My progressive friends,
It seems to me that your politics has two major goals. It has others, but these two seem the most important.
First, progressivism tries to build a powerful but flexible government, one that can alleviate a good deal of misfortune without becoming tyrannical.
Despite much libertarian propaganda, this is a plausible goal. The world is full of undeserved misery and failure; on that we all agree. And I can understand, even if I do not share, your conclusion that the state should face few limits to its ability to help the least fortunate. The chief limit that you propose, of course, is that the state must actually help the unfortunate, and never their oppressors. That’s noble. And again, that’s at least somewhat plausible.
For its second political goal, progressivism tries to populate this powerful, flexible government with people who share an especially refined sensibility: Bluntly, they must be good progressives.
Now, most other ideologies also want to populate the government. That’s nothing special. But there is a peculiar urgency to this goal for you, my progressive friends: Your single most important check on government power — the stipulation that it must help only the unfortunate — would appear to depend on always getting the right people into power. When the wrong people win, that powerful, flexible government may end up serving all sorts of bad ends.
Indeed, a whole genre of progressive writing seems devoted to proving that the author holds the refined sensibility needed to steer the state. The aim is not so much to raise awareness as it is to signal the awareness of the author. The exercise is difficult, and it involves carefully displaying much otherwise unwonted smugness. Because I read old books, I blame Rousseau for this tendency: Its modern apotheosis is named, fittingly enough, Salon. As you well know, conservatives love to mock progressive salonisme. More on their mockery shortly.
My progressive friends, I suspect that Donald Trump infuriates you because he shares only the first of your two political goals: Like you, he wants a powerful, flexible government. He just thinks that you progressives are a bunch of dweebs, and that he can do a better job of running the machine than you ever could. Sure, you built it. But he could run it better.
That’s why Donald Trump is no Barry Goldwater, no Ronald Reagan, no Jack Kemp. Conservatism was less threatening when conservatives only wanted to dismantle the machine, wasn’t it? Now, with Trump at their head, they’re asking to run it.
And he has such awful hair!
You think I kid about that last line, but I don’t.
Trump’s hair is a meticulously calculated signal. Same with his clothes. And all his other attributes too. Only problem is, his signals aren’t aimed at you. They’re about you. But they’re directed elsewhere.
And that fact, yes that fact all by itself, can explain Donald Trump’s preposterous hair: Trump’s whole public image says that he’s taken a good, hard look at the sort of sensibility that progressives think is needed in a leader — and he’s against it. In all particulars.
Does Trump mean the sometimes fascist signals that he sends? Or not? In a way that’s not the point. The point is that these questions scare you. And his base knows that you’re scared. That’s why he signals the way he does.
Consider that Trump could have totally awesome hair if he wanted. But that would send the wrong signal, wouldn’t it? The simplest choice, Eisenhower-style baldness, would be more reassuring; as even you must admit, Eisenhower was a thoroughly decent, temperate, and stable president. But decency, temperance, and stability aren’t virtues that Trump wants to signal. What he wants to signal is that he repudiates you, just like the rest of the grassroots conservative movement.
That’s right: Despite his billions, Trump’s doing all he can to signal that he’s among the wrongthinking riffraff. And he wants to make sure you know it. He has no patience whatsoever for your preening progressive sincerity cotillion, and he doesn’t care if one consequence of proving it is that he ends up looking a little fascist. (For what it’s worth, I often share the disdain for progressive salonisme. But in my case it’s because I find rulership itself disreputable. You can well imagine what I think of a signaling contest to show how very fit one is to perform a disreputable task.)
What scares you about Trump is that he will get his hands on the levers of power — levers that you yourselves constructed, over the protests of libertarians and old-style conservatives.
For years we who are not of the left put up with the taunts: Isn’t the right wing crazy? How silly to be afraid of the government! How unfair to think of federal agents as jack-booted thugs! To worry about black helicopters and FEMA camps and Jade Helm!
And now just maybe the jackboot is on the other foot.
My friends, did you never imagine that this day would come? Well. Some of us did. (Granted, some of us also imagined that the real menace might have been you. We may have been all wrong about that. Ain’t politics funny that way?)
In a democracy, progressives’ second goal, populating the government, depends on one of two things. Either the oppressed must be the most numerous — unlikely for long in a democracy — or else a coalition must be built consisting of the oppressed and their sympathizers.
But here’s the problem that you now face: The coalition of the oppressed and their sympathizers may turn out to be smaller than the coalition of those who only imagine that they are oppressed. In a halfway decent country, that may be the case fairly often.
Salon-hatred has gotten Trump a good long way on the right. And even further on the far right: Alas, it nowadays pays to read Trump’s white nationalist followers, which I have lately been doing. (You should do it too. It’s profoundly educational. And profoundly disturbing.)
With considerable historical accuracy, the white nats like to point out that immigration from Muslim countries was essentially impossible from 1921 to 1965. Although sponsored by Republicans, the bills that enacted this policy were overwhelmingly approved by both parties. The entire country agreed that Muslims don’t belong here.
And now? Now the exact same policy that we had for much of the twentieth century — the exact same policy that we had in the Eisenhower years — is denounced as unmentionable in polite company. It’s proof, the far right says, that America is spiraling leftward to cultural suicide. (And isn’t it suspicious, they ask, that this is the ONE part of the state apparatus that progressives have dismantled?)
It may not be the case, as the white nats like to say, that Cthulhu always swims to the left. But their point on immigration does suggest a frightening malleability to progressivism, if it can be more or less indifferent to huge changes like these. With highly plastic government, having your friends in office turns out to be really, really important.
Maybe the appropriate sensibility just changed. Eugenics is no longer a part of righthinking, as it was in the 1920s. But who in the 1920s might have predicted that?
Powerful, flexible government indeed. The white nats want it just like you do, my progressive friends. Only they want to use it to help the people whom they think are oppressed: white, native-born Americans.
And so we end up back where we began: a big, flexible government, run by the clique we happen to favor. And they’d better win the damn election, or the wrong people might end up in charge, and that big, flexible government might really do some damage.
Trump supporters may say it with as much title as you, or as anyone. Now, you will certainly want to defend yourself against the charge that you resemble them. And you have every right to do so.
A simple defense that will not challenge your ideological preconceptions in the least might run as follows: It’s possible to document the social status of various groups. And despite all the bleating to the contrary, whites simply aren’t oppressed. They aren’t even unfortunate.
I will agree with you here. I won’t challenge you in the least. Not, that is, if you don’t want it. But if you do want a challenge, I’ll be happy to supply a different one.
And here it is: Wouldn’t you rather that the present scenario happen less often?
Sure, Trump might lose, for all sorts of reasons. They start with the Iowa caucuses, which may do their good, anti-democratic work and give the GOP the reasons it needs to come to its senses. Trump’s organization is from what I understand shambolic, and it often takes organizational discipline to win a caucus state. So who knows.
But even if Trump doesn’t become president, the Trump scenario will live on, in the threat that someone who loves powerful government just like you will get into office, only with radically different friends and sensibilities from your own.
You’ve been building all these powerful tools. Perhaps some more checks are in order, both institutionally and normatively, so that in the unlikely event you lose an election, all hell doesn’t break loose.
My challenge to you is simple, and maybe obvious: Make it harder to govern in a discretionary manner. Imagine Donald Trump running the machine. Build only as much of it as you’d want him to run. Ponder the consequences to the legitimately unfortunate, whom you love, in the event that someone like him wins.
To your success,
[Image via Wikipedia]