Hot take alert: Donald Trump is the most politically correct candidate ever to compete in American politics. That was a joke, about it being a hot take. I’m completely serious.
Listen, I’m as interested in writing an internet blog post about political correctness as I am in discussing slash even being aware of Trump in the first place, but this is what the situation is. We should be better than this, but we’re not. The temptation, certainly, is to throw up one’s hands and declare that none of it makes any sense. But what a contradiction actually means is that your assumptions are wrong – the facts cohere based on a different standard than the one you’re applying.
And this is precisely what’s being lost in the chatter: that there are actual facts on the ground that have very little to do with Trump or with the media or with the electoral process or anything other than the actual politics of the situation. Someone like John Oliver can, for instance, do an entire segment on Trump that’s all about who he is as a person and says absolutely nothing about the politics behind why anyone supports him.1 I mean, the man’s definitely a head case, there’s a psychology dissertation or two in there for whoever’s got the stomach, but when it comes to the actual politics of the situation that ain’t really matter. He’s been bloviating for years without ever rising above D-list tabloid fodder – it’s only now that the planets have aligned and the first seal has opened (the first horseman is a false prophet bent on conquest, just FYI) that his politics (such as they are) have coincidentally attained national significance. Trump is not the test, he is the failing grade you get a week later after not studying. There’s a real reason this is happening.
And remember, Trump is our mistake – the people’s choice. The elites wanted to stop him, but they either couldn’t get their act together or they decided that it ultimately wasn’t going to be worth it. At this point, the actual direct cause of Trump showing up on the TV and being taken seriously is that many millions of people voted for him. And now it’s the general, and he’s been consistently polling in the 40% range. This is not a statistical anomaly; that number represents real human people who want him to be President. Trump supporters do not view him as merely a conveniently-placed fool; they view him, frankly, as a hero. They are voting for something that they feel Trump embodies. Our task, then, is not to “stop Trump.” This would merely be to chase away the vampire’s shadow, leaving the real monster free to feed. Our task is to determine the nature of the thing that Trump supporters are supporting, and kill it.
So yeah, I’m going to do this once and then I’m going to stop and also get off my cross. The last thing I want to say before we get started is that I’m definitely right about this. This is the one true Trump take,2 so after this you will be fully and correctly informed and you won’t have to read any more thinkpieces or anything. You’re welcome.
The Trump campaign begins and ends with racism. Anyone who tries to dodge this fact is not a credible source of political analysis. There are exactly two statements of Trump’s that have actually mattered in terms of gaining him support: The Wall, and Ban All Muslims. Nothing about how he acts or the media coverage or anything else matters unless people have a reason to support him in the first place, and racism is the reason.
None of the evasions on this point hold up. “Economic anxiety” only works as a motivator; it doesn’t tell you who to support in response to it. Specifically, it fails to distinguish between Trump supporters and Sanders supporters. Furthermore, Trump supports are not in particularly dire straits. Their median income is higher than that of other candidates’ supporters, and they are not concentrated in areas that have been particularly affected by immigration or globalization. (Also, opposition to “globalization” in this context is just another form of racism; it’s anger that we’re letting brown people participate in our pretty pretty economy.)
Neither is Trump properly understood as a protest candidate. Certainly, part of Trump’s appeal is the way he ruthlessly attacks traditional politicians in impolitic terms, especially because most of these attacks are entirely justified. But taking this as an explanation belies the fact that Trump’s supporters are the most zealous that we’ve seen in recent history – they take him seriously. They do not view their candidate as a destructive buffoon who happens to be useful at the present time; they actually like him. Hard to believe, I know, but you can’t get anywhere with your analysis until you learn to cool your projectors. Trump supporters also do not think that he’s going to “tear down the system” or any such thing; part of his appeal is the idea (fiction) that he’s a “successful businessman,” meaning his supporters view him as competent (again, deep breaths).
Trump is, however, seen as an alternative to the existing Republican establishment, and this does not make sense. The Republicans have always (that is, since the party realignment in response to the Civil Rights Movement) been the party of racism, so supporting a conventional Republican candidate is a perfectly effective way of expressing your support for racism. And this isn’t just a misperception, because the Republican establishment also sees Trump as a dangerous outsider rather than as a useful idiot. So something about him really is different; racism as racism is not a complete explanation.
One proposed difference is that Trump is “explicit” about his racism, as opposed to the “political correctness” of typical Republicans, and this is what his supporters are supporting. They don’t want someone who merely advances racist policies, they want someone who gives full-throated voice to their grievances, who stands up and says “yes” to racism. But there’s a rather overwhelming flaw with this interpretation, which is that Trump never does this. I’m a little weirded out that no one seems to have noticed this. Trump expresses his racism in exactly the same terms that all Republicans do. Trump takes precisely the standard Republican line of claiming that the Democrats are cynically exploiting anti-racism as a political shibboleth (a useful line because it happens to be true), whereas he’d be “so good for the blacks.” Trump always makes the standard move of couching his opinions in plausible deniability by saying things like “some of them, I assume, are good people”; he follows to the letter the typical discourse pattern of saying something racist, denying that it’s racist, then calling his critics the real racists. He’s walked back basically all of his “controversial” statements in response to media pressure. These are the exact behaviors that Trump supporters are supposedly rebelling against! And yet, when white supremacist Andrew Anglin said that Trump was “giving us the old wink-wink,” he somehow saw this as a new, positive thing, even though it’s what every Republican politician has been doing this entire time.
In exactly the same way, all of Trump’s “dangerous” policy proposals are merely gaudier versions of Republican boilerplate. His global warming denialism, gun humping, torture fetishism, myopic focus on the national debt, glib slashes to taxes and spending, and dick-swinging foreign policy have all been standard-issue for decades. Trump wants to ban Muslim immigration, but Cruz wanted to sic COINTELPRO on every mosque in the country. Indeed, The Wall itself is just a bigger and dumber version of something Baby Bush came up with: the whimsically-named Secure Fence Act of 2006.
Even Trump’s rhetoric is unusual only on the most basic level of tone. In terms of content, he’s saying exactly what every Republican always says. He attacks Clinton by saying she’s a “corrupt” political operative who panders to disadvantaged people solely for their votes, which is how every Republican attacks every Democrat. His claim that Obama “founded” ISIS is exactly the claim that Republicans always make about Democrats on foreign policy: that they’re “weak” and possibly secret anti-American traitors, meaning they don’t murder people indiscriminately enough and therefore allow “the terrorists” to do whatever they want. His insinuation that “Second Amendment people” could “do something” about Clinton follows directly from Sarah Palin’s “target map” and Sharron Angle’s reference to “Second Amendment remedies,” and uses exactly the same thin layer of plausible deniability. His histrionic paranoia about the election being “rigged” is exactly how Republicans justify voter ID laws. Indeed, his only transgression is that he cleaves to the Republican party line too strongly for his plausible deniability to remain plausible – his deviance is actually excessive conformity. Trump is nothing but an amalgamation of the various body parts the ruling class has collected over the years – the Frankenstein’s monster of American politics, a Republican in Republican’s clothing.
So this is the dilemma: if Trump support is about racism, then why is literally any other member of the Republican party not good enough? The Republican Party is already the party of racism; an insurgency is not required on this issue. Anyone who values white supremacy should be comfortable supporting basically any Republican candidate. This applies just as well to every other issue, as none of Trump’s policy stances are at all unusual. How does Trump represent an alternative to mainstream conservativism when all of his policies are entirely in line with conservative orthodoxy (the only real differences are the incidental hip-shooting claims that he later walks back or ignores, such as his praise for Planned Parenthood)? And if it’s about image, if it’s a rejection of the self-aggrandizers and empty suits that constitute the existing political class, then how in Loki’s name is daughterfucking Donald Trump the person who represents an alternative to that? The only reason he’s not twice as empty as the usual politician is that he’s three times as full of shit. He panders, hedges, vacillates and dodges, he uses extreme vagueness to cover up the fact that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he harps on low-content talking points, he substitutes insults for discussion. He has backpedaled and then repedaled and then rebackpedaled on every issue he has actually addressed, including The Wall. He is not an “unconventional” candidate at all; as someone with no beliefs, he has nothing going for him other than typical campaigning behavior, so all he actually does is double down on it. He is the most conventional candidate, ever.
