We write just a few days after the 2016 American Presidential election. About half of those who voted were pleased with the result. The other half were displeased: approximately 60 million on each side. It’s not clear that a dispassionate observer would grasp that fact, however. For the loudest, most strident, most uncompromising voices are heard almost exclusively from one side of this divide: the losing side.
This is not the place to comment on the politics of the election. But the extraordinary response from those whose candidate lost an open, democratic contest reminds us that elections can uncover cultural as well as political fault lines. Especially since The New Criterion is well embarked on a year-long series of essays about the perils and promises of populism, it seems appropriate to step back and consider the significance of some of those cultural fault lines.
A primal scream, not a well-defined grievance.
As we write, protests, some of them violent, many funded by left-wing activists like George Soros, have been a nightly occurrence several days running in a handful of cities across the country. Store windows have been smashed, automobiles and other property vandalized, and there has been at least one shooting in the midst of the marauding. Although those spectacles have garnered huge headlines, we suspect that they are among the least significant of the responses to the election. For one thing, they are likely to be short-lived. The host communities will see to that. (Though brace for a reprise at the inauguration.) For another, the rage that they express is unfocused and almost comically dispersed: a primal scream, not a well-defined grievance. For what, when you come right down to it, are they protesting? That one candidate, not their candidate, won a free and fair election. What if it had gone the other way?
Even more alarming from the perspective of American culture, we think, is the response on campuses and in the media. About the first, Alexis de Tocqueville offered a pertinent observation in his famous discussion of democratic despotism in Democracy in America. We have often had occasion to quote from that anatomy of how a centralized administrative state saps and enervates the manly spirit of a people by promulgating a “network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate.” (Did you raise an eyebrow at the word “manly”? Tocqueville just explained why.) Of special relevance in the present case is the infantilizing aspect of this process. “It would be like the authority of a parent,” Tocqueville observes, “if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood.”
“Perpetual childhood.” Is there a better illustration of this enforced immaturity than the regime of “safe spaces,” “microaggressions,” and “trigger warnings” on campus? Increasingly, today’s students—and their tutelary overseers—are bred without intellectual or moral vertebrae. They exist in an amniotic fluid of shared prejudice that admits no challenging ideas from the world outside. The last few years have provided a series of high-profile and pathetic examples of what happens when these embryonic snowflakes collide with an opposing thought. Wailing. Protests. Excoriation. Disinvitation. Repudiation. The election of Donald Trump was the most serious violation of their safe space yet. There were no trigger warnings, for everyone they encountered assured them it was impossible. This was not a microaggression but a frontal assault. They responded accordingly, and with a unanimity that would make a murmuration of starlings seem haphazard.
Our first inkling came from the Dean of Williams College, who began her campus-wide letter to students with this emetic:
This election season has been one of the most fraught, divisive, and difficult in history, and has been challenging for all of us. Many students (as well as faculty and staff) are feeling acutely upset, overwhelmed, and frightened [!] this morning. Please take this opportunity to reach out to your classmates, to offer support, to be open to discussion, to be ready to listen, and to remind everyone you see on campus that our community stands ready to support all of us.
The President of Williams, the preposterous Adam Falk, followed up with an email titled “A Path Forward, Together.” This hothouse communiqué noted how “Many members of the Williams community, including—but not limited to—women; immigrants, both documented and not; people of color; Muslims, Jews, and other religious minorities; and lgbtq people have felt directly and deeply the rhetoric of this campaign. The rhetoric was threatening and destructive both to the individuals at whom it was aimed and to our society’s most essential values.”
And speaking of the alphabet soup of grievance-mongering that begins “lgbt” (add endearments here), the Director of the lgbtq Center at Princeton began her letter with this:
Dear LGBTQIA [“IA”? Don’t ask] community,
I know that many of us may be feeling shock, confusion, fear or any number of emotions after last night’s election and the discourse throughout the election. Andy and I are here for you as you process . . . . You’ll see below that all three of the sibling Centers are offering lunches this week so that we can hold space together as a community.
. . . All emotions you may be having now are valid [what can this possibly mean?], and we want to be there for you through them all.
“Hold space together”? Alas, yes. It’s apparently a term of art. An administrator at Emory and Henry College wrote to inform students that a college center would be open for “folks who may feel a need to be in community and to hold space with one another.” No agenda, he noted, but feel free to bring “a reading or reflection about some of the following topics”: healing, reconciliation, peace-building, hope. No mention of bringing what might really be useful, namely an air-sickness bag.
