What Carl Sandburg and Wendell Berry Can Teach Us about Relating to Trump Voters

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tags: political history, Trump, Civility

Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University and a Contributing Editor of HNN. For a list of his recent books and online publications click here. His most recent book is In the Face of Fear: Laughing All the Way to Wisdom (2019), which treats humor from a historical perspective.


With campaigning for the 2020 presidential election already underway, Democrats are asking themselves how to approach Trump supporters. Of special concern are the 9.2 percent of Obama voters who voted for Trump in 2016. What motivated the choice of Trump and how now to relate to his supporters are thus key questions.


Regarding motivation, George Saunders wrote in 2016 that many Trump supporters  suffered from what he called “usurpation anxiety syndrome,” which he defined as “the feeling that one is, or is about to be, scooped, overrun, or taken advantage of by some Other with questionable intentions.” A mid-2017 article in The Nation proclaimed that “racial attitudes towards blacks and immigration are the key factors associated with support for Trump. In Defense of Elitism (2019), by Joel Stein, argues, however, that “the main reason Trump won wasn’t economic anxiety. It wasn’t sexism. It wasn’t racism. It was that he was anti-elitist. Hillary Clinton represented Wall Street, academics, policy papers, Davos, international treaties, and people who think they’re better than you.” 


Throwing more light on these three comments are various surveys of Trump voters. Two-thirds of non-college whites supported him, and he ran especially strong in rural areas and small towns among those who had never moved from their home state. About this time, “rural residents were nearly three times as likely (42 percent) as people in cities (16 percent) to say that immigrants are a burden on the country,” and rural whites were much more likely than urban whites to believe that “whites [are] losing out because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics.” 


Thus, “usurpation anxiety,” racism, anti-elitism, limited education, and rural/small-town existence all mattered, but historians are taught to avoid what David Hackett Fischer labels the reductive fallacy, which “reduces complexity to simplicity.” So the anti- and never-Trumpers must be careful about over-emphasizing any one factor.   

Worth pondering are the words of J. D. Vance, author of the best-selling Hillbilly ElegyHe believes that anti-Trump individuals should avoid labeling many Trump supporters as rednecks, hillbillies, or white trash. He indicated, in an interview with American Conservative’s editor Rod Dreher, as Kris Kristofferson put it in his “Jesus Was a Capricorn,” that “everybody's gotta have somebody to look down on.”And, as Vance says, “if you’re an elite white professional, working class whites are an easy target: you don’t have to feel guilty for being a racist or a xenophobe. By looking down on the hillbilly, you can get that high of self-righteousness and superiority without violating any of the moral norms of your own tribe. So your own prejudice is never revealed for what it is.”

To aid in the avoidance of such bias, of simplistic labeling and sweeping generalizations, two great American writers, Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) and Wendell Berry (b. 1934), can help guide us. The first was apoet, Lincoln biographer, folk-song collector and singer. His friend Adlai Stevenson (the Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956) once said that he “is the one living man whose work and whose life epitomize the American dream.” Like Sandburg, Berry is a writer of both poetry and prose. In 2011, he received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama. Although Berry is a pacifist who often has written for The Progressive magazine, conservative editor Rod Dreher has stated “I am a great admirer of Wendell Berry’s, and agree with much of his diagnosis.”(Like many conservative intellectuals, Dreher has also been a severe critic of President Trump.)

Both Sandburg and Berry have combined strong criticism of racism (see here and here) and anti-immigrant prejudice, with great empathy for common citizens. In 1911 Sandburg wrote, “Woman, the common woman—the wife of the workingman—is the slave of a slave, cooking, sewing, washing, cleaning, nursing in sickness, and rendering a hundred personal services daily for a man who is himself not in power to dictate a constant job and living wage for himself.” (See here for the sources of Sandburg quotes.) In “I Am the People, the Mob,” in Chicago Poems(1916), he wrote, “I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass. / Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?” 

In 1927, referring to The American Songbag, which he was then preparing for publication, he wrote "It is not so much my book as that of a thousand other people who have made its 260 colonial, pioneer, railroad, work-gang, hobo, Irish, Negro, Mexican, gutter, Gossamer songs, chants and ditties.” His poem The People, Yes (1936) is a book-length affirmation of the common people despite their shortcomings.  As his friend Harry Golden said of him in 1961, “His instincts are with the people. He believes they have an infinite capacity for good.”  

