How A Steinbeck Novel Foretold Trump’s America
By Beenish Ahmed
This article was produced in collaboration with The Alignist — a site dedicated to bringing works of literature into conversation with current events. Read our first piece from the collaboration, on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and our modern-day rape culture, here.
Ethan Allen Hawley bears a name that rings with prestige — but in his case, it’s prestige lost.
Hawley’s father “singlehandedly” swindled away the family fortune before he came of age. When we meet the 38-year-old New Englander in John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, we meet a man unable to recoup the losses, even though he earned the rank of Captain in the Second World War and studied at Harvard, where he “luxuriated in languages, bathed in the humanities.” He clerks in a grocery store that his family used to own — hence the discontent.
Hawley’s efforts to rectify his place in society and offer his family what he enjoyed as a child leads him from a single bribe to chilling betrayal. He lends his old pal Danny Taylor $1,000 of his wife’s money, ostensibly to get Taylor off the streets and sober — except he’s too far gone for that. When Taylor turns up dead from alcohol poisoning, Hawley turns out to have two bits of paper — a deed. Hawley gets the dead man’s valuable family land, and gets to keep up his pretenses when the town consoles him about the loss of his friend.
Hawley similarly disguises his sinister intentions when he learns that the town grocery store owner, Alfio Marullo, is an undocumented immigrant. He turns his boss in to Immigration Services, but only after he earns his favor. That way, nothing seems awry when Hawley buys the store on the cheap once Marullo is deported.
Written in the wake of the flagrant and largely xenophobic allegations of treason by Senator Joe McCarthy, the novel remains a mirror for our times.
The story is marked by the same sort of nationalism that has been given pride of place on the electoral stage. At the close of the first black president’s tenure, there has been a heightening of hate. The staggering reinvigoration of white supremacy — let’s call it like it is — is a response to what some commentators have observed as a pushback against President Obama as a symbol for racial advancement. The racist underpinnings of Trump’s campaign were, for some, a way to set back the “rightful” order of this country — you know, to “make America great again.”
“If you’ve been dealing with privilege, then equality feels like oppression,” Chenjerai Kumanyika, a professor of communication studies at Clemson University, said on NPR’s CodeSwitch podcast.
That sense of losing ground can trigger a response that Robin DiAngelo, a professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University, has dubbed “white fragility.” As she describes it in a paper on the topic:
“White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.”
It’s this sort of fragility that drives Hawley’s actions in Steinbeck’s classic tome. He is a man desperate to resume what he believes to be his rightful standing in society — a course of action that drives him to push aside those who he thinks have gotten in his way.
His first target is his Italian boss, Marullo.
When Marullo scolds Hawley for chopping off too much of the cauliflower (“Cauliflower is by weight. You’re throwing money in the garbage”) and allowing customers to purchase on credit (“What’s ‘good for it?’ It ties up money”), Ethan starts to question the man’s ethics — and compromise some of his own.
Since the store used to belong to Hawley’s family, he feels a certain claim to it, even though he’s no more than a clerk. That sense of rightful ownership is reminiscent of the vague fears so many white Americans have about immigrants taking away “their” jobs — even though low-skilled Americans don’t actually want the jobs immigrants are eager to take.
Hawley’s response to his boss’ comments suggests he knows better how to manage the store — all because of his longer lineage in the U.S.:
“You listen to me . . . Hawleys have been living here since the middle seventeen hundreds. You’re a foreigner, you wouldn’t know about that. We’ve been getting along with our neighbors and being decent all that time. If you think you can barge in from Sicily and change that, you’re wrong.”
When Marullo counters with his family’s even more storied lineage in Rome, Ethan reminds him, “You didn’t come from here.” This might also be read as a reminder of the fact that Italians weren’t always considered white.
It’s through this exchange that Hawley begins to see his boss not as a person, but as a stereotype — an “immigrant, guinea, fruit-peddler.” Having his work called into question is enough of an insult to injure Hawley’s fragile ego, and to cause him to act out his “white fragility.” It’s enough to make Hawley question Marullo’s right to exist in America — long before he even knows about his boss’s undocumented status.
Marullo reminds Hawley that his family wasn’t from America either before 200 years ago. The charge only causes him to redouble his claim to this country.
Donald Trump has similarly circled the wagons around those who “come from here” against those who are demonized for everything from “taking our jobs” to raping women and trafficking drugs. When threatened, Trump acts much like Hawley: He attacks the right to an American identity by those who don’t belong to a historical fantasy of a white America.
