After last week’s revelations of Donald Trump’s raunchy braggadocio, his opponents feel warmly vindicated. They knew it all the time. But they remain incredulous. How, they still ask, could such a vulgar jerk have ended up a nominee for president? In this, they fail to recognize a core aspect of his appeal — not his specific policies or economic acumen, but his ability to subvert social norms that many people have come to loathe.
For example, early in his campaign, Trump took to making a certain terse directive a feature of his rallies. He would interrupt his monologue and tell everyone to turn around and face the reporters and camera operators covering the event. "Look at them!" he would shout as 3,000-plus crowd members stared and pointed their cell phones. "They’re dishonest!"
It was a tense moment for the press and a pleasing one for everybody else. People who felt condescended to by Katie Couric et al were able to put them on the spot. This was participatory democracy! You could see the gleam on the faces of the audience as they rotated as one, photographed the photographers, and heckled the writers who, in one instance I watched, squirmed and grinned nervously in the light of Trump and the Trumpists’ disdain.
You have to appreciate the brilliance of the move. Suddenly, the rules of political spectacle collapsed. The rules say that the media are there to broadcast and not to be noticed. Office seekers respect them because they crave coverage of their campaigns. But here was a candidate who declared open war on the media, drawing them out of the background and into the arena. "Look at them." This was no ordinary complaint of media bias. It was an antic, unnerving expose of fake neutrality.
Again and again, Trump changed the terms of the debate
It has happened again and again in the Trump campaign. Who would have thought that the establishment’s choice, Jeb Bush, could be discredited by so apolitical an epithet as low-energy? Trump drove the indignity home over and over, and Bush appeared flummoxed by it — thus proving the charge. Trump sensed that Republican primary voters didn’t want a sober, experienced conservative who might alter the course of the Obama years. They wanted a fighter.
Trump managed, too, to demolish the prevailing bipartisan free-trade dogma with another seemingly unhinged sally: the stark image of a 2,000-mile wall. It didn’t matter that such a wall would not be built, let alone that Mexico wouldn’t pay for it. The image did its rhetorical work. Trump instinctively realized that the way to broach free trade and immigration in the campaign was not with details. It was to go straight to the most contrary idea he could imagine and pare it down to one word, wall.
And has any Republican politician in the last 25 years been able to usher Bill Clinton, that alleged political genius, off the stage as handily as Trump did last December after Hillary Clinton raised the sexist charge against Trump? A few unsubtle threats involving the Clintons’ seamy past was all it took. It required a quirky kind of genius to change the terms so unexpectedly and make a presumed asset into a liability. This knack for breaking through political custom shouldn’t be underestimated or scorned as mere vulgarity and bombast.
Our culture has reached a point of exhaustion
While these actions enthralled primary voters, intellectuals and journalists witnessed them and judged Trump an aberration. Liberals saw him as a throwback to the days of sexism and racism. Conservatives thought that, with a weak candidate on the other side, the White House was theirs if only Republicans could find an accomplished center-right figure. Neither side saw Trump coming — but they should have.
Intellectuals are supposed to understand that history works on a deeper level than what day-to-day events show. We can look back on the past and see trends and truths underway that people at the time didn’t recognize. The philosopher G.W.F. Hegel terms it "the cunning of Reason," the advance of certain ideals and values, the spirit of the age, running beneath or through particular actions and individuals.
When one stage of history begins to run down, Hegel says, a "World-historical individual" often arises, a willful, single-minded strong man who disrupts the status quo and embodies everyone’s profoundest hopes and fears. He needn’t be bright or virtuous, just in perfect tune with the moment. Sometimes he is creative, sometimes destructive, but he is inevitable.
Trump was inevitable (as was Bernie Sanders). Our culture in late-2015 had reached a point of exhaustion, and after eight years of Obama and eight years of W., people had little faith that politics-as-usual would reinvigorate it. It wouldn’t take long for a brash populist figure, crafty in his sallies, careless of social dogma, and belligerent to the media, to emerge.
If our problems were only economic and political — say, bad trade agreements and over-regulation — deliberate adjustments in law and policy could remedy them. Jeb Bush would be one to do it. But the current disorders run deeper than wage declines and failed adventures abroad. They strike to the meaning of America and the grounds of civic life. The national mood is sour, and it’s not all about jobs and medical costs. There is something else to many people’s dismay.
The problem is this: Our society has sunk so far into sensitivity and guilt that it has relinquished the liberalism that both liberals and conservatives espouse. I mean the liberalism that gives people a bit of room to think what they want to think; that doesn’t automatically define one’s character by one’s politics or religion; that accepts human frailty and forgives people for brief lapses into racism, sexism, and any other prejudice.
This liberalism demands of citizens a thicker skin. It accepts that an open society, religious liberty, and free speech cause individuals the occasional bump into annoying words and deeds. The bar of reaction and protest against them must remain high or else conflicts will get out of hand and we’ll regulate ourselves into a testy polity. A society filled with people easily offended ends up an illiberal one running on manners and norms of deference and guardedness. They make up an etiquette, not a doctrine. When someone violates it, we don’t argue with him. We deplore him.
