The gunslinging outsider saved the vulnerable farmers, but they didn’t love him for it.
In director George Stevens’s classic 1953 Western, Shane, a mysterious stranger and gunfighter in buckskin with a violent past, rides into the middle of the late-1880s Wyoming range wars between cattle barons and homestead farmers. The community-minded farmers may have the law on their side, but the open-range cattlemen have the money and the gun-toting cowboys.
Shane enters the mess but decides to settle down, incognito, with a farm family, shed his past as a hired killer, and begin leading a settled and honest frontier life.
Almost immediately, however, he senses his tragic predicament. The West is not yet so civilized. The farmers, the future of civilization, hardly possess the gun-fighting ability to survive against the ruthless cattlemen and their hired guns.
So a reformed Shane is insidiously brought into the fray, as he figures out how to aid his new hosts while, at least at first, playing by their rules of civilized behavior.
Shane ultimately accepts that his second chance life is not sustainable. He learns that his newfound friends, the sodbusters, lack the skills to survive against Wilson, the cattlemen’s psychopathic hired killer.
Sensing that there’s no solution to his dilemma, Shane finally puts on his killer clothes again, straps on his six-gun, and kills Wilson and the brutal ringleaders of the cattlemen.
Stevens’s movie gives us the familiar paradox of the ostracized outsider and savior in tragic literature and film (The Magnificent Seven, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider . . . ). Although they hesitate to say so, the farmers, if they are to survive, must rely on the very antithesis of their own idealistic commitment to law, order, the settled life, and the way of the future. Shane himself wants to reject gunslinging and stay civilized.
But to do so would mean that Shane’s newfound friends would be killed or driven off by the cattlemen, and their farms returned to the open range — they don’t have the skills to win a range war against cowboys and hired guns. Yet by picking up his gun and going outside the law to take down the evildoers, Shane himself —apparently a former Confederate, Yankee-hating hired gun — loses his recent claim on civilized life.
Even the very farmers whom he will save are uncomfortable with the idea that Shane is willing to shoot someone to save them. Or as one self-righteous farmer puts it when Shane warns the sodbusters about the dangers of the cattlemen’s hired gun, Wilson, “I don’t want no part of gunslinging. Murder’s a better name.” Shane himself appears impatient with gradual change and seems to believe that he alone, not the distant law, can stop the murderous bullies.
The movie ends in classic tragic-hero fashion: Shane rides into cattlemen’s town alone, wins his gunfights, is wounded, and finally rides off alone into the stormy Grand Tetons — content that he rid the farmers’ valley of the hired guns. The means he used to save the sodbusters are precisely those that must have no place in an agrarian world that, thanks to him, is now peaceful. Only a small boy, Joey, will yell out, “Shane! Come back!”
Stevens leaves the exact fate of Shane is doubt — at least sort of. We do not know the true extent of his wounds. And where will he end up on the trail? As a gunfighter, he can never settle down in the turn-of-the-century, civilizing West that no longer has a place for either him or his enemies.
Or, as Shane puts it at the end of the movie to Joey, the son of his farming hosts:
A man has to be what he is. . . . Can’t break the mold. There’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand sticks. There’s no going back.
In less melodramatic fashion, we see variances of the Shane paradox in all aspects of our lives, and we are now also witnessing something similar to it in the current Trump administration, especially in these confusing and unsettled times after the midterms.
Two years ago, as the 2016 election approached, neither party seemed to have an answer to lots of seemingly insolvable issues: ten years of a stagnant economy, when we failed to achieve the old standard of 3 percent annualized GDP growth; a dangerously open border and massive illegal immigration; serial optional, costly, and indecisive military misadventures abroad; an increasingly defiant, lawless, and ascendant China; a fossilized NATO alliance unwilling to meet its investment commitments; a deindustrialized and written-off red-state interior; identity-politics tribalism as the new norm; and a deer-in-the-headlights impotent political class.
To the degree that either party offered possible solutions, the establishment, like the wary sodbusters, seemed to think that they were even worse than the original problems, whether those solutions meant systematic deregulation, a Neanderthal border wall, less utopian internationalism and more self-interested nationalism, offending Europeans, dreaded tariffs, a taboo interest in the plight of the white lower-middle class, or an ossified idea that immigration should be legal, diverse, measured, and meritocratic.
In early 2015, it looked as though Republicans would nominate the third Bush, Jeb, against the Democrats’ second Clinton, Hillary. In some sense, the public could neither win nor lose: There was little risk that either likely nominee would as president disrupt the status quo, and yet the status quo was also slowly ossifying America.
Neither Jeb nor Hillary would run on “Make America Great Again.” They’d prefer something similar to the Obama administration’s idea of slow and managed decline, putting the U.S. more on par with other nations — and deservedly so given our relative un-exceptionalism and our horror-filled past.
The idea of welcoming in the gunslinger-outsider Trump was deemed absurd. To the extent that we sodbusters had contemplated something similar (a Ross Perot candidacy in 1992 and 1996) or actually voted in larger-than-life “problem solvers” (Governors Jesse Ventura in Minnesota and Arnold Schwarzenegger in California), the results had ranged from unimpressive to disastrous.
Then came 2016, and the public turned to Trump, despite his lurid personal history. Voters did not ask too much about Trump’s checkered but admittedly successful business career; they assumed that he somehow had enough skills to become a billionaire, despite having to navigate New York City’s unions, politicians, community organizers, regulators, environmentalists, tax collectors, and tough competitors. So perhaps the fewer questions about Trump’s past, the better. Trump himself joked that he had few good traits, and that had he taken to drink, he would have become “the worst.” (As he put it recently: “I can honestly say I’ve never had a beer in my life. It’s one of my only good traits. I don’t drink. Can you imagine if I had? What a mess I would be? I would be the world’s worst.”)
