The Old American West: a story for our times

Heather Cox Richardson (Boston College) wrote a lengthy Facebook post about the importance of narrative in elections, and how the people she calls “movement conservatives” have one. For what it’s worth, what she calls movement conservatives, I call extreme libertarians. But progressives and moderates, struggling to craft a narrative that can be shared between their competing interests, haven’t done it.

From what I can tell, Trump’s “movement conservatives” have a narrative built on aggrieved fear that something important to living the good life in America has been stolen from them by predatory enemies who are people not like them: immigrants fleeing homelands to invade America, domestic minorities demanding more than is their due, people of strange religions, and left wing socialists who are really communists. Maybe they’re not conspiring together, but together they are the thieves who have stolen opportunity to live the good life and intend to destroy it altogether.

Trump is a master showman preying on that narrative, driving it home in simple, repetitive, brutal language with no pretense for the need to be truthful. He may be a sociopathic narcissist interested only in expanding his own realm of absolute authority, but he’s also a tool useful to others who prefer fascism clothed in democratic language, and their near cousins whose wealth and power is dependent on an every expanding defense industry. As it turns out, Trump may be a useful tool, but not one easily controlled, which is something to keep in mind.

It’s a classic pattern explored in depth by Hannah Arendt in “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” The rise of German Naziism may be what comes to mind most readily, but Arendt would have her readers pay more attention to the political histories of France, Italy, and even England for parallel insights in American history. When an aggrieved people believe they have been cheated out of what is rightfully theirs, they want to know who did it, they want extreme punishment, and they want decisive, authoritarian political leadership to make it right. It’s a pattern explored through a different lens by Rene Girard’s scapegoat mechanism but it comes to the same conclusion.

Trumpians, including the many who voted with earnest hope for Obama, really believe Trump cares for them, has their best interests in mind, will pursue and defeat the thieving enemies, and what is rightfully theirs will be returned to them. That his policies are antithetical to their every hope is disbelieved, fake news. That his relatively few accomplishments have enriched the already wealthy, and given them more freedom to conduct business without regard for the public good, is hidden from their view by a combination of snake oil salesmanship and their own self delusion. That his many failures at trade negotiation and international relations have cost Americans dearly, and shredded the nation’s standing in the community of nations, is explained away through bold lies about making other countries pay the cost Americans have borne, and restoring American respect to new highs. All verifiable evidence to the contrary is fake news.

It’s a dangerous, powerful narrative that uses as its foundation the myth of the American West and the self reliant men and women who tamed it. What could be more American than that? It’s not built on history. It’s built on dime novels, B western movies, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and John Wayne. It’s serenaded in cowboy songs, and country music that claim for themselves the true voice of real patriotic Americans that excludes and ridicules urbanites, coastal elites, and intellectuals. Trump loves it because he was rejected from admission to the society of urban elites, and he failed in every intellectual attempt.

Prof. Richardson would have progressives and moderates (whom we used to call conservatives) create a better narrative, and suggests they can’t win without one. She may be right, but what would that better narrative be?

It might start with the myth of the American West. Why not? We all know it. We all love it. In the new narrative all the romance of taming the West will celebrate the pioneers as usual, but add to it the bountiful heritage of American Indians, praise the hard work of Chinese and Irish railroad workers, honor the courage of slaves and former slaves who stood against their oppressors, and honestly acknowledge the violent injustices that the American ideal has slowly overcome. Whatever our shortcomings, we’ve always managed to take steps forward. The tellers of the new narrative need to celebrate each step, no matter how small, as the story of true American grit making progress against those who would deny the American dream to ordinary people – including the white working class of Appalachia and where ever the “heartland” is deemed to be.

Have we ever tried to tell a story like it before? We have, especially in government produced films encouraging the public during the darkest days of WWII. But also, oddly enough, in the many stories of the American West by good old Louis L’Amour. Think about it. The villain is almost always a rapacious land baron running roughshod over the good people of a struggling frontier town. His autocratic rule is enforced by a gang of gun slinging thugs. The hero never acts alone, but always with support from braver, more virtuous townsfolk. The closing moral is that the day of guns and violence is over, the future belongs to community, a cooperative community in which the interests of ordinary people, no matter their estate, are collectively promoted and protected.

The stories are dated by seventy years or more, but they’re powerful stories and they can be used to craft new 21st century narratives featuring progressive (and moderate) heroes who are not out to steal land or jobs, will courageously face down bullies, and will work in collaboration with others for the best in what American freedom means.

1 thought on “The Old American West: a story for our times”

  1. The notion of turning the myth of the American West in a new direction presents an interesting challenge, most especially for those, like me, who are part of the American Academy.

    Take Whitman College where I teach philosophy. Whitman is named to commemorate Marcus Whitman who, until recently, was always referred to as a “pioneer” who as a Medical Missionary along with his wife and children were the first family to settle here in the Walla Walla Valley. Except that is most certainly not the way their story is now told at the College whose name supposedly honors the memory of their massacre. Rather than the first pioneer family to settle the Valley, they are explicitly presented as the first colonizer cis-gen white family to steal indigenous land as the prelude for the genocide, literal and cultural, to follow.

    This Whitman story, of course, plays right into Trump’s hands, as does the relentless self-righteousness with which it is presented.

    Or, to step outside the Academy, you can take a parallel retelling of an American myth by the New York Times “1619 Project” that retells the founding of the colonies not by, say, the year-later Pilgrim attempt to secure religious and political freedom, but by the establishment of the slave trade on these shores.

    What the ongoing multiplication of radically different retellings of American myths demonstrates is what you might call the American Contradiction that was directly embodied in the original version of the Constitution in which slaves were “counted” as 3/5th of a person. Whatever capacity for story-telling it took to deny the 2/5ths of the person standing right in front of you is still with us, only now it has morphed into the stunningly different narratives of heroic “pioneers” and genocidal “colonizers” that face off against each other here in the Walla Walla Valley.

    As far as I can tell, the story we need to learn how to tell each other concerns the origins and transformations of the American Contradiction that has led us to the 2020 Presidential Election. But how could such a story be told such that those already governed by it could listen to each other?

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