Published January 1, 2023
There’s a funny exchange in the otherwise forgettable movie Father’s Day of 1997 that goes like this:
Billy Crystal: You’re a tragic hero. You’re Lou Gehrig.
Robin Williams: Who?
Crystal: Lou Gehrig. Everybody knows Lou Gehrig. The baseball player. He died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Williams: Wow, what are the odds on that?
In the immediate run-up to the November midterm elections—out of which Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, was one of the few Republicans to emerge with much credit—Donald Trump himself appeared to become the ultimate victim of what has been called Trump Derangement Syndrome when he took credit for having put Mr. DeSantis in the governor’s mansion and proceeded to deride him as “Ron DeSanctimonious.”
It’s true that the former president has never numbered graciousness among his virtues as a public man, but such a misstep only hours before an election in which, though not a candidate himself, he had so large a stake seemed like a gratuitous effort of self-sabotage with the sort of swing voters his favored candidates were just then trying to attract.
There were other examples of his tone-deafness after the election, when he also announced his candidacy for the presidency in 2024. These included a similar belittling of another former protégé, Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, and a dinner with three notorious anti-Semites, the most charitable interpretation of which is that he was, as Byron York says, “played” by one of them, his would-be political rival Kanye West—who now prefers to be called simply “Ye.” Later, he seemed to imply that the Constitution should be “terminated” so that he could be proclaimed the rightful winner of the 2020 election. Such a “death wish,” as Mr. York terms it, must be the result of temporary insanity and would seem to confirm, in retrospect, the most popular theory doing the rounds at the time of why the Republicans did so poorly in the election after such high expectations—namely that Trump-weary swing voters rejected so many of his favored candidates just because he favored them, or they favored him.
There are of course other theories that have been cast up, on both ends of the political spectrum, for why the elections went as they did, based on the assumption of Democrat success and Republican failure—again, as measured against expectations—but I don’t propose to rehearse them here. Like nearly everything else that appears in the media these days, such theories have been largely self-serving, ex post facto explanations designed to fit the election results into some preconceived notion of current political reality and the public opinion that creates it. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I hasten to add, since in what follows I intend to do exactly the same myself.
My theory, in case you want to know, is that this election represents the high-water mark (so far) of the media’s long-term project to convert traditional politicking, involving serious (or at least semi-serious) debate over rival visions of and policy prescriptions for what would be good for the country, into what the Lewinsky-era Bill Clinton called, even as he and his party were engaging in it themselves, “the politics of personal destruction”: something that is, when you think about it, just the negative version of the positive but equally fantastical politics of personal self-promotion that we call “virtue signaling.” Both represent the takeover of the political by the personal, which, under its latest guise of “polarization,” we too often tend to regard as if it were a kind of natural phenomenon, like a hurricane or an earthquake, visited upon our innocent political culture by an unkind fate.
Neither personalization nor polarization are accidents but acts of revolutionary will.
It is not. Neither personalization nor polarization are accidents but acts of revolutionary will, pioneered by feminists (who first insisted that “the personal is the political”) and since adopted by other identity groups as a political strategy preemptively to isolate and delegitimize would-be counterrevolutionaries as being beyond the (new) moral and intellectual pale. Argument or debate with those who had traditionalist ideas of the domestic roles of the sexes was rendered unnecessary when all you had to do was call them “sexists”—i.e., people with no right to an opinion on the subject. And it has been with the same purpose that the media’s fellow travelers on the left now employ against those who resist them words like “fascist” or “white supremacist” or even just “extremist”—though the views thus described are nearly always straight out of yesterday’s mainstream. The conservative—or reactionary, as he is now more likely to be called—becomes irredeemably other, someone with whom a true progressive can have nothing to do but whom he must regard with a hatred and loathing that is more than likely to be returned by the hated ones.
