Donald Trump may or may not prevail in his battle to secure reelection. To his supporters, it appears that fraudulent city machines are churning out reams of false ballots designed to secure a victory for his opponents that they did not earn, but which the establishment is nevertheless determined to grant them. To his opponents, Trump is waging a pathetic rearguard fight against a repudiation of his personal repulsiveness that so thoroughly disgusted persuadable voters that they would not reelect him despite four years of improving personal circumstances and a reelection agenda with which they otherwise would have agreed.
Whoever turns out to be correct—and there is evidence for both that only the courts will be able to sift through—it is time we take stock of something more important: that is, the sheer absurdity of what has happened over the past four years.
Even if Trump prevails in his reelection bid, this election has shown something important: he can bleed. He is not an unstoppable voice of nascent fascism in America, nor is he an indomitable force of vengeance against liberals who are begging constantly to be owned. He is a mortal man and a normal politician who can lose states he won, and win votes he lost in the past election. He is not a Putinesque autocrat who can fix the vote in advance, suppress it out of existence, or strongarm his way to a second term by calling in the military. He is a phenomenally persuasive, and deeply polarizing man, who nevertheless refused to install an authoritarian regime even when confronted with a deadly pandemic that would have given him a ready-made excuse to do so, and who refused to send in the military to quell violent protests out of respect for federalism, despite having every reason to disregard it.
Whatever you think of his decisions in those cases, this is not the résumé of a budding fascist. Whatever authoritarianism liberals and NeverTrumpers hear in the president’s words, his actions are those of a man who respects and abides by process: in short, those of a small-l liberal, albeit one who sang from a more populist and nationalist arrangement of the standard American political hymnal.
Even within the American tradition, Trump does not rank in even the top-10 most authoritarian presidents America has had. There have been no Jacksonian rebukes of court decisions against him, no Wilsonian censorship of the press, no FDR-style wartime central planning, no Obama-style weaponization of intelligence services against his opponents, no Nixonian Saturday Night massacres, not even any Theodore Roosevelt-style trustbusting (much to the consternation of his many muzzled supporters).
Trump has governed much as you would expect a former reality star and real estate mogul to do: with a focus on interpersonal, economically driven dealmaking at home and abroad, and a modest domestic agenda given the flavor of radicalism by his attention-grabbing antics to promote it.
And yet, despite being ultimately only a loudmouth with a relatively modest set of disagreements with the governing GOP consensus, Trump ended up as something much more alarming in our public consciousness: that is, he has ended his first term as nothing more or less than a Rorschach test for the anxieties of liberal America.
Future generations will look back on the first Trump term and marvel that a four-year-long moral panic about latent bigotry of all kinds was touched off among America’s supposedly most enlightened class because an insurgent reality star was able to defeat a perpetually unpopular candidate in an election he was forecast incorrectly to lose. So great was that moral panic, in fact, that during his reelection bid, large numbers of college-educated white voters lied even to pollsters about who they were voting for rather than risk disgrace and professional destruction for admitting their real preference.
Let me say that again: huge swathes of Americans felt powerless to express their beliefs and to advocate their preferred system of government and were sometimes even forcibly prevented from doing so by corporate fiat because a reality TV star was elected president.
Two things jump out when we look at this. First, at the risk of stating the obvious, this is not healthy. Second, and whoever wins this year, this will remain true: blue America is at least as susceptible to morally panicked hysteria as red America. In fact, these vestiges of moral panic still exist now, with the more “woke” of our fellow citizens spouting off endlessly about how terrified they are to live in a country where some 70 million of their fellow citizens voted for Trump.
From Deplorable to Disgusting
If the 1950s gave us Communists under every bed, 2020 has given us fascists in every boardroom. The cultural Left cannot abide so much as sharing the same 3.8 million square miles with “those people,” let alone the same workplace, or even the same social media app.
I am old enough to remember when this situation was reversed. Through the 1990s and the 2000s, the Left (with some justice) yammered on that it was conservatives—particularly working-class evangelicals in red states—who were bound to get overexcited about non-issues like violence in video games, illustrations in Dungeons and Dragons books, or even the book selection at public libraries. Then, the overwhelming belief was that the Left was the fun party, the party of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, the party of free speech, the party of the cowboys warring against the censorious Puritans and church ladies of the world.
Even otherwise sensible political psychologist Jonathan Haidt observed that whereas liberals only emphasized moral ideas about caring for the vulnerable and offering fair treatment to one’s peers, conservatives shared these concerns with a broader focus that included moral issues like loyalty to one’s own, obedience to righteous authority, and avoiding contamination/deviance by appealing to cultural and social purity.
