interesting times

Trump Is Betting That Indecency Can Win in America

Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

In the deeply disturbing moments after Donald Trump invoked a three-minutes-of-hate session toward Congresswoman Ilhan Omar Wednesday night, and the crowd erupted with chants of “Send Her Back! Send Her Back!”, a protester yelled something inaudible, and caused a commotion. As security was called, the crowd chanted “USA! USA!” and eventually the young man was handcuffed and led out of the stadium, to the mob’s vocal derision and pleasure. In those moments, you can see Trump pause to allow the mob to vent against the dissenter. Frenzied participants gleefully whipped out their phones to take photos of the man, who was holding up pictures of Jeffrey Epstein and Trump together and wearing a “Native Trash” T-shirt — a defunct Charlotte band but also presumably a reference to all those who surrounded him.

Trump smiled that wide, satisfied, toothless grin of his, as the man was forcibly ejected, jutting his chin in the air, and strutting around the podium, inhaling the fumes of mob fervor like some two-bit Mussolini. He had formed an umbilical psychic bond with these people, a mastery of the mob few ever attain. He had tweeted only days before that Omar should “go back” to Somalia, and now his followers had created a chant to echo him. His claim yesterday that he tried to restrain the crowd, or was not happy with the chant, is belied by the tape, and by the thrilled tweet he issued afterward, actively touting the enthusiasm of his followers.

Yes, we have seen rallies not unlike this in the past, from George Wallace’s candidacy, for example. We have gone through periods in which minorities have been subliminally targeted in presidential rhetoric, along the Lee Atwater principle of using ever-more-coded racism to rally white support. We have had intense nativist phases during waves of mass immigration similar to the one we are now experiencing.

But neo-fascist rhetoric in huge stadiums designed to demonize dissent? New. Targeting specific nonwhite, female political opponents for deportation by a sitting president a year away from the party conventions? Unprecedented. An American president who delights in seeing mobs isolate and torment lone dissenters? I can’t recall any previous one so enthralled with such power. A president basking in chants to deport his political foes? As shocking and as anti-American as running in 2016 on a platform of putting his opponent, Hillary Clinton, in jail. Both chants —“Lock Her Up!” and “Send Her Back!” — invoke powers no president in a liberal democracy should have or want. They reek of racism, nativism, and misogyny. And they are chants for a strongman to replace the rule of law with the rule of Trump. The mob in North Carolina rhetorically wanted to give back to the Executive branch the power of attainder that monarchs once invoked to persecute their enemies. All of this is new. All of it is deeply menacing.

The base wants to target Omar because they have entirely internalized the idea that America is Trump, and that disloyalty to one is now disloyalty to another. In this sense, the GOP has become a profoundly anti-American authoritarian cult. I have some serious issues with Omar’s view of the world. But that’s utterly irrelevant. Nothing Ilhan Omar has said or done threatens liberal democracy in the way the Trump GOP now does. She is a mere congresswoman; he is the president of the U.S. Backing her 100 percent in this fight is the only decent way to respond.

Those who claim that America has always been like this, and that this is nothing new in a “white supremacist” country, are half-right. No one can or should deny the vicious racist undercurrents in American history, which reach today’s world in much more inchoate but tenaciously resilient forms. But they are also half-wrong, because it seems to me they’re missing the particularly malevolent genius of this particular man in this particular moment.

This is a time when whites across the West are panicking about mass immigration from the global south, and when the American left has doubled down on liberalizing immigration laws even as we reach a century-high peak in foreign-born residents and citizens. This is a uniquely treacherous moment for liberal, multiracial democracy everywhere it exists. Both Trump in the U.S. and Boris Johnson in the U.K. are leveraging this anxiety for their advantage and relying on revulsion to left extremism to distract from their mutual failure to resolve any of the questions they campaigned on. (The U.K. is still in the E.U.; mass illegal immigration into the U.S. is now higher than under Obama.)

And, in my view, it’s a strategy that’s working.

Trump’s strength, after all, is his sense of others’ weakness. He focuses on it, defines it, labels it, and knows no restraints in describing it. He understands that the moderate Democratic members of Congress — the ones who won the majority in 2016 — can be rendered invisible if he focuses on “the squad.” And he knows too how far left this groupuscule has gone, and how attention-seeking these newcomers are. He knows that their core ideological belief seems to be that liberal democracy is a sham for white control of “black and brown bodies,” and that in America, that means an entire system designed to wage an unending and vicious race war on nonwhites. And he knows that, in this argument, at this moment, he wins.