As the recent election showed, however, the polarizing techniques may also be a little less obvious. A Trump or a Biden may have been chosen by his party to lead precisely because he is so easy for the other side to hate, thus producing an equal and opposite reaction on his own side. But in a midterm election, candidates for the inferior and not very powerful offices of senator or representative naturally have a harder time portraying each other as monsters of evil and must rely on more subtle methods of suggesting either the contemptible qualities of their opponents—such as their willingness to associate themselves with the hated party figurehead—or else their own superior amiability (the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with) or authenticity, personal qualities formerly seldom thought of as having much in the way of political implications.
Consider the results of the senatorial elections in the two neighboring states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, which in November elected senators of polar opposite political views (at least as these things are measured nowadays), both of them running against opponents who would seem to have had better qualifications for the job but much less compelling backstories—or perhaps I should say backstories that allow them to claim, by the media’s measure, a superior authenticity to that of their opponents. The Republicans, J. D. Vance in Ohio and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, were both bona fide celebrities before receiving Mr. Trump’s endorsement, just as their Democratic opponents, Tim Ryan and John Fetterman, were run-of-the-mill politicians. The value of the Trump endorsement for Mr. Vance and Mr. Oz, while decisive in their respective primaries, was perhaps more likely to have been a drawback in the general election.
The stroke that disabled Mr. Fetterman earlier this year seemed to many to be a disqualification, but it may have been the making of him. The not inaccurate characterization of Mr. Fetterman as a spoiled rich boy who had no job and lived with his parents until he was in his forties began to look as if it was telling against him until his lamentable performance in the candidates’ one “debate” made him seem instead like a brave victim, striving to overcome the merely personal limitations imposed on him by his disability. Here was a form of authenticity, particularly by way of contrast with an obviously well-to-do diet doctor in regular consultation with Oprah Winfrey, that could stand comparison with that of J. D. Vance, a man whose unhappy childhood and adolescence were retold in interesting and (dare we say it?) amusing detail in his best-selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy.
When at first it appeared that Mr. Fetterman had blown his chances of election through extreme verbal incoherence in the reality show with Mr. Oz—to call it a debate would be to violate The New Criterion’s policy of always calling things by their right names—a neurologist named Michael P. H. Stanley wrote a thoughtful piece for The Wall Street Journal titled “John Fetterman and the Gravity of Language” in which he opined:
For a moment in the coherent campaign between Messrs. Fetterman and Oz, we’ve been reminded that words—and the ideals they underpin—are more important than the prosody of a politician’s performance. In civic discourse, a matter of semantics is a semantics that matters.
Fine words! But, boy, was the joke ever on him! It’s not the semantics, doc; it’s the semiotics, such as, for instance, the unmistakable signifier of the hulking Fetterman physical presence on the campaign trail, decked out in the shorts and hooded sweatshirt that did the talking the candidate himself could do no longer. With this in mind, Joan C. Williams, writing for Politico, hailed his candidacy as a “New Model of Blue-Collar Masculinity” for left-wing Democrats to follow in order to win back the allegiance of the white working class. Just look at the spanking he gave his Trump-favored opponent’s use of the word crudités—the sort of word that you might expect to find in the mouth of an elite snob who would speak of the humble eaters of mere raw vegetables as “a basket of deplorables”—even though, as Ms. Williams notes, “the irony is that Fetterman himself does not come from a blue-collar background.” The Substack blogger Chris Bray commented:
Yes, it certainly is an irony that “Fetterman himself does not come from a blue-collar background,” but, see, he wore cargo shorts. So. As an example of Fetterman displaying more blue-collar masculinity than his opponent, Politico goes on, Oz said the word “crudité.” And then Fetterman dropped the hammer on his girly little bitch ass, boom.
He paraphrases, of course, but his larger point is essentially identical to my own: that, judging from the juvenility of so much of the rhetorical cut and thrust of the campaign, “we’ve just had our first mostly post-adulthood election.”
The observation is illustrated with a photograph of the disgraced cryptocurrency trader and Democratic donor Sam Bankman-Fried—an apparent fraudster who kept afloat for as long as he did mainly by Stakhanovite virtue-signaling on behalf of Democrats and some of their favorite causes. He is pictured sitting in a semiformal setting with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair while wearing those classic markers of childhood: sneakers, a T-shirt, and short trousers. The implication that all this childish playacting that has taken the place of genuine debate is also part of a larger fraud on the public is not one that I would relish having to contradict, though I’d like to believe that the average American voter is shrewd enough to see through it. I have to admit, however, that such a voter, without being a closely attentive student of the media, would not be wrong in saying that both parties are involved in the scam, if not to the same extent, and that Mr. Trump’s recent behavior does not do anything to dispel this impression.
