If the 2016 presidential election marked a sharp decline in the reputation and influence of political prophets and sages, particularly Eastern ones – almost all of whom preferred and picked the wrong candidate – it also marked the posthumous comeback of one Eastern journalist who had reigned as the nation’s most influential social critic in the 1920s but had since slipped into obscurity. It was hard to avoid, in post-election analysis, in print or online, running into some quotation from H.L. Mencken that explained the rise of Donald Trump.
One Mencken quote had long been around: “No one ... has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence” of the American people. Another was Mencken’s belief that “there is always an easy solution to every human problem – neat, plausible and wrong.”
And most notably this election season – a judgment I also recall seeing after the election of George W. Bush in 2000, but which seems even more applicable now: “As democracy is perfected, the office (of president) represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folk of the land will reach their hearts’ desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
All of these (allowing for Mencken’s characteristic hyperbole) may explain, to some extent, what happened in 2016, but I think another, more obscure, Mencken observation also bears consideration – his belief that a key to understanding not only the American political process but the American people in general was what he called “a jealousy of distinction.”
What Mencken had in mind was his belief that most Americans were driven by an envy of those who have more education, more social status, more cultivation, a more encompassing world view (though, curiously, not necessarily more money). This is a loaded topic, of course, in a nation founded – at least in theory – on the belief that all men (and men it was, and only certain men) were created equal, and we have to consider Mencken’s own hostile view of democracy as well. He believed it was the worst form of government, and he did not add, like Winston Churchill, “except for all the others.”
But on some level Mencken’s premise certainly operates in American politics. An Ivy League degree or a Rhodes Scholarship often hurts as much as it helps (unless, like Bill Clinton, you retain the common touch; or unless, like the Yale Bushes, you adopt right-wing “populist” positions, employ right-wing rhetoric, and – depending on which Bush – embrace pork rinds and evangelical religion). It hurt John Kerry that he spoke French. It hurt Michael Dukakis that he was from Massachusetts (the kiss of death for any presidential candidate since JFK) and had Harvard ties. Among a number of voters, it hurt Barack Obama that he was cosmopolitan, overly cerebral, had lived in a number of places and had a variety of experiences alien to most other Americans – all these things as much as his blackness.
And, to bring it back to 2016, most Trump supporters detested The New York Times and the mainstream press, as well as academics or experts of any sort, including scientists who had a fact-based belief in evolution and climate change – which is to say, any of those who presumed to have the answers. Some of their resentment was justified, as they detected the disdain and condescension with which “experts” viewed small-town values and “flyover country.” But it went beyond that. To all too many Trump followers, truth itself was questioned. It was more comforting to rely on Trump’s version of it.
But that jealousy of distinction, as I have suggested, does not necessarily include wealth: Trump, like Bill Clinton if in a vastly different way, also possesses the common touch. Nor does it include celebrity – another commodity possessed by Trump, which, in the minds of most of his supporters, is equated with stature or even greatness.
All of this leads to the subject of elitism, which many conservatives these days define as a certain detachment from mainstream American values, overly rarefied tastes and a super-sensitivity to the needs of the less fortunate – which they would call political correctness. But that’s an even murkier territory that I’ll avoid here.
Which brings me back to Mencken, specifically to his favorite American novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” particularly Mark Twain’s character Pap Finn, a ne’er-do-well without means or education or status (Mencken would call him “poor white”). In one scene Pap encounters a well-dressed, well-educated free black man who “could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed every thing” and worst of all was allowed to vote. “Thinks I, what is this country a-coming to?” Pap can’t stand it – a man who (his society tells him) should be inferior but who presumes to be equal, if not superior. An extreme case, Pap’s, one based on race as well as class, but what else but a jealousy of distinction? An old American tradition, Mencken would say.
Fred Hobson of Chapel Hill, the author of “Mencken: A Life” and other books, is a retired English professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.