Culture

Heroes of the Fourth Turning: A Play about a Growing Populist Divide

Zoë Winters, Jeb Kreager, and Julia McDermott in Heroes of the Fourth Turning (Joan Marcus)
One of the most powerful elements of Will Arbery’s “Heroes” is its foresight.

Trump voters in the flyover states are often referred to as “the forgotten” — the men and women whom the media and other presidential candidates failed to understand. An entire cottage industry has materialized around them, intending to “humanize” them, or explain their perspective to a baffled coastal audience. J. D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, is typically seen as the prototype of this group.

But Will Arbery’s riveting off-Broadway play, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, dramatizes an even more obscure group, a forgotten sub-category within “the forgotten” — a group Rod Dreher, whose influence weighs heavily on the play, might call “Crunchy Conservatives.”

Far from the sector which Trump Apologists typically describe (Americans who wear Carhartt unironically, guzzle Mountain Dew, and live in regions ravaged by opioids), Crunchy Conservatives might be found making their own organic oat milk or reading Aristotle to their children in a “screen-free” homeschool co-op. They come from well-off families with vague political connections. They have liberal-arts degrees from fancy colleges and give their children names like Dietrich von Hildebrand or Simone Weil. They’ve lived in the major urban centers — Boston, Manhattan, and D.C. — working for name-brand consulting groups or law firms before retreating back to places like Kansas City or Cincinnati to settle and raise families.

And yes, they may plug their noses to do so, but they’re voting for Trump.

Hailed by the New York Times as “a red-state unicorn,” Arbery’s play centers on four college friends who have returned to their college town in Wyoming seven years after graduation and are attending a party. As is typical (but often hilariously foreboding) at these types of gatherings, they drift outside to the fire pit for drunken philosophical conversation beneath the stars. And that’s where the action ensues.

Only in this scenario, the four share a unique background. They each attended Transfiguration College, based loosely off Wyoming Catholic College (of which Arbery’s father is the president). While other schools are foregoing the Western canon and fostering a generation that Snapchats by day and hooks up anonymously by night, Transfiguration (like Wyoming Catholic), offers a classical education, rooting its mandatory curriculum in Latin and the Great Books. And cellphones and sex are banned.

Each saddled with their own personal angst, the four main characters launch into competing diatribes, each revealing a wrinkle of Trump’s “Crunchy Conservative” subbase — which proves itself to be rather nuanced.

First there’s Kevin (John Zdrojeski), who will appear a hilarious caricature of single Catholic men in their 20s and 30s to anyone who knows them. He’s a virgin with a porn addiction, for which he feels crushing guilt. But he’s not like a regular Catholic, he’s a cool Catholic, partaking in traditional Millennial pastimes like Portlandia and brunch. And he really wants a girlfriend.

Kevin’s foil is Justin (Jeb Kreager), a former Marine who racked up tattoos and sexual partners before Transfiguration’s Catholicism calmed the warring forces in his mind and, as he tells it, saved his life. The strong, silent type, Justin is hunky, poetic, and shoots deer off his back porch. A fan of Dreher’s Benedict Option, he believes that Western values are under attack and he’s headed off to a secluded monastery to become a monk and ride out the storm.

Then there’s Teresa (Zoë Winters), a beautiful, self-assured “culture warrior” who’s planted herself behind enemy lines in Brooklyn. Similar to a Candace Owens or Tomi Lahren figure, Teresa “slays liberals” and “dishes out hot takes” before an audience of adoring male fans. In an era that’s glutted on comfort but thin on meaning, Teresa offers young men the opportunity to feel like they’re fighting for something. War is coming, she tells them, and globalism and Planned Parenthood make for the perfect enemies in the schema she’s constructing.

(Teresa also happens to be one of the women Justin slept with before his conversion, a detail which affords a simmer of sexual tension to the play, not unlike the subtle but potent sexual tension that Old Hollywood used to capture through a touch of a hand, as one character points out, before it became hollowly exhibitionist.)

