At its best, Hollywood had audiences streaming out of theaters with a reassuring sense of communal recovery and solidarity.
Americans have always had a tough time with ideology. When they use the word at all, they tend to do so with a ready sneer that lets others know they would rather be discussing something more suitable for democratic adults. Yet the word has become unavoidable of late. As any pundit will readily tell you, the single biggest reason for the antagonisms and resultant inertia of Congress in the new millennium is not one of those things you might reasonably have considered (you know, weakening party discipline, spite, straightforward racism), but the ideological abyss that has opened between Republicans and Democrats. In tones of disapproval, disgust, and horror, we are scolded that this is not at all what the founding fathers had in mind, and certainly not what the founding mothers would have excused at the dinner table. Go wash your hands. No one is to reach for politics with fingers begrimed with ideology.
As conventional wisdom goes, this particular example is a model of self-delusion and hypocrisy on numerous levels, beginning with the belated admission that ideology might have actually existed all this time outside the walls of the Kremlin, all those McCarthy-era House subcommittees and precipitate John Wayne takes on reality notwithstanding. Prior to the 2016 presidential election, such received wisdom also flattered American cultural vanities with its presumption that the coffee table in every reasonable citizen’s living room featured a statue of the goddess Accommodation requiring regular offerings of smoldering incense. Even with that bubble burst, there has been an effort by the same sages who never saw November 2016 coming to typify the results as yet another form of ideology, “populism,” a term that has been pressed into service relentlessly to intellectualize moods spanning the ugly, the cavalier, and the passive-aggressive. If ideology were market merchandise, populism would be what has made it indiscriminately available, but at ruinous prices.
The first notable figure quoted as speaking disparagingly of ideology was Napoleon, who dismissed French philosophers antagonistic to his imperial aims as “mere ideologues.” Gradually, the term degenerated into a synonym for everything from stagnant intellectualism and overripe theorizing to despotic dogma and total lie. Outside academe, few adhered to its core meaning of a global vision enlisting philosophical projection, idealistic belief, and social arrangement for prescribing mass dynamics; that is, where there was ideology, there was a worldview. Still fewer were those who, not captive to their own schematic worldview, acknowledged the constant shift of perspective necessitated by evolving realities and foreseen in the early nineteenth century by philosopher Antoine Destutt de Tracy in proposing idéologie as a science of ideas. When ideology didn’t invite rejection as its own worst ism, in other words, it was arraigned for giving birth to dangerously obsessive offspring, many of whom adopted the custom of hurling bombs and similar decor-changing objects to hasten realization of their personal Weltanschauungen.
On occasion, the spawn haven’t even had to appear menacing to face rejection. A striking facet of American skepticism toward isms is that while it has been most conspicuously aimed at the aspirations of Europe-rooted anarchism, fascism, and communism, it has also been evident in attitudes toward the contents of the French Revolution and even the American Revolution. Symptomatically, popular American depictions of the French Revolution over the years suggest that it was little more than an eruption that began in the best of times and worst of times and that ended with people doing a far, far better thing than they had ever done before while all the time a sadistic crone did her sewing in the shadow of the guillotine. Liberté, égalité, fraternité might as well have been the cry of the Three Musketeers after another one of their tavern duels.
At a popular level at home, once past those promissory concepts of freedom and independence, our general neglect of the social and political substance of the American Revolution has pointed to a distinct discomfort with seeing it as a revolution at all. If that has changed a bit recently, it has done so only in academic studies that have taken a closer look at the history of the time, a revisionist deepening that still has not made it into most classrooms or textbooks, let alone the national consciousness. The enduring motto, it seems, is Keep It Simplistic. No doubt it has been less taxing to dwell on a colonial rebellion than on a revolution proper, since this has let us regard ourselves as emotional and instinctual, responding only to what any aggrieved innocent would respond to in such oppressive conditions. A revolution raises the specter of at least minimal calculation, and who wants to have to explain why the enthusiasm for equality somehow left all those slaves around, even up at George Washington’s place? As long as rescue is assured, an imperiled Pauline is always more becalming than a militant Rosa Luxemburg.
