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Attack of the Crypto-Nazis!

Working-class Americans say they’re voting for their interests. NPR apostles say they suffer from ‘white rage’ and ‘precarious manhood.’ Who’s right?

Michael Lind
June 20, 2024
Michael Lind
Michael Lind chronicles civilizational shifts and national trends, writing about American politics and culture with a deep understanding of history and appreciation for America's highest ideals.
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Are working-class men of all races, along with rural Americans in general, the greatest threats to the American republic today? According to Harold Meyerson, writing in the progressive journal he co-founded, The American Prospect, “[y]ounger working-class men of all races” who support Trump instead of Biden are emotionally disturbed individuals obsessed with their “precarious manhood” who “lash out: blaming their problems on outsiders and anti-macho ideology, on feminized work rules, on capitalists and communists so long as they were Jewish, on novelty, on empiricism.”

If the thought of millions of young Hispanic, Black and white men whose manhood is precarious and who hate “empiricism” isn’t scary enough, we should be even more terrified by the 16% of Americans who dwell in the rural wastelands that lie between big Democratic cities. This is the claim of professor Tom Schaller and professor Paul Waldman, whose election-season campaign tract White Rural Rage is the flavor of the month on NPR and MSNBC. On Morning Joe, Schaller duly declared that white rural Americans are “the most racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-gay geo-demographic group in the country. ”This one-sixth of the American population,” according to White Rural Rage, is a “threat to the world’s oldest constitutional democracy.”

No need to be polite; tell us what you really think of your fellow Americans, gentlemen.

The idea that the barbaric masses are a menace to civilization is as old as the American republic. In the 18th and 19th centuries, well-to-do Yankees in the Federalist, Whig, and Republican parties who considered themselves America’s natural governing class often depicted both Catholic immigrants and the rural white poor as threats to their supremacy. Many Progressives of the 1900s favored eugenic sterilization of “inferior” poor whites and European immigrants. Henry Adams, the descendant of two presidents from whom he inherited his rich snobbery, spoke for his patrician class when he wrote of the largely rural and working-class Democratic Party of his day that “nothing could surpass the nonsensity of trying to run so complex and concentrated a machine [as the American industrial economy] by Southern and Western farmers in grotesque alliance with city day-laborers.”

In the 1930s many high-toned East Coast Progressives—now renamed “liberals”—joined the Democratic Party. Even so, from FDR to LBJ, the Democrats essentially remained the old Jacksonian coalition of “deplorables”—farmers and workers. The fact that both these groups were overwhelmingly white is not at all surprising in a country that was 87.4% non-Hispanic white as recently as 1970, when 11.1% of Americans were Black and other “races” amounted to only 1.4%.

While contempt for the white working class and rural whites has been a constant among America’s coastal elites for more than two centuries, the particular dangers that the laboring masses are said to pose have changed over time.

The liberal “eggheads” of the New Deal era tended to view the workers and farmers who voted for the Democrats with unease. In New York, liberals like Roosevelt brain truster Adolf Berle supported the Liberal Party as an alternative to a Democratic machine controlled by political bosses who represented working-class, largely Catholic voters. Roosevelt’s well-born secretary of labor, Frances Perkins, disliked the union leaders she worked with and remarked that she would rather pass a law than organize a union. After World War II, the urban and academic liberals made no secret of their disgust for “sprawling,” unaesthetic suburbs inhabited by lower-class vulgarians—whose home ownership was made possible by New Deal policies like the GI Bill, government-guaranteed home loans, highway spending, and rural electrification.

Like their Progressive forebears, Northeastern liberals held their noses in the presence of the lower orders for whose benefit they ostensibly acted. Their real goal was not the happiness of workers and farmers, but the more refined pleasures of science-based technocratic governance by a wise, disinterested elite, dominated if possible by patrician graduates of Ivy League universities. Accordingly, they preferred relatively conservative Harvard men like Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy to populist politicians from the provinces like Harry Truman (no college degree) and Lyndon Johnson (a graduate of Southwest Texas State Teachers College).

Sidelined during the long New Deal era between Roosevelt and Reagan by Democratic urban machines in the North and by Southern Democratic courthouse gangs, this elite liberal-progressive subculture—today often called “gentry liberals”—began to capture the Democratic Party under Bill Clinton (a Southern boy who went to Yale Law School). They consolidated their control of the party under Obama, a well-toned product of Harvard Law School and the billionaire NGO complex whose ego-ideal was Spock from Star Trek (as President, Obama personally wrote a White House eulogy for the actor Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock).

Gentry liberals today control the Democratic Party under Biden, in alliance with billionaires in Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood. Because they are few in number, the gentry liberals need alliances with blocs of non-college-educated voters who are promised the spoils of new, enlightened forms of grievance-based ethnic politics just like old fashioned Tammany Hall bosses. By licensing the new identity-based spoils system, progressive leaders hope that Democratic voting by “people of color,” both native and imported, can allow them to create a permanent one-party regime based on enlightened technocracy. Needless to say, progressive Democrats do not seek votes from icky white Catholics, white Southerners and white rural Americans who have been driven out of the party, and whose desires for full-time jobs at decent wages and an end to destructive corporate offshoring might lead to higher taxes and lower corporate profits.

