Despair driven votes – Wendell Berry replies to Nathaniel Rich

In These Times, May 2017 and the New York Times Review of Books

The liberals and Democrats of our enlightened cities, as Mr. Rich rightly says, have paid little or no attention to rural America “for more than half a century.” But it has received plenty of attention from the conservatives and Republicans and their client corporations. Rural America is a colony, and its economy is a colonial economy.

The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value—minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and “labor”—has been taken at the lowest possible price. As apparently none of the enlightened ones has seen in flying over or bypassing on the interstate highways, its too-large fields are toxic and eroding, its streams and rivers poisoned, its forests mangled, its towns dying or dead along with their locally owned small businesses, its children leaving after high school and not coming back. Too many of the children are not working at anything, too many are transfixed by the various screens, too many are on drugs, too many are dying.

In a New York Times Op-Ed, A. Hope Jahren writes: “Farm policy hasn’t come up even once during a presidential debate for the past 16 years.” But the problem goes back much farther than that. It goes back at least to Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, who instructed American farmers to “get big or get out.” In effect that set the “farm policy” until now, and thus sealed the fate of the decent, small, independent livelihoods of rural America. To that brutally stated economic determinism I know that President Clinton gave his assent, calling it “inevitable,” and so apparently did Mrs. Clinton. The rural small owners sentenced to dispensability in the 1950s are the grandparents of the “blue-collar workers” of rural America who now feel themselves to be under the same sentence, and with reason.

It is true that racism, sexism, and nostalgia have counted significantly in the history of rural America until this moment. But to attribute the approximate victory of Mr. Trump only to those “southern” faults, and to locate them only in rural America, is a driblet of self-righteous ignorance.

Wendell Berry
Port Royal, Kentucky

In Rich’s defense, the United States has an undeniably racist origin story, one that continues to explain a lot about how we interact with each other. But if only to prevent it from ever happening again, both writers would probably agree it’s important for our historical record to accurately diagnose Donald Trump’s ascension. This requires acknowledging that, unlike Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton failed to make a compelling economic case to millions of Americans who are finding it harder and harder to get by. Lies or not, Trump did.

Identity politics aren’t going away. We’re grappling with a karma-guided hatchet that’s nowhere close to being buried. Unfortunately, ignoring the pain associated with that reality lends itself perfectly to the president’s (seriously stupid) #MakeAmericaGreatAgain hashtag. That said, blaming rural Americans for temporarily swooning over the off-the-cuff brilliance that was “Drain the Swamp”—essentially a promise to a serially ignored segment of the population that, this time for realsies, things will change—is not productive or progressive. We are, after all, dealing with a political establishment that has for decades been losing sight of what “We the People” means.

And none of this changes how fast Trump-the-candidate’s “America First” rhetoric magically (freaking seamlessly) morphed into more foreign interventions, a cabinet stacked with “statesmen” courtesy of Goldman Sachs and a torrent of policy proposals that clearly favor the rich. On second thought, perhaps it’s time for all Americans—the disappointed, the still-stoked and the terrified—to start focusing not on how this happened and who’s to blame (the diagnosis) but on what comes next.

In other words, what’s the prognosis?

Nathaniel Rich replies:

I’m glad that my foreword to Joan Didion’s South and West has provided a forum for Wendell Berry’s defense of rural America. I only wish he had bothered to read my essay with greater care. He seems to have confused it with other pieces he has seen about “white blue-collar workers,” a phrase that he quotes but that I never used.

Berry acknowledges that “racism, sexism, and nostalgia have counted significantly in the history of rural America until this moment” but he is offended that I point this out. He seems to think that I attributed Donald Trump’s victory “entirely” to the culture of the rural South, when in fact I argued that the “dense obsessiveness” that Didion observed in her travels was “the true American condition.” I do admire, however, the ease with which Berry moves from his demand for “factual and statistical proofs” to his own expansive generalizations about “the business of America” and the plight of rural children “transfixed by the various screens.”

Berry argues, as many others have, that Trump’s older, rural voters were motivated by economic despair. But a lot of Americans have experienced economic despair, much of it exacerbated by cruel government policy. Many of these people live in cities, including New Orleans, where I live. Disproportionately they are not white. In fact—to cite a few factual and statistical proofs—recent reports by the ACLU, the Pew Research Center, and the US Department of Labor have shown that African-Americans and Latinos have suffered far worse than whites since the recession, while younger workers (ages twenty-five to thirty-four) have experienced more severe and prolonged declines in employment than members of every other age group. Yet these voters broke decisively against Trump. I wonder why Mr. Berry thinks that is.