The Death of Wilson: How the Academic Left Created Donald Trump
People need to understand that things aren’t going to snap back into magical shape once Trump becomes archive footage. The Economist had a recent piece on all the far-right demagoguery in the past, and though they stress the impact that politicians like Goldwater have had subsequent to their electoral losses, they imply that Trump is part of a cyclical process, essentially more of the same. Perhaps this might have been the case were this anything but the internet age. For all we know, things could skid madly out of control.
Society has been fundamentally rewired. This is a simple fact. Remember Home Improvement, how Tim would screw something up, then wander into the backyard to lay his notions and problems on his neighbour Wilson, who would only ever appear as a cap over the fence line? Tim was hands on, but interpersonally incompetent, while Wilson was bookish and wise to the ways of the human heart—as well as completely obscured save for his eyes and various caps by the fence between them.
This is a fantastic metaphor for the communication of ideas before the internet and its celebrated ability to ‘bring us together.’ Before, when you had chauvinist impulses, you had to fly them by whoever was available. Pre-internet, extreme views were far more likely to be vetted by more mainstream attitudes. Simple geography combined with the limitations of analogue technology had the effect of tamping the prevalence of such views down. But now Tim wouldn’t think of hassling Wilson over the fence, not when he could do a simple Google and find whatever he needed to confirm his asinine behaviour. Our chauvinistic impulses no longer need to run any geographically constrained social gauntlet to find articulation and rationalization. No matter how mad your beliefs, evidence of their sanity is only ever a few keystrokes away.
This has to have some kind of aggregate, long-term effect–perhaps a dramatic one. The Trump phenomenon isn’t the manifestation of an old horrific contagion following the same old linear social vectors; it’s the outbreak of an old horrific contagion following new nonlinear social vectors. Trump hasn’t changed anything, save identifying and exploiting an ecological niche that was already there. No one knows what happens next. Least of all him.
What’s worse, with the collapse of geography comes the collapse of fences. Phrases like “cretinization of the masses” is simply one Google search away as well. Before, Wilson would have been snickering behind that fence, hanging with his friends and talking about his moron neighbour, who really is a nice guy, you know, but needs help to think clearly all the same. Now the fence is gone, and Tim can finally see Wilson for the condescending, self-righteous bigot he has always been.
Did I just say ‘bigot’? Surely… But this is what Trump supporters genuinely think. They think ‘liberal cultural elites’ are bigoted against them. As implausible as his arguments are, Murray is definitely tracking a real social phenomenon in Coming Apart. A good chunk of white America feels roundly put upon, attacked economically and culturally. No bonus this Christmas. No Christmas tree at school. Why should a minimum wage retail worker think they somehow immorally benefit by dint of blue eyes and pale skin? Why should they listen to some bohemian asshole who’s both morally and intellectually self-righteous? Why shouldn’t they feel aggrieved on all sides, economically and culturally disenfranchised?
Who celebrates them? Aside from Donald Trump.
You have been identified as an outgroup competitor.
Last week, Social Psychological and Personality Science published a large study conducted by William Chopik, a psychologist out of Michigan State University, showing the degree to which political views determine social affiliations: it turns out that conservatives generally don’t know Clinton supporters and liberals generally don’t know any Trump supporters. Americans seem to be spontaneously segregating along political lines.
Now I’m Canadian, which, although it certainly undermines the credibility of my observations on the Trump phenomenon in some respects, actually does have its advantages. The whole thing is curiously academic, for Canadians, watching our cousins to the south play hysterical tug-o-war with their children’s future. What’s more, even though I’m about as academically institutionalized as a human can be, I’m not an academic, and I have steadfastly resisted the tendency of the highly educated to surround themselves with people who are every bit as institutionalized—or at least smitten—by academic culture.
I belong to no tribe, at least not clearly. Because of this, I have Canadian friends who are, indeed, Trump supporters. And I’ve been whaling on them, asking questions, posing arguments, and they have been whaling back. Precisely because we are Canadian, the whole thing is theatre for us, allowing, I like to think, for a brand of honesty that rancour and defensiveness would muzzle otherwise.
When I get together with my academic friends, however, something very curious happens whenever I begin reporting these attitudes: I get interrupted. “But-but, that’s just idiotic/wrong/racist/sexist!” And that’s when I begin whaling on them, not because I don’t agree with their estimation, but because, unlike my academic confreres, I don’t hold Trump supporters responsible. I blame them, instead. Aren’t they the ‘critical thinkers’? What else did they think the ‘cretins’ would do? Magically seize upon their enlightened logic? Embrace the wisdom of those who openly call them fools?
Fact is, you’re the ones who jumped off the folk culture ship.
The Trump phenomenon falls into the wheelhouse of what has been an old concern of mine. For more than a decade now, I’ve been arguing that the social habitat of intellectual culture is collapsing, and that the persistence of the old institutional organisms is becoming more and more socially pernicious. Literature professors, visual artists, critical theorists, literary writers, cultural critics, intellectual historians and so on all continue acting and arguing as though this were the 20th century… as if they were actually solving something, instead of making matters worse.
