“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps:” How a joke about bootstraps devolved into an American credo

Thanks to his family’s wealth, Donald Trump was already earning more annually when he was a toddler than many of us will ever dream of. Kylie Jenner grew up in a mansion. On television. Yet both have calculatedly peddled their images — like plenty of the born rich do — as industrious, self-made success stories. Why? Because America loves a good story of someone picking themselves up by their bootstraps. But it’s all a myth. It’s more than a myth — it’s a joke.

In Alissa Quart’s “Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream,” the author of “Squeezed” and “Branded” explores the roots of our obsession with individualistic success; unpacks how it’s helped give rise to everything from Trumpism, hustle culture and crowdfunding as ad hoc healthcare; and explains how the zeal for autonomy has undercut our humane impulse to interdependence.

Salon spoke to Quart recently via Zoom about how we got here, and how we might just be able to find a better way out — together. “Writing this has really changed me,” she says. “I see myself as proud of the ways I’m dependent.” 

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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Before I read this, I had not understood the origins of the whole “bootstrap” platitude and how, actually, it was meant to be a joke. Talk to me about what “bootstrap” was supposed to initially mean. 

It was a joke. It was an absurdity. There was a guy named Nimrod Murphrree, and he was being mocked. “Probably Mr. Murphrree has succeeded in handing himself over the Cumberland river, or a barn yard fence, by the straps of his boots.” In 1834, this was seen as totally outlandish, and the bootstraps were a metaphor for this. In the Racine Advocate some ten years later, they said the governor must be trying to pull himself up by the bootstraps. Again, like a figure of fun, because you can’t really pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

“The Horatio Alger story is not quite what people have thought.”

It was even used as sort of a metaphysical joke. Somebody wrote in the 1860s that the attempt of the mind to analyze itself is analogous to the one who would lift himself up by his own bootstraps. The mind cannot analyze itself. That, again, is equivalent of bootstraps. But over time, it becomes this thing that people are earnestly striving for. When you deconstruct a lot of these things, like the Horatio Alger story, it is not quite what people have thought. And he certainly wasn’t who people thought.

Even the “American dream” meant something different in its earliest incarnation. When I look at these words, there’s a real range of meanings. What is it about America that our symbols start as jokes, and then are taken deadly seriously and we use them to punish each other? 

There’s been this misrepresentation of phrases and of historical figures too. In some ways, that’s how culture works. But I feel like the trend is to turn them into something that is punitively individualistic, and against fresh ideas and against multitudinousness and against minorities. It’s not coincidental that the way they’re bastardized and depleted serves certain interests. It’s just not.

I think that’s part of it with “bootstraps.” You use that absurdity, and you deny its absurdity. I met someone who told me he’d grown up in Ohio, and said that all his teachers use the phrase bootstraps in public schools, just as a matter of course. “You’re gonna have to get out there and pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” This is what his history and his English teacher thought was inspiring. It wasn’t just, like, the football coach. It’s been a very normalized refrain. 

In the book you brought up “Little House on the Prairie,” which is a narrative that speaks very specifically to the ways in which bootstrapping looks different to girls, and from a very young age.

It’s also kind of exclusionary. What’s been interesting for me was reading some of these texts with these new eyes of what the assumptions around class and masculinity and power the reader was supposed to have. You’re going to follow these people into self-sufficiency. And you’re supposed to identify with Emerson, whom I had loved. I never followed Horatio Alger, but I had recognized that there was a pretzel-like shape that the reader was being asked to contort — especially a female reader — themselves to fit into the world and the Walden system. 

And yet, absolutely, one of the foundational arcs in storytelling is this rags to riches hero’s journey, where the the humble person is called to greatness. What’s the difference?

Horatio Alger wrote over one hundred books, and they sold just millions upon millions, and they were all the story of this young man making it. He’s a very handsome very young man who had been a busker or a peddler or a hat salesman or whatever. He meets a much older, wealthy man who saves him. That is the Marriage Plot. But that’s not the Horatio Alger story. The Horatio Alger story as we’re told is somebody who does it just by luck and pluck, hard work alone. That’s the bootstraps. No, he allures an older man. 

It’s the Marriage Plot without the marriage, because it’s homosocial. It’s actually probably the way power works. It’s more realistic. But it’s not the Horatio Alger story. The sexuality and the nepotism and the sociality of the actual Horatio Alger story was really stark to me. These kids are not just making it by selling lots of ties. They’re meeting an older guy and charming him with their beauty. It’s definitely about this relationship. 

So the claim then goes backwards that he actually is somehow making it by himself. We’re making invisible perhaps, for heteronormative reasons, the relationship between the older man and the younger man. 

One of the linchpins of the book is that it’s not so much about what I can get. It’s the fear of what I will lose. 

Loss aversion is a theme throughout. This is true, obviously, of Trump supporters. This was written about in the aftermath of the Trump administration.

The average salary of a Trump supporter in 2016 was $72,000. The Trump supporters made a lot of more money than you’d imagine. The way I understood their fear was something called “loss aversion.” The fear of losing money and status is twice as powerful as the joy from gaining something. These are not poor people. I think that explained a lot of the fixation on the self-made man. They wanted to align with that guy they think is rising, because they’re so afraid of losing what they think is fragile. And they’re not wrong. This is part of what I wrote about in the last book. Even at $72,000, they could be laid off. There’s so little job protection.

“That helped me understand better, on a heart level, why people are obsessed with the self-made myth and with people like Trump.”

