The Chronicle Review

An Oracle for Trump’s America?

What we can learn from Christopher Lasch — and what we can’t

Rare Books & Special Collections, U. of Rochester

Christopher Lasch teaching a seminar at the U. of Rochester in the 1980s.
March 26, 2017

The past few months have seen a revival of sorts for Christopher Lasch, the University of Rochester historian who became one of the most perceptive cultural critics of postwar America. Some friends and colleagues have noted the "Lasch moment" we seem to be having: "Didn’t you study with that guy?" they ask me. I say yes — and I worry. Lasch’s work has often been misunderstood, his books achieving best-seller status (much to his own humble surprise) but often quickly read and distilled into simplistic interpretations. If he is having a moment now, in these post-Brexit, Trumpian times, what element of his long career is generating this comeback?

The first time I saw Lasch’s name invoked recently was in the Trump "syllabus" in these pages. Jill Lepore cited Lasch’s posthumous book, The Revolt of the Elites (1995), for its "uncanny" prediction of "a democratic crisis resulting from the fact that ‘elites speak only to themselves,’ partly because of ‘the absence of institutions that promote general conversations across class lines.’" Writing in The Baffler, George Scialabba reminded readers of Lasch’s ire toward capitalism. But conservatives have also been touting Lasch’s work. At The American Conservative, Gilbert T. Sewall cites Lasch in describing a "white, yeoman flight from the Democratic Party." Ross Douthat, of The New York Times, argues that Lasch offered an "angry" but important critique of "the professional upper class’s withdrawal from the society it rules." And none other than Stephen Bannon has reportedly cited The Revolt of the Elites as one of his favorite books to understand this juncture in history.

If you go back to Lasch to explain this political moment, you will be left scratching your head.
I’d welcome this renewed interest, but what worries me is that much of it is driven by a desire to explain the phenomenon of Trump, and particularly the politics of the white working class in 21st-century America. The Revolt of the Elites, a book that was hastily written and not Lasch’s best, has drawn the most attention, which is unfortunate. Lasch left behind a number of important, thoughtful works of history that serve simultaneously as eye-opening social criticism. But if you go back to him to find answers as to why large numbers of the white working class voted for a man whose wealth and fame are built upon a lavish hotel business and reality television, you will be left scratching your head.

Whenever I hear the name Christopher Lasch, my mind races back to a discussion group about populism that he and I organized in 1990. I was his grad student and an editor at a "critical theory" journal called Telos, edited by Paul Piccone. At the time, Paul was interested in developing a theory of populism that he saw emerging in his native country, Italy. We were joined by Lasch’s colleague Robert Westbrook, who was completing a book about John Dewey and democratic theory, and some faculty members from the English department. Since I didn’t own a car, I had to ride my bicycle six miles to Lasch’s house, in the suburbs of Rochester. I remember the garages and yards of the white working-class residents I pedaled past, overrun with snowmobiles, riding lawnmowers, dirt bikes, and other toys. Then, legs burning, I’d park my bike and walk into discussions about the virtues of populism and the white working class.

Lasch’s revival today has something to do with those 1990 discussions. Trained as a historian — he received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1961, under the guidance of William Leuchtenberg and the influence of Richard Hofstadter — he became less an academic historian and more a public intellectual who eschewed peer-reviewed outlets for trade-press publications. Throughout the ’60s, Lasch remained a "man of the left," hoping to recover a "humane and democratic socialism" from the past in his third book, The Agony of the American Left (1969). That book showed how he fused history and social criticism, believing that the past informs the present and vice versa (this "presentism" alienated him further from the history profession, as did his lack of archival research). Agony was full of sharp observations of the actual populists at the turn of the century, black nationalists, and politicians groomed by the Socialist Party before World War I. History was not a dead relic for Lasch but an inquiry that charted alternative paths for the future.

Another thing could be seen in the book: A criticism of postwar liberalism for losing its bearings, especially during the Cold War. For Lasch, liberal intellectuals’ anti-Communism and technocratic world­view made them too comfortable with an aggressive foreign policy that had resulted in the disastrous Vietnam War. Lasch sought out — and this remained true his entire life — an alternative to the postwar liberalism of thinkers like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith as well as his own advisers, Leuchtenberg and Hofstadter.

That critique of liberalism stayed with him during the malaise years of the 1970s. He also grew more interested in Western Marxism and psychoanalysis, drawn to Frankfurt School thinkers like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer and to the writings of the French philosopher Michel Foucault. His book on the history of the family, Haven in a Heartless World (1977), raised the ire of many feminists with its arguments that paternal power had declined, and echoed Foucault in discussing how "doctors, psychiatrists, teachers, child guidance experts, officers of the juvenile courts, and other specialists began to supervise child-rearing."

His next book was also indebted to the Frankfurt School and — ironically — earned him his 15 minutes of fame. The Culture of Narcissism (1979) dissected the pathologies nurtured by a rampant consumer culture that preyed upon insecurities, cynicism about government, and the "deskilling" of parenting within a culture that fetishized expertise. Narcissism became a best seller, much to Lasch’s surprise. It won him a spread in People magazine and an audience at Jimmy Carter’s White House while the president drew up his most famous speech, "Crisis of Confidence" (aka, the "malaise speech").

