DISRUPTION’S JUST ANOTHER WORD FOR NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE
A Progressive’s Response to a Conservative Scholar’s Case for Trump
Shout out to all the children of divorce out there! We are living in the political equivalent of “War of the Roses,” but without the benefit of Danny DeVito’s level head. Like most of the country, I’ve spent the better part of this demoralizing election season trying to figure out what the hell is happening, or more accurately, how the hell we move forward from here. Relationship therapists all agree that once a couple begins treating each other with open contempt, well, they’re pretty well over, barring a genuine and monumental effort from both parties. At the personal level, that translates to breakup. At the national level that translates to…what, exactly?
There’s been a lot of liberals dismissing Trump voters as “idiots,” “trailer trash,” “dummies,” or whatever singular adjective might let off some steam while allowing us to feel superior. I get it. We’re all kids at heart.
But all of those inconvenient Trump supporters and their messy mix of founded and unfounded grievances, white supremacy/nationalism, and misogyny will continue to live among us long after the satisfaction of November nose thumbing has faded. Republicans will have to sort out the intraparty civil war they created, but what about the rest of us? Can we learn anything constructive from this main-stage sideshow?
No one seems to have a good answer, but conservative commentary (a first-ever plug from this feminist progressive) about the existential state of their party, and in turn the potential future of our collective country, has offered no shortage of thoughtful, complex, and heartbroken analysis — after all, nothing inspires thoughtful introspection like a full blown personal crisis.
FROM ANCIENT GRUDGE BREAK TO NEW MUTINY
Pieces like the American Conservative interview with “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, or Charles Murray’s article (paywall) for the Wall Street Journal on “Trump’s America” try to root out a more complex explanation for Trump’s rise than simply “racists who hate Obama.” In particular, these kinds of pieces have begun to unmask our collective deep-seated delusion that we live, and have always lived, in a class-fluid society.
So when Vox this week published a piece by Mark Bauerlein with the especially provocative title, “A conservative scholar makes the case that Trump is the disruptive force America needs,” I was intrigued. After all, isn’t Silicon Valley always telling us we’re in the brave new age of disruption? It’s unclear when we exhausted the brave age of calmness, but oh well.
For the first quarter of the piece, Bauerlein makes a series of compelling points about the possible motivations of Trump supporters. When Trump calls for attendees at his rallies to turn around and look at the “dishonest” corps of journalists at the back Bauerlein notes that, “People who felt condescended to by Katie Couric et al were able to put them on the spot. This was participatory democracy!”
Running through the core of Bauerlein’s initial commentary is the idea that people on the left and the right feel left behind, hand-tied, and fed up. In many cases, the narratives of our two tribes are the same—money has corrupted politics to the point of rot, our government doesn’t listen to what its people want and need, etc. Bauerlein notes that in a country where politics-as-usual aren’t getting the job done for many Americans, a Trump (and a Bernie) are a given:
When one stage of history begins to run down, Hegel says, a “World-historical individual” often arises, a willful, single-minded strong man who disrupts the status quo and embodies everyone’s profoundest hopes and fears. He needn’t be bright or virtuous, just in perfect tune with the moment. Sometimes he is creative, sometimes destructive, but he is inevitable.
After a promising start though, the high hopes I had for a conservative scholar’s case for political disruption deflated. As Bauerlein moves into looking at the deeper facets of what’s causing our collective moment of outcry, he falls back on the tired old “political correctness” line. Really? We’re here again?
SNEEZING FITS OF RACISM & SEXISM
Our culture is exhausted, he says. We’ve “sunk so far into sensitivity and guilt” that there’s simply no room for people to “think what they want to think.” Not only that, but we no longer have a culture that “forgives people for brief lapses into racism, sexism, and any other prejudice.” The sort of liberalism we should be striving for, he argues, is one that “accepts that an open society, religious liberty, and free speech cause individuals the occasional bump into annoying words and deeds.” Annoying words and deeds.
Herein lies the national stalemate.
For those of us on the receiving end, there simply is no reality where racism, sexism, and other prejudice are a matter of simple annoyances and brief lapses. In that world, “uncle Joe” could be woke one day and get out of bed the next with a bout of racism. Not to worry, he’ll be better soon and his viewpoint absolutely won’t influence the greater culture. These condescending dismissals of racism and sexism as simply “annoying” on the part of so many conservatives is in large part what has brought us to such a contemptuous crossroads.
Bauerlein uses the word “forgive,” but the burden of the kind of forgiveness he’s talking about falls on the victim(s). And that’s a big problem. How many centuries would men of Bauerlein’s persuasion take victimization before they shout “ENOUGH!” Judging by their low tolerance for the mere suggestion that racism and sexism are a thing and that they help perpetuate them, I’m guessing they couldn’t take it as long as the rest of us have.
But he’s not actually suggesting forgiveness, he’s suggesting that an open society ignores its most toxic members. They are, after all, just individuals with their own thoughts. But history bears out that racism, sexism, and “other prejudice” aren’t isolated sneezes so much as pandemics; a healthy society can’t actually ignore them. We’ve already tried that. That’s how racism and sexism spread through the votes of those individuals with their own thoughts, translating into dangerous policies and practices. And as a result, rapists rape with impunity, police murder black and brown people with impunity, and violent Islamophobia is now the highest its been since 9/11.
Annoying, isn’t it? I’m guessing that if anyone suggested the answer to all of the mass shootings we experience is to track and register Judeo-Christian white men, they’d find it hard to stay forgiving and quiet.