So what’s odd about all of this is that it seems like a bunch of sound and fury and more sound signifying no substantive policy distinctions. And of course Trump himself is a high-concept parody of a human being, so there’s significant difficulty in understanding how anyone can even tolerate being aware of him for extended periods of time, let alone want him to be the person with his finger on the button. And this is where the confusion comes in, because after running down all the possibilities, there doesn’t seem to be anything left. It’s not like anyone can possibly be unaware of any of this; the one thing you can certainly say about the media’s coverage of Trump is that there’s been enough of it. It seems, then, that Trump supporters have deliberately chosen the worst possible candidate.
One thing that actually does distinguish Trump supporters is a particular strain of desperation. They are not just middle-aged whites, but middle-aged whites undergoing a suicide epidemic. In other words, Trump supporters are desperate in the philosophical sense: they are people in the throes of an existential crisis. And when you’re having an existential crisis, what you want isn’t money or stability or progress. What you want is to feel important. You want to feel great again.
If we’re going to get this right, we have to pay attention to what Trump supporters are actually saying. Primary sources are a critical safeguard against confirmation and status quo biases. Still, you can’t just trust what people say, and people’s statements about their own motivations are perhaps the least trustworthy category of things. You have to get the story from the horse’s mouth, but you also have to translate it out of horse-language, if you follow me.
So step one is to listen to what Trump supporters have to say for themselves. Seeing as this task does not require insight, The Atlantic has done a fairly good job of it. Okay, I shouldn’t be making fun; The Atlantic is awful, but Conor Friedersdorf has asked Trump supports the exact question at issue here, which is: how is Trump anything other than a less-competent version of a standard politician? So I guess I’m grateful. I guess. I mean, a lot of this is just flatly hilarious:
“We have to stop talking about complete nonsense, and start talking about Making America Great Again.”
But no, we’re being serious here. This is serious. Serious disease.
Distilling, there are essentially three ideological vectors for Trump support. The first is what we already know: these people are fucking racists:
“The world is rising while America falls.”
Hmm I wonder what that could refer to.
“I think my interest stopped right around 2008 because everything started to get really nasty.”
Hmm I wonder what that could refer to.
“He could take the “black lives matter” group and show them how to make black lives matter.”
“A stage on which extremists are permitted to gesticulate and spew their venom via freedoms initially formulated by the much-maligned ‘angry and wimpering’ white male”
Sorry, let’s keep moving. One thing to note here is that this stuff is completely baked in to our political discourse, such that, for example, “the middle class” is basically just code for “white people.” Check this out:
“Politicians pay lip service to the middle class but spend no time helping them. Black lives matter more and illegal immigrants who break the law get a free pass.”
See how “black people” and “illegal immigrants” are the groups that contrast “the middle class”? But again, this type of expression is typical in American politics, so it’s unusual that it would drive support for Trump. The fact that this whole spectacle is based on racism should always be kept in mind, but there has to be more to it than that. We have to be talking about a particular aspect of racism.
The second angle is that Trump is going to “fix things” because he’s a “successful businessman.”
“He’s spent his whole life and career making deals and negotiating deals. In his own words, he negotiates to win.”
As opposed to people who negotiate to lose?
“Trump is not the caricature that pundits would have you believe. Trump did not build his economic empire just with luck.”
“I am thankful for his support and I am ‘Trusting’ that he will treat AMERICA as a business & focus on her sucess.”
“Like him or hate him, he is a businessman”
So yeah, this is all dumb for all of the obvious reasons, but it’s going to become important later, so just keep it in mind. Specifically, the idea that a politician is going to “fix things” actually reflects support for the status quo – it assumes the system as constituted is correct, that it simply has flaws that need to be removed, rather than the whole thing needing to be reimagined/destabilized. So this is another point against the idea that Trump is a protest candidate.
That is, it’s true that Trump voters are mad at the establishment, but who isn’t? While there is an aspect of anti-elitism here, it’s anti-elitism of a very particular type:
“Guess what? They just called me dumb. Now here is the problem. The arrogance and ignorance––together, the dumbness––of these ‘elites’ at the NYT, economics departments, etc. is the true source of misinterpretation of the Trump movement. We are not dumb. We are investment bankers, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, rocket scientists. And yes, we might also be farmers, but farmers can actually also be quite smart.
But guess what. We believe YOU (not you, Conor), are very, very dumb. If you are an established economist, you understand NOTHING about economics, and now everyone knows it. If you are the NYT, you printed fake evidence that led to a corrupt and bankrupting war. We believe you are very, very dumb, and shouldn’t say anything, whatsoever. You lost ALL authority over the last 15 years. Most people around me could take on any NYT journalist or professor from whatever fancy school and destroy them––intellectually––on any stage, anytime. We laugh at these people, and we laugh when they are called ‘elites’. They are not elites, they are complete failures.”
This isn’t anti-elitism in general, it’s actually pro-elitism in opposition to the current set of elites. The claim is that they aren’t “real” elites. Which is why it doesn’t contradict Trump being a rich fuck. It isn’t that he represents “ordinary” people, it’s that he represents the good kind of elites. So another way to think about the issue here is to ask: what kind of elite is Trump?
Relatedly, “make America great again” is more than just a slogan. Many of these people are quite preoccupied with the idea of “greatness”:
“He will expect greatness from us, he will tell us how to get to great, he will inspire people to be better than they are and have hope that their efforts will not be thwarted by bigger government.”
“Do we see greatness in America still on a daily basis or even in the movies? The Trump Family is the picture of the American Dream, and I believe Donald Trump is an honest man. When Donald Trump says that he wants to make America great again, I believe him. He has written books for all to read but that is not enough. He wants to lead.
Granted, Donald Trump cannot promise greatness among us as a society or a country. However, he can promise to be a leader for greatness, and he is fitted to do so.”
“He truly wants to make America Great Again, the same way he wanted to make his company great.”
So, again, the question is: what kind of greatness are we talking about here?
The third argument is that Trump is “politically incorrect,” and that this is a good thing.
“I do not believe that I am a racist, sexist, homophobic, or any other negative label that has been affixed to Trump supports. Rather, I feel that political correctness has run amok in this country”
you don’t say
“Beyond speech codes, ‘trigger warnings,’ or Twitter outrage mobs, the preeminence of political correctness among the culture class indicates a momentous shift away from formerly prominent middle-class cultural values and towards something entirely different.”
“Political correctness is a main reason why America is in trouble because it is a grind and so draining to be so politically correct everyday in our personal and professional lives.”
You’ve heard all this before, but look at what’s actually happening here. These people aren’t just saying that they like Trump because he’s politically incorrect. They are saying that, for them, political correctness is a substantive policy issue – one that they prioritize highly enough for it to be a determining factor in deciding who they support, as well as something that they actually expect the President of the United States to do something about. Friedersdorf, understandably confused by this line of thinking, followed up on it in a more in-depth interview, and received the following response:
“This is a war over how dialogue in America will be shaped. If Hillary wins, we’re going to see a further tightening of PC culture. But if Trump wins? If Trump wins, we will have a president that overwhelmingly rejects PC rhetoric. Even better, we will show that more than half the country rejects this insane PC regime. If Trump wins, I will personally feel a major burden relieved, and I will feel much more comfortable stating my more right-wing views without fearing total ostracism and shame. Because of this, no matter what Trump says or does, I will keep supporting him.”
“Having Trump in the White House would both give me more confidence to speak my own opinion and more of a shield from instantly being dismissed as a racist/xenophobe/Nazi (all three things I have been called personally) [ed: waaaaaaaaaah].
Under President Obama, our national dialogue has steadily moved towards political correctness (despite his denunciations), but with President Trump, I think our national dialogue will likely move away from being blanketly PC. Even though, as you pointed out, Obama has criticized PC speech, he doesn’t exactly engage in un-PC speech like Trump does. I don’t expect a President Trump to instantly convert people, but when you have someone in the Oval Office giving decidedly un-PC speeches and announcements, I think that would change the discourse, don’t you?”
It’s at this point that the Atlantic Effect kicks in, as Friedersdorf is unable to come up with an explanation for this beyond “liberals have gone too far.” So this is our starting point.
The obvious interpretation is that “politically incorrect” is just a more palatable way of saying “racist.” This is why the speech at issue is always racial slurs. The fact that people will deny this is not informative; everyone in America denies that anything is about racism at all times (which they have to do, because everything in America actually is about racism, at all times). Whereas the overwhelming majority of anti-PC complaints originate from white people upset that they can’t use slurs, the clear conclusion is that white people want to be racist, but don’t want to actually make the argument “I should be allowed to be racist.” Thus, the going interpretation is that people are tired of politicians pretending like everything is proper anti-racist policy, and they like Trump because he comes right out and “says what they’re thinking” re: race.
