What We Lost with the End of the WASPocracy

6 minute read

On September 3, 1966, at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Sewickley, Pa., two children of America’s White Anglo Saxon Protestant elite were wed. The bride was a graduate of Miss Porter’s School and Sarah Lawrence College, the groom of St. Paul’s and Princeton. An athlete soon to enlist in the Marines and fight in Vietnam, he was a grandson of a president of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad. His bride, a debutante, was a lineal descendant of Captain Myles Standish, who sailed to America on the Mayflower in 1620, and became Captain of the Plymouth colony, supervising its defenses.  

Just before their 51st wedding anniversary, Ann Standish’s husband marched into the eye of a storm that loomed over America’s third century, and threatened to be as foundational an historical event as the Mayflower’s arrival almost 400 years before. On May 17, 2017, Robert Swann Mueller III, former federal prosecutor and director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was named special counsel for the United States Department of Justice, charged with investigating alleged interference by the Russian Federation in the 2016 political campaign that, four months earlier, made Donald J. Trump the 45th American president. Many hoped Mueller would be a latter-day Cincinnatus, serving his nation in a time of dire need, while simultaneously putting the lie to the notion that its ancien regime was too exhausted to challenge Trump’s moral authority.

Before Mueller’s appointment as special counsel, the decline of the American WASP, beginning seventy years earlier in the aftermath of World War Two, had seemed irreversible. Their leadership, though admirable in imagining the nation’s promise, had come to seem less than benevolent in light of their myriad failures at follow-through. But briefly, Mueller’s return to public life seemed a critical juncture. More than a reminder of how integral WASPs have been to America’s DNA, it hinted at a vital role they could play in its future. So, a few months later, when I set out to write a book about America’s earliest settlers, the Anglicans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists who colonized the Northeast, focusing on fifteen influential Colonial families, I thought Mueller might end up a major character, linking Plymouth tightly to the present day. I also hoped he’d give the book a happy ending.

But like the WASPS among whom Mueller was raised, he was opposed by a very different Protestant ethic, the one championed by later American arrivals, the born-again, evangelical conservatives, who gravitated south and west and spawned a Populism that—Trump and Mueller’s clash proved—is now even more powerful than the mainline Protestants.

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Even before March 2019, when Mueller submitted his punch-pulling report to Trump’s Department of Justice, deflating the hopes of half the country that he’d somehow bring Trump down, I’d eliminated him as character.

I only mention the much-indicted ex-president twice in the book. He was hardly one of the haute Eastern WASPs who are its protagonists and aspired to create a better society than those they’d fled in Europe. The ex-President, a German Presbyterian by birth and the grandson of a Bavarian immigrant who ran a brothel in gold-rush-era Canada, seized power by emulating the Scottish Presbyterian populist President Andrew Jackson, whose poor, rough-hewn constituency came here later and couldn’t have been more different from the polished Founding Fathers. But Trump nonetheless cast a long shadow, as the hero of the heirs of frontier America, the living embodiment of the myriad flaws of WASPs high and low and as their evil doppelganger. 

The rethinking of the story of WASPs began at the end of November 2018, when the 41st president, George H. W. Bush died. As a lifelong Democrat, I was no fan of the former Central Intelligence Agency director, Ronald Reagan’s vice-president and then, one-term president himself. But as admirers and detractors alike eulogized him, it became clear that his death starkly illuminated a conflict that was tearing the fabric of American life and threatening our national sanity. Watching Bush’s funeral in National Cathedral and the commentary that followed, I jotted down a list of traits ascribed to him that now appears almost verbatim in the book as a list of WASP virtues, even if many are, in Hamlet’s often misunderstood phrase, more honored in the breach than the observance: “America’s civic conscience: its rectitude, sense of moral duty, collective purpose, and community…honor, duty, tradition, leadership, modesty, restraint, stoicism, service, moral authority, courage, grace, noblesse oblige, and cultivation.”

Not long afterwards, I wrote another list, this time of the worst WASP attributes and actions since the 17th Century: their advocacy “of slavery, the genocide of the American Indian, white privilege, tribal exclusion, accumulation, isolationism, nativism, inequality, racism, sexism, and prejudice.” Many of them live on, as evidenced by the Access Hollywood tape and Stormy Daniels, Charlottesville’s Unite the Right Rally, the desecration of tribal lands, and the death-by-a-thousand-cuts of decency before (and, sadly, since) the election of Joe Biden. 

The forty-fifth president represented “the clan’s nadir—a repudiation of the tattered remains of WASP virtue” and the apotheosis of the Jacksonian WASP, characterized by vulgar display, status seeking, divisiveness, and aggressive, offensive behavior.

“Affluence without authority breeds alienation,” E. Digby Baltzell, the author of The Protestant Establishment wrote, prophetically, sixty years ago. But the hopes invested in Robert Mueller and the sense of loss felt in the wake of the death of Bush 41 illuminated the yearning for the traditional, if long abandoned, notion of affirmative aristocratic leadership. It's highly unlikely that the lost WASP ethos will ever again rule this self-consciously diverse country, but I argue that the best of what it stood for ought to be rehabilitated. Its absence created a vacuum now recognized as a need. For a long time, the decline of the WASP was seen as a social good. Now, it's apparent that at their very best, they were good to have around.

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