Trump himself seemed to welcome the idea of riding into Washington, becoming a settled politician, at least for a while, and standing up for his sodbuster red-state base against the proverbial barons of globalization, the swamp, and the bicoastal elite.
But Trump had achieved success not by temporizing and splitting the difference, much less by euphemisms and “presidential” comportment. Rather, he was flamboyant, controversial, blunt, often cruel, and apparently indifferent to the controversies and even animus that he inspired in the pillars of the establishment. One of the brilliant nuances in Stevens’s film is that he hints that the smiling, nice-guy Shane is not always such a nice guy, as we glimpse in the retro verbal insult he lobs to provoke a fatal shoot-out with Wilson and his bosses: “I’ve heard that you’re a low-down Yankee liar.”
Trump has often tried to act the part of a president, despite the nonstop media criticism and the 24/7, 360-degree Resistance that has pulled out all the stops, declaring him an ethically corrupt profiteer and authoritarian, physically unfit, and mentally unhinged — in any case, subject to removal by either impeachment or the emoluments clause of the Constitution.
But as the centrists of the suburbs showed in the recent midterm elections, those who saw Trump as necessary in 2016 may now see him as optional in 2018 — and probably because of his successes rather than his failures. In other words, good times allow well-off voters to forget bad times. Success breeds options. They are freed to turn their attention to the controversial means that had achieved for them their desired ends.
The once impossible is now deemed ordinary. The third-quarter 2018 economic and monthly employment reports have set near records. Between July and September 2018, the U.S. economy expanded at a 3.5 percent clip. That was the first time in a decade that it had exceeded 3 percent growth over a consecutive twelve-month period. In October alone, the economy added a quarter million new jobs. That number included 1,000 manufacturing jobs a day.
Unemployment has dipped to 3.7 percent, the lowest peacetime jobless rate in a half century. There are now more unfilled jobs than the number of those unemployed. Wages grew 3.1 percent in 2018. The number of Americans collecting unemployment benefits fell to just 1.63 million. That was the lowest since 1973, when there were 120 million fewer Americans. The U.S. is now the largest producer of coal, natural gas, and oil in the world.
Trump more or less achieved such success by helping the Congress ram through tax reform. He ignored hysterical criticism as he deregulated on a massive scale and green-lighted the largest energy expansion in recent history. Trump jawboned corporations to stop outsourcing and offshoring. He bullied allies and rivals to trade fairly rather than freely.
In other words, the outsider and gunslinger Trump, as president, used the same brutal and at times unsavory skills he had picked up in the private sector. Daily, Trump tweeted retorts to his myriad of attackers. No one was too small or too big to win exemption: All that mattered was that if anyone drew first on Trump, he would empty his six-shooter back, in a way quite disturbing even to those who had once invited him in.
Two years later, then, the hostile reaction to Trump is a sort of proof of his success.
Recently ex-president Barack Obama barnstormed the country trashing Trump. No longer was he ridiculing the candidate Trump of 2016 as a faker who would need a “magic wand” to get the economy to a promised 3 percent rate of GDP growth. Instead, Obama claimed that Trump was merely running on the fumes of Obama’s own supposedly successful presidency. After eight years of (unimpressive) investment, Trump is unfairly receiving the belated dividends, Obama says, and is being unduly lauded for 44’s unheralded work.
Now we hear that Hillary Clinton, while in Europe, suggested closing borders to the West and admitted that massive illegal immigration is disrupting the social stability of Europe and by implication the United States. Who knows, she may soon talk of a border wall, albeit no doubt dressed with Diego Rivera–like murals and smiley faces.
Only rarely does a naïve but honest op-ed writer confess that Trump’s punitive measures against Vladimir Putin have dwarfed those of the reset Obama administration, or that his energy policy has cut into OPEC and Russian oil profits. In some sense, Trump is Saudi Arabia’s greatest threat, given that fracking and vast new American oil production have weakened the kingdom’s grip over the West.
But mostly the press and the Resistance focus on Trump’s crassness. This past week, they were appalled for the nth time by Trump —because he dared to say that the federal circuit court of northern California is politicized and often used by progressives as a means of stopping Trump, and because he noted that terrible forest management resulted in California’s recent infernos of death and destruction, and because he frankly stated that the status quo, and long engagement with Saudi Arabia, should not be thrown away because of a crown prince’s atrocious medieval murdering of an internal and likely Islamist dissident.
How then did Shane end up?
Likely limping away alone and uncredited back among the sodbusters of Wyoming.
Never has suburban America done better economically. It certainly appreciates that North Korea is not threatening nuclear-tipped missile launches at the West Coast. It likes the idea that the U.S. is producing more oil than either Saudi Arabia or Russia. If polls are an indication, it certainly does not want throngs of illegal aliens crashing through the southern border. And it probably thinks that China has no business cheating its way to world dominance.
But suburban dwellers seem embarrassed, of late, that the solutions to these once intractable dilemmas came from someone with a dubious past and a habit of saying and doing things incompatible with their own suburban norms. And they are learning that Trump can no more stop tweeting or ridiculing than Shane could put down his guns (“There’s no going back”). I don’t think the sodbusters in later years ever put up a statue to Shane, the liberator.
Whether Trump rides out wounded in 2020 or 2024, he will likely do so as a lonely figure — and perhaps he will not be appreciated or even especially missed by the very people he benefitted.