But again, this is not enough of an interpretation, because Trump does not actually do this. He also pretends like he’s the one offering the best anti-racist policy. Despite the baffled protestations of the explainer class, Trump is not operating sui generis; he is navigating the same constraints that all politicians face. He actually does have to disavow white supremacists and make up a fake women’s healthcare plan and pretend like he cares about black people. The only difference is that he’s bad at it.
Furthermore, you’ll note above that none of his supporters themselves avow their racism in explicit terms. They express their opposition to political correctness in politically correct fashion. Thus, the thing that they’re supporting as an attack on “political correctness” must be something other than bluntly stated racism, because they’re not getting that, and they don’t even seem to really want it. So what do they want?
And remember, this is not a matter of mere aesthetics. People think that this is a real, substantive political issue, and that Trump is going to do something about it. Moreover, it is not just that people like hearing their own values stated bluntly, it is that these people consider “politically incorrect” expression itself to be an important value. So this is it: we need to figure out what we’re actually talking about when we talk about political correctness.
(Look, I told you I don’t want to do this, alright? Just give it up. You weren’t doing anything useful today anyway.)
Given that Trump is seen as an alternative to the current crop of Republican elites, we can start by asking what it is that distinguishes Trump’s brand of racism from the rest of the Republicans’. As mentioned, there doesn’t seem to be much of a distinction at all. Trump always claims that he’ll be the best for “the blacks” and that Democrats are the real racists and blah blah blah. This is the same nonsense we’re always subjected to.
Actually, the first question we should ask is why Trump’s signature issue, illegal immigration, is an issue at all. It’s not a real problem, because Mexican immigration has been falling and immigration is not exactly an economy-killer. It’s also not a culture war thing; liberals don’t care about it (nor do they care about all the people Obama has deported). It’s an internal issue amongst conservatives, and if we think about why the Republican Party itself would care about it, the answer becomes clear. The Republican Party is the White Man’s Party, and it’s getting to be the case that there aren’t enough white men left for them to be able to win national elections. The largest and most quickly rising minority population is Latinxs,3 so that’s where the numbers have to come from. And this actually shouldn’t be that hard; we’re talking about people who are mostly religious and family-focused, and there isn’t really any overwhelming historical issue preventing Latinxs from voting Republican the way there is for black people. So that’s the angle: an immigration policy that appeals to Latinxs while placating the usual racists could help the Republicans overcome their demographic disadvantage.
But of course the voters themselves don’t care about party strategy, so if that’s all it is, then why do so many Republican voters list illegal immigration as one of their highest-priority issues? Well, because they’re looking at the same situation, but their motivations are reversed: they don’t want to compromise; they want immigration policy to work in white people’s favor. They don’t want to take advantage of the demographic shift; they want to stop it. What “political correctness” means in this context is taking Latinxs’ concerns into account. Trump voters want someone who won’t do that.
And precisely this was Trump’s original claim to political fame. By referring to immigrants as a bunch of criminals and rapists, he unambiguously signaled that his immigration policy was intended for the benefit of white people and only white people. And this is why it doesn’t matter that his policy is completely impractical and makes no sense: because this isn’t a real issue, it doesn’t have to. The establishment’s half-hearted opposition to Trump is half-hearted precisely because it is purely tactical: Trump represents a bad strategy for achieving the same goals the ruling class wants to achieve. But for the voters, because this is a symbolic concern, the desired solution is also a symbolic one. And the unavoidable symbolism of The Wall is: Whites Only.
We’re not quite there yet, because, again, this isn’t actually how Trump’s rhetoric works. Continuing with the symbolism of The Wall, Trump has also said that it will include a “big, beautiful door” for those who want to come here “legally.” This echoes the concerns of the voters: they often say they don’t object to immigration itself, but to people who don’t “play by the rules.” So the “door” symbolizes something slightly more complex than simple segregation. We can be more specific here. Consider this:
“I don’t have a problem necessarily with Mexicans who come here legally, obey our laws, and eventually learn to speak English. I do have a problem with those who look at our immigration laws and say, ‘Nah, I’d rather not obey those.’ This is one of my biggest issues with Hillary Clinton and her policy of amnesty.”
What is “learn to speak English” doing in that list? Why does that matter here? It’s not a law. Mexican immigrants are perfectly capable of coming here legally and contributing to the economy while still speaking their own language in their own communities. Why is that a problem? Yes, I know, racism, but why specifically? I mean, these people don’t get mad when they hear white people speaking any other foreign language, right?
Again, the significance is symbolic: immigrants who don’t learn English are maintaining their own culture. It isn’t just that immigrants are people of a different race, it’s that they’re not from here, they have their own beliefs and ideals, and that’s not okay. The “good” kind of immigrants, the ones who “follow the law,” who properly assimilate themselves into Whitopia, are acceptable; the “bad” kind, who stubbornly insist on retaining their own inferior cultures, must not be permitted. Hence the seemingly irrational anger with which some people react to hearing Spanish spoken in public: such an experience smacks you in the face with the fact that there are other worlds out there. To a certain type of person, this feels like a personal attack.
In fact, our misguided friend is quite explicit about this:
“[Referring to himself]: In favor of “melting pot” culture instead of multiculturalism.”
“I think most of my opposition comes from what I feel is a loss of the patriotic American identity and the advancement of multiculturalism and political correctness.”
So “political correctness” is the same thing as “multiculturalism,” and this is different from the “melting pot culture” which represents the traditional “American identity.” Thus, the connection between anti-PC and anti-immigrant ideologies is not mysterious. Both targets are faces of the same demonhead.
The idea that non-white people are actually inferior used to be the primary justification for racism, but today it’s a fringe belief (though it does very much still exist). What we now like to talk about instead is “culture.” It isn’t that black people are less capable than white people, it’s that “black culture” is holding them back. It isn’t that people from the Middle East are genetically prone to violence and intolerance, it’s “Islamic culture” that drives them to it. This is also the connection between “political correctness” and “moral relativism”:
“I think it comes down to a perception that America has already drowned in a post-modernist nightmare of moral relativism, from which extreme political correctness and protest culture stem. Trump, on the other hand, is all absolutes. Everything he says, accurate or not, is stated in absolute, definitive terms. His personal morality is clear: He respects people who work hard, are loyal, innovate, and ‘win,’ and he shuns those who don’t meet the criteria. Cruel as it may sound, I think America needs to reenergize these fundamental cultural values before we can ever hope to create a better society.”
Obviously, this person has no idea what the words they’re using actually mean – how could “protest culture” possibly stem from a lack of strong morals?4 What they’re talking about is accepting other culture’s values and practices as potentially valid ones. That’s why the preferable alternative is “absolute” support of America’s own “cultural values.” And that’s why it’s okay for people of any race to live and work in America – as long as they adhere to the right standards. The correct ones, in terms of politics.
It isn’t just that these people don’t want to explicitly argue that white men should be the center of everything, it’s that they can’t. When the implicit centering of white male opinions is the foundation of your worldview, requests that you incorporate other people’s opinions into your understanding become literally incomprehensible. Because the demand doesn’t make sense, it gets understood as something else. Ergo, the request that you let other people talk becomes an attack on “free speech,” and the insistence that other people’s opinions are more valid than yours on certain issues becomes “censorship.”
To understand this technically, the old regime of pure segregation is dead, for a number of reasons, and there are two possible alternatives we can pursue in its wake.5 The issue is not whether we’re going to have an all-white society or a diverse society. That ship has sailed. Globalization is the fact of the matter. The question is how we’re going to respond to it, and this is what Trump supporters are supporting: one answer to that question. They oppose “multiculturalism,” under which there are multiple valid cultural standards, and support “inclusiveness,” under which there is one standard that everyone is allowed (meaning required) to follow. “Inclusiveness” means including many different types of people in one culture. “Multiculturalism” means multiple different cultures all overlapping and interacting with each other.
If this seems overly theoretical, some practical examples should clarify that this is both a wide-ranging issue that is currently in high contention, and a basic practical distinction that you probably understand implicitly. Once upon a time, there was a thing called the “Western literary canon,” which included all of the most important stuff that white men ever did. This was a single standard for intellectualism: if you were familiar with it, then you were “educated”; if not, then not. Eventually, it was subjected to the obvious criticism that people other than white men have also done important stuff, and there are two possible responses to this criticism. One is to include non-white-male works in the canon, so that it’s still a single standard, but now it’s fair and representative and accessible to everybody. The other is to kill it, based on the argument that you can’t come up with any kind of objective standard as to which works are the “most important.” Were this situation to obtain, there would not be a single standard, but rather multiple different overlapping sets of works that different groups of people considered important for different reasons.
