Trump, Empathy & Epistemic Closure
Have to say that despite the post-election spasm of caterwauling from the left, there are some very good, reflective thinkpieces on the meaning of Trump coming from liberals. What you might have missed if you don’t read the conservative media is that a lot of this sort of self-critical piece appeared earlier this year after it became clear that Trump was taking over the GOP. The verdict was usually some version of “we were too much in thrall to our own free-trade ideology, and didn’t stop to think about the people in our own base hurt by it.”
Not just academics, but well-meaning liberals of many kinds in many jobs. People who could make you a wonderfully authentic taco or show you how to kill your own urban artisanal chicken, people who volunteer in the soup kitchen or minister to the sick, people who could explain the finest details of Game of Thrones or do a great play-by-play of the last drive in a football game. We are or have been a lot of kinds of people with a lot of complicated social histories, but we’re also increasingly made over into the same kinds of people, with an increasingly predictable relationship to the economy, living in an increasingly small (if densely populated) number of places, holding to an increasingly constrained range of conventional sentiments. We are locked into who we are, and yet understand so little of what that is relative to others, despite our liberal arts educations and our unworldly worldliness. We have a long list of things we believe in and fight for and yet it’s not a list we can explain well in any deep sense, much of the time. We decry “neoliberalism” (often not knowing quite what we mean by that) and yet perform many of its operations as if they are the sun rising in the east. We explain things to each other as an affirmation of our mutual virtue and signal our virtue in the face of wickedness, in coded language and shorthand. We didactically explain our politics with the lonely desperate intensity of a missionary any time we think we’re in a crowd of heathens. We lecture about allyship without having an even minimally fleshed out conception of the social structure of possible alliances that we might be making. As our social worlds have become smaller and more specific, our lived sense of our own sociality has been fading into abstraction and vagueness, into us-and-them.
Which has become, perhaps, self-fulfilling prophecy: we may have been dialectically producing the generalized social antagonism we have so long invoked. 2016 may be the last stop on a journey that began in 1968, when any number of legitimately righteous crusades to change the world for the better, to make good on the promise of American freedom, began almost from their beginnings to curdle ever-so-slightly (and then faster and deeper for a few) into messianism. When the laws changed, that didn’t save everyone. The American promise went unfulfilled, injustice still sat on its throne. So policy–because it wasn’t enough to think that in the fullness of time, a change in the laws might produce a change in the society. When policy didn’t do it, civil society, culture, consciousness, speech. And each of those moves mobilized a countering constituency, often people who might have let the last move slide but who felt intruded upon by the next one. They learned the same routes for social change: law, policy, civil society, culture, consciousness, speech. But the more messianic the sentiment among those who felt born to change the world for the better, the less able they were to comprehend where they might have trespassed, where they were accidentally recruiting their own opposition. If I tell that story about something else–say, American military and diplomatic action in the world during the Cold War and after–progressives are well able to understand the basic sociopolitical engine involved. When you even tentatively tell that story here, about us, it’s hard even to get to a point where you might have an actual disagreement about the specific facts involved in that account. We absolve ourselves both of actually having social power and of aspiring to have it.
That’s actually a long-winded way of saying “the Trump election has a lot to do with blowback from the sort of things we advocate, and we are so cut off from the rest of the world in our own bubble that we didn’t see this coming.”
Liberal Damon Linker is basically in the same place, but far more succinct. He says that “self-righteous liberals” who believe that History Is On Their Side, had better get some empathy and imagination, fast:
Imagine for a moment what your life might be like as a unemployed middle-aged white woman in a small town in a rural part of a Midwestern state. Your quality of life has been declining since the biggest employers in town closed up shop after the passage of NAFTA. Things got far worse after the financial crash hit in 2008. You voted for Obama and hoped he might change things, making your life marginally better. But instead, things have only gotten worse. Job losses have continued. Family and friends are unemployed, living off of disability checks, purchasing groceries with food stamps. Some are addicted to pain killers, with an old high school friend recently dying in an overdose. Bills, including for health insurance under ObamaCare, keep going up and up.
