Not having commented on the presidential campaign since last August (Chronicle 493, “Reality Politics”), now that the decisive moments are approaching, I thought an update would be appropriate. In particular, I have been following Adam Katz’s recent blogs and thought it would be useful to present an alternative reading of the situation.
Merely denouncing the victimary (“PC”), as the sharper conservative publications have been doing for some time, is better than nothing, but has never been very useful. David Gelernter in “The Elephant in the Room” (Weekly Standard, 2/29) is more lucid than most in attributing Donald Trump’s popularity to his invulnerability to PC, although his analysis of the phenomenon itself breaks no new ground.
Here is a quote from Adam’s blog of 2/20:
The truth is, you can’t argue about abuses of the civil rights legal and political inheritance without being forced to disentangle what from that inheritance is worthy of preservation. And you will then find . . . that, aside from simply ensuring every American citizen the right to vote, nothing from that inheritance is worth preserving—not the body of law, and not the anti-prejudice, anti-discrimination, blank slatist ideologies that have come to protect that body of law.
Adam’s point is that government-enforced equality beyond the most basic rights—aside from guaranteeing the right to vote, it’s not clear that he would forbid even such things as separate water fountains or segregated restaurants—cannot be prevented from evolving into a victimocracy in which any disparate outcome among ascriptive groups will be prevented or punished as an effect of discrimination. The argument is that of the slippery slope, a slope on which our country has indeed been slipping, and not just under Obama’s color-unblind administration. Once the law forbids, say, discrimination in the workplace or in college admissions, then the inevitable next step, whatever the criteria used really or ostensibly to choose employees or students, is to consider any disparity between the percentage of students from a given victimary group and its percentage in the applicant pool as evidence of discrimination. This would surely be done today with great alacrity for women in college admissions—were they to change places with men, who now account for scarcely 40% of such admissions. But even the most skewed percentages of victim-groups in prestigious roles are seen as signs of social progress, “making up for” centuries of discrimination.
The first-level response to this argument is that there is no logical connection between forbidding discrimination and enjoining equality of outcomes. One gives a test, and takes the best scorers, regardless of race, gender, etc. (Somehow this practice still survives—for how long?—at the Bronx High School of Science.) Surely that was what MLK was getting at with “the content of their character.” But this obvious answer has been proved wrong almost everywhere by events. The postal service exams I scored 100 on back in the 1950s to get summer jobs in college have been abolished; they had a “disparate impact.” And Adam’s point is that once you start looking at any such impact with suspicion, you can always attribute it in some way to discrimination. No need to prove intentional bias, unintentional is just fine. Wasn’t that postal exam unconsciously designed to favor people who look like me? There may be no logical need to draw this conclusion, but clearly there is a political need. And it is notable that not even Trump or Carson (whose denunciations of PC have been the most forthright) have questioned such procedures as eliminating objective examinations and giving certain races extra points on test scores. But then, is this really necessary?
This is precisely the kind of political conflict that the liberal-democratic system was designed to resolve. The blueprint for a democratic republic, as reflected in the US Constitution, which was crafted after considerable experience and reflection, takes into account that men will tend to form factions to advance their interests. Our famous “checks and balances” were designed to make it difficult for majorities to dominate minorities, to insure that the “rule of law” would prevail over the “rule of men.” But different groups have different interests, and political representatives are elected to defend those of their constituencies. Is it really so terrible to give some groups higher scores so that more of them can be admitted to prestigious colleges? (Let’s not go into how similar considerations applied to subprime mortgages back in 2008.) Did the post office benefit that much from an exam many of whose best scorers were seeking temporary jobs rather than long-term employment? Nothing in this should shock those familiar with liberal-democratic politics; that is precisely how it has always worked. We all know about log-rolling and the squeaky wheel.
But the difference, and it is a capital one, is that in the past, when interest groups insisted on their moral standing, their opponents did so as well; both capital and labor made countervailing claims for, on the one hand, a “living wage,” and on the other, a “reasonable profit.” But today, in many “symbolic” areas, the pressure is all in one direction. Today’s victimocracy substitutes for the idea of diverse interest groups dividing up the pie the dogma of the oppression of categories of victims by white-male privilege. Minorities are not interest groups but victim-groups who remain indefinitely entitled to compensation for their victimary status. The idiom for this is “PC,” but this term, whose original purpose was to impose tactfulness on civil conversation, has become a euphemism for the most brutal forms of victimary politics.
Under such circumstances, even if negotiations take place and compromises are reached, there is never a sense of satisfactory resolution. The victimary side considers that whatever demands have been met are only a down payment and awaits the opportunity for further protest. The opposing side, which is generally expected to apologize abjectly for having so long turned its back on the justice of its opponents’ position, goes away feeling not that it has reached an equilibrium that will swing back the next time to their side, but that they have quenched their opponents’ thirst for one day and await the increased thirst of the next.
I am not yet ready to give up on our political system, and I wouldn’t like to live in a country where businesses could choose their customers by personal whim. But the only way to invalidate Adam’s argument above is for the political process to return to the traditional model of “countervailing forces” rather than the victimary model that derives, as I would insist, from the absolute oppression of the Holocaust. Which leads me once more to… Donald Trump.
