Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Mark Graybill, Professor of English
So, Donald Trump is now officially president. Rarely do I address politics directly in class, but here, I’ll just say it: I think “Trumpism”—“a brew of nationalist, populist, anti-establishment, anti-‘expert,’ anti-globalist, protectionist, ‘us versus them,’ and most of all, anti-immigrant sentiment”—is dangerous in historic proportions. And I’m especially worried that it’s going to be devastating for the status of art, history, language, and literature in American culture. Indeed, the budget he plans to propose reportedly eliminates both the NEA and the NEH.
How did we get here? The Humanities, especially literature, can help answer that question (which might explain in part why Trump wants to starve them). I suspect that classics such as 1984, Brave New World, and The Handmaid’s Tale are going to enjoy new lives in the coming days. But the less obviously political fiction of Flannery O’Connor, published in the 1950s and ‘60s, also sheds considerable light on our current situation. (I’m not alone in thinking so: David Griffith published a compelling piece on “The Displaced Person” and the Syrian refugee debate over a year ago.) Specifically, O’Connor’s stories expose the seductiveness and destructiveness of nostalgia and authoritarianism—two pillars of Trumpism.
“Make America Great Again.” Sounds, well, great, doesn’t it? But, here’s the thing: nostalgia is fundamentally illusory and amnesiac. It distorts things, leaves things out, leads us away from reality. O’Connor is frequently lauded for her skepticism toward progress, especially the notion that technology and science (natural, social, and otherwise) can solve all of humanity’s problems. But she is equally suspicious of the tendency to place faith in a misremembered, ill defined past. When her characters do so, things go wrong.
When shifty Tom Shiftlet, in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” spies a car he wants in a widow’s barn, he uses nostalgia to appeal to her unspoken but clear conviction that the present has wronged her: “Nothing is like it used to be, lady . . . The world is almost rotten.” “That’s right,“ she responds—and before she knows it, he has taken the car and humiliated both her and her disabled daughter in the process. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” nostalgia is lethal. The Grandmother (unnamed to underscore her universality) dooms her family and herself by insisting they take a detour from their vacation and visit a plantation she went to as a child. Her memory is false, though: the plantation, if it ever truly existed, sits in another state. Her mistake delivers them all to their eventual murderer, the Misfit, a criminal she’s been fretting about since the story’s opening line.
A subtle but important aspect of the Grandmother’s nostalgia is racism. In her mind, the plantation isn’t a symbol of slavery, but of the romantic Old South. She lectures her grandchildren about how people treated each other respectfully in the past, and then gleefully calls an African American boy standing on the roadside a “cute little pickaninny!” The Grandmother’s acceptance of racial stereotypes (as seen in this example from the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University) puts her in company with the new president and some of his supporters: one survey suggests that “those who hold . . . dehumanizing views of black people are disproportionately likely to support Donald Trump.” (Here’s another with similar findings.)
But political scientists have identified something larger than racism at work in the American electorate right now: authoritarianism. “Authoritarians prioritize social order and hierarchies, which bring a sense of control to a chaotic world,” writes Amanda Taub. “Challenges to that order—diversity, influx of outsiders, breakdown of the old order—are experienced as personally threatening because they risk upending the status quo order they equate with basic security.”
O’Connor captures this mentality vividly in “The Displaced Person.” After World War II, a global conflagration sparked by authoritarianism, Mrs. McIntyre initially welcomes a family of Polish refugees to her farm because they outwork her current employees. But when Mr. Guizac approaches one of her black farmhands about marrying his white cousin, confined for three years in a refugee camp back in Europe, Mrs. McIntyre explodes: “You would bring this poor innocent child over here and try to marry her to a half-witted thieving black stinking nigger! What kind of monster are you?” The outsider has challenged the social order, and she cannot abide it. Incapable of dealing with the situation, she passively lets another employee, the white, racist, big-talking Mr. Shortley, handle it violently, but with the kind of plausible deniability the authoritarian strongman treasures. Disaster ensues: the Pole dies, the farm closes, and its owner lies bedridden, decimated physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Will the two-headed monster of nostalgia and authoritarianism also incapacitate the American body politic? The fact that I can entertain such a question without immediately dismissing it as melodrama is downright depressing. But then I recall Toni Morrison’s words, cited by pop star Katy Perry post-election: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” If it is time for “artists [to] go to work,” to “do language,” it is time for readers to do the same. As every English major knows, wisdom about the present is often found in the art of the past.