I used to think of H.L. Mencken as a supremely witty person. My intellectual infatuation began with his Chrestomathy, which I read with relish many years ago.
In recent decades my infatuation with Mencken’s acerbic wit dimmed and died, for the reason given by Fred Siegel in The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class. There, Siegel rightly observes that Mencken “learned from [George Bernard] Shaw how to be narrow-minded in a witty, superior way.”
I was reminded of that passage by Peter Berger’s recent account of Mencken’s role in the marginalization of Evangelicals:
The Evangelical sense of marginalization can be conveniently dated—1925. Until then Evangelical Protestantism was at the core of American culture. Think of the role it played in the anti-slavery and temperance movements. Between 1910 and 1915 a series of four books was published under the title The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. The term “fundamentalism” derives from this title—today a pejorative term applied to all kinds of religious extremes. The aforementioned books were hardly extreme. They came out of the heart of mainline Protestantism, which today would be called Evangelical. Many of the authors were orthodox Presbyterians, then-centered at Princeton Theological Seminary, which in the 1920s split into an orthodox Calvinist and a “modernist” faculty. What happened in 1925 was a watershed in the history of American Evangelicalism—the so-called “monkey trial.”
Under the influence of a conservative Protestant/Evangelical lobby the state of Tennessee passed a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools. John Scopes, a school teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, was charged with having violated the law. The trial turned into a celebrity event. William Jennings Bryan, former presidential candidate and prominent Evangelical leader, volunteered to act for the prosecution, and the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow defended Scopes. The trial had virtually nothing to do with the offence in question (which was not in doubt). Bryan used it to defend his literal understanding of the Bible, Darrow to make Bryan ridiculous. In this he succeeded, reducing Bryan to petulant babbling. Both men were propagandists for two forms of “fundamentalism,” a primitive view of the Bible against a primitive view of science. Unfortunately for Bryan’s reputation, the brilliant satirist H.L. Mencken covered the trial for the Baltimore Sun. His account was widely reprinted and read. He was contemptuous not only of Bryan but of Christianity and of the local people (he called them “yokels”). The event had an enormous effect on American Evangelicals. It demoralized them, making them feel marginalized in a hostile environment. The result was an Evangelical subculture, turned inward and defensive in its relation to the outside society. Mark Noll sums this up in the title of one of his books, The Closing of the Evangelical Mind. [“Religion, Class, and the Evangelical Vote,” The American Interest, November 23, 2016]
I would have to read and consider Noll’s book before I sign on to Berger’s claim that it was Mencken’s account of the “monkey trial” which demoralized and marginalized Evangelicals. But it didn’t help, and it ushered in 90 years of Mencken-like portrayals of Evangelicals and, more generally, of the mid-to-low-income whites who populate much of what’s referred to sneeringly as flyover country. As Berger observes,
During the 2008 campaign Obama slipped out this description of people in economically deprived small towns: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” And during the just-concluded presidential campaign Clinton described Trump voters as a “basket of deplorables.”
Is it any surprise that Trump — who appealed strongly to the kinds of people disparaged by Mencken, Obama, and Clinton — carried these States?
- Florida — won by Obama in 2008 and 2012
- Pennsylvania — the first time for a GOP presidential candidate since 1988
- Ohio — won by Obama in 2008 and 2012
- Michigan — the first GOP presidential win since 1988
- Wisconsin — last won by a GOP candidate in 1984
- Iowa — won by the Democrat presidential candidate in every election (but one) since 1984.
And how did Trump do it? Mainly by running strongly in the areas outside big cities. It’s true that Clinton outpolled Trump nationally, but so what? It’s the electoral vote that matters, and that’s what the candidates strive to win. Trump won it on the strength of his appeal to the descendants of Mencken’s yokels: Obama’s gun-clingers and Clinton’s deplorables.
A digression about election statistics is in order:
Based on total popular votes cast, 2016 surpasses all previous elections by more than 5 million votes (they’re still being counted in some places). Trump now holds the record for the most votes cast for a GOP presidential candidate. Clinton, however, probably won’t match Obama’s 2012 total, and certainly won’t match his 2008 total (the size of which testifies to the gullibility of a large fraction of the electorate).
