There’s plenty of blame to go around for Donald Trump: white anxiety (economic and otherwise), terrorism at home and abroad, the urban/rural divide, the media, Macedonian teens with too much time on their hands, liberal complacency, and even Hillary’s uninspired campaign. Cozy in our coastal strongholds, liberals across the country cried out to their secular idols and their Facebook friends, How the hell did this happen? Much of the postgame breakdown has focused on uncovering who Trump appealed to, how he did it and why we didn’t see it coming, but so far, we’ve failed to fully engage in the critical self-reflection that this moment offers us.
Now that we’ve had a chance to wipe away our tears (self-righteous and otherwise), let’s take a good, hard look at ourselves (presumably with the front-facing camera on our iPhones; mirrors are a bit low-tech for millennials). If Trumpism is a reaction against mainstream liberal culture, then our first task should be to flesh out and understand what complaints the movement has with that culture. And when we begin to have this conversation, it’s impossible to avoid that perennial punching bag of loudmouthed reactionaries and honest moderates alike: political correctness.
Videos taken at Trump rallies reveal an all out free-for-all of the most objectionable sort. Old men spouting f-bombs about Muslims and Mexicans until they go red in the face mix with some ambient shouts of “Sieg Heil!” until fading into an overwhelming chant of “Build the wall!” There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that some Trump supporters really do see folks like themselves (white, straight, Christian) as the truest Americans. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder how many of their slogans, like those of their leader, are only meant to shock and rile, without carrying much political conviction behind them. Much like a tailgate or a metal concert, the chance to gather with your peers and shout is a cathartic, exhilarating experience in itself. Having one’s opinions haphazardly and enthusiastically validated can be supremely desirable, and it should be easy to see why.
If your average Trump supporter sees raucousness and vulgarity as the antithesis of political correctness (their word, not mine), it bears asking what political correctness really means to them. It’s not just a delight in mischief that drives them to the public square to say such things. Some reject political correctness because they hold beliefs that liberal society has deemed unacceptable. For instance, why should I use someone’s preferred gender pronouns if I believe their lifestyle is sinful and must be discouraged? For this faction, political correctness is a kind of devilry, a tool for inculcating opinions they view as morally degraded. There’s no debating with these people, but then again, they’re nothing new. For as long as America has existed, there have always been those who would seek to use the government to enforce the dictates of their religion. There is no way liberalism could ever appeal to such folks, and the problem is one of differing values.
The majority of Trump supporters aren’t hardened ideologues though, so what of them? If you could poll a sample group of Trump supporters, you’d likely find plenty who say things like “I have gay friends though” or “…and I’m an immigrant” or “Yeah, but I’m black.” If it doesn’t seem accurate to cast them all as self-deceiving bigots or merely misguided, perhaps the answer is that there’s more than one way to not be homophobic, xenophobic, etc. That’s precisely what the left’s current “monopoly on reason” prevents us from recognizing. The self-satisfied, smug tone of the left does not appeal to these people, and why should it? The world of social justice offers only one role to the disgruntled white worker, to be an ally.
Allyship involves a curious mix of self-congratulation and self-flagellation. For the most upstanding allies, decrying injustice is almost secondary to feeling tortured over their own implicit involvement in the oppressive systems at play. Self-effacement is not only encouraged, but prized; allies are not meant to have their own opinions (owing to their privileged backgrounds), but to always defer to those of the more oppressed. As he rakes himself over the coals of his own upright conviction, the ideal ally wonders, “Have I decolonized my mind yet? Is my privilege taking up too much space in this conversation?”
And yet, it’s still possible to stand for the rights and dignity of oppressed people without all that whiny prostration. It’s just as possible that not all those who question the current direction of American liberalism are its enemies. Social progress might not always be painless, but couldn’t it be presented less as a rigid moral obligation and more as a collective project, voluntarily undertaken by equals? If being told that your identity prevents you from contributing meaningful opinions to a political debate makes you feel engaged and uplifted, you’re living in bad faith.
Still, I want to be careful not to claim that intolerance should be ignored or glossed over. I think liberals have a responsibility to call out idiocy, both on the other side and within our own ranks. The last eight years have seen incredible advances in the progressive social agenda, but now, as the forward rush slows and the tone of the country shifts, we must look at where our ways are leading us astray. Can we afford to be uncompromising, even if refusing to compromise proves counterproductive to our ends? If we want to move forward, we must shake the all-or-nothing, agree-with-me-or-you’re-part-of-the-problem attitude that helped us lose the election.
Contact Iain Espey at iespey ‘at’ stanford.edu.