If 2020 has shown us anything, it is that liberals care just as much about those three things, and that they can take it too far, no less than conservatives.
What was Chelsea Handler’s cringeworthy “reminder” to 50 Cent that he was black and therefore couldn’t support Trump but an appeal to in-group loyalty? What was the constant drumbeat about how Trump was “not normal,” and how Biden was presumptively more legitimate because he would “listen to the experts” if not a plea to restore deference to righteous authority? And what is the terror that one’s social circles might be contaminated by hidden Trump voters, and the belief that Trump as president was an affront to politics itself, if not an appeal to purity?
On this last point, Hillary Clinton’s infamous phrase “basket of the deplorables” actually failed to fully capture the emotion that many cultural elites felt toward Trump voters: a more accurate term would have been “basket of the disgusting.” To the cultural Left, Trump supporters are not people so much as germs, contaminants, and filth. Small wonder that just this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics has published a paper titled, “The Pandemics of Racism and COVID-19.” This is purity-focused moral language, all the way down.
Needless to say, it is deeply dangerous to regard one’s fellow citizens as pathogens rather than people.
The cultural Left has much in common with the shrieking Twitter eggs of the alt-right who complain of “degeneracy” in their opponents over often cringeworthy but otherwise harmless lifestyle choices. While they would never admit it, the cultural Left and the alt-right are two sides of the same coin: both are cults devoted to creating a culturally homogenous authoritarian state where racial allegiance takes precedence over citizenship. The alt-right’s favorite insult “cuck” and Joe Biden’s statement that black Trump supporters “ain’t black” are not just cut from the same cloth, they’re the same garment in different shades.
Moreover, Trump supporters are far from immune to the appeal of moral ideas about preventing harm to the vulnerable or ensuring fair treatment. What has been our constant drumbeat about the need for empathy toward those like the people depicted in J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, if not an appeal to care for the vulnerable? What has our outrage at the seemingly arbitrary standards applied by social media companies been if not an appeal to the basic idea of fairness and consistent treatment?
As it was not Trump supporters who started this moral panic, however, we must ask what it specifically was about this loud but otherwise unremarkable president that sparked a quasi-religious fervor and moral panic in our left-leaning peers? How did Trump make them lose their commitment to pluralism, and embrace naked ethnic chauvinism, anti-democratic authoritarianism, and Stalinist policing of deviance so fervently?
Some would argue that this is always who the Democrats have been. I find that answer unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. To begin with, if that were true, you would not see dissident liberals speaking up so frequently against the censorious, absolutist turn of their party. Anyone who remembers the George W. Bush years knows full well that Glenn Greenwald was not always a closet right-winger. Nor was Matt Taibbi during the Obama years. Nor were the thousands of other hidden liberals who so often send anonymous grateful emails to authors of anti-woke jeremiads like this year’s Harper’s letter.
Yet for the most part, despite decades of publicly opposed commitments to religious absolutism, liberals stayed silent or made excuses in the face of a bottom-up social revolution that they had every ability to stop. It is clear that they did this primarily out of fear and loathing for Trump, given the utter impatience with which those same people were treated in 2015. In other words, something about Trump, specifically, drove the Left mad and turned them into frothing religious fanatics. What was it?
One take by fervent anti-Trumper and Left-atheist Sam Harris offers a very good clue. Indeed, next to Michael Moore, Harris may have offered the single most cogent explanation of Trump’s appeal of the past four years. To quote him:
One thing that Trump never communicates, and cannot possibly communicate, is a sense of his moral superiority. The man is totally without sanctimony. Even when his every utterance is purposed for self-aggrandizement. Even when he appears to be denigrating his supporters. Even when he is calling himself a genius. He is never actually communicating that is better than you, more enlightened, more decent. Because he’s not, and everyone knows it. The man is just a bundle of sin and gore, and never pretends to be anything more. Perhaps most importantly, he never aspires to be anything more. And because of this, because he is never really judging you—he can’t possibly judge you—he offers a truly safe space for human frailty, and hypocrisy, and self-doubt. He offers what no priest can credibly offer: a total expiation of shame. His personal shamelessness is a kind of spiritual balm. Trump is fat Jesus. He’s grab-them-by-the-pussy Jesus. He’s I’ll-eat-nothing-but-cheeseburgers-if-I-want-to Jesus. He’s I-want-to-punch-them-in-the-face Jesus. He’s go-back-to-your-shithole-countries Jesus. He’s no apologies Jesus.
And as for the Left? Harris describes them this way: “Pure sanctimony. Pure judgment. You are not good enough. You’re guilty, not only for your own sins, but for the sins of your fathers . . . Tear down those statues and bend the f—king knee.”
