Published March 31, 2018
The headline of the month — just nosing out: “Elon Musk: the saviour of mankind or a real-life Bond villain?” for the top spot — comes to us from the Charlotte Observer by way of the Tampa Bay Times and heads a first-person testimony by one Ruth Mayer: “I detest Trump, but a ‘redneck’ fixed my Prius with zip ties.” It wouldn’t surprise me if cultural historians looked back on that line, lifted from the daily paper, as the perfect summing up of the curious contradictions of the Trump era in America. But it wouldn’t be quite the little gem it is without the quotation marks around “redneck” — indicating that the redneck in question had used the word of himself. Or the Prius. Or the zip ties.
Alas, Ms Mayer, who is a development and communications consultant from Charlotte describing an incident on her way home, with her teenage daughter, from the Women’s March in Washington, doesn’t get the joke in her own, or her editor’s, inadvertent witticism. Although she writes that she found her experience with the redneck good Samaritan “humbling,” she was not humbled enough to regard his presumptive political views as worthy of any respect. She is left dangling at the end of her column between what she purported to see as a lesson in loving her neighbor and the virulent Trump-hatred she cannot let go of, and which she still parades as a sign of her own virtue.
Her lack of self-awareness has lately become something of an epidemic. In January, Scott Johnson of PowerLine nominated James Comey as “the least self-aware man in the United States” — and that was before it was announced that Mr Comey was to teach a course in “ethical leadership” at his alma mater, the College of William & Mary, next autumn. Another strong candidate for the same title would be Professor Sean Wilentz of Princeton who announced in the Sunday New York Times that it was, after all, not George W. Bush who was the worst president in the history of the Republic, as he had tentatively concludedduring that Republican president’s administration. Instead, the winner at being bad was (you’ll never guess) this Republican president — none other than Donald J. Trump, who everybody else in the media thinks is top-notch.
Just kidding! The professor’s fake news can have come as no news at all to readers of The New York Times. All the same, they will have taken it as a gratifying confirmation of their own views — which, insofar as they have been shaped by the Times, tend to regard Mr Trump as not a bad but, like those of certain now well-known figures in the FBI, an illegitimate president: a usurper and a Russian puppet, illegitimately installed in office by an as-yet undiscovered conspiracy hatched between him or his henchmen and Vladimir Putin. Certainly this is what they want to believe, and the media culture of today is oriented around people’s right to believe what they want to believe — not that the media themselves are aware of it. They are merely certain that what they want to believe must be true, just as what Trump-apologists want to believe must, ipso facto, be false.
If they had a sense of humor they might have a hope of coming to recognize their own ridiculousness, like that of poor Ruth Mayer, but of course they don’t — a fact which Mr Trump cannot have failed to notice, so regularly does he play upon it to make them look foolish to anyone who does not share their obsessions. Thus when he said in a speech in Cincinnati that Democrats in Congress who failed to applaud his State of the Union speech were “treasonous,” he was clearly mocking Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey who had used the same word to describe his congressional colleagues who had been seeking to release the Nunes Memo about the chicanery at the FBI over obtaining FISA warrants for surveillance of the Trump campaign. Senator Booker was as apparently serious as the FBI itself in purporting to sniff out potential treason in those who disagreed with them, but it was only Mr Trump’s remark, with the mockery taken out, that the media could see — and take seriously enough to bring on yet another apoplectic fit of indignation on their part.
For Trump sympathizers, his joke was doubly comical because it reminded them of the amusing spectacle at the State of the Union address of the entire Democratic caucus scowling and sitting on their hands during what were, to everybody else present, Mr Trump’s biggest applause lines. It turns out not to have been a good look for them. The television images were so unflattering to Senator Booker and his fellow Democrats that the Republican National Committee made a TV ad out of them, so it would have been understandable if they had merely resented being tweaked by the President for their ungraciousness. Instead they entirely missed the joke at their own expense — or pretended to miss it — because the absurd idea of the Trump secret police (come on, you know they must exist!) rounding up treasonous Democrats fit in better with the equally absurd media and Democratic narrative of Trump the autocrat and tyrant.
