Donald Trump and the Failure of 20th Century Progressive Culture

by rsbakker

baltimore

In the middle of an economic expansion, America has elected a bigot and a misogynist as their president. Why pretend otherwise? Unity? Tell me, how does one unify behind a bigot and a misogynist? Millions of white Americans have poured the world’s future into a cracked bowl, and now we all hold our breath and wonder what comes next, while the wonks scramble looking for excuses for what went wrong. Everyone is certain to blame the economics of deindustrialization, but the polling data suggests that Trump supporters are actually more affluent than Clinton supporters. This suggests the issue is actually more cultural than economic—which is a sobering thought. Even if economics had been the primary driving factor, Donald Trump would represent an almost unimaginable failure of progressive culture.

Since this is a failure I have been ranting about for a long time, I’m going to be really pious, and play the part of pompous Canadian observer (as if there were any other kind). We have our own Donald up here, you know, our own Mr. Tell-it-how-it-is, both beloved and despised. His name is Donald Cherry and he’s famous in these parts for saying, You heard it here first!

I told you so.

It’s been surreal watching the past few days unfold. I mean, my whole artistic project turns on working against the very processes we have witnessed these past 18 mos. Christ, I even waged blog war against the alt-right, convinced that they lay at the root of the very cultural transformation we’ve witnessed now. How is it possible to feel at once smug and horrified?

Because I do.

For years now I’ve been shouting from the fringe, shouting, warning about the political and social consequences of academic ingroup excesses. I’ve been telling humanities academics that what they called ‘critical thinking’ was primarily an ingroup conceit, a way to be both morally and intellectually self-righteous at once, and that this, inevitably, was contributing to a vast process of counter-identification, actually stoking the very racism and sexism they claimed to be combating. Trump is what happens when you claim to be whipping yourself while leaving only welts on those (apparently) lacking the ability to defend themselves in academic contexts. For more than a decade now I’ve been telling literary writers that ‘literature’ that challenges no one real is quite simply not literature, but genre. For years now I’ve been warning about the way the accelerating pace of change increases the appeal of atavism, how the web allows these atavisms to incubate, to immunize themselves from rational appeal, how only a creative class that despises ingroup insularity could have any hope of spanning these growing divides. The need for real literary creation, narratives (in all media) that both challenge and reach out.

Ingroup artistic creation needs to be identified as part of the social short circuit operating here. Ingroup producers either must set their empty emancipatory rhetoric aside, embrace their ingroup function, or fundamentally reinvent themselves and their art… the way I’ve been trying to do.

Donald Trump’s success is the failure of progressive culture is the vindication, I think, of the very kind of radical revaluation propounded here at Three Pound Brain. Your cultural insularity is only as laudable as its cultural consequences. It’s the arrogance I’ve personally encountered countless times pounding at the door, the idea that these parochial enclaves of likeminded tastes are the only places that matter, the only places where merit could find ‘serious’ adjudication. And remaining ‘serious,’ you thought, was the way to serve your culture best.

But this was just another flattering ingroup illusion. All along you were serving your subculture—yourselves—merely, no different than any other human institution, really, except you thought ‘critical thinking’ rendered you more or less exempt. All along, you’ve had no idea how pedestrian you look from the outside, a particularly egregious outgroup competitor, intoxicated by the self-evidence of your moral standing.

I tried to warn you, tried to tell you that the ecosystem of art has been irrevocably changed by technology. But hey, I’m just a fantasy author. Never mind the fact that my books actually provoke controversy, actually make their way into the hands of Trump supporters…

Now you have a preening, sneering authoritarian sociopath as your president. This is what happens when you find one another so interesting and agreeable that you forget the people who make you possible, the people who have always made you possible. You are delivered a true-blue demagogue in a time of economic expansion.

Now we’re about to see just how frail or robust the American democratic system proves to be in this, the opening stages of the internet age.

Here’s my guess at what will happen. Donald has a fantastic narrative in his head, a grandiose image of the heroic kind of President he will prove to be—bold, effective, bringing his business acumen to bear—and this will lead to a brief Republican honeymoon, and legislation virtually institutionalizing aristocracy in America will be passed. (His argument, remember, is that the easier it is for he and his buddies to get rich, the better things will be for you decent, hardworking folk). The White House will be a circus—I mourn those Americans who always prized the dignity of the institution. He will kill climate change progress. The first conflict of interest scandals will rock him. The white working poor will cheer as their infrastructure rots and their entitlements are stripped away. More tapes and sexual misconduct accusations will surface. He will stack the Supreme Court with Scalia clones. Obamacare will be set to be revoked, but the legislation will be perpetually hung by a Congress articulating competing corporate interests. Irresistibly drawn to what flatters, Trump will begin avoiding the media, reaching directly out to his base for feedback, growing more verbally extreme in efforts to chase the fading cheer. A young black man will be shot, and Trump will drop the hammer on protesters. He will accept no responsibility for anything. There will be marches on Washington and tense standoffs. Trade sabres will be rattled, but nothing will happen because Trump is a billionaire who is up to his eyeballs in other billionaires—and has left his children as hostages in their world. He will drive wedges between Americans, simply because he is racist and misogynistic. He will reward fools with positions of power. He will attempt to install his children in positions of power. The bullshit gaffes will continue piling on, the media conspiracy will become ‘disgusting and traitorous to America,’ and not a thing will be done about immigration, outside shutting the door. His approval ratings will tank and he will start a war somewhere… and lord knows what kinds of convenient exigencies he might derive from this.

Let’s hope that ‘provoke a constitutional crisis’ and ‘launch nuclear weapons’ doesn’t find its way into there. Let’s hope you’ve merely found your own Berlusconi and nothing more disastrous.

If that happens, I promise I will spare you the Donald Cherry routine. I genuinely love you America, Trump supporters and all. I want to help you build the kind of culture you will need to survive the even greater upheavals to come. The technological revolution is just beginning and already progressive culture is foundering.

 

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