Let that be your last battlefield
This is an essay in POLITICO, by one of the publication’s founders, that argues that political conflict in America today is basically Seinfeldian, in that it is about nothing significant, or more precisely that it’s about aesthetic reactions to Donald Trump.
You think I’m kidding, right?
Let’s go to the text:
The real Civil War was about slavery — at the start, to restrict its territorial expansion, by war’s end to eliminate it entirely. Capitalists opposed to the New Deal knew why they loathed FDR — he was fundamentally shifting the balance of power between public and private sectors — and FDR knew, too: “They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.” The unrest of the 1960s was about ending segregation and stopping the Vietnam War.
This isn’t a great start, given that the author thinks that the civil rights movement in the 1960s can be reduced to “ending segregation.” (Commenter Karen might have a word or two about a lacuna or two here).
But anyway, at least this guy thinks that “ending segregation” and the Vietnam War were legitimately big deals. Today, political conflict in America is apparently like that Star Trek episode where the one character is black on the right side and white on the other and the other is white on the right side and black on the other, and the two groups to which they belong have burned down their whole planet just because of this difference (I think the moral was that we weren’t supposed to see color).
Only in recent years have we seen foundation-shaking political conflict — both sides believing the other would turn the United States into something unrecognizable — with no obvious and easily summarized root cause. What is the fundamental question that hangs in the balance between the people who hate Trump and what he stands for and the people who love Trump and hate those who hate him? This is less an ideological conflict than a psychological one.
This is Onion day at POLITICO, right? Or maybe this is all the product of some sort of crazy bet.
On the surface, of course, everyone knows what the Capitol mayhem and its acrid aftermath are about. One side unreasonably believes that President Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential victory was stolen, and the other side reasonably fears that former president Donald Trump’s followers are so slavishly under his spell that they are willing to hijack the legal apparatus guaranteeing free and honest elections in order to facilitate his return to power in 2024.
Wait wait wait . . . . even if we leave aside that this is even more reductive than describing political conflict in the 1960s in America as being about “ending segregation” this by itself seems like kind of big deal: One political party says the current government is legitimately in power, and the other says a successful coup has taken place, via massive election fraud. I mean does that count as a big political issue or what?
But the violent conflict spurred by the 2020 election flowed from years of conflict over every aspect of Trump’s rise to the presidency and his performance in it. In the nearly seven years since his presidential ambitions took flight in 2015, there has been a daily deluge of outrages and provocations, and a corresponding flood of explanations of what’s really going on here — why his partisans are so aggrieved, why they are so drawn to the most garish personality ever to occupy the presidency.
Efforts to explain Trump often rely on complex sociological or economic theories. He was a backlash to globalization and selfish elites. He exploited resentment of trade and the decline in real wages. He was the representative of people who disliked the cultural ascension of women and African-Americans and the diminution of working class white males. And so on.
All semi-plausible. All inadequate in the face of Trump’s zigs on one day and zags the next, and the obvious truth that most of his partisans are attracted to him less for any programmatic reason than for the sheer bombast of his performance — and especially that he offends his opposition.
The more the vitriol has risen the less consensus there is about the origins of anger. To the contrary, there is something closer to an establishment consensus that the search for root cause is folly — the Trump phenomenon defies explanation, and the threat posed by his demagoguery makes speculation about its origins an irrelevant distraction.
I think I lost seven IQ points just reading that.
The transcendent issue of this time — no matter the specific raw material of any given news cycle — is the belief that one half of the country suspects the other half is contemptuous of them, and responds with contempt in turn.
Let me spell this out for founding POLITCO editor John F. Harris, keen observer of the contemporary political scene for a publication that’s read by all the most serious and important people:
Donald Trump’s Republican party is openly committed to transforming the United States of America into an authoritarian ethno-nationalist one-party state, featuring the kind of “managed democracy” you see in places like Russia and Hungary, aka not actual democracy by even the very loosest definition.
And guess what, his ideas made some people mad!
And if you think Harris’s brand of drooling idiocy has no audience outside the desiccated corpse of David Broder and his band of hopeless DC insider centrists, say hello to my little friend Ryan Grim:
These are people who are paid — a lot! — to write about politics in America in 2022. This is like assigning me to write about cricket — a sport I know absolutely nothing about other than what I gleaned from Pasolini’s The Third Test Match. Except it’s much worse than that, because at least I’m actually aware that I know nothing about cricket and am therefore utterly unqualified to have any opinions regarding it. (Prof. Dunning and Prof. Kruger would like a word).
Dave Roberts nails this one I think:
And Nigel has run himself over. My god, this is exciting!