The New Yorker magazine has long shown the way for post-national cosmopolitans whose citizen-of-the world sense of moral superiority inclines them to disdain or simply ignore working-class Americans.
But in recent months, bewilderment at the popularity of Donald Trump has moved the magazine's editors to encourage a sort of anthropological journalism that has come up with some valuable insights into the durable support in much of the United States for the New York billionaire businessman.
Earlier this year George Packer, while aghast at the possibility of a Trump presidency, credited him with understanding an emergent fact of American life: "The middle-aged white working class has suffered at least as much as any demographic group because of globalization, low-wage immigrant labor, and free trade," Packer wrote.
Now comes Larissa MacFarquhar, who brings another keen insight in an article for the New Yorker's October 10 issue that seeks to explain Trump's popularity in West Virginia. After noting that Hillary Clinton had divided Trump supporters into bigoted "deplorables" and people who are struggling economically, she writes: "What's missing from Clinton's two categories is a third sort of person, who doesn't want to think of himself as racist, but who feels that strong borders describe a home. There are many such people, and not just in West Virginia."
That home, of course, is the nation-state named the United States of America. It is a place for which most Americans have hold a deeply felt patriotic attachment from which we derive a proud sense of belonging and identity.
J.D. Vance writes about patriotism in his smash best-seller, Hillbilly Elegy. He recalls that his grandparents, who rescued him from his negligent, drug-addicted single mother, "taught me that we live in the best and greatest country on earth. This fact gave meaning to my childhood."
In recent years, this belief, which nurtured a resilient optimism, has faded in much of the Appalachian world in which Vance grew up and in much of working-class America. As Vance writes, "From low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction, my home is a hub of misery." And while many Americans have become wealthy and insulated in bastions of privilege, Vance reports that now "working class whites are the most pessimistic group in America."
In an interview with American Conservative, Vance put that situation in the context of the ongoing presidential campaign. "These people — my people — are really struggling," he said. "And there hasn't been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time. Donald Trump at least tries." Trump, despite his bullying vulgarity and ignorance of policy issues, understood some compelling facts of American life that elites have long ignored. Ironically, some of those who scorn him most have been forced to open their eyes to the realities that he so brusquely put on the agenda of the presidential race.
Even Larry Summers, former Harvard president and Treasury secretary, has called for "a responsible nationalism" that would emphasize "that countries are expected to pursue their citizens' economic welfare as a primary objective but where their ability to damage the interests of citizens of other countries is circumscribed."
The Summers essay was so powerful that editorial gatekeepers at both the Washington Post and the Financial Times sought to publish it. With the New Yorker joining in, maybe even the New York Times will begin reporting on the world of Americans who feel abandoned by the country they were raised to love so deeply.
Caveat: We shouldn't be too optimistic about the change of direction among luminaries on the left. On Sunday's "This Week with George Stephanopolous" we heard another absolutist liberal condemnation of Trump and his supporters from Stephanie Cutter, whose career in Democratic politics has included stints as either communications director or deputy communications director for the Clinton White House, Sen. Edward Kennedy, the John Kerry presidential campaign, and the Democratic National Committee. Cutter said Trump's "entire campaign has been built around racist, misogynist, disparaging comments about Gold Star families, making fun of the disabled."