Now, a few things are important when we consider these quotes. During the Bush years, Democrats were great mockers of hypocrisy. Republicans who voted against gay rights while having gay affairs, for example, were open season for the Left. Mocking this hypocrisy had the effect of making the Left moral pragmatists: if you couldn’t fully live up to your moral code, there was something wrong with that moral code.
Trump, who was a Democrat during that time, conspicuously internalized that message and lives by it. Much of NeverTrump’s rage at Trump, in fact, has been over the fact that he conspicuously refused to engage in Bush-era sanctimony. Why else would people like David French and Alexandra DeSanctis—nothing but bags of wind offering over-earnest platitudes—despise him so much? If Trump did anything, he united the morally self-righteous against him.
But while the Left no doubt was changed by absorbing NeverTrump, this is likely a symptom and a lagging indicator of what was already happening. The full details of the shift are likely beyond our scope here, but perhaps the most notable difference between the Bush era and the Trump era is that during the Bush era, the internet was in its infancy. This meant that, in practical terms, the moneyed power center of the Democratic Party was in Hollywood. And Hollywood types are morally pragmatic, at best. Their central complaint about George W. Bush, and about Republicans, was that they were going to shut down the Clinton-era permissiveness party. Of course the Democrats were the party of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, when sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll was literally financing them. Of course the party line then was that Republicans are stupid; God knows Hollywood doesn’t care if someone’s evil. Evil people finance movies just the same as good ones.
Coding for Social Justice?
Now Silicon Valley has taken over and brought wokeness with it. Which, coincidentally, is an ideology that unites two of the unlikeliest allies ever in defense of it: high school girls, and software engineers.
The reason high school girls like wokeness is so obvious it barely needs explaining, though the origins of that appeal are certainly fruit for further exploration. Briefly, though, the fact that wokeness endlessly creates new categories of what one is allowed to say and what one isn’t, what’s racist and what isn’t, what’s cool and what isn’t, is a perfect mirror image of high school teenage girl culture. Cancel culture in particular resembles not so much a struggle for justice as a group of Plastics writing “So-and-so is a slut” on the wall of a bathroom stall.
What’s more, wokeness appeals to those in the fashion industry who have long had to live with the arbitrary dictates of coolness not as an incidental bug in their business, but as its lifeblood. Which means, in short, that New York—the other major power center of Democratic politics—has no reason to object to wokeness. It gives them endless new reasons to look down on everyone who can’t afford a Manhattan high-rise and doesn’t know that those sneakers are so 20 years ago, daaaaaaahling. Incidentally, this is the least interesting and most obvious element of wokeness’s appeal to young people who have been indoctrinated with the idea that coolness and aesthetics trump all else.
But why software engineers? On the surface, wokeness, with its endless policing of fine social niceties, seems like it would be terrifying to a class of people who are, to put it charitably, not known for their social graces or neurotypicality.
But this is to miss the point: wokeness is the kind of ideology that only a very specific kind of software engineer could love, and it just happens to be the one most in-demand in the valley: I refer to Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) researchers. Looked at from their perspective, wokeness’s seemingly arbitrary demands for ever more purity take on a completely different character.
Suppose, for a moment, you were engineering an app designed to track financial fraud. Suppose also that on its first run, it failed to catch hundreds of instances of that fraud. You, as an A.I. researcher trying to “teach” the app to work, would look at those failures and redesign the app’s parameters. Then, next time you ran it, suppose the app caught all financial fraud cases but also flagged a couple dozen false positives that led to inconvenience. Yes, the app would still not be perfect, but from an AI perspective, it would have gotten smarter.
Now apply this to politics. From this perspective, the fact that wokeness makes an ever-widening circle of speech unacceptable is a feature, not a bug. It means that AmericaOS is getting smarter about what constitutes racism, not that we’re getting illiberal or overly restrictive. Sure, you might get a couple false positives and have to adjust the app, but if it’s designed to stop evil in its tracks, the fact that it catches ever more instances of it is just proof that it’s learning. In fact, even if someone isn’t being openly racist, the app flagging someone who might be a potential racist is useful because you know who to watch for signs of wrongthink. And as for “canceling” people thus flagged . . . well, apps don’t forgive. It’s not their job.
What’s more, anyone who has spent any time around software engineers both Right and Left knows that they prefer to think of people as static classes, the same way they think of data as static classes. For those on the Right, like Mencius Moldbug, being able to designate one person the King is like designating one person the system administrator: you just need it for the system to work. What’s more, Moldbug’s (qualified) defenses of racial differences are not so much expressions of bigotry as attempts to turn races into categories that could be processed by a program. “If black, then subtract 10 IQ” is an easy line of code to write if you want society to treat certain people according to programming-style rules.