Another good example is music, which, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this already-bloated post, is ground zero for multiculturalism. The most prominent instance here is gangsta rap. The reason white people flipped their shit when gangsta rap got popular was that it operates under a different standard of values than conventional pop music; it does a different type of thing. It presents black criminals as subjects to be understood as subjects rather than as cautionary objects to be pointed at from a safe distance. Hence the claim that it “glorifies bad behavior”: white people were trying to understand it using their own set of values, whereby pop music is supposed to be abstracted and aspirational. Naturally, then, the hip-hop artists that white people single out for praise are those who are “socially conscious” and “professional” – the ones who follow the correct set of values.
Arbitrarily many examples of this pattern may be accumulated. We have TV shows like Master of None, where an Indian-American is portrayed as an everyman and immigrant experiences are normalized, plays like Hamilton, which reverse-whitewashes American history, and pop stars like Rhianna, whose persona is based on the idea that she’s the “bad” kind of black woman. Regardless of how good any of these things are, the point is that they represent a fundamental shift in perspective. The ideal of inclusion is that non-white people are accepted as long as they acclimate themselves to white people’s standards and practices. Everybody can, in theory, have equal rights, as long as what they’re equal to is white people’s standards. We are currently on the border between this ideal and the ideal of multiculturalism: the idea that there are multiple, simultaneous, equally valid (at least potentially) sets of standards.6
So the reason this distinction is flaring up right now is that we’re on a tipping point: multiculturalism exists, but it isn’t fully accepted, and the wave is eventually going to break one way or the other. And the reason the issue has specific political significance is, of course, Black Jesus. It is the least coincidental thing ever that this is happening at the end of the first black president’s term and in opposition to the possibility of the first female president – and in response to both of them being heralded as “progress,” as the wave of the future. Trump supporters see that the tide is turning against them, and they are desperately trying to hold the line.
Now, you might find this is a little odd. Surely Obama, though a black man, represents the interests of the white supremacist ruling class, and is therefore a perfect example of inclusiveness and not multiculturalism, right? And Clinton re: feminism7 and both of them re: capitalism and everything else are all pretty much the same deal. So why the animus? Well, one way to look at it is that Obama has a bad habit of saying things like “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin.” Policy aside, when Mr. America says things like that, it conveys the idea that black people count as equal participants in society. That, y’know, they matter.
Liberals like to imagine that this whole problem is just a misunderstanding. If only conservatives knew “the facts,” and gave up their “conspiracy theories,” they’d stop “voting against their own interests.” Conservatives, whether they realize it or not, have a better understanding of the situation – they understand that symbols are real things. You can’t just put a black man in charge of a fundamentally racist country and expect everything to keep humming along. Something has to give, and what conservatives are doing is trying to make sure that the future breaks one way and not the other. They know that if they allow the door to be left ajar, it’s eventually going to get kicked open.
This might not seem like that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, but it is. I said earlier that this was not a matter of mere aesthetics, and it’s not: it’s a matter of deep aesthetics. Going from being the center of the universe to not being the center of the universe is actually the largest possible transition. It’s the death of god. Remember when everyone got all freaked out at the possibility that the Earth might revolve around the Sun, and not t’other way ’round? Why would that matter? What possible implications for daily human life follow from the particular implementation details of how planets move around? The answer is that it implies that humans are not the center of the universe, that we happen to exist in the universe rather than the universe existing for us, and this is an unacceptable conclusion. Consider similarly the broad popularity of Lovecraft-style “cosmic horror,” where the entire thing that’s scary about it is that humans are not accorded a privileged position in the universe.
Again, symbols are real things, which means that these sorts of shifts have real, practical consequences. The recent sea change regarding rape culture is entirely due to the fact that women have centered the conversation on themselves. This change would not have been possible as long as men controlled the discourse – no amount of “argument” or “reason” would have done the job. Like all political questions, it’s a question of who counts. There remains the work of translating symbolic gains into both policy changes and broader cultural changes, but what makes these next steps possible is the initial symbolic action of changing perspectives.
Understanding this, Trump supporters are trying to shut the door – to recenter white men’s opinions as the universal standard of judgment. This is why it is coherent for Trump to propose an ideological test for immigrants. Everyone is welcome, as long as they properly assimilate themselves to our standards. The reason conservatives constantly harp on symbolic culture-war issues is because they know that there’s a fight to be had. It’s not misdirection or confusion; it’s good tactics. Which is not to say I’m accusing anyone involved of an excess of imagination. Going “back” to the days of unquestioned white normality is just as impossible as “staying the course.” But this raises a contradiction, because we never actually stopped clinging to “traditional American values.” What happened in response to the post-war equality movements was that we reinterpreted them as being about traditional values all along – as though the founders actually had desegregation (or even abolition) in mind when they wrote that “all men are created equal.” And, as mentioned, the ruling class has fully assimilated these movements in the name of inclusiveness, staving off (for now) their radical potential. But if no one who matters is actually advocating multiculturalism, then why have conservatives devolved into aggrieved reactionaries?
You’ve probably been waiting for me to point out the most obvious flaw in the anti-PC argument, which is that it gets the situation exactly backwards. It is black people who are forced to tiptoe around the issue of racism; white people are more than welcome to express their grievances as bluntly and stupidly as possible. Most of all, what characterizes anti-PC arguments is manliness: we need to “toughen up” and stop being so “sensitive.” This is the same thing that characterizes most of Trump’s rhetoric, and it gives the lie to the idea that anything he’s doing is actually unacceptable, because there is nothing more socially acceptable then masculinity. The sad truth is that the situation that reactionaries long for is already the case: white male opinions were never decentered. This explains the fundamental paradox of political correctness. Anti-PC people attack the idea that one’s means of expression should be restricted, and they do this by insisting that others adopt the correct means of expression. “Merry Christmas.” “Islamic terrorism.” “All lives matter.” We must use these exact words, the politically correct terminology.8 What political correctness actually is, then, is the maintenance of white male normativity.
We got a very clear example of how this works recently, when Clinton made her “basket of deplorables” comment. This should have been a slam dunk: it’s an entirely accurate and damning description of the situation, and it’s also an appealingly honest assessment of the type that a normal uncoached human would make. Clinton was both making a strong argument for herself and overcoming her primary flaw. She was telling it like it is. As it turns out, though, what she said was politically incorrect: she was immediately and roundly criticized not for being wrong (she wasn’t), but for saying something she shouldn’t have said. There was no praise for her “authenticity,” no celebration that a politician was finally speaking the unvarnished truth, no defense that she was just making a point and didn’t really mean it. She had committed the unforgivable sin of violating white people’s safe space, and she did it without even issuing a trigger warning.
And it is because political correctness is the maintenance of normativity that Donald Trump is its avatar. This is why someone as incompetent as Trump has been so successful: because he’s on the winning team. Trump is not the less conventional version of the typical Republican candidate; he is the more conventional version. He is the most conventional person possible. This is the truly fatal flaw in the argument against political correctness: the people who rail against it are the most conventional, unoriginal, safe thinkers of all. Their transgressions are barely even performative. Speaking out against political correctness is easy. It’s expected. It’s politically correct.
Think about the content of Trump’s insults toward his opponents: they’re corrupt, they’re liars, they’re not tough enough. These are all completely conventional arguments! They’re the exact things we hear over and over again in every election, and yet somehow when Trump says them they become some sort of horrifying breach of civilized norms, or something. The position that all politicians are clowns and we need a rough tough action ranger to come in and shake things up is the most conventional political opinion that it is possible to hold. Do I really need to point out that Trump, is, like, famous? That he’s conventionally successful within current social parameters? That he gets constant media coverage? That none of this would be possible if anything he said or did were actually beyond the pale? That, in certain circumstances, criticism actually functions as validation? That this can only mean that all of his statements and actions are socially acceptable?
