Daytona 500 is the highlight of the Nascar racing season. A glorification of bravery, speed and engine noise. Outside the stadium aspiring preachers stand ready with megaphones. The people waiting In line are warned against the dangers of liquor and sex. There is much talk of cheeses – which strikes me as odd, since Florida is not a dairy state. After a few minutes, I realize that they are talking about Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
People in line are not taking it in silence, they are shouting back funny one-libers and foul curses. The United States is in the midst of a string of demographic changes. In the population as a whole, according to the United States Census Bureau, white Americans are still in the majority in 49 of the 50 states. But whites have low birth rates. White Americans born after 2007 are in the minority, the largest minority.
The queue at Daytona shows America before globalization. There are about 10 percent blacks is in the rest of the population, while the rest are – as far as I can see – white Americans. Most wearing baseball caps, many with the word “Murica” at the front., I don’t understand what it means and ask a passer-by. He replies, “Am-murrica!”
American flags are everywhere. Daytona is also a patriotic ritual. The book Hillbilly Elegy (2016) by J. D. Vance describes the white working class’s association with God and the Fatherland as identity markers: “Mamaw [grandmother] always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew. “
This year President Trump opens the Daytona 500. He reminds us that “NASCAR Fans Never Forget That No Matter Who Wins the Race, What Matters Most is God, Family and Country” He talks about the soldiers who have sacrificed their lives to “defend our country and our flag.” Every other sentence is met with rapturous applause.
In her book, Vance points out that church attendance continues to decline among the white working class and that the divorce rates in this community are among the highest in the United States. Only in France and Sweden are children more often exposed to mothers with three or more cohabiting partners. Nevertheless, they cheer unabated.
Trump ends by telling drivers that they must now drive “For 500 heart-pounding miles” around the track and compete for “the pure American glory.” As he finishes off the with a presidential “God Bless America”, the 100,000 spectators respond with USA! USA! USA !, while jet fighters fly by in formation.
Trump has clearly come to his own base, and he is taking a round on the track in a black limousine the everyone keeps telling each other is known as “The Beast.” Behind the president, the race cars fall into line. The drivers have names like Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Tyler Reddick and Bubba Wallace Jr.
American patriotism is very different from the European versions. It is more boastful and more Anglo-Protestant are we to believe Harvard professor Samuel Huntington. He does not buy into the United States being ‘a nation of immigrants’, not in the cultural sense. In the book Who Are We? he writes: “Would the United States be the country that it has been and that it largely remains today if it had been settled in the 17th and 18th centuries not by British Protestants but by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics? The answer is clearly no. It would not be the United States; it would be Quebec, Mexico, or Brazil. “
Huntington believes that later immigrants have assimilated to the unique blend of British culture and Protestant values. White Americans’ ownership of the nation is expressed by actor Matt Damon in the role of Edward Wilson in the movie The Good Shepherd (2006):
Joseph Palmi: Let me ask you something… we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish, they have the homeland, Jews their tradition; even the [blacks], they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have? Wilson: The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.
Cognitive class society
Nascar is a bit quirky. The cars are near identical, and they drive around and around an oval. Whoever starts at pole position when the race starts has every chance of winning and positions in the daisy chain behind them rarely seem to change. Every time they pass, it sounds as if they are breaking the sound barrier.
Noisy and rigged. It could be a metaphor for a US claiming that “anyone can become president” but where socio-economic mobility is low. Since 1980, Americans moved less up or down from one social or economic one class to the other. Mobility is lower than in Scandinavia.
The book Coming Apart: The State of White America (2012) by Charles Murray is a modern classic. Murray argues that faith, work ethic and family still stand as core values among the American upper class, while these values have been weakened among the lower class where divorces, unemployment and godlessness are common.
For Murray, people with a high intelligence ratio are the most fortified in the top tier of society because cognitive ability is the surest indicator of productivity. Clever people marry other clever people and have clever children. He sees the contours of a class society based on intelligence and bolstered by deep cultural divisions.
The Daytona tickets are expensive. For 350 dollars kroner my ten-year-old son and I get two of the cheapest seats at the end. I look around. I don’t see any of the college logos that educated Americans wear on T-shirts, baseball caps or sweatshirts to separate themselves from the non-educated.
