Strength Is Good
Liberals, the kind of people who write for many newspapers and who staff most colleges and universities in North America and Western Europe, are still trying to figure out why political candidates antithetical to their views seem to be resurgent. Only just a few years ago, with Barack Obama in the Washington White House and Angela (“Wir schaffen das/we can do this”) Merkel taking a pro-immigration stance in Berlin (if you can make it here, we’ll take you in), coupled with the belief that China would liberalize politically as it liberalized economically, and with more and more countries queueing up to join NATO and the EU, it seemed that Francis Fukuyama had finally been proven right about this “end of history” business: the fight was over, and liberal democracy had won. Close the history books; end of story.
Then, as is well known, stuff happened. Russia invaded Ukraine. Merkel was forced to slam the door shut on unchecked immigration. Right-wing parties made strides in Germany and other Central European countries. Great Britain voted for Brexit, albeit far from unanimously. Messrs Putin and Xi doubled down on control of their respective countries. And of course, Donald Trump was elected president of the US, vowing to “tear up” NAFTA, curb if not eliminate immigration, allow religious conservatives to discriminate against groups they disapprove of, and oh yes, cause millions of largely poorer Americans to lose their health insurance as a way of giving tax cuts to corporations and the rich. (Not that it was a clean sweep for conservatives. Marine LePen lost big in France, rather to everyone’s surprise.)
Liberals, of whom I still consider myself one, are digesting all this. Is it a return to fascism, which famously played such a large role in mid-20th century Europe? Is it fear of people with darker skins? Is it an attempt to turn back the clock to the time when white males enjoyed almost unfettered power? Is it economic nostalgia based for a world where Western countries employed much of their lower- and middle-middle class doing industrial work in factories or extracting coal from the Earth? Certainly these play a role, and the causes of this resurgence of the right vary from country to country, region to region.
Arizona and New Mexico are more concerned with the negative effects of illegal (by liberals called “undocumented”) immigrants from Central America than is Maine; Greece, Italy and Malta are more concerned with boat people from Africa than are countries like Finland, Norway, or Taiwan. But people travel fast these days, and what was initially a problem near the ports of entry quickly turns into a problem, or at least an issue, further away. Now Sweden has begun to have problems associated with its formerly liberal immigration policies. Similarly, the spill-over effects on real dictatorships, such as those in North Korea, China, Russia, and to a large degree Venezuela, of a White House inhabitant who seems to accept many of the tenets of authoritarianism, including attacks on the judiciary and the press, are undoubtedly real if hard to measure. The web of influences across the globe is puzzlingly complex.
The types of right-wing resurgence are various. Yet they overlap. At the center of all these various apparent right-wing resurgences, converging like the circles in a Venn diagram, is something that liberals have failed to take account of. The area of convergence of all these various if related right-wing movements is the fact that liberals have largely wasted their forward impetus by supporting weakness, trumpeting marginalized groups who feel excluded from power, rather than acknowledging the clear fact that strength is in fact a good thing. Liberals have frittered away their moral authority because they not only defend but apparently also lionize the weak and dispossessed, rather than celebrating the status all these wish to achieve. The bad guys for liberals are, counter-intuitively, those who already have the position of powerful insiders that all the outsiders wish to achieve, those darlings of the liberals.
Of course the insiders would resist this—the people who already have passports to rich Western countries, say; men in general; straight white men in particular. You don’t have to be hopelessly mired in the past, a proponent of white nationalism, or what is called a homophobic to say that strength is good. (In fact many people not happy with gay marriage aren’t afraid of same-sex sex at all, they merely disapprove of it.) Even those with less power than those who currently have it (caricatured as the straight white male citizens of Western nations, to line up the positives all at once) think power is good. Otherwise they wouldn’t be clamoring so hard to get it.
Liberalism nowadays has lost sight of this fact, and that’s the reason why its power is diminishing, with large chunks being taken out of it by diverse movements in far-flung parts of the world. If they want to retain what until recently seemed their own position as spokesperson for the Zeitgeist, liberals will have to start saying loud and clear that strength is a good thing, not—as they currently seem to say—bad. In the crony capitalism world currently ascendant in the US, this means acknowledging that rich is good. At any rate, everybody seems to want this.
