Reaping a Whirlwind: Delegitimating Self-Governance

One of the regions of the nation forecasters predict will vote strongly for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump this November is central Appalachia, including West Virginia, far southwestern Virginia, eastern Tennessee and eastern Kentucky. This expectation raises the question of why voters in these economically hard hit coal-mining areas are supporting the GOP standard bearer. Like many writers, I have sought to point up that Trump’s claims and rhetoric, including those offered at rallies in the Appalachian region, are typically empty, often puerile and represent a dangerous assault on our nation’s central values and regime principles. Nonetheless, many citizens in Appalachia and elsewhere continue to support the New York businessman. In consequence, and like many analysts, I have struggled to understand why. Indeed, I laid out many of the contrasting viewpoints now in the public dialogue concerning this question in my last Soundings. Here, however, I want to point-up a larger concern as it links to the Trump phenomenon, raised in a recent book by eastern-Kentucky born author J.D Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.[1] Vance’s book is tragic-comic and poignant as he traces the remarkable trajectory of his life to date—he is now 31—and argues that it can stand as a metaphor for thousands of Appalachians confronted with the continued decline of their region’s economy and the quickening erosion of their traditional way of life. He considers himself more than lucky to have escaped experiencing the far less auspicious personal fates of many of his family members and peers.

Vance tells the story of his drug-addicted mother and her parents: his tough-as- nails grandparents, who took their daughter north to the Miami Valley of Ohio to escape the dearth of opportunity in eastern Kentucky. They successfully entered the middle class economically, but never left behind the culture of their native region. Vance’s narrative chronicles the travails inflicted by his mother’s physical addictions (alcohol and later, heroin) and psychological illness and the vagaries of his grandparents’ rocky relationship. He suggests his story is hardly unique in the region, despite the daunting number of “adverse childhood events” he underwent that psychologists would describe as permanently life-scarring.

Vance’s story is complex and honestly told, and ultimately he credits his grandparents, and particularly his grandmother, with pushing him to be one of the few people in his family and his high school to go on to higher education, and the only one thereafter to graduate from the Yale University law school. He suggests that while he has now attained financial success and emotional stability in his life, he is one of a minority to do so among his extended family and the region he calls home.

Vance seeks to explain why this is so and to craft suggestions concerning what might be done to address the continuing economic and social decay of Central Appalachia. As he does so, he suggests both that governments must play a role in helping citizens of hard-hit communities in the region (a position antithetical to that taken by many of his fellow conservatives) and that one should not expect that such efforts will alone be sufficient, since the area’s residents ultimately also must play a large role in rebuilding their culture. He also contends more absolutely that only the area’s citizens can save their region’s way of life from continuing decline. In addition, Vance suggests that locals too often “game” the public-aid programs that offer food and income support to the poor, disabled and unemployed, and that this situation has played a role in undermining the area’s traditional values of hard work and self-reliance.

The author asserts that observing such incidents of exploitation and their rationalization by those engaged in them made him deeply angry as a young man. In short, as an avowed conservative, Vance is nonetheless all over the map in describing his views concerning whether governments should respond to the difficulties Appalachian residents continue to experience and whether those efforts should be undertaken on moral or other grounds. He finally appears to call for national, state and local governments to work to assist the area’s citizens, while also demanding that Appalachia’s residents play a large role in overcoming the social maladies that now accompany the area’s difficult economic conditions. This seems a reasonable stance, although, as I noted above, one hardly in keeping with the GOP’s regnant orthodoxy concerning the issue.

