Donald Trump (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Don't blame Bee: No, Ross Douthat, cultural liberalism isn't responsible for Trump's rise

To suggest that journalist-comedians like Samantha Bee and John Oliver gave rise to Trumpism is ludicrous

Gary Legum
September 22, 2016 2:00PM (UTC)

First, a trigger warning: Today we are discussing a Ross Douthat column.

I feel compelled to offer this warning to Salon’s readership because the underlying conceit of Douthat’s column is to excuse the continued viability of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign by placing an outsized proportion of the blame on the rise of a tawdry social liberalism, one that fetishizes left-wing political correctness and its attendant safe spaces and cloistering effects. It is a column you can imagine William Buckley writing back in the late 1960s when all those longhairs were busy making “Laugh-In” a hit.


In other words, it is a lot of old wine in new bottles, with today’s comedy-show hosts like Samantha Bee and John Oliver representing the leftward drift of popular culture instead of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin. According to Douthat, these late-night hosts are “less comics than propagandists — liberal ‘explanatory journalists’ with laugh lines,” whom he accuses of delivering “hectoring monologues” instead of, I don’t know, hilarious jokes about black teenagers who won’t pull up their pants or something.

There are two points to make in response here. One is that in a way, at least as far as Oliver is concerned, Douthat is correct: “Last Week Tonight” does employ journalists on its writing staff so the audience gets some well-researched arguments along with the laughs. Sorry to intrude on your comedy with facts!

That leads to the second point, which is that Douthat does not bother pointing to a segment on any of these shows that is empirically wrong!

Of course, correction is not the point. The point is to blame the messenger for pointing out when facts match up with a leftist outlook. Hence the complaints about “hectoring,” about Bee’s “bluestocking feminism” (Women! Am I right, fellas?) and Stephen Colbert’s “winsome liberalism.”

But it is not just the comedians who have pushed the culture unacceptably far to the left, thus clearing space for Trump and his brand of xenophobic, racist nonsense. As Douthat told us:

Cultural arenas and institutions that were always liberal are being prodded or dragged further to the left. Awards shows are being pushed to shed their genteel limousine liberalism and embrace the race-gender-sexual identity agenda in full.

What Douthat considers an “embrace [of] the race-gender-sexual identity agenda,” could be more accurately described as, say, finally recognizing the contributions of previously marginalized groups that have spent decades fighting to make their voices heard in a mainstream culture that has generally considered them worthy of nothing more than opprobrium and mockery.


This seems as if it is something worth celebrating. In a country that has so often failed to live up to the ideal of “all men are created equal” espoused in its founding documents, treating or at least attempting to treat all people as worthy of respect and recognition is an accomplishment.

It is not “left-wing political correctness” to respect these voices. It is called “civility,” the same civility that Douthat is demanding liberals show to conservative viewpoints.

Douthat may not realize it, but anti-political correctness is what members of the alt-right — which is really just the same old white supremacists with new branding (again, old wine in new bottles) — have used to justify deploying atrocious bigotry in support of Trump. Sometimes this involves emailing anti-Semitic cartoons to Jewish reporters who criticize the Republican candidate. Other times it involves leaving threatening and vile messages for an American of Indian descent who is working for one of Trump’s opponents.

It is impossible to see these sorts of events, as well as countless other examples of xenophobia, nativism and misogyny that have popped up during Trump’s 15-month campaign, as anything other than bigotry of the rankest sort. That Trump supporters harbor objectively racist beliefs is backed up by polling.


In Douthat’s formulation, though, we are supposed to understand that these are all understandable reactions to the smothering nature of left-wing political correctness — that Trump’s appeal lies in his punk-rock aesthetic, and his supporters love him for pushing back against the cultural leftism that they find so suffocating. That's even while that same leftism might feel liberating to the previously marginalized who are now finding their own cultures and viewpoints respected and even celebrated.

But none of this is new. People did not suddenly become racist because Steven Crowder does not have his own conservative-leaning comedy show on TBS. What Trump has done is bring more into the open a strain of ugliness that has been part of America since its founding. It might have been exacerbated by the culture wars, or perhaps by the economic struggles of the middle and working classes over the past 40 years. But it has not been dormant.

What Trump has done is made it OK, even acceptable, to flaunt bigotry in public under the guise of not being politically correct. This is not the fault of the left. This is the fault of the bigots. It is a shame that Ross Douthat is given valuable real estate in the pages of The New York Times to excuse them.



Gary Legum

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