Donald Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio is only another of the hastening steps on his not-so-long march toward an authoritarian presidency. However incoherent his intentions, he's bent on becoming a tyrant — or at least trying to become one. And too many of us who know this are clueless about how to stop him, at least partly because we’re obsessed with secondary, almost irrelevant developments. Sometimes it seems as if we’d do anything but confront the most important challenge. Let me try, starting with how liberals have been dodging the full truth.
That haplessness in the face of a real challenge was on display at the Washington, D.C. bookstore Politics & Prose on Sunday evening, as Columbia professor Mark Lilla held forth on the dangers — and as he sees it, the evils — of racial and sexual identity politics before a seemingly contrite white audience. That was until a questioner asked him if he realizes he’s riding the crest of a lavishly funded, brilliantly orchestrated conservative campaign, led by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, to inflate identity politics’ noxious excesses in “politically correct” demonstrations on campuses in order to distract us from the far-greater dangers closing in on us.
Lilla, promoting his book "The Once and Future Liberal," mostly ducked the question, at first pleading ignorance of the campaign and then insisting, with something like circular logic, that liberals need to acknowledge that those noxious excesses do hobble their chances of winning elections. A week earlier, The New Yorker editor David Remnick pushed him to justify his sweeping, sardonic dismissals of today’s social movements and campus racial and sexual protocols on the grounds that they insult and alienate voters in aggrieved, white, working-class communities like the one he grew up in.
It’s an old argument (one I made 20 years ago at the same Politics & Prose bookstore). The argument still has merit, but is correcting the politically correct really what we should be doing now in the teeth of Trump’s attempted political lockdown? Or should we, like Lilla’s questioner at the bookstore, be focusing instead on what’s really causing the injuries and resentments that carried him to the White House?
"When I read Lilla's book and then talked with him for the New Yorker Radio Hour,” Remnick notes, “I found much to disagree with, not least his cutting dismissals of ‘social-justice warriors’ or movements like Black Lives Matter, which he sees as a ‘textbook example of how not to build solidarity.” Remnick questioned Lilla’s antipathy to social movements and to the follies of campus “political correctness” that Lilla thinks drive many of those movements.
Lilla acknowledged that part of the problem of campus “correctness” is driven by late-adolescent groping for identity and communal belonging, and that factors unrelated to identity politics are indeed in play. But his conversation with Remnick ends where it should have begun. It doesn’t ponder the far more overwhelming factors that are driving Trump’s march.
Responding to Remnick’s questioning, Lilla attributes some of his resentment of liberal identity politics to the fact that he grew up in the white-ethnic, blue-collar Macomb County, Michigan, which is to central Detroit what Long Island’s Nassau County is to inner-city New York (and to elite-liberal Manhattan) and what Antelope Valley is to both east and west Los Angeles: close enough to see and loathe the social disintegration and public mayhem that these close-in suburban counties blame on liberal elites and their social policies, which they believe indulged and even encouraged the disasters. But instead of delving into the social-class dimensions of racial polarization, Lilla tells Remnick that he instructs sheltered liberal students who condemn his ilk to:
LILLA . . . get out of your comfort zone. You’ve got to go to places where the WiFi sucks, where you have no desire to take a picture of your dinner, where you’re sitting at dinner with people who have their heads bowed in prayer in thanks for that dinner, and they aren’t terribly worried about whether spaghetti and meatballs is cultural appropriation. That’s what you’ve got to do. . . . Can we get enough out of our own heads to not just treat the people who aren’t part of our circles as yet another group —
REMNICK: You think narcissism is at the center, then, of the problem.
LILLA: Narcissism that’s fed by the fact that we’re a class-ridden society — class-ridden and also now geographically divided. We need to start thinking about the principles we hold that they also hold. We can’t do that by demonizing them and thinking that they’re all hopeless racists and reactionaries. Because that’s a comforting myth. Because then you don’t think you have to do anything but lay back, get behind your laptop, and send off some tweets. . . .
Fair enough, but Lilla and Remnick are avoiding what’s really causing that “class-ridden society” and its polarization of our politics and civic culture. It’s a little too comforting to Lilla himself to blame the anger of white working people on liberal ignorance of and disdain for them, when really it’s the conservatives who laud them most loudly and have betrayed them most unforgivably.
That conservative betrayal was a much bigger factor in Trump’s wresting the Republican nomination from his party’s self-proclaimed champions of the working class. Liberals had little if anything to do with it. Yet Lilla wields his own intimacy with Midwestern working-class ways like a cudgel against precious, upscale devotees of campus political correctness. I wonder if even those of us who grew up very close to those mores are supposed to bow our heads and give thanks for his rebuke.
Ironically, Lilla fled the very background he’s now urging us to understand and respect. Even when he was in high school, he tried a religious, evangelical escape and relished being a "prophet without honor in my own homeroom."
That he later did escape from Macomb County has left him conflicted, and that’s a credit to his conscience. But it doesn’t justify his having become a prophet without honor now in his university humanities homeroom, just when it’s under assault by forces far more powerful than political correctness.