His praise for two of his favorite presidents, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt (FDR), flowed largely from their concern for ordinary citizens. Toward the end of his last volume on Lincoln and the “war years,” he wrote: “And to him [Lincoln] the great hero was The People. He could not say too often that he was merely their instrument.” 

On the eve of the 1940 presidential election, Sandburg spoke on a national radio broadcast in behalf of FDR’s reelection. In his speech, Sandburg quoted the words of a man in 1863 who stated that explanation for every act of Lincoln was that “he executes the will of the people. . . . His wisdom consists in carrying out the good sense of the nation.” Sandburg then added “and for some of us, that goes in the main in the present hour of national fate, for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” 

Wendell Berry, about whom I have written many previous essays, shares Sandburg’s empathy for ordinary people. For decades he has lived and worked as a part-time farmer in a small Kentucky area which he describes as a “rural community” that like others “all over the country are either dying or dead.” In such areas, as noted above, most people voted for Trump. Berry has strong sympathy for them,but not for Trump, whom he thinks “indulges his worst impulses and encourages the worst impulses of others.”

But in the Introduction to his latest collection of agrarian writings, he is also critical of “the venom, the contempt, and the stereotyping rhetoric that some liberal intellectuals” displayedagainst ‘rural America’ and the ‘working class’ people who voted for Mr. Trump.” Such liberals, Berry believes, are ignorant of U. S. economic history and of “the long-term effects of unrestrained global capitalism” that hurt both small-scale farmers and many industrial workers. 

In a late 2018 interview, he indicated that although suffering workers and farmers made a mistake in voting for Trump, “people who are hopeless will do irrational things.” Their vote at least got liberal critics of rural people to notice their pain.  Earlier many liberals apparently didn’t realize that “with their consent, urban America has been freely plundering rural America of agricultural products since about the middle of the last century—and of coal for half a century longer.”


In that same interview Berry criticized a U.S. mentality that insisted “that the best life is the freest life. ” In some ways, Trump’s disregard of ethical norms and self-discipline reflect this desire to be unregulated. As opposed to such “freedom,” Berry emphasizes community, ethical limits, being a good neighbor, and taking good care of our environment. “We really have to turn against the selfishness of the individualism that sees everybody as a competitor of everybody else.”


In a 2008 essay, “Faustian Economics,” he wrote that “in our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define ‘freedom’ . . . as an escape from all restraint.” But “in neighborliness, stewardship, thrift, temperance, generosity, care, kindness, friendship, loyalty, and love,” self-restraints are implied. He also indicated a concern that has increased during the last decade--global warming, which he believed flowed from greed and waste. 

On occasion he has worked with Bill McKibben, one of the USA’s “most important environmental activists” and co-organizer of a massive September 2019 global climate strike involving 4 million people in 163 countries. In 2016, McKibben wrote that he would “love to have our leaders sit down with Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow because it illustrates well how a working community operates, and    “Berry has long been the great novelist, poet, and essayist of community.” 


In his The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture (1977), he contrasted the goals of U. S. exploiters with those of nurturers like good small farmers. While the first sought money and profit, the second were more concerned with the health of their land, family, and community. To Berry’s regret the exploitive mentality, present for a long time in America, had become dominant in corporate America. 

In his 2012 Jefferson Lecture, he spoke of corporate industrialism’s failure to concern itself with the common good. “No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it, no pointless rhetoric on the virtues of capitalism or socialism, no billions or trillions spent on ‘defense’ of the ‘American dream,’ can for long disguise this failure.”

Both Sandburg and Berry have combined their empathy for common workers with strong criticism of capitalist flaws--Sandburg was a pre-World-War-I socialist.  Both also believed, as Berry said in his 2018 interview, “in the importance of conversation,” adding, “it’s either that or kill each other. . . . What we need to do is submit, for example, to the influence of actually talking to your enemy. Loving your enemy.”


In a similar spirit are my words of two years ago: “In our time of bitter political rancor, when the excesses of the Trump administration are so egregious and we are tempted to lash out at any Trump supporters in anger . . . we should temper our passion for justice and truth with kindness, love, empathy, humility, humor, and tolerance.” 


These virtues are also ones Sandburg and Berry have admired, encouraged, and tried to live. As the 2020 presidential race intensifies, we should follow their example.

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