Cultural Ascendancy and Political Complacency

I actually like Ross Douthat’s latest column because it’s provocative in the good sense. It’s true that Douthat is uniquely disqualified from having credibility on the subject of Donald Trump’s appeal. After all, no one assured us more emphatically that Trump would never win the Republican nomination than Douthat. But he seems to be slowly coming around to an understanding of what’s been going on in this country.

At first, I wasn’t sure where he was going in blaming Samantha Bee for Trump’s electoral strength. And, while his argument isn’t ultimately convincing, it’s sound enough to explore.

What he’s noticing is real, although his description of it is incomplete. It’s true that liberalism is culturally ascendant, relatively unquestioned among Millennials, and encroaching into areas where politics were previously muted or absent.

The examples he uses are adequate to make his point.

On late-night television, it was once understood that David Letterman was beloved by coastal liberals and Jay Leno more of a Middle American taste. But neither man was prone to delivering hectoring monologues in the style of the “Daily Show” alums who now dominate late night…

Awards shows are being pushed to shed their genteel limousine liberalism and embrace the race-gender-sexual identity agenda in full. Colleges and universities are increasingly acting as indoctrinators for that same agenda, shifting their already-lefty consensus under activist pressure.

Meanwhile, institutions that were seen as outside or sideways to political debate have been enlisted in the culture war. The tabloid industry gave us the apotheosis of Caitlyn Jenner, and ESPN gave her its Arthur Ashe Award. The N.B.A., N.C.A.A. and the A.C.C. — nobody’s idea of progressive forces, usually — are acting as enforcers on behalf of gay and transgender rights. Jock culture remains relatively reactionary, but even the N.F.L. is having its Black Lives Matters moment, thanks to Colin Kaepernick.

Quibble about the details here if you want, but he’s basically correct. If anything, he doesn’t go far enough. During the Obama presidency, there has been a steady growth of black, brown, gay and feminist voices who have moved from the media fringe or underground into the mainstream, as syndicated columnists, cable news anchors and regular guests, and (as it has aged) even as veterans of the administration. The growth of social media, especially Twitter, has also amplified voices of the cultural and ethnic left, pushing them into the conversation on every major news story.

I’m not sure we’d have a Black Lives Matter movement in this country if citizens hadn’t been empowered with cameras in their phones and the ability to publish their thoughts to wide audiences. So, there are many factors at play here. There are advances in the diversity of mainstream media, citizen-empowering technological changes, demographic changes, a leftward drift in the youth culture, and a dysfunctional response from the right all combining to create an almost radical shift in how our news is collected, sifted, and presented to the public.

But, then there are the people who are uncomfortable with or even disoriented by the pace of these changes, not to mention panicked about the political implications. And there are a lot of these people. We saw them emerge as the Tea Party almost (but not quite) spontaneously in reaction to the Democratic wave that hit Washington DC in 2009.

I agree with Douthat that this has been redolent of something we’ve seen before.

Something like this happened once before: In the 1960s and 1970s, the culture shifted decisively leftward, but American voters shifted to the right and answered a cultural revolution with a political Thermidor.

That Nixon-Reagan rightward shift did not repeal the 1960s or push the counterculture back to a beatnik-hippie fringe. But it did leave liberalism in a curious place throughout the 1980s: atop the commanding heights of culture yet often impotent in Washington, D.C.

By nominating a Trump rather than a Nixon or a Reagan, the Republicans may have saved liberalism from repeating that trajectory. But it remains an advantage for the G.O.P., and a liability for the Democratic Party, that the new cultural orthodoxy is sufficiently stifling to leave many Americans looking to the voting booth as a way to register dissent.

“Thermidor” is a reference to a stage in the French Revolution.

The Thermidorian Reaction, Revolution of Thermidor, or simply Thermidor refers to the coup of 9 Thermidor (27 July 1794) in which the Committee of Public Safety led by Maximilien Robespierre was sidelined and its leaders arrested and guillotined, resulting in the end of the Reign of Terror. The new regime, known as The Directory, introduced more conservative policies aimed at stabilizing the revolutionary government.