Precious few brave souls have dared to confront the victimary in the forum of public opinion. Among the current candidates for office, only Ben Carson, whose campaign is unfortunately no longer viable, has consistently denounced PC by name. But Donald Trump, who has not to my knowledge taken on victimary politics as such, is nonetheless perceived by his voters as invulnerable to it, and in consequence, not merely opposed to it but a bulwark against it. I would go so far as to call this the one essential trait that accounts for Trump’s domination of the nomination process so far. In my view, Trump’s chief attraction to his white working-class voters and others allergic to White Guilt is that he is perceived as indifferent to the considerations of tactful politeness that remain valid in private conversations and in civil society, but that have increasingly been allowed to contaminate the political process. That is why even his most egregious behavior, such as mocking a disabled reporter or making light of John McCain’s captivity, has not cost him, and may well have helped him, with his supporters. Contrary to what we hear in the media, Trump voters—whom the “elite” of both parties enjoy disparaging as the Democratic elite has been disparaging all Republicans ever since the “solid south” Dixiecrats abandoned the Dems in 1964—do not enjoy seeing him bully people or display bad taste for its own sake. But we all have seen, and they in particular have felt in their pocketbooks, the prejudicial consequences “good taste” and “tact” have brought about under the pressure of today’s victimary ascriptivism.
We do not really know if Trump would stand up to victimary power. Virtuous socialist Bernie Sanders met the other day with sleazy power-broker Al Sharpton—would we be altogether surprised if Trump did the same? Nonetheless, his voters feel, not altogether without justification, that regardless of the practical necessity of making deals with the Sharptons of the world, Trump would be invulnerable to moral blackmail by victimary groups in a way that the Democrats are not—and that the other Republicans, whether “mainstream” or “truly conservative,” again with the exception of Carson, might not be either. It is the man’s very narcissism that is understood as protecting him from accepting the premise of the victimocracy that he should feel guilt for his “white privilege.” If Trump made concessions to Sharpton, or Putin, or Khamenei, or Kim Jong-un, as he did when he called the Pope a “great guy,” we would understand this as a tactic, not an expression of White Guilt. Trump’s supporters are willing to put up with virtually anything for the sake of having a candidate invulnerable to victimary blackmail.
This said, however, it does not quite solve the problem that the victimary poses to liberal democracy. One cannot help fear that a democracy that needs a leader willing to violate the pieties of civil society in order to get us to “win again,” even to the extent that we need Trump—which is probably not enough to elect him over the uninspiring and amoral but undoubtedly competent Hillary Clinton, under whom the victimocracy would probably flourish a bit less radically than under Obama—that such a society is no longer truly a democracy, or at any rate a liberal one.
Like Trump who would “make American great again,” Mussolini and Hitler asserted national pride in times of humiliation, the difference being that we shouldn’t need as strong a remedy as fascism, for, as Trump never fails to insist, our humiliations have not been imposed by greater powers but self-inflicted, whether through a “Fukuyaman” certainty that history will do the heavy lifting for us (see Chronicle 503), or in the spirit of my oft-cited line from Swedish cabinet minister Jens Orback that we should be nice to the Muslims so that when they become the majority, they will be nice to us.
The humiliations of the victimocracy, submission to which has amply demonstrated the spineless arrogance of the intelligentsia and the media, have led us to this pass. In an era of “safe spaces” for designated categories of victims, our need to preserve a space for firstness is so great that we are attracted to the strength that allows a man to mock a handicapped person. To put it more crudely, the most vulnerable representatives of traditional America, those whom Peggy Noonan (Wall Street Journal, February 27) called the “unprotected,” increasingly feel the need for an American Duce to hold together the remnants of the liberal-democratic order. Our country is showing signs of what Girard would call a “mimetic crisis,” one that we can hardly expect the coming election, whatever its results, to put to rest.
* * *
Having watched the latest (2/25) Republican debate, I was struck less by Trump’s undoubted vulnerability to attacks on his personal finances, use of illegal immigrant workers, Trump University… than by his increasingly “presidential” air. In contrast to the wishful thinkers in the media, watching him fend off Cruz and Rubio, I had an impression of Gulliver among the Lilliputians. I doubt if these attacks will diminish his voting strength; Christie’s endorsement, that of the “strongest” of the drop-outs, reinforces this point. Trump is absolutely unflappable and it’s not at all clear that Hillary Clinton, with all her in-depth knowledge and experience, would do much better against him than his Republican rivals. Nor would she be as relatively free as they to seek the mote in her foe’s eye.
None of this, however, changes my main point. Compare Trump with Reagan, let alone with Margaret Thatcher, and the decline of our political system is manifest. The key point is that to be “presidential” today is, as “Spengler” (David P. Goldman) put it in endorsing Ted Cruz, to bearrogant. Reagan and Thatcher were able to conduct affairs of state in the face of real but loyaloppositions with grounded firmness rather than narcissistic arrogance. Our guilt- and resentment-ridden political universe is no longer hospitable to such leaders. Trump impressed me last Thursday; but I find him a lot closer to a Mussolini than our president should need to be.