interesting times

Andrew Sullivan: Trump’s Mindless Nihilism

Trump. Photo: Mandel Ngan/Getty

The trouble with reactionary politics is that it is fundamentally a feeling, an impulse, a reflex. It’s not a workable program. You can see that in the word itself: it’s a reaction, an emotional response to change. Sure, it can include valuable insights into past mistakes, but it can’t undo them, without massive disruption. As any Burkean conservative will tell you, the present is what you work with. “Home is where you start from,” in T.S. Eliot’s words. The reactionary, like the progressive, never fully grasps this, cannot see the connections that require that present actions are most effective when they build on what is, rather than what was, or, for the progressive, what could be.

I mention this as a way to see more clearly why the right in Britain and America is either unraveling quickly into chaos, or about to inflict probably irreparable damage on a massive scale to their respective countries. Brexit and Trump are the history of Thatcher and Reagan repeating as dangerous farce, a confident, intelligent conservatism reduced to nihilist, mindless reactionism.

Trump is careening ever more manically into a force of irrational fury. I watched his infomercial with Hannity Wednesday night and see a sharp decline even from his previously unhinged and malevolent incoherence. He riffed for a while on how the rise in the stock market since he came to office somehow halves our national debt. He asserted, like an American Erdogan, that no citizen can disrespect our flag, anthem, or country … or else. He claimed that the economy — which a year ago was a “total disaster” — is now a staggering overnight success. He boasted of unemployment numbers he described as fraudulent only months ago. In his interview earlier this week with Forbes, he sounds like someone so stoned he can barely parse a sentence, let alone utter a coherent thought, and whose utter indifference to reality still staggers.

But it’s the impossible reactionary agenda that is the core problem. And the reason we have a president increasingly isolated, ever more deranged, legislatively impotent, diplomatically catastrophic, and constitutionally dangerous, is not just because he is a fucking moron requiring an adult day-care center to avoid catastrophe daily. It’s because he’s a reactionary fantasist, whose policies stir the emotions but are stalled in the headwinds of reality. He can’t abolish Obamacare because huge majorities prefer it to any Republican alternative, so he is sabotaging it. He hasn’t built a huge wall across the entire southern border because it’s a ludicrous project that cannot solve the problem it was designed for. Ditto ripping NAFTA to shreds, which would cause immense disruption to three countries’ economies and ricochet around the world. Or attempting to ally with Russia against the E.U., as if Merkel was worse a threat than Putin. Or removing NBC’s license, which it doesn’t actually have, for political reasons. Or deporting 11 million people. Or pretending that climate change is not happening. Or a massive tax cut on the wealthy, and arguing, as Trump did Wednesday night, that it would create surpluses as Reagan’s did, which, of course, Reagan’s didn’t.

These are not conservative reforms, thought-through, possible to implement, strategically planned. They are the unhinged fantasies of a 71-year-old Fox News viewer imagining he can reconstruct the late 1950s. They cannot actually be implemented, without huge damage. And so he resorts to executive sabotage — creating loopholes in the enforcement of Obamacare to undermine the entire system. Or he throws a temper tantrum because Obama’s Iran Deal is actually working as promised, and attempting to undermine that as well. At this point, the agenda is so deranged and destructive almost every sane senior member of his cabinet is trying to rein it in.

In Britain, meanwhile, Brexit is in exactly the same place — a reactionary policy that is close to impossible to implement without economic and diplomatic catastrophe. Brexit too was built on Trump-like lies, and a Trump-like fantasy that 50 years of integration with the E.U. could be magically abolished overnight, and that the Britain of the early 1970s could be instantly re-conjured. No actual conservative can possibly believe that such radical, sudden change won’t end in tears.

May at the Conservative Party Conference in October. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

Last week, Theresa May had her first interview since her excruciating speech to her party’s annual conference. (Brief recap: In a pivotal moment after a disastrous and unnecessary election, May, in mid-speech, accepted a recognizable pink slip — the British Form P45 — handed to her by a prankster in the audience, then had a coughing fit that went on and on, then lost her voice altogether, but managed to squeak through to the end while the letters on the slogan behind her randomly fell to the floor. It was like something out of Veep.) Anyway, she was asked in that interview whether she would vote Leave if the Brexit referendum were conducted today. (She voted Remain the first time round.) To her credit, she just couldn’t get it out of her mouth. This is the British leader, in a now-minority government, beholden to every faction in her own party as well as a merry band of Northern Irish Protestant deputies, who obviously believes her current task is a form of madness. And this is supposed to be the credible negotiator with Brussels. Good luck with that.