The source of right-wing resurgence in the US is the sense, justified or not, that liberals want to take away the things that successful people have worked for and give them to people who haven’t. It’s possible to justify wealth re-distribution on several grounds, but liberals typically don’t start by acknowledging that it’s good to acquire wealth at all. These grounds include saying that the gains were acquired as a result of laws designed to ensure them, that the common good requires some sharing of monetary success on the grounds of common decency (or to discourage revolution), and the fact that in order to acquire wealth, the successful ones had to depend on countless other people necessary to that success, so paybacks are only in order. But liberals typically fail to make these yes-but arguments, going instead for a full frontal attack on those who have the things others want. Rich is bad. Most people think rich is good, so the market share of liberalism is shrinking.
Similar attacks are mounted on men over women (who are portrayed as wanting to keep their power, and pay women less per hour than they themselves are paid), on whites over non-whites, jealous to keep their formerly unalloyed positions of influence, and on Westerners with passports over those who don’t have them: keep out of my country! Things have gotten so odd that the very fact of being a straight white Western male is taken by many liberals as a sign that the individual is ipso facto a bad person. Anybody in a position of having more or being more is bad. No wonder there is a resurgence of conservative ideals, even if some of them are, in fact, racist and/or proto-fascist. At their center is the fact that all of us want the things that those being attacked already have, and saying the opposite is simply not true. Most people can smell a lie even if they can’t locate the source of the odor: this is liberalism’s great lie.
After all, the quintessential liberal philosopher is John Rawls, usually considered the most influential philosopher of the late 20th century in the Anglophone world, as Wittgenstein was of the early 20th century. It was Rawls who articulated, in his book A Theory of Justice, the now widespread liberal dogma that any evidence of inequality was ipso facto unfair—his early article on which this book is based is called “Justice as Fairness.” Rawls’s proto-Platonic creation myth is by now well known: we are to imagine souls waiting to be born, each of which gets a certain position or basket of qualities, some good and some not so good. Fairness for Rawls would be a variation on Solomonic law: you can choose the situation you wish to be born into (presumably a good one) but then others get to pick first who gets what situation. Presumably you wouldn’t create a more favorable situation for yourself if someone else could snatch it first: the result would be something close to perfect equality, hence justice in the world lottery, because equality, thus fairness. But who says fairness requires equality?
Of course those who got the better deal may well be defending their better deal because they simply want to keep it: such as my deal, born an American past World War II to two college professor parents in an intact household, white, IQ high enough to justify the Mensa card in my wallet, education at the best and most prestigious schools in the world (including several in Europe), and on top of that, facility with foreign languages, a face and body good looking enough to allow me to work as a print model for a time, and oh yes, did I mention that I’m 6 2 ½ and muscular? That I know how to dress and which fork to use?
Of course I lucked out. But attacking me for having it all is not the way to go, because I couldn’t help having those advantages—that everybody else wants too; check out the droves of people lining up to come to North America or to go to the schools I went to—and moreover, I worked my butt off to maximize those advantages. Yes, I was born on third base, but I crawled on my knees to home plate to get my run—to put it in baseball terms, and to echo critics’ assessments of US President George W. Bush (43) that he was born on third base and thought he hit a home run. And of course it’s true that I was born on third base because many others weren’t. But that’s not my fault, and they would kill to be in my position—as Rawls implicitly suggests: if some other unborn soul had the chance to snatch my position, s/(t)he(y) would do so in an unborn heartbeat.
What’s infuriating about rich people, or pretty people, or smart people, or tall people, or white people, to those who don’t have these advantages, are the cases where those with the advantages seem to say that they deserved these things simply because they are better. Social Darwinism, dear to the rich, encourages people to think that all winners are actually better people and everyone else is a loser. Those who win do so because they deserved it. (The Indian caste system has many of these qualities, so it’s not just Westerners who incline to this way of thought.) But of course there are many drags built into a system that prevents the best or most hard-working or most original from getting any rewards, much less monetary ones. The greatest literature is only rarely the biggest seller, for instance, and laws to protect inherited wealth frequently favorize second- and third-generation wastrels, just as the European aristocrats became inbred sloths boozing themselves into gouty senescence. And money in many cases famously feeds ostentatious vulgarity.
So it is not necessarily true that because you have it, you deserve it. Instead, it suggests that those who did get advantages have a responsibility to others who are not so fortunate. And that is precisely what is missing these days from many of those who lucked out in the lottery of life. Indeed, the greater the waste and frivolity in the privileged classes, inevitably conservative in outlook (yes, they want things to stay this way), the more liberals seem justified in seeing intrinsic illegitimacy in the state of having more.