Michael Lind chronicles civilizational shifts and national trends, writing about American politics and culture with a deep understanding of history and appreciation for America's highest ideals.

While contempt for the white working class and rural whites has been a constant among America’s coastal elites for more than two centuries, the particular dangers that the laboring masses are said to pose have changed over time. In the 1800s some Federalists feared that rural rebels or Irish immigrants might drown American democracy in a French Jacobin-style bloodbath or a papist takeover of Protestant America. In the second half of the 20th century, anti-populist propaganda adopted a new theme: Working-class Americans are dangerous proto-fascists like the members of the German working class which supposedly brought Hitler to power. At any moment American farmers and construction workers and maids, on orders from this or that American wannabe Hitler, might round up Fresh Air listeners and Rachel Maddow fans and put them all in concentration camps.

The contemporary Democratic pundits and professors who toss around phrases like “the authoritarian personality” and “status anxiety” to support such fantasies belong to a tradition going back to The Authoritarian Personality, a book published by the German Marxist émigré Theodor Adorno and his several co-authors in 1950. The book sought to explain the rise of Nazism and other forms of fascism in terms of the psychological maladjustment of working-class individuals. Adorno and his co-authors claimed that their “F-scale” could measure how fascist an individual was. Among the factors that were supposed to identify fascist Americans in Truman’s America were these: “Conventionalism. Rigid adherence to conservative, middle-class values … Exaggerated concern with sexual ‘goings on.’”

The attempt to redefine the beliefs of the broad political center as harbingers of fascism isn’t political science; it’s the politics of gentry liberal technocrats.

The F-scale was nonsense—as was the idea that Hitler rose to power with the support of the German working class. The Nazi Party never got more than a minority of the working-class vote. Most working-class Germans opposed the Nazis and preferred socialists, communists, or the Catholic Center Party. Once the Nazis seized power, many trade unionists along with socialists and communists wound up in concentration camps. Nor, with some exceptions prior to 1933, was big business on the side of the Nazis. Scholars have shown that the most pro-Nazi constituencies were small business owners and members of the military and civil services nostalgic for the authoritarianism of Imperial Germany, and who helped to undemocratically install Hitler as chancellor even though most Germans voted against the Nazis.

Adorno’s theory about German politics, then, was as comprehensively wrong as his view that many working-class Americans are potential Nazis. Indeed, in the International Journal of Political Psychology in 2001, John Levi Martin wrote that “The Authoritarian Personality is probably the most deeply flawed work of prominence in political psychology.”

Nevertheless, today’s gentry liberal social scientists carry on the discredited tradition of Adorno by redefining values that are widely shared not only by conservatives but also by centrists and even moderate liberals as “authoritarian” and contrasting them with “liberal” values, which just happen to be the values of those of the one-fifth or so of the population that defines itself as “very liberal” or “progressive.” According to Harvard’s Pippa Norris: “Authoritarian values are those which uphold belief in strong leaders, in a strong state, and in robust law and order. These are traditional values like family, home, religion …”

Yet support for “family, home, religion” is far from being “authoritarian.” In fact, it is shared by most people from the center right to the center left in the U.S. and other democracies. The attempt to redefine the beliefs of the broad political center as harbingers of fascism isn’t political science; it’s the politics of gentry liberal technocrats, who seek to claim the title of centrism even as they stigmatize the actual political center and polarize the country in order to facilitate their own power and influence.

In the 1960s, liberals painted the toothbrush mustache on the libertarian Barry Goldwater. Since then, despite their differences, Nixon, Reagan, George W. Bush, and Trump have all been potential American Hitlers, according to many of their Democratic contemporaries in American journalism and the universities and political life.

Today, the theory that many or most working-class and rural Americans are crypto-Nazis comes in several versions, depending on what exactly it is that is supposed to have triggered lower-class lowbrows to vote Republican instead of voting for Democrats who supposedly represent their “interests”—which now apparently include DEI, transgender surgeries for minors, unlimited immigration, and abolishing the police. In one version, rural and working-class voters were turned into democracy-wrecking monsters by economic disappointment. This was the theme of Barack Obama’s famous leaked 2008 comments from a confidential talk to wealthy Democratic donors in San Francisco:

You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.

And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

The economic deprivation thesis, patronizing as it is, at least holds out the hope that if benevolent technocrats provide the moronic rabble with good jobs and benefits, they won’t turn angry and mutate, Hulk-like, into American-style Nazis.

More insulting to Republican working-class voters and therefore more appealing to snobbish gentry liberals is the noneconomic status-anxiety theory. If working-class and rural voters do not support the Democrats, the party of the people (the people of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and much of Wall Street, that is), then these voters must be motivated by deeply rooted irrational bigotry, not mere economic distress. While Obama provided the classic statement of the economic deprivation theory in 2008, Hillary Clinton in 2016 did the same for the working-class bigotry theory, in a statement which, like Obama’s, was intended to be for the ears of rich Democratic donors in an invitation-only fundraiser in New York:

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it.

