often don’t see how they arise from our own homes and communities—from our culture, not our politics.
It is worth remembering, though, that even in the throes of the Great Depression, with millions of Americans out of work, displaced, in many cases hungry and homeless, most people did not join the Communist Party and yearn for revolution. A few did, and they made their mark. But as Kempton wrote in 1955, “The great body of Americans did not believe that their system was mortally ill. Its decline was far more surprising to them than its subsequent recovery.”
We cannot, after the election of 2016, say the same today. The primaries and general election have revealed that a great body of Americans do indeed believe the system is mortally ill. Its decline is taken for granted; its recovery is unimaginable.
This means that no matter who wins the presidency, America has a rough journey ahead. We believe, for now, that our discontent arises from a political problem and that it has political solutions. But it is something more than that, something closer to our homes and communities, and it will take more than politics—or any one political leader—to preserve our republic.