I’m a 26-year-old American working-class college dropout who owns and operates a small business. From the time the COVID-19 lockdown began, I’ve had to scramble to ensure that I could keep working. The company that employed me in northern Nevada had me working nearly full-time during the first quarter of 2020, doing repairs on federal buildings in the western states—a job that presented an opportunity for upward mobility and education within the building trades. But when governments abruptly restricted projects in March and April, and limited outside contractors from their facilities, the work dried up long enough to get me moving.
So I moved to Northern California, where I’d previously lived and worked. Sleeping on the floor of a friend’s home near Sacramento to begin with, I reconnected with clients in need of wildfire risk mitigation, as well as handyman and landscape services. It’s been stressful juggling work, finding a place to live, and dealing with unexpected costs. Getting set up in a decent mobile home ate up about three-quarters of my savings. I felt that it wasn’t just the pandemic that put me in this spot, but the heavy-handed response by state and federal government agencies.
When I explained this perspective to an older left-wing family member recently, I was yelled at and told to stop blaming other people for my problems. This led to a rant about Donald Trump, about why we don’t really need restaurants and barbers, and about how the law should allow us to turn people in for hugging or not wearing masks. Though I’m not actually a Trump supporter, I did not respond kindly. She threatened to never speak to me again—as she had a few years ago during an argument about whether our universities have become radicalized. It didn’t matter to her that my clients are losing decades-old businesses that collectively employ hundreds of people. She takes it for granted that all of the current restrictions are necessary.
Though I had a feeling she wouldn’t like my perspective, I was surprised that my own financial suffering didn’t evoke at least some spirit of empathy. But she isn’t in a situation that would lead her to be concerned about finances. From what I know, her family has savings approaching a million dollars. The world I was describing is alien to her. This allows her to dehumanize its inhabitants, including me. In her angry state, I think, she would have considered reporting me to the authorities for not wearing a mask (if—as she desired—the law so permitted).
This was just one encounter with one person, but it seems to stand in for the larger political dynamic I’ve observed in my country. My relative believes she is advocating for the greater good—specifically, an obligation to protect vulnerable people from illness, even if it means compromising or ending people’s livelihoods. My own perspective is that people should have more freedom to decide whether they want to risk infection by returning to work. Wealthy white-collar progressives tend not to see the need for such freedoms, however, because they have no need for them: After all, it’s easy to do their jobs from home with a computer.
Neither of my parents finished college until my mother, while in her 50s, got a degree. After graduating, she found a good job as a counselor at an addictions clinic. We were a family that suffered through long periods of unemployment, due to a lack of professional credentials, and I was urged to go to college to ensure that I wouldn’t suffer the same fate. At school and at home, I got the message that working the blue-collar trades was for people who weren’t good enough for higher education. I graduated high school with a GPA of less than 2.0, and was terrified that I’d end up a disappointment. Without thinking twice, I signed up for a community college near Sacramento, not far from where we lived. In retrospect, this was not time well spent.
While growing up, screaming and violence weren’t unusual features of my household. And some of my earliest memories are of the mistreatment I endured. After a particularly bad encounter when I was about eight, I learned how many different colors a bruise could turn. But the psychological abuse, it turned out, was worse. When things got out of control, I was identified as the cause of our family’s troubles, an unlovable burden. I lived out my childhood in anxiety and depression that’s extended into adulthood, in a way that one doctor diagnosed as PTSD.
My first year in community college didn’t go well. I thought girls would never want me, remained stuck living at home, and sometimes contemplated suicide. As my 18th birthday approached, adult life looked bleak. I had a victim mentality, and felt as if I was owed something better.
In class, I had professors who didn’t know a thing about me, yet seemed certain they knew the root of my suffering—and, indeed, everyone’s suffering. In an ethnic studies class, I learned that the long working hours demanded by the free market cause parents to be unduly stressed, leading to domestic violence. I also learned about toxic manhood—especially the white variety—which fed into my pre-existing fear of becoming a man and taking responsibility. Overall, the message was that the capitalist culture I inhabited was oppressive, destructive, and hateful; and that it was pushing me down, while somehow also making me complicit in its evils. This managed to make me feel both more victimhood and more guilt.
Fortunately, I was equipped with tools to resist these ideas. At home, I submitted myself to strict but arbitrary rules that could change at any time. In our own little unhappy domestic microcosm, we had informers, enforcers, interrogators, violence, gaslighting, and performative acts of love and loyalty. Something inside me rebelled at replicating that in the political sphere.