This non-deliberative tradition has been hard to miss, and again popular culture has been suggestive. Is it mere coincidence, for instance, that once past the singing and hoofing of 1776 and the pricey theatrical happening of Hamilton, treatment of the Revolution has been exhausted with television serials adapted from paperback bodice rippers and best-selling biographies? Doubtless abetted by the foresight that militiamen who sport powdered wigs while firing one-shot muskets are not as exciting as unkempt rebels blazing away with Colt .45s, Hollywood, Publishers Row, and other feeders of public fantasy have tended to support D.W. Griffith’s view that the Civil War, and not the War of Independence, marked the birth of the nation. And, of course, the true values of that conflict, as we have known since elementary school, were no secession and no slavery, blessed propositions requiring no more thought (least of all of the ism-ic kind) than that needed to espouse freedom and independence. Why go further into such complex issues as the industrial North’s economic grip on the South, states’ rights demands, or even the significance of the election of Abraham Lincoln? As ballplayers say, think long, think wrong.
But a dearth of insights into the Revolution has not precluded attempts to define the American character and the values that have supposedly shaped it since then; once transposed to a less ambiguous setting without powdered wigs, beribboned hair, and silk stockings, the quest has bred plenty of identity claims—from writers feeling a duty to file them, from politicians mining the discoveries of the writers, and from historians assaying the impurities in both groups.
Again, the most frequent epiphanies have been the simplest ones. Down to our day, almost a century later, a poll asking where our social-cultural beliefs have found their most explicit expression would assuredly yield as a popular reply, even in the face of recent inflammatory rhetoric, Frank Capra’s Everyman movies of the 1930s, when Mr. Smith went to Washington and Mr. Deeds to town. And what values did Capra proffer through his James Stewart and Gary Cooper protagonists? A moral righteousness combating corporate and government corruption, for one. The satisfactions of honest work in a capitalist society, for a second. The democratic right to happiness against the daily forces of unhappiness, for a third. Faith in the constancy of (ideally Christian) divine protection, for a fourth. In sum, nothing that approached the ism-ic; indeed, no principle deriving from that thar book learnin’ in the least. As Mr. Smith showed in his Senate filibuster, the one text worth heeding was the US Constitution; as Mr. Deeds insisted, the only sincere form of writing was greeting-card doggerel—a doff of the fedora to the New Testament for having been an influence on the noblest sentiments of both.
By this measure, an American’s guiding values have nothing to gain from the ideologies hatched in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe, and not merely because of the distinctions imposed by geography and history. For openers, the foreign-grown ideologies would have been inconceivable without their elaboration and argumentation in books and periodicals—suspect outlets in the minds of congressmen and jingle writers. To one subtle degree or another, anarchism, fascism, and communism, the most acted-upon isms in their various derivative forms, were programmatic philosophies proposing specific steps toward specific objectives. Realization was stipulative, not reactive, predicated as much on theoretical as on social accomplishment. Indifference to them was neither here nor there. Those who didn’t subscribe to the ideology at issue were still encompassed as active or potential foes, as part of the problem when not part of the solution. From the viewpoint of the ideology, everybody was involved. A worldview meant precisely that—a vision of the world, not merely of selected islands and subscribing archipelagoes.
Overtly, there has been little patience among Americans with the vaunted comprehensiveness of these isms; societies, not to mention the individual person, cannot be wrapped up so neatly in one package, we say. But, in fact, we too have harbored an ideology expressive of all-inclusiveness—one referred to with deceptive informality as the “American way of life,” one considerably more nationalistic than those from Europe, and one (also critically different) born as a defensive credo of established authority rather than a system for replacing that authority. All these distinctions insinuate reasons for the sensitivity about the very notion of ideology on this side of the Atlantic; they also contain the seeds of why the domestic variety of ideology hasn’t always flowered at will or why on occasion it has grown out in peculiar forms. The most disquieting of these forms, as illustrated of late, has been that so-called populism.