While we’re on the subject of rhetoric, what of this use of the word “process”? It is everywhere in the response to the election. The Hollywood Reporter informed the world that “A strange silence descended on Hollywood on Wednesday morning as stunned studio executives, agents and producers went through the motions as they tried to process Hillary Clinton’s surprise loss to Donald Trump.” A student at Columbia wrote that “I want no class tomorrow to process. Fearful for my life!! Not trying to do a midterm while crying.”
Tears were another favored response to the tragedy. Cornell University even held a “cry-in” at which students were furnished with poster boards, markers, and chalk to express their emotions about the dread event. Many institutions mentioned Play-Doh and puppies. A student at Loyola University reported that “I cried until I vomited. I don’t even remember falling asleep, but I must have passed out from hyperventilation. I woke up with my eyes nearly swolen [sic] shut. My body is sore. My mind is numb.” Who could doubt it? Meanwhile, students at Bryn Mawr circulated a petition (there is a lot of that) asserting that “We need a day to heal after we’ve been told the country doesn’t value our existence at all. A Trump election directly endangers the lives of all students at Bryn Mawr College that are people of color, lgbtqa+, non-Christian, and female.” At Yale, an economics prof made the midterm examination optional for those students who “feared for their families” because of the Trump victory.
What they fear is a bogeyman of their own manufacture.
So: mommy and daddy scrape up in excess of $250,000 to send their delicately brought-up progeny to a good college and what do they get? An assurance that they will meet any challenge to their prejudices or emotional comfort by acting like spoiled kindergartners deprived of a sweet. A thought experiment: What if Hillary Clinton had won? Would colleges and university have indulged in this unseemly orgy of infantilization? To ask the question is to answer it.
The reaction in the media was a little different. There was plenty of infantilization on view there, too, but also a lot more apocalyptic melodrama. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, set the standard for minatory fatuousness with “An American Tragedy,” published November 9, within hours of the election’s being called. “The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency,” Remnick wrote,
is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy. . . . Trump is vulgarity unbounded, a knowledge-free national leader who will not only set markets tumbling [Really?] but will strike fear into the hearts of the vulnerable, the weak, and, above all, the many varieties of Other whom he has so deeply insulted.
Et very much cetera. Over at Vanity Fair, the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin shared a letter to his fifteen-year-old daughter and her mother. It begins:
Well the world changed late last night in a way I couldn’t protect us from. . . . I won’t sugarcoat it—this is truly horrible. . . . [I]t is the first time that a thoroughly incompetent pig with dangerous ideas, a serious psychiatric disorder, no knowledge of the world and no curiosity to learn has [won].
And it wasn’t just Donald Trump who won last night—it was his supporters too. The Klan won last night. White nationalists. Sexists, racists and buffoons.
Not to be outdone, The New York Times assembled more than a dozen writers to tell us how horrible and appalling was the news. We wondered whether Lindy West might be an alumna of Cornell. Her threnody begins: “I got up on Election Day and burst into tears—not a genteel twin trickle but a great heaving burst, zero to firehose. Tears spattered the inside of my glasses, dripped from my lips, and left mascara-tinged rosettes blooming black in my cereal milk.” We hope she threw out that mess. Meanwhile, Paul Krugman, the Times’s resident economic buffoon, came face to face with the possibility that he and his ilk “truly didn’t understand the country we live in.” Quite right, Paul, but that’s not to say, as you go on to argue, that a “great majority of Americans” are bigots who do not value “democratic norms and the rule of law.”
Perhaps the most perceptive comment on this tsunami of anguished and vituperative incredulity came not from a traditional pundit but from the cartoonist and blogger Scott Adams, who suggested that the whole anti-Trump fraternity “look as though they are protesting Trump, but they are not. They are locked in an imaginary world and battling their own hallucinations of the future.” What they fear and loathe is not Donald Trump, who—whatever his primary rhetoric—has proposed a reasonable platform of pro-growth and pro-American reforms. What they fear is a bogeyman of their own manufacture. At least since the Sixties, the left-liberal consensus in America has worked to undermine traditional notions of decency, order, merit, and achievement. So monolithic was that consensus that a sudden reversion to normality came as a terrifying disillusionment. Hence the surreal, paranoid, and tantrum-filled response of the coddled beneficiaries of our society. We think of a mot often attributed to Teddy Roosevelt: “To anger a conservative, lie to him. To anger a liberal, tell him the truth.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 4, on page 1
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