Most Americans find this critique of the country crude, reductionist, and one-sided, and as white panic intensifies, the ideology behind Omar appears increasingly threatening and malevolent. The squad is so far to the left that if Trump can run against them in 2020, rather than against any actual Democratic nominee, he’d win enough of the states he won in 2016 to secure victory. And there is a method to his bigotry. His appalling attacks on the squad have forced the Democrats to unify behind them, which they have rightly done, and so become tainted by association.

It’s win-win for Trump. The core reason that politicians before Trump have not made this kind of argument this crudely is that they feared a backlash from decent people. Some things were beyond the pale. Targeting political opponents for deportation of all things was seen as so extreme and divisive no previous pol believed they could benefit. Trump is gambling otherwise. He is calculating that his election has proved that indecency is now a winner in America, that cruelty can be popular, that liberal democratic norms are dead, and that the coarsest form of nationalism — my country, love it or leave it — is the key to political success. He is pulling a reverse Atwater, dragging the culture toward ever cruder racial appeals.

The nationalism he has embraced and fomented is one in which, in Orwell’s words, “actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage … which does not change its moral color when it is committed by ‘our’ side.” The purest form of right nationalism has found its purest enemy in left anti-nationalism, and is eager for a race war in order, temporarily, to triumph.

The way to fight this is to highlight his extremism, to show America that mass immigration can be controlled humanely, and aim for the center. But Trump’s rhetoric makes this emotionally impossible for many Democrats who are triggered and appalled by this man’s depravity. This polarizing dynamic all but guarantees a Democratic nominee further to the left on cultural and racial issues than any in recent times, if only to balance the emotional intensity of the Trump base. Our politics has thereby become a kind of tribal Twitter war, a non-discourse in which arguments almost instantly reduce themselves to bigotry, insults, ad hominem attacks, slurs, and deepening intransigence. It is becoming a crude racial battle for power, each side doubling down further and further, rallying their bases with racial rhetoric, reaching a climax in base mobilization in 2020. Democrats may be right that in the long run, in a fast-diversifying America, this kind of white nationalism has an expiration date. And given Trump’s anemic ratings, maybe a landslide in 2020 against him with the right candidate is still possible.

But they might also be wrong. Deploying this potent, unconscious tribal poison is now and always has been effective and could appeal also, in due course, to new immigrants of color, Asians and Hispanics, or to more whites who voted for Obama but have become unnerved by demographic change. Since “whiteness” can evolve to include many ethnicities, its future appeal may not be restricted to those we currently call whites. And in the short term, the Electoral College still gives states with solid white working-class populations most susceptible to this message extraordinary leverage in deciding the presidency.

This country has had volatile civil conflicts before. What’s different now is we have a president whose instinct in such turbulent times is actually to intensify the turbulence with rhetoric and mass rallies that foment greater and greater mutual hostility. Most presidents regard it as their responsibility to tamp down racial and cultural conflict. Trump, having no concept of any broader interest than his own, is incapable of it. His malignant narcissism prevents him from any other way of behaving, and each outrage becomes a new baseline for the next one.

So yes, we are in an abyss. And as Trump becomes increasingly emboldened by his survival, and one of the two major parties has become a cult, the bottom seems even more elusive than before. Think of what might happen if Trump loses the popular vote in 2020 by an even bigger margin but still ekes out an Electoral College victory. Think of how a close election could lead to Trump’s refusal to concede, and how the wheels could come off the entire system. What we know for certain is that, for the first time, we have a president who doesn’t care if that happens, who’d rather destroy the legitimacy of liberal democracy than compete legitimately within it.

I used to believe that it will get worse before it gets better. I’m no longer sure it will ever get better at all.

The Politics of ‘Gayer Than Thou’

It’s rare — even now — for a magazine to take down and actually disown the publication of an article, unless the writer can be deemed to have in some way offended the commissars of “social justice,” in which case, of course, all bets are off. For a left magazine to remove a classic gay-left essay is close to unheard of. But the remnants of The New Republic did exactly that last week, after publishing an article by Dale Peck on the candidacy and character of Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay Democratic candidate for president in American history. I don’t believe in removing articles from the web and I’m linking to the piece here because it really demands exposure. It’s a case study of gay-left political hatred for any gay man who does not bend the knee to their dated, depressing, and bitter view of the world.