Finally, there’s Emily (Julia McDermott), whose distaste for violence and drama clashes with Teresa’s breathless appetite for it. Presented as gentle and peace-loving, Emily’s cloying sweetness masks a core of bravery and resilience, but also fierce bitterness, driven both by her experience working in a pro-life crisis pregnancy center and a debilitating illness that leaves her body weak and riddled with pain.

The four are gathered in Wyoming because Emily’s mother, Dr. Gina Presson (Michele Pawk), who taught the characters during college, has just been named Transfiguration’s new president. She shows up at the party to pick up Emily — touching off a riveting chain of events.

Teresa, originally Gina’s star protégé, begins to query her mentor about the impending culture war. Kevin chimes in with questions about Trump, whom he says he voted for but then promptly vomited in his car. The clash that ensues between Teresa and Gina dramatizes a larger conversation transpiring on the right.

On the surface, it’s a clash over civility. If liberalism has failed — if it’s led to excesses like that most infamous of right-wing bellwethers, drag queen story hour — should conservatives channel Christ and tear down the temple? Teresa, echoing Sohrab Ahmari in a recent clash with David French, thinks they should. Gina, on the other hand, adopts the Frenchian perspective: Americans should be grateful that the same liberties that allow some parents to bring their children to story hour allow others to bring theirs to church.

At its heart, though, it’s a clash over the working class — one that’s been raging through the Democratic party for several years now and is now replicating itself on the right. And it’s a clash that carries deep repercussions: Democrats lost the election in 2016 in large part because of it. When Hilary Clinton earned the nomination over Bernie Sanders, whom left-wing populists saw as an anti-establishment champion of the working class, the party’s momentum was irrevocably wounded. Now, the Democrats stand to lose the 2020 election for the same reason, with a rehashing of the battle between the populists and the establishment types once more distracting the party from its presidential goals. With media darlings like Elizabeth Warren and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez buoying the populist flank of the party on one side, and political veterans like Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg generating nostalgia for blue-dog days on the other, Democrats are putting on a good show. But are they focusing enough on capturing that 46th presidential seat?

For conservatives, it’s entertaining to watch the left unravel right at the pivotal moment when they should be sailing through one of the easiest elections in history (after all, Trump stands as one of the most unpopular political personalities since maybe Nero). But it’s no time to laugh. Conservatives should be watching carefully and taking notes. For, one of the most powerful elements of Arbery’s “Heroes” is its foresight: The exact same rift that’s transpiring in the Democratic party is coming for the right. And if the prickly, heartbreaking exchange between Gina and her most devoted student, Teresa, is any indication, it’s going to get ugly. Recent ambushes from far-right fringe groups on the GOP establishment offer a taste of what’s to come.

The pro-worker policies on the right look a little different from those on the left. They entail protecting workers from foreign competition, tightening borders, restraining drug use, limiting foreign involvement, and curbing cultural phenomena (like the story hour) that some conservatives view as products of decadent capitalist excess. But as the Tucker Carlsons of the world become more and more vocal about implementing populist, paleoconservative policies (even when it means introducing regulatory power), will rifts with establishment types, like Mitt Romney, threaten another Republican presidential win?

For now, the answer is no. And that may sound odd — unless you’ve spent any time in Arbery’s “Crunchy Conservative” world. Maybe you attended a classical charter school for K–12, or spent time at the University of Dallas or the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Or maybe you just stumbled onto “Weird Catholic Twitter” and couldn’t look away. But either way, come 2020, with varying degrees of nose-plugging, both the classical liberals and the emerging populists of the “Crunchy Conservative” base will show up to the polls. They’ll be driving eight-passenger vans, sporting Birkenstocks, and maybe breastfeeding an infant while they wait in line. And despite their disgust with his rhetoric, they’ll be voting for Trump, the one pro-life candidate on the ballot, and the only one so far who can appeal to workers and capitalists alike.

Arbery’s play, running at Playwrights Horizons through November 17, helps explain why.

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