But it’s hard to say which is the chicken and which the egg here: perhaps most accurately it’s a vicious circle. What is true is that each side has hardened against the other. The conservative side has hardened into the conviction that liberals want to take away the things they have. The liberal side has hardened into what we call identity politics, with countless marginalized groups like guerillas come down from the hills to storm the presidential palace. These do seem to villainize those who have the things that they, the guerillas, want for themselves. The rhetoric is of the unfairness of unequal distribution (because they didn’t get as much), but in fact what they mean is that they want to be in the President’s palace. In terms of academia, which (alas) is my world, this means: put our authors on the syllabi, hire our people to the now-rare tenure-track Assistant Professorships. Death to white male neo-colonial privilege! That frees up spots for us. And we get to define who is a member of those groups. Half-Hispanic? Tenth Native American? The US’s racist “one-drop” Jim Crow laws seem to apply, or Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws deciding who counted as a Jew. Only now the same game is being played for advantage, not disadvantage. It’s still disgusting.
I think it’s good and healthy to identify with winners rather than losers, even if the individuals who stand for these groups are not themselves good examples of their groups. It’s good for people to emulate the strong—it doesn’t mean they admire fascism, it just means they’re healthy. George Bernard Shaw argued this in his play Major Barbara. (Shaw was himself a wispy celibate Socialist vegetarian, so perhaps not what most of us think of as a fascist poster-boy.) His title character Barbara, the grand-daughter of an Earl, is given the option of using the morally repellent millions gained from her father’s munitions factory to do with as she, and the Classics professor she marries, choose—or to reject the money and continue to offer scraps to the poor in the Salvation Army soup kitchens, whose clients despise her. (She’s “Major Barbara” in the Salvation Army.) Barbara—and Shaw—choose strength over weakness, using her estranged father’s millions, as he helpfully suggests, to “make war on war” if she so chooses. Weakness is not an attractive position. Strength is.
The Problem with Liberals
Begins to explain why what, for liberals in the USA, my home, is the “wrong side” won the 2016 presidential election, and why President Trump’s “base” seems to be largely still with him despite all his boorishness and incompetence, not to mention downright scary behavior. Initially they got as far as “Oops! We forgot Ohio!” or a wondering acknowledgement that “Middle America” does in fact exist. Which is why J.D. Vance’s depressing memoir of his vicious childhood called Hillbilly Elegy seems to still be so popular with these same elite, and was on the required reading list for a number of colleges for incoming freshmen in 2017. It allows liberals and Hillary voters to feel superior. Trump supporters are in this view violent, under-educated, exclusively fringe elements. None of this is the fault of liberals.
I don’t see it that way. Plenty is the fault of the liberal educated elite—and it’s not just that they didn’t get out of their demographic bubble, or didn’t see the power of Twitter. Donald Trump is in the White House, and continues to get support from his “base,” because liberals were so in love with weakness and victimhood that through everything they said and did, they alienated many normal people. The repellent extremists aside for a moment, these are the people who are sticking by Trump, excusing his Twitter excesses, his personal attacks, and the fact that he apparently thinks he’s just so darn cute in everything he does.
Trump of course (to make my personal stance clear) is a circus clown who found himself proclaimed ringmaster and who knows only how to be a clown, and apparently thinks that’s what he was hired to do. But the issue of greater interest is why enough people wanted to try him as ringmaster to begin with, and why they have not abandoned him after his incompetence and blindness, not to mention basic nastiness and pettiness, have become clear. Conflating the crazies with Trump’s not-crazy base, shrinking though it may be, may be satisfying in the short run but is deeply counter-productive, not to mention simply wrong.
The problem with liberals is that we’re causy. We’re out to help the unfortunate and dispossessed, the marginal and the weak. That of course what’s also great about liberals; conservatives say sink or swim, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, and so on. They love the one member of a clearly less-advantaged group who bucks the trend (though usually with the help of a liberal-sponsored social program) and then claims s/he/they did it alone. Liberals identify dispossessed groups to bring them inside the fence. Most conservatives don’t object to leveling the playing field, say by removing the caps on Jewish students the Ivy League had until mid-20th century. What they object to is the attempt to achieve the results liberals visualize right here right now, by moving individuals about: say racial affirmative action in colleges or for jobs. If you check a box saying you are (say) Native American, you’re in. (Trump is not wrong to make fun of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren for having identified herself as Native American while a law professor at Harvard, though he squanders his advantage by referring to her as “Pocahontas.”)
