Writing in 1998 the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb predicted the victory of Donald Trump eighteen years later. Well, not exactly. But her analysis in One Nation, Two Cultures does provide an explanation for the surprising results of the recent presidential election. The “two cultures” of which she speaks are the dominant culture and a dissident culture. The former consists of roughly 60% of the population, including the “elite” (her word) who help shape and mold opinion, college professors, journalists, certain bloggers I know of, together with the vast majority in this country of those who lean toward a more liberal take on such things as science, sex, marriage, religion, and morality — which they regard as relative. The latter consists of a polyglot group clustered around what might be called “moral issues,” issues such as abortion, the Bible, sex in the schools, prayer in the schools, the sanctity of marriage, and the like — not to mention patriotic values, which they regard as closely related to religious values, issues such as respect for the flag, support of the military, and pride in our country. Also, they are uniformly critical of the public school system which, they feel, has too long been controlled by the dominant culture. In Himmelfarb’s words:
“[It is]not only fundamentalists who feel disenfranchised; so too, does a much larger and more varied sector of the population, including many people who are not notably religious but who have strong religious concerns.
“Like the dominant culture, the dissident culture exhibits a wide spectrum of belief and behavior, ranging from a rigid adherence to traditional values only occasionally violated in practice, to a more lenient set of values more often violated. But even the laxer representatives of this dissident culture tend to subscribe to a more “austere” moral code, and to do so more conscientiously than their counterparts in the dominant culture. They do not think of sexual morality as a “personal matter” that can be “boxed off,” as is now said, from the rest of their lives. Nor do they think of religion as a “private affair” that should not encroach upon the “public square.” Nor are they apt to engage in such circumlocutions as “Who am I to say….?” or “Personally… but….”
“At one end of the spectrum of this dissident culture, paralleling the “elites” of the dominant culture, is the religious right, a hard core of determined and articulate activists. Although this group receives most of the public attention, it is only a small part of this culture, for beyond it is a much larger and more varied group of evangelicals, as well as traditionalists another churches — mainline Protestants, conservative Catholics, Mormons, and some Orthodox Jews. There is also a growing number of people who have no particular religious affiliation or disposition — but who have storing moral convictions that put them at odds with the dominant culture.”
The two cultures are neither monolithic nor static, she is careful to point out. There are folks who identify with values in both camps. And people change from one culture to another from time to time.
Yet “In general there is a common set of mind, a confluence of values and beliefs, that locates most people, most of the time, for most purposes, within one or the other culture.”
Of interest is the fact that a large portion of the dissident culture, who generally regard themselves not only as “God-fearing” but also as true “patriots” are very much involved in public, and especially political, affairs. 68 percent of the dissidents strongly believe that “our system of government is the best possible system,” as compared with 53 percent of the whole. And while many of those in the dominant culture are disenchanted with politics, prefer a Third Party candidate in major elections, or are even too busy to vote, the vast majority of the members of the dissident culture are actively involved in politics. A great many of them have both wealth and position — which explains their presence in the Electoral College and their subsequent unwillingness to switch their vote to Hillary Clinton despite the fact that she had won the popular election by nearly three million votes. Those in this group are involved and they are well positioned to exert political pressure beyond their numbers.
This all helps to explain how a man like Donald Trump won the presidency. He tapped into the deep well of resentment and frustration that characterize the dissident culture and gave them a voice and credibility. It is no wonder that the dissidents refuse to listen to criticism from the dominant culture, especially the media, since their Man is here to deliver them to the promised land where many, if not all, of their hopes and dreams will be realized. After generations of seeing the dominant culture hold sway over this country they now see themselves with a tight hold on the reins of power. And their commitment to this man runs as deep as their resentment of the dominant culture — so much so that if and when Donald Trump is impeached there will be a very loud hue and cry indeed. The culture war which Himmelfarb regarded in her books as a mere metaphor for the rift between the two cultures, will become an actual war with casualties.
I should note that when Himmelfarb speaks of a “culture war” she insists it is merely a metaphor “that allows for rational and civil discourse without minimizing the gravity of the issues.” One must wonder if we haven’t moved beyond the metaphorical stage already with our rejection of civil discourse and, if our president is impeached, as noted, the war will become no longer a metaphor.
Excellent read. Your comment gives caution. Seeing our President naysay the media and attempt to distract his key audience, I firmly believe his followers have little idea how poorly his presidency is going and how less safe the world is since he took office. They would be totally shocked that there is a possibility he could be impeached if he is culpable with the Russian influence. Keith
It’s hard to know what is going around you when you have your eyes and ears closed tight!
I must read Himmelfarb’s book … she is spot on in her assessment, though I would agree with you and Keith in that we have moved beyond the metaphorical stage, even this early in the process. When Trump is impeached (I think it is inevitable, thus I do not say ‘if’, but rather ‘when’), I foresee something akin to a civil war in this nation. But, whereas the Civil War in the 1860s was south vs north, with a fairly clear division, geographically, this will carry greater danger, as in every neighborhood, there will be neighbor vs neighbor. We are already nearly to that point, with such strong feelings on both sides. Sigh. Good post, my friend.
I do believe you are right. I tried to suggest that in my comment — which should have been part of the post!
Yes, I got that from your comment … it just got the pictures started in my head … I think of the Trump yard signs still on display in my neighborhood, and I cannot help but wonder … will it even be safe to step outside the door?
I also worry. I live in the midst of staunch Trump supporters and it does make me nervous — especially since I have been a bit public in my criticism of him!
Wow. Great post!