And then, too, the Fetterman–Oz contest was only for a seat in what has long since ceased to be, if it ever was, “the world’s greatest deliberative body” (See “Polite fictions” in The New Criterion of March 2020). As Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire said by way of explaining to Salena Zito of The Washington Examiner why he would not run for the Senate,
No, no . . . I can’t, no. I[’ve] got to tell you, the U.S. Congress and the Senate are the most disappointing political bodies that I can imagine right now. They have done so little, and they’ve set the bar so low for success[,] that if they pass one bill, we all give them a big cheer. It’s like our four-year-old finally brought home a finger painting or something, and we’re so proud, and we’re going to put it on the . . . [i]t’s ridiculous.
I guess it makes sense that behaving like a child should constitute a qualification for entry into such a body. Debate is as dead in the Senate itself as it is among the rival candidates for senatorial seats or their most passionate supporters, who are on both sides inclined to believe that there is no more matter for debate, so sure are they of their own views on any formerly debatable subject.
What is there left to recommend you as a candidate, then, but supreme confidence in your own rectitude and skill in invective (or its televisual equivalent) about the other guy? As I write, the campaign for Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia is running an ad that presents a clip of his opponent in that state’s runoff election, the former Georgia Bulldog and professional football star Herschel Walker, talking with almost Fetterman-like disfluency about cinematic vampires and werewolves while people supposed to represent ordinary voters make comments like “What the hell is he talking about?” or “There’s no substance. There’s nothing.” It ends with one of the supposed onlookers saying, “Let’s call it what it is. It is embarrassing.” The funny thing is that neither the speaker nor Herschel Walker looks the least bit embarrassed. The speaker is affecting to believe, like Dr. Stanley, in the high civic purpose of political language and the dignity thus putatively accorded those called upon to speak it. Such language and such dignity are now both so rare that you’d have to go back at least a couple of decades to find anybody so unaccustomed to their absence as to be embarrassed by it. The ad asks viewers: “Does Herschel Walker really represent you?” But the unspoken answer is that of course he does. Or at least that he can, since representing you is now considered by majorities everywhere as a job requiring nothing more than a winning personality.
Even as we treat adults more and more like children, so do we treat children more and more like adults.
How curious, then, that the infantilization of our politics and general culture should coincide with the increasingly anti-child ideology of the Left. Even as we treat adults more and more like children, so do we treat children more and more like adults. To a large extent, Republican hopes for victory were based on the sense of popular disgust with woke educational practices, and the ever more apparent damage done to children by lengthy school closures during the pandemic, which were among the factors supposed to have carried Governor Youngkin to victory last year. Governor DeSantis was also thought to have been given a boost by his taking on the teachers’ unions and his lonely attempts to arrest, at least in his own state, the ever-increasing sexualization of childhood that has been sweeping the country in recent years.
Well, maybe. For on the other side of the aisle, Governor Gavin Newsom of California coasted to victory despite that state’s massive decarceration of pedophile sex offenders, while one of the most popular theories of the Democratic success mentioned at the beginning of this essay had to do with the impact of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, universally represented by Democrats as threatening to take away pregnant women’s opportunities to abort their children along with the supposed constitutional right to do so. I don’t know if I quite agree with Chris Bray that it all adds up to “The Politics of Self-Loathing and Death Instinct,” but it’s hard to argue with his contention that “this is a culture that doesn’t see a future”—the future that used to be represented by its children. Now the future is just childishness.
Mr. Bowman is well known for his writing on honor, including his book, Honor: A History and “Whatever Happened to Honor,” originally delivered as one of the prestigious Bradley Lectures at the American Enterprise Institute in 2002, and republished (under the title “The Lost Sense of Honor”) in The Public Interest.