Americans are tired of being told, "watch what you say"
This illiberalism is affecting more and more of our nation. The dean at Emory College recently sent us a memo regarding the riots in Charlotte and elsewhere sparked by police shootings of black men. The events have been "especially disturbing," he writes; "many students of color have been emotionally affected." Teachers are to keep counseling services at hand and grant students leeway if they miss class and fail to turn in assignments. They should be careful in class discussions, too, because it "requires mediating between competing voices that are under significant emotional pressure."
I imagine most of my colleagues stopped reading after a few sentences, quickly gleaning the real message: "Watch what you say." In a time of sensitivity, you never know what might cause distress. When Martin O’Malley said in a Netroots gathering in Phoenix, "Black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter," he may have thought he was voicing Martin Luther King’s message of universal humanity. But boos arose instantly and Mr. O’Malley’s follow-up apology captured illiberal sensitivity at work: "I did not mean to be insensitive in any way or communicate that I did not understand the tremendous passion, commitment and feeling and depth of feeling that all of us should be attaching to this issue."
Gov. O’Malley’s self-abasement was matched by the indignation of his accusers. Together they produced the 10,000th apology ritual in American public life, which grows phonier every time it is rehearsed. But everyone plays along. When feeling and passion — tremendous passion and depth of feeling — become the yardstick of conduct and right, amplified by the media and politicians, the nation is going to go a little crazy. This is not a society moving toward greater enlightenment and tolerance. It is the advance of taboo and tribalism. When "All lives matter" slides from a noble Civil Rights sentiment to a post-Ferguson misdemeanor, a correction is in order.
Trump provided one last February in a speech in Alabama. When a group of black youths marched behind him with fists raised, he muttered, "Ay, yi," but then waited quietly until they passed. Some in the crowd started to jeer, but Trump intervened to contain the rancor and, more, counter the Black Lives Matter outlook. "Folks, folks," he said, "look, we have to love everybody. All lives matter. Remember that. All … lives … matter." Then he proceeded to talk about Marco Rubio sweating too much.
He made another correction in the South Carolina debate when he exploded the Republican dogma on Iraq. "Obviously," he said, "the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake … We should never have been in Iraq." The fact that Trump’s point, which shocked the other candidates, didn’t hurt him with the voters proves that it was a dissent in need of a voice. People question Trump’s claim to have opposed the war back then, but his honesty wasn’t the point. The point was that he had the pluck to say something many viewers believed but nobody else on stage was willing to say.
Intrusions such as these are necessary. Public life in America has become too repressed and scripted. When Mr. Trump pronounces, "America First," some of the people in his crowds feel profoundly satisfied. Is it an assertion of jingoistic arrogance, a shot at global economics and multiculturalism, an echo of Lindbergh-ism? Or does it tap into, more simply, a natural impulse to defend your home and take pride in your nation? When Trump promised violence should Black Lives Matter activists grab at his microphone, as they had at a Bernie Sanders event, was he displaying racism, or just insisting that he had a right to speak and not to be silenced?
The problem today is that debates over such questions cannot proceed. Sensitivities over race, sex, citizenship, and religion run too high. In this situation, only a blunt, unpredictable, impolitic leader will intrude and force the conversation. The prevailing argument against Mr. Trump among conservative intellectuals is this: "Yes, our society is in a cranky, mendacious condition, but we have bigger problems than hypersensitivity, and besides, you’re a fool if you think Trump is the answer. He embodies the very suspicion and resentment you regret."
A revolt against identity politics and class envy
Perhaps so. It certainly seems that overly delicate feelings in the citizenry are less important than a $19 trillion debt. But civic thinkers from the founders forward have understood that the American experiment depends upon what they called the "national character." If individuals lose that rollicking independence hailed by Emerson and Whitman, if touchiness becomes an acceptable American trait, a reduction in the debt won’t help. As for the resentment Mr. Trump emits, yes, it is there, but it’s a different kind. His resentment counters the resentment found in identity politics, class envy, and anti-Americanism. And in a culture war, as an opening salvo, it’s a better weapon than the nuanced, policy-minded approach of professional politicians.
It looks like Trump has little chance of winning. When Secretary Clinton becomes president, she will face a decision. Did Donald Trump lose because of his insensitivity, and does it mean that her administration must promote sensitivity culture? Or does Donald Trump’s popularity with a fair portion of the populace mean that sensitivity has gone too far and her administration must pull back from it?
Given Clinton’s efforts to court African-American and LGBTQ voters, we may expect her to follow the first course. But as we can tell from what’s happening on college campuses, where everyone walks in fear of committing or receiving a microaggression, that is not going to make America more inclusive and civil. It is going to plant more anxiety in human affairs, and people won’t like it. They’ll turn to another Trump. This is what oversensitivity provokes.
Remember that Trump has talked about running for president for three decades, but his candidacies have gone nowhere — until now. That’s because the Era of Hurt Feelings hadn’t reached the point of summoning its opponent, someone to cry out, "Enough!" and mobilize all the ones who are sick of wearing a straitjacket. We’re there now, at the dead-end of offense taking, even though Trump looks to lose. People are people, they have a tolerance threshold, and utopians always self-destruct. President Clinton had better realize that.
Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University and author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30.
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