If Bauerlein is suggesting that Trump was an inevitable because people feel exhausted by the current culture of “watch what you say,” then try staying perky as a member of the forgiving group. We’ve all been told to watch what we say for centuries so that a minority of society doesn’t feel inconvenienced or guilty by their own thoughts and feelings. And we’re over here pretty exhausted, too.
At the end of the day, perhaps the strangest part of this whole anti-identity politics angle is this: To be angry at identity politics and political correctness is just another way of saying that you’re angry about not being able to express what you feel is your identity. Or at least an aspect of your identity. How ironic then that the argument against identity politics is simply a veiled argument towards a different identity politics!
But then, this entire election season has been one giant exercise in projection.
Bauerlein insinuates that those who have sunk deep into sensitivity are the same people who should be forgiving all these lapses of racism, etc. Yet, the people who seem to be the most sensitive are the offenders. Any suggestion that their ‘isms and ‘phobias are out of step with basic human decency launches them into a tirade of name calling and finger pointing. They can’t seem to sit with anything that doesn’t validate their worldview.
Trump’s own brand of hypermasculinity embodies all of the worst stereotypes men have ascribed to femininity. He is illogical, overly emotional, rash, vain, and whiny. In short, he argues “like a girl.” Even as he lashes out at any critic as weak, he exemplifies the very definition of weak: liable to break or give way under pressure; easily damaged.
Many of his supporters, too, seem to be deep into the projection game. At one of Trump’s rallies this week, supporter Anna Rigdon wore a shirt saying, “Trump Pence: fuck your feelings.” I get that the shirt is aimed at Paul Ryan’s feelings, but the message is a little ironic coming from such an emotionally charged base. I mean, “fuck your feelings?” But isn’t the Trump/Pence platform all about feelings? Rage is a feeling. Despair is a feeling. Fear is a feeling. The Republican platform is nothing but feelings right now. It’s a platform built on the subjective, personal experience of a slice of our society.
When Trump suggests that African Americans take a chance on him because they’re already “living in a hell,” it feels more like he’s addressing his own base. Poor, white America is dying younger than any other group from suicide and overdose. Heroin abuse has ravaged small towns and economic opportunity in the heartland is bleak. His claim that “inner city” education systems are broken speaks to education systems in rural, white America, where student outcomes are on par with outcomes in urban areas.
Who’s living in a hell? Who needs to take a chance? Someone else must be doing worse than we are. Or maybe many of us are doing as bad as each other, and many others of us are benefiting from that.
A TRUE DISRUPTIVE FORCE
Bauerlein’s claim that Trump has acted as a disruptive force is certainly true, but maybe not in the way he intended. This election season has blown the lid off of any remaining myth white liberals may have had that we had moved into a post-racial era. And the the structural nature of rape culture, bigotry, and tribalism are clearer now than they’ve ever been. It’s nasty out there. But it’s not new, it’s just hyper-visible now.
How constructive all of this disruption is depends on what we all do with it, because we’re all culpable at some level.
To return to relationship therapy parlance, liberals and conservatives have to start to come to the table prepared to authentically explore how we’ve all contributed to the dysfunction in our collective relationship. That doesn’t mean that we continue to tolerate the toxic behaviors and beliefs like racism, sexism, Islamophobia, or xenophobia, but it does mean that both sides need to actually be conscientious about what we say and think, because despite the ease of reducing individuals to groups of generalizations, everyone is having their own lived experience and they’re never all going to match up.
So every time we liberals dismiss a Trump supporter as “trailer trash,” we only dig deeper into the classism that helped fuel his rise in the first place. Their experience of feeling left behind and betrayed by their government is no less true than our experience of feeling left behind and betrayed by the government. In many cases, they’ve already lost so much (or never had access to it in the first place), there’s simply nothing left to lose. And anyway condescension has never been an effective tool.
But a big part of moving forward has to involve conservatives letting go of their rage at having to “watch what they say” and try to understand that—just like many of them don’t like being called “trailer trash,” or having liberals condescending to know what’s best for them—their actions and words have real consequences for millions of Americans, for millions of American children, whether they know them or not. The use of “All Lives Matter” as a willful refusal to understand the simple concept of Black Lives Matter, the degrading “locker room” talk, the insistence that trans people use bathrooms that could put them in harm’s way. We won’t ever stop saying “enough” to these kinds of words. They kill. So unfortunately you do have to watch what you say, and no we’re not being “testy.”
After the sulfur-smelling smoke of this year clears, my hope is that we all come down a little bit and start to look at some of the core issues of this election season.
Is there any common ground where can we realistically support one another? Are there more opportunities for cross-class coalition building around specific issues? Can more white church leaders step up to talk about race and racism with their congregations? Can more recovered racists do more outreach? Can more men step in and have some of those hard feminist conversations with their male coworkers, friends, and family members? Can so many of us middle class and wealthy white women stop assuming that our individual and collective priorities are the end game of feminism (Hillary is a face of feminism, not the face of feminism), and support more women of color, more observant Muslim women, and work across class lines more? Can more of us have hard conversations with the homophobe, racist, and/or misogynist in our family?
At the end of the day, the burden of moving forward as a country shouldn’t and can’t be shouldered by women and people of color. We’ve done enough at this point. Centuries worth. If we truly want a fairer government for everyone, then we all need to remember that fairness doesn’t come from politics, it flows to politics. From all of the people.