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The center cannot hold


I’m going to turn this Henry Farrell tweet storm into regular old paragraphs, because I think he makes some very important points (I’ve lightly edited some of the grammar and phrasing now that it’s not stuck in 144-characterland):

Attention conservation notice: a thread, composed of a halfbaked mixture of the blindingly obvious and frankly speculative. Starting from the proposal that Trump’s failure to even try to “unite” the country after the bombs doesn’t only stem from his character but his business model.

Or to put it otherwise, it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his continued political success depends upon his not understanding it. Trump’s prospects for political survival don’t depend on uniting country, but on continuing to divide it in ways that are reinforced by the political geography of Senate, the rural-urban divide in House seats etc. Even if (implausibly) he wanted to build unity, he couldn’t stick to it without undermining his only viable political strategy (the people who hate him are going to go on hating him). This seems obvious.

What is maybe less immediately obvious is that the Democratic party faces very similar strictures. The broad aspirational claim that the country could be ‘united’ by a president depended on a very different ecosystem, where TV etc had a highly pronounced centrist bias.

As the historical work of and the ecosystem mapping of et al. demonstrate, this has been radically transformed. We now have a bifurcated media ecosystem, with Fox News and its satellites radically at odds with the old consensus, which persuades viewers into a version of epistemic closure (see also passsim). This means that Democratic presidents aren’t ever going to be able to unite the country either – a substantial minority will always believe they are part of a madrassa/benghazi/communist/globalist plot.

It’s notable that the last moment of purported ‘unity’ was GWB and the Iraq war – when the traditional media flocked to Fox’s view of the world, rather than vice versa. But there is a substantial minority that will never, ever be united beneath a president that has the (D).

So this creates a problem for the Democrats. They’re going to be asked to bring unity back to American politics, but they’re not going to be able to. When Clinton complained about the “deplorables” she was absolutely right. They may not be deplorable in the sense that they may be good to their neighbors, do not kick puppy dogs for fun etc, but they are going to be eager consumers of conspiracy theories, and they will be difficult to impossible to persuade given prevailing media structures.

What this means is that “uniting the country” is perhaps plausible as an organizing myth for a coalition that would like to think of itself as the unifying spirit of the country, but “uniting the country” should never be mistaken as a program for practical action. Indeed, that goal is likely to be a continuing problem, insofar as the coalition is likely to get cross pressure from a mainstream media that is still drinking its own home-brewed Kool-Aid, when that coalition takes politically divisive measures that are politically necessary under current circumstances. Justifying these measures in terms of broad political programs that are hard for media to assail because of their urgency – e.g. the need to restore American democracy a la Ezra, or the threat of global warming – is one possible way of responding that is obviously good on its own merits, albeit not always going to be effective in convincing media figures who still think they are in an earlier and very different America that operates according to different rules.

But if my barstool punditizing is right, then Trump’s immediate departure from uniting to dividing does not just represent his personal drive to spite and chaos.  It also reflects the real state of a country that is so profoundly divided that Humpty Dumpty ain’t never going to be reassembled properly. While deploring the ways in which Trump uses this state of affairs, Democrats should be under no illusions it can be fixed.

The dynamic Farrell identifies is related to reactionary centrism. What the reactionary centrist refuses to recognize is that centrism as a political position can only flourish by marginalizing the political fringes.  In America today, the ideological fringe is represented by, on the one hand, leftist critics of the Democratic party, and on the other, supporters of authoritarian ethno-nationalism.

The former group has no political power.  The latter group now controls the Republican party, which controls the national government.  The GOP has been slouching toward authoritarian ethno-nationalism for more than a half century, and now it is finally all the way there.

People who long for the return of some sort of consensus centrist politics should be working toward the destruction of the Republican party. The idea of political compromise with authoritarian ethno-nationalism is not only immoral: from a pragmatic perspective it is deeply absurd.


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