American Carnage and the Dignity of Work

The Huber Coal Breaker in Ashley, Pennsylvania, near the home of the author.
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Photo: The Huber Coal Breaker in Ashley, Pennsylvania, near the home of the author.

For many people, the most famous (or infamous) phrase from Donald Trump’s inaugural address is the one in which he spoke of “American carnage.” It’s worth quoting the speech at length in order to place the phrase in its proper context:

“What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people…. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer….At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are the just and reasonable demands of a righteous public. But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

Although I have never supported Donald Trump on grounds of character, I liked his inaugural address. Most commenters found it dark and discouraging, but I found it mostly honest and insightful. Most Americans expect uplift and optimism from an inaugural address, but I’m glad we got reality instead.

I’m not convinced Donald Trump has offered the right solutions to the problems he addressed in his inaugural—but at least he raised them, which is more than most politicians have done. Trump might be the wrong answer, but many of his questions and concerns are the right ones.

We’ve been served platitudes and wishing thinking for too long. We need less aspirational thinking, and more pragmatic thinking—less hope and more change. Although many find Trump’s perspective in the inaugural address to be too pessimistic, the only way to solve any problem is to begin by being honest that the problem exists.

Many observers objected especially to the phrase “American carnage.” The Guardian, for example, termed it a “sinister phrase.” But commentators’ refusal to engage with the substance of the idea, because they object to its phrasing, is irresponsible journalism. I don’t doubt the sincerity and goodwill of these critics. For the affluent pundit class, everything indeed might be fine. For people of their backgrounds and experiences, Trump’s claims seem exaggerated and dark. But as President Trump has rightly observed, “for too many of our citizens a different reality exists.”

Immediately after Trump’s election, I was hopeful, because many observers had learned this hard lesson. Conservative columnist David Brooks, for example, went so far as to admit that his inability to foresee Trump’s win meant he had to start doing his job differently, spending less time in DC and more time out in the American countryside.

Brooks’s view was echoed by others, who genuinely wanted to understand how they had missed the depth of Trump’s support. It was and is an admirable sentiment, though I’m not sure how well anyone has followed through on it. It seems, instead, like we’ve forgotten pretty quickly, as we always do, those whose voices are easy to miss or ignore or forget. In the scandals and circuses of the last few years, we’ve forgotten the mother trapped in poverty, the father laid off after thirty years in manufacturing, the young girl whose school is more about prepping for standardized tests than teaching sound habits of thought.

The hard truth is that many Americans, especially poor Americans in the inner city and in rural areas, have not been well served by the culture and economic developments of the past several decades. For those who live in affluent suburbs and glitzy downtowns, it’s easy to miss these realities—such struggling places and people are literally out of sight and out of mind. I currently live in a rural place, stunningly beautiful in its natural landscape but blighted with too many dilapidated buildings and neglected properties. I’m told by old-timers (who surely romanticize things a bit) that back in the 1950s, there wasn’t a fence that wasn’t maintained and given a coat of fresh paint. To such people, “Make America Great Again” might simply mean returning to a social ethos where Americans once again take pride in their properties and communities. Even if my old-timer neighbors are being a bit nostalgic, I’m sure what they remember is mostly true, at least in my area. What happened to lead to today’s ‘American carnage,’ then?

This is not an easy question to answer. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an essential question, one of the essential questions of our time. And there’s surely plenty of blame to go around. Liberals are right that economic trends since the 1980s have favored big business over workers. Conservatives are right that a healthy culture is not possible without stable, intact families. Liberals are right that government is not an inherent evil and can be an effective means to improve people’s lives. Conservatives are right that welfare programs over the last 50 years have not adequately reduced poverty, and are too often impersonal and ineffective.

But just as there’s plenty of blame to go around, there are plenty of solutions to go around as well, coming from both right and left. Sometimes, the polarizing, partisan rancor that dominates our politics obscures the fact that most Americans actually agree about a lot of things. This is certainly true about our economic life. Most Americans agree that we need good, stable jobs for those without college degrees. Most Americans agree that extreme wealth should be taxed heavily. Most Americans agree that too much of our work life is unsatisfying. Most Americans agree that those who live in poverty need help climbing out of it. Most Americans agree that the love of money is a great evil.

One theme that underlies all of these agreements is “The Dignity of Work,” to use another memorable phrase, this time from Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat. Americans generally have a sense that meaningful, honest work does not currently hold the place it deserves in society. Americans agree that a two-parent household working full-time should not suffer from economic insecurity—yet too often it does. Americans agree that in deciding trade policy, we need to think not merely about economic efficiency, but also about the real human beings who have depended on stable, well-paying manufacturing jobs. Americans agree that all workers–both college professors and the janitors who clean their classrooms, both those who design cars and those who build them– deserve an economic reality that offers them respect, stability, and freedom from poverty.

