No Guilt This Time

By | 2017-07-12T15:08:44+00:00 May 9th, 2017|
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I have given up on discussing the ascendance of Donald Trump with anyone who didn’t vote for him. They are too hard in their denunciation. A mild suggestion that the Democratic Party went so far into identity politics that it pushed people toward a leader outspokenly tired of political correctness leads at most to a pause in the rancor.

“Yes,” they might agree, before returning to the point: “But Trump? You can’t be serious!”

You don’t get a debate, just another accusation. And pledges, too, as in Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ “We’ve got to stop his ass!

It is clear by now that reactions such as these to Donald Trump’s presidency run deeper than political differences. When you see your liberal friends and colleagues unable to contain their scorn, you know that the offense isn’t about education policy and tax rates. Something fundamentally human is in play.

In the last 50 years of culture wars in America, there has been no stronger weapon than guilt. It is the Left’s great hammer of progress. It figured powerfully in the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement, women’s liberation, and same-sex marriage. Guilt runs through the teaching of U.S. history from 5th grade through college. It colors controversies over affirmative action, transgender bathrooms, and the glass ceiling. The entire careers of Leftist commentators from the self-righteous Bill Moyers to the self-regarding Ta-Nehisi Coates rest upon it. If we add up the successes guilt has brought to progressive causes and identity politics, we realize just how important guilt is to the Left agenda. Without it, in fact, the Left fails.

Which brings us back to Donald Trump. Why do people hate him so?

Because he won’t accept this appointed condition. He has no white guilt. He doesn’t feel any male guilt, either, or American guilt or Christian guilt. He talks about the United States with uncritical approval—“America First”—and that’s a thought crime in the eyes of liberals. It ignores slavery, Jim Crow, the Indian wars, Manzanar . . . Donald Trump would never refer to America as beset by the original sin of racism, as Barack Obama did frequently, and that makes him worse than a conservative. President Trump is a bigot.

He enjoys the company of attractive women and makes no apologies for it. A man of proper male guilt would have bowed out after the bus tapes were released during the campaign, but there he was in the second presidential debate talking about jail time for Hillary.

And he wouldn’t say, “Black Lives Matter,” either, a slogan that implies whites don’t care about black lives, but insisted, “All lives matter.

Finally, while Christians, especially Catholics and Evangelicals , are supposed to feel guilty for their doctrine on gender roles and abortion, President Trump quickly dropped gender identity from Title IX and nominated a religious conservative to the Supreme Court.

That’s what happens when a political leader doesn’t share the guilt, and progressives know it. For decades they have pushed a campaign of guilt in classrooms, museums, movies, books, and newsrooms precisely to forestall those moves. If you can persuade an opponent that he’s wrong about a political issue, you can win the day’s debate. But if you can make him feel guilty about his opinion, you’ve got him on the defensive forever.

Guilt isn’t political, it’s psychological. When you can make someone feel guilty, it’s a powerful temptation, especially among those who already suffer feelings of resentment. When during the course of the campaign Mr. Trump refused to accept any guilt, the frustration and disbelief among the Democrats and the media were obvious. When he spoke of “Mexican rapists,” the outrage was voluminous, but he wouldn’t apologize. When the former-president of Mexico sputtered an obscenity about the wall, Trump replied, “The wall just got ten feet taller.” A guilty man wouldn’t be so unabashed.

Guilt isn’t political, it’s psychological. When you can make someone feel guilty, it’s a powerful temptation, especially among those who already suffer feelings of resentment.

When David Duke came out in favor of Trump, the media pounced, insisting that surely this time Trump would acknowledge shameful elements in his candidacy. But when asked, Trump looked more puzzled than ashamed. It was as if he didn’t understand why David Duke was even an issue, but that only compounded his vice, for Duke is significant precisely because he embodies American guilt. That Trump minimized the whole thing only showed his absence of shame.

Donald Trump’s success, then, amounts to a calamitous disarmament of the Left. Not his occupation of the White House, but his termination of the game of guilt—for now, at least. Since the election, progressives have only amplified the charges. More and more, the protests look less like political speech and more like tantrums. Yes, but what else could they do? As Freud once said, “hardly anything is harder for a man than to give up a pleasure which he has once experienced.” Until the Left lets go of guilt and begins formulating a political outlook, not a psycho-political one, its steady descent into adolescence will continue.

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About the Author:

Mark Bauerlein
Mark Bauerlein is a senior editor at First Things and professor of English at Emory University, where he has taught since earning his Ph.D. in English at UCLA in 1989. For two years (2003-2005) he served as director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His books include Literary Criticism: An Autopsy, The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief, and The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. His essays have appeared in PMLA, Partisan Review, Wilson Quarterly, Commentary, and New Criterion, and his commentaries and reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, The Guardian, Chronicle of Higher Education, and other national periodicals.