Seriously major spoiler alerts in this one.
Tuesday’s election results were unnerving, terrifying and revealing. But they weren’t particularly shocking. Much of rural, white, working class America, just about half of the voting population, found inspiration in President-elect Donald Trump, a bombastic billionaire from the big city. His talk of closing borders and ending trade deals, preventing an onslaught of unwanted globalism, was acutely appealing to a wide segment of the population weary from structural job losses over the last decades.
But the story of 2016 is not Trump’s grip on the rust belt, nor is it Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s declining appeal to her base. The most fundamental story from this tumultuous election will be the established media elite and its growing disconnect to the average people.
In Joel and Ethan Coen’s brilliant 1991 film “Barton Fink,” the titular character, a successful New York playwright, moves to Los Angeles after securing a Hollywood screenwriting job. Barton made his name by writing a play that depicts the “common man” and he’s worried that the move to Hollywood will remove him from his subjects.
He gets it wrong. After Barton checks into the Hotel Earle, a decrepit establishment with wallpaper that slides off to reveal slime-covered walls, he meets his neighbor, Charlie Meadows, by calling the front desk to complain about Meadows’s noise. Charlie, angered, knocks on Barton’s door and the two begin to talk. Charlie, an insurance salesman, appears delighted to learn that Barton is a writer of “the common man.” Barton’s fascination is “the life of the mind,” he tells Charlie. “I could tell you some stories,” the jovial giant proclaims, before Barton interrupts him: “I’m sure you could. And that’s the point.”
Silenced, Charlie remains close to Barton, but strange things start to happen. Barton develops writer’s block and can’t wrap his head around how to write a “wrestling picture.” He meets a famous novelist and falls for his assistant (and mistress), Audrey. After Audrey and Barton sleep together, he finds himself covered in her blood: she’s been murdered. Charlie, Barton discovers, is not a simple, common man.
Known by the name of “Madman Mundt,” Charlie is a homicidal maniac who shoots and decapitates his victims. Charlie returns to the hotel as Barton is locked to his chair by police officers. The hotel hallway becomes engulfed in flames as Charlie pulls a shotgun on the officers and races down the hallway, screaming, “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” And just before Charlie tells Barton he paid Barton’s family a visit, he points the gun at the officers, says gleefully, “Heil Hitler,” and pulls the trigger.
This is all exaggeration. Only a small (but vocal) minority of Trump supporters is anti-Semitic or has a penchant for violence, and certainly few if any are serial killers. But Charlie’s vengeance toward Barton, an elitist who silences yet claims to speak for the common man, should not go unnoticed. There is strong disdain for the elite, those who have “made it,” who do not know the struggle of day labor, of losing their job to competition, of having limited skills beyond physical strength and patience, yet who feel free to tell the common man what is happening, what is true. “The economy is improving under the Obama administration,” the media tells the modern-day common man (an objectively true claim), but he doesn’t feel this improvement. Their lives are not markedly better. And their government doesn’t care.
It’s no wonder Clinton won the vote of the college educated and of the young, who have grown up in and rightfully accepted a profoundly changing economy. But the older folks, from Wisconsin and Ohio and Pennsylvania and right here in Michigan, who are desperately clinging on to their livelihoods as their years slip by, have exercised their power. And, boy, do they have power.
This is not to say that Trump is in the right, or that the “common” men and women crippled by economic anxiety have no faults of their own. Often, their reactions to immigrants, especially Latino and Muslim, are horrendously virulent and should be rejected on face. But this is a nation of coalitions — especially the Democratic Party, established by the New Deal as a melding of populism and elitism. That populism has been steadily leaving the party since the 1960s and it has all but vanished.
Endless ink will be spent writing about the 2016 election, about how it broke every rule in the political theory book and yet confirmed what many social psychologists believed. But intellectuals and the media, in their ivory towers and glass-plated skyscrapers, will need to pay more attention to our forgotten states and people if America is to ever survive this catastrophe of an election.