Liberalism and the Abnormal Trump

By | 2018-06-26T21:54:13+00:00 June 27th, 2018|
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The enduring triumph of liberalism was not the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, open borders, or even Obergefell v. Hodges. Something more fundamental happened long ago that made those changes possible. Liberalism began when a space was carved out in society wherein people of different beliefs and backgrounds could go about their business without tensions arising.

They might loath one another’s religion, abhor their politics, and find their respective mores and customs odd or distasteful, but in the public square they kept their judgments in check as long as others minded their manners and didn’t push their differences too hard. At home and in church, in the government and in what counted as media at the time, differences and partisanship could have full expression. But on the streets and in the parks, in shops and restaurants, liberalism demanded that citizens lower their tribal instincts and mingle without open antipathy.

The incident with Sarah Sanders at the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia is one event in a long series of erosions of this liberal compact. The boundary between someone’s political work and private activity no longer holds, not with Trump personnel. They’re not even safe at home.

The liberalism that used to protect public officials has given way to the Leftist premise that everything is political. Leftists don’t believe in any such boundary. To them, the private sphere isn’t an apolitical realm. It’s a bourgeois creation, a middle-class redoubt that seeks to disguise its politics. (See Friedrich Engels’ 1884 book The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.) To maintain it and preserve a space in society in which political judgments are withheld is itself a form of political suppression. To begin your breakfast at a hotel in Arlington and spot a well-known conservative at the next table and not make your voice heard is, to someone of progressive social conscience, a crime in itself. It’s not personal to him; it’s political. In letting such people live their private lives without having to answer for their deeds, we allow the wrongs to continue.

Protest never sleeps! Trumpists don’t deserve a time out. To hold your tongue just because of some abstract liberal notion of civil society strikes a leftist as capitulation.

Liberals know where this leads, but they can’t stop it. Liberals have always feared the Left more than the Right—their oft-expressed warnings of conservative tyranny (remember the angst about “theocons” in W’s first term?) are intended to assure those on the Left of their compatibility, not to identify a real threat. Their own pale convictions are no match for an impassioned social change-agent.

Besides, the last thing they want to do is appear to defend anyone and anything associated with Trump. As Adam Gopnik said in a commentary on the Red Hen incident in The New Yorker, after noting the dangers of letting politics get so personal that the very presence of people on the other side disturbs us: “On the other hand, the Trump Administration is not a normal Presidential Administration.”

The choice of diction is telling. Gopnik doesn’t call the administration evil, corrupt, or incompetent. He calls it abnormal. That requires a different response than the usual democratic one of criticism, investigation, and campaigning, all conducted through proper channels. Abnormality suspends the ordinary rules of engagement. When you encounter a sociopath in your daily rounds, you don’t handle him with rational persuasion or firm entreaty. He hasn’t accepted the compact of civility, and so we must fend him off and shut him out.

He won’t respect you if you don’t. As Gopnik goes on to say, Trump despises those precise “normal decencies” that regulate civil deportment in social affairs. Trump favors “the natural order of domination and submission,” he writes. “It’s why Trump admires dictators.”

Reading Gopnik’s sentences, a visitor to America with no knowledge of current events would assume that Trump’s forces have hounded dissident figures in public places. Yes, it is Trump himself who has abrogated the civility that assures individuals that they may dine in peace. I haven’t heard of any liberal politicians, officials, celebrities, or journalists chased out of neutral public spots, but nevertheless, Trump is the source of expulsion and threat. He and his administration are “intolerable,” Gopnik concludes as if he were a solemn judge tendering wisdom to the populace,” and “public shaming and shunning of those who take part in it seems just.”

We should see this article as just the latest take on the “RESIST” exhortation, but note well that Gopnik and other liberals don’t seem to understand its implications. A friend of mind, a finance guy, had a clear-sighted response when I recounted one “resist” episode last year (I believe it was the talk about using the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office) and said, “I don’t think they’ll ever accept the results of the election.”

He replied, “Then it’s war.”

He didn’t mean it aggressively, and he didn’t look forward to the fight. He merely drew the obvious inference. When you refuse to abide by the outcome of an election (and no evidence of fraud is in hand, as is currently the case), you don’t oppose only the figure sitting in the Oval Office. You deny the will of all the people who voted for him, too.

The hard Left understands this; they’re ready for battle. But to liberals who sympathize with people who expel and harass White House personnel, those 60 million plus Americans who pulled the lever for Trump in 2016 don’t even exist. They’re invisible. They have no political value. That’s why liberal mouthpieces can label the Trump team “not normal.” If they took into account all the people in the country who backed him, if they remembered that Trump’s approval ratings haven’t been much different than those of presidents in the recent past, they’d have to acknowledge that Trump embodies elements commonly held by roughly half of the voting population. He wouldn’t be abnormal, then, only oppositional.

But if so, this would bring the liberal compact back into play and reinforce the demand that Democrats curb their outrage and indignation. Only if Trump falls off the political chart are the protests and insults warranted. Yes, Trump must be abnormal, he must be, or else liberals must admit that they’ve abandoned their liberalism. The fact that when they judge Trump abnormal they tell all his supporters that they, too, are screwy seems to escape them.

Photo credit:  by Alex Wong/Getty Images

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.