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What the Left Did to the Right, and What the Right Is Doing to the Left
You want Trump and his party to lose in 2020. I get it. Wanting your people to be elected, so that they can pass your preferred policies, is normal—that’s politics—and part of Trump’s pitch from the beginning has been that he’s unlikeable and outrageous: personally insulting and mocking his opponents, threatening unprecedented measures (killing terrorists’ families, shutting down news organizations that criticize him). So, of course, you don’t like him—totally understandable. You want to defeat him at the ballot box—nothing wrong with that.
The problem is that if the left doesn’t first understand how it helped create Trump, defeating this one solves nothing; the left will continue unwittingly creating more Trumps. If you don’t understand history, you are doomed to repeat it.
It may be difficult for non-conservatives to imagine how thoroughly our society signals to conservatives that we are not the in-group. From official and unofficial cultural leaders (Barack Obama, NPR, the biggest movies and TV shows) to individual interactions with people we know personally, over and over again we are jarringly told that we are “the other.”
The close friend who told me, disappointed, Oh, yeah—I forgot you were a conservative. I guess I’ve systematically cut all other conservatives out of my life. The (very liberal) friend in college who changed his Facebook profile to “very conservative” just to be funny, and said he noticed that people immediately started shunning him on campus. The extremely smart and educated, otherwise kind and generous close relative who responded to my mild and brief offering of a dissenting political view with Of course we’ll never agree, you’re just a Republican. The friend who felt the need to “out” me as a conservative to the rest of the nonprofit board we served on when they were making small talk about the upcoming 2016 primaries: Did you know that Edward is a Republican? (With friends like these…)
It would never even occur to me to talk this way about my left-leaning friends.
Perhaps you have had similar but opposite experiences with your conservative friends; I am genuinely sorry to hear that. It may depend a lot on the social circles we happen to move in. Your mileage may vary, as they say.
I suppose that making us feel like outsiders in our own country and our own families, however alienating (literally), does not necessarily mean mistreating us. Maybe ingroup-outgroup thinking or identity tribalism is part of human nature. Slate Star Codex suggests that the measure of a person’s character is how well he treats people in his out-group.
Unfortunately, in addition to “othering” us, the left has also made a habit of bullying us—not that every individual does it all the time, certainly, but it is surprisingly widespread and mainstream on the left.
Again, by no means are all of our left-leaning friends bullies or complicit in bullying. Conversely, if your own views lean left, and if you happen to live or move in circles that are populated overwhelmingly by people who are culturally or politically conservative, no doubt you have experienced or are aware of bullying in the opposite direction. There has always been enough bullying to go around, unfortunately. One of the most universal features of human history is man’s inhumanity to man. But our left-leaning friends sometimes seem unaware of how widely accepted and mainstream this bullying has been on the left in recent decades, up to and including top leaders of our society. Another way to put it would be that there have been individual conservative bullies, or even particular places that have had a local culture of such bullying. But the practice of bullying conservatives has been part of our national culture.
And of course, there is the boy who cried “racist.” Wanting to enforce any immigration laws was racist. Wanting to reduce government dependency was racist. Being pro-Second Amendment was racist (especially bizarrely, given some of the actual history of gun-control laws). Opposing even more of a government takeover of health care (it was already far from a free market) was racist. In fact, any opposition to Obama was per se racist. As Jonah Goldberg puts it (I paraphrase), for a populist movement, the Tea Party basically did everything right, and they got called racist anyway.
So the right finally thought, why bother?
So the right decided to get their own bully. In effect, they hired Trump to bully the bullies.
I say none of this by way of excuse for any bad behavior on the right, past or present. It is no excuse. But it is a partial explanation. My goal here is not to judge or accuse but to help you understand. If we don’t understand history, we are doomed to repeat it.
The left’s response to Trump’s election has been to become even more disconnected from the perspectives of their right-leaning neighbors, and from any sense of perspective.
