Eighty years ago, Wash Jones appeared as a minor character in William Faulkner’s masterpiece on American identity and self-invention, Absalom, Absalom! From a craft perspective Jones was put in for a purpose: to demonstrate the role that white working-class men played in maintaining white supremacy among the wealthiest people in America before the Civil War, the Southern plantation class.
In the now canonical work, the protagonist Thomas Sutpen is born poor, white, and whose tragic quality is his supposed “innocence,” his discovery that “the ingredients of morality” were not “like the ingredients of pie or cake and once you had measured them and balanced them and mixed them and put them into the oven it was all finished.” Instead, he discovers that morality was built on “the shifting sands of opportunism and moral brigandage.” He is born in 1808 in what will become West Virginia, “where the only colored people were Indians…where he lived the land belonged to anybody and everybody.” Sutpen inhabits a landscape and a perspective that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to Cliven Bundy.
Young Sutpen learns a life lesson when he must deliver a message to a plantation and is sent around back by a black servant – a “monkey nigger,” in Sutpen’s casually racist internal language of the time. The moment is not one of affront or grief, but of a wake-up call. From this awareness, he creates his now infamous “Sutpen’s design” to acquire wealth and join the elite by building a plantation on the Mississippi frontier. But he cannot do it alone, and he enlists a local white, Wash Jones, a “gaunt gangling man malaria-ridden” to run his plantation and whose fate will become inextricably bound with Sutpen’s vision.
Something similar happened last Tuesday when America elected Donald Trump, another megalomaniac who over the last decade has shown a knack for understanding what young Sutpen learned, that “the shifting sands of opportunism” can lead to reinventing one’s self. A former New York Democrat, he transformed into a Republican candidate espousing racism in order to achieve his own design, the presidency.
Leading up to the election, The Choice 2016 on PBS’s Frontline, profiled the candidates. It opened with a Sutpen-like moment in 2011 when President Obama ridiculed Trump at the White House Correspondence dinner. The president attacked Trump’s baseless claims that he wasn’t born in this country. The claim, an unstated dog-whistle assumption that there was something about the president (his color) that was not “American” (read: white) had been largely propagated by Trump. The documentary claims that this was the inciting incident for what would become Trump’s design to become president. Like Sutpen, Trump had been an outsider from Queens when he tried to break into the Manhattan real estate market. Like Sutpen, he out-built his neighbors not with a larger plantation, but with Trump Towers. Like Sutpen, he could not achieve his ultimate goal without the support of the white working class.
Wash Jones is presented in the novel as a white man in Mississippi who “who before ’61 had not even been allowed to approach the front door of the house and who, while the plantation owners are away fighting the Civil War, got no nearer than the kitchen door.” Unlike Sutpen, when Jones is stopped from entering by Sutpen’s black maid, Jones doesn’t fight back. This is Sutpen’s mansion, and he works for Sutpen, so by extension, they are connected. In Jones’ mind, he and Sutpen, by dint of their shared skin color, can take pride in a delusional sense of shared status. A later character speculates why Jones never objected. “He might have said to himself The reason I wont try it aint that I refuse to give any black nigger the chance to tell me I cant but because I aint going to force Mister Tom to have to cuss a nigger or take a cussing from his wife on my account.”
Jones never benefits economically from his relationship with Sutpen. He lives in an “abandoned and rotting fish camp in the river bottom” on Sutpen’s property. He continues to be a man who is laughed at to his face by black men and women. (“Who him, calling us niggers?” they say in town.) When he sees his boss riding across the plantation, he projects his feelings onto Sutpen who rarely gives him a second thought. “Wash’s heart would be quiet and proud… maybe it would seem to him that this world… where he walked always in mocking and jeering echoes of nigger laughter, was just a dream and an illusion and that the actual world was the one where his own lonely apotheosis… galloped on the black thoroughbred, thinking… how the Book said that all men were created in the image of God and so all men were the same in God’s eyes anyway, looked the same to God at least, and so he would look at Sutpen and think… If God himself was to come down and ride the natural earth, that’s what He would aim to look like.”
Perhaps the 59,392,837 Americans who voted for Donald Trump felt the same way about their candidate. The television punditry on Tuesday night, while giving lip service to racial motives, largely attributed his win to economic anxieties, like globalization and right-leaning resurgent movements around the world like in England with Brexit. This is not surprising. Americans have seen more than a decade of flat wages and are making little more than their parents did in 1979.
CNN’s Van Jones, one of the handful of people of color covering the election on TV, took another angle. Yes, economic anxieties played a role, but the defining motive was race. Like Sutpen and Jones, in this country, the two factors cannot be unraveled from each other. Van Jones expressed it best when he claimed that the election was a whitelash. “This was a rebellion against the elites, true, it was a complete reinvention of politics… that’s true, but it was also something else,” Van Jones said of Trump’s unexpected victory. “We haven’t talked about race: this was a whitelash— against a changing country, it was a whitelash against a black president, in part, and that’s the part where the pain comes.” One wonders if like Wash Jones the electorate that voted for Trump will ever see economic benefits. Or, like Wash, do they live under the delusion that they are a part of a superior group, the “white race” – a social construct, not a biological fact. This sense of superiority is the definition of racism, not political correctness. Sutpen achieves his goal of joining the wealthy elite while Wash Jones is left with the comforting notion that he may not have gotten rich, but at least he’s not black.
No one should hold William Faulkner up as a model for analysis of civil rights. Fans may laud him as a 1930s progressive, but by the time of the Civil Rights Movement thirty years later he was a drunkard who could barely stand at public events and joined a bevy of other so-called Southern liberals like Robert Penn Warren in a “go slow” approach. He wasn’t alive to write about the large number of white women who voted for Trump, but he knew his backyard, and he knew how to write white working-class men like Wash Jones.
At the end of Absalom, Absalom!, Sutpen has lost everything due to the Civil War, including his sons. He attempts to rebuild both plantation and family by impregnating Jones’ fifteen-year-old granddaughter, in an act reminiscent of Trump’s sexual escapades he’s bragged about and his habit of walking into the dressing room of fifteen-year-olds.
When he finds out it’s not a boy, Sutpen, in a remark that would make Trump proud, says, “Well Milly, too bad you’re not a mare. Then I could give you a decent stall in the stable.” Wash Jones realizes that his life-long dream of kinship with Sutpen is an illusion and that his chance for a union between their families will never happen. Finally realizing his place in the world, he does what many in this election threatened to do if Trump lost, he arms himself with a scythe and cuts down Sutpen. It’s unclear if Trump supporters will ever metaphorically do the same (history suggests not), but the parallels between Trump and Sutpen are eerily similar, and one cannot help wondering how much has changed in the eighty years since Faulkner wrote the novel.