For those who instinctively recoil from anything Donald Trump says, I humbly ask them to consider the ideas, and not merely the man. To paraphrase a recent observation, “Something can be true, even if Donald Trump said it.”

When it comes to his phrase “American carnage,” Donald Trump hit on something dark and deeply disturbing, but also something important and true. I would encourage reds and blues alike to think of the substance and not merely the phrase. We might not all agree on the solutions, but I think most Americans can agree that at the heart of our current woes is an inadequate appreciation for the dignity of work. If this is something people as far apart politically as Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Donald Trump can agree on, I think most of us can agree on it as well. The solutions won’t be easy, but they begin by recognizing the problem and beginning a conversation. Let’s get started.

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9 thoughts on “American Carnage and the Dignity of Work”

  1. Good points, but I thought Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention was more revealing of his threat to democratic institutions. “Only I can keep you safe.” His language and mannerisms bore frightening similarities to speeches by Mussolini.

    1. Justin Naylor

      Thanks Jeff for your comment. I agree. For me there is no line more reflective of a demagogue than “Only I can save you”. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised by the Inaugural. I thought it had a different tone and raised issues that, frankly, few other politicians have raised. Even though I’m not a fan of Trump, it’s important to give the devil his due.

    2. David Ludescher

      Justin,

      I see Trump’s election as an affirmation of democracy. At first, the Republicans did not like him. But, through the ballot box, he rose to the top of the ticket. Then, through the ballot box, he did it again. To me, what his election proved is the inherent dangers present in a democracy.

      1. Justin Naylor

        Thanks David for your comment! I’m confused though. At first you say his victory is an affirmation of democracy, but at the end you say his victory shows the dangers in a democracy. They seem contradictory. Am I misunderstanding? Although I don’t support President Trump, I agree that his election was an affirmation of democracy. Despite all the power and money and media opinion against him, the people still wanted him and they got what they wanted! That’s definitely a silver lining. I just hope that next time they want something that I can support!

        1. David Ludescher

          Justin,

          Given that almost all of the present political power structures were working against Trump (both parties, the mainstream media, the intelligentsia, and a significant number of conservatives), and that he had and has very little of a shared common “American” experience, there cannot be a doubt that democracy is alive and well. But, in my opinion, his election also proved that democracy can produce a deeply flawed candidate. And, if democracy’s verdict is that he was the best candidate, can there be any doubt that there are dangers lurking within a democratic system?

  2. David Ludescher

    Justin,
    I agree that there used to be more dignity in work. What amazes me is that a rich, smug, white, privileged male was able to tap into the emotions of so many who feel left out while the Democrats, who profess to be a party of the marginalized, could not capture those same people and emotions. While I am not Trump fan, it was my impression that Trump speak “to the people”, whereas the Democrats and Clinton spoke “at the people”.

    1. Justin Naylor

      David, I share your sense of irony that someone privileged like Trump can speak to those who feel left out. But it has an interesting history. Look of both Roosevelts, for example. They certainly came from privilege but sided with the powerless more often than the powerful. I think it’s just a reminder that we are not slaves or prisoners of our identity or background or ethnic or cultural group. Although it helps, for example, to have experience of discrimination in order to formulate a thoughtful response about discrimination, it’s not absolutely essential. Although a woman, for example, can have a little more credibility about the subject of abortion, a man can certainly come to the same conclusion himself!

      About Hillary, I know it’s frequently thought that she spoke “at” the people, though I don’t share that perspective. It’s easy to gang up on someone who loses and see only their faults. Although Hillary is not my ideal type of politician, I thought she ran a sensible campaign. I don’t think she had a plan for those suffering from lack of meaning blue-collar work, but then again almost no one does sadly. Trump talked about it of course (good for him!), but I don’t think he had or has a real plan either. I think if Hillary had won (which she almost did of course, losing only by a hair), many people would be praising her campaign!

      1. David Ludescher

        Justin,

        Getting back to the issue at hand – Dignity of Work – my sense is that the Democrats have lost touch with the need to give dignity to the “other”, who in today’s America includes the blue-collar worker. The Democrats’ overall plan is to throw sentiments and money to “help” the other. Trump was able to tap into the vacuum of dignity. His Make America Great Again campaign, even though mostly hollow, gave many the sense that Trump understood that America had lost something valuable in her effort to reform social structures. While it wasn’t dignity, there was a sense of pride in being part of who “we” used to be.

        1. Justin Naylor

          Absolutely. I agree. I find aspects of Trump’s message very important and very empowering. I’m just not convinced his solutions are the right ones to the problems he has identified.

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