Was Joan Didion foreseeing something like the Trump presidency during her 1970 Gulf Coast swing?
"Didion saw her era more clearly than anyone else, which is another way of saying that she was able to see the future. . . . How could the hidebound South, in its perpetual disintegration and defiant decadence, at the same time represent the future? Didion admits the idea seems oxymoronic, but she is onto something. . . .
"An unquestioned premise among those who live in American cities with international airports has been, for more than half a century now, that Enlightenment values would in time become conventional wisdom. . . . Two decades into the new millennium, however, a plurality of the population has clung defiantly to the old way of life."
-- Nathaniel Rich, in "Joan Didion in the Deep South" (NYRB, 3/9)
Our story thus far: In summer 1970 Joan Didion took a swing along the Gulf Coast, gathering notes for a piece she never wrote describing how something important for the future of the country was observable in the South. Didion has now published those notes, along with notes she gathered during a trip to San Francisco in 1976 to cover Patty Hearst's trial for Rolling Stone, in book form, as South and West.
The book is almost self-recommending just for the extended look it gives us at the working method of one of the great nonfiction writers of this or any other time. It is, as Nathaniel Rich described it, "in one regard, the most revealing of Didion’s books" a seemingly "far-fetched claim to make about an author who has written about her ancestry, her marriage, her health, and, with painful candor, her grief -- Didion’s readers are, after all, on familiar terms with the personal details of her life."
But the writing itself -- the cool majesty of her prose, written as if from a great, even empyreal distance, elevating personal experience into universal revelation -- has an immaculacy as intimidating as Chelsea porcelain. South and West offers for the first time a glimpse inside the factory walls.So, Rich writes, while "Didion’s notes . . . surpass in elegance and clarity the finished prose of most other writers," and provide "a fascinating record of this time," he argues that
they are also something more unsettling. Readers today will recognize, with some dismay and even horror, how much is familiar in these long-lost American portraits. Didion saw her era more clearly than anyone else, which is another way of saying that she was able to see the future.So what did Didion, Californian to the core, see along the Gulf Coast in 1970? In her notes she reports --
a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.We've already seen Rich respond, "How could the hidebound South, in its perpetual disintegration and defiant decadence, at the same time represent the future?"
Didion admits the idea seems oxymoronic, but she is onto something. Part of the answer, she suspects, lies in the bluntness with which Southerners confront race, class, and heritage -- “distinctions which the frontier ethic teaches western children to deny and to leave deliberately unmentioned.” "In the South such distinctions are visible, rigid, and the subject of frank conversation."Rich proceeds, as I noted Friday, to look a bit at the nature of that "frank conversation," that "bluntness with which Southerners confront race, class, and heritage," with those "visible, rigid distinctions," then writes:
This kind of thinking seemed retrograde in the Seventies. From the vantage of New York, California, even New Orleans, it still seems so today. But this southern frame of mind has annexed territory in the last four decades, expanding across the Mason-Dixon Line into the rest of rural America. It has taken root among people -- or at least registered voters -- nostalgic for a more orderly past.I left off Friday asking, "Do you see where Rich is heading? At this point, the smart thing to do, it seems to me, is to turn the floor over to him.
This kind of thinking seemed retrograde in the Seventies. From the vantage of New York, California, even New Orleans, it still seems so today. But this southern frame of mind has annexed territory in the last four decades, expanding across the Mason-Dixon Line into the rest of rural America. It has taken root among people -- or at least registered voters -- nostalgic for a more orderly past.What is this "nostalgia for a more orderly past" that has drawn rural America to "this southern frame of mind"? It's a past, Rich suggests,
in which the men concentrated on hunting and fishing and the women on “their cooking, their canning, their ‘prettifying’”; when graft as a way of life was accepted, particularly in politics, and segregation was unquestioned; when a white supremacist running for public office was “a totally explicable phenomenon”; when a wife knew better than to travel through strange territory with a bikini and without a wedding ring [i.e., as Didion herself did during her Gulf tour].At this point, I remind readers of the connection I set out to make between Didion's '70s discoveries and the mind-blowing changes in American culture represented by sitcoms like The Middle, with its quietly subversive caustic look at traditional "family values," and especially The Real O'Neals, gleefully thumbing its nose at traditionally reflexive, mindless Christian pieties and homophobia. These seem to confirmt the feeling a lot of us have that American society has changed irrevocably on ways that ever so recently would have seemed unimaginable.
As indeed it has -- for many Americans. But not for a significant bloc of Americans. Here's Rich again:
An unquestioned premise among those who live in American cities with international airports has been, for more than half a century now, that Enlightenment values would in time become conventional wisdom. Some fought for this future to come sooner. Others waited patiently. But nobody seemed to believe that it would never arrive. Nobody, certainly, in Los Angeles or the Bay Area, which since Didion’s reporting has only accelerated in its embrace of an ethic in which the past is fluid, meaningless, neutered by technological advancement. In this view the past is relegated to the aesthetic realm, to what Didion describes in “California Notes” as “decorative touches” -- tastefully aged cutlery and window curtains. In this view the past was safely dead and could not return to bloody the land."Nobody seemed to believe that it would never arrive," this time when Enlightenment values would become conventional wisdom.