Thus liberals end up focused on the weak, not the strong. And normal people want to be strong. All liberal air time is spent establishing group identity for those we have decided need our help in getting ahead. This is problematic for two reasons. First is the moral smugness of the fact that we liberals are the ones who get to say who’s marginalized—maybe they aren’t? Maybe they can do it without us? We insist on being Lady Bountiful with our programs designed to help the unfortunate. But that means we get to decide who the Deserving Poor are, to put it in Victorian terms. What if someone we insist is a member of a marginalized group wants to get ahead on his/her/their own? Why do we assume everyone will be grateful for our help, say in racial affirmative admissions to college? Of course if goodies are being given out, it’s clear that most people will accept them gladly. Yes! I too am a victim!
Yet the even more counter-productive aspect of liberal well-meaning pity for the unfortunate is that no time at all is spent even considering, much less praising, the mainstream or not-disadvantaged whom the marginalized are being helped to join. Liberals rarely celebrate what everyone apparently wants, which is strength and power. Instead they berate the strong and powerful for (as they always assume) denying these things to others. The result is that liberals seem as obsessed with the weak as St. Catherine of Siena, who drank puss of the sick people she was tending to humiliate herself.
Mainstream US newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post or British publications like The Guardian or the London Review of Books are of course dedicated to responsible fact-based journalism, not “fake news,” and the sight of the President of the United States attacking them when they write unflattering articles shows that the world leader is tilting towards authoritarianism. That said (and apparently we need to say it repeatedly), it is at the same time absolutely true that they are biased—not in a denial of objectivity, but in the direction of their attention. We can still see the world objectively even if our sightlines are restricted, or if we are looking up rather than down (or the reverse): limited interest and a predictable stance is not the same as merely making things up. But it is a sort of bias. And liberal newspapers are biased.
The New York Times never met a member of a minority group identified as weaker it failed to like, so that’s what its stories are about. If it’s not the first black female student commander at the US Military Academy at West Point (take that, white male privilege!), it’s transgender this or that, or the first openly X or Y member of Z former bastion of white male privilege, or the saga of immigrants from A or B who, though admittedly illegal, are lovely people. There is of course no news value in yet another white male student commander at West Point, or legal immigrants with solid jobs, so their failure to cover that is quite understandable from a financial perspective. But the cumulative message of the tongue-lolling interest of our best newspapers in the climb up the ladder of the disenfranchised is that the people they all apparently want to be are meaningless. And yes, the gold standard of the enfranchised are straight white males, who cannot feel even legitimately aggrieved at the lack of interest by the media in their lives without being accused of being homophobic, misogynistic racists. Usually they don’t even bother to complain. They just withdraw and go get drunk with each other—or wait until there is a political candidate who says something close enough to what they think that they will vote for that person. Silence from those attacked doesn’t mean consent; it just means they are waiting for a chance to counter-attack.
Advocates for the disenfranchised have no sympathy for the hurt feelings of the non-marginal, who after all have less to complain about and a correspondingly less aggressive outlook. So the enfranchised, when they voice puzzlement at the fact that for most of the media they apparently don’t exist, are always shouted down by the shrill advocates for one splinter group or another. This produces misunderstandings on both sides: advocates for the weak reason rightly enough that the strong don’t need advocates, so all attention is focused on the weak. And also resources—perhaps not a lot in absolute terms, but because this is all liberals talk about, except to criticize the strong for hogging them all, everyone is convinced that the lion’s share goes to those who haven’t pulled themselves up alone. It seems as if liberals want to reward people who haven’t achieved what others have, and neglect those they should be celebrating.
This situation leads to the situation on North American and British college campuses where there is month after month dedicated to splinter groups—African-American month, Native American month, and so on, but when white students try to mount a European-American month (or club) they are accused of racism. So too the resentment of some whites over what seems the inordinate amount of spending devoted to groups of people that don’t seem to be doing a lot to better their own situation. For liberals it’s giving a few crumbs from the table of the rich to the less fortunate. But because they give short shrift to the people who don’t get the crumbs, of course largely because they don’t need them, it sends the message that only the have-nots are worthwhile.