In my private reading, I noticed that the heroes of my favorite books acted on the truth in accordance with their belief systems—as in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, wherein protagonist R.P. McMurphy is lobotomized after he attempts to liberate his fellow insane-asylum inmates from the tyrannical regime of Nurse Ratched. I heard echoes of Christianity, my past faith, in his sacrifice. I decided that maybe the whole point of morality, including Biblical morality, is to encourage us to speak the truth and act on it. We risk being destroyed for it, but it’s worth it. In the process, others can find redemption. This thought shook me to my core, and I spent sleepless nights writing about its implications.
Being a hunter with a fondness for firearms also helped me resist the slate of political and cultural views I was being asked to internalize at school. I simply couldn’t accept that guns are the fundamental problem that leads to homicides, including mass shootings. Growing up, I regularly went to a ranch, where I began hunting at 13. When I explored the ponds and hills, I brought a pistol to protect myself against predators. These experiences were alien to those of my teachers and classmates, whose views on guns were probably shaped by CNN and Twitter.
Moreover, many of the most ardent progressives I met seemed ignorant of the contradiction at the heart of their message. On one hand, they pushed a feminized and pacifistic ideal of society. Yet at the same time, they glorified any kind of violent resistance that presented itself as progressive—a pattern we’ve seen play out in spades over recent months.
Despite these misgivings, however, the Marxist-influenced worldview that suffused my coursework did have a lasting effect on me, one that would take a while to shake off. During that period, I became one of those annoying people who could whine about the capitalist patriarchy while driving to Walmart.
After only a year at college, I decided I had to get out of my parent’s house and find a way to become financially independent. With few options, I took work as a freelance laborer in various trades. Reading the great literary works of the 19th and 20th centuries in my spare time, I imagined that I was emulating my fictional heroes. But the unromantic reality was that this brutal transition toward independence involved poverty and couch surfing. And the work itself was dirty, and often bloody. I did long hours of tree work with arborists, painted, landscaped, and trained as a farrier (one who trims and shoes horses’ hooves).
It was farriery that clicked. While the trade may seem obscure to some readers, my skill in it began to give me a sense of self-worth. This was something I’d earned. I loved shoeing so much that I worked for free for over a month to prove that I could be of use. I had to show my boss that I could handle the dangers and physical exertion that the job entails (otherwise, you’re just hindering the master farrier who took the risk of taking you on.)
After a few years of shoeing horses, briefly interrupted by a temporary job mining silver, I ran a brush-clearing and landscaping company as a side hustle. During this scramble for meaningful independence, the leftist tendencies I’d absorbed at college dropped off bit by bit. Life as a capitalist entrepreneur brought out the best in me, even when I was flirting with homelessness. Moreover, being in the real working world pushed me into contact with people, ideas, and situations that challenged me in all sorts of ways. After a few near-fatal incidents with horses (one of which left my skull and jaw shattered), I began pursuing my own business full time in 2016.
Now in my early 20s, I still had a soft spot for socialist ideas, including a lingering resentment toward the wealthy. And so, from a progressive politician’s perspective, I was hardly a lost cause. But I also was becoming aware that the Left didn’t really have much interest in the challenges I was facing, being far more concerned with issues of race and gender identity. As a straight white male, I was supposedly luxuriating in a life of privilege—a stereotype that had nothing to do with my experience as a blue-collar worker who’d faced debilitating family traumas. What I really wanted to do was forge a coherent centrist viewpoint—one that can accommodate personal responsibility, the search for truth, sincere compassion for the less fortunate, and a sensible commitment to preserving the Earth’s ecosystems.
“Centrism” is hard to define these days because, on the Left especially, you are defined by your heresies in a binary way: Anyone who doesn’t take an orthodox view on Black Lives Matter or environmental justice is imagined to be a Nazi—or, at least, Nazi-adjacent. Sure enough, the centrist voices that attracted me are now denounced as conservative, even though they stand up for a lot of the same ideas the Left once believed in, such as due process and civil liberties.
That includes Joe Rogan, whose podcast I began listening to about four years ago. At that time, I had a girlfriend who was studying English at a California state college. She leaned far to the Left politically. But, like me, she had a built-in inoculation against upper-middle-class social-justice cultism, thanks to earlier experiences in her life. When I introduced her to Rogan’s podcast, she was initially skeptical because of all the casual slurs she’d heard about him being regressive and toxic. Eventually, her concerns faded into admiration. She began listening to him on her own.
We had conflicts early on in our relationship, though. She was a moral relativist and believed truths were only subjective. This clashed with my insistence on truth as real and objective. I frequently supported my arguments with eclectic religious texts and even Aldous Huxley’s spiritual anthology, The Perennial Philosophy. It was the only source I then knew of that channeled my belief that Christianity, and religion more broadly, serve as truth-seeking tools. I argued that it’s difficult to motivate people to do anything good without a shared understanding of what is true. I also argued that a hallmark of totalitarian regimes and ideologies is the systematic use of official lies as a means of brainwashing.