It’s a Wonderful (American) Life
For the most part, only envoys from the lunatic fringe have invoked “Americanism” as some delineated vision of democracy, capitalism, and their intersections. But there has been a parallel, complicit consensus in the trust that determination, agility, and imagination—attributes extolled in conflation as “individualism” and steeped in metaphors of conquerable frontiers—can animate capitalism with a human face, and that this too takes in everyone. This means not only within a theory of capitalism, an economics postulate flexible enough to serve multiple ideologies, but also within the premise that personal ambitions and energies are essentially addends contributing to the sum of a democratic society committed to exploitation by that capitalism. When a historian such as Gordon S. Wood suggests in The Radicalism of the American Revolution that the singular legacy of the revolution was that it “made the interests and prosperity of ordinary people…the goal of society and government,” he focuses on the stadium more than on the game played in it. More directly, we the people come first because we come first and second, embodying the personal and, in that, exposing our vulnerability as a potential dispensability. No i in team? Well, there are plenty of them in individualism, but it too is still a franchise game.
To date, this system was challenged most seriously in the 1930s (the era of Messrs. Smith and Deeds), when the Great Depression wiped all traces of humanity from capitalism’s face and the cardinal European ideologies sidled their way into US society. It was the worst of times and it was the worst of times, and it was not lost on either its backers or its opponents that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal had to retune the national anthem as much as the job market. To this end, Roosevelt launched not only wide-ranging relief and work programs but also a broad propaganda offensive, pointedly calling on the radio and motion picture industries to divert attention from the Depression’s hardships. What this came down to was veiling the brutalities of Wild West market competitiveness and the estrangements of individualism in order to obscure the realities they could lead to (indeed, already had), while at the same time rationalizing the worth and indeed necessity of those values to the American way of life.
The tactic was nothing new: Organizing diversions from festering domestic problems had been the usual recourse even before the Roman emperors took up the practice. Even the distractions weren’t a reinvention of the wheel, being simply more manageable than big cats and terrified Christians. FDR himself contributed to the radio campaign with his regular “fireside chats” and was a “special guest” on programs almost as much as Barack Obama would become on TV as well as radio eight decades later. It was in movies, however, that the “American way of life” shone with the greatest ideological clarity. Through a combination of the visual, personal, and thematic, not to mention the presence of big-screen celebrities, the movie house penetrated where newspapers, political oratory, and even radio could not reach. Movies persuaded those packed into neighborhood orchestras and balconies that the ubiquitous economic misery was not only temporary in daily terms but also merely a transient development for fundamental national values. To underline this lesson all the more, there were few major films of the period, including the Capra features, that didn’t portray heroes as being desperate to the edge of suicide before coming to a reborn faith in themselves and in their country. The best of such pictures had audiences streaming out of theaters with a reassuring sense of communal recovery and solidarity.
In many respects, Hollywood went further than even Washington had asked. In aid of the nation or not, movies were not arid compilations of statistics issued by the Labor Department; creativity meant being creative, and facts could get in the way. On the big screen, Lincoln spoke with God. Industrialists were ready to sacrifice their wealth rather than see an employee evicted from a grim tenement. From Iroquois to Apache, every whooping Indian dreamed of tying down a settler’s wife while he burned their homestead to the ground and slaughtered their dog. The stakes couldn’t have been higher, nor the redemptions more enthralling. Patriotism wasn’t merely saluting the flag; projected at the Bijou, it grazed the mythical, meant remembering what had never really happened.
In rewriting history, Hollywood didn’t neglect the narrative of its own industry. One conspicuous chapter touched on humor, an attribute central to the medium’s entertainment function that also inflated contentions about the American character. As played out most emblematically, the setting was an elegant restaurant, a stuffy library, or a dank cellar, with an American and one or more foreigners present. The foreigners wanted information or some object of value from the American. They were willing to be polite about it, but violence was also in the air. The American disguised his predicament by cracking wise to his interrogators—at which point the latter, whether born in Frankfurt, schooled in Algiers, or married in Kuala Lumpur, whether in an espionage melodrama or a Three Stooges two-reeler, replied archly, “Ze famus Amerikan senz off yamur!”