Helping out the unfortunate is one thing, but liberals have gone far beyond this to apparently holding that the only people worth talking about or admiring are the disenfranchised and weak. In the US, you have to go to the movies or a football game to admire large muscular men, or join the fetishistic cult of military worship to see anybody you’d even remotely want to be. And that produces a combination of fascism and escapism, which is just about the only way liberals seem to think those who admire strength rather than weakness can express the idea that winning is better than losing.
Welcome to the Eastern Shore of Maryland
The group of people I know best who reject liberal infatuation for the weak are US Trump supporters. So that’s the group I can best talk about here, as an example of my contention that you don’t have to be an uneducated misogynistic racist to reject liberalism as it has become today.
Most of the people I grew up with on Maryland’s Eastern Shore (east of the Chesapeake Bay) are Trump supporters, as are most of the people I work with in the military, as a civilian professor of English at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland (not to be confused with the Canadian Annapolis Valley, whose local university is Dalhousie). I’m here to tell liberals who have grown up in places like Palo Alto and Cambridge (either MA or GB) that these Trump supporters are not bad people. Most believe in many good things such as hard work, self-reliance, and sacrifice for their families (perhaps not for others’ families—they think their relatives deserve the fruits of their work more than do strangers—imagine that!). Not all are the liberal caricature of those who still stand by Trump, the out of work rednecks of Appalachia known to liberals through Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.
Like Vance, I grew up among what would later become Trump voters, only they weren’t unemployed factory hands who had trouble graduating from high school. Maryland’s Eastern Shore never had factories, aside from the Wayne Pump Company that closed down decades ago (I once filled up my car in Tokyo from a Wayne Pump Company pump—but that was then). It’s always been isolated, and rural, home of Perdue chickens (Frank Perdue lived down the street from my mother) and lots of pig farms. You can smell the chicken shit on the fields in the spring; the nitrogen from the run-off caused mutant fish in the Chicamacomico River some years ago.
It’s rural, but not redneck. The local college where my parents taught now styles itself rather grandly Salisbury University, though it started life as the State Normal School, then State Teachers’ College, then Salisbury State College, then Salisbury State University; it draws people from the “Western Shore” (of the Chesapeake Bay, of course, the only other alternative that plays a role in the binary geography of Eastern Shore folks’ minds) but few from out of state.
In many ways, Salisbury is a typical American small town. The first mall, quite the thing in the 60s, with water fountains and inside ponds, killed the downtown area, now a pedestrian street with lawyers’ offices (Salisbury is the county seat with a courthouse), and was in turn killed by the even bigger mall on the north side of town, that is almost in Delaware. Then they tore the old mall down; now it’s a mangy parking lot. There are many churches, and many picturesquely named towns—Whaleyville, Powelville, Walston Switch (from the defunk railroad), Willards, even Fruitland, where I lived as a child.
The area went heavily for Trump; it has a “Freedom Caucus” Congressman, Andy Harris, and always votes Republican, as does the Appalachian panhandle of Western Maryland. It’s only the fact that the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. and Baltimore vote Democratic that makes the state a “blue” (Democratic) state at all, though now it has, anomalously, a Republican governor who governs as a pragmatist.
The people I grew up with, those who voted so heavily for Trump, aren’t the wolves that J.D. Vance says he was raised by. They are, by and large, friendly people, church-goers, helpful and kind. They work hard. Racially they’ve come a long way, but then again, they had a long way to go. It’s the South, of course—not the Deep South but the Upper South. I grew up 30 miles south of where Harriet Tubman had her base, and 45 miles south of Frederick Douglass. When I was a child, the “colored” Main Street continued down from the white one, the one killed by the now-razed mall, on the other side of the river. (Even Canadians have read about these things south of the border.) Because the local merchants saw the writing on the wall and agreed to non-discriminatory sales practices, Salisbury was spared the fate of nearby Cambridge, namely to be burned after riots led by H. Rap Brown in 1967. Cambridge, incidentally, isn’t on the Cam but on the Choptank—Indian names alternate with English ones hereabout. Salisbury (English) is in Wicomico County, named for the local native Americans; but Cambridge (English) is in Dorchester County (English), And Mr. Brown, whose name is now Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, is currently serving a prison sentence for a murder committed in 2000.
