Donald Trump Has Set Fire to America
On William Faulkner, White Trash, and 400 Years of Class War
In William Faulkner’s great trilogy of novels—The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion—he tells the story of the Snopes family. They are American white trash, hard scrabbling up from nothing. Share croppers at first, until Flem Snopes, through cunning, a good marriage, and some pony trading, manages to change his fortunes.
But before all of that. Before the dirty, cheating American dream becomes a reality for the Snopes’—before that they were barn burners. In “Barn Burning” a kind of Snopes Ur-text, Faulkner gives us insight into what drives Flem by telling the story of his father, Ab, a tenant farmer who burns down the barns of rich landowners.
In the story, Faulkner reflects on behalf of a character about Abner’s use of fire, writing, “…the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion.”
Abner is a waste person. White trash. I remember reading the story first in high school and then in college. Every class discussion about Abner involved jokes about inbreeding and bad teeth. Sometimes someone would hum a few bars from the theme to Deliverance. We would all laugh—us white kids in the Midwest. We laughed because we weren’t like him, we knew better. And Abner, he was every stereotype of a poor white that has ever permeated the American story. He is treated like filth, trapped in an economic system that ties him to a rich man’s land. But Abner is no saint. He treats others in the same way, wiping shit all over the rug of the owner of a mansion, whose barn he later burns.
I wouldn’t realize this until I was older, but Faulkner doesn’t want us to laugh at Abner. He wants us to ask, what would it be like to be him? To feel as though destruction was your only path to dignity. That is was only through fire you could preserve your humanity.
Years later, Flem too burns, but in a different way. He too is out to preserve something elemental. But like his father, he does it in the worst way: consuming himself and his family in his greed.
I wouldn’t realize this until I was older, but Faulkner doesn’t want us to laugh at Abner. He wants us to ask, what would it be like to be him? To feel as though destruction was your only path to dignity.
America is burning. You might not see the flames, but you can smell the smoke. And we’ve been set on fire by one man—Donald Trump, a Flem Snopes of our modern era. Trump is now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. And perhaps he will not win the presidential election, but even after he is gone Americans still have to contend with the fact that our country has been burned. Trump supporters will remain, and how do we even begin to understand a place so deeply divided between those who never saw Trump coming and those who hold onto him as the standard bearer of their integrity?
In her new book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg offers some insight. This crisis we are facing right now in our country, it isn’t new. It’s the same one we’ve been wiping off like shit on the rug of history for ages now.
Isenberg begins in colonial America, detailing how Britain seeded the colonies with waste people who were meant to fertilize the ground with their deaths. Poor prisoners, indentured servants, the destitute men, women, and children who had previously clogged London’s streets, were all sent to the colonies for their often unpaid labor. People who Virginia governor William Bacon called “offscourings,” which means human fecal waste.
And the Revolution was no answer to this. Isenberg writes, “Independence did not magically erase the British class system, nor did it root out long-entrenched beliefs and the willful exploitation of human labor. An unfavored population, widely thought of as waste or ‘rubbish,’ remained disposable indeed well into modern times.”
With the last line, Isenberg is being generous, because she makes it sound like somehow this is a problem we’ve solved. We haven’t.
Isenberg is meticulous in her history. Thomas Jefferson was a reformer, but his reforms, which attempted to give land to poor whites, just mired them in more debt. Even in proposing scholarship for poor white boys and girls, he called it “raking from the rubbish.”
Benjamin Franklin too was not above demeaning class distinctions. He used the fear of outsiders as a tactic to mobilize poor whites to his causes. In order to put together a voluntary militia that he called an “Army of Freedmen,” he warned poor whites against the “Negroes, Mulattoes, and others of the vilest and most abandoned Mankind.”
And then there was Andrew Jackson, a country bumpkin who became a ruthless president. Isenberg writes, “His supporters adored his rough edges, his land hunger, and his close identification with the Tennessee wilderness.” A land that housed people, of whom Isenberg notes, “The educated routinely wrote in disbelief that such people shared their country.”
Isenberg is relentless in going through each American hero and flipping them over to show their classist dark side. White Trash is a history of politicians (Jackson, Crockett, Davis) advocating land policies that kept poor whites poor and then deriding them for their poverty. Accusing them of not working hard enough. But as Isenberg points out repeatedly through the book, “The truth is more complicated.” Many of these “lazy poor” worked day and night only to find themselves still in more poverty.
