Politics & Policy

Chaos in the Family, Chaos in the State: The White Working Class’s Dysfunction

(Illustration: Roman Genn)
From the March 28, 2016, issue of NR

Michael Brendan Dougherty is bitter. I think that I can write that in both truth and charity. (I think you might even say that he and I are friends.) Dougherty is a conservative of the sort sometimes advertised as “paleo” and served as national correspondent for The American Conservative. Like many conservative writers with those associations, Dougherty spends a great deal of time lambasting the conservative movement and its organs, from which he feels, for whatever reason, estranged — an alienation that carries with it more than a little to suggest that it is somewhat personal.

In 2013, he announced that he planned to set aside political writing to concentrate on the relatively sane world of professional baseball, saying: “National politics has most of the vices of ‘bread and circuses.’ And if that’s the case, pro sports is a better circus.” But it is difficult for a politics man to give up politics — look at all the political crap that ESPN viewers and Sports Illustrated readers have to endure — and he has taken it upon himself in this election cycle to serve as Apostle to the Cathedral, “the Cathedral” being a favorite metaphor of the so-called alt-right for the “distributed conspiracy” (in the words of Curtis Yarvin, a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug) that might in less riled-up times be described as “polite society,” the conventional wisdom among people who live in places such as Washington, D.C., and New York City and work in fields such as politics and media.

You know: Them.

Donald Trump is the headline, and explaining the benighted white working class to Them is the main matter. Sanctimony is the literary mode, for Dougherty and for many others doing the same work with less literary facility.

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?

RELATED: If Your Town Is Failing, Just Go: A Prescription for Impoverished Communities

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.

Trump campaign sign in rural South Carolina. (Sean Rayford/Getty)

Garbutt is Trump Country, and Dougherty, while not a wild-eyed Trumpkin, is generally sympathetic to Trump’s critique of current American economic policy, namely that international trade and immigration are dispossessing the white working class. There is not, in fact, very much evidence for those claims: Immigration does put some downward pressure on wages, but it also puts downward pressure on prices. Native-born low-skilled workers’ money income may have stagnated, but their real income — what they can buy with the money they earn — has continued to improve modestly. The main effect of new immigrants’ wage competition is felt in the wages of earlier immigrants. But the effects of immigration overall are tiny compared with the effects of factors such as health-care expenses. In many lower-end occupations, overall compensation in fact has gone up over the years, but the additional compensation has come largely or entirely in the form of medical benefits. In some cases, the expense of medical benefits has gone up so much that total compensation has increased even while money wages have gone down. That’s the worst of all possible worlds: It costs more to employ those low-skilled American workers, but they don’t feel any richer — and if their employers are paying more for the same benefits (or paying more for inferior benefits under the so-called Affordable Care Act), they aren’t any richer, practically speaking.

In the story of the white working class’s descent into dysfunction, they are the victims and the villains both.

On the trade front, American manufacturing continues to expand and thrive — an absolute economic fact that is, perversely, unknown to the great majority of Americans, who believe precisely the opposite to be the case. Americans have false beliefs about manufacturing for a few reasons: One is that while our factories produce much more than in the past, they employ fewer people; another is that we tend to produce capital goods and import consumer goods — you won’t see much labeled “Made in the USA” at Walmart, but you’ll see it on everything from the aircraft flown by foreign airlines to the robotics in automobile factories overseas. Another factor, particularly relevant to the question of manufacturing and trade, is that a large (but declining) share of those imported consumer goods comes from China, a country with which we have a large trade deficit. That isn’t because the Chinese are clever, but because they are poor: With an average annual income of less than $9,000, the typical Chinese household is not well positioned to buy American-made goods, which are generally expensive. (China is a large consumer of U.S. agricultural products, especially soybeans.) Add to that poorly informed and sentimental ideas about what those old Rust Belt factory jobs actually paid — you can have a 1957 standard of living, if you really want it, quite cheap — and you get a holistic critique of U.S. economic policy that is wholly bunk.