In May 2017, my girlfriend excitedly called me to say she’d heard someone on Joe Rogan’s podcast with a similar approach to the idea of truth—a Canadian academic by the name of Jordan Peterson. What stood out to her most was Peterson’s claims about the role that lies played in the rise of German fascism. I listened, and she was right. I was particularly blown away by the depth of Dr. Peterson’s knowledge, and the way he coherently tied together ideas from psychology, history, evolutionary biology, neuroanatomy, and myth.
I started exploring his writing. This is the way children feel when they first hear a kind of music that resonates deeply. It was my intellectual Led Zeppelin. Like many of Peterson’s other fans, I implemented his lessons in my own life, and became a more responsible and assertive entrepreneur as a result.
The version of me that came out of that process would have been almost unrecognizable to the version that had left home in 2012. I had amassed a decent savings, and more professional opportunities than I had time to pursue. I also presented myself in a more mature and confident way. The feeling of success I experienced pushed aside whatever vestigial far-Left ideology I’d still retained from college. It was a sense of personal responsibility that now prevailed, not the dead end of victimhood culture that my professors preached. I thank God for that.
Fighting back against victimhood culture doesn’t mean denying the fact that many us have been deeply wounded in childhood and adolescence. And there is a grain of truth in the idea of toxic masculinity, which I observed, as a child, in my own home. It is important to remember all this, because such traumas help contextualize the revolutionary gestures and violence that have become celebrated aspects of BLM, antifa, Occupy and various other protest movements. These are ideologically inflected revenge fantasies. I understand this phenomenon because, during my own radical leftist phase, I, too, had violent fantasies about some type of revolution.
One way these ideologies overextend themselves is by lumping in every negative aspect of society into a monolithic theory of evil. Yes, totalitarianism can express itself as a masculine, patriarchal power cult. But some of the least tolerant members of our society embrace an explicitly feminized ideal of society—even appealing to ancient (and often imaginary) forms of matriarchy. The same is true of race: It is shocking to see self-described anti-racists create a theory of society that assumes one race—whites, of course—to be the source of all humanity’s woes.
Political labels now seem less useful than ever. And so I am only mostly joking when I refer to myself as a liberal anarcho-nationalist. It’s a nonsense label—a placeholder for the political philosophy I’m still working out. And part of the process is being self-aware of the thoughts that flit through my head. I’m still not immune to violent political fantasies, especially when I become angry at scenes of Left-wing protests in Portland, Seattle, and other cities. These people want to see my family’s traumatic dynamic play out at the national level. And it’s telling that I experienced this type of violent daydream more intensely as recently as a year-and-a-half ago, when my life was less stable. In some ways, political rage is a deflected form of personal frustration and our desperate desire to impose control and order on a world of pain and chaos.
I try to step back from these ideas and ask myself: When is it appropriate for, say, a business owner or resident to respond with violence if the state doesn’t do its job? In all honesty, I can picture myself using my .45 to deter an oncoming mob coming to wreck my neighborhood or burn down homes with Molotov cocktails. If Trump gets re-elected—or Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering George Floyd, gets acquitted—leftist violence will increase. Dystopian one-man-against-the-world scenarios may play out in real life, in more than a few parts of the United States.
At the same time, I try to understand that the same people who denounce my politics are dealing with their own demons. That leftist family member I mentioned at the beginning—the one who yelled at me about Trump and various other things—she recounts being sexually assaulted at work early in her career, and felt like she had no way of holding her assailant accountable. (This would have been more than three decades ago, long before #MeToo.) And it sounds like that wasn’t the only scarring episode she endured. I try to remember this when I watch her become angry and righteous upon any mention of toxic masculinity, or the political Right more generally.
Jordan Peterson’s 1999 book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, taught me to see these kinds of arguments as an extension of larger tensions between order and chaos, the masculine and the feminine. In fact, American politics now looks like the end-state of a dysfunctional, increasingly abusive marriage between Right and Left. Younger adults have been put in the role of children who now must decide who gets custody. When I don’t play my expected role, I’m not just accused of ignorance by ideologues, but of betrayal.
On the other hand, most people I meet in the world just smile and say hello, even with a mask on. They seem to find life tolerable and even enjoyable. I see people going out to fish or mountain bike. I see tradesmen hustling. The healthiest people are the ones who picked a real tangible goal in their own life, and are working toward it.
Engaging in that process saves lives. It certainly saved my life. And while it may be too late for my relative, it’s not too late for members of my own generation. Clean your room. Build a house. Shoe a horse. It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you aspire to something other than burning down somebody else’s prosperity and happiness.
Austin Schue is an entrepreneurial tradesman who now lives in northern California. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image: The author at work.