The nation is less socially hopeful and generous than in years leading up to Barack Obama’s presidency. In 2008, voters signed up for an untested junior Illinois senator who promised them racial harmony and a post-racial nation. They got Black Lives Matter and a war on cops instead. The retreat from faith in the charitable welfare state and its liberal narrative follows on bad experience.
It’s not natural disaster, financial collapse, or food and oil shortages that frightens middle America. It’s the real-estate-entrepreneur-cum-lunatic mowing down hundreds at a Las Vegas country music concert. It’s the jihadi from Uzbekistan barreling down the Manhattan bike path, shouting Allahu Akbar. It’s the unhappy parent in Riverside, California, holding his child’s elementary-school teacher hostage, killed by police fire after a six-hour standoff.
The Screamer at McDonald’s dares diners to complain to the authorities. She is drooling and moving in their direction. How did it come to this, weary Americans who pay the taxes and play by the rules ask themselves, upset they are being forced to think this way. Help, somebody, help, they plead silently. Who is listening to my screams?
To its dismay the nation’s middling element realizes that institutional power and values, public and private, are not moving in its favor and interests. It is asked repeatedly to respect and celebrate life-styles once considered shiftless, shameful, criminal, or insane, and if it does not, risk rebuke or condemnation. The protocols of high-minded judges, social engineers, and diversity administrators fall unevenly on it and its children, not on those cushioned by affluence and status.
Love or hate President Donald J. Trump, he is listening to the screams — and playing them to his political advantage.
Outside metro style enclaves and ivory towers, in places where Americans do their own garden work and don’t have time for yoga lessons, it’s harder and harder to avoid the unwelcome Grand Guignol. Middle America brushes daily against madness at the 7-Eleven or Wal-Mart. Free spirits in 21st century America might include breakdancing Afro-crazies on the L train, your neighbor, or the school principal.
In trailer parks, beaten-down shacks, high-rise projects, and section 8 warrens, depravity and craziness have a field day. Hollywood-Las Vegas style seediness is the beau ideal. Tattooed, obese, shacked up, unemployed, possibly high and armed, deranged or completely unable to cope, this lumpen rabble has no incentive or capacity to change its ways. Those most afflicted by the squalor are the striving native-born poor — often non-white — who live among them. The influx of immigrants-with-no-intention-to-assimilate adds to social tension, as neighborhoods, jobs, schools, language, and signage go foreign.
When University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax recently wrote an opinion piece in praise of bourgeois norms, she drew campus-wide censure and open condemnation from colleagues for “assertions of white cultural superiority.” Called a racist for stating “all cultures are not equal,” she had openly praised traditional marriage, hard work, patriotism, and good conduct as antidotes to social pathology.
Making things worse, in policy exchanges and institutional life, criticizing social pathologies among lower-class blacks — not whites — is a taboo that liberals honor religiously. Under such analytical constraints, of course, not much can be done to come to grips with anomie and failure. Race hustlers prevail.
What National Review writer Kevin Williamson calls the “repudiation of good taste, achievement, education, refinement and manners” cuts through all races and classes. Charles Murray would no doubt concur. “Acting white” is a misnomer when applied exclusively to the ghetto. “The manners of the white underclass are Trump’s — vulgar, aggressive, boastful, selfish, promiscuous, consumerist,” Williamson has observed, in contrast to a — more — employed, churchgoing, married, and financially prudent white working class.
Most Americans still admire the clean, alert, intelligible, courteous, and law-abiding individual. They want this for their children. They want happy families, a secure house and neighborhood, and congenial work and friends. They like stability, clean, and safe. They know that fewer easy opportunities exist than in the past, yet they are committed to equal opportunity for those who want to act, speak, think, and embrace civilized norms.
But other Americans admire — and mimic — what they see on reality TV and the pornier regions of the Internet. From underclass to overclass, Hollywood-Las Vegas sleaze gets the eyes and attention. Gladiatorial sports give short rushes of excitement and pride. Where do I get some of the good stuff, they ask. What’s in it for me? Celebrities and their peccadilloes grab public interest, and this is part of Donald J. Trump’s audience magic.
The welfare state now manages a rainbow of human dysfunction, compounded by widespread drug addiction, waning industrial jobs, single-parent “families,” and steep immigrant costs. Caregivers, clergy, teachers, and social workers try to bandage the wounded — doing much more good than they get credit for. But life-style carnage is hard to repair, and dependence on the custodial state and its largess is hard to reverse.
This misery is the nation’s own political creation. Progressives have steered civil rights, education, and welfare policies almost exclusively for 50 years. Unable to admit past miscalculations or acknowledge socially sanctioned amorality, the dependency machine plows forward on auto-pilot. In doing so, it perpetuates and protects life-styles destined to create more social disjunction and misery.