The Sunday Magazine

If the midterms were a battle for America's soul, who won?

Tuesday’s election was cast as a referendum on Trumpism that would set the direction and tone of the country for the future. Michael talks to Adam Gopnik, the Canadian New Yorker writer who is one of today's most penetrating observers of American political culture.
U.S. President Donald Trump points to reporters during a news conference a day after the midterm elections. Republicans kept the Senate majority but lost control of the House to the Democrats. (Photo by Al Drago - Pool/Getty Images)

There is a paradox in President Donald Trump's continued popularity, says writer Adam Gopnik.

"He is most popular in rural regions of America where Donald Trump would never set foot and never has set foot," The New Yorker political critic said. 

"It's where his entire life runs against the current of their values and indeed, of recognizing their very existence."

According to Gopnik, that's not surprising, considering the history of authoritarian populism.

Gopnik spoke to The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright after the midterm elections. Here is part of their conversation.

I've heard you describe President Trump's M.O. as a combination of vanity and fear. Paul Berman in Tablet says "It was a contest to see how much of the country could be mobilized on the basis of hysteria and mass loathing."

What kind of politics is that?

The problem is that it's a classic kind of politics — it's just not a liberal democratic politics. It's the classic politics of clan. It's the classic politics of the volk and the nation. It's not a new politics. It's a very old kind of politics.

I often think that we make a mistake when we try to understand Trumpism and the general wave of authoritarianism, ethnic authoritarianism, that seems to be sweeping the world.

If we try to understand them in a causative way… 'well it's the crash of 2008' or alternately 'it's the rise of inequality…' those things may be real but the single most striking feature of this moment in our political time is it is so global. It's taken in so many countries that have radically different, specific economic histories and histories of [government] regimes. It seems to be rooted in something much deeper.

The great history of mankind is the history of tough guys, authoritarians, who say 'I will make our tribe stronger than the tribe across the river.- Adam Gopnik

The reality is the kind of politics you're describing, the politics of tribalism, the politics of ethnic clan-ism is the oldest kind of politics human beings know. The great history of mankind is a history of tough guys, authoritarians, who say, 'I will make our tribe stronger than the tribe across the river.' And everyone says, 'All right. If he can do it…'

That's the tragedy of the current moment that it isn't causative in a way that we could easily cure if we could make the economy more equal, or we could recover better from the last recession. I think this is rooted in the deep atavistic impulses of human beings and that's what makes it so frightening. 

I've worked in the United States, and I have never known a period where Americans seemed to be so fearful of so many things. Fear has become a central feature of American political discourse.

Let's come back to the gun massacres. It's relatively unlikely that you're going to die in one, and yet their frequency is so much greater than in any other modern country. They totally warp and distort American life. I can't go into my kid's school without showing five kinds of I.D. There are signs up on the walls about what to do in case of an active shooter. Every institution in America — hospitals, schools — have to have active shooter placards up. Think about how that warps the our basic take on the world. You can't go to synagogue or to church without thinking about the possibility that someone's going to come in with a gun. And you know that anybody can get a weapon of mass killing. It's the easiest thing in the world to do.

A thousand small sanities are usually more effective than one big idea.- Adam Gopnik

So I think that the simple prevalence of gun violence in America has a disproportionate warping effect, and helps create that kind of fear. We've already seen in this last horrific massacre in California, that there were people who were veterans, so to speak, of previous massacres.

A boy who had survived Las Vegas died in Thousand Oaks. That would be funny and ironic if it weren't the blackest and most horrible kind of humour imaginable.

But you have in Donald Trump, a president who is closer to the National Rifle Association than any other president I can think of. You have 75 percent of American voters in favour of more controls. But is there any sense that something is going to happen, even with a Democratically-controlled House?

On the national level, no. At the local level, I think more is happening — and will happen — as it becomes apparent that the country as a whole has turned against the gun violence, and the notion that we should sacrifice our children to the Second Amendment.

If you look at when positive social change happens, it rarely happens through voting for the people we like, who then pass a law. What happens is that you have a great groundswell; you have communities of activists, of parents, of sympathetic people who begin to make changes. A thousand small sanities are usually more effective than one big idea.

I think what you're seeing across America is exactly a thousand small sanities about gun use, that are bubbling up. They won't solve the problem, because guns cross state lines, and are too easy to get in too many places. Maybe I'm going to be I'm too optimistic about this, Michael. But when I think about social problems, I think about the decline of crime in America. It's true in Canada too.

I pray and I believe that the same kind of process, of sanity bubbling up, can happen in the case of gun violence.- Adam Gopnik

When I first came to New York, everybody said we won't be able to solve the crime problem, which was very acute then, without solving the foundational issues. If you were a conservative, you thought the foundational issue was the black family; if you were radical, you thought it was economic injustice. They said, if we don't resolve the foundational problem, we can't solve crime. And just the opposite turned out to be the case. Crime has declined in the most dramatic imaginable way.

If you ask sociologists what made it decline, they say it was a lot of small things, a lot of community actions. It was smarter, wiser policing. It was communities coming together, more and more people taking subways. A thousand small sanities made that change. I pray and I believe that the same kind of process, of sanity bubbling up, can happen in the case of gun violence.

Click 'listen' to hear the interview.