The famous American sense of humor. How and when it had become famous was never clear, but it was a compliment to make the chest swell, a national trait as endearing as love for a kitten. Equally significant, it carried the implication that other peoples lagged behind in the lighthearted and the witty. The bons mots of the French? The ironies of the Czechs? The whimsy of the Irish? Didn’t exist. The comedies reaching back to the Lumières and Georges Méliès, the German predilection for slapstick? Never happened. Every foreigner was Ninotchka prior to her conversion. Once the famous American sense of humor became boilerplate, native film chroniclers had no difficulty judging the antics of the suave Cary Grant, the zany Irene Dunne, and the chaotic Marx Brothers as the acme of human comedy—cinematically but also as a cultural insignia. The rest of the world marched when on top and all but crawled when not, but whether up or down, Americans coursed. The British drank ginger beer, Americans were ginger. Anarchists were more reckless, Nazis more efficient, communists more zealous; but thanks to their humor gene, Americans were crystallized as a whole people, as ready to deal with their own foibles as with those of other peoples. Who could deny the 35mm evidence on the screen?
According to Hollywood, millionaires were funny, hobos personified drollery, gangsters fired glib cracks as often as .38s. The most accomplished films of the period corralled everyone. Humor was the social leveler; it made coming up short in money, equality, or anything else tolerable. Class, race, and religion were cited solely for a reassurance that they didn’t matter. Whoever they were, whatever their social class or skin color, Americans were just happy—very happy—to be Americans. And don’t forget: This was a world-famous fact.
The life-and-death struggles of World War II refrigerated this outlook for safekeeping. By the end of the war it had gelatinized, with slews of films encrusted in film noir jadedness but just as many of them (It’s a Wonderful Life, Heaven Can Wait, The Horn Blows at Midnight, The Bishop’s Wife, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Cockeyed Miracle, Angel on My Shoulder, etc.) adding angels, devils, and other surprisingly material spirits. More often than not, the angels were dotty, the devils malleable, the ghosts in a perpetual rage about one imagined grievance or other—but humorously, clownishly, sweetly. The concentration camps of Europe and Asia might have exposed horrendous landscapes, but there was no reason to fear other worlds; in the wake of the economic boom the war had initiated, fantasy was under control, even came off as swagger. In America, a Faustian bargain was all positive. Who could ever get around people with such a profoundly supernatural belief in themselves?
The believers themselves, as it turned out. A primarily nationalistic, defensive cultural impetus bred both warranted and unwarranted suspicions of the self-interests of others—a wariness that prompted hesitations that produced doubts that hatched dreads.
Domestically, the Cold War sparked the raising of almost as many drawbridges as the hot one before it had. But while “Americanism” was not the rhetorical rarity during the Red Scare witch hunts of the 1950s that it had once been, and schools from the Atlantic to the Pacific sponsored essay contests to see if some eleven-year-old could define it, it still lacked an instant vibrancy. It certainly could not match the ideological resonance (or the headlines) that could be set off by denouncing actors, scientists, and bus drivers as subversives. The “American way of life” was most at ease accusing other ways of life of being inferior, when not altogether dangerous. Its propaganda was not so much about what it actually consisted of as about the threat to whatever that was supposed to be. Its nucleus wasn’t the founding fathers debating Constitutional principles in Philadelphia but shark-finned Chevrolets going past anonymous tract houses in nameless suburbs. With communists sent off to jail or jobless, and this following the defeat of fascism and the sentencing of anarchism to irrelevance, the “American way of life” had been reduced to seeking some familiar cross-street—any cross-street at all—for orientation.
