'Deer Hunting with Jesus' is an evocative title and highlights two of a half dozen values held by the poor U.S. white underclass, whose voting patterns confound most liberals.
However, Joe Bageant, a journalist and author of 'Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War' wrote his book in 2007 nine years before Donald Trump rode this group to the presidency, putting it front and centre, like never before. It was also before wealth disparity was a prominent conflict. It seems a little surprising it was written so long ago, a dozen years.
Bageant's well articulated and graphic expose is of a culture and values he grew up with and is now revisiting after escaping it three decades earlier. He returns with an education and the package of liberal values, but still retains sympathy and an understanding of why his people are the way they are.
His anger manifesting itself in a swashbuckling image laden style, while enjoyable, at times is almost too rich. He frequently tirades into social commentary on the U.S. lifestyle system as a whole....”overspent and overfed throng”.
He takes us to Winchester, Virginia the town where he grew up during the 1950s and 60s. He lets us see the life and culture through the eyes of real life characters he portrays. Most are poor, proud and just hanging on. A few are rich, but all are provincial and few, outside of the professionals are educated or value the knowledge that comes from it.
His main quandary as a writer is “that the people trust me not to make fools of them.”
“The area is solidly fundamentalist Christian and neoconservative, steeped in the gloomy ultra-Protestant assumption that man is an evil, worthless thing from birth and goes downhill from there.”
The people are aware of “an America that has gone downhill” giving meaning to “make America great again”. The avenues of escape are “alcohol, Jesus and overeating”.
They are a slice of the working class, but not the segment in the north where wages might be higher and unions still have a little pull. Class is more about power than income or education.
“Never experiencing the life of the mind scars people for generations,” is the way he characterizes the intellectual barrenness.
Bageant says they “kid themselves that they are middle class” because of pride and believing the “national lie that most Americans are middle class.” He calls them ”the bottom third of Americans constituting the unacknowledged working-class poor, conservative, politically misinformed or oblivious and patriotic to their own detriment.” They are growing in number and getting poorer and in a dead end cultural ghetto.
And they believe their economic fortunes are what they deserve, so shun “handouts” and vote accordingly.
While they may have more electronic gadgets and new cars, they are faring worse in quality of life and security than three decades ago, he says.
And the more comfortable style of the true liberal and conservative middle class, he says, is dependent on these “underpaid, undereducated and overworked.”
“By the time my people hit sixty, we look like a bunch of hypertensive red-faced toads in a phlegm-coughing contest” and are unhealthier than they look.
While they have fuelled “right wing revolution” they are the least likely to revolt in dissent, he adds. If there is a class war it is not between wealth and poverty, but between educated and uneducated, he adds.
He says such communities are seen as “investment paradises” and “that means low taxes, few or no local regulations, no unions and a chamber of commerce tricked out like a gaggle of hookers, welcoming the new nonunion, air-poisoning factory”.
“The operating Christian principle is that one should always kick people when they are down__it gives them incentive to get up.”
Bageant has a chapter 'Republicans by default'. Some companies don't have to go to Mexico or China to get the circumstances they want and can “scarf on our cheap, ass-busting, antiunion redneck labour force.” Some characterized it as “dependability and unquestionable work ethic.” It did lose the textile jobs.
“My people don't cite real facts. They recite what they have absorbed from the atmosphere. Theirs is an intellectual life consisting of things that sound right, a blend of modern folk wisdom, cliche, talk radio and Christian radio babble.”
Among the “shameful entitlements” are universal health care, universal education, paid parental leave, affordable housing, unemployment compensation, food stamps and Head Start.”
And for the politically attuned “its about stories that sound right, political narratives that resonate without much effort or thought.” “And it is made easier by life so constant and desperate that there is neither time nor experience to deal with political complexity.”
And the difference between a “redneck” and “white trash” is that the former won't accept a handout and the latter will. For a redneck lazy is the worst thing to be.
And people may not vote Republican because they are Republican, it is by default and a member of a certain caste...lower working class, southern, high school educated and fundamentalist Christian. Voting patterns may also be determined by how their supervisors vote and a desire to curry favour.