Cory Booker was only the latest Democrat to descend to this kind of apocalyptic language, and it is not difficult to see why. He is also the latest Democrat — or he was so at the time — to be mentioned as a possible challenger to the President in 2020. Accordingly, as the Washington Times reported “Cory Booker’s incendiary rhetoric raises his profile in Democrats’ 2020 race to the left.” Well, that’s how you do raise your profile. But I wonder if it isn’t more likely to be the case that the winner of the nomination, if not of the “race to the left,” will be the Democrat who shows that he can take a joke at his own expense — if there are any such. There certainly don’t seem to be any at The New York Times, where all are as po-faced as the reporter Mark Landler, who dutifully conveyed to that paper’s readers that a Trump spokesman had “played down Mr. Trump’s charges of Democratic treason as ‘tongue-in-cheek.’” Such an adept use of quotation marks rivals even that of The Tampa Bay Times.
The Nunes memo that started it all proved to be yet another Rorschach test revealing the extent of political division in the country. Senator Booker’s word “treasonous” was obviously related to the numerous other Democratic warnings that release of the memo would result in serious danger to American national security. Once it was released, however, and it became obvious that it was only the security of the FBI’s anti-Trump bias which had been endangered, it suddenly became a “nothingburger,” to use Bret Stephens’s mocking description in the Times — even though it obviously could not have been both. To Trump-supporters, on the other hand, it was conclusive evidence that the FBI had allowed itself to become the tool of Mr Trump’s political enemies. But merely recognizing what would seem to be this obvious truth not only puts one on the Trump team, so far as the anti-Trumpers are concerned, but it also makes one an accomplice in what they self-righteously call “Trump’s Unparalleled War on a Pillar of Society: Law Enforcement.”
The Times’s headline writer for one of Gail Collins’s “The Conversation” columns, this one with Mr Stephens, asked : “On What Planet Is the F.B.I. Anti-Republican?” What was originally meant to be a good-natured clash of contrasting if not opposing opinions ended up, as it so often does in the media these days, in basic agreement of the putative antagonists on most points— especially on the point that the F.B.I. are (now) the good guys because (obviously) Trump is the bad guy. As to the planetary question, it could only be on Planet Republican that the F.B.I. had misbehaved. On. Planet Democrat that was, axiomatically, an impossibility. As the Washington Post’s typically apodictical Glenn Kessler put it: “The GOP memo provides no evidence that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign.” Who are you going to believe, folks, your lying eyes or the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker”?
Here, then, was a further instance, of the by-now well-worn insight that the two parties inhabit different universes, or that each, from the point of view of the other, lives in an “alternate reality.” That expression seems to me a contradiction in terms, “reality” being by definition that to which there is no alternative. Or none but unreality. But here we are. Alternate realities are the reality we’re living with. But in which direction does the causation work? Are we all savaging those who don’t agree with us because we live in alternate realities, or do we only seem to live in alternate realities because we — at least we of the politically engaged classes — are constantly savaging one another? I think I know the answer. I also think that our Rashomon politics is not an artifact of the Trump era but an inevitable outgrowth of an ever-increasing tendency to political moralizing, which itself arises out of identity politics as lately perfected by the left, with the willing cooperation of the media.
“Is America Growing Less Tolerant on L.G.B.T.Q. Rights?” asked Jennifer Finney Boylan (formerly James Boylan) in The New York Times on the same day that Mr Trump delivered his State of the Union Address. Writing of the most recent GLAAD, “Accelerating Acceptance” survey, Ms Boylan observed that,
for the first time since the poll began, support for L.G.B.T.Q. people has dropped, in all seven areas that the survey measured. They include “having an L.G.B.T. person at my place of worship” (24 percent of Americans are “very” or “somewhat” uncomfortable), seeing a same-sex couple holding hands (31 percent are uncomfortable) and “learning my child has an L.G.B.T. teacher at school” (37 percent are uncomfortable). The increase in these numbers over years previous is not dramatic — 3 percent in some instances, two in others. What’s significant is not the margin of increase but the fact that the numbers are going up instead of down. In the life of this poll, that has never happened before. . . The reason for the change is not hard to discern. Since Day 1, Donald Trump and his administration have sent out the signal that division and prejudice are now the coins of the realm. Week by week, tweet by tweet, Mr. Trump has normalized all of our worst impulses — and the routine expression of homophobia and transphobia not least.