As he tries to make sense of what is happening to his native community and to those he calls “his people,” Vance outlines the often outlandish and cartoonish conspiratorial views so often countenanced by his fellow “hillbilly” citizens and conservatives, including arguments that President Barack Obama is not an American citizen and is a closeted Muslim, among several other widely and wholly discredited examples. He then follows that catalogue with the observation:

The list goes on. It’s impossible to know how many people believe one or many of these stories. … This isn’t some libertarian mistrust of government policy, which is healthy in any democracy. This is deep skepticism of the very institutions of our society. And it’s becoming more and more mainstream.[2]

Two paragraphs later Vance comments:

Here is where the rhetoric of modern conservatives (and I say this as one of them) fails to meet the real challenges of their biggest constituents. Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers. … What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.[3]

It is this argument that connects Vance’s book to current efforts to understand why substantial swathes of Appalachia’s (and the nation’s) population are supporting a demagogue, even in the face of massive empirical evidence that undermines his sweeping, cynical and ill-considered claims. Trump’s supporters are daily exhorted in this campaign to disengage from the institutions that sustain self-governance in favor of “magical thinking.” The GOP nominee’s rhetoric echoes decades of Republican Party attacks on the legitimacy of those public processes and organizations. And since that legitimacy is sustained only by civic virtue and citizen involvement and good will and Trump’s followers appear content to cede their governance responsibility to a demagogue offering himself as “the answer” and have exhibited little but ill will at the candidate’s events, the nation now appears to be reaping an anti-democratic whirlwind seeded and nurtured in part by power-seeking GOP officials since at least the 1960s.

Democracy cannot survive in the long run without an engaged and prudential citizenry. While it can surely withstand its small share of people bent on believing in nonsensical conspiracy theories, the matter becomes much more serious when a major political party nominates a purveyor of such mendacity for the presidency. Indeed, Trump has only doubled down in these terms lately by offering claims that the coming election must be considered “rigged” unless he wins (recent polls have shown him trailing nationally). These arguments sow the seeds for discontent among his supporters¾to the extent that those voters perceive his argument as plausible¾and given their willingness to countenance his many other falsehoods, there is every reason to be concerned they might. Indeed, in light of how many Trump followers continue to embrace complete fabrications in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary, this turn potentially represents an extremely difficult scenario for our nation’s collective governance. If the Republican nominee’s supporters become convinced that the nation’s electoral processes are “rigged” against their preferred candidate, as Trump has argued is the case (on the basis of no evidence whatsoever), that could only result in a further deterioration of the regime’s legitimacy in a share of the U.S electorate in which, as Vance notes, it is already tenuous at best.

In sum, it should not surprise anyone that a political party that has garnered voter support for decades by strongly denigrating popular rule and self-governance would eventually convince its base to believe its claims, even when those assertions were false. But all those who favor, “reasoned discourse, civil dissent, coherent logic and other theoretical north stars of political debate,” as columnist Leonard Pitts put it recently, cannot simply accept this outcome or Trump’s hyper-exacerbation of a pernicious long-term trend.[4] As Vance’s memoir makes clear, the conservative movement and the GOP are at something of a crossroads. Their decades-long attacks on self-governance as an evil in order to mobilize voters to support unfettered capitalism have now, ironically, found a willing core group of acolytes who appear content to give up their responsibility to govern themselves to a demagogue who offers fairy-tale responses to the very real difficulties they confront.

It is well past time for those who favor limited government to find other ways to make their arguments in lieu of undermining the social legitimacy of the institutions on which all of society must depend to sustain its freedom. As Vance’s memoir illustrates with great piquancy, the consequences are simply too high for the Republican Party and conservative movement to continue to press what is now so plainly a self-defeating course for the American people. How effectively the Party and its supporters address this concern is not a partisan issue, nor a critique of reasoned disagreements concerning the appropriate scope and reach of government action, but a profoundly important imperative that could well determine whether this nation can continue to enjoy meaningful self-governance in accord with its professed Constitutional values.

Notes

[1] J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: Harper –Collins, 2016.

[2] Vance, p.193.

[3] Vance, p.194.

[4] Leonard Pitts, Jr. “Fed Up with Trump but Can’t Walk Away,” The Miami Herald, August 19, 2016, http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article96808292.html Accessed August 22, 2016.