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When Cruelty Actually is the Point

There's no calculated plan behind the attacks on Senator Tim Scott. In a culture war, it's sheer lizard-brained hatred.

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Last month, Newsweekran an op-ed called “Caitlyn Jenner’s Campaign as a Trans Republican is the End of Identity Politics.” That was the title, though the actual content of the piece didn’t quite measure up. The author, progressive journalist Skylar Baker-Jordan, used the term “as a gay man” three times, hardly a spectacular repudiation of identity politics. And while he said he wouldn’t support Jenner’s bid for California governor just because he’s gay, Baker-Jordan did conclude that he could oppose Jenner because Jenner’s rich and Baker-Jordan had grown up working-class.

So baby steps, I suppose. I thought of Baker-Jordan’s non-identity politics identity politics essay last week after I watched Tim Scott’s response to Joe Biden’s non-State of the Union State of the Union address. It was a warm and sunny speech, as is typical of Senator Scott, but it also committed the unpardonable sin of insisting that America is not a racist country. That isn’t much different from what Joe Biden and Kamala Harris apparently believe, as they madeclear afterward. Yet for saying so out loud, and for daring to take in oxygen while a black Republican, Scott was slimed by the left. #UncleTim began trending on Twitter. MSNBC’s Tiffany Cross illiterately claimed that Harriet Tubman would have left Scott behind.

Progressives have spent years carefully constructing identity politics hierarchies that prioritize the black and trans experiences over those of mere cisgendered whites. These pecking orders are meant to do more than just structure your privilege; they’re supposed to provide you with a worldview on the basis of your identity. Yet now an African American has achieved prominence as a conservative? And a transwoman is running for governor as a Republican against the whitest liberal that even San Francisco could muster up? Identity politics has just hit a blue screen of death. What to do? In the case of Jenner, it has meant falling back onto ideas of class in order to write the candidate off; in the case of Scott, it has meant spewing and fuming like the very bigots the left claims to oppose.

These reactions are striking, yet I don’t think either is particularly instructive. The left isn’t about to become a working-class movement again—too many Appalachians support gun rights, after all, and some of them even smoke menthol cigarettes. I also don’t think it’s fair to make like a Fox News host and claim the attacks on Scott prove the Democrats are the Real Racists, that their party has somehow reverted to its Solid South roots. A better explanation is simply that identity politics isn’t what matters here. What’s driving the attacks on Jenner and Scott is something more familiar: pure, instinctive, unadulterated hatred.

As a vastly overrated essay from the Trump era once put it, the cruelty is the point.

There’s nothing mysterious about Jenner or Scott politically. Jenner might be trans, but before that happened to be a conservative. Having once been a pro athlete, Jenner’s now wary about former men competing in women’s sports; having achieved success (however questionably), Jenner supports small government and low taxes. Scott, meanwhile, is a genuine rags-to-riches story, born into poverty and elected to the Senate. This has inspired in him a deep patriotism, a belief in American opportunity and mobility and self-correction. You might disagree with those positions but they aren’t difficult to understand; in fact, once contextualized, they make a good deal of sense.

The problem is that we’re in a culture war, and in culture wars the context doesn’t matter. What does matter is napalming the holy hell out of the other side, whether by punching Nazis (read: conservatives) or owning the libs. Underlying critical race theory and neo-Keynesianism and so much else is the ancient and base instinct to inflict cruelty on the other tribe. The Democratic worldview holds that black and transgender Americans are in their camp, which makes Scott and Jenner not just enemies but traitors. And in a war, or at least under a wartime mentality, traitors are to be torn down with especial viciousness.

This is why, partisan and overwrought though it is, I can’t completely dismiss that “Cruelty is the Point” piece, written in 2018 by the Atlantic‘s Adam Serwer. Because our side does it too. Donald Trump loved to verbally electroshock his perceived enemies, and his supporters drank it up precisely because it inflicted pain. This is how it works in a culture war. War is not “the great clarifier” as is sometimes said; it’s the great simplifier. It takes a complex world and distills it down to at most a handful of competing sides that by necessity demand absolute conformity. It’s for this reason that it’s relished by the weak-minded, while the sensible do everything they can to avoid it.

To think independently during a war, to venture outside the prejudices of its zero-sum imperatives to damage the other side, is verboten. As a certain president once said, you’re either with us or against us. And Jenner and Scott are against Team Blue despite the identity checkmarks that are supposed to determine their allegiances. Hence the cruelty. I’m not trying to traffic in mushy bothsidesism here: I’m on the right-wing side of this fight, against the progressives and wokesters. I just don’t think any of this is sustainable in the long run. A country of 330 million cannot be distilled into two manic, zealous, dopamine-addled, warring conglomerates. Eventually people start dissenting and deserting.

The purpose of American politics is supposed to be to work towards consensus on behalf of liberty and the common good. The purpose of American politics right now is to reward allies and punish enemies. Hopefully, eventually, we’ll manage to correct this martial disfigurement, to return to something like normalcy. In the meantime, Jenner and Scott have run afoul of one of our most innate and lizard-brained impulses. And for that, they must pay.

about the author

Matt Purple is a senior editor at The American Conservative.

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