One is, of course, sympathetic, but it occurred to me that there might be another way to interpret these data, always supposing that they are as “significant” as Ms Boylan claims they are. Look, for instance, at some of her examples of how “Mr. Trump has normalized all of our worst impulses.”
Mr. Trump’s administration sided with the right to discriminate against L.G.B.T.Q. Americans in the Masterpiece Cake case before the Supreme Court; he declared a new policy removing L.G.B.T.Q. people from the 2020 census; he failed to even mention gay people on World AIDS Day; and he attempted (although so far has failed) to ban trans people from the military.
Each of these cases assumes that L.G.B.T.Q. status entitles (or ought to entitle) the bearer to special privileges — to automatic acceptance and even approval (in the case of the cake shop owners) of their “lifestyle” by their fellow citizens who, not themselves belonging to an approved victim group, can have no similar claim on them. Those of us who are not ourselves L.G.B.T.Q. are presumed to be bigots and oppressors unless we sign on to every jot and tittle of the L.G.B.T.Q. political agenda, in other words, and some of us just may be getting a little tired of being submitted to that kind of moral blackmail.
And other kinds too. Anyone, for example, who dares to express an opinion sympathetic to the enforcement of the country’s immigration laws can expect to be labeled a racist — or, as we have lately been saying in order to goose the moral voltage of the charge, a “white-supremacist” — as Mr Trump himself was said to be for proposing the legalization of over a million illegal immigrants in exchange for better enforcement of those laws. Maybe a lot of those who put the President in a position to make such an offer did so because they, too, were tired of being called names (“deplorables” for instance) for not signing on to the open-borders agenda. Maybe, in other words, the phenomenon Ms Boylan notices is part of a wider shift in the public mood against the left’s brand of identity politics — a shift of which Mr Trump is not the cause but one of the symptoms.
The philosopher Mark Lilla expressed a similar view shortly after the 2016 election and was roundly condemned for his trouble — he was an apologist for racist-bigot-homophobes even if he wasn’t one himself — thus further illustrating the extent to which the left has become a stranger to self-criticism. Americans are a tolerant people, not that you’d know it from complaints like Ms Boylan’s. For a long time they have been inclined to make allowances for the demands upon their indulgence from political spokesmen for sexual, racial, ethnic or religious minorities, or for that minority of women who claim to be victims of male or “patriarchal” oppression and so entitled to redress of their grievances. Yes, the unpolitical middle Americans may think, these people are probably right about their sufferings at the hands of the majority. They have had a hard time, and so we should make allowances for them, and try to be nice to them to make up for it.
But, lo, half-measures and lip-service and “empathy” turn out to be not good enough. It’s not just past wrongs or slights or prejudices they are demanding to be put right: it’s the things you of the unmindful middle are yourselves doing to them even now — by voting for Mr Trump, for example. And, in many cases, it’s the things you believe in most deeply — the essential goodness of your country and its institutions, for example — that must be changed in order to satisfy them. How can they then be surprised if there are stirrings of resentment and resistance against such moral and political coercion among those whose most treasured freedoms include the freedom not to be conscripted into somebody else’s political party against their will?
For the Democratic party is now the party of the grievance mongers, the pointers of fingers at their fellow citizens and the shouters of j’accuse! To me the amazing thing is how many white, heterosexual, male Christians there still are who apparently aren’t tired of being told that they’re the reason so many of their fellow citizens are unhappy with their lives. The “redneck” with his ready supply of zip ties was as willing to help a victim of Trumpophobia as he would have been anyone else whose Prius was in distress. Imagine his astonishment, then, if every time he picked up a newspaper he was told that he, and what he believed, was what is wrong with the country. Neither Jennifer Finney Boylan nor anyone else should imagine that that state of affairs could continue indefinitely.
James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.