In a New York Times essay of Feb. 9, 2022, titled “Status Anxiety Is Blowing Wind Into Trump’s Sails,” the journalist Thomas B. Edsall quotes Michael Bang Petersen, a Danish academic, who claims that the increase in the “status in society” of “racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities” has pushed “those with lower education or those who feel challenged by the new emerging groups towards the right.” Agreeing with Petersen, Edsall concludes that many working-class whites are therefore not only emotionally disturbed but also un-American: “The data suggest that a large segment of the white, non-college population lives day-by-day in a cauldron of dissatisfaction, a phenomenon that stands apart from the American tradition … That this is dangerous does not need repeating.”

Ezra Klein, another gentry liberal New York Times columnist, has aggressively pushed the claim that white resentment of nonwhite progress explains votes against the Democratic Party that he supports. Klein made the racial status anxiety thesis central to his book Why We’re Polarized in 2020, which the billionaire Bill Gates, the Harvard dropout son of a wealthy lawyer, touted as one of “5 books to read this summer.”

The thesis that racism explains the preference for Republicans of non-college-educated white working-class Americans confirms the biases of the average New York Times reader—a 42-year-old Democrat with a college degree who makes more than $75,000 a year, in a country in which most people have no education beyond high school or some college and a median income of $48,060.

The paying subscribers of The New York Times are even more partisan than readers in general, according to former New York Times editorial-page editor James Bennet, who wrote in The Economist: “More than 95% of Times subscribers described themselves as Democrats or independents, and a vast majority of them believed the Times was also liberal. A similar majority applauded that bias; it had become ‘a selling point,’ reported one internal marketing memo.”

But there’s a major problem with ascribing Republican votes to a longing for white supremacy. In 2020, after years in which Democratic pundits asserted that hatred of Hispanics was the essence of Trump’s appeal, Hispanic voters shifted toward Trump in numbers that almost permitted him to defeat Joe Biden—with a shift of 26 points from 2016 for Cuban Americans, an 18-point shift among Puerto Rican Americans, and a 12-point shift among Mexican Americans.

The Democratic advantage among nonwhite working-class voters in general has shifted from 67 points for Obama to 48 points for Biden in 2020 to a mere 17 points for Biden today, according to a New York Times/Siena poll in December 2023.

And if I may be permitted an exercise in Tom Friedman-style anecdata, the last two Uber drivers I hired, one a recent Nigerian immigrant and a Venezuelan who immigrated to the U.S. under Biden, both told me that if they could vote they would vote for Trump.

If racism and white nationalism are motivating voters who prefer Republicans to Democrats, how can progressives explain the fact that the Democratic Party is getting whiter and richer, while the Republican Party is getting browner and more working class? One option is to define Blacks and Hispanics who refuse to vote for Democrats as self-hating. Another is to claim that Blacks and Hispanics and Asian Americans are not authentic members of their groups. Candidate Joe Biden in May 2020 chose the latter strategy during an interview with the popular Black drive-time radio host Charlamagne. When the host said he had more questions, Biden snapped, “You’ve got more questions, but I tell you … if you’ve got a problem whether or not you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black”—compounding the damage of his patronizing remark with his use of the faux-Black dialect that white Democratic politicians of a certain age often employ when addressing Black Americans.

Fortunately for gentry liberals, there is now a third alternative to the discredited white nationalist and economic deprivation theories of why working-class Americans vote for Republicans—the “precarious manhood” theory of Harold Meyerson and others. If “[y]ounger working-class men of all races” increasingly vote for Republicans, then the reason must be sexual frustration.

It’s not nonwhites whom the multiracial working class resents; it’s women! The Republican Party is not the Ku Klux Klan after all; it’s the He Man Woman Haters Club from The Little Rascals (NO GURLZ ALLOWED).

The partisan gender gap between young men and young women, and men and women of all races in general, is an interesting political phenomenon. But the data suggest that the greatest emotional maladjustment is not on the side of “younger working-class men of all races.” According to a recent study by epidemiologists at Columbia University, depression rates have risen the most for young progressive women. A March 2020 Pew study reported that 56% of young white liberal women, said they had been diagnosed with a mental health condition, compared to only 28% of young white moderates and a mere 27% of young white conservatives.

Although Donald Trump will eventually be gone from the scene, elite center-left fear and loathing of the multiracial working class seems unlikely to change. Today’s heirs of anti-populist and anti-egalitarian Progressives, Mugwumps, Whigs, and Federalists will continue to insist that working-class Americans and rural Americans are dangerous cretins who threaten to destroy democracy by putting their grubby fingers on the voting levers and committing an unforgivable crime: voting against gentry liberal candidates.

Michael Lind is a Tablet columnist, a fellow at New America, and author of Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages Is Destroying America.

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