Thursday, July 23, 2015

Fight Club Populists

An old friend of mine, Geoff Weiss, observed recently in a social media thread about the peculiar support for Donald Trump, "I don't know whether I'm more puzzled by the rise of the pink-faced, angry white men who have nothing, really, to be angry about or the support for them among people I know who seem more or less rational." 

We've been here before -- Donald Trump (bless his heart) makes an obnoxious presentation of the basic rhetoric of the Tea Party mantra. The Tea Party mantra is a rehash of the fiscal rhetoric of Ross Perot, blended with some John Bircherism and a touch of George Wallace states' rights populism. Wallace was old school southern demagoguery, drawn from the long line of Gene Talmadge and Theodore Bilbo and Tom Watson, but also with a bit of education langiappe for the working class that would have made Huey Long smirk a bit. 

All these movements have common characteristics: they draw support from the middlemen and tradesmen of American life, the small shopkeepers and tradesmen and farmers. These were people of some property and some talent, who operated in some enterprise or on the basis of some skill to provide for themselves and their families. They were 'anti' big corporations, 'anti' big banks, 'anti' big education, and 'anti' big government-- all of which are predatory entities.

These movements usually require a tribal identity and a concept of 'normal' in order to exclude the takers. The takers are alien. They have the wrong religion or the wrong national identity or the wrong race or the wrong gender. These folks are usually characterized as non-conforming takers who are a threat to the normal order. The core argument is that they need to change, or go back to from whence they came.  Absent the demands of  'those people', all would be okay. 

And for fifty years, American public policy took direct aim at policies and practices that were aimed at discriminating against 'those people.' The consequence? More integration, declining racial and gender disparities in earnings and standards of living, and, along the way, a growing economy. 

But there is the downside for our discourse, which is the creation of the concept of 'white male privilege.' This concept holds that it is easier for white men to access the benefits of the social and economic order which is inherently patriarchal and oriented to Protestant Caucasians in particular. The argument for this policy is that it is a 'righting of the ship' to compensate for past prejudices. Many of the pink-faced, angry white men view it as reverse discrimination, a handicapping of them as makers through taxes and reverse-discriminatory policies  -- the 'John Galt' argument. 

And, for most of the life of these angry men, there has been a concentration of wealth just beyond their grasp. The tax burden has shifted more heavily onto their class of earners. FICA withholding has gone up, and for those middlemen who are sole proprietors, they are paying the employer's share and the employee's.  Consumption taxes are up. For the skilled worker, wages are down and benefits are slipping away. The unions are dead. And, in the corporate sector, there is more competition for advancement because the talent pool is broadened.

For the middleman, this is a doubly damning situation. They've been told they are privileged; informed they should give more and take less; and asked to accept what they view as an asymmetric legal order designed to address a past they did not participate in and for which they do not see themselves as responsible.

And it has precedent, for which I will go back to my friend Geoff, who is a fine film scholar. He directed my attention to Siegfried
Kracauer's 1947 analysis of interwar Germany, From Caligari to Hitler, wherein Kracauer sought to explain why many middle class Germans turned to authoritarian populism in the form of the Nazis.  Kracauer had pointed out before the war the 'white collar pretensions' of many corporate employees, and how amidst the slipping away of 'bourgeois security' with the onset of depression, they turned to the Nazis rather than finding common cause with the more impoverished working class. 

The German equivalent of the pink-faced angry men, the middlemen makers of Germany's economy and society, too were attracted to the Nazis.  According Kracauer the 'small shopkeepers, tradesmen and artisans were so full of resentments that they shrank from adjusting themselves [to the collapsing middle class world]. Instead of realizing it might be in their practical interest to side with democracy, they preferred, like the employees, to listen to Nazi promises.'  The appeals that the Nazis made were emotional rather than logical. They focused on 'others' who were somehow 'alien.' And they structures an alternative version of 'facts' that was more attractive than reality. 

Do not think that I am calling Trump or the populist movement on the right 'Nazis.' That is not what I am saying. But the nature of the appeal, the vehicle, the use of alien demons -- it is familiar. But it is important to remember that there have been other shopkeeper rebellions. The French Revolution was one. The American revolution was a middle man's tax rebellion. These rebellions manifest out of economic and tax pressures that laid bare the perception of the middlemen that their hopes for prosperity were constrained.

What feeds the circumstances of the United States is less about the great taxing state, than the great isolation of bastions of collective wealth -- the great corporations -- from the rest of us. For nearly two generations, employees in these firms have been downsized or outsourced, subjected to increasingly dehumanizing performance reviews, and generally directed to take satisfaction in distraction. The middlemen were told they could work hard in a competitive marketplace and build something tangible, of worth -- their own firm. But the deck is stacked against the entry of the middleman to the echelons of wealth. For two generations these men -- and I am concerned mainly with men in this essay -- were encouraged to do what men always did. 

Transgressional fictionalist Chuck Palahniuk pretty much summed up the problem in his 1996 novel Fight Club.  In the book (and the movie) an unnamed dissatisfied middleman 'meets' extremist Tyler Durden, who engages in an anti-consumerist, anti-corporate terror campaign vested in the discovery of the essence of being a man, through bare-knuckled fighting. The disaffection of Gen-X comes from consumer upbringing: 'We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.' 

Now, two decades later, Gen X stares middle age in eye, and there's Tyler Durden manifesting the everyman who exists in the same universe as John Galt's great makers. Fight Club got it right for many of these men -- they discovered they won't be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. The Reaganite dream is slipping through their fingers like so much sand. They won't be John Galt, and they are not 'takers.' But they don't want to be the worker drones of Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis' either. They know they have agency. They know they have sovereignty.

And they're pissed off. Because their agency and sovereignty seem empty in the face of a grinding corporate machine.