The left panics that Trump doesn’t care about the Constitution or other limits on his power—which is sometimes true, and I’m glad that the left has rediscovered the value of constitutional structural limits—but the left has never yet acknowledged, for example, that President Obama himself repeatedly declared that he had no constitutional power to change immigration law unilaterally (“I’m not the emperor”), then went ahead and did it anyway. The left deplores Trump’s demagogic attacks on opposition news media as “the enemy of the American People”—and they’re right, such attacks are demagogic—but it would help if the mainstream news media hadn’t spent my entire adult lifetime effectively (if perhaps unintentionally) running propaganda operations for the left in all but name. It would help if our left-leaning friends at least admitted that liberal bias in the media is a problem, as even the Washington Post and New York Times’ own spokesmen have agreed that it is. As Mark Steyn puts it, the news media ostentatiously make an effort to hire for every kind of diversity except the one that matters, diversity of ideas.
The Trump administration rolled back some EPA regulations to what they were in 2015 (i.e., the end of the Obama administration), and the left talked as if conservatives were the devil and wanted to make everyone breathe in poison. (There is a lot of “breathing in poison” these days, but I’m not talking about the air.) The Trump administration reverted to how the Obama administration had interpreted discrimination law until 2014, and the left talked as if conservatives were erasing their existence. The Trump administration reversed the “net neutrality” decision that the Obama administration hadn’t made until 2015, and the left talked as if it were the end of the world. Liberal activists threatened to bomb the FCC and kill the chairman’s children. I said at some point — Can we all at least agree that violence and intimidation against those we disagree with are not acceptable? — and some of you instead defended the bullies.
You literally responded to Trump’s obscene comments about women by pantomiming wearing giant genitalia on your heads. Some of you are still wearing them. If Trump had resolved to discredit his critics by casting a magic spell over them and ordering them to make themselves look ridiculous, the effect could hardly have been greater.
This is the point at which I think Jonah Goldberg would allude to Aesop’s fable about the scorpion and the frog: Trump is what he is. It’s what he’s been for decades; already aged 70 years old at the time of the 2016 election, at this point he’s not going to change. This is his nature.
In my line of work, we sometimes tell children, You can’t control other people’s behavior; you can only control your response to it.
Look, I get it. Trump is unlikeable, outrageous, infuriating. It makes all the sense in the world that you don’t like him, that you’re outraged, that you’re infuriated. Indeed, most relevant for our purposes here, he is truly a bully. So are many of his fans. But try to take a step back and see from a wider angle; try to understand that the irrational Trump fans you find yourself up against got to the place they’re at by being infuriated by other past events, fairly or unfairly. Many of them feel that they have been bullied. If it helps, treat Trump himself like Medusa: Refuse to look at him at all. Focus instead on the millions of ordinary Americans out there who have somehow become Trump fans and apologists; focus on your near friends and neighbors who you know share some of your own local cares and concerns and real-life hopes and dreams, but with whom you find yourself disagreeing on some things.
We can respond to the seemingly inexplicable events of recent years with righteous indignation and anger — it sure feels good sometimes, doesn’t it? — or we can try to understand how we got here. Work with me on finding ways to break this cycle of atrocities and counter-atrocities. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do know that the emotional reactions we’re tempted to have to our current politics seem to keep reinforcing some of the worst dynamics of those same politics.
There’s an old joke. An Englishman, a Frenchman, and a Russian are told that they will die tomorrow. They are asked, What will you do with the little time that remains to you?
Poignantly, the Englishman looks forward to spending the day taking one last walk with his favorite sheepdog over the beautiful Scottish moors.
The Frenchman says, I will spend the night in the arms of my mistress, whom I love.
The Russian says, I’ll burn my neighbor’s house down.
I would gently suggest that we have a couple of options. We can patiently and thoughtfully work toward making a difference, toward actually accomplishing something — political and cultural change, moving the country a little bit in the right direction, doing what we can within our little sphere — or, we can react emotionally, and have the (ultimately empty) satisfaction of burning our neighbor’s house down.
We can’t very well do both.Published in