For example, Trump doesn’t explicitly support fringe conspiracy theories; rather, his characteristic move is to fail to deny them. “Some people are saying that, I don’t know, you tell me.” Again, it’s odd that people view this sort of thing as “telling it like it is.” So what is it, actually? What it is is a matter of perspective. If you want to know what Obama’s religion is, the obvious thing to do is to ask him, because, like, he’d know. But this requires you to do something unusual: it requires you to accept a black person’s perspective as a valid source of truth. Thus, the basic act of raising the question, of refusing to consider the matter settled, performs an important political function: it recenters the issue on white people. It isn’t a fact until white people accept it. And the media is, for the most part, completely fine with treating things this way. As long as white people have opinions on something, no matter how dumb they are, it’s a “controversy,” and we need to “hear both sides.”
Trump’s strength is not that he is an “unconventional” candidate who’s willing to “say anything” because he’s not bound by the “normal” constraints of politics. It is exactly the opposite. Trump is a hyper-normative candidate: what is unusual about him is that he takes the conventional wisdom too seriously, without a protective layer of cynicism. It is this that comes across as “sincere” to his supporters, who are also true believers in the lies. It’s not just the deep unoriginality of all of Trump’s (attempts at) policy proposals; it’s that his entire angle rests on appealing to cheap cliches and uninterrogated conventional wisdom. This lack of nuance is not an intellectual failing; it is itself a value. It is the point.
The truth behind Trump’s blatant lack of substance is not that he has “fooled” people and “fallen through the cracks” of the vetting process, but that he has passed the actual test. He may have dented the empty shibboleths of respectability (which exist primarily so that pundits can congratulate themselves on upholding them), but he has obeyed to the letter the real rules of the game – he has succeeded according to the parameters of the system. This is what’s really scary about his campaign: not that it is “abnormal,” but that it is the most normal thing that has ever happened.
But now we’ve actually worsened our contradiction; it seems like political correctness isn’t even a matter of optics anymore. What is haunting Trump supporters is only the specter of multiculturalism. But if the ruling class supports a standard of inclusiveness to ward off the threat of multiculturalism, and if Trump supporters are fighting for the same thing, for the same reason, then why the conflict? And if Trump supporters are merely drawing at shadows, then whence their zealotry? Why are they acting like this is some sort of civilization-defining struggle? What could they possibly want that they don’t already have? Are they actually fighting for nothing?
Yes. That’s exactly it. They are fighting for nothing.
(Christ, this is ponderous even by my standards. Music break.)
We still haven’t quite answered the question of “why Trump?” Again, his angle isn’t actually different from the Republican party line, so it seems like any other candidate should have been able to ride the same wave. I mean, all of them made a big show about being the most opposed to Obama and hating Muslims the most and all the usual garbage. Why the preference for the least competent and most clownish version of the same old thing? At this point, to simply ask the question is to be confronted with the truth, in all its terrible clarity. It is precisely because Trump is a pudgy, bumbling, fraudulent, crude, petty, egotistical know-nothing that he is the only candidate who can carry this torch. Donald Trump is the human personification of mediocrity, and this is the true source of his power.
Recall that Trump supporters like the idea that he’s Big Bobby Businesspants and he’s going to “make deals” and hire “the best people” and so forth. The question, again, is: why is this a difference between Trump and the rest of the Republican clown car? The idea that “government should be run like a business” is among the party’s most tired cliches. Specifically, they just had a candidate who was precisely an empty business suit with magic underwear beneath it: Mitt Romney. And yet Romney is now somehow part of the craven political establishment that Trump voters are telling to take a hike. So: what is the substantive distinction between Business Douche Mitt Romney and Business Turd Donald Trump?9
The difference is just that: one of them is a douche and one of them is a turd.10 Romney presents himself like a professional. He doesn’t look like a hamster wearing a chinchilla suit or talk like an abortive Turing Test attempt. He seems like he might actually know some stuff about business, as opposed to being an expert in bankruptcy, he’s genuinely religious, as opposed to quoting from “Two Corinthians,” and he’s an actual family man, as opposed to . . . well, you know. Romney acts like an actual elite, whereas Trump acts like a hobo’s idea of a rich person.
Pay attention, because this is where it gets important. Certain types of people will look at a dynamic like this and conclude that Trump supporters must be stupid: why else would they support the wrong kind of rich person? Thinking of people you don’t understand as stupid is how you prevent yourself from learning anything. We’re all familiar with Donald Trump the television character, but that’s just it: we’re all familiar with him. No one is confused about who Donald Trump is. Trump supporters are looking at the same person the rest of us are, but they’re judging him by a different standard. So, given that Trump supporters actually like their candidate, what is their standard of judgment? What are the criteria, the values, by which Trump as opposed to Romney is judged to be the right kind of rich person? Trump supporters want him to hold the highest office in the land; they are trying to create a world where Trump is the true definition of an elite. (Continue to take deep breaths.)
Some intriguing evidence here comes from one of Friedersdorf’s correspondents, via an analogy to The Great Gatsby:
“Perhaps Nick Carraway is representative of the disillusioned ‘Silent Majority’ wishing to ‘Make America Great Again.’ Donald Trump personifies a modern-day, extremely brash Jay Gatsby, clawing feverishly for that elusive ‘green light’ at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s beckoning dock. Is it not better to place your chips on hopes and dreams rather than certain nightmares? Those of us who buy into Trump’s vision, nearly to the point of blind trust, are loudly professing our disgust with the current immoral situations that taint and threaten our blueprint of the American dream.”
I trust that you have some initial difficulty understanding how anyone can look to Jay Gatsby as a positive archetype. It is true that, unlike everyone around him, Gatsby actually wants something, but he goes about it in the worst possible way. In blind pursuit of an uninterrogated goal, he embraces everything base and grotesque about his society, squandering his talents and charisma, such that his downfall becomes inevitable. There’s ultimately no possibility that Daisy will accept him, because he has nothing different to offer her. He is merely a less stable instance of the same pile of trash. The whole point of the book is that the standards to which Gatsby acclimates himself are horrible; if he’s the best kind of elite we’ve got, we’re screwed. All of which is to say that the word “great” in the title of The Great Gatsby has a very peculiar meaning – the same meaning that it has in the slogan “make America great again.” It indicates inspired adherence to hidebound goals, the subordination of the flame of life to the dead weight of the past. It is, in other words, not greatness at all. It is mediocrity.
Take special note of the phrase “threaten our blueprint of the American dream” (also go ahead and laugh at “taint” if you need to cheer yourself up). In 2005, in response to a reported design flaw in the original PlayStation Portable hardware, Sony President Ken Kutaragi argued that “nobody would criticize a renowned architect’s blueprint that the position of a gate is wrong.” Obviously, this is absurd; the whole point of being a “renowned architect” is that you don’t get things like this wrong. More significantly, an expert, properly understood, is not someone who simply knows how to do one thing well and doesn’t accept criticism. It is someone with a deep and broad understanding of their discipline, such that they can draw from different traditions and techniques as applicable, in order to meet a variety of standards at once. A true expert must be multicultural.
So if we want to be better at creating a society than Sony is at creating hardware, “threatening the blueprint of the American dream” is exactly what we ought to be doing. Like, this isn’t super hard to understand. America was founded on slavery and genocide. It is not a legacy to uphold; it is a challenge to overcome. America is just a blip on the historical timeline, and even within that blip, what we consider “American values” today would be unrecognizable to the people who founded the country. To embrace the “American dream” as being “good enough” is to embrace mediocrity. To pursue greatness is, instead, to challenge our received values: to strike at the old idols, to destroy the standards that constrain rather than elevate, and to create new, better values.
And this is the exact thing that Trump supporters are afraid of. Remember how the only demographic correlate that explains them is that they’re suicidally desperate white people? What causes desperation? It’s not setbacks or difficulty, it’s when standards change, such that you realize that you have no hope of succeeding, no matter how well you do. These people were born into a world where they were inherently important just because of who they were, and that world is passing them by. The new world will, in fact, be just as bad: the crumbs will simply be portioned out based on utility to capital rather than identity. But when it’s your identity that’s on the chopping block, it’s a little hard to care about getting things right. Much easier, and much more comforting, to simply reassert your initial claim: to reappropriate the concept of greatness for yourself, based on nothing. Who better, then, to represent this ideology than a mediocre white man who thinks he’s better than everyone else? What better enemy than a historically accomplished black person?