Although he has lambasted immigrants and called for “extreme vetting” of those who wish to enter this country, he has conveniently neglected to mention that his own mother was an immigrant from Scotland. Despite having led a charge calling for President Obama to “prove” his citizenship, Trump has shot back at anyone who has brought up his own family history. Hawley, too, feels he has earned his right to call himself an American, while newer entrants have not.
There’s another chilling parallel here, too: Angry that an immigrant is profiting from American dollars, Hawley sells out his boss. And albeit allegorically, Trump is similarly guilty of “selling out” immigrants for his own gains.
The majority of Americans believe that immigrants are hard-working and law-abiding, but one-third of Trump supporters say they are less hard-working and honest than U.S. citizens, and 50% believe they’re more likely to commit serious crimes. Two-thirds of Trump supporters say immigration is a “very big problem,” while only 17% of those who support Hillary Clinton believe that to be the case. In his promises to crack down on immigration, Trump appeals to an issue he knows is central to his largely white, male, and relatively poor fan base.
Trump’s not the first Republican to tap into the anxieties low-income Americans have about immigration — and John Steinbeck’s apt novel makes a point of that, too. In The Winter of our Discontent, Steinbeck makes a reference to the 1960s presidential campaign in which Richard Nixon deployed similar tactics. Nixon decried “cities enveloped in smoke and flame” in a speech he gave just after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Trump has similarly blamed Black Lives Matter for “dividing America,” instead of acknowledging the racial profiling and police brutality that gave rise to the movement.
Trump has routinely evoked Nixon’s signature appeal to “law and order.” As Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, has pointed out, “These were code words for racism and suppression of the radical student left.” It’s largely the same for Trump, although the radical student left could now be equated to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Trump based his presidential bids on an appeal to Nixon’s concept of a “silent majority.” This group is the quiet, law-abiding, tax-paying, hard-working types whose privileges are questioned by those who loudly protest for the equal treatment they (read: immigrants, blacks, LGBT folks) have yet to enjoy. The two Republicans’ campaign strategies were so similar that some political pundits have cited Nixon as the reason for Trump’s still shocking ascendance.
Jeet Heer argued as much, writing:
“In light of this polling, Trump’s campaign can best be understood not as an outlier but as the latest manifestation of the Southern Strategy, which the Republican Party has deployed for a half-century to shore up its support in the old Confederate states by appeals to racial resentment and white solidarity.”
Nixon appealed to a lingering white supremacist sensibility through subtle contestation of white Americans’ loss of privilege and power through the civil rights movement. According to Ian Hanley-Lopez, author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, there was “a roughly equal commitment of both parties to racial progress” before Nixon’s first presidential bid. After that, the GOP locked down dominance in the South — and became what he’s called “the white man’s party.”
In other words, Nixon laid the groundwork for a figure like Trump to rise to such heights within the Republican party.
John F. Kennedy emerged triumphant in 1960, just as Clinton is likely to do on Tuesday. Still, in the novel, Steinbeck noted the larger impact of Nixon’s efforts to capitalize on the worst fears of the worst off. The shift was made clear in the character of Hawley, whose discontent with his lost fortune turns to anger — and then to action.
According to Steinbeck, a similar wave of emotion swept over the entire country in the era of Nixon. Toward the end of the novel, Steinbeck shares Hawley’s thoughts on the matter:
“This year of 1960 was a year of change, a year when secret fears come into the open, when discontent stops being dormant and changes gradually to anger. It wasn’t only in me or in New Baytown. Presidential nominations would be coming up soon and in the air the discontent was changing to anger and with the excitement anger brings. And it wasn’t only the nation; the whole world stirred with restlessness and uneasiness as discontent moved to anger and anger tried to find an outlet in action, any action so long as it was violent — Africa, Cuba, South America, Europe, Asia, the Near East, all restless as horses at the barrier.”
That discontent has fueled anger — and Trump’s popularity — is barely worth mentioning. But anger isn’t something that can be capped so easily. His refusal to recognize individual sexism or systemic racism paired with his calls for wars and walls are wildfires that will continue to smoke after the ballots are counted. Such vitriolic statements have given permission for further vitriol.
As Edward Weeks wrote in a 1961 review of The Winter of Our Discontent, Hawley’s “gradual debasement . . . is absorbing and rather shocking to watch. It all happens so effortlessly.”
The same can be said of Trump.