The Cultural Roots of Trumpism

President Donald Trump's occasional unfiltered coarse cloudbursts belie a man who is enormously joyful, having an abundance of entertaining good humor easily expressed, fairly shared.  Trump is having a ball, for good reasons.

Trump's first year as president may have been the most extraordinary since the 1840s.  While Trump has disrupted almost all presidential governance and communication norms, his tenure so far has produced capital market gains of some $7 trillion, spreading investment wealth to millions of regular Joes and Marys, while tax cuts have already distributed $3 billion in bonuses and wage hikes to over 2 million workers and counting.

The Trump-inspired American economic revival, accompanied by a cultural earthquake in newfound respect, self-esteem, and optimism for working-class citizens, rural and urban – ignored and maligned since the industrial heartland was eviscerated in the 1980s – matches the economic and territorial expansions under presidents John Tyler and James Polk.

Westward expansion, Manifest Destiny, abetted by industrial innovation from the telegraph to steam engines to sewing machines, ushered in the longest economic growth period in American history – 1841 to 1859.

The 1840s also propelled the American Renaissance in literature and art.  The fabulous Hudson River School of landscape painting, originating around 1825, spawned two major shifts in the 1840s: landscapes capturing Easterners' imagination about the West and illustrations of people in everyday scenes with the Americana backdrops.  Perhaps the best practitioner of the new genre was George Caleb Bingham, portrait painter and politician, who lived most of his life in Missouri.

Bingham captured the heart of the American spirit – a mix of personal liberty and economic fortunes – in his iconic 1846 painting, "The Jolly Flatboatmen," now owned by and usually on display at the National Gallery of Art.

NGA director Rusty Powell says The Jolly Flatboatmen is " the most important genre painting in American history."

No one knows whether Bingham's boatmen, dancing and luxuriating on the deck of a river flatboat barge loaded with furs, bolts of cloth, and other premium cargo, are floating downstream on the upper Missouri or Mississippi.  The exact topography doesn't matter; the image conveying understated exuberance is infectious.

The solitary fiddler, the frying pan-tambourine man, and the other boatmen could have been figures drawn by Caravaggio, inviting the viewer to join in the moment, to take a seat on the hand-hewn oar or on top of the chicken coop – no more, no less.

Bingham's clarity of purpose matches his clarity of brushstrokes.  The viewer's angle could be from a small river skiff, such as a Mackinaw boat.  The closest boatman bemused at our attention seems contented enough, despite his toes sticking out from the welt of his shoe.  The slightly impish man in the Quaker wide-awake hat, alongside the steering-oarsman, looks self-satisfied, confident, and prosperous enough.

Franklin Kelly, curator at the NGA, said this about "The Jolly Flatboatmen":

It's very democratic.  These are working people; they're wearing their ordinary clothes – tattered – but they're having a good time.  It's that notion of a democratic art in a democratic society.

Donald Trump, the NYC luxury high rise-builder, should be the most unlikely populist egalitarian.  Yet Trump would be at home with the jolly flatboatmen.  These are the people who built the nation, unmolested by a suffocating federal government.  By 1846, only Missouri and Iowa among the Missouri River territories had been admitted to the Union.

People of the frontier, anyplace west of the Appalachians, in the 1840s were tamers of the wilderness.  Life could be nasty, brutish, and short, as wrote Hobbes in another century.  Yet endurance, calculated risk-taking, commercial cleverness, and even desperation produced American pragmatism, and exeptionalism.

These are Hillary Clinton's deplorables.  These are the Walmart shoppers.  These are the truck-drivers, machine tool-operators, steamfitters, and grocery aisle shelf-stockers.  These are the diverse line-up of Trump voters in Youngstown, Ohio, who stunned CNN about a week ago with their full-throated approval of Trump's first year.

Bingham, the painter, was no stranger to the imperfect, messy features of frontier and small-town democracy. He dabbled in politics as a Missouri state senator and Missouri treasurer, among other statewide offices.

In his "The County Election" (St. Louis Museum of Art), Bingham displays both porcelain and pockmarks on the faces of a remarkable collection of backgrounds and temperaments, where each vote is equal, the outcome accepted.

There are four sweeping themes occupying American socio-economic history: westward expansion, slavery, immigration, and industrialization.  These themes have a common narrative: labor and natural resources.  The narrative about labor invokes contradictory notions about liberty and submission.  Moreover, the history of the American people is a complex saga of bloodshed for freedom from authoritarian tyranny, repudiation of an aristocracy to assure equality of opportunity, and the yearning for self-sufficiency and dignity.

The delivery of socio-economic justice, ameliorating the worst excesses within the labor narrative, has always been through the gifts of fertile land, "the fruited plain," an abundance of natural resources.  The "peoples' history," expropriated by deconstructive historians using disingenuous storylines of labor oppression and subjugation, is really about rivers, harbors, timber, cotton, corn, wheat, coal, oil, and iron ore.  Ships, sails, barges, mills, machines, furnaces, coke and coal, iron, steel, rails and roads, steam engines, trucks, tractors, and airplanes – this is the stuff of nation-building, prosperity, and empire – and ultimate redemption.

Donald Trump gets it.  There are no Democrats remaining who get it.  No one should underestimate Trump's legion of Jolly Flatboatmen who freely voted for their self-interest and can now dance to their own tune, all because of Donald Trump.