Remnick, too, seems more inclined to talk about identity politics than to reckon with those larger forces, and not only for the understandable reason that he’s interviewing Lilla about his book: “I can almost hear the listener questioning: Okay, there are two white guys in a room discussing this,” Remnick reflects. “There are identity issues that really are of tremendous urgency, whether it has to do with sexuality, race, religion, and all the rest. ‘Easy for you to say’ — easy for me to say, perhaps. Why shouldn’t those things be of tremendous urgency to an 18-year-old or a 19-year-old? Or do you think it just overwhelms everything else?”
Lilla acknowledges that campus follies that have been blown out of proportion by right-wing and sensation-seeking media are mostly the preoccupations of late adolescents trying out a politics of self-definition through moral posturing. But he doesn’t reconsider his premise that university-bred racial and sexual identity politics are the major generators of electoral reaction. Neither man goes far toward acknowledging that identity politics is just one of many noxious symptoms of the implosion of American civic trust, candor, and common purpose: symptoms such as open-carry gun laws, massacres in public places, police shootings of unarmed young people, viciously degrading entertainment, increasingly gladiatorial sports, and heavily marketed escapes, from opioid addiction and casino-gambling to elaborate home-security systems.
Neither man seems to notice the fragility of the New Deal-era civic consensus whose memory is Lilla’s standard for shared citizenship in which we care for one another and uphold the rule of law. That New Deal consensus was cobbled together—and fatefully hobbled—by the Democratic Party’s Southern, segregationist, congressional committee chairmen, and by ethnocentric, racist Democratic politicians in northern cities who won elections only by catering to the narrowest interests and prejudices of their Irish, Italian, Slavic, Jewish, and other constituencies.
That great liberal dispensation faltered long before Reagan’s 1980 election and the subsequent neoliberal, Clintonite, Democratic “triangulation,” which was itself a dubious accommodation to another factor Hillary Clinton rightly identified as a “vast, right-wing conspiracy” to spotlight liberal bureaucratic and pedagogical abuses and blunders in order to displace blame from the dark conservative campaign against economic justice.
That dark campaign has seeded and orchestrated the rise of an American regime (I hate to use the word, but it now makes sense) of casino-like financing, predatory lending and intrusive, entrapping consumer marketing that drove increasingly desperate citizen-consumers to choose a casino financier and predatory self-marketer as their president. It has turned a society that at least paid lip-service to deliberating citizens, and sometimes actually vindicated them, into a rat’s maze of manic consumers for whom market exchange values are the only trusted measures of the education and even the journalism they consume.
Neoliberal Democrats were complicit in this transformation, and I wish that Remnick, aside from justifying a somewhat defensive racial and sexual identity politics in reaction to the resurgent, virulent racism and sexism that the collapse of the civic consensus has left in its wake, had also wondered about the causes of the collapse itself.
I’d have liked to see him ask why these two guys in a room — white or otherwise — aren’t talking about the fact that universities, upscale magazines and so many other institutions crucial to democracy have lost their civic missions as they’ve become proto-capitalist corporations, obsessed with customer satisfaction, brand name, market share, and bureaucratic workplace control. Universities increasingly design liberal education — and bill their students accordingly — less as an introduction to a common conversation and citizenship than as an individualist investment in one’s own career and little else. Buffeted by market riptides, even leafy, liberal-arts colleges are morphing into career-networking centers, curricular smorgasbords and cultural galleria for a more “colorful,” United Colors of Benetton diversity of a corporate-managerial class that no longer answers to, or cares for any grounded, democratic or republican civic culture or moral code. The Washington Monthly’s just-published yearly college rankings, which measure what colleges do for the country, not what they do for their individual student “customers” — is a rare, refreshing articulation, with evidence, of what liberal education needs to accomplish.
Lilla should assail the reality that collegiate political correctness is a late-adolescent dress-rehearsal for the protocols of corporate human resources departments. Have a look at New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.’s encouragement of identity politics in the workplace as long ago as the early 1990s, when he decided to emphasize and cater to his staff’s racial and sexual group differences as indispensable to his corporation’s success. Remnick and Lilla don’t go there. Their conversation reads as if conducted by and for someone seeking "the most comfortable and least compromising attitude he can assume toward capitalist society without being forced into actual conflict," as the critic Robert Warshow once wrote about the typical reader of the New Yorker.
A more effective response, not only to Trump but to what has produced him, shouldn’t be sweepingly "anti-capitalist" across the board. There's no returning to old-Marxist economic determinism any more than to Ronald Reagan's small-town, laissez-faire, entrepreneurial fantasies.
The answer will have to cope with technological, demographic and other tsunamis by developing broad-based, ecumenical movements like those the late writer Jonathan Schell described so rigorously and movingly in "The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People," with examples from the American Revolution as well as others in our lifetimes in British India, South Africa, the American South, and Soviet Eastern Europe.
The civic implosion and economic upheavals that have prompted Lilla’s miscarriage and Remnick’s indulgence of judgment are carrying us all to uncharted waters, where business-corporate priorities and constitutional and electoral politics can't reach. Americans need new forms of social organization that are no less rigorous and power-savvy than the responses Schell shows Gandhi, King, Havel, and others summoning from the depths of their own cultures and societies, and from what’s most universal and ecumenical in them.
Who will give us the inspiration? Who will provide the leadership? We won’t know unless enough is happening in more prosaic, grounded efforts that nourish such visions and myths.