I wonder how people can afford it all. A hot dog e and a beer costs $ 15. The minimum wage is $ 7,5 an hour. Hillbilly Elegy describes a culture in which the insolvent behaves as if they were wealthy. In Vance’s family it was quite normal to buy status symbols they cannot afford.
The U.S. credit card debt is at nearly a billion dollars. One million million dollars. High interest rates and fees mean that a great many will remain indebted to the day they die. Usury is a part of the life of a large portion of the population.
A shirtless young man, chiselled as an Abercrombie model, edges across the chair row in front of us. He is tipsy and happy while embracing a plump nephew. He has the number 5 written on his tanned back. “I’m just so happy to be here. I can’t believe it. Yesterday I was in jail. High five!”
Behind us a woman screams “Donald F¤¤¤¤¤ Trump! Ten more years! ” She is as tattooed as a barista and drunk. She shouts the same thing over and over until her voice fails. No one tells her that Trump can only be elected for four more years. When she finally runs out of voice, the man next to her is heard muttering, “I’m not stepping on your toes, why are you stepping on mine?”
Despite the much cheer, the atmosphere is not very cordial. It’s not like a football match in Europe. People are polite but they don’t smile at each other. A guy behind us salutes the flag. The sore toes asks if he has been a soldier. “Yes sir. Two tours in Afghanistan.” The grumpy man becomes somewhat friendlier, thanking for the service and adding regretfully that he did not get the chance himself because of some ailment that is drowned-out by the engine noise.
One-night cheap hotels
A few drops of rain fall and the race is interrupted. For half an hour, the track is dried with giant versions of the blow-dryers otherwise found in public toilets. My son asks why they can’t race, just because the track is a bit damp and I ask myself the same question.
I assume that a slippery course would introduce an element of unpredictability. Given that the Nascar race is an American national sport, it is astonishingly un-American. Since its peak in 2005, it has also seen a gradual decline in the number of TV viewers and live audiences. It seems that Trump is the magnet this year.
As the course dries, the commentator takes the opportunity to thank “a couple of guys” who have made it all possible. He thanks the friends at Coca Cola, Circle K and General Tires, as if they were local stores that had chipped so that the village could have a nice parade.
To pay 350 dollars only to be drowned in commercials is rude. It is the rudest thing I’ve seen since the Cambridge-Oxford Boat Race where Accenture had hired a barge that deprived ten thousand people on the banks any view so that their clients could watch the free event from up-close.
Finally the race begins in earnest. The race cars are in line, one after the other, and pass at such a high speed that you can’t turn your head fast enough to follow them as they rush past. Bumper to bumper and a few inches from the concrete barrier, they drive at 170 miles per hour. It is fantastic.
Then it rains again. Heavy tropical drops, for Florida is far south. This time the race is cancelled and the crowd files out after only 20 laps. From the loudspeakers the commentators are shrilly and incessantly thanking Coca Cola. The mood of the crowd has turned decidedly edgy, and my son gets to his first real fight between two grown men; they are fighting over money.
Florida is a microcosm of the United States – flashy affluence along the coast, sidewalks so clean that you picknick on them, European cars and how-may-I-be-of-time assistance. The hinterland is a completely different place with weeds in front of the houses, a lot of shorts and tattoos. It’s a southern state where y’all fits in in every sentence.
Sam Baker’s cinematic masterpiece The Florida Project is about poor whites living in the run-down motels around Disney World in Orlando, about children growing up in the shadow of the American dream. It is sad, touching and true, convincingly true.
While my wife and kids are at Disney World, I drive around to the places where the movie was filmed. Disney has been criticized for paying lower wages than the cost of food and rent in the local community. The motels in the shadow of “the magical kingdom” are characterized by American poverty. Lacking everything, except material comforts.
Majority of minorities
The Democrats should win the upcoming presidential election. The American party has the journalists, the universities and the minorities. The American population is becoming less white, less religious and less middle class. That should make Republicans an endangered species. Scholarly books were written in the early 2000s that mass immigration of low-skilled Latin Americans, Africans and Asians would soon create a “minority majority” for the Democratic Party.
