I recently spent a weekend outside of Boston at an old New England house filled with books. I planned to take walks, hike the hills, and write. I did manage to write but most of my time was spent browsing the books that lined the upstairs hall and the living room wall.
I frequently got lost, in more ways than one. On the first floor, one room led to another, and I circled around trying to find my bedroom. Along the route I gathered books and my plans for fresh air and exercise turned to what Walt Whitman once coined contemplative loafing. Honestly, it was too hot and muggy to do anything else.
The Politics of Rage by Dan T. Carter practically leaped off the shelf into my hands. The biography of George Wallace seemed as topical as the daily headlines so I brought it to the living room and plopped down on the only comfortable piece of furniture, the couch.
Virginia Durr, a lifelong campaigner for civil and human rights who saw much of the dark side of history, noted that Wallace’s appeal must have something to do with the basic insecurity of Americans in the 1960’s and ’70’s. She believed they had to “blame somebody else….I just don’t know, I wish I could understand why Wallace or anybody feels so good about humiliating other people,” she said. ~ The Politics of Rage, Dan T. Carter
If that doesn’t sound like our current predicament, I don’t know what does, as we all anxiously make our way through the hot summer of 2016, full of fear and insecurity at the thought of a possible Trump victory.
Arthur Miller, in Death of a Salesman, says of a washed-up Willy Loman: “Attention must be paid.” What he was talking about, said the Democrats’ 1972 presidential candidate, George McGovern, “was the frustration of the little guy, the little salesman that couldn’t make the sale.” George Wallace tapped into the anger and that desperation. Long before journalists and pundits had coined the term “silent majority”, said McGovern, Wallace understood that there might not be a majority, but there were millions of Americans who felt that nobody was paying any attention to them, nobody cared about their frustrations. ~ The Politics of Rage, Dan T. Carter
I understand that feeling. At the Democratic convention, Hillary reached out to Bernie supporters like myself. She told us, “I heard you.” Is she being sincere or are we just being focus grouped, only to be ignored after the ballots have been counted? If money talks, and it surely seems to be that way in Washington, Goldman Sachs is a fire alarm compared to the small whisper of millions of average Americans like myself.
George Wallace had recognized the political capital to be made in a society shaken by social upheaval and economic uncertainty. As the conservative revolution reached high tide, it was no accident that the groups singled out for relentless abuse and condemnation were welfare mothers and aliens, groups that are both powerless and, by virtue of color and nationality, outsiders. The politics of rage that George Wallace made his own had moved from the fringes of our society to center stage. He was the most influential loser in twentieth-century American politics. ~ The Politics of Rage, Dan T. Carter
Carter goes on to say the Republican party embraced Wallace’s politics of rage in a more subtle way. “Reagan didn’t need to make the race connection when he began one of his famous discourses on welfare queens using food stamps to buy porterhouse steaks. His audience was already primed to make that connection.”
This all left me wondering what happens after November. If Trump loses, where does the anger go? Will Bernie’s supporters carry on the revolution? Or do Trump’s supporters fight back? Does Hillary say what she means and do what she says, or does she keep the status quo? You take Bernie and Trump supporters and add up the numbers and you have more people than those who voted for Hillary. The status quo isn’t going to quiet the no longer so silent majority.
I put the book down and hunted for another, searching the library shelves for something more uplifting. I found a biography of Walt Whitman. “A poet who hoped to save America.”
The mid-1850’s when the first two editions of Leaves of Grass were published was a time of political and social turmoil and upheaval…. a middle class was developing, (but) the gap between rich and poor was wider than ever, immigrants arriving in large numbers, changing the ethnic makeup and fanning anti-ethnic sentiment…. In 1854 there was widespread unemployment and suffering. In the wake of the 1854 slavery debacles, William Lloyd Garrison publicly burned the Constitution and Henry David Thoreau spoke murder against the state. An ex-congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, declared that compromise now between the North and South was impossible. Frederick Douglas spoke for many when he wrote, “We now say, in the name of God, let the battle come”….On the national scene, the jingoistic Know-Nothings rose to bizarre prominence by promising to restore America to Americans.”
Echoes of Make America Great Again reverberated around the living room. The Know Nothings are back.
Whitman believed in a harmonious universe of the individual, the state, and nature. Pretty lofty stuff not often discussed by the water cooler or on a barstool at the local pub. “Justice is not settled by legislators and laws…it is in the soul.” he once said. What would Whitman think of Trump’s soul? Or the likes of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Kelly Ayotte, spineless politicians who care more about their political careers than the state of the union?
The fact we survived all of this makes me feel slightly optimistic but I am left wondering why mankind continues to repeat the same mistakes over and over. Mere mortals seem only capable of living in the present moment and incapable of learning from the mistakes of previous generations. History repeats itself and we continue to ignore it at our own peril.
Whitman believed that through poetry he could hold America together. He believed in the founding fathers, the American Revolution, and the idea of democracy despite the fact slavery and class divisions were tearing it apart. His poetry sings of the working class and the ordinary people, because he believed that was where democracy was alive, in the daily lives of average Americans. And here we are, one hundred sixty years later, still dealing with racial and income inequality. The middle class is shrinking, and there is more than enough anxiety and tension to tear us apart.
Attention must be paid but I’m not sure who is capable of paying attention in a fast paced world where breaking news drives the headlines and a presidential candidate communicates by tweeting a maximum of one hundred forty characters.
I certainly don’t think my middle class stories can hold America together but I keep writing because I don’t know what else to do. Each time I return to Higley Hill I try to shut out the news of the day and keep Whitman’s ideals in mind. He wrote something for everyone, for all Americans, and he too was as much the average American as anyone.
“I celebrate myself, And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
~ Walt Whitman
**** Two days after I wrote this blog I sit in a coffee shop posting it and read the day’s headlines. Donald Trump has told “second amendment people” they can stop Hillary Clinton from curbing gun rights. The Secret Service has confirmed they have spoken to the candidate. November is a long way off. Optimism is hard to maintain.***