Aside from those with irritating political tendencies, what the witch hunts succeeded in blacklisting more than anything else was the imagination and agility in the American identikit; abandoned to itself in its individualism, determination was a glum asset that inspired nobody but anxious men in gray flannel suits. Mr. Smith’s hoarse protest that he was “dead right or crazy” could no longer assume a sympathetic response; those given to outsized actions might very well need professional help. Laugh tracks had to be created by TV engineers to remind everyone of that famous sense of humor, but it couldn’t even be said for certain that all those voices roaring in delight at long-ago antics belonged to the still-living. The American way of life’s vision became critically nearsighted.
“Americanism” wasn’t alone when it came to recommending wariness before use. Also troublesome, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall and chortling about who had “won” the Cold War, was the seductive notion of a “chosen people,” a sobriquet that, as Germans, Jews, Catholics, Romans, Incas, and other tribes had shown, added up to a short run from hubris to debacle. With history as a teacher, Americans were in no hurry to forge superior military power, global economic monopolies, and geopolitical manipulations into boasts of being another chosen people. Why taunt fate? What there was instead was Alexis de Tocqueville’s nineteenth-century judgment that America was “exceptional”—an estimation of the country’s civic and religious values and their social manifestation that was not all that justly interpreted as the Frenchman’s sweeping endorsement of it.
In the decades following Tocqueville’s observation, “American exceptionalism” had good times and bad times in usage (including, ironically, one phase in the 1920s when the American Communist Party was linked to the expression in a contentious debate with Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Comintern). But by the millennium, with no rival superpower around to contest it, every politician chasing after a vote found it profitable to throw out the phrase as presumptive patriotism. Most benignly, this hybrid of “Americanism” and “chosen people” stressed the praiseworthy without explicitly scoring what it viewed otherwise; less benignly, it was useful for demagoguery. But in both cases the question hovered: Exceptional in what way? What made American exceptionalism more exceptional than that of, say, New Caledonia?
Adapted or not into a national constitution, every worldview dances with such abstractions as freedom and independence, their impact measured by a transition into functional steps. But not many worldviews bother to be explicit about the “pursuit of happiness” as a worldly endeavor; they might imply it, but they seldom single it out. Because it isn’t important? Because it’s considered an illusory objective? It isn’t clear what kind of happiness ought to be pursued? Select one, two, or all three options, but there were few such reservations in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. Moreover, while the wording of this intention was already striking enough, it actually represented a two-ply anomaly insofar as the pervasive Protestant influences in colonial America hardly equated material existence with the opportunities for happiness fulfilled. Short of ascribing a particularly viperine streak to the founding fathers, to lay this out as a national purpose within frowning pieties was an early instance of the personal being subsumed by the ideological, of individualism not having enough i’s to assert itself when there were grander social priorities beckoning. Abetted by a belief in the divine basis of human rights, the founding fathers quill-penned references to God here and there, but not to the degree of the sanctimoniousness of subsequent generations. That this alone did not create irreparable conflict in the years to come, eroding a great many constitutional foundations, was due to one belief that the religiously persuaded and religiously diffident did share.
Mr. Smith hinted at it with his Senate filibuster—an action prompted by his revulsion before the exploitation of children and their innocence by avaricious political bosses. The children helped, but the more symptomatic motif (encompassing Mr. Smith himself) was the innocence; indeed, in its selfie visions of the virginal throughout its history, the United States has ranked second only to Madonna cults. Constitutional innocence was still sniffing Eden’s flowers; national innocence was about birth and growth, not about mortality; communal innocence was about original faith, not original sin. As for the anti-secularists, let them think of the founding of a republic as a purifying baptism. Whether the emphasis was on the liberty revered by conservatives or the equality championed by liberals, the excitement of discovery was a common point of departure. The important thing was that everyone agreed that cultural innocence excused everything, at home and abroad, owed apologies for nothing, didn’t worry if its clear conscience was taken for naiveté, even for extinguished sin.