Two decades into the new millennium, however, a plurality of the population has clung defiantly to the old way of life.I've paused here only for effect, to allow the proposition to sink in. Rich goes right on:
They still believe in the viability of armed revolt. As Didion herself noted nearly fifty years ago, their solidarity is only reinforced by outside disapproval, particularly disapproval by the northern press. They have resisted with mockery, then rage, the collapse of the old identity categories. They have resisted the premise that white skin should not be given special consideration. They have resisted new technology and scientific evidence of global ecological collapse. The force of this resistance has been strong enough to elect a president."A writer from the Gulf South," Rich notes, "once wrote that the past is not even past."
Didion goes further, suggesting that the past is also the future. Now that we live in that future, her observations read like a warning unheeded. They suggest that California’s dreamers of the golden dream were just that -- dreamers -- while the “dense obsessiveness” of the South, and all the vindictiveness that comes with it, was the true American condition, the condition to which we will always inevitably return. Joan Didion went to the South to understand something about California and she ended up understanding something about America.
IT ALL GOES BACK TO RONALD REAGAN
The groundwork for what eventually became the Age of Trump, I've argued repeatedly, was laid during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who told America that it didn't have to be bound by reality if it found the real thing unpleasant -- that it could in fact choose the reality it wished to believe in." In the decades since, the American Right has gone way beyond this. By the time of George W. Bush, they were fully off the truth standard. All that mattered was sounding the lies that Americans wanted to hear, and in crafting those lies he had the masterful assistance of one of America's greatest lie-mongers, Karl Rove.
Nowadays every right-winger is his own Karl Rove, or has one of the dime-a-dozen imitators to call on. Some of us still find it hard to believe that it's really possible to get away with lying of the scope and scale practiced by the creature no esconced in the Oval Office.
And now, merely by managing to deliver a speech in which the Man of Orange didn't appear as a raving psychotic, in many circles his presidency is deemed to have been "rebooted." Not everyone was fooled, though. As John Cassidy begins his newyorker.com response, "Don't Be Fooled. Donald Trump Didn't Pivot":
The instant reviews of President Donald Trump’s speech to Congress on Tuesday night are in, and some of them are raves. Trump had scarcely left the House chamber when Fox News’s Chris Wallace credited him with reinventing the art of giving speeches to joint sessions of Congress. “I feel like, tonight, Donald Trump became the President of the United States,” Wallace opined. His colleague Dana Perino didn’t go quite that far, but she did rate the performance “the best speech he”—Trump—“has ever given.”The president appears to have relearned the rhetoric of happy-sounding goals, things he wouldn't know how to do even if by chance he wanted to do them.
To be sure, these were two Fox News analysts speaking, albeit two of the more independent-minded ones. But the praise for Trump’s performance wasn’t confined to the conservative media. Over on CNN—the President’s least favorite “fake news” network—David Axelrod, the former Obama adviser, commented, “If I’m on the Trump team, I’m very, very happy with this speech. . . . There will be an afterglow from this speech. He should get a bump in the polls.”
Eying these Christians offering praise to the lion that is out to devour them, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg remarked on Twitter, “Enemies of the people giving Trump positive reviews for not sounding like a ranting dictator.” It certainly seemed that way. If there was anything fresh about what Trump said to Congress, it was largely stylistic. He didn’t pivot; he merely pirouetted, and then he dug into the same political ground he has already claimed.
About all that happened was that Trump, perhaps feeling saddled by low approval ratings, caved to the normal conventions of political communication. These rules dictate that, on august occasions such as a speech to Congress, Presidents talk politely and try to avoid giving offense. They leaven the heavy fare they are bearing with moments of optimism and humanity, promise the viewers some goodies, and offer up some notes of inclusion. Trump did all these things, and he even deployed some uplifting prose. If his Inauguration speech sounded like it had been written by Steve Bannon suffering from a migraine, Tuesday’s appeared to have been the work of a professional speechwriter.
Rather than starting things off with his dystopian world view, Trump began the speech with a reference to Black History Month, saying, “We are reminded of our nation’s path toward civil rights and the work that still remains to be done.” He condemned the recent wave of anti-Semitic incidents, and he also mentioned the shooting of two Indian immigrants last week, in Kansas, which, hitherto, he had shamefully ignored. His message, he said, was one “of unity and strength.” Channelling Ronald Reagan, he added, “A new chapter of American greatness is now beginning.”
This tone was markedly different from the one Trump had struck as recently as last week, at the cpac conference, and the television pundits swallowed it whole. In substantive terms, however, Trump didn’t give an inch, or even a millimetre. . . .
[D]etails of how he would bring about his ambitious goals were lacking. But rhetoric wasn’t. “Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, and railways, gleaming across our very, very beautiful land,” he promised. He also pledged “massive tax relief for the middle class,” and much lower corporate taxes, too. He also said, “I am going to bring back millions of jobs,” and that he would work with Congress to create “a better health-care system for all Americans.”Does anyone believe the American people won't go right on buying Trump bullshit as long as it's couched in this nonpsychotic way?
Absent from Trump’s discussion of these issues was any proper explanation of how any of his proposals would be paid for. He did say his trillion-dollar infrastructure plan would be “financed through both public and private capital,” but he didn’t provide any details, and the words “budget deficit” didn’t once cross his lips.
Nor did he mention Russia or climate change or the robust job growth he inherited. His only use of the word “environment” came in reference to the violent crime wave that he falsely claims is sweeping the nation. “We want all Americans to succeed,” he said, “but that can’t happen in an environment of lawless chaos.” . . .