Since he officially announced his presidential candidacy, Donald Trump has not only enjoyed a precipitous rise to the top of the Republican field but — more shockingly for many of us following the campaign — he has maintained his support even while steadily ramping up his misogynist, xenophobic rhetoric. Regardless of how this election cycle ultimately plays out, Trump has already made it inescapably clear that the political energies he encapsulates will not disappear anytime soon. As such, it’s beholden upon those of us witnessing Trump’s rise to look seriously at the forces that have contributed to it. As someone who studies American literature for a living, I’ve found a vivid explication of Trumpism’s roots in what might seem an unusual place: William Faulkner’s modernist tour de force The Sound and the Fury, first published in 1929.
Anyone who has read The Sound and the Fury will likely remember it as a challenging experience. With this novel, Faulkner pioneers the “stream of consciousness” style that made him famous, using this technique to capture the tumultuous inner workings of his protagonists’ minds. Set mainly in Mississippi in 1928, the novel chronicles the decline of the fictional Compson family by giving voice to the distinctive interior monologues of three brothers. The novel’s first chapter represents the non-normative cognitive functioning of the mute Benjy (the putative “idiot” to which the novel’s Shakespearean title alludes); the second, set in Massachusetts 18 years earlier, depicts the anxious, obsessive Quentin in the run-up to his suicide. But it is the novel’s third chapter, the so-called “Jason” section, that primarily concerns me here. (The fourth and final chapter, often called the “Dilsey” section, focuses on one of the Compsons’ black servants, but it returns to a more traditional narrative perspective, which pulls back from probing the depths of Dilsey’s inner life.)
Faulkner casts Jason as deeply resentful of his waning economic power. A salaried employee in a local hardware store, Jason thinks with pride of his family’s slave owning past, and he understands the economy’s modernization as his own dispossession. Polls have shown that Trump’s support is strongest among working class white men without a college degree; Jason, who fits into each of these demographic categories, resents his father for selling family pasture land to send older brother Quentin to Harvard. Since Quentin has drowned himself before completing his degree, Jason sees the tuition money as a wasted investment; he doesn’t think much of an Ivy League institution where “they teach you how to go for a swim at night without knowing how to swim.” Along with the repurposed pasture land (now a golf course), Jason’s wage labor job indexes broader economic shifts, which affect the financial prospects of families like his. In the antebellum South’s plantation economy, slavery led directly to white wealth, and even after the Civil War, white landowners continued to profit off exploitatively cheap black labor. However, by the 1920s, the economic underpinnings of this system were in disarray: cotton prices were down, many African-Americans were heading north as part of the Great Migration, and overproduction had ravaged much of Mississippi’s once fertile land. Jason, then, detests the daily grind of working for wages because he understands it as a manifestation of lost wealth — wealth he feels his family fully deserves.
Unsatisfied with punching a clock, Jason turns to investing in cotton futures. His section of narration chronicles his building frustration, as a day of high market volatility leaves him with less money than when he began. When he receives a telegram at the end of the day, informing him that his investment account has closed due to insufficient funds, Jason unleashes a tirade of bitterness:
I dont see how a city no bigger than New York can hold enough people to take the money away from us country suckers. Work like hell all day every day, send them your money and get a little piece of paper back, Your account closed at 20.62. […] And if that wasn’t enough, paying ten dollars a month to somebody to tell you how to lose it fast, that either dont know anything about it or is in cahoots with the telegraph company. Well, I’m done with them. They’ve sucked me in for the last time. Any fool except a fellow that hasn’t got any more sense than to take a jew’s word for anything could tell the market was going up all the time[…]. I dont want a killing; only these small town gamblers are out for that, I just want my money back that these damn jews have gotten with all their guaranteed inside dope.
In this passage, Jason’s perceived enemies proliferate and blend seamlessly together: he feels misled by the financial advisory company he has hired, which has told him to sell short on a day when the market rose. This grievance expands to include the people of New York City more broadly, distant Northerners who gang up to defraud “country suckers” like him. Jason is quick to imagine these faceless financiers as “damn jews;” his anti-elitism works together with his xenophobia to heighten his sense of powerlessness in the face of a changing modern world. After a traveling salesman proclaims, “I’m an American,” Jason responds, “So am I […]. Not many of us left.” Clearly, Jason wants to “make America great again” — buying into the white nationalist rhetoric encoded in such a slogan.