And it’s not just politicians. Isenberg reveals the gross biases of Supreme Court justices Oliver Wendell Homes and Roger B. Taney, who both advocated for the government’s right to regulate the breeding of its citizens. She marches on through the pushback against “white trash” and the cult of the country boy authenticity. Depicting an American ambivalence to poverty—on one hand we laud poverty as a condition of authenticity, on the other we deride those who aren’t able to bootstrap their way out of poverty as lazy and uneducated. Or as Isenberg quotes a North Carolina journalist, “If you think you’re a redneck, you think you’re hardworking, fun-loving and independent. If you don’t think you are a redneck, you think they’re loud, obnoxious, bigoted and shallow.”
Isenberg’s history reflects those sardonic words of Lyndon Banes Johnson: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pockets. Hell, give him somebody to look down on and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
White Trash is a history of class, a history of race, and a morality tale about the dangers of othering. “They are not who we are,” is a rallying cry of all Americans seeking to align themselves with a worldview. “Trump supporters are not who we are.” “Lazy immigrants are not who we are.”
Isenberg makes clear that no matter how othering occurs, it’s a central theme of American history and all the ugly bits we want to ignore in order to perpetuate the myth of a great, classless and fair society. But while that narrative has always been the goal, it has never been the reality. We can’t make America great again because America has never really been that great. We have to constantly retell ourselves the stories of our own glory—like an aging quarterback who threw a winning pass, that one time. And these stories are found everywhere in literature: great men rising through the ranks of poverty to become something in America. It’s our favorite national fetish. Politicians love to squabble over who has the most humble roots.
Frances Stroh flips this script in her new memoir Beer Money, which touts itself as a story of privilege and loss. Her family, founders of the Stroh Brewing Company, are wealthy, but the company is slowly collapsing. Instead of changing and adapting, the company doubles down on bad decisions, clinging to their old wealth even as it disappears.
At one point, Stroh and her brothers, all in their mid- to late-30s, are warned by the family lawyer to find back up careers. Stroh, who has gone to lengths to depict herself as the practical member of the family, not obsessed with wealth, begins to mourn that she will not have she’s always dreamed of. She writes, “The life I had imagined for myself—becoming a successful artist, owning my own apartment, perhaps even collecting the work of other emerging artists—suddenly it all felt well out of reach.” This moment is the beginning of the book’s denouement. We see Stroh’s mother, once the matriarch of a grand mansion, reduced to an upper-middle-class home in the suburbs. Her brothers are forced to abandon dreams of living in an Upper East Side apartment or in a home in Long Island.
This is the most sympathetic moment of the book, and yet I had to put it down to laugh. Her failure sounded like my version of success. A nice middle-class home? While I love my 90-year-old house, yes, please. And forget the fancy neighborhoods. My dreams for becoming a successful artist just involve working one job instead of three to make ends meet. I had never felt the class differences in America more acutely than when I read Stroh’s words. Even in its inverse, the idea of class mobility is just another American myth we keep spinning.
This is the most sympathetic moment of the book, and yet I had to put it down to laugh. Her failure sounded like my version of success.
But I don’t want to end there. I want to end somewhere else. Back to Faulkner. In The Hamlet, Ratliff, a sewing machine salesman, tries to trick Flem Snopes. Ratliff obtains a note for ten dollars from Flem’s cousin Mink. When Ratliff goes to Flem to collect, he finds that the original owner of the note, Isaac “Ike” Snopes, is severely mentally handicapped. Rather than take advantage of Ike and win, Ratliff burns the note and gives Ike’s caretaker the money in cash from his own pocket. Though Ike is never aware that he has the money, the gesture still stands as one of compassion in the face of a man who would never do such a thing. Ratliff does not understand Ike Snopes, the man whom he is seeking to help, but he does understand Flem. He knows him as a despicable person, so he refuses to play his game, and consequently loses in an act of compassion.
Compassion, as Faulkner shows us, is not a battle between good and evil, nor is it always successful. Rather it is the basic understanding of another’s pain and the desire to remedy it through selfless action. And maybe that is the way out here. Not through a war of othering and blaming and dehumanizing the “they” who are not “us,” but instead through compassion.
And that’s where I want to end things.
We may live in the destructive wake of a Snopesian America. This may be our birthright: our true national legacy, one of class tensions and racial war, where we blame the weakest among us for not picking themselves up while our laws continually kick them down. But we keep telling ourselves a grand story about our own greatness. I hope one day we can make it true.