City folks from Baltimore and Washington, D.C. know Maryland’s Eastern Shore as a congested highway to the Maryland and Delaware beaches in the summer. The backups of beach-goers going east to the Atlantic Ocean across the Shore at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which replaced the ferry across the bay only two years before I was born, can stretch for miles every Friday afternoon beginning well before Memorial Day (end of May). Now they don’t even have to graze the edge of Salisbury; there is a pass-around to siphon off beach traffic.
So how can God-fearing hard-working not-rich but honest people (though hit very hard by the opioid epidemic) vote so overwhelmingly for Trump? No factories to speak of, at least not for decades, and not that they worked in. That was for the “colored,” as were the now-defunkt crab picking houses down in Crisfield, Somerset County, near where my father was born. (The last two pots of Phillips Crab Meat I bought to make crab cakes at home—the Phillips family bought my godmother’s Ocean City Maryland hotel when she and my godfather retired—came from Vietnam, and machines pick what local crabmeat remains.) In fact, though the number of blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay has rebounded, the waterman culture that used to define the Eastern Shore is largely dead: the skipjacks are down to a few, oysters are rare, and crab harvests strictly regulated. Still, the blue crab is the symbol of Maryland. Virginia T-shirts say “Virginia is for Lovers” with a heart; ours say “Maryland is For Crabs” with, of course, a crab. The collapse of Bay seafood is due to pollution, but now the US president almost all of them voted for wants to cut funding to clean up the Bay.
So, um, why did these people vote for Trump? Thomas Frank’s despairing question in his book title What’s the Matter with Kansas? seems appropriate here, but isn’t. (Frank’s conundrum is that the very people who will be hit hardest by right-wing policies vote for the people who espouse them, which from the outside seems a head-scratcher.) Sure, in logical terms, it makes no sense: the Eastern Shore is the poor part of a rich state (Maryland always ranks either first or second in the US, with Connecticut, in terms of per capita income) and so benefits from both federal and state funds—programs that the current administration has vowed to cut. And the people who live here aren’t J.D. Vance’s wolves, just people used to the endless flatness of the landscape, the cawing of sea gulls, and the smell of chicken shit.
For if you don’t take the pass-around at Salisbury you drive right by the big Perdue chicken plant, right at the Wicomico River before the now purposeless Main Street. It stinks of chicken shit. and you can see through the fencing the trucks of cages of chickens, some full, some empty, ready to be fed to the slaughterhouses whose conveyor belts, we read, have been speeded up in recent years so that upside-down chicken carcasses whiz past at the rate of almost one per second. Worker injuries are rampant, according to watchdog groups. Many Hispanics, some illegal, work there. The Salisbury Catholic church now has masses in Spanish. Sometimes chickens apparently hoping to escape their fate get out of the cages on the way in: they are almost always squashed flat on Rt. 50, the one that continues on past Salisbury to the beach houses and condos of the city folks. But the white farmers never worked in the chicken plants; they raised the chickens for Perdue. So it wasn’t their jobs that disappeared. In fact, the Eastern Shore is better off than when I was a child, when the right-wing presidential candidate Barry Goldwater drew crowds when he came to campaign in 1964. (I went with my family and took pictures.)
So once again: Why Trump? It’s not about money. It’s not about jobs, or their lack—despite what J.D. Vance-reading liberals have concluded. Then, as now, the Eastern Shore is a Republican stronghold in a Democratic state. We have to look beyond the self-congratulatory stories liberals tell themselves: that it’s the disaffected, the socially marginal, who pushed things over the top for the president, in a self-destructive and inexplicable gesture of rebellion against “the elites” in the face of his promise to destroy the very health care that kept many of them afloat.
That’s wrong. They’re not the scared scruffy losers afraid of foreigners that liberals think they are. Besides, I’ve worked for 30 years for the military, as a civilian professor at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. Neither the officers nor the officers-in-training, my students, fit this bill. And yet many of them, I’d say the overwhelming majority, support Trump. Now he’s returning the compliment, with the military the only growth aspect of US federal funding: drain the swamp doesn’t seem to apply to the military, despite the spreading stain of the US Navy’s “Fat Leonard” scandal, involving a Malaysian businessman who bribed US Navy officers with liquor and prostitutes to steer ships to his docking facilities.