Lasch’s argument in the book, though, was largely misunderstood (Carter himself admitted to speed-reading it). Over and over, he explained that narcissism was not selfishness; narcissists in fact had very little self or ego to go around. Drawing on Freudian theory, Lasch depicted the narcissistic self as beleaguered, putting up a "defense against aggressive impulses rather than self-love." But no matter — critics characterized him as a puritanical curmudgeon. One reviewer even said his name sounded like "lash" and was thus "Dickensian in the context." (Recently Laura Kipnis called Lasch "Mr. Narcissism" and a "scold.") Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the last time he would be misread.

By the time that I came to study with him, in the late 1980s, Lasch had gone through a profound rethinking of his intellectual lineage. He had come to reject the Frankfurt School’s merger of Freud and Marx, especially in its classic work, The Authoritarian Personality (1950). What Lasch saw the Frankfurters doing was taking conservative ideas — traditionalism, prejudice, and faith in authority, for instance — and reducing them to psychological pathologies. Adorno and his co-authors had "relegated a broad range of controversial issues to the clinic — to ‘scientific’ study as opposed to philosophical and political debate," he wrote.

That passage comes from The True and Only Heaven (1991), which is a real door-stopper at just under 600 pages. It’s complex and covers an array of topics, including secularization theory, guild socialism, distinctions between nostalgia and memory — and that’s just for starters. The book’s cast of characters includes Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Carlyle, William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, Gunnar Myrdal … you get the idea. Though the book traverses vast ground, it focuses its final chapter on the white working-class "backlash" against liberalism (the drafts of which we read in our 1990 study group).

Lasch’s residual neo-Marxism pitted the white working class against ruling elites, who embraced economic growth and "managerial" liberalism. No longer an agent of socialist revolution, if it ever was, the white working class now became something of a carrier of an antimodernist and populist worldview. Consider Lasch’s take on abortion: "The debate about abortion illustrates the difference between the enlightened ethic of competitive achievement and the petty-bourgeois or working-class ethic of limits." Elites turned child-rearing into a contractual choice that requires consideration of a parent’s resources, while the working-class pro-lifers rejected the principle of "rational planning," saying things like, "You can’t plan everything in life." Lasch suggested that an ethics of humility drove opposition to abortion more than did religious faith, or what he called "abstract speculation about the immortality of the embryonic soul."

If pro-life sentiments voiced by the white working class had less to do with religion per se, the antibusing riots in Boston during the 1970s had less to do with race and more with "limousine liberals" whose social-engineering schemes threatened decentralized power (via "forced" integration). "Workers experienced liberal policies as an invasion of their neighborhoods," Lasch writes for them. Emphasizing class resentments over racial prejudice during antibusing protests often sounded strained. After all, by his own admission, the protesters who tossed rocks at buses full of young blacks weren’t chanting, "No more social engineering! Decentralize power for the working class!" They were yelling, "Bus the niggers back to Africa!" It was difficult, to say the least, to disentangle class resentment in this case from ethnic identity and racism.

Unfortunately, this tendency to generate what looks like an identity politics around class got more pronounced in the last book Lasch wrote for a general audience, The Revolt of the Elites. Here he pitted class against class even more sweepingly. The "working and lower middle classes," he argued, "understand, as their betters do not, that there are inherent limits on human control over the course of social development, over nature and the body, over the tragic elements in human life and history." In contrast, the "professional and managerial class" celebrated a "female careerism" as the basis of "their prosperous, glamorous, gaudy, sometimes indecently lavish way of life."

I was still in Rochester in 1994, as an adjunct professor teaching the courses Lasch was scheduled to before he passed away, when I read Revolt. I remember drawing back at numerous passages that felt overburdened, stark, and rushed. The book’s opening line admits that it was "written under trying circumstances." That’s for sure: The man was facing cancer, and his impending death, when he wrote the book, compiling already published essays that constitute the majority of the manuscript.

It pains me that The Revolt of the Elites tops the charts of the Lasch revival lists. Those who turn to it to understand better why the white working class voted for Trump will be disappointed. They’ll discover instead how Lasch saw in the white working class what he wanted to see, turning a whole bloc of people into some sort of imagined, unitary mass.

I’m reminded of the bike rides that brought me to his house, all those expensive items in the yards I pedaled by that seemed to contradict the "virtues" and "limits" that Lasch believed the working class imbibed. Over the years of living in Appalachian Ohio, I’ve met plenty of working-class whites. They’re a mixed bunch, certainly not all the same. But I can tell you that I haven’t met many who think of themselves as carriers of an alternative culture built around humility and limits, or an appreciation of the tragic, and they’re certainly not critics of consumer capitalism. Indeed, when I heard working-class Trump supporters in my own area, they talked mostly about voting for a president who promised economic growth and jobs, jobs, jobs, without any mention of redistributionist politics (often saying they wanted their old coal jobs back). They didn’t like the way Hillary Clinton sounded, and I sometimes thought some of them responded to Trump’s macho act more than anything else, or were enthralled by his blunderbuss campaign, when during rallies they would be allowed, even encouraged, to yell about "jailing the bitch." And I think some of them hated immigrants for supposedly stealing their jobs, and some hated them for being, well, dark-skinned.

You can’t ignore that element, even if you sympathize with people whose families are suffering from declining wages, diabetes, and an opiate epidemic. And Lasch’s critique of consumer culture? Well, those snowmobiles and dirt bikes I pedaled by always spoke more loudly than our study group’s discussions about the virtues of white working-class populism. You can’t make people stand for what they don’t.

Kevin Mattson teaches contemporary history at Ohio University and is the author of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952 (Bloomsbury USA, 2012).