Two notes on free speech on campus. The first is the decision last week by the regents of the Wisconsin university system to suppress legitimate protest from the far left. Their proposal — prompted by threat of legislative action at the behest of Scott Walker — is to punish students for “disorderly conduct that disrupts others’ free speech.” Whoa. That’s far too broad a category. Disruptions of events are, to my mind, integral to the exercise of free speech. Hecklers are part of the contentious and messy world of open debate. To suspend or, after three offenses, expel students for merely disrupting events is not so much to chill the possibility of dissent, but to freeze it altogether.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem. But the line to draw, it seems to me, is when a speech is actually shut down or rendered impossible by disruption. A fiery protest that initially prevents an event from starting is one thing; a disruption that prevents the speech taking place at all is another. Maybe a college could set a time limit for protest — say, ten or fifteen minutes — after which the speaker must be heard, or penalties will be imposed. Heckling — that doesn’t prevent a speech — should also be tolerated to a reasonable extent. There’s a balance here that protects everyone’s free speech — a balance that might be possible in a saner, less tribalized world. At the very least, defending free speech should not include attacking it as well.

Then there is the news that Drexel University has put a leftist professor, George Ciccariello-Maher, on leave because of threats to the campus from neo-fascists, after the prof tweeted some, er, controversial remarks after the Las Vegas massacre. Ciccariello-Maher has a history of offensive tweets. Last Christmas, responding to an outcry over a State Farm Insurance ad that featured a black man marrying a white woman, he tweeted: “All I Want For Christmas Is A White Genocide.” Hours after the Las Vegas massacre, he similarly tweeted three words: “A White Man.” In subsequent tweets, pondering why mass shootings have so often been carried out by white men, he explained: “It’s the white supremacist patriarchy, stupid … The narrative of white victimization” and “Trumpism” were the reason Stephen Paddock murdered 58 people. “White people and men are told that they are entitled to everything. This is what happens when they don’t get what they want.” Before too long, the entire right-wing mediaverse was writhing with its familiar leftist schadenfreude, and the usual trolls issued the usual disgusting threats and insults.

In the Washington Post Wednesday, Ciccariello-Maher defended himself. His comments, he argued, were “neither provocative in tone nor controversial in content“ but merely reflective of “decades of research on how race and gender function in our society. To be both white and male is to be subject to a potent cocktail of entitlement to economic and political power, and to dominate nonwhite and female bodies.” When that is in any way frustrated, he argued, white men massacre people. And he’s right: In the context of today’s campuses, there is absolutely nothing controversial about this. White means evil oppression. Just read your Bible — anything by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is literally impossible to be racist toward white people, because you are merely telling the truth and resisting white supremacy. (That’s why a professor who, after a murder, tweeted “A Black Man” would be fired on the spot, but a professor of color who tweets “A White Man” after a massacre is telling it like it is.)

I think this ideology is grotesque and perversely counterproductive for racial progress. But a leftist professor has every right to be deemed foul, racist, wrong, and perverse, and still be allowed to teach or, more accurately, indoctrinate his students. That’s what free speech means. I mean: If everyone who agrees with Ciccariello-Maher in academia were put on leave, most humanities departments would shut down overnight. Free speech is for everyone, including and especially those whose good-faith beliefs, backed by arguments and facts, can be viewed by some as racist. Defend Charles Murray and you must defend Ciccariello-Maher — and vice versa. Drexel was either cowardly for caving in to the threat of far-right violence and disruption, or much worse, violating academic freedom in punishing a professor for his expressed views. Reinstate him now, and make your next hire a conservative, please.

Just when I had given up on the web, I stumble across some new data. Yep, it appears that dating apps are changing our society, by becoming the second-most common way straights meet partners, and by expanding the range of people we can meet. (For gay men, it’s almost the only way people meet for sex and relationships.) But here’s what’s intriguing: Correlated with that is a sustained, and hard-to-explain, rise in interracial marriage.

Or so say two researchers, Josue Ortega at the University of Essex in the U.K. and Philipp Hergovich at the University of Vienna in Austria. Money quote: “It is intriguing that shortly after the introduction of the first dating websites in 1995, like, the percentage of new marriages created by interracial couples increased rapidly,” say the researchers. “The increase became steeper in the 2000s, when online dating became even more popular. Then, in 2014, the proportion of interracial marriages jumped again.” That was when Tinder took off.

No, there’s no causation proven, but the authors, running various computer models on the effects of wider online social networks, are stumped to come up with an alternative explanation. (Fewer white people as a proportion of the population can’t account for the sharpness of the rise.) Again: “The researchers start by simulating what happens when extra links are introduced into a social network. Their network consists of men and women from different races who are randomly distributed. In this model, everyone wants to marry a person of the opposite sex but can only marry someone with whom a connection exists. This leads to a society with a relatively low level of interracial marriage. But if the researchers add random links between people from different ethnic groups, the level of interracial marriage changes dramatically.” Even more encouraging, the marriages begun online seem to last longer than others.

I wonder if online dating doesn’t just expand your ability to meet more people of another race, by eliminating geography and the subtle grouping effect of race and class and education. Maybe it lowers some of the social inhibitions against interracial dating. Online, people don’t have to flirt with someone of another race while being observed by their peers, and more people have the courage of their own desires. It’s always seemed to me that racism is deeply ingrained in human nature, and always will be, simply because our primate in-group aversion to members of an out-group expresses itself in racism, unless you actively fight it. You can try every law or custom to mitigate this, but it will only go so far. But blur the races with miscegenation, and you add one more powerful solvent to the racism we all have somewhere in our lizard brains.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: Trump’s Mindless Nihilism