Outgrowing the cosmetic left: A liberal plea for fake liberalism to grow up

We tell each other stories in order to live, right? Trump voters aren’t liberals' enemies, but their co-authors

Published February 25, 2017 6:00PM (EST)

 (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)
(Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Joan Didion said that in 1979, and it is the phrase I’ve had pounding in my head as America endures the early stages of the Trump administration. An uncharitable reading of Didion’s statement is “We lie to ourselves to feel important” but that feels reductive. Lies are tiny mistruths, told for profit or to shift blame. Stories are necessary fictions, and the meanings they create are as valid as the truths created from chaos. But which stories we tell ourselves matter. Occasionally, our stories get repeated so often, we forget to challenge them.

For instance, you’ve heard this one, that “2016 was the worst year in human history!” Yes, in 2016 the death camps of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen were in full effect, the American slave trade raged on, manifest destiny created the "Trail of Tears," the World Trade Center imploded, the trench warfare of the first world war kills thousands every day, as Pol Pot, Josef Stalin and Chairman Mao murder millions of dissenters, and that was before an assassin’s bullet passed through Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, before lodging itself into the gas tank of the plane carrying Richie Valens, the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly, which then exploded into the city of Hiroshima incinerating thousands. I’m not positive that all of those events happened in 2016, but George Michael died, and that caused a lot of well-paid pundits to declare it the worst year in history.

Of course, we all know 2016’s mortal sin. Donald Trump promised the world an ocean of shit, and America decided to snorkel in it. President Barack Obama was an imperfect leader heading an imperfect system, but even his critics concede he’s intelligent, thoughtful and doesn’t routinely talk about how badly he wants to have sex with his children. We traded that for a man who treats women the way an arcade claw treats a stuffed animal.

Since the inauguration, great swaths of the left have accomplished impressive feats. The width and breadth of the protests has been staggering. The town hall protests are enlivening and reinvigorating debate. Still, while actual liberals are forming a resistance to Donald Trump’s America, the fake liberalism of the cosmetic left — as represented and served back to its audience by many online-media platforms, including at times this lovely website here — tells us to double down on what we’ve been doing all along. Sure, it may not help anyone, but at least we can warm ourselves in the beaming light of our own smirk.

The legacy of the 2016 election is that it turned too many of us into a nation of children. It’s hard to argue for our nation’s maturity when our leader tweets like an unmedicated preteen and thinks, “No puppet! You’re the puppet!” is a cogent debate response. But leftists have acted as tribal as conservatives. Am I saying liberals are more childish than conservatives? No, but if our reaction is “They did it first” it doesn’t help our argument. But I am saying if liberals don’t change who we are — forget about the right-wingers — we’re doomed to look back at 2016 as a golden age of nuance and tolerance. We are telling ourselves the wrong stories.

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Donald Trump is a child, but he was elected because too many of us became children. How many times did you hear harmonica-playing Tim Kaine being called “America’s stepfather”? Or how Hillary Clinton talked to the electorate like a substitute teacher? Pundits say this with a smirk: The humor stems entirely from the assumption that we share their upper-class urban backgrounds. Every time I would hear this, I would look at the newscaster and think, “But you’re 40. Why are you talking like a child?” Why do we look to the authority figures of our childhood when we talk about politics? Because, like children, we observe society and wait for it to be handed to us.

Our politicians treat us like children, our media talks to us like children, and so how does the cosmetic left react? By rolling their eyes and saying “Ugh!” and “That’s not OK!” With think pieces about multicultural emojis and by reveling in how many famous people agree with them. You know, like adults.

After President Barack Obama was re-elected, Republicans did an election postmortem and came up with a strategy to appeal to a broader base. They then ignored it and won with Donald Trump. For the 2016 postmortem, liberals, because we tend to lean toward compassion, blamed the poor. We didn’t phrase it that way, of course. We blamed hillbillies, rednecks, trailer trash, as though this hasn’t always been prep-school code for poor people. How, we asked, could they vote for someone so opposed to their own interests?

I don’t understand why we look down on people who vote against their own interests. For one, why do you assume you know their interests? If you believe every abortion is the systemic murder of a child by the state, then whether you get an earned income credit on your taxes seems unimportant. Also, putting the good of the country ahead of your own pocketbook? I salute you, my noble friend, and wish you had a less idiotic idea of what’s good for the country.

Because we are inundated with childish stories, we interpret reality in childish ways. Conservatives weren’t the people who disagree with us. In superhero movies or cowboy melodramas set in space, the bad guys don’t “disagree” with the good guys as much as they want them sacrificed to their dark lord. Because we’re certain we’re the heroes, the election becomes about defeating an evil culture.

Culture matters. In fact, in politics, it’s all that matters. How many positions would Trump have to change for you to vote for him? When Trump said he’d replace Obamacare with “health care for everybody,” did your mind change? We vote to tell others the sort of person we want to be. That’s why pollsters know who you’re voting for by the music you listen to, the neighborhood you live in and a thousand other elements that have nothing to do with whether or not you read the news. It’s why the next time Beyoncé releases an album or Woody Allen releases a movie, you already know how your favorite websites will react. In art criticism, the aesthetic quality of the work matters less than what our opinion of the art says about us. In politics, the policy doesn’t matter; it’s what our vote says about us.

