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Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Lame Shall Enter First,” published in 1965, explains the rise of Donald Trump better than a plethora of analytical books and articles.
The protagonist is a man, ironically named Sheppard, who knows little about sheep. Sheppard’s wife has been dead for a year. Their 10-year-old son, Norton, still mourns her. Sheppard has no compassion for his son, seeing him as well-off because they are affluent, rather than desperately poor because he is motherless. Sheppard emotionally gives Norton not bread but a stone, offering not love but an easy liberal formula: “If you stop thinking about yourself and think what you can do for somebody else, then you’ll stop missing your mother.” If only it were that simple.
Instead of loving his son, Sheppard throws himself into an attempt to transform a lame homeless boy who scorns Sheppard’s plan to change him—“he thinks he’s Jesus Christ.” Sheppard brings the boy home, buys a telescope, and installs it in the attic—and the boy, after looking through the telescope, says heaven is up there somewhere. Norton asks if his mother is there, and Sheppard dogmatically says there is no heaven and Mom “doesn’t exist. That’s all I have to give you, the truth.”
When Norton indicates he’s believing the Bible, Sheppard—like theological liberals today—says the Bible is “for cowards, people who are afraid to stand on their own feet and figure things out for themselves.” I won’t spoil the story for you by giving the ending—O’Connor’s short stories are available for free online—but I’ll now apply her story to contemporary political liberals. The Democratic Party for decades was a blue-collar cake with college frosting. In 1972 it tossed aside its traditional constituency of Nortons and took on a New Left flavor with the candidacy of George McGovern, who won only 37.5 percent of the vote.
By 1980 Democrats had added abortion to their portfolio and were in the White House only eight of the next 28 years. In 2008, though, Democrats took back the presidency with a coalition The New York Times summarized: “All pretense of trying to win a majority of the white working class has been effectively jettisoned in favor of cementing a center-left coalition made up, on the one hand, of voters who have gotten ahead on the basis of educational attainment—professors, artists, designers, editors, human resources managers, lawyers, librarians, social workers, teachers and therapists—and a second, substantial constituency of lower-income voters who are disproportionately African-American and Hispanic.”
That strategy created millions of blue-collar forgotten men. Their political parent, the Democratic Party, usually ignored them. Barack Obama, Sheppard-like, ridiculed them for sticking to their Bibles. Democrats justified their malign neglect by saying they were helping the needy, but did not recognize the needs of those unemployed because of the loss of manufacturing jobs, those confronting an opiate epidemic, and those without scholarships that went disproportionately to minority group members.
Donald Trump paid attention to salt-of-the-earth evangelicals and Catholics, including some who were unemployed, underemployed, and undereducated.
Donald Trump paid attention to salt-of-the-earth evangelicals and Catholics, including some who were unemployed, underemployed, and undereducated. Are tariffs economically wise? Probably not, but Trump was paying attention to the Nortons. Does accepting more refugees endanger us? Probably not, but Trump was looking at them through Norton’s eyes. Is hiring preference for minority and female job-seekers wrong? Given past discrimination it had a role, but how fair is it to white males who are not personally responsible for the sins of the fathers?
Although I don’t agree with Trump’s refugee policy and some other matters as well, many of his policies recognize that Nortons are needy. His campaign and election led some national journalists to leave their coastal fortresses and venture into darkest America to see why anyone would vote for someone they hated. Many who didn’t want to explore in person have at least read J.D. Vance’s superb Hillbilly Elegy.
One problem, though, is that President Trump cannot articulate why the Nortons deserve the compassion of the majority of Americans who voted against him. He said in his inaugural address that “January 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.” That will only be true if he can convince another 10 percent of Americans to support him. Ronald Reagan could do it. Can Trump?