So now it’s question time. What does a big-talking orange-faced fat man who attacks anybody who disagrees with him and seems most intent on using the US as a personal piggy bank to enrich his family and extend his brand have that attracts groups as apparently diverse as the military and the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland? Two main things. The first is that he doesn’t claim the mantle of victimhood, something that is repellent to his supporters. To be sure, he complains about the US being victimized—by China, by foreigners taking jobs—but he fights back, he refuses to revel in victimhood. He’s probably wrong about the facts, but people don’t vote facts, they vote attitudes, and they like Trump’s. It’s not lost jobs—as the military and the Eastern Shore prove; it’s more abstract than that. It’s an attitude. Be strong. The liberal world, by contrast, has been taken over by the only dogma in their town, the idea that victimhood is powerful. If you can claim you are being discriminated against, or assaulted, or belong to a group that was historically disprivileged, you are, among liberals, golden. This means, women, non-whites, non-heterosexuals, and foreigners.
Liberals see rejection of this mantle of victimhood as the petulant outrage of straight white men clinging futilely to their now-vanished privilege. But that’s not how these people see it themselves. I know, because I live with these people, and well, I’m a straight white man. We see it as simply refusing to crow about weakness. Weakness is bad. It’s something to be overcome, not to revel in. And liberals revel in weakness.
College campuses nowadays all across the Western world shut down with the “heckler’s veto” any speaker who fails to compliment the weak for their weakness—what the hecklers all “hate speech.” One of the dogmas of liberalism is that words are worse than sticks and stones: the world is a verbal construction, just as gender is a “social construction.” Trump voters by contrast see real-world issues, even if arguably they saw them askew. (For the record I think they did, but nobody else talked to them about reality, only verbal constructions.)
And that brings us to the second thing. Men who supported Trump, and here I include what I believe to be most of the US military, which is about 85% male, believe that men are not most primarily members of weak outsider groups, but in fact individuals who act on their own. If they join larger groups, such as the military, they have chosen to do so. They aren’t fated to do so because of the group they are born into. Even women can subscribe to this view of people—individuals, not members of groups, the latter the basis of the identity politics of contemporary academe—either because they themselves are individualists, or admire men who are. Besides, this view seems American: we call it the pursuit of happiness. Not accepting the niche your group condemns you to and trying to make more powerful groups feel guilty.
Both of these groups admire strength, not weakness. And they don’t “do” guilt. They say: I didn’t cause your state. If you don’t like it, do something about it other than blaming others that you have to do something! If the point is that members of some groups (say, straight white males) have an easier time bettering themselves, then say it that way: don’t attack the straight white males. Because liberals do typically attack, a loud white man who talks about grabbing women by their private parts and threatens retaliation against people who he says have harmed the US becomes attractive in a world where everybody else whines. A man is attractive. A powerful man who stands by his family is attractive. Even if he uses third-grade vocabulary and can’t control his Twitter fingers, he’s attractive.
The issue isn’t elite education, Hillary at Wellesley and Yale, Donald at Fordham and Wharton. It’s what you do with it. It’s not resentment of powerful women either, despite what liberals think. A Margaret Thatcher would have gone over well. It’s a question of whom you sympathize with: winners or losers? The Donald campaigned as a winner, even if he wasn’t (cf. his losses and his hucksterism as a real estate developer). Hillary campaigned as being on the side of the losers, even if she herself was a winner (remember: valedictorian at Wellesley College for starters). The world divided into people who saw themselves as victims and people who didn’t, even if to outsiders they seemed so. People voted on their self-image. Those who voted for Trump said: I am not a victim. And when I am screwed, I fight back. It doesn’t matter that nobody was screwing them at all. Politics be damned. Policy be damned. They voted for the loud non-victim.
Trump seemed to speak for enlightened self-interest, what according to Adam Smith, the theoretician of classical capitalism, was regulated by the “invisible hand” of capitalism. Rich people are good. Of course we now know the hand doesn’t do such a good job, so we need some curbs to avoid Wild West winner-take-all capitalism. And we can point out that people who are born into fortunes have advantages that the rest of us don’t: they rich because of the nepotism that Trump’s son Eric said was “a beautiful thing,” as much as or more so than what they did as individuals. And it’s relevant as well to point out that people who act only in their own self-interest can harm others: factory owners free to pollute, coal companies free to blow off the tops of mountains and dump the dirt in streams, banks free to engage in practices beneficial to their owners but deleterious to their clients.