Talk radio most of the day is where they get their political knowledge. Bageant says the influence of Fox TV is overrated. He suggests that in 1994 had the Democrats been more sympathetic and tried hard to understand the people they may have had a chance to secure that vote.
The Republicans, he says, appealed to religious prejudice and ignorance “on behalf of big money.” “Nothing else holds us together politically except fear.” “There is also a certainty that it is better to be Americans than anything else, even if we can't prove why.”
He says the everyday lives of Republicans are woven into the fabric of the community in a way it hasn't been with Democrats since the great depression.
And rather than being resented, wealth is seen as proof of God's love.
The neoconservatives, he says can't do away with the most popular government program...... “social security”, but aim for the next best thing claim the government bureaucracy is inefficient and it should be privatized.
Working people don't talk much about politics, but resentment is festering inflamed by daily insults from employers, government and more educated Americans.
He says the working class likes cheap gas and post Christmas and Thanksgiving sales, but would go for fascism if the gas was cheap and there was a 24-hour NFL channel. They also want NASCAR, no married queers or trigger locks on guns. And he says this is the product of a system that abuses them.
In an obsessively religious nation, values remain “the most effective smokescreen for larceny by the rich and hatred and fear by the rest.”
Bageant said he is seeing more hate now than when he grew up there in the Jim Crow era. Great concern for war dead is one of the “biggest media myths”.
Trump's 'make American great again' reflects a realization that it is less great and now some of these people realize it. The new terms of discrimination are all economic ...homes, vacations and private education, most especially homes and where you live.
He points out that many of the working class were raised in house trailers (mobul hawm) and see nothing wrong with this lifestyle. However, most trailer parks have been replaced by 'modular homes'.
The apparently comfortable, with several high interest credit cards, could be homeless in a month, he adds. The modular homes are usually worth less than the principle owed, he adds.
Most of the people have little idea of the changes in the world or how unsustainable their apparently, more-stuff-lifestyle, suggests.
He summarizes the nitty gritty of the U.S. economy as “The McMansion folks with their unheated foyers and 5,000 sq. ft. master suites and 'too big to mow too small to plow yards' are at least as dependent on two whomp-ass incomes as Joe Sixpack is on the wifey's part time gig driving a school bus.” “We have now eaten our seed crop in our spiralling consumerism.”
Personal freedom has come to mean gun ownership and buying and squirreling away more meaningless junk. And of all the divisive issues, he says, gun ownership is the one that “touches the lives of most heartland voters”. And most don't own handguns.
And guns were never thrown away or sold, unless desperate. People without links to this culture and their integral part in this life can't understand it, he adds. It is also linked to their religion, both having served them over two centuries of living here. He speaks of sincerity and commitment to values of patriotism, involved in dieing and killing for the country.
Few, he says, grasp that there are other countries in the world or other value systems. A majority of working class Americans subscribe to the value “ain't been nowhere and don't care to go”.
And there is resentment of “city people, educated people who win and control while the rest of us work and lose.”
Studies suggest, says Bageant, that self-protection guns actually do protect the owners. As many as two million may avoid becoming victims because of their guns.
He does suggest that the U.S. has a violent culture that doesn't exist in Europe. “A “warrior psyche” is the way he put it. Despite seemingly angry unstable people carrying weapons there are surprisingly few shootings and everyday gun safety.
Independent fundamentalist churches often have members of the clergy “who came up through the ranks, usually poorly educated, though like most Americans, they do not see themselves that way.” Lack of a broad education is not noticed by the congregations who have different standards of education.
U.S. polls, he says, suggest that one quarter to one third of the population see themselves as born again evangelicals and also see themselves as “mainstream”. The are largely white, working class with high school educations. They support any and all wars and death of their children in them a martyrdom, he adds.
The strength of these churches have pushed the more orthodox protestant churches to the right.
They are good cogs in the wheels of anti-union business and military with great deference to authority. They erroneously think they are better off than their parents. And their religion guides a complete lifestyle.
