At his Thursday press conference Trump unleashed a frontal attack on the press, and appealed directly to the American people: he said, in not so many words, that he would not accept the press as an intermediary standing between him and the electorate because it is not an honest broker, but is instead tendentiously partisan, and fundamentally dishonest in its partisanship. Trump followed this fusillade with a Tweet labeling an alphabet soup of media organizations “enemies of the people.”
The media reacted predictably, and indeed as Trump predicted during his press conference. And you know what: He doesn’t care! Indeed, he relishes it, precisely because he knows that the people to whom he is appealing detest the media. And the primary reason that they detest the media is that they know the media detests them, and indeed, largely considers them beneath contempt.
Which brings me to my main subject, which is the left’s doubling down on identity politics post-election. This is the subject of an excellent essay in the Claremont Review of Books by William Voegeli (unfortunately behind a paywall).
Voegeli brings out a couple of very important points. One is the relentless, and indeed militant, subjectivity of identity politics. (This is something I’ve remarked upon going back at least 25 years.) The premise is that there are no universals, but that everyone’s beliefs, mind, and behavior are determined by their identity, which is the function of a nexus of primarily race and gender (with the latter definitely NOT being binary) and sexual orientation (and crucially, only to a very minor degree class/economic status–more on this in a bit).
This leads to an intense tribalism.* This tribalism inherently creates conflict and makes dialogue impossible. This is greatly exacerbated by the leftist belief that language itself is highly subjective and the product of power relationships. When the possibility of a common meaning of language is denied, conversion by persuasion and the demonstration of error through argument become impossible. The left thinks the Tower of Babel is, if not a good thing, an inevitable thing. In such a world, dispute can be settled only by conflict and the assertion of power. In this situation, language serves the purpose almost exclusively of signaling one’s identity tribe, and to one’s identity tribe, rather than to engage in civil discourse with those outside it.
Moreover, the most crucial part of these identities is victimization. Which requires a victimizer. The left of course has that all figured out, and of course it is identifiable by race, gender, orientation etc.: the victimizers are white, primarily male, heterosexual, and middle class. Often rural or exurban, living in the Heart of Darkness that stretches from the Hudson to the San Andreas fault (with a few small islands inhabited by good tribes, namely college towns, scattered there).
And as Voegeli notes, this creates a tremendous problem for the left. They were convinced that demography, combined with raising the identity consciousness of the victimized categories, would result in an electoral majority that would sweep them into power. Once in power, they could take their revenge on the benighted–and Voegeli points out that many (e.g., Harvard’s–go figure!–Mark Tushnet) were quite explicit in their desire to exterminate the American kulaks as a class.
But the demographic revolution has not proceeded as quickly as the left had anticipated, and they launched their revolution too quickly, while the hated kulaks were still in a majority (and in particular, in an Electoral College majority–pesky Constitution!). They also misjudged their enemy. (And I am not being hyperbolic here–they definitely view whites in flyover country as the enemy.)
They should have read Walter Russell Mead’s description of the Jacksonian American. It is usually politically detached and rather passive. But when it perceives it is threatened, it reacts with a rather frightening intensity, latent with the threat of violence.
A historical example illustrates this. During the American Revolution, the “Overmountain Men” of Tennessee, the proto-Jacksonians, largely remained aloof from the conflict. They wanted to be left alone. But neutrality did not satisfy the British crown. The British demanded subservience and support. British commander Patrick Ferguson made blood curdling threats to attack Over the Mountain unless subservience was forthcoming, post haste.
These threats pushed the Overmountain Men into outright defiance. Believing their liberty to be at risk, and not willing to bend to any man (which is why they were living in the wilderness in the first place), they flooded out of their mountain fastness and gathered near King’s Mountain, North Carolina, where they met Ferguson and his Redcoats. And proceeded to shoot them to pieces, killing Ferguson in the process, in one of the most decisive and one-sided battles of the war.