Now, obviously, all politicians are mediocrities, it’s the nature of the enterprise, but the thing about Trump’s primary opponents is that they all had something going for them. Bush was the well-bred, establishment-backed dynast, Rubio was the bright young star, and Cruz was the sharp, passionate intellectual (I guess). Rubio in particular is an important point of comparison, because he was the Chosen One, the person who was going to bring balance to the Force save the GOP from itself. He was supposed to have crafted the Great Compromise on immigration, enabling him to ride the wave of accomplishment and Latinx support into higher office. He blew it about as hard as possible, but the point is that he represented a new direction for the party, and this was scary. Not to mention the fact that, you know, he was a Cuban named “Marco Rubio.” What Trump represented that no other candidate did was a steadfast refusal to accommodate to a new future. It is appropriate, then, for the man who represents this to be a gigantic baby, because he actually functions as a security blanket.
While Trump also “has something going for him” – his alleged business acumen – it’s a very particular type of “something.” It doesn’t require him to know anything or have actual skills, he just has to “delegate” and make “judgment calls.” He has to have “leadership,” which is not actually a thing.11 And of course he has to have been born rich, such that being a rich fuck is his identity rather than a contingent result of particular circumstances. It doesn’t even matter if his tax returns come out and he turns out to be broke – he can never not be a rich fuck. Trump is not a Steve Jobs type who is known for his vision and for pushing new ideas. He doesn’t actually advance anything, he just “makes deals.” He defends his sorry escapades in Atlantic City not by pointing to anything he actually accomplished or any lives that he actually made better, but simply by pointing out that, hey, he made out all right. What else is there?
The critical contradiction in the schoolbook version of capitalism is that, on the one hand, the only rule of capitalism is fair exchange: giving equal value for equal value. A worker is supposedly hired at a rate that equals their marginal contribution to production, meaning it should be a wash for the business. A perfectly efficient market is one where nobody makes any profit – but the possibility of profit is the only thing that motivates businesses to exist in the first place. The missing ingredient is exploitation: getting more out of an exchange than you put in. In other words, making a “good deal.” Of course, this is not a hypothetical argument. The fantasy of capitalism is actually true: some people really do get their money for nothing and their chicks for free.
The reason for the popularity of MBAs and management books and soforth is that they promise entry into the fantasy world. The idea that there is such a thing as a “business secret” betrays the fact that there is no real skill involved; it is merely a matter of positioning yourself on the right side of “the deal” (The Secret itself is exactly the same thing). And this, also, is why real estate and stock picking and other forms of capital investment are such hot topics among wannabe business assholes: because they let you make money without actually doing anything. It is this desire that Trump University exploited. If you just learn Trump’s “business secrets,” you too can be a self-important jackass with more money than sense. Per capitalism, business – the “art of the deal” – is actually the art of taking credit for other people’s work.
(Hence it is beyond appropriate that The Art of The Deal itself was 100% ghostwritten. This is what I’m talking about when I say that Trump is the most normal candidate possible: everything about him lines up perfectly. Honesty, the only thing that’s strange is that we didn’t see it coming.)
Some people consider things like skill and wisdom to be beneath them. Not only do they care only about being “in charge” rather than actually being good, they specifically desire arbitrary power. It’s not really power if you have to earn it; authority is necessarily unjustified. The Trump fantasy is about becoming rich and powerful without ever learning anything or developing any skills, and the reason it’s convincing is that Trump is exactly that person. In other words, the fantasy of the business mogul is the same as the fantasy of the white master race, or the fantasy of the masculine genius. It is the fantasy of abstract greatness, untethered from any of the inconveniences of hard work or introspection or compromise or doubt. Rather than having the capability of greatness, you simply are great, just because, and you can just sit there feeling great without actually doing anything. It is about being someone great rather than actually doing something great.
If Trump’s appeal is his self-presentation as a great businessman, then the specifics of his business practices – the nature of his “greatness” – is the critical point. Liberals have attempted to exploit this by pointing out that Trump isn’t actually any good at business, but this argument falls to one of the most basic rejoinders: if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich? The fact is, entirely apart from any practical assessment of what he’s done with his life, Trump lives like a successful business mogul, and for his supporters, that is the entire game. It is, in fact, better for them that Trump has gotten where he is without ever actually accomplishing anything, because that just makes him more of a winner. The truth is that Trump’s mediocrity is not a liability that must be covered by a con; it is an asset – it is his only asset. People support Trump precisely because he is a mediocre businessman.
Another way of saying this is that Trump is a mansplainer. The salient aspect of his much-parodied speaking style is that he talks as though everything he can think of to say is meaningful simply because he’s the one thinking it and saying it. More notable than anything that he actually says is the fact that he just keeps talking. He has to be sure that everyone knows his dumbass opinions about every single thing that happens (hence also his identification with Twitter). The core element of mansplaining12 is believing that you know better than someone else just because of who you are, and who they are. If you try to interrogate the situation to determine who knows what, you run the risk of exposing yourself as ignorant, having your preconceptions shattered, and losing your glib self-assurance. In order to maintain your own sense of importance, you lock yourself in your own perspective, and talk over anything that might refute you. Rather than trying for greatness, you settle for mediocrity, and then just mouth off as though there were no discussion to be had. This is exactly what Trump does, every second of every day. He obviously knows nothing about anything, but he thinks he does, just because he’s a rich white man. His own perspective is the only one he sees any value in considering. It doesn’t matter how long the generals have been fighting ISIS, or what the demographic and economic indicators say about immigration, or what the actual crime statistics are. They can’t possibly tell him anything he hasn’t already figured out, because if they could, that would mean that he’s not special. He’s just some guy. And it is because he is not actually good at anything real that he has no option other than to embrace every practice designed to make useless white men feel better about themselves. Trump is every oppressive social schema crammed together into an approximation of a human being; he is the anthropomorphic personification of unearned and unjustified advantage, and people support him because they want to maintain those advantages for themselves. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that what Trump is doing could never come close to working for anyone other than a white man, right? That even a milquetoast centrist like Hillary Clinton has to constantly walk on eggshells to cover for literally the one thing that differentiates her from any other central-casting political operative?
This is also the significance of Trump’s beyond-parody aesthetics: he’s too good to have good taste. Good taste requires learning about things and placing them in context and exercising restraint and taking other people’s subjectivity into account. All that shit is for poor people. What’s the stuff that only rich people can afford? Gold. Marble. Tall buildings. Whatever, just cram it all together and put my name on it so everyone knows I have more money than them. Oh, you think it’s tacky and stupid and wasteful? Fuck you, I’m going to make it ten feet taller and slap another coat of gold paint on it.
In the same sense, this is why, for some people, a burlap mannequin like Trump is actually appealing as a person. His personal shoddiness proves that you can be a big fancy rich asshole without actually having to make the effort to be any kind of worthwhile person. You don’t actually have to bother trying or looking halfway presentable, as long as you’re the right kind of person. Trump’s “authenticity” has nothing to do with whether he’s sincere or truthful; it’s that no amount of money can disguise the fact that he is a true schlub.
You may be thinking that all of this sounds like the opposite of Trump’s promise to “make America great again,” but remember what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the feeling of greatness minus the substance. The key word is not “great,” but “again.” Hence the advocacy of simplistic nationalism in response to globalization. Hence unjustified confidence and bluster as a response to the hollowness of standard political discourse. Hence, especially, The Wall, which represents escaping from all problems by simply shutting out the rest of the world, responding to the fear of the monster in your closet by hiding under the covers. The slogan would be better rendered as “make Americans feel like precious little angels again.”
All the statistical details about how immigration affects the economy are entirely beside the point. What immigration means is change: it means that the country is going to become something different than what it is right now. The ideal of inclusiveness – of “melting pot culture” – is a safeguard against this. It’s okay for lots of different types of people to come here, as long as they play by our rules, as long as they do their part to keep our country the way we want it, as long as they don’t do upsetting things like speaking Spanish in public or wearing burkas to the beach. People seemed to get a little bit confused when Trump referred to himself as “Mr. Brexit,” but whether he actually had any idea what he was talking about or not,13 he was exactly right. Brexit represents exactly the same thing as The Wall: responding to the big scary outside world by shutting your eyes and plugging your ears.
It is a necessary aspect of greatness that you can’t get it back – it is something that flares up and then burns out. This is the danger that’s always present in “comebacks” from great artists. They’re exciting because they offer the promise of the same original inspiration channeled through improved skills and experience, but that can’t actually happen. They’ll either be trying to do the same thing they did before, in which case it will necessarily manifest itself as a pale imitation, or they’ll do something different, in which case it might actually be great, but it won’t be the same greatness. The recent Stooges album (yes, there was one; no, you don’t need to know anything about it) was completely pointless, because the Stooges can’t exist in the current situation, even when they are the actual Stooges themselves. Whereas Sleater-Kinney’s recent album (which wasn’t really a comeback, but close enough) is actually great, because, as they always do, they did something different. It’s not another album from a ’90s band, it’s a new response to a new situation. What Trump supporters are opposed to is doing something – anything – different.