At the heart of the essay is a point that could, in someone else’s hands, have yielded a potentially nuanced insight into Buttigieg’s psyche. Buttigieg only came out four years ago; it seems his first serious relationship was and is with the man he married. Buttigieg is thereby more a homosexual than an acculturated “gay.” He hasn’t had his identity forged by a subculture the way many gay men have, even though that experience is rarer as gay culture merges into the mainstream. Like many gay men who, as kids, fled from themselves, Pete does not seem to have had an adolescence the way that his straight peers did. Like many others over the centuries, Buttigieg channeled this repression into becoming a classic example of “the best little boy in the world,” a syndrome not unfamiliar to me or countless others. It’s worth knowing this, and it’s something a gay man is better placed to understand than others. But the idea that it disqualifies Buttigieg or renders him psychologically incapable of doing the job of president seems bizarre to me. That dynamic actually makes him far more representative of most gay men today and throughout history than Peck.

Buttigieg’s politics, moreover, are conventionally liberal — indistinguishable from, say, Obama’s. His only ideological fault is apparently being leery of the radical leftism that dominates gay activist groups and young socialists. Straights clearly like Buttigieg; Fox News crowds give him standing ovations; gays have opened their wallets for him to an astonishing extent; and the man is obviously brilliant, calm, and sane. His sexual orientation is part of him, but does not define him. I know plenty of gay men who disagree with him on some issues, many more who have been inspired by him, some who are underwhelmed, but no one who comes close to expressing the hatred that Peck does.

So where does that hatred comes from? Peck tells us: Buttigieg is the gay equivalent of an “Uncle Tom,” and he coins the term “Mary Pete” to smear him as such. How does “Mary Pete” betray gay people, you might wonder? Peck cannot point to a policy position; he cannot cite any alleged “hypocrisy”; he can’t dredge up the usual gay left smears of anyone who might be conservative or Republican, because Buttigieg is a liberal Democrat. His core critique of Buttigieg is simply that he is not the right kind of gay, and therefore is somehow disqualified from representing gays, in so far as he does, and because he is not as left wing as many young, urban LGBTQers.

The right kind of gay — surprise — is Dale Peck. Peck, in his own humble observation, is simply acting on a higher moral plane because he came out years and years ago, was defined by 1990s gay liberationism, and because, in all this, he and Pete actually do have something in common: “at a certain point we came to a fork in the road and I took the one less traveled,” while Pete stayed in the closet. This “gayer-than-thou” act is a classic of identity politics. It’s a way of ruling other people out of their own identity. It’s a form of power wielded to police the boundaries of gayness.

It doesn’t take long for Peck to hate on Buttigieg’s race either. Pete is another “unexamined beneficiary of white male privilege,” who deigns to believe he might be able to do some good for people not like him (how dare he get out of his lane?), and values things like family, and home, and civic responsibility. For Peck, Pete’s joining the military was as foul a decision as working for McKinsey. Peck too channels the contemporary left’s contempt for ideas like meritocracy, or hard work, ridiculing Pete’s many gifts as merely nonexistent apart from his “whiteness and maleness and financial security.” Then the coup de grâce: “The only thing that distinguishes the mayor of South Bend from all those other well-educated reasonably intelligent white dudes who wanna be president is what he does with his dick (and possibly his ass, although I get a definite top-by-default vibe from him, which is to say that I bet he thinks about getting fucked but he’s too uptight to do it).”

Suddenly, it is precisely Pete’s homosexuality that makes him repellent. Or rather the way he has lived his homosexuality. Peck’s beef with Pete is that they both “started out from a similar place, and I was lucky enough to realize (thank you, feminism; thank you, ACT UP) that the only place that path leads is a gay parody of heteronormative bourgeois domesticity.” So this is the betrayal of gay people that earns Buttigieg the Uncle Tom slur: Buttigieg affirms mainstream values, a home, a marriage, and maybe a family. For gay liberationists, that’s betrayal. And so every nasty anti-gay trope — which would be condemned if they were even hinted at by a Republican — is fair game, even deploying speculation about his sex life. In the end, Peck even implies that Buttigieg has too many issues as a gay man to be president, and will somehow act out sexually if he ever got into the Oval Office. Again, this could have been said by Jerry Falwell. But the religious right and many on the gay left have this in common: a loathing of gay integration and a profound hatred of other people living their lives the way they don’t approve of.