But so much innocence could also be a burden. Before communism and terrorism, there had been the enemy of paganism; as President William McKinley said without apology at the turn of the twentieth century, invading the Philippines during the Spanish-American War wasn’t for expanding US interests but for “Christianizing the heathens.” In the Indian wars, white civilization had to be rescued behind the same rationale. His ignorance of the workings of Hansen’s disease aside, Graham Greene put it colorfully in his observation in The Quiet American that “innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world meaning no harm.”
It didn’t stop there. Purity had its demands. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s tiresome bombast about having anticipated any invention or original thought developed elsewhere in the world was a paradigm of buffoonery. But the Soviets were merely emulating nineteenth-century US propaganda in which it was asserted that inventions from the telephone to baseball to motion pictures were “purely American” achievements, however identifiable their lineaments in other places. Any promising province of activity was staked out as virgin territory. No new frontiers to conquer once the West was settled? Then invent some. The key remained the excitement of discovery, the great adventure that had preceded the exploration of the western frontier. Innocence had no antecedents.
It was an outlook that came in handy following September 11, 2001. In spite of some efforts to recall turbulent years of American involvement in the Middle East suggesting that the airplane assaults in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, revolting as they were, should not have come as a complete shock, there weren’t too many neurons wasted on those antecedents amid the accusations leveled against Islam. The most overt were the inevitable rants against the religion as such. But on another level, there were the allegations aimed not at Islam the religion of theological teachings, moral criteria, and ritualistic practices, but at Islam as ideology, as another of those suspicious worldviews on a distant shore. Give or take a handful of Eastern Seaboard communities with a mosque across the street from a delicatessen, Islam the ideology was out there, as extraneous to the American way of life as communism or fascism. But it was also more useful than those European ideologies. As long as religion as ideology rather than as venerative practice was the point of reference, even for absolving it of blame for the attacks, why dwell on specific political responsibilities—anybody’s—and on the concrete causes of the furies that had unleashed such vast homicidal and suicidal destruction? Why concede that something in here and not just over there had been part of the background to the 2001 massacre? There was no need of any mea culpa. Diffused guilt was blunted righteousness. Instead, congressional hearings echoing the Red Scare days, oratorical pandering, and security and its lack as the only pertinent terms of discussion fudged attention on precedents that might, just might, have been related to the 9/11 atrocities. The innocence of the American way of life required no defense.
It worked—for a little while. But then, with such developments as the invasion of Iraq, recognition of the massive economic-financial frauds that mocked expectations of rewards for honest work, and the determination to avenge election losses to the first African American president, expedient politics broke free of the promised constancy of ideological righteousness, exposing its historical termites. What did image matter if the only mirrors still in one piece reflected back the wrong kind of face?
Only a protective divinity with a warped sense of humor could have characterized the ensuing inertia in Washington as an ideological struggle rather than the bankruptcy of an ideology that it was. Failing that divine presence, the media took up the romance, and the more they talked about “crossing the aisle” as a symbol of cooperation, the more that crossing the Rubicon was a reminder of serious people in serious times. If the 1950s had maimed the American way of life, the oppressive reality a half-century later demanded nothing less than ideological suicide.
The Populism Cover
The 2016 general election set off feverish attempts to analyze its significance. One pervasive diagnosis, put forth by pundits from both the left and right, pitched reassurances that, regardless of the winner’s historically intemperate campaign rhetoric, those who voted for him were not racists, anti-Semites, misogynists, or haters of those whose national origin, skin color, or religion was different from their own. Okay, went this argument, granted some supporters were maybe too attached to their white hoods and swastikas, but the popular-vote minority who nonetheless constituted an Electoral College majority had different priorities (such as spurning the aura of power entitlement personified by the losing candidate) in voting how it did. What the outcome represented was a victory for populism, a triumph for all the Mr. Deedses and their John Doe cousins against the major parties and the wearying arrogance of their spear-carriers.