They don’t see it that way. They don’t think that you need the loss of unionism is the problem, but it is partially, and they are more fragile. Their identification with somebody who they believe is strong and self-created gives them ballast. I really liked this chapter, particularly the Trump supporters, because I was trying to do justice to their fear. I didn’t want to just demonize. There was a union guy, and he’s talking about his co-workers who are all Trump supporters. You know, he loved them. They were his brothers. But he was also like, what has happened to them? What are they afraid of? Some have been they’ve been laid off and he’s seen them cry about their job security. I thought that was poignant and interesting and helped me understand better, on a heart level, why people are obsessed with the self-made myth and with people like Trump.

It also seems to be about feeling like you have agency. You point out that 60% of our wealth is inherited in this country. For people of a lower class, it feels like there is desire to believe a meritocracy does exist. 

Today, two-thirds of American adults don’t have four-year degrees. They encounter a lot of obstacles, and they’re earning less than 1979 [they did] adjusted for inflation. That’s something that I keep thinking about when I’m reading the numbers about the great resignation or about how sunny the job numbers are. I’m like, “Yeah, but they’re earning less than in 1979.” This is part of why they’re obsessed with the Trumps of the world. It doesn’t go the whole way. Obviously there’s racism. There are people who said things to me that were racially motivated. These are white Americans talking about why they supported so-called self-made men like Trump — that they aligned him with the own survival of their own kind or something. It was very weird. 

The number of people who don’t know that Trump is not a self-made man is astonishing to me. 

The researchers in this study that I write about in the book found that the claim that he was self-made was one of the biggest draws to Trump. The same voters were 10% less likely to vote for Trump once they found out. That’s something that we should potentially think about when we’re talking about who we want to vote for and how we should talk to people who support certain candidates.

One thing that struck me also is that Democrats also talk about the Horatio Alger story. They say, “Oh, it works.” Okay, fine. Maybe it works. But also, exposing others as not fitting into that probably works, too. We can see from this study that it does. That’s something to consider when we just have people idly saying they’re self-made. This should be a common way of deflating myth-building about someone like Trump, saying they’re self-made all the time. That should be a go-to mechanism. And somehow, I feel like it’s just not.

You talk a lot in the book about the ways that women are particularly affected by the myth of bootstrapping. It makes me think about the self-made myth in kind of a new context. Maybe you can be self-made if you don’t have to take care of other people. 

It struck me during the pandemic, because women were much more likely to not recover from being furloughed (compared to men for the same kind of jobs), and also women were much more likely to lose their jobs or be furloughed. They were also more likely to be tasked with managing childcare.

One of my subjects lived in Florida, and had three children. She was working at Amazon. She was working at night. This seemed to me to be, first of all, a clear argument for the Child Tax Credit, a clear argument for UBI for parents, for continued eviction moratoriums — all the supports that are now being taken away piece by piece after the pandemic. 

“The self-made myth is so gendered.”

It’s also an argument for how the self-made myth is so gendered. This woman could never claim to be self-made, she could only see herself as interdependent or dependent or depended on. Her life was so comprised of different people’s needs — from her multiple employers, her kids, her family’s need for additional money.

As you discuss, people who are a part of this system often feel less about themselves and are struggling with their mental health in different ways. They are then part of a system that values them less — that thinks they’re less smart, that thinks they’re less motivated. 

I always say, if you think you’re self-made, call your mother. The psychoanalytic point that I kept coming to is that part of the self-made myth is denying that you’re born from a mother. The Freudian or Lacanian reading would be that you come out of nothing.

That’s part of why I think it’s particularly appealing, honestly, to men. Your origins are muddied. Non-cis men understand that there are relationships of need that go both ways — that are of friends, of their children to them, of their mothers needing them, because women do the majority of care for elder parents. The majority of the care professions are occupied by women. Just the recognition of that is, in some, way non-masculine.

It was really interesting when you wrote about the woman who had ovarian cancer. As someone who has had cancer, I’ve had people tell me, “You’re a warrior. You kicked its butt.” I’ve seen that immediate need to  bootstrap illness.

I got a lot of this from Barbara Ehrenreich, from “Bright-Sided,” and from my conversations with her about the pink ribbon. In the whole culture of the pink ribbon and the “Cancerland” culture, you’re supposed to paste on a happy face. Somehow your sickness is your responsibility. 

This is a book about the perils of individualism. And yet I can’t fix the system. I can’t fix America. What can I as one person, as an individual, do to make some change and shake it up for myself and my children? 

Okay, vote differently. Vote for people who are open about their economic perils and struggles. 

The House is now 28% female and a quarter of people of color, the highest rate ever. I think that is going to change things, because these are people who have been left out of the self-made myth. They’ve been left out of the GI Bill, they were left out of the Homestead Act. The pioneer women were really the ones struggling, holding things together and not given a lot of rugged, individualistic points while their husbands were out shooting. I think we need to vote in people who don’t accord to the self-made myth, and actively expose how they live on less money than most political representatives. Because the majority of them are millionaires, 51%.

I think we need to participate in community-based efforts, from mutual aid to worker cooperatives. There are rideshares owned by the drivers. As consumers, we should get involved in that, and if we can start one, that’s great.

We need a New Deal for mental health, but also we need an emphasis on peer-to-peer counseling. Some call it critical therapy, which is class-aware therapy, where people understand where people are economically and also talking openly about class and money in therapy.

And then on a personal level, I call my book radical self-help for trying to free ourselves of the self-blame, and seeing ourselves differently and doing our mantra of attribution. We can talk to ourselves at least, about the people that we’re dependent on. Writing this has really changed me. I see myself as proud of the ways I’m dependent. You know, somebody asked me at a reading, “What’s your dream?” I guess it’s a workers’ cooperative, where people write poetry in the evenings. 

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