November 11, 2016
People of the Id
by Curtis White
The following is adapted by Curtis White from his book We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data.
November 8, 2016 is a day that will live in infamy, or so we left-leaners imagine. Worse, we imagine that what makes it infamous (and scary) is the growing strength and consequence of “deplorables,” those who were fanatically present at Donald Trump’s white-people-only campaign rallies — the militias, the gun toters, the Bible bigots, the conspiracy theorists, the white supremacists, and the ordinary, southern-fried people who took their social conservatism at their mother’s paps. We well-educated, urban left-leaners habitually narrate poor, white, rural, conservative, and especially Southern culture as if it were the world of the People of the Id. These People are, of course, not shy about narrating us as sinners of one kind or another (elitists, liberals, humanists, relativists, heathens, homosexuals, baby killers, communists, in order of increasing flammability), but we’re not much conscious of how we return the favor.
We return the favor by treating them as if they were primitive, violent, stupid, animalistic, and destructive. We treat them as if they were children of Freud’s secular Satan, the dark Id. But this is certainly not how the People of the Id think of themselves. They believe that they are doing their duty — they’re doing what “anyone would do in my shoes.” They think this even when very few people outside of their own tribe (and a distressingly big tribe it is) would do anything of the sort, never mind the shoes. In any case, the People of the Id feel quite innocent about their acts. “Nothin’ special. Just standin’ up for my rights same as any man,” as the Cliven Bundys of the world say.
In other words, the People of the Id do what they’re told they shouldn’t do largely because they are under the impression that they are heroic, the defenders of all that is good, certainly not “deplorable,” a word that sounds to them like something that an over-educated elitist from New York would say.
Should the People of the Id be called on their bad behavior, should their leaders be put in shackles, they are surprised, then outraged. Their friends and family members, their civic and religious leaders, turn and howl at the cameras. The very first thing they claim is that they, the valiant People of the Id, are the ones who have been treated unjustly, beginning with the fact that they have been treated like People of the Id, like a “common criminal,” as they put it. They say, “We are not People of the Id, and we don’t know where you got that idea. We are patriots. We are the real Americans. We are protecting the American Revolution from tyranny! You should be thanking us!”
What the People of the Id believe and too often act on, sometimes horribly, are the things that everyone around them—father, mother, neighbor—has believed for centuries. The people to whom love is owed have put them under a heavy obligation to believe certain stories, for the stories are nothing other than their community’s virtues. These virtues seem obvious to them: “You can’t tax me without my consent, you can’t tell me what kind of gun I can own, you can’t tell me my daughter can get an abortion, and you can’t tell me that men who think they’re women can piss in the women’s restroom, not in Mississippi they can’t.”
When, as often happens, the People of the Id are told by “elites” that their truths are lies and their virtues false, they become confused and indignant. And should federal agents and troops come around to enforce foreign virtues, they become angry. They fear that the pleasure of feeling at one with their world is being taken away from them. They fear that they are losing the joy of shared community (even if this joy is predicated on, for example, a tolerance for beating up “faggots” on Saturday night — that’s just boys letting off steam, that’s just country justice).
It is for these reasons and more that we have in recent years experienced rancher-racist-patriot-hero-deadbeats Cliven and Ammon Bundy and their armed and Stetson-hatted posse of seditionists. It is for these reasons that we have had no choice but to look into the eyes of oops-I-thought-y’all-was-Jews murderer Frazier Glenn Miller and wonder what dark mystery thrives therein. And it is for these reasons, among many others, that we will now have a xenophobic right-wing populist for president.
When the People of the Id argue that they are merely living in a way that is consistent with the oldest American traditions, traditions that have made them who they are, they are not wrong. The Republican movement was first led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison against the Federalists — in particular John Adams with his fondness for courtly ritual and the imperial Alexander Hamilton. The Republicans accused the Federalists of being aristocrats, elitists, and monarchists intent on establishing a strong central government, an exploitive system of excise taxes, a corrupt system of finance based on a permanent federal debt, and a standing military to enforce the government’s autocratic whims. For Republicans that sounded like being asked to pay for their own oppression.
But just as the Republican Party of the present has issues with Tea Party extremists, the Jeffersonians had their own problems with immoderation that came to a head in what was known as the Whiskey Rebellion. In brief, an excise tax to support the federal budget was placed on whiskey, which at that time was used by many farmers not only for local consumption but also as a kind of currency. Where were they going to get money to pay the taxes on the whiskey that they were using as money? Opposition to the tax was so strong that a rebellion erupted in western Pennsylvania in which thousands of armed rebels organized, terrorized tax collectors, flew their own flag, and considered marching on the federal garrison in Pittsburgh. As our Tea Partiers of today say, pennant in hand, “Don’t tread on me!”