See before, when a good slice of media flushed through bottlenecks that they mostly controlled, the academic left could afford to indulge in the same kind of ingroup delusions that afflict all humans. The reason I’m always interrupted in the course of reporting the attitudes of my Trump supporting friends is simply that, from an ingroup perspective, they do not matter.
More and more research is converging upon the notion that the origins of human cooperation lie in human enmity. Think Band of Brothers only in an evolutionary context. In the endless ‘wars before civilization’ one might expect those groups possessing members willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of their fellows would prevail in territorial conflicts against groups possessing members inclined to break and run. Morality has been cut from the hip of murder.
This thesis is supported by the radical differences in our ability to ‘think critically’ when interacting with ingroup confederates as opposed to outgroup competitors. We are all but incapable of listening, and therefore responding rationally, to those we perceive as threats. This is largely why I think literature, minimally understood as fiction that challenges assumptions, is all but dead. Ask yourself: Why is it so easy to predict that so very few Trump supporters have read Underworld? Because literary fiction caters to the likeminded, and now, thanks to the precision of the relationship between buyer and seller, it is only read by the likeminded.
But of course, whenever you make these kinds of arguments to academic liberals you are promptly identified as an outgroup competitor, and you are assumed to have some ideological or psychological defect preventing genuine critical self-appraisal. For all their rhetoric regarding ‘critical thinking,’ academic liberals are every bit as thin-skinned as Trump supporters. They too feel put upon, besieged. I gave up making this case because I realized that academic liberals would only be able to hear it coming from the lips of one of their own, and even then, only after something significant enough happened to rattle their faith in their flattering institutional assumptions. They know that institutions are self-regarding, they admit they are inevitably tarred by the same brush, but they think knowing this somehow makes them ‘self-critical’ and so less prone to ingroup dysrationalia. Like every other human on the planet, they agree with themselves in ways that flatter themselves. And they direct their communication accordingly.
I knew it was only a matter of time before something happened. Wilson was dead. My efforts to eke out a new model, to surmount cultural balkanization, motivated me to engage in ‘blog wars’ with two very different extremists on the web (both of whom would be kind enough to oblige my predictions). This experience vividly demonstrated to me how dramatically the academic left was losing the ‘culture wars.’ Conservative politicians, meanwhile, were becoming more aggressively regressive in their rhetoric, more willing to publicly espouse chauvinisms that I had assumed safely buried.
The academic left was losing the war for the hearts and minds of white America. But so long as enrollment remained steady and book sales remained strong, they remained convinced that nothing fundamental was wrong with their model of cultural engagement, even as technology assured a greater match between them and those largely approving of them. Only now, with Trump, are they beginning to realize the degree to which the technological transformation of their habitat has rendered them culturally ineffective. As George Saunders writes in “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” in The New Yorker:
Intellectually and emotionally weakened by years of steadily degraded public discourse, we are now two separate ideological countries, LeftLand and RightLand, speaking different languages, the lines between us down. Not only do our two subcountries reason differently; they draw upon non-intersecting data sets and access entirely different mythological systems. You and I approach a castle. One of us has watched only “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” the other only “Game of Thrones.” What is the meaning, to the collective “we,” of yon castle? We have no common basis from which to discuss it. You, the other knight, strike me as bafflingly ignorant, a little unmoored. In the old days, a liberal and a conservative (a “dove” and a “hawk,” say) got their data from one of three nightly news programs, a local paper, and a handful of national magazines, and were thus starting with the same basic facts (even if those facts were questionable, limited, or erroneous). Now each of us constructs a custom informational universe, wittingly (we choose to go to the sources that uphold our existing beliefs and thus flatter us) or unwittingly (our app algorithms do the driving for us). The data we get this way, pre-imprinted with spin and mythos, are intensely one-dimensional.
The first, most significant thing to realize about this passage is that it’s written by George Saunders for The New Yorker, a premier ingroup cultural authority on a premier ingroup cultural podium. On the view given here, Saunders pretty much epitomizes the dysfunction of literary culture, an academic at Syracuse University, the winner of countless literary awards (which is to say, better at impressing the likeminded than most), and, I think, clearly a genius of some description.
To provide some rudimentary context, Saunders attends a number of Trump rallies, making observations and engaging Trump supporters and protesters alike (but mostly the former) asking gentle questions, and receiving, for the most part, gentle answers. What he describes observation-wise are instances of ingroup psychology at work, individuals, complete strangers in many cases, making forceful demonstrations of ingroup solidarity and resolve. He chronicles something countless humans have witnessed over countless years, and he fears for the same reasons all those generations have feared. If he is puzzled, he is unnerved more.
He isolates two culprits in the above passage, the ‘intellectual and emotional weakening brought about by degraded public discourse,’ and more significantly, the way the contemporary media landscape has allowed Americans to ideologically insulate themselves against the possibility of doubt and negotiation. He blames, essentially, the death of Wilson.