Thins turned out to be more complicated. Many minorities dislike each other more than the “white man”, which is the sum of all injustice in the minority-majority worldview. It is also confusing that Democrats in all likelihood will choose a white man as their presidential candidate. The second problem is that the Democratic Party has failed to take in that much of the United States had a hard time under Obama. For many Americans, the Obama years are not the lost paradise the TV hosts imagine; it was the death of small towns, sweeping job losses and drug epidemics.
Trump’s biggest advantage is that many Democrats seem to be willing to trade wage rises, a better job market and a greater willingness to take up the battle with the pharmaceutical industry for a nicer tone. They do not seem to understand that the erosion of the middle class has made the United States more edgy and more vulgar.
There is something else too. Different schools of political scientists have different views on what ultimately motivate voters. Thus, the Chicago School believes that economic self-interests are the best predictor of voting. This may help explain why Bernie Sanders, “the great redistributor,” has enjoyed a great deal of support.
Two years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting of Minnesota’s Norwegian-American Democrats, debating what sort of candidate was needed beat Trump. Over four hours they narrowed it down to: A white man with a popular touch from the interior of the United States, preferably from a red state, but with as little Washington experience as possible.
They were describing Peter Buttigieg. “Mayor Pete” certainly has a presidential resume with both Harvard and Rhodes scholarships. He had worked for Goldman Sachs before selflessly putting his effort into saving his neglected hometown of South Bend, Indiana. He has even been a soldier in Afghanistan for a whole six months. In his stump speech he said he had been “outside the wire” 119 times.
It sounds more dangerous than it was, and he was apparently only a driver in Kabul and did not see any action. The US Army did not count the trips, but he did. It’s almost as if he dipped his toes in the war in order to be able to tell about it in a political speech. As if to confirm that Buttigieg is exceptionally clever, it is emphasized that he speaks six foreign languages. Including my native Norwegian, who have learned to read the author Erlend Loe in the original language.
This is intellectually suspicious. You may learn Norwegian in order to read Knut Hamsun or Karl Ove Knausgaard. But Erlend Loe? Loe is the exponent of “literary naivism” – his books are cartoonish, filled with useless men and ironic futility. It is the sort of books that appeal to people who don’t read books.
Does Buttigieg speak Norwegian? The answer came during an election campaign in Las Vegas, where an enthusiastic man among the audience asked him, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” in Norwegian. Buttigieg’s facial expression is priceless, like when an Englishman is asked to say something in French. Eventually he says, in an indescribable tone of voice: “What happened in Vegas must be there.”
One might think that Norwegians would be the first to point out Buttigieg’s lack of language proficiency. But no. We Norwegians are so proud that a candidate for the world’s most powerful office speaks Norwegian, that we are all willing to disregard that Buttigieg’s knowledge of Norwegian obviously does not come close to speaking the language. It may seem cruel to mention this, but there is a point.
In American popular culture, the importance of intelligence is often exaggerated. In films, people from elite universities are in many cases incredibly smart, they master dozens of languages, retrieve vital information from impossible amounts of text and can calculate as fast as Rain Man. As well as saving unlikely move plots, this also legitimizes the cognitive hierarchy of a US where intelligence is rewarded higher than sweat and where Harvard students are portrayed as the sort of superhumans that learn a new language just to read a single book.
Buttigieg threw in the towel after the South Carolina primary. He then endorsed Joe Biden. Cynics might think his real goal was to get enough support to barter for himself a central position in a democrat administration, perhaps even vice president if the Democrats were to win the November presidential election. This is not unlikely. The corona-shut down may well be followed by an economic crisis that will hit America’s indebted middle class hard. All they needed was a plausible candidate.
Buttigieg withdrew at the same time with several other Democratic candidates. Now only Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are left. They are 78 and 77 years old respectively. One has problems with memory, the other with heart. They both had their formative years in the 1970s. Democrats have yet to choose between a Clinton-era relic and an American Socialist. And once again, Bernie will lose. We are heading for a re-election of the 2016 presidential election. Democrats apparently did not learn much from their defeat back then.
Published in The American Interest 01.04-2020