Jonathan Chait, “PC”, and Liberal Responsibility for Trump

Today, Jonathan Chait uses his column over at New York Magazine to do what all the cool kids are doing, tell us how Trump ended up the presumptive Republican nominee for president. Spoiler: It’s our lack of eugenics programs.

The 2006 movie Idiocracy depicts a future in which Americans have grown progressively dumber, and eventually elect as president of the United States a professional wrestler, who caters demagogically to their nationalistic impulses and ignorance of science. Only because the film took place in an imaginary world was it possible to straightforwardly equate a political choice with a lack of intelligence. In the actual world, the bounds of taste and deference to (small-d) democratic outcomes make it gauche to do so. But the dynamic imagined in Idiocracy has obviously transpired, down to the election of a figure from pro wrestling: [There is video at the link, if you want some wrestling theater.]

While it’s impolite and politically counterproductive, if we want to accurately identify the analytic error that caused so many of us to dismiss Trump, we must return to the idiocy question. The particular idiocy involves both the party’s elites and its voters. The failures of the elites have been the source of analysis for months now. Republican insiders and donors failed to grasp the severity of the threat Trump posed to their party, many of them rallied behind obviously doomed legacy candidate Jeb Bush, or they used ineffectual messages when they did attack Trump. Or, most of all, they simply deluded themselves about the dangers he posed rather than face up to them. I never believed party insiders could fully dictate the outcome of the nomination, but I did expect them to be able to block a wildly unacceptable candidate, and they proved surprisingly inept even in the face of extreme peril to their collective self-interest.

Then there are the voters, whose behavior provided the largest surprise. It was simply impossible for me to believe that Republican voters would nominate an obvious buffoon. Everything about Trump is a joke.

I’m not going to delve deeply into the Idiocracy reference, but yes, really, eugenics. Plus a denial of the demographic facts. And a nifty little dose of ableism like a cherry on top.

I don’t want to get too far into Chait’s poor argumentation either, but I can’t quite let that paragraph about Republican Party elites pass without comment. Why are these elites “idiots”? Because they didn’t do what Chait expected them to be able to do. They were inept because what they did didn’t work. It can’t be that the problem was harder to deal with than Chait’s eyeballing it suggested. He stopped Trump, so clearly they must have been able to.

Oh, wait. He didn’t. He’s just calling people “idiots” and saying Trump is unserious at thesaurus-supported length, which will clearly solve the problem immediately. It’s a good thing someone finally thought to try it.

Oddly enough, nowhere among all the people Chait blames for Trump’s rise is Chait himself. Okay, perhaps it’s not odd. It’s not really even original.

Last week, Andrew Sullivan wrote his own analysis of Trump’s triumph. There were bits that he got right. More than Chait, in fact, though that’s to be hoped given how many more words Sullivan used. Though I don’t agree with Sullivan’s analysis of the phenomenon, he did rightly point to changes in how we work and the anxiety these changes have created. He nailed the resentment over political correctness. He blamed entirely the wrong people, but he got that much right.

I missed this part myself. (Sullivan might have as well had been writing then instead of with the benefit of hindsight.) I always knew Trump could win, but I thought concerns over what can and can’t be said without objection obscured the possibility. I didn’t think they would help drive it.

For every Trump proxy, there are a half dozen of these, more if there isn’t a robust community continually pouring sunshine on statements like those. Same beliefs. Same positions, or at least the same conviction that something must be done, even if they won’t specify what.

They may not support Trump politically at the moment, but it’s mostly because they really wish he’d act more like a secure rich white man instead of an insecure one. With less buffoonery, a touch more polish, a wee bit more deniability, they’d be there.

I’ll be damned if that last paragraph doesn’t sum up Chait’s major objection to people voting for Trump, right down to “buffoon”. That’s what makes Republican voters “idiots”. It isn’t that his racist, sexist, isolationist, fascist policy proposals would be a disaster for the U.S. No, he just doesn’t have the right demeanor.