And since this is what we’re actually talking about when we talk about “traditional American values,” this isn’t some new thing that’s happening just now. We’ve been slowly drowning in it for a very long time. Consider the commonplace idea that “real Americans” are “salt-of-the-earth types” who believe in “traditional values.” Even ignoring how much bullshit this is and taking it on its own terms, isn’t this a completely lousy ideal? It’s an attack against any kind of self-improvement at all; not merely acceptance of current circumstances, but active embrace of the idea that one ought not do any better then one is already doing. It is love of mediocrity.
It’s been noted that Trump is the least plausible candidate to garner evangelical support, ever (especially since Clinton appears to have sincere religious beliefs that she doesn’t go around throwing in people’s faces), but this assumes that evangelicals adhere to the commonly-portrayed peace-and-love fairydust version of Christianity. They don’t. That is not their actual religion. In truth, Trump is a devout believer in exactly the same faith as evangelical Christians. You may have heard recently about something called the “prosperity gospel,” which is essentially bizarro Calvinism. The world is divided up into the “saved” and the “damned” (a.k.a. “winners” and “losers”), but what separates them is not divine predestination, and it’s also not faith or good works. It’s just money. But money by itself is an empty heuristic, and the prosperity gospel mostly appeals to poor people. So it’s not about being rewarded for hard work or anything like that. It’s just about showing up and deciding that you’re going to be one of the “saved.” It is, again, exactly the same appeal as that of The Secret, and of Trump University.
In other words, “positive thinking” is an alternative means of support for the belief that you’re special just because of who you are. And for people with that belief, the fact that the world is simply too complex for any one person to understand is unacceptable. If understanding the world requires keeping an open mind and listening to lots of people with different backgrounds and perspectives, this necessarily compels the conclusion that white people, and men, and you, are not special.14 Each person simply has one perspective among many.
The psychological aspect of white supremacy is the belief that a mediocre white person deserves more than an accomplished black person, a.k.a. Abigail Fisher Syndrome. When Abigail Fisher doesn’t get into UT Austin because she’s a mediocre student, she doesn’t take advantage of the transfer program and resolve to work harder. That would be admitting that she wasn’t good enough; she doesn’t actually want to go to Austin, she wants to be the type of person who gets in to Austin. That’s why she has to argue that she deserved it in the first place. She can’t just live her own life, she has to make a federal case out of it. Trump becoming president would prove that white male privilege trumps everything else, and that is what his supporters are voting for.
If white people really were superior, there would be no need for white supremacy. This has always been the central contradiction in oppressive discourse: it tries to portray the oppressed group as both hopelessly inferior and overwhelmingly dangerous at the same time. If black people are simply criminal thugs, how are they capable of destabilizing a well-designed society? If women are fundamentally unserious, then why do they have to be bullied out of public spaces? The truth is that oppressed groups really are a threat to polite society, for the precise reason that polite society sucks.
So when your John Oliver types try to argue that Trump is not actually a winner, but is in fact a loser, they are entirely missing the point. Trump is evidently on top of the world; he has won. So the only coherent response here is to argue that Trump has won at a bad game – but that game is American society itself. Again, regardless of how much of a fraud Trump is, he actually is a rich fuck. Our society has decided, implicitly, to value his contributions at an extremely high level. If this was a bad decision, then the aspects of our society that enabled it have to be destroyed. There is no other way to prevent the next Donald Trump from arising. Trumpism actually does represent the limitations of American politics, not because it is an “aberration” that has “broken” the system, but because it is the complete fulfillment of our current discursive structure. To counter it with “normalcy” is to ensure its survival. To respond to the specific immorality and incompetence of Trump himself by clinging to “American values” is to accept a state of permanent Trumpism. I mean, if Trump himself is the problem, then an honest, even-tempered, respectful candidate who advocated the same policies would be perfectly acceptable. Right? Actually, the inverse case is far more apropos: a candidate who was just as much of a ridiculous jackass but who actually advocated good policies would be someone we would be right to support, even though we would have to fight the New York Times in order to do it.
What the Trump campaign truly represents, then, is the retrenchment of mediocrity against the threat of greatness. This, finally, is the real danger, the worm gnawing at the roots of the human project. If mediocrity means accepting what we’ve already got as being “good enough,” then it is a natural fact that mediocrity rules. Once achieved, goals become crutches; once instantiated, vision becomes constraint. As soon as you settle, you’re dead. Which is why fighting for the absolute validity of any one standard is ultimately the same as fighting for nothing. If you win, you will accomplish only the destruction of your sole defense against the inexorable march of time, which is guaranteed to leave you bleached in the desert alongside Ozymandias.
This dynamic was well understood by mediocrity’s most implacable foe: Friedrich Nietzsche. First, because this is just completely amazing, here is Nietzsche’s commentary on our current situation:
“We ‘good Europeans’ – we, too, know hours when we permit ourselves some hearty fatherlandishness, a plop and relapse into old loves and narrownesses – I have just given a sample of that [ed: Nietzsche is referring to his own feelings about Richard Wagner] – hours of national agitations, patriotic palpitations, and various other sorts of archaizing sentimental inundations. More ponderous spirits than we are may require more time to get over what with us takes only hours and in a few hours has run its course: some require half a year, others half a life, depending on the speed and power of their digestion and metabolism. Indeed, I could imagine dull and sluggish races who would require half a century even in our rapidly moving Europe to overcome such atavistic attacks of fatherlandishness and soil addiction and to return to reason, meaning ‘good Europeanism.’
As I am digressing to this possibility, it so happens that I become an ear-witness of a conversation between two old ‘patriots’: apparently both were hard of hearing and therefore spoke that much louder.
‘He thinks and knows as much of philosophy as a peasant or a fraternity student,’ said one; ‘he is still innocent. But what does it matter today? This is the age of the masses: they grovel on their bellies before anything massive. In politicis, too. A statesman who piles up for them another tower of Babel, a monster of empire and power, they call ‘great’; what does it matter that we, more cautious and reserved, do not yet abandon the old faith that only a great thought can give a deed or cause greatness. Suppose a statesman put his people in a position requiring them to go in for ‘great politics’ from now on, though they were ill-disposed for that by nature and ill-prepared as well, so that they would find it necessary to sacrifice their old and secure virtues for the sake of a novel and dubious mediocrity – suppose a statesman actually condemned his people to ‘politicking’ although so far they had better things to do and think about, and deep down in their souls they had not got rid of a cautious disgust with the restlessness, emptiness, and noisy quarrelsomeness of peoples that really go in for politicking – suppose such a statesman goaded the slumbering passions and lusts of his people, turning their diffidence and delight in standing aside into a blot, their cosmopolitan and secret infinity into a serious wrong, devaluating their most cordial inclinations, inverting their conscience, making their spirit narrow, their taste ‘national’ – what! a statesman who did all this, for whom his people would have to atone for all future time, if they have any future, such a statesman should be great?’
‘Without a doubt!’ the other patriot replied vehemently; ‘otherwise he would not have been able to do it. Perhaps it was insane to want such a thing? But perhaps everything great was merely insane when it started.’
‘An abuse of words!’ his partner shouted back; ‘strong! Strong and insane! Not great!’
The old men had obviously become heated as they thus flung their truths into each other’s faces; but I, in my happiness and beyond, considered how soon one stronger will become master over the strong; also that for the spiritual flattening of a people there is a compensation, namely the deepening of another people.”
Returning to business, and sparing you the disquisition on how thoroughly Nietzsche has been misrepresented on this point, the relevant argument is as follows:
“In an age of disintegration that mixes races indiscriminately, human beings have in their bodies the heritage of multiple origins, that is, opposite, and often not merely opposite, drives and value standards that fight each other and rarely permit each other any rest. Such human beings of late cultures and refracted lights will on the average be weaker human beings: their most profound desire is that the war that they are should come to an end. Happiness appears to them, in agreement with a tranquilizing (for example, Epicurean or Christian) medicine and way of thought, pre-eminently as the happiness of resting, of not being disturbed, of satiety, of finally attained unity, as a “sabbath of sabbaths,” to speak with the holy rhetorician Augustine who was himself such a human being.