And the hardcore favour biblical law, that may seem reminiscent of what we hear about Sharia law in crimes and penalties. They (evangelical churches) are one of the few well functioning social structures in the U.S. and is part of a global revival in fundamentalism. Government influence is one of their motivations as these church attenders moved into law, police, banks and military as “faith-based force multipliers” for God's coming Christian rule, says Bageant. American Christianity is growing darker and more blood-oriented in recent decades.
While they are aware of a pivotal point in history, says Bageant, they see it as Satan or demons afoot in the world. Bageant is concerned by an approaching “tri-horned fascism__part Christian, part military, part corporate.”
To himself “well rejoice, old man, because your tribes have gathered around America's oldest magical hairball of ignorance and superstition, Christian fundamentalism, and their numbers have enabled them to suck so much oxygen out of the political atmosphere that they are now acknowledged as a mainstream force in politics.” They have been manipulated in politics since the Reagan years.
Religious belief is the most obvious class indicator in the U.S. and they are lower and working class.
The confluence is a “uniquely American form of ignorance”. “Nobody can stop ignorant people from having ignorant fun and spectacle.” NASCAR is mentioned in the same breath.
On the upside, however much he is a black sheep politically and spiritually in his family, they still love him and have his back. Although with nothing to talk about, he is still invited to Thanksgiving.
“When I look at the fundamentalists I know personally, I see many kind, brave and hardworking people, embodying all those things an American is supposed to be.”
From a future perspective, he sees fundamentalism with growing influence as a dark time we got through or “one shudders to think of the outcome.” He calls it a “dangerous mass psychology”.
He said liberals have lost the skill of grassroots organization and the will and the Republicans have them.
Another element Bageant introduces is the ethnic heritage of the people. He describes them as Scots Irish (Ulster Scots) adding the element of 'borderer' suggesting the fierce, religious war loving people. The most famous “borderer” is best represented by William Wallace of 'The Braveheart' story. He even mentions him in parallel with George W. Bush.
He points to the predisposition to go into the military and adds that 16 U.S.presidents come from that group.
The culture, he says, has a “strange mixture of working class violence and Presbyterian piety”. He adds that these cultural values “govern the political emotions of millions of Americans to this day”.
Bageant recites a litany of unflattering characteristics he attributes to this group in America.
He draws a line between Scots-Irish culture and the “paternalistic ivy-league-centred, media connected, politically correct power centres”.
“We (Scots Irish) will never agree with anyone from outside our zone of ignorance because our belligerent 'border pride' insists on the right to be dangerously wrong about everything while telling those who are more educated to “Bite my ass”.”
They have “remained useful to the rich and politically ambitious”. And they “can be counted on for bellicose objection to such government oppression as health care for the poor, equitable taxation of the rich, fair labour practices, seat belts and environmental laws.”
“A good war is where we truly shine, where God, patriotism, glory and mayhem come together.”
He points out that this group does the dirty work for which the Liberals benefit more materially than the Scots/Irish.
And the “high gloss of murderous piety is useful to the military establishment”.
He points out that bankruptcy is most commonly caused by medical bills for the uninsured and getting from 60 to 65 when medicaid kicks in the hardest for these people.
“America's much-touted prosperity surges miss more Americans than they hit, though you'd never know it to read the newspapers.”
On another key element, about half of the adult population of the U.S. is functionally illiterate. Many, because of their confinement within their culture, don't realize it is a disadvantage. They don't function in society, but they can in the economy.
Many, he says, are antiunion, pro-death penalty and pro-war until it hits their wallets. “This is America where greed is christened 'drive' and is deemed a virtue.” But progress is limited no matter how good the economy is and how much stuff we own.”
His last chapter, “American Hologram” criticizes the insular nature of the U.S. and reliance on economic performance as the only measure of success, and chastises the media for bolstering these values. Neither political party comes off looking good, the Republicans maybe worse.
Many rely for validation on Hollywood myths, imperial myths and melting-pot myths. However, the illusions lead to “approximately happy people”.