But so, it must be said, is “White = racist.” After all, AI is not yet smart enough to judge cases individually. It needs rules to follow. Those rules will necessarily be crude and you might program in exceptions to them, but broadly speaking, you have to have some rule to start from as the default.
Wokeness offers those sorts of default states for racial groups with the same certainty that alt-right hard IQ determinism does, and both appeal to Silicon Valley for the same reason. It is also for this reason, coincidentally, that James Damore’s firing from Google was a classic Silicon Valley controversy: if you want to program society to act like a computer, why would running a company be any different? From that perspective, whether Damore said something “true” or not is irrelevant: the fact is, he said something sexist, and “If sexist, then fire” is an easy line of code to write. It’s too complicated to make the “program” in this case investigate whether the sexist thing is true when that might be complicated, if not impossible, to program objectively. Better to just fire someone for being flagged and save yourself the grief.
Now, imagine you take this relentlessly meliorist, and hellishly static view of how the world works, where morality is as simple as a line of code, and insert Donald Trump into it. From this perspective, Donald Trump taking over the United States is the equivalent of a black hat hacker seizing the role of sysadmin: forget whether “democracy” made him do it, he’s going to break the app. He has to go.
And worse, he got elected because you don’t like that the app keeps getting smarter about finding racism?! Well, you must be a racist, then! No one else would have a problem with our app getting smarter! They’d just adjust their behavior so they don’t get flagged. What’s so hard about that, you bigoted shitlord?!
The Old OS Was Better
Now, if you look closely, you will notice two things missing from this way of thinking about society: care for the vulnerable, and concern for fairness. Oh yes, the point of the wokeness “app” is to help the vulnerable and make life fairer for them, but in terms of how you build it, it does not matter if it hurts vulnerable people.
“If white, then racist UNLESS income < $60,000” might be an easy line of code to program but the data would be harder to mine for incomes, and it would have a lot of false negatives. It would be a “dumber” anti-racism app than a fully woke one. And as for fairness, how the hell do you program that? If people are part of different classes, it’s fair to treat them differently, regardless of what they’re like as individuals. How else are we going to program a system to rid America of evil?
In contrast, loyalty, authority, and purity are absolutely essential to America the App. Loyalty is important because it keeps classes together rather than making it harder by programming in exceptions to those classes for race and gender traitors. Authority is important because come on, you need a sysadmin. And as for purity, well, any cases of evil you miss are just signs that the app needs to get smarter. An ideal app is one that completely purifies the world of whatever evil it’s trying to fight, whether that’s computer viruses or the “virus” of racism.
This vision of America as just one huge undifferentiated mass of data points, to be scooped in and out of “racist” or “not racist” buckets at will, is not yet fully mainstream even within the Democratic Party. In fact, whoever wins this election, this vision will have suffered a crushing setback, because while an app finding ever more cases of what it’s designed to fight might be “smarter,” a politics that treats ever larger groups of people as beyond the pale and unacceptable inevitably will end in a populist revolt by the excluded.
The fact that Biden conspicuously failed to endorse this brand of exclusionary politics, and in fact repudiated it several times during the debates, may have been sufficient to earn him a narrow victory. But if Biden and Silicon Valley’s favorite, Kamala Harris, govern as sysadmins in Woke America OS, they may soon find that their politics neither operates nor is a system. It is tyranny, plain and simple.
Which brings us back to Sam Harris’ observation about Trump: that he is a man who wholly eschews moral sanctimony. Since the beginning of conservatism in America, those on the Right have railed against the Left’s tendency to view humankind as perfectible and malleable. Silicon Valley’s Algorithmic America, which attempts to immanentize the eschaton at the point of an .exe, cannot tolerate a president who not only refuses to be perfected but who also refuses to believe that anyone else needs to be, because he does not have a totalizing view of perfection.
When you want to make the world perfect in a way a computer would recognize, a free society—and a leader who prefers freedom to algorithmically-driven utopia—is a design flaw. That anyone would prefer that design flaw is as irrational as someone preferring Windows 98 to Windows 11. Or preferring the old Facebook layout to the new one. Or preferring the old Twitter moderation rules.
Yet despite Silicon Valley’s relentless attempt to perfect their products, people do prefer old operating systems, old website layouts, and old site rules. Whoever wins this election, let us hope that enough of our fellow citizens still prefer America’s old, imperfect operating system—the United States Constitution—to repel the inevitable attempt to run the Woke Anti-Racism Virus Scanner on our minds.