Consequently, for historians of revolutionary movements, the term Thermidor has come to mean the phase in some revolutions when the political pendulum swings back towards something resembling a pre-revolutionary state, and power slips from the hands of the original revolutionary leadership.

I think the pendulum metaphor is apt here, if not the comparison of Obama and liberal culture to a Reign of Terror. The Tea Party and Trumpism are reactionary responses aimed at establishing the status quo ante Obamum. When Trump says “We don’t win anymore,” he’s not talking about social liberals, gay rights activists, or the party that has won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.

Yet, on the Congressional, state, and local level, the reaction against Obama has been tremendously successful. And Douthat is correct that it’s also a reaction against the ascendancy of social liberalism, including what is often experienced as a stifling political correctness.

The picture isn’t complete, however, unless you also consider what Matt Latimer discusses in his piece today on Trump’s successful gaffe strategy. It’s a theme I have been hitting on for a while now, and it can be summarized as the near complete loss of credibility of the Washington Establishment. Time and again, Trump has insulted them in ways that would have sunk previous candidates, but enough of the public enjoys these insults that they aren’t disqualifying. If you thought people respected John McCain, you thought that mocking his captivity and torture would be seen an outrage rather than a long-deserved comeuppance.

You really have to combine these two narratives to understand why people shrug off Trump’s Birtherism. Latimer captures part of it as he goes over Trump’s recent decision to disavow his Birtherism and blame Clinton for starting the controversy.

To the insiders, no single moment in the campaign was more appalling, or revealing of Trump’s singular mendacity. His pirouette not only made fools of the press by getting them to cover an infomercial disguised as a news conference, it was a brazen effort to shift blame for a controversy that Trump did more than any other prominent American to promote. Surely, the press assumed, the public would see this? They saw it, all right—but not in the same way.

To an outsider, a savvy businessman had just engineered a brilliant ad for his latest venture, while efficiently backing away from a controversy he probably didn’t take all that seriously anyway.

There’s more truth in this than I’d like to admit, but the key is that few people took Birtherism seriously on its merits. They just liked that it was a big middle finger to the president and that it made the liberals go nuts. They knew what Trump was up to, in other words, so they don’t judge him now on his truthfulness.

What Birtherism has in common with other Trump gambits is disrespect for people in power and authority. So, going after the Bush family or McCain or the senators and governors Trump ran against in the primaries, these are all part of the same phenomenon, they have the same appeal, and they are judged with the same lack of concern for factual accuracy. If you saw how these people turned Trayvon Martin into a thug and George Zimmerman into a well-funded hero, none of this should shock you. Because it’s not just giving a big F.U. to the political and media establishments. It’s also about fighting back against a culture that suddenly cares about black lives, that insists on the legitimacy of gay relationships, that celebrates people who won’t stand for the national anthem.

So, Douthat warns us that we’re living in our own bubble. We see our cultural ascendancy as progress but we see less clearly how it’s creating a backlash.

If the Republican Party hadn’t imploded at the same time as the economy and the election of our first black president, it might have been even more of a beneficiary of this revolt, but it had discredited itself with its own base. As a result, they’ve been torn apart by the forces that were unleashed and cannot form a coherent counterattack.

I think you see how high the stakes are in this election. The Establishment is on its heels and its under attack by forces that will bring chaos and destruction rather than needed reform. The rallying point is Clinton’s candidacy, and it’s a candidacy that has a legitimacy problem of its own as Millennials aren’t exactly sold.

If they understood what Douthat is saying, they’d probably take this election more seriously and understand which side they should be on.

Thus Clinton’s peculiar predicament. She has moved further left than any modern Democratic nominee, and absorbed the newer left’s Manichaean view of the culture war sufficiently that she finds herself dismissing almost a quarter of the electorate as “irredeemable” before her donors. Yet she still finds herself battling an insurgency on her left flank, and somewhat desperately pitching millennials on her ideological bona fides.

I understand why people want more than what’s on offer. I wish they better understood what their choices really are.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.