Before 2009, the man in the bread line did not ordinarily weep for the man lounging on his yacht.
—Pity the Billionaire
The American left has been perplexed by the anger of the right, particularly after being sucker-punched by the culture wars of the ‘90s. Right around the time of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America in 1994, traditional policy battles morphed into something less tangible. On this new battleground of outrage politics, led on the right by shouting venom-sprayers like Rush Limbaugh and “think tanks” who created facts to order, bewildered liberals were cut to pieces. They were like Robert de Niro’s Ace Rothstein in Casino in the scene where a man is picking a fight with him in a bar. While Ace tries to puzzle out where the aggression is coming from, Joe Pesci’s Nicky just attacks the guy. To wildly oversimplify things, in modern-day America, the left thinks and the right acts.
Convinced that the working and middle classes still identified them as the best group to look out for their interests, the left (well, Democrats) were like French soldiers confidently manning the Maginot Line in 1940, unaware that the Panzers had already bypassed their static defenses and were making for Paris. The right had figured out that identity politics were what mattered. Give a voter your policy proposal and they’ll think about it. But tell them that the other guy in the race (along with other, vaguely defined elites lurking in universities and hoity-toity coffeeshops) looks down on them and their “values”, and pretty soon they’ll be begging for the chance to vote for you.
This is the fundamental logical disconnect that Thomas Frank first tried to parse in 2004 with What’s the Matter with Kansas? In that seminal dispatch from a decade that stretched the limits of surreality in American political discourse (unmatched until, of course, the current decade), Frank tried to figure out why so many people from his home state voted time after time against their economic interests. All the evidence said that Republicans were going to fray the safety net, run roughshod over workers’ rights, and ensure that wages kept dropping. Nevertheless, residents of a once-progressive state backed the agents of their own pain.