Did the big turnout for Gary Johnson (pseudo-libertarian) and the somewhat-better-than 2012 turnout for Jill Stein (socialist crank) take votes that “should have been” Clinton’s? Obviously not. Those who cast their ballots for Johnson and Stein were, by definition, voting against Clinton (and Trump).
But what if Johnson and Stein hadn’t been on the ballot and some of the votes that went them had gone instead to Clinton and Trump? My analyses of several polls leads me to the conclusion that the presence of Johnson and Stein hurt Trump more than Clinton. Johnson voters would have defected to Trump more often than to Clinton. Stein voters would have defected to Clinton more often than to Trump. On balance, because there were three times as many Johnson voters as Stein voters, Trump (not Clinton) would have done better if the election had been a two-person race. Moreover, Trump improved slightly on recent GOP showings among blacks and Hispanics.
What about Clinton’s popular-vote “victory”? As of today (11/24/16) she’s running ahead of Trump by 2.1 million votes nationally, and by 3.8 million votes in California and 1.5 million votes in New York. That leaves Trump ahead of Clinton by 3.2 million votes in the other 48 States and D.C. I could go on about D.C. and the Northeast in general, but you get the idea. Clinton’s “appeal” (for want of a better word) was narrow; Trump’s was much broader (e.g., winning a higher percentage than Romney did of the two-party vote in 39 States). Arguably, it was broader than that of every Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan won a second term in 1984.
The election of 2016 probably rang down the final curtain on the New Deal alliance of white Southerners (long-since defected), union members (a dying breed), and other denizens of the mid-to-low-income brackets. The alliance was built on the illusory success of FDR’s New Deal, which prolonged the Great Depression by several years. But FDR, his henchmen, his sycophants in the media and academe, and those tens of millions who were gulled by him didn’t know that. And so the Democrat Party became the majority party for the most of final eight decades of the 20th century, and has enjoyed periods of resurgence in the 21st century.
The modern Democrat Party — the one that arose in the 1950s with Adlai Stevenson at its helm — long held the allegiance of the yokels, even as it was betraying them by buying the votes of blacks and Hispanics and trolling for the votes of marginal groups (queers, Muslims, and “liberal arts” majors) in order to wear the mantle of moral superiority. The yokels were taken for granted. Worse than that, they were openly disdained in Menckian language.
Trump wisely avoided the Democrat-lite stance of recent GOP candidates — the two Bushes, McCain, and Romney (Dole was simply a ballot-filler) — and went after the modern descendants of the yokels. And in response to that unaccustomed attention, huge numbers of mid-to-low-income voters — joined by those traditional Republicans who wisely refused to abandon Trump — produced a stunning electoral upset that encompassed most of the country.
As for Mencken, where he is remembered at all it is mainly as a curmudgeonly quipster with views that wouldn’t pass muster among today’s smart set. Though Mencken’s flirtation with anti-Semitism might commend him to the alt-left.
Here, then, is H.L. Mencken’s lasting legacy: There has arisen a huge bloc of voters whose members are through with being ridiculed and ignored by the pseudo-sophisticates who lead and populate the Democrat Party. It is now up to Trump and the Republican Party to retain the allegiance of that bloc. And if they do not, a third party will arise, and — for the first time in American history — it will be a third party with long-lasting clout. Think of it as a more muscular incarnation of the Tea Party, which was its vanguard.
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Mike Lee, “Conservatives Should Embrace Principled Populism,” National Review, November 24. 2016
Yuval Levin, “The New Republican Coalition,” National Review, November 17, 2016
Henry Olsen, “For Trump Voters There Is No Left or Right,” The Washington Post, November 18, 2016
Fred Reed, “Uniquely Talented: Only the Democrats Could Have Lost to Trump,” Fred on Everything, November 24, 2016 (Published after this post, and eerily similar, in keeping with the adage that great minds think alike.)
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Winners and Losers
Pontius Pilate: Modern Politician
Should You Vote for a Third-Party Candidate?
How America Has Changed