By Tom Robotham
No man is an island, / Entire of itself, / Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main. ~ John Donne
I didn’t watch this year’s Republican convention—I couldn’t stomach the thought—but I did see the opening montage, which celebrated Americans’ “rugged individualism.”
It’s worth considering the implications of this.
Many Americans, I suspect, tend to associate rugged individualism with the settling of the frontier. But the term is not that old. It was actually coined by Herbert Hoover—one year before the start of the Great Depression.
The word “individualism,” by itself, has a slightly longer history. One of the first people to use it in print was Alexis de Tocqueville in his seminal work, Democracy in America, published in 1835. He called it a “recent expression arising out of a new idea” and noted that previous generations “knew only the word ‘egoism.’” He drew a subtle distinction between the two words but worried that individualism, in the long run, would be “subsumed in egoism,” “which shrivels the seed of all virtues” and “impels man to relate everything solely to himself.”
Today, it seems to me, we can safely say that Tocqueville’s concerns were well founded. Consider, for example, how many people still see mask requirements as an infringement on their individual liberty. If they want to take the risk, they insist, that’s their business. The risk they pose to others never even enters the equation.
Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon. Our culture of narcissism began to emerge decades ago. Especially telling is the title of a 1977 bestseller—a self-help book called Looking Out for Number One. To my mind, it reflected a shift in the zeitgeist. The age of self-absorption was dawning. This became more abundantly clear with the election of Ronald Reagan. His supporters saw him as the consummate rugged individualist—never mind that he was an actor. In their eyes he was the kindly frontier marshal, a Matt Dillon for the times, who was getting on in years but could sill outdraw most gunslingers in the territory.
Meanwhile, Reagan advanced the cause of selfishness at every turn, vilifying “welfare queens” and promising to slash every social program imaginable. In response, Wall Street celebrated. Greed was no longer one of the seven deadly sins. It was “healthy” as Ivan Boesky put it. (Boesky was later convicted of insider trading and became the inspiration for the character Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street.)
The embrace of this “philosophy” continued through the 1990s with the rise of the Tea Party. This was a group, after all, that worshipped Ayn Rand, author of a nonfiction book called The Virtue of Selfishness, in addition to her famous novels.
The romance of rugged individualism during this period didn’t always manifest itself as selfishness, of course. But it did continue to tear at our social fabric. I’m reminded, in particular, of the outrage Hillary Clinton sparked in 1996 when she quoted the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” My kids were quite young at the time, and the proverb made perfect sense to me. Their mother and I were raising them in a tight-knit community—a throwback, really, to another era. It was comforting to know that they had neighbors, teachers and other adults looking out for them. But in the minds of many people, Clinton might as well have called for sending all kids off to government-run reeducation camps.
In 2012, President Obama met with a similar backlash when he said that if you own a business “you didn’t build that.” He was right, of course. No one builds a business by himself. The enterprise is utterly dependent upon publicly funded infrastructure, an educated workforce, and the overall health and vitality of the community. But to the Obama haters, these realities didn’t matter. The myth of rugged individualism was far stronger than any facts.
All of this explains the phenomenon of Donald J. Trump—a man elected entirely on the basis of myth. To his supporters, he was not a man who inherited a fortune from his father, then proceeded to squander much of it in one failed venture after another while ripping people off at every turn; he is a self-made billionaire. Moreover, they adore him for speaking his mind, standards of decency be damned. Finally, he talks a lot about himself. Many of us see this for what it is: the pathetic rants of someone who is grossly insecure—but make no mistake: his supporters love it.
The irony here is that while Americans love the idea of individualism, American communities have tended to shun individualists. The Puritans certainly did. And that was just the beginning. The pressure to conform to mainstream values and lifestyles has been powerful ever since.
Authentic individualists, rare as they have been, have always warned us to resist these forces. I’m thinking, in particular, of Emerson in his essay “Self-Reliance,” as well as his protégé, Thoreau, who lamented in Walden that succumbing to conformity causes many people to live lives of “quiet desperation.”
Where we’ve gone off the rails is in allowing the notion of individualism to be subsumed in egoism. In the process, we’ve seen an alarming decline in our sense of community—and indeed even nationhood, all the mindless flag-waving notwithstanding. This decline has been documented in many books—notably Habits of the Heart, by Robert N. Bellah, et al., in 1985, and Robert Putnam, in Bowling Alone, published in 2000.
I suspect there are more recent examples of which I am unaware. But we don’t need a book or a Pew Research study to point this out. Nor do we need to dwell on the anti-maskers. It’s happening all around us in more subtle forms that have been evolving for years. A case in point: Before the pandemic, I routinely went into my bank to make my transactions with a teller. By and large, whenever I mentioned this to anyone, they were shocked. “Really?” one friend said. “I haven’t been inside a bank in years. I do all my banking through the ATM in the drive-thru.” Then, of course, there’s the impact of our personal devices, which are designed to keep us isolated while wrapping us in the illusion that we are socially connected. The fallout from the virus has merely accelerated these trends.
The sad fact is, Trump thrives on all of this. The fragmentation of communities serves him well. But sadder still is that he didn’t cause it. We’ve allowed it to happen. And only we the people can fix it—if, in fact, it can be fixed at all.