Which isn’t to say that the Mikes of Dougherty’s world have it good — they don’t. But they aren’t victims of the wily Chinese, scheming to make them poor: In the story of the white working class’s descent into dysfunction, they are the victims and the villains both.

RELATED: The White Ghetto: In Appalachia, The Country Is Beautiful and the Society is Broken

The Washington Post’s “Wonkbook” newsletter compared the counties Trump won in the so-called Super Tuesday primaries with the demographic data and found trends that will surprise no one who has been paying attention (and certainly no one, I hope, who has been reading this magazine). The life expectancies among non-college-educated white Americans have been plummeting in an almost unprecedented fashion, a trend not seen on such a large scale since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the social anarchy that prevailed in Russia afterward. Trump counties had proportionally fewer people with college degrees. Trump counties had fewer people working. And the white people in Trump counties were likely to die younger. The causes of death were “increased rates of disease and ill health, increased drug overdose and abuse, and suicide,” the Post’s Wonkblog website reported.

This is horrifyingly consistent with other findings.

The manufacturing numbers — and the entire gloriously complex tale of globalization — go in fits and starts: a little improvement here, a little improvement there, and a radically better world in raw material terms (and let’s not sniff at those) every couple of decades. Go back and read the novels of the 1980s or watch The Brady Bunch and ask yourself why well-to-do suburban families living in large, comfortable homes and holding down prestigious jobs were worried about the price of butter and meat, and then ask yourself when was the last time you heard someone complain that he couldn’t afford a stick of butter. That change happened a little at a time, here and there.

RELATED: Working-Class-White Deaths Are a Cultural Problem

The family-life numbers, on the other hand, came down on us like a meteor. Before the war, divorce had been such an alien phenomenon that it animated such shaggy-dog stories as The Gay Divorcee, a play in which a fictitious act of adultery had to be invented to move the plot forward.

Divorce in 1960 was so rare as to carry a hint of scandalous glamour, which it kept throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with women’s magazines writing lifestyle pieces about informal weekday dinner parties for divorcées (the word itself is today faintly ludicrous) and men’s magazines celebrating divorce as a second adolescence.

The divorce rate doubled over the span of a few decades — even as the marriage rate was declining. Add to that the violence of abortion, which fundamentally alters the relationship between men, women, and children, and what exactly “family” means to those of us born around the time Roe v. Wade was decided becomes a very difficult question.

(Joe Raedle/Getty)

The concept of the nation as an extended family is the notion that separates American-style conservatism, with its roots in the classical-liberal ideas that informed the American founding, from blood-and-soil, throne-and-altar European nationalism. In Europe, this is an idea popular with the Right: It is entirely unsurprising that Trump has enjoyed the endorsement of, among other European rightists, Jean-Marie Le Pen. In the United States, it is an idea — and an error — popular on both sides of the political divide: The distastefully squishy progressive writer George Lakoff argues that the American Right prefers a strict patriarchal model of the family and, therefore, a similar model of political life, while the Left is inclined toward the maternal and the nurturing. (Right-wing critics of free trade and free enterprise in the English-speaking world often speak of “nurturing” economic policies, because they do not wish to write the word “socialism.”) But it is an idea that fits at best uneasily with the aspirations of American conservatism.

One of the worst errors in public life is the common one of mistaking the metaphor for the thing itself. In reality — and reality is not optional — the president isn’t the national dad (Governor John Kasich’s insistence notwithstanding), and government is neither paternal nor maternal. The nation isn’t your family. Your family is your family.

RELATED: The Buchanan Boys: The Trump Voters Aren’t a New Phenomenon

The metaphor points both ways: Nationalism may speak to a longing for lost national greatness, but in our own time, it speaks at least as strongly to the longing after — the great howling lamentation for — the ideal family that never was lost, because it never was formed. The Mikes of the world may be struggling to make it in the global economy, but what they really are shut out of is the traditional family. The current social regime of illegitimacy, serial monogamy, abortion, and liberal divorce has rendered traditional families optional, at best — the great majority of divorces are initiated by wives, not by husbands — and the welfare state has at least in part supplanted the Mikes in their role as providers, assuming that they have the wherewithal to fill that role in the first place. Traditional avenues for achieving respect, status, and permanence are lost to them.