One problem with these reassurances was logic. It might well have been true that the overwhelming majority of those who voted for Trump had motivations other than racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny, but whatever those reasons happened to be, clearly they could coexist with racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, etc., without causing violent discomfiture. Even without considering those directly affected by the bigotries, a taxing enough concession, the practical distance between one mentality and the other required some fatiguingly astute measuring by a football linesman with his chains and poles. Equally dubious was the flaunting of a vague term, populist, that throughout history had provided cover for everyone from rebellious Russian peasants to demagogues such as Juan Perón and George Wallace. Now the cover of populism was invoked for a multimillionaire with a lengthy résumé of bankruptcies and massive job layoffs, a stunning ignorance of foreign countries without golf courses, a tendency to shameless serial lies, and a narcissistic indifference bordering on contempt toward any second person in the same room. This was the standard-bearer for grassroots change? Who had profited more from the established order than he had? Who was less adroit at engaging others in conversation, in exhibiting an urgent concern for their daily problems? Even Richard Nixon could come up with some sports chat to fill the awkward silences. There had to be something else, no?
No, not really. The forever casual definition of populism came to the rescue. The populism theme also made it possible to play down conclusions that the decisive factor had been a greater antipathy toward the losing candidate than toward the winner—one of the media’s formulas for handicapping the race while it was still going on, but one that insinuated some of that misogyny that, it was now decreed, had been negligible as an influence. There had to be positive reasons for the result, of a purposive kind befitting a democracy with great spring left in its step.
In the best of all possible spins, recourse to a populist interpretation could ransom all the recent years in which the “American way of life” had lost its bearings as a cultural ideology. Believing in populism as some theoretically defined phenomenon conferred miracle amnesia on how individualism’s determination had followed after its agility and imagination into the Dumpster of ennui and resentment. This fairy dust of forgetfulness had also been sprinkled on that world-renowned sense of humor, which had famously enabled Americans to laugh at their own foibles as ruefully as those of the next man but had soured into snarky schadenfreude before a fear of revealing too much, and on the suddenly demanding proposition that class, race, and religion were supposed to matter. Promoting populism as the ultimate explanation for November’s outcome preempted explanations that pointed to diversion for its own sake and TV celebrity chasing. It was history, it was national spirit, it was vox populi. Maybe it looked bad, but don’t worry, it really was, as the expression goes, all good.
On one level, the reach to confer political respectability on populism was in keeping with American ideology’s concern with defending the Republic’s authority: Whatever took place occurred with a purity of intention. No less critically, it reinforced that old primal national image of a rebellion—the emotional, instinctual, aggrieved populace on a mission to end its punishing oppression but with no dangerous or furtive long-range agenda, whatever the credentials of some of those people serving as a phalanx around the victor. Center the ball, pass the ball, then go back to the sidelines while the defense takes over. Following months of build-up, the election itself had the whiff of a Super Bowl—the (surprise) winner, the lingering aftertaste of the commercial hyperbole, then on to the debut of a new series that might or might not be diverting but that wouldn’t need placards from a vocal constituency. The big event was over, could only be relived on social media, where everybody was right and crazy.
All ideologies mature from a pupal stage of disillusionment with a surrounding sociopolitical reality through their differing levels of social achievement into a self-importance that may or may not prove fatal. It is an inevitable journey for a worldview that countenances only its vision, whether that perspective be, say, communism or the American way of life. In the case of the corrupting national embraces by the Soviet Union and other states, communism was effectively reduced to paranoid slogans and May Day parades. In the still-open case of the American way of life, the fancied populist embrace of politics in angry tantrum—the disregard for truth as concept as much as fact, and the grasp for instant gratification—represents an effort to replace two-and-a-half centuries of moralistic self-confidence that, even at shameful ebbs, had necessarily acknowledged that everybody was involved and that quite a few of them didn’t believe the sun circled the earth. But that vision of the all-inclusive had more than one person in mind when it trumpeted the often gravely flawed virtues of individualism. Whatever else Destutt de Tracy had been thinking of, it wasn’t an anti-science of ideas.