And who were these rebels? The Federalists called them “busy and restless sons of anarchy,” the anarchy consisting essentially of contempt for centralized lawmaking. These rebels were the first scofflaws, but they were also typical of rural America at the time: hatred of the federal government, taxes, banks, and debt; a trust in the manly virtues of gun toting and whiskey; the embrace of retributive violence. Are the Tea Party, the NRA, and Trump Nation wrong to think that what they represent is not criminal but deeply, psychically American? Are they not part of—even if a boundary-pushing part of—Jefferson’s belief that the American experiment had “the duty of proving what is the degree of freedom and self-government in which a society may venture to leave its individual members”? Jefferson’s assumption was that democracy would cure itself; it did not need central regulation.
It’s this simple: our modern People of the Id do not believe that the degree to which they have taken freedom goes beyond that place where a democratic society may venture. It is for this reason that they become so irate when a bureaucrat tells them that they must wear a helmet when they ride a motorcycle, or that they can’t own an assault rifle, or that mothers should not allow their sons to play high school football. Needless to say, the list of things forbidden by federal and state law is not a short one, as the prohibitions posted at our state and national parks demonstrate, which is why so many of the signs bearing these prohibitions have been improved with buckshot.
Even more sophisticated circles have become fascinated by Republican culture: witness the rise of “cracker chic” on cable TV food programs for southern cuisine and craft bourbons, or American “pickers,” and the ancient way of life depicted on the History Channel’s “Swamp People” or The Learning Channel’s “Trailer Park: Welcome to Myrtle Manor.” Or perhaps you prefer “Glamour Belles,” “Lizard Lick Towing,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” or Animal Planet’s “Hillbilly Handfishin’.” And everyone should prefer the elemental charm of Dog the Bounty Hunter!
Of course, all of this is dependent on typecasting rural people, especially in the South, and chortling at a safe distance as its representatives perform a sordid white minstrelsy (minus the talent for tap dancing). More to the point, this programming dictates a Federalist understanding of the rural: the people of the countryside are unlike us. They are crude and violent if sometimes good for a laugh. If they are poor, it is because that’s how they’ve always been. For us, their culture provides the benefit of an occasional shot of Elijah Craig 21-year-old single barrel whiskey or a plate of blackened grouper and cheesy grits, but not much more (except for the occasional night out slumming with the line dancers).
Taken together these characteristics create our founding national psychopathology. All of the social issues debated in the last presidential campaign were a reflection of this psychopathology, the “neurotic personality of our time,” as Freud’s student Karen Horney expressed it.
To this psychopathology something more material needs to be added. As libertarian economist Tyler Cowen has argued, as the high-tech industry absorbs ever more working class occupations (truck and taxi drivers appear to be next, and, if Amazon has its way, even house cleaners are in danger of losing their jobs), Average is Over. Study science, technology, and math or be left out. But average is not over, it’s simply been left behind in the thirty-six or so fly-over states full of poorly educated people living in something close to poverty (the “Precariat,” as it’s been called) and feeling really, really resentful.
Why did white males in left-out areas of the country vote for Trump? Bigotry is involved, for sure. But it’s also true that at present some thirty million workers in their prime working years are “non-employed.” They’ve fallen outside of the labor market. (This includes the workingman’s last resort, disability, for which there is a large and largely fraudulent industry of lawyers and doctors, especially in Appalachia.) The share of prime age men who are non-employed has tripled since the 1960s from 5% to 16%. Not unreasonably, much of this is blamed on both established parties who have for decades sent out their puppets of compassion and done nothing.
But whatever happens next, the People of the Id are fucked. It doesn’t matter that the election of Donald Trump feels to them like vengeance. They can enjoy their sense of revenge for a few months, but in the end they will be left where they are because Donald Trump is not going to help them and he probably couldn’t help them even if he wanted to. If manufacturing jobs come back from abroad, they will employ robots, not unemployed coal miners. There is nothing about the future of the American economy that includes the People of the Id. Their fate is still isolation, poverty, ignorance, and more than their proportionate share of self-destruction (crime, alcoholism, drugs, and domestic violence). That is certainly a sad thing for them, and it should be a bad thing for everyone.
The right words for Trump’s victory are “peasant revolt.” And “deplorable” as that revolt is in many ways, it is not entirely devoid of reason, a reason we should be familiar with: the creation of private splendor for a few, and the accelerating immiseration of the many.
One final observation: the nineteenth century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel said that the way to Freedom was the “highway of despair.” So, stay calm and keep walking.
Curtis White is the author of many books, including the acclaimed The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers and We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data, both from Melville House. His newest book, Living in a World That Can't Be Fixed, comes out 11/5/2019.