Milo Yiannopoulos of Breitbart London has done more to put homosexual camp in the service of right-wing authoritarianism than any man has since the fellows at Hugo Boss sewed all those nifty SS uniforms. He refers to Trump — this will not surprise you — as “Daddy,” capital-D.

It is easy to imagine a generation of young men being raised without fathers and looking out the window like a kid in an after-school special, waiting for Daddy to come home. Many of them slip into harmless Clark Griswold–ism, trying to provide for their own children the ideal families they themselves never had. But some of them end up grown men still staring out that window, waiting for the father-führer figure they have spent their lives imagining, the protector and vindicator who will protect them, provide for them, and set things in order.

RELATED: How Prescription-Drug Abuse Unleashed a Heroin Epidemic

Dougherty cites the work of the conservative polemicist Sam Francis, one of those old capitalism-hating conservatives who very much embraced the paterfamilias model of government. His analysis, like mine, finds emotional and policy links between the Trump movement and its earlier incarnation, the Pat Buchanan movement. For Dougherty, Francis provides the philosophical link. He also provides the stylistic link: He was a kook. “Francis eventually turned into something resembling an all-out white nationalist,” Dougherty writes, “penning his most racist material under a pen name. Buchanan didn’t take Francis’s advice in 1996, not entirely. But 20 years later, [Francis’s book] From Household to Nation reads like a political manifesto from which the Trump campaign springs.” From Household to Nation is typical in that it is based on a category error, asking economics to do what economics doesn’t: to provide the means “not simply to gain material satisfaction but to support families and the social institutions and identities that evolve from families as the fundamental units of human society and human action.” Economics is about satisfying human wants, not defining them. The problem isn’t that Americans cannot sustain families, but that they do not wish to.

It is therefore strange to me that Dougherty so fundamentally misdiagnoses the conservative reaction to Trump: “A Trump win,” he writes in another piece, “at least temporarily threatens the conservative movement, because it threatens to expose how inessential its ideas are to holding together the party.” (Dougherty also equates the fundraising engaged in by conservative organizations with the Social Security fraud that sustains his fictional Mike, a characterization that indicates the emotional temperament at work here.) Of course there is careerism in the conservative movement, but to proceed as though it were impossible to imagine that conservatives oppose a man running (knowingly or not) on a Sam Francis platform because we oppose the loopy crackpot racist ideas of Sam Francis is to perform an intellectual disservice.

Downtown Booneville, Ky. (Mario Tama/Getty)

It is also immoral.

It is immoral because it perpetuates a lie: that the white working class that finds itself attracted to Trump has been victimized by outside forces. It hasn’t. The white middle class may like the idea of Trump as a giant pulsing humanoid middle finger held up in the face of the Cathedral, they may sing hymns to Trump the destroyer and whisper darkly about “globalists” and — odious, stupid term — “the Establishment,” but nobody did this to them. They failed themselves.

RELATED: Working-Class Whites Have Moral Responsibilities — In Defense of Kevin Williamson

If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that.

The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles

Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

If you want to live, get out of Garbutt.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review. This article originally appeared in the March 28, 2016, issue of National Review.

National Review magazine content is typically available only to paid subscribers. Due to the immediacy of this article, it has been made available to you for free. To enjoy the full complement of exceptional National Review magazine content, sign up for a subscription today. A special discounted rate is available for you here.

Most Popular

Education

Betsy DeVos Strikes a Blow for the Constitution

The Department of Education has issued its long-awaited proposed regulations reforming sexual-assault adjudications on college campus. Not only will these rules restore basic due process and fairness to college tribunals, but they also — given how basic the changes are — highlight just how ridiculous ... Read More
Politics & Policy

ABC News Makes a Serious Mistake

Today, across Twitter, I began to see a number of people condemning the Trump administration (and Betsy DeVos, specifically) for imposing a new definition of sexual assault on campus so strict that it would force women to prove that they were so harassed that they'd been chased off campus and couldn't return. ... Read More