Culture

Understanding Trump’s America

William H. Macy as family patriarch Frank Gallagher in Shameless (Showtime)
The societal changes that made his rise possible are plain to see.

I’m a late adopter of many things, including technology and TV shows. Only a few weeks ago, I started watching Shameless, a Showtime series that is eerily revealing in its account of Donald Trump’s America. 

The show, which started in 2011 and continues today, traces the cultural decline of white America not in Appalachia or the rural South but in urban Chicago. It is the story of an older single father — his addictions, his schemes and scams — and the simultaneously squalid lives and upwardly mobile aspirations of his six kids, who are still young enough to hope that love or college will transform their lives.

It’s the kind of show in which a 19-year-old brother in college, covering for the underage brother who stole his identity to join the Army and then went AWOL, shows up in the hospital emergency room after his toddler nephew accidentally ingests cocaine, telling the bemused doctors standing guard over the ICU that he’s “the closest thing to a responsible adult you are going to get.” What holds it together is the persistent moral sweetness undergirding this clan, a sacramental shining in the squalor. Somehow, the show conveys a faith that love, however dysfunctional, will endure. Terrible things may happen to you in such a family — you may be screwed by your father or the system — but at least you are never alone.

That’s the fantasy anyway.

The America in which I was born would never have elected a man such as Trump. His victory shows that certain standards have declined, in ways that we, left and right, may not really appreciate in our college-educated bubble.

Consider for example the fact that voters were able to overlook Trump’s crude language and behavior toward women. The Left has tried to revive sexual standards by repackaging aggressive passes by men as “sexual assault.” That may play on college campuses to women disconcerted by the loss of courtship and lacking a feminist-approved language to express their concerns about sexual cads. But back in the real world where most Americans live, a man who grabs women and backs off when they object is not beyond the pale. Welcome to the third generation of the sexual revolution.

It was striking, too, during the last phases of the campaign, how little anyone cared that Trump had committed adultery. In a sexually chaotic world, a man who dumps his wives but keeps his kids close becomes a hero, where in a bygone era he would have been a villain.

For many college-educated women like me, raised in a bubble of masculine civility and marriage stability, Trump’s personal style and personal history are very hard to swallow. But for many other women and men, he represents a wonderful father figure of a kind they’ve never actually known.

As Shelly Lundberg, Robert A. Pollack, and Jenna Stearns wrote in the April issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives:

The important divide is between college graduates and others: individuals who have attended college but do not have a four-year degree have family patterns and trajectories that are very similar to those of high school graduates. Compared with college graduates, less-educated women are more likely to enter into cohabiting partnerships early and bear children while cohabiting, are less likely to transition quickly into marriage, and have much higher divorce rates. For this group, rising rates of cohabitation and non-marital childbearing contribute to family histories of relatively unstable relationships and frequent changes in family structure.

The romantic churn of multiple cohabitations creates Shameless levels of chaos, fractured identities, and a yearning for some path to stability, economic or otherwise:

Compared with women two generations earlier, women with low levels of education today find themselves with greater independence and control over their lives, but also at an increased risk of poverty. Less-educated men find themselves both unburdened and unmoored by weakened responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood.

To see the changes in America that enabled Donald Trump, take a look at reruns of Roseanne, once denounced by some conservatives as an example of the shocking decline of family values for its portrayal of a working-class family in a fictional Chicago suburb. Watch Roseanne and Shameless side by side if you want to understand Trump’s America.

Roseanne Barr said once (and I’m quoting from memory): “For some people, my show represents family decline. For some, it depicts their lives accurately — but for some it represents the kind of family they would like to have.” We in our college-educated bubble may find that reality unpleasant, but we shouldn’t discount it: Trump may seem to us to represent a decline in family values and sexual standards. But for many of our fellow Americans, mired in economic stagnation and sexual chaos, he represents an unattainable ideal, rather than a problem.

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