Meanwhile, Obama has spent his second term enforcing environmental regulations that could close the coal mine in the next county over, working on another trade deal that you fear will only decimate your town even more than it already has been, and circumventing Congress to admit more low-skilled labor into the workforce, where these immigrants will compete with long-time residents for the very few entry-level jobs that can still be found in your corner of the state. And now Hillary Clinton has doubled down on Obama’s immigration goals and offered very little by way of policy that gives you hope for improvement.
Instead, Clinton keeps ranting about the racism, sexism, and bigotry of Donald Trump — and now she’s been caught on tape calling his supporters “deplorable.” You’d been tempted by parts of his message, like when he promised at the Republican convention to be your voice, bring back good jobs, and improve your lot in life. But you didn’t seriously consider supporting him until Hillary Clinton talked that way about your Trump-supporting parents, brother, and neighbors. They’d always said that things would never get better as long as the elitists out East spit in your faces. Maybe they were right after all.
Is this woman on the losing side of history? If she occasionally uses crass, insensitive language to talk about members of minority groups (with whom she rarely interacts), does that make her deplorable?
You will note that Trump won a number of counties that previously voted for Obama. The idea that racism is what motivated those Trump voters is self-serving and false. Note too that 29 percent of Hispanic voters went for Mr. Build A Wall. Think about that.
Democrats knowingly chose to nominate a deeply unpopular, extremely vulnerable, scandal-plagued candidate, who — for very good reason — was widely perceived to be a protector and beneficiary of all the worst components of status quo elite corruption. It’s astonishing that those of us who tried frantically to warn Democrats that nominating Hillary Clinton was a huge and scary gamble — that all empirical evidence showed that she could lose to anyone and Bernie Sanders would be a much stronger candidate, especially in this climate — are now the ones being blamed: by the very same people who insisted on ignoring all that data and nominating her anyway.
But that’s just basic blame shifting and self-preservation. Far more significant is what this shows about the mentality of the Democratic Party. Just think about who they nominated: someone who — when she wasn’t dining with Saudi monarchs and being feted in Davos by tyrants who gave million-dollar checks — spent the last several years piggishly running around to Wall Street banks and major corporations cashing in with $250,000 fees for 45-minute secret speeches even though she had already become unimaginably rich with book advances while her husband already made tens of millions playing these same games. She did all that without the slightest apparent concern for how that would feed into all the perceptions and resentments of her and the Democratic Party as corrupt, status quo-protecting, aristocratic tools of the rich and powerful: exactly the worst possible behavior for this post-2008-economic-crisis era of globalism and destroyed industries.
It goes without saying that Trump is a sociopathic con artist obsessed with personal enrichment: the opposite of a genuine warrior for the downtrodden. That’s too obvious to debate. But, just as Obama did so powerfully in 2008, he could credibly run as an enemy of the D.C. and Wall Street system that has steamrolled over so many people, while Hillary Clinton is its loyal guardian, its consummate beneficiary.
Trump vowed to destroy the system that elites love (for good reason) and the masses hate (for equally good reason), while Clinton vowed to manage it more efficiently. That, as Matt Stoller’s indispensable article in The Atlantic three weeks ago documented, is the conniving choice the Democratic Party made decades ago: to abandon populism and become the party of technocratically proficient, mildly benevolent managers of elite power. Those are the cynical, self-interested seeds they planted, and now the crop has sprouted.
Of course there are fundamental differences between Obama’s version of “change” and Trump’s. But at a high level of generality — which is where these messages are often ingested — both were perceived as outside forces on a mission to tear down corrupt elite structures, while Clinton was perceived as devoted to their fortification. That is the choice made by Democrats — largely happy with status quo authorities, believing in their basic goodness — and any honest attempt by Democrats to find the prime author of last night’s debacle will begin with a large mirror.
As a college professor, I know that there are many ways in which college graduates simply know more about the world than those who do not have such degrees. This is especially true — with some exceptions, of course — when it comes to “hard facts” learned in science, history and sociology courses.
But I also know that that those with college degrees — again, with some significant exceptions — don’t necessarily know philosophy or theology. And they have especially paltry knowledge about the foundational role that different philosophical or theological claims play in public thought compared with what is common to college campuses. In my experience, many professors and college students don’t even realize that their views on political issues rely on a particular philosophical or theological stance.