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Are people who voted for Donald Trump racist? It’s tempting to look at a Confederate flag at a Trump rally and extrapolate that to symbolizing everyone there. When a couple of Bernie Sanders supporters waved a hammer and sickle flag to protest a Trump speech, did that delegitimize Sanders’ message? If people think Bernie Sanders is advocating communism and point to that hammer and sickle flag as proof, we’d call that hysteria.

Trump’s supporters say they are worried about jobs, about economic insecurity, but we, the enlightened we, know better. Really, they are racists, whether they know it or not. We have reached the saturation point of calling things we don’t like “racist,” but haven’t offered a succinct, coherent definition of “racist.” All people have inherent biases, which surface even when we fight against them. If that’s the qualification for racism, then the word “racist” is a useless adjective, as it can apply to any person or piece of art. It also defangs the word. “Trump still believes the Central Park Five are guilty even after they were exonerated. That is so racist.” “Like in the way ‘A Christmas Story’ was racist? Or are we talking white-women-who-belly-dance levels of racism?”

Look, Donald Trump has been an asshole ever since he crawled out of his mother’s asshole. I’m not forgiving the racism of the Muslim ban, the border wall or his equivocating on David Duke. But the Washington Redskins have a racist name, and that doesn’t mean their fans are racist. To say everyone who voted for Trump is racist is the logical equivalent of saying, “If you voted for Clinton, you support the Iraq War. Maybe you personally didn’t support the Iraq War, but by voting for a woman who voted for the war, you support carpet bombings and drone strikes.” It’s worth noting that as toxic as Donald Trump has been, he has not — as of yet — done anything as bad as voting for the Iraq War.

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On her first show after the election, Samantha Bee, the comedic equivalent of a Facebook “share if you agree” post, said, "America has done the diplomatic equivalent of installing an above-ground pool. Even in the best case scenario and it doesn't seep into the foundation, our neighbors will never look at us in the same way again."

Who has above-ground pools? Poor people of all races. Rural people with yards. The joke is simply "Poor people who try to act rich are tacky. People who don’t have the money to get a proper pool are an embarrassment, and they should be more concerned with the judgment of neighbors than their own happiness."

Does that attitude matter to people? One of my best friends — a woman from West Virginia who organizes labor unions and has received commendations from the Obama White House — said when she heard Bee’s above-ground pool joke, she instantly felt like “the poorest kid in class.” She organizes unions and had everything at stake in Clinton winning, but to Bee she was just the stupid, poor kid from a stupid, poor state. That is the flip side of identity politics. It doesn’t matter what she does — only who she is.

Obviously, whites aren’t underserved by the media. But rural people — who aren’t just white, I’m embarrassed to have to remind the press — are wildly underserved by the media.

Do you remember the storms last summer in Washington that caused flash flooding, killing 23 people and destroyed 1,200 homes? No? Because it didn’t happen in Washington; it happened in West Virginia. As such, it was the fourth leading story on CNN, and it disappeared from the national news in a day.

But do you remember Hurricane Sandy battering New York and New Jersey four years ago? The storm that not only helped alter the 2012 election, but also the 2016 Republican primary? The one that led coverage of every TV channel and was on the cover of Time despite it being right before a presidential election? Of course you do — because it happened to New York. Thirty-seven people died in Hurricane Sandy, and I don’t want to minimize that loss — but isn’t there something unequal about the attention paid to an urban tragedy and to a rural tragedy? A neutral observer would conclude that a city life is more valuable than a country life.

The media is created in a few pockets of America — but only in cities. If an actor plays a character from South Boston with a Worcester accent, they get savaged by critics and professional wiseasses for years. Yet when actors play characters from anywhere from southern Maryland to San Antonio, they throw the exact same accent — think Foghorn Leghorn after drinking a bourbon laced with Rohypnol — that no human has ever had and they walk away with Oscars. These are small slights, but they matter. These are subtle ways to tell people they’re unworthy of accurate representation.

The great secret about the white working class is that it doesn’t exist. It is an arbitrarily divided subset of the working class, akin to the “right-handed working class.” Donald Trump did better with blacks and Latinos than Mitt Romney. Trump did worse with whites than Barack Obama. I’m not dismissing the role race played in this election, but when we think about it in simplistic terms — my side versus racists — we tell ourselves a false story. We identify false separations: the white working class versus the black working class versus the Hispanic working class. We neglect the very real division between urban and rural or wealthy and the poor.

The rich people who run your favorite left-wing websites aren’t really liberal. At best, they’re progressive fashion police. Constant carping about which movies get awarded, which jokes are acceptable, which millionaire celebrities we lionize isn’t about improving anyone’s lives. It’s about identifying a uniform.