The Trump election bears some similarity to this. The left’s identity politics requires that their enemies either deny their own identity and submit, or commit suicide (which, in fact, some on the left have helpfully suggested). Yes, this may work with pussified white males at Oberlin (obedient products of the feminized primary and secondary education systems in the US), but it doesn’t work with high school graduates in Gunland. As the left found out to its horror and shock on November 8, 2016.
The old Marxist left always went on and on about how the internal contradictions in capitalism would cause its collapse. The new cultural left is blind to the internal contradictions of identity politics. One cannot reasonably expect that the Evil Identity–which the Good Identities constantly call out by name–will not itself consolidate on identity lines and fight back, but that is exactly what the left’s strategy requires. A strategy based on one’s enemy’s self-abnegation can hardly be calculated to succeed, especially if that enemy is Jacksonian America, which (a) already has a well-formed identity, and (b) has a nasty habit of fighting war to the knife when threatened.
Indeed, the irony here is almost too much. The gravamen of the left’s criticism of the white middle class focuses on the very characteristics (which Obama conveniently summarized as clinging to guns and religion) that make it dangerous when threatened. So it’s not like this should have been a surprise.
One last thing about economic status and class that is worth mentioning. Although Trump’s message does appeal mainly to the white middle and working class, the fact that it is primarily economic (jobs! factories! Make America Great Again!) its appeal is not limited to whites. Indeed, it has the potential to appeal to blacks and Hispanics who are in similar economic circumstances to the whites who put Trump in the White House, especially in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
This is a mortal threat to the left, because the supposed demographic inflection point has not arrived, meaning that the left needs every black and Hispanic vote, and it needs these groups to turn out in number. Indeed, by pushing away many whites who have in the past voted Democratic, the left needs these minority voters all the more. Therefore, Trump’s attempts to appeal to these voters, and the inherent appeal of his program to those in the 30th-50th income percentiles, and those without advanced degrees, regardless of ethnicity, is potentially disastrous for the left. This is why Trump has to be portrayed as a racist indistinguishable from Bull Conner.
The left has responded to the Trump defeat not by questioning the wisdom of its identity-based strategy, but by doubling down on it. Those who question–such as Columbia Historian Mark Lilla–are subjected to a torrent of abuse not much different from that directed at Trump. If you want to see the doubling down, look at the contest for DNC chair, which is all about identity politics. The most flagrant example of this being the statement of one candidate to the effect that she (a white woman) believes that her “job is to shut other white people down when they want to interrupt.” Yeah. That will work really swell with Jacksonian America. You go, girl!
Thinking about these things, and reading things like Voegeli’s essay, leaves me very dispirited. The entire premise of the left is that there is no common ground among Americans. We are a collection of tribes defined by racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation categories. Language is a reflection of oppressive power relationships, and is not to be trusted. If this is what one believes, then persuasion and debate and appeal to sweet reason are futile. It all comes down to a fight.
And the left’s big mistake is not recognizing that they have picked a fight with people who outnumber them, are quite disposed to fight back, and who now have as president someone who is quite willing to bring it on, and won’t back down.
I say this not because it is something I want. It is a diagnosis of what I believe the situation to be, independent of my desires. What I desire is that Americans accept a common civic creed applicable to all, and where diversity is respected by letting heterogeneous people pursue happiness according to their own lights, and where the role of the state is largely limited to protecting individuals from force and fraud attempted by foreign nations and fellow citizens.
But that is not what the left desires. It demands obedience to its (self-contradictory) creed of no common creed, and is willing to crush those that do not submit. It is acting like a modern-day Patrick Ferguson, and has stirred the descendants (some literally, most figuratively) of the Overmountain Men to take up their arms and fight. That did not work out well for Major Ferguson, and is unlikely to work out well for the left. Not that such an outcome would disappoint me. What is disappointing is that they have brought on this battle. Whoever wins, America would have been much better off had it not been fought at all.
*Reading Voegeli’s essay I was reminded of something else that I read recently, namely that most Native American tribe names were not given by the tribes themselves: most tribes referred to themselves by a word meaning “the people.” Instead, tribes were named by their enemies, and the name was usually something meaning enemy, or some negative characteristic.