Higher education in the United States, after all, is woefully monolithic in its range of worldviews. In 2014, some 60 percent of college professors identified as either “liberal” or “far-left,” an increase from 42 percent identifying as such in 1990. And while liberal college professors outnumber conservatives 5-to-1, conservatives are considerably more common within the general public. The world of academia is, therefore, different in terms of political temperature than the rest of society, and what is common knowledge and conventional wisdom among America’s campus dwellers can’t be taken for granted outside the campus gates.
Right. Right! More:
Think about the sets of issues that are often at the core of the identity of the working-class folks who elected Trump: religion, personal liberty’s relationship with government, gender, marriage, sexuality, prenatal life and gun rights. Intuition and stories guide most working-class communities on these issues. With some exceptions, those professorial sorts who form the cultures of our colleges and universities have very different intuition and stories. And the result of this divide has been to produce an educated class with an isolated, insular political culture.
Religion in most secular institutions, for instance, is at best thought of as an important sociological phenomenon to understand — but is very often criticized as an inherently violent, backward force in our culture, akin to belief in fairies and dragons. Professors are less religious than the population as a whole. Most campus cultures have strictly (if not formally) enforced dogmatic views about the nature of gender, sexual orientation, a woman’s right to choose abortion, guns and the role of the state as primary agent of social change. If anyone disagrees with these dogmatic positions they risk being marginalized as ignorant, bigoted, fanatical or some other dismissive label.
Read the whole thing. Camosy’s speech spoke deeply to me, and I’ll tell you why. As regular readers know, religious liberty has become the political issue that most motivates me. Over the past 20 years, the nation has undergone an incredible — as in, scarcely believable — sea change on the meaning of marriage and sexuality. A secular liberal friend of mine who was a civil rights and antiwar protester in the 1960s told me (approvingly!) that she had not lived through a greater revolution than the one that produced same-sex marriage. This is simply a sociological and political fact.
One of the reasons the movement triumphed so quickly and so completely, as I have written often in this space, is that ordinary Americans lost the narrative of what marriage means from a traditional, and from a Christian, perspective. The SSM revolution happened because the Sexual Revolution happened first. What gay folks demanded was based on the model of marriage and sexuality that the overwhelming number of straight people already hold. And gay marriage is now a popular belief. That’s not going to change, and any Christian conservatives who think Donald Trump, of all people, is going to reverse that are out of their minds.
But here’s the thing. There are quite a few people who are willing to live with the new marriage regime, but who deeply, deeply resent the way gay rights activists and their allies in big business, the media, law, and elsewhere, are bullying and demonizing ordinary people whose convictions cannot allow them to affirm the revolution. When you have the federal government in Washington ordering local public schools around the country to allow teenage boys who think they are girls into the girls’ locker rooms, you would have to be insane to think that that kind of thing won’t produce a backlash — this, even if the people offended by it cannot articulate precisely what they’re opposed to.
This, I feel pretty sure, is why Trump’s rage against political correctness hit a sweet spot within people who otherwise found him to be crude and objectionable. None of the usual Republican suspects could muster the courage to speak out in defense of these ordinary people and their ordinary views, which all of a sudden, virtually overnight, turned into the worst sort of bigotry in the eyes of academia, the media, and all the bien-pensants of the left.
To this point, note this story from 2014, about John Podesta’s outfit:
A top liberal group has temporarily abandoned plans for a new project designed to court white working class voters after it could not marshal the necessary financial support for the project, according to documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
The Center for American Progress planned to roll out a new effort last year called the Bobby Kennedy Project. However, insufficient funding for the project forced the group to postpone its launch until 2016.
The stated need for the project suggests potential pitfalls for Democrats in its eventual delay: In a midterm election year expected to heavily favor Republicans, CAP has apparently abandoned, for the time being, an effort to reach out to a constituency that it acknowledges could determine the viability of the Democrats’ voting coalition going forward.
Of course. Because the kind of people who fund the Democratic Party care more about gay marriage than they do about the Rust Belt. And now they know what that means.