Uniforms are childish. They invite judgment and show pride. Our culture is our uniform, but what has our cosmetic-left culture given us? Half-wit comedians making endless jokes about poor people, dumbass websites that repost celebrity gossip as breaking news, flaccid sarcasm, corporate feminist lip service, circle-jerk op-eds about “Star Wars” and “Ghostbusters?” All of which are so persuasive that we have Donald Trump as our president? I’m a liberal, but I don’t want to wear this liberal’s uniform.

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So what now? While smoke was still rising from the wreckage of the election, they told us to fight. “Don’t give an inch. Stay strong and fight.” The people asking us to fight are the same people who lost the election. The method of fighting involves giving money.

I’m done fighting. I’m done with militaristic language. When we give our police tanks and automatic weapons and treat them like soldiers, they think the neighborhoods they police are war zones. If we talk about politics as a war zone, then we think of the other side as our enemy. I’m fine regarding Donald Trump as my enemy. But what about someone who feels left out of the Obama recovery or who disagrees about the carbon tax? What about someone who hasn’t forgiven Clinton for her Iraq War vote, or someone who, already insecure about her place in society, felt insulted when Clinton said “deplorable”? I disagree, but they aren’t my enemy.

I’d rather work than fight. How do you work for a more humane, interesting and complex leftism? The same way you fight for it — which is to say, I don’t know. There’s a reason why the details of the fight turn as foggy as dreams as soon as anyone asks for specifics. Because they are basically telling you to keep doing what you’re doing. Dig deeper into your culture. Feel more pride.

The cosmetic liberal believes this kiddie-pool tidal wave of snark, outrage and self-gratification is the only thing holding back the abyss. But if the fight consists of watching TV and yelling “problematic!” then what good is our fight?

On Sunday during the Oscars, we will more likely hear from someone who believes that the intergalactical lord Xenu sent aliens down to populate the Earth than hear from someone who supports Trump. You already know the jokes — tiny hands, weird hair, Yuuuge — and you already know the headlines. “Celebrity DESTROYS Donald Trump.” You also know no one will challenge the crowd or show actual courage.

When Meryl Streep lambasted Donald Trump at the Golden Globes, did she risk anything? She spoke to a crowd of people who idolize her and already agree with her. That doesn’t make her wrong but don’t pretend she showed an iota of courage. But where this sort of fight turns from useless to insidious is when Streep takes pains to insult “football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.” I plead ignorance to mixed martial arts, but I imagine the practitioners are born with natural gifts and then work to hone their talents until they can ply their trade professionally. That is no different than what an actor or a football player or a writer or a drummer or a dancer does. Why does Streep exclude football players and martial artists? Because their art makes too much of a difference, it touches too many people, many of whom don’t already agree with her. Streep is the greatest actor Hollywood has ever produced, but does she think more people watch “Florence Foster Jenkins” than a random Week 7 football game? Football has millions more blue-collar fans, more black fans, more female fans, more Hispanic fans, more gay fans than “August: Osage County” or whatever semi-compelling Oscar-bait movie she’ll be nominated for next year. But to reach them, we have to respect them enough to persuade them. That takes effort, so it’s better to dismiss that art and that culture.

I’ve always thought that conservatives lived in a bubble. They do. That bubble isn't so close to reality that it brings the property values down, but it's the suburb of reality's city. But this election has made me know I live in a bubble as well. My bubble is in reality (close, at least — our kids go to the same school and we see each other in the grocery store) but it distorts my thinking. Understanding that and knowing that my story is subjective, I can meet the Trump administration like an adult.

Ultimately, that’s the lesson of our election. Our media and our politicians treat us like children, and we subsequently act like children. Those squabbling about “Ghostbusters” or the Oscars, who genuinely think they’re improving the world by doing so, may be right or wrong, but they are childish. If we tell ourselves stories in order to live, let’s also tell ourselves stories in order to grow.

When we blame a year, we’re blaming ghosts. When we regard our opponents as devils, we’re engaging in magic. I don’t know the efficacy of marches or sit-ins. I don’t know if financial boycotts will work, but if refusing to stay at Trump hotels, or not buying any product that advertises on far-right websites, or hiring Polish rather than Russian prostitutes to pee on you makes you a kinder and more complex person, then follow that path. I can say an activism that consists of hashtags, catchphrases, GIFs, celebrity worship and disdain for the poor is neither liberal nor effective. The cosmetic left needs to grow the fuck up.

Donald Trump isn’t something that happened to us; it’s something we created. The Americans who disagree with you aren’t your enemies but your co-authors. They’re struggling through the current moment as well, but whatever we create together, we will own forever. Instead of creating a false world of self-congratulations, of the personal affirmation of the “like” button, instead of the relentless promotion of who we are, let’s talk about what we do. The cosmetic left embraced the simple story, with flawless heroes, predictable jokes and snarling villains. But if America is our creation — and we are flawed but honest storytellers — it deserves a complicated story rather than a morality tale.

By Willie Davis

Willie Davis is the author of "Nightwolf," a novel forthcoming from 713 Books.

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