Trump has earned comparisons to fascist dictators of decades past (and not only because of his inclination to re-tweet Benito Mussolini), but a more specifically American precedent for his rise might be James Vardaman, Mississippi’s governor from 1904 to 1908 (and later one of its senators). Before Vardaman’s rise, as the historian Don Doyle discusses in his book Faulkner’s County, Mississippi politics were controlled by a small group of wealthy political insiders, who selected nominees during closed-door conventions. Vardaman led a grassroots populist movement by railing against this system. Speaking in front of massive crowds, he castigated political elites, presented himself as a champion of the working man, and openly encouraged racial hostility. Sound familiar? (Plus, there’s Vardaman’s hairstyle.) Though originally from a wealthier family himself, Jason certainly sympathizes with the sense of white grievance that Vardaman and later populist politicians like Theodore Bilbo stoked. In As I Lay Dying, the novel he published the year after The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner names one of his poor white characters Vardaman, as if to suggest the former governor’s ongoing influence. The consequences of Vardaman’s positions were real and devastating, particularly for Mississippi’s black population: Vardaman argued that educating African-Americans would only make them more threatening, and he enthusiastically supported lynchings. As Doyle recounts, Vardaman once commented that, if he were a private citizen and a “negro fiend” (an alleged rapist) had been identified, he would “head the mob to string the brute up.”
Trump supporters, confronted with a more contemporary set of political frustrations and economic anxieties, have exhibited a troublingly familiar response. Whereas the dissolution of the plantation system leads to increased economic uncertainty for Southern white families like the Compsons, here in the 21st century we are dealing with the consequences of an increasingly globalized economy, wherein manufacturing jobs do not lead to the secure careers and regular paychecks they once did. Even as the rise of the digital economy creates new employment opportunities in the U.S., these jobs tend to be restricted to those who have attained a certain level of education and acquired a particular set of specialized skills. While Faulkner’s fiction focuses primarily on the economic climate of Mississippi, by 2016 white concerns about dispossession have become an undeniably national phenomenon — hence, Trump won 47 percent of the Republican primary vote in Mississippi, but he also won 60 percent in New York. Faulkner’s novel precisely captures the distorted logic of a character who believes in his own victimization above all else: Jason is right to sense that his financial prospects are bleak, but he is absolutely unwilling to reflect on the history of racial oppression and violence that made his family wealthy in the first place. Similarly, in our current political moment, wealth inequality and the gutting of factory jobs are serious issues with far-reaching consequences for a variety of demographic groups. With his comments about building walls and banning Muslims, Trump offers false solutions to real problems; he capitalizes on legitimate economic anxieties by scapegoating racial minorities, and his own vote tallies rise in direct proportion to the sense of irrational fear he cultivates in his supporters.
In political moments like this one, it makes sense to turn (and return) to literary works, records of our shared history and repositories of long-standing cultural attitudes. With its intensive representation of Jason Compson’s psychology, The Sound and the Fury helps us to understand the historical forces that shape such an individual. Faulkner’s text illustrates the hypocrisy and selective memory according to which Jason processes his experience, but it also forces us as readers to confront the depth of his sadness and confusion. Claudia Rankine’s poem “Sound & Fury,” recently published in The New Yorker, accomplishes a similar function. Rankine writes of how
…[h]ands, which assembled, and packaged,
and built, harden into a fury that cannot call
power to account though it’s not untrue jobs were
outsourced and it’s not untrue an economic base
was cut out from under. It’s not untrue.
While Rankine’s poem does not specifically name any red-haired real estate developers, the political context for her work is clear. Like Faulkner before her, Rankine vividly illuminates the experience of those who struggle to reconcile their own personal difficulties with their deeply ingrained commitment to the shibboleth of white supremacy. Like Faulkner’s depiction of Jason, Rankine poem’s suggests that we can vehemently disagree with an ideology and still acknowledge the suffering of those caught in its thrall. Even as Trump puts forth a frighteningly distorted view of the world, the pain of those enticed by this worldview remains real.
Image Credit: Flickr/Jamelle Bouie.