Little Man, What Now?

MAGA should be properly understood as the product of a bored and restless middle class

Little Man, What Now?
A protester screams “Freedom” inside the Senate chamber after the U.S. Capitol was breached by a mob/Win McNamee/Getty Images

One of the strangest arguments to account for Donald Trump’s presidency and the personality cult it engendered is one advanced by his admirers and detractors alike: that it was all the pent-up yield of an angry “white working class” against an oblivious establishment. Like most American myths, this one endured past the point of plausibility or diminishing analytical returns, but it took the ignominious closing chapter of the Trump era, a lethal assault on the seat of lawmaking, to make it look ridiculous. Can anyone now deny that the core of MAGA is a molten cauldron of cultural and psychological pathologies characteristic of middle-class dilettantes and people with at least enough money to have way too much time on their hands? 

A nationwide FBI dragnet and dozens of Justice Department indictments have done in a fortnight what all the pundits and cable news guests could not do in four long years: show us exactly who these people are and where they came from, which is not, as it turns out, the factory floor or coal mine but the real estate brokerage and suburban split-level.

Gore Vidal once said that the three saddest words in the English language are “Joyce Carol Oates.” He was wrong. They are “Florida man identified.”  Everyone by now has seen the viral photograph of a smiling, long-haired Trumpist named Adam Johnson carting away U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lectern from the House of Representatives. What few may have noticed is that Johnson was later shown to be a stay-at-home father of five from Parrish, Florida, whose physician spouse is the only reason he is not now sitting in a jail cell awaiting trial. “Johnson was released on conditions that his wife co-sign his $25,000 bond and that he abides by a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew with GPS monitoring,” the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported in a sentence that really does a lot more work than it was ever intended to. A breadwinning doctor being forced to guarantee $25,000 because her idiot husband purloined a tchotchke from Congress under the banner of “Stop the Steal” is many things; a cri de coeur from the 99% is not one of them.

Or consider Jenna Ryan, a Dallas real estate agent and life coach who came to Washington on a private jet and fretted about the lack of port-a-potties at a putsch she had absolutely no compunction about turning into a marketing opportunity. “We’re going to fucking go in here,” Ryan shouted as she broke into the Rotunda with the rest of the MAGA mob, according to federal prosecutors. “Life or death. It doesn’t matter. Here we go.” Had she left it at that, Ryan might have convinced some that her motivation was hanging Mike Pence rather than Always Be Closing. “Y’all know who to hire for your Realtor,” she then shouted from the top of the stairs. “Jenna Ryan for your Realtor.” 

Mind-forged manacles are the only chains Jacob Anthony Chansley, the “QAnon shaman,” or “Jake Angeli,” has to lose. A self-published author, actor, singer, voiceover artist, ordained minister, and YouTube personality (I may have missed a few items on his CV), he believes a cabal of devil-worshipping pedophiles runs the country he once attempted to defend as a seaman in the U.S. Navy — until of course he was booted from the service for declining to receive an anthrax vaccine. Chansley is convinced of practically every documented conspiracy theory, and no doubt a few undocumented ones, be they about the Freemasons, the Trilateral Commission, TV- and radio-manipulated brain waves, the Bilderberg Group, and COVID-19. He is also very particular about what he puts in his body apart from tattoo ink, having gone on a brief hunger strike in prison owing to the lack of organic food there. (I’m old enough to remember when Barack Obama was assailed as an effete snob for inquiring about the price of arugula at Whole Foods.)

Of course, the people arraigned for storming the Capitol are no match for the venality and cynicism of their even-better-off eggers-on, the ones who’d otherwise have nothing to do with such a deranged rabble but were perfectly happy to help them mount a cosplay coup. Caroline Wren made $20,000 a month between March and November 2020 as a national finance consultant for the Trump campaign and the Repblican National Committee, according to the Associated Press; she was listed as a “VIP Advisor” on the permit for a group called Women for America First, which was front and center in D.C. on Jan. 6. Tim Unes was the unimprovably titled “stage manager” of the rally’s permit, and his company, Event Strategies, made a cool $1.3 million last year for “audio visual services” on behalf of Trump’s re-election campaign, the news wire reported.

In his 1951 book White Collar, the sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote that the 20th century market had unleashed such unforeseen and newly alienating socio-economic energies in this country that there was no longer any single American middle class; there were several, as the book’s subtitle suggested, from the wealthiest captain of industry to the lowliest file clerk, “bored at work, and restless at play.” 

“The new, Little Man,” Mills wrote, “seems to have no firm roots, no sure loyalties to sustain his life and give it a center. He is not aware of having any history, his past being as brief as it is unheroic; he has lived through no golden age he can recall in time of trouble. Perhaps because he does not know where he is going, he is in a frantic hurry; perhaps because he does not know what frightens him, he is paralyzed with fear. This is especially a feature of his political life, where the paralysis results in the most profound apathy of modern times.”

But the profound apathy of the Little Man contained catastrophic political reserves, which Trump transformed into ressentiment married to an overcooked sense of destiny. “Now we have history, now we are heroes,” they all thought as they dressed up like circus freaks and lynched cops and invaded the legislature, with the slogans of 1776 on their lips, all in pursuit of something their ringleaders knew to be nothing more than must-see-TV. They face prison terms and personal and professional ruin. Little man, what now?

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