But nobody on the liberal side was arguing that these were excesses rather than the nature of the individualist beast, that getting rich was in fact a good thing, and that non-guilty, self-interested people are a good thing. If we had had a sane middle-of-the-road philosophy that could have admitted that strength and power are good things rather than bad, I don’t think all these groups of people like the voters on the Eastern Shore and the military would have gone for a hollow self-interested bully.
This middle-of-the-road pragmatism is what we lack. And only that can defeat the lure of loud carnival barkers who at least don’t seem ashamed of themselves. Because that’s what liberals want from the strong: guilt. Paradoxically, they demand this from the pages of major newspapers and in filthy-rich elite colleges and universities. That’s the paradox of our times: the powerful organizations see themselves not as powerful but as outsiders valiantly fighting for the rights of the downtrodden, rather than accepting the responsibility that comes with power. Is it any wonder that the president apparently refuses to do the same? Liberals brought this man, and our current state, on themselves.
This pragmatic middle-of-the-road would be a politics that said YES individualism is good. YES capitalism is good. YES strength is good YES men are good Yes Yes Yes (to quote Molly Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses). Of course any of these things has excesses—but let’s talk first about why these things are good before we talk about how they can go wrong. It’s good that men come on to women; of course rape at frat parties is bad. Now let’s focus on that, not on the general male sin of so-called “sexual assault.” Yes there is such a thing as discrimination, but when a member of a group that feels disprivileged fails to get X or Y, this doesn’t necessarily mean they were discriminated against. Straight white men don’t sit up late figuring out how to screw other groups over. We have far too many problems of our own, because the universe isn’t handed to most of us either. We’re fighting to get ahead just the way you are. Oh, we started off further along? Possibly, but we didn’t choose that, so why try to make us feel guilty about it? We want what you want. So let’s talk. And if we resent liberals bending over backwards to benefit you at the cost of vilifying us, isn’t that understandable?
Most people reading this lucked out. We’re mostly North American or Western European. We live in nice houses and drive nice cars to work, eat nice food, go on nice vacations, wear nice clothes, and live in nice societies. So we are the fortunate of the Earth. Did we get these things by screwing over everybody else? Did tall good-looking people get their privileges by oppressing all others? No, we were born that way, and have choices what to do with that fact, just as the people who were born in other circumstances were born that way and have choices as well.
What we should hear is: you got more, so you have greater responsibility. Acknowledge your advantages, and use them for everyone’s benefit—yours, your family’s, and others you don’t know. But what we in fact hear is the shrill voices of liberals screeching Check your privilege! As a straight white male talking to a non-straight non-white non-male (or any combination), YOU CANNOT WIN THE ARGUMENT SO DON’T EVEN TRY. Give that person whatever he/she/they wants.
Does that mean that we have the obligation to turn the Earth Rawlsian, inviting the illiterate peasants who live in tin-roof shacks in India or the dwellers of slums in Africa into our houses and cities? So much room, such big houses—plenty of room for others! Let the migration begin! And why make it a condition of entry that they brave countless hardships, even death, to come to us? Send planes to fetch them! A dozen people could sleep in my living room, and probably I could feed them too, at least in the long run.
Is it morally wrong to resist this view? To say, if I am born tall and intelligent I must break my legs and become stupid, perhaps by assiduous drug use, to even things out? Liberals nowadays seem to say yes, any advantage is ill-got gains that shows only that those with the advantages are set on keeping others down. The only way you can avoid the taint of privilege is by being disprivileged. Even if what the disprivileged want is the opposite.
No wonder there is an upsurgence of support for the right all over the world. It’s not just to my disadvantage if I accept that I have to cut myself down to the size of the smallest among us. It’s logical nonsense. Making myself stupider or shorter doesn’t make others more intelligent, and impoverishing myself feeding a hundred refugees in my house means I don’t teach my students, read (or write) my books, or raise my own children. And for that matter, why should I be feeding these strangers? I’m concerned with feeding my family. And yes, sharing with the least fortunate of those around me. Because I do feel a sense of responsibility to others precisely because I lucked out in the raw material, then worked hard to maximize it. What I don’t feel is guilt.
Liberals want us all to feel guilt. Conservatives say no. Conservatives are right.