The rationalists can’t explain everything. We’ve been here before.
In the coming months liberals and never-Trump conservatives will attempt to salvage their credibility by offering explanations for why the polls and prognoses of a Biden blowout were so egregiously wrong. Much of the chattering class has already chalked the closeness of the election up to racism—now called “white supremacy” because of the former’s overuse. And this despite Trump’s relatively strong performance among minorities.
More than a few of my left-leaning friends and colleagues in liberal Los Angeles have already asked me—the token conservative—how voters could be so dumb as to pull the lever for Trump twice. It’s as if any rational person could only understand the last four years as an ongoing catastrophe. As a history teacher in a prestigious independent school, I have a simple answer which comes from rational observation of teenage students mostly from well-heeled backgrounds: the cosmopolitan elites of the media and academia establishment, like the presupposing college bound teen with seniroritis who has the world all figured out, fail to grasp the blinkered nature of their own world view; in doing so, they fail to comprehend the full complexity of reality itself.
The world view to which I am referring goes by many names—rationalism, secularism, humanism etc. It is a view that emanates from what I call the Enlightenment Myth: the idea that we arrived at the modern world by wholesale jettisoning of religion, tradition, and custom. It’s the idea that modernity was built from the ground-up, through secularized reason. As the AP European History concept outline in my textbook uncritically puts it: “They [Enlightenment thinkers] sought to bring the light of reason to bear on the darkness of prejudice, outmoded traditions, and ignorance, challenging traditional values.” Of note is not this drab statement itself, but the fact that its authors, like my students and the pollsters who predicted electoral carnage for Trump this election, take it as a matter of fact as opposed to ideology-driven historiography open to debate.
One can almost imagine the line I just quoted grafted onto the present: They [Democrats] sought to bring the light of reason to bear on the darkness of prejudice, outmoded traditions, and ignorance, challenging the traditional values of Trump voters in flyover country. The way this perspective plays itself out in my history classroom is illuminating, especially when we get to the Enlightenment. “Finally,” my students tell me, “something I can relate to.” For once the certitude of religious doctrine and cultural supremacy has given way to the recognizable and comfortable relativism of today. The rational, self-interested individual is finally free to achieve full autonomy and self-actualization. As the French Revolutionary document The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen puts it: “Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else.”
This is why my students find it so incomprehensible when they learn that the rebellion in the Vendee—a pro-monarchy and pro-church counter-revolution—was led not by aristocrats but by peasants who wished to protect their way of life from the homogenizing intrusion of “reason.” For in the name of reason, their churches were being desecrated, their streets being renamed, and even their work week stretched out from 7 days to the more “rational” 10. Why, my students nonetheless ask, couldn’t the peasants recognize their own liberators, the ones who had sought to banish backwardness to the past and free them from clerical tyranny and feudalism? But after their momentary curiosity they usually move on to more pressing concerns. Questions like those are footnotes in history, one of life’s many unanswerable abstractions.
One of my mentors once stressed that as history teachers, our urge is often to make history relatable and hence understandable. Here are people just like you and me, as this or that anecdote demonstrates. But the allure of history, this mentor told me, lies just as much in the subject’s strangeness. History is full of weird events that are hard to understand and, if we succeed as history teachers we help students not to understand that weirdness but to at least inhabit it—to ponder it with the wonder of the childlike. In the same way that my students sometimes fail to inhabit the strangeness of history, which they inevitably reduce to obscurantism and benighted un-reason, the Trump despising elites of both parties, as well as academia and the media, fail to even attempt to inhabit the strangeness, the domestic exoticism, of the Trump voter.
Why would some Americans rather work and risk death during the pandemic than wait on a government stimulus check? Why would they choose, like the President seemed to, economic growth over rational self-interest and self-preservation? How could Latinos vote for a President who demonizes undocumented immigrants or gays for a man who has sought to ban transgender people from serving in the military? As a liberal student of mine put it to me, “I mean voting for him twice? How could people be so stupid as to vote for him a second time? Look at his record! How could the election even be this close? It’s depressing.”
“Maybe,” I said, citing the above evidence “not all Trump voters are racist.”
“Or maybe,” they replied, “it’s not just white people who are racist.”
In the book Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, Chris Arnade explicitly states “This book is not a book about ‘how we got Trump.’” Nonetheless, the lesson he learns from speaking with and photographing America’s marginalized is one that has gone unlearned by too many of us, even after the upset Trump victory in 2016 that should have reordered our curiosities towards comprehension of what we fail to understand. “My biases,” Arnade says of his time observing churches in poor neighborhoods, “my years steeped in rationality and privilege, was limiting a deeper understanding.”
There is no more perfect analogue to the failure of one’s historical imagination to inhabit anything other than the probity of the torchbearers of Enlightenment truth than Charles M. Blow’s recent New York Times op-ed entitled “Exit Polls Point to the Power of White Patriarchy.” As he works his way through the inexplicable numbers of non-straight white males who voted for Trump he ruefully laments “It is so unsettling to consider that many of our fellow countrymen and women are either racists or accommodate racists or acquiesce to racists.” Somewhere his high school history teacher is cringing. At least I hope he is.
Kurt Hofer holds a PhD in Spanish Literature and teaches high school history in a Los Angeles area independent school.
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