As a paradigmatic ‘critical thinker,’ he’s careful to throw his own ‘subject position’ into mix, to frame the problem in a manner that distributes responsibility equally. It’s almost painful to read, at times, watching him walk the tightrope of hypocrisy, buffeted by gust after gust of ingroup outrage and piety, trying to exemplify the openness he mistakes for his creed, but sounding only lyrically paternalistic in the end–at least to ears not so likeminded. One can imagine the ideal New Yorker reader, pursing their lips in empathic concern, shaking their heads with wise sorrow, thinking…
But this is the question, isn’t it? What do all these aspirational gestures to openness and admissions of vague complicity mean when the thought is, inevitably, fools? Is this not the soul of bad faith? To offer up portraits of tender humanity in extremis as proof of insight and impartiality, then to end, as Saunders ends his account, suggesting that Trump has been “exploiting our recent dullness and aversion to calling stupidity stupidity, lest we seem too precious.”
Academics… averse to calling stupidity stupid? Trump taking advantage of this aversion? Lordy.
This article, as beautiful as it is, is nothing if not a small monument to being precious, to making faux self-critical gestures in the name of securing very real ingroup imperatives. We are the sensitive ones, Saunders is claiming. We are the light that lets others see. And these people are the night of American democracy.
He blames the death of Wilson and the excessive openness of his ingroup, the error of being too open, too critically minded…
Why not just say they’re jealous because he and his friends are better looking?
If Saunders were at all self-critical, anything but precious, he would be asking questions that hurt, that cut to the bone of his aggrandizing assumptions, questions that become obvious upon asking them. Why not, for instance, ask Trump supporters what they thought of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline? Well, because the chances of any of them reading any of his work aside from “CommComm” (and only then because it won the World Fantasy Award in 2010) were virtually nil.
So then why not ask why none of these people has read anything written by him or any of his friends or their friends? Well, he’s already given us a reason for that: the death of Wilson.
Okay, so Wilson is dead, effectively rendering your attempts to reach and challenge those who most need to be challenged with your fiction toothless. And so you… what? Shrug your shoulders? Continue merely entertaining those whom you find the least abrasive?
If I’m right, then what we’re witnessing is so much bigger than Trump. We are tender. We are beautiful. We are vicious. And we are capable of believing anything to secure what we perceive as our claim. What matters here is that we’ve just plugged billions of stone-age brains chiselled by hundreds of millions of years of geography into a world without any. We have tripped across our technology and now we find ourselves in crash space, a domain where the transformation of our problems has rendered our traditional solutions obsolete.
It doesn’t matter if you actually are on their side or not, whatever that might mean. What matters is that you have been identified as an outgroup competitor, and that none of the authority you think your expertise warrants will be conceded to you. All the bottlenecks that once secured your universal claims are melting away, and you need to find some other way to discharge your progressive, prosocial aspirations. Think of all the sensitive young talent sifting through your pedagogical fingers. What do you teach them? How to be wise? How to contribute to their community? Or how to play the game? How to secure the approval of those just like you—and so, how to systematically alienate them from their greater culture?
So. Much. Waste. So much beauty, wisdom, all of it aimed at nowhere… tossed, among other places, into the heap of crumpled Kleenexes called The New Yorker.
Who would have thunk it? The best way to pluck the wise from the heart of our culture was to simply afford them the means to associate almost exclusively with one another, then trust to human nature, our penchant for evolving dialects and values in isolation. The edumacated no longer have the luxury of speaking among themselves for the edification of those servile enough to listen of their own accord. The ancient imperative to actively engage, to have the courage to reach out to the unlikeminded, to write for someone else, has been thrust back upon the artist. In the days of Wilson, we could trust to argument, simply because extreme thoughts had to run a gamut of moderate souls. Not so anymore.
If not art, then argument. If not argument, then art. Invade folk culture. Glory in delighting those who make your life possible–and take pride in making them think.
Sometimes they’re the idiot and sometimes we’re the idiot–that seems to be the way this thing works. To witness so many people so tangled in instinctive chauvinisms and cartoon narratives is to witness a catastrophic failure of culture and education. This is what Trump is exploiting, not some insipid reluctance to call stupid stupid.
I was fairly bowled over a few weeks back when my neighbour told me he was getting his cousin in Florida to send him a Trump hat. I immediately asked him if he was crazy.
“Name one Donald Trump who has done right by history!” I demanded, attempting to play Wilson, albeit minus the decorum and the fence.
Shrug. Wild eyes and a genuine smile. “Then I hope he burns it down.”
“How could you mean that?”
“I dunno, brother. Can’t be any worse than this fucking shit.”
Nothing I could say could make him feel any different. He’s got the internet.*
*[Note to readers: This post is receiving a great deal of Facebook traffic, and relatively little critical comment, which tells me individuals are saving their comments for whatever ingroup they happen to belong to, thus illustrating the very dynamic critiqued in the piece. Sound off! Dare to dissent in ideologically mixed company, or demonstrate the degree to which you need others to agree before raising your voice.]