But when the opposition and war in such a nature have the effect of one more charm and incentive of life – and if, moreover, in addition to his powerful and irreconcilable drives, a real mastery and subtlety in waging war against oneself, in other words, self-control, self-outwitting, has been inherited or cultivated, too – then those magical, incomprehensible, and unfathomable ones arise, those enigmatic men predestined for victory and seduction, whose most beautiful expression is found in Alcibiades and Caesar (to whose company I should like to add that first European after my taste, the Hohenstaufen Frederick II), and among artists perhaps Leonardo da Vinci. They appear in precisely the same ages when that weaker type with its desire for rest comes to the fore: both types belong together and owe their origin to the same causes.”
The narrowness of a single set of unquestioned values, as seen most prominently in nationalism, is a source of power, but also a fatal restriction. It offers an easily-understood goal to aim for, at the cost of being completely unable to operate outside of the context of that one goal. When one gains the “historical sense” of other cultures and value systems, one comes to understand one’s own values as transient, contingent, and even accidental, and one is inflicted with doubt. It becomes impossible to advance once you start thinking that every step you take might be in the wrong direction. This is the threat of multiculturalism – it is what the ranters against “postmodern political correctness” are actually afraid of. Recall that the argument is often along the lines of “things are changing too fast” and “it’s impossible to keep up with all the new terminology” and “you can never know what the right thing to say is.” This is exactly what we’re talking about: people don’t know how to deal with clashing standards.
Naturally, then, there are two possible responses. One is simply to reject doubt – to build a wall against the influences of other cultures. This allows you to “go back” to advancing in the way you were before, but only in the sense of mere denial. You already know that your teleology is phantasmic, so all you’re really doing is going to sleep. The other option is to embrace danger, to harness the conflict within yourself and start moving, even in uncertainty, even knowing that your pursuit may soon reveal itself as quixotic. Indeed, one may even value this danger itself, accepting that the struggle to determine how to advance is part of what advancement itself actually is.
We are, of course, living in an “age of disintegration” with far more “mixing” going on than Nietzsche could ever have anticipated, and the primary response to this has been cowardice. There’s too much noise, too much tension, and all anybody wants is for it all to go away. We want things to “make sense” again. And while it actually is legitimately scary, this is still a better situation than any possible alternative, because it means that we have a chance. We are not obligated to retreat; we can accept the terms of the battle against ourselves, and we can fight. This is our opportunity to turn our gaze towards actual greatness.
The catch is that it doesn’t come lightly; in fact, everything is organized against it. The revolt of mediocrity is not just expected, it’s built in to the basic structure of how the world works. As Nietzsche points out, morality aside, Social Darwinism doesn’t actually happen. Greatness is not the natural result of an optimization process – any optimization process. It can’t be, for the very reasons we’ve just discussed. On the contrary, all roads lead to mediocrity:
“As for the famous ‘struggle for existence,’ so far it seems to me to be asserted rather than proved. It occurs, but as an exception; the total appearance of life is not the extremity, not starvation, but rather riches, profusion, even absurd squandering – and where there is struggle, it is a struggle for power. One should not mistake Malthus for nature.
Assuming, however, that there is such a struggle for existence – and, indeed, it occurs – its result is unfortunately the opposite of what Darwin’s school desires, and of what one might perhaps desire with them – namely, in favor of the strong, the privileged, the fortunate exceptions. The species do not grow in perfection: the weak prevail over the strong again and again, for they are the great majority – and they are also more intelligent. Darwin forgot the spirit (that is English!); the weak have more spirit. One must need spirit to acquire spirit; one loses it when one no longer needs it. Whoever has strength dispenses with the spirit (‘Let it go!’ they think in German today; ‘the Reich must still remain to us.’). It will be noted that by ‘spirit’ I mean care, patience, cunning, simulation, great self-control, and everything that is mimicry (the latter includes a great deal of so-called virtue).”
“Survival of the fittest” is a somewhat inaccurate term. “Fittest” connotes “strongest” – that is, “greatest” – but what it actually means is “best adapted,” which means it is a quality that is not just contingent on but entirely defined by its environment. Certainly, nothing can be said to be “great” which only applies to one tiny set of arbitrary conditions. In the context of evolution, anything more than what is required for survival and reproduction is a waste of energy. Hence, cavefish evolve to lose their sight – to become weaker and less capable, simply because such capabilities are not required of them. With no adaptive pressure, capabilities above and beyond what is immediately required never evolve – no animal ever becomes any better than it absolutely has to be. Naturally, this trend reaches its zenith in the human body, an absurd tangle of vulnerabilities that barely performs its one function of supporting a bloated mutant brain. In short, evolution does not tend towards greatness; it tends towards mediocrity.
Social evolution works in exactly the same way. From a functional perspective, the most successful people are, in fact, people like Trump: those who do exactly what is required to accumulate resources under the current set of rules, and who don’t waste their time with anything extraneous like imagination or taste or morality. The “starving artist” is a somewhat inaccurate stereotype – people who are genuinely good at something tend to be at least somewhat successful – but it remains the case that the people at the top are generally not the best, but the most broadly palatable – the people with the fewest complications and the simplest focus.
Nietzsche’s counterideal to the rising nationalism of his own time was the “Good European”: one with expansive values and broad allegiances, who undertook the difficult task of loving “the farthest” rather than settling for the easy comfort of merely loving their neighbors. Just so, our present task is to reject the simplistic, small-minded ideals of Americanism, understand ourselves as citizens of humanity, and act accordingly.
I mean, globalization is really a good thing, right? It’s kind of hard to keep this in mind under the current circumstances, but increased cultural exchange and productive efficiency really are beneficial. They make people’s lives better. That’s not where the problem is, and even if it was, the clock’s not going to turn back. The only way to go is forward. We have no other option than to make this work, and a return to an imaginary past – whether the blind conformity of the pretend ’50s or the blithe complacency of the pretend ’90s – is not going to work. We require a different future.
And just so no one gets any silly ideas, the Democrats are not capable of resolving this. They are also the problem. Supporting a candidate based on “competence” and “qualifications” is also active embrace of mediocrity and a retreat into the past – as is claiming that “America is already great.” Hillary Clinton is the candidate of the neoliberal consensus, the goal of which is precisely to establish a fully inclusive system of global exploitation. At this point, that may be the preferable alternative, but it’s still evil. And as the evil that’s actually going to happen, it demands our opposition. To defeat Trumpism via Clintonism is to win the battle and lose the war.
It is no accident that The Wall has become the synecdoche for this entire campaign. It is, of course, the perfect representation of Trump himself: as dull as it is senseless, impressive only in what an absolute waste of space and resources it is. But it is also the prefect representation of the ideology that informs his support. It is something understandable that doesn’t actually make sense. It is the simplest, easiest response to the new problems of a complicated world. It is something that looks big and impressive, but is in fact pathetically small-minded. It is a toddler’s idea of greatness. Look what I built, Mommy. Look how big it is. Aren’t I special? Did I do a good job, Daddy? I did it all by myself; you don’t have to bail me out this time. Are you proud of me? Do you love me now, Daddy?
The Democrats have exploited this metaphor in their amicable, self-serving way, promising instead to “build bridges.” But of course this is no solution; the point is precisely that all those bridges lead to the same place – while leaving the existing walls intact. Because The Wall is not actually something new that is going to be built “over there”; it is something that exists directly in front of each of us. There are walls going around us and through us; they divide our homes and criss-cross our streets; they direct our movements, curtail our futures, and overshadow our thoughts. The job of politics is to decide where to build walls, and the task of liberation is to advance the negative response to this question.
Which is why, despite everything, we’re actually not screwed. Quite the contrary: this is a fight we can never truly lose, because the existence of the struggle itself is already victory. Mediocrity rules, but desire burns. You can quell the voice of doubt in your head down to a whisper, but you can’t silence it. It’s still there, waiting for the still of night to rise up again, to get its claws back in you.
Ultimately, Trump is not the enemy. He is merely the shadow cast by our society, something that has to exist given the way things are right now. He really is just some guy. I’m pretty sure everyone realizes that it’s impossible to avoid picking a side at this point – not that it was ever possible before. But there are more than two sides to each story. It’s not enough to merely be opposed to the worst possible thing. You have to look underneath the speeches and the processions, feel the blood pulsing through the hidden veins of the world, identify the real fault lines, and strike. This is how to tear the walls down.