Because if Faulkner were alive today, as his country faces “an incomprehensible moment of terror”, the most drastic election of our maelstrom era, where an egomaniacal demagogue could conceivably occupy the White House, the author of The Sound and the Fury would surely once again painfully hurl that question about the future of the United States at his fellow citizens. And also, I have no doubt, issue a challenge to Trump’s supporters, hoping that they, like so many of his own characters, do not doom themselves and their land to destruction out of rage and frustration, subjected to the darkness of an untamed past.
Faulkner’s words today would not be addressed to African Americans, though he wrote of their dilemma with remarkable sensitivity, describing how the descendants of slaves carried, “with stern and inflexible pride,” the burden imposed upon them by a corrosive and unjust system. But a man who preached patience as a way to overcome race barriers, a man who did not hear Martin Luther King’s speeches, a man who could not have imagined even the possibility of a president born of miscegenation and even less of a Black Lives Matter movement (not to mention Oprah Winfrey!), would have little to teach a multicultural America that he would find unrecognizable. Equally difficult for him to deal with would be the women empowered by the feminist revolutions he could not have anticipated.
Other, less enviable, aspects of contemporary America would, however, be more sadly familiar to Faulkner.
He would have been appalled, but not in the least surprised, by the rise of Donald Trump or the deranged danger he represents. Faulkner had created in his fictional universe a minor Southern incarnation of Trump: Flem Snopes, an unscrupulous and voracious predator with “eyes the color of stagnant water”, who claws and lies his wily way to power, cheating and conning anyone naïve enough to think they can outsmart him. In Flem and his clan, Faulkner excoriated many of his fellow citizens who “know and believe in nothing but money and it doesn’t much matter how you get it.” He harbored no doubt about the harm people like the Snopes tribe could inflict if allowed to reign and proliferate, if their “stupid chicanery and petty corruption for stupid and petty ends” were ever to prevail. Given the latest polls, such an electoral apocalypse seems increasingly unlikely, but the mere fact that Trump is even a viable candidate, would be terrifying to the author of Absalom, Absalom.
Though politically liberal and progressive for his time, Faulkner’s attitude toward Trump’s followers would have been an entirely different matter. He lovingly and often good-humoredly portrayed the lives of those whom we might identify today, forgiving the generalization, as core Trump supporters—hunters and gun owners; ill-informed men clinging to their threatened virility and old time traditions; white Americans of small rural or economically depressed communities overwhelmed by the harsh rush of modernity, unprepared for a globalization they cannot control. Without ever condoning their racial prejudices and paranoia he also never condescended to them, never looked down upon their bafflement and blindness, always afforded them the one thing they deeply desired then and still desire now: respect for their human dignity. Faulkner would have understood the roots of the present disaffection of those people he cared for so much and the fear from which that disaffection derives, the feeling that they are trapped in a historical tide not of their making, their American dream gone berserk.