I have never had a problem with radical queers being part of the constellation of things that make up the complicated and diverse world of gay men. Let every flower bloom. My problem is when they refuse to extend that acceptance to others, and when they attempt to destroy any successful gay public figure who may have a different view of the world than theirs’. Part of this is simple jealousy. Buttigieg has done more for gay visibility and acceptance in his four years of being out than Peck has in a lifetime of puerile rage. Similarly, centrist and conservative gays have done far more to advance gay equality in the last couple of decades than the left — which was largely absent from the marriage fight (heteronormative oppression!) and from the military fight (destroy the Army, don’t join it!).

But part is also a view that what matters is not an individual’s unique gifts, biography, or talents and skills. What matters is the group, its place in the social hierarchy, and the imperative of all members of the group singing the same song in the same way — which is to say, always in obedience to left orthodoxy. The point of the gay-rights movement for the left was to join other oppressed groups in overturning the entire liberal democratic and capitalist system. The point of the gay-rights movement for those of us on the right was to expand the space in which gay people can simply be themselves. That may mean embracing the identity of queer nonbinary whatever, or it may mean simply getting on with life as an individual who happens to be gay. No one is wrong to be the person they want to be. There is no right way or wrong way to be gay.

I thought of Peck’s argument when confronted this week by a speech by Democratic congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, one of the four women who are increasingly defining the Democratic party for the 2020 cycle. Here’s what she said to Netroots Nation: “We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice. We don’t need queers that don’t want to be a queer voice.”

That’s why the hard left hates Buttigieg. Because he is a gay man who does not have what they believe is the correct “queer voice.” Because he represents an individual success story, who has entered public life to serve everyone — including Republicans — and because he has made choices in his life that are not compatible with being a proud countercultural subversive. Dale Peck has done us all a favor and made this crystal clear. It’s made my support of Buttigieg firmer than ever. With enemies like this, on far right and far left, he is doing something right.

How to Win More Than Just Blue States

There are two rising stars in the Democratic race — powered by strong performances in the debates: Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. Either one could well be the nominee, both are highly accomplished, but there is a catch, of course. Neither seems capable of winning independent or swing voters in their own hyperliberal states, let alone anywhere else.

At least, that’s one conclusion from the latest Morning Consult poll of senators’ approval ratings in their home states. Warren is surprisingly weak in Massachusetts: She has a 49 percent approval and 41 percent disapproval, a mere 8 points above water in a super-liberal state. I say “surprisingly” because most people aren’t aware of how unpopular Warren is at home. In an early Massachusetts poll, she came in third out of the presidential candidates. More recently, she had moved into second place but with still less than half the support for Biden — 10 percent backing for her, compared with 22 percent for the former veep — and is nipped at the heels by Buttigieg.

She’d crush Trump in Massachusetts of course — and by almost as much as Biden and Sanders. But there’s a weakness in her base, which does not augur well for her wider appeal in far less-blue states. Cory Booker and Harris do better, with net approval/disapproval ratings at plus 13, but neither cracks 50 percent support at home, and Harris has only 44 percent support in deep-blue California.

Of course, you also need to weigh just how liberal a state is to gauge how well the candidates are doing against each other. Bernie’s whopping 62-32 percent approval makes him, for example, the second-most-popular senator in the country, but Vermont is obviously a deep-blue outlier.

By all these measures, one candidate emerges as the strongest: Amy Klobuchar, in a Midwest purple state, with a 56 percent approval rating, and only 30 percent disapproval. I’m still bullish on her, even though she is barely registering in the Democratic polls. She has a much better chance in the general in the Midwest, she has an affect that calms a country increasingly splenetic and divided, and her policy mix is far more geared to winning the middle than almost any of the others. At some point, Democrats primary voters may become more familiar with her appeal. I sure hope so.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: Trump Betting Indecency Can Win in America