This alone would be enough for me to say that Chait is part of the problem. It’s a gross misdiagnosis of what good governance requires. But there’s more, of course.

Screen capture of three Chait headlines from early 2015: "Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say", "Secret Confessions of the Anti-Anti-P.C. Movement", and "Is Political Correctness Good for the Left".
Hardly the last Chait has written on this.

Chait is one of the major authors (perhaps the major liberal author) of that body of work that tells us political correctness is dooming our society. In their facile analyses of the issue, he and Sullivan have much in common, though they disagree politically otherwise.

In Chait’s writing, the urge to protest speaking and writing that treats marginalized groups as less deserving of rights and basic human decency is a powerful force that will stifle free speech, tear our political and educational institutions apart, and concentrate power in the hands of a small group of complainers. That his examples of oppressive forces come largely from the ranks of those without institutional power either eludes him or isn’t worth mentioning. The same is true for the fact that there are powerful forces opposing any change or accommodation in language. And that this isn’t a phenomenon of the left.

In fact, the political correctness that Jonathan Chait paints as a clear and present danger looks very much like the hideous yoke to which Donald Trump so bravely refuses to bow.

Yes, both parts of that statement are equally ridiculous. However, if Chait wants to know how it is that Republican voters can find Trump presidential, he’s going to need to pay attention to both of them. If Chait and other liberal writers like him want to declare that progressivism has finally become a threat by condemning certain positions as unacceptable (something progressivism has always done as a means to effect progress), they are going to have to realize that they make heroes of the people willing to stand up to that “threat”.

That means Trump. That also means that the people who see Trump as their champion against the dreaded P.C. aren’t acting like “idiots” at all. They’re just listening to those very serious and stately liberals like Chait.

If voters are hearing from both the left and the right that these demands to treat marginalized people with dignity are creeping fascism, how can it be wrong? How can the candidate who blatantly refuses those demands not be doing serious, patriotic work? How could he not be presidential?

No, I don’t personally think Trump is presidential. He terrifies me, and I still don’t share the complacency of those who think he could never be elected. The U.S. has sadly proven that we’re never more than one major terrorist attack from voting for people we view as strong above all else.

I do think, given that tendency, liberals need to take responsibility for who and what we paint as fearsome. The monsters we dream up aren’t our tools but the pets of the right. And if we, like Chait, refuse to look our little monsters in the face, we, like him, will be reduced to grouchy confusion when our enemies are hailed as heroes for slaying the poor beasts.

Jonathan Chait, “PC”, and Liberal Responsibility for Trump

5 thoughts on “Jonathan Chait, “PC”, and Liberal Responsibility for Trump

  1. 1

    Both Chait and Sullivan have realized the same thing. There will always be a paycheck for people willing to tell those in power that it is actually the powerless who are at fault for all our problems.

  2. 2

    Chait has a point when he says that liberals share some responsibility for Trump. Specifically, the type of liberal embodied by Jonathan Chait. The elite liberals who decided to piss on the marginalized and the working class in pursuit of the ‘Creative Economy’ and the ‘Bourgeois Bohemians’ and other such bullshit, in the process ceding vast amounts of ground to the kind of fascist pseudo-populism that put Trump where he is now.

  3. 3

    It was simply impossible for me to believe that Republican voters would nominate an obvious buffoon.

    It would hardly be the first time…

  4. AMM

    Oh, is Jonathan Chait a liberal?

    I’m probably showing my ignorance (I don’t read New York magazine unless I’m desperate, my take is that it’s kind of a Fox News for NYC snobs), but the only time I hear of him is when he’s complaining about people not being sufficiently respectful of privilege. Based on the excerpts I’ve seen, he’s always reminded me of William F. Buckley. (But less witty.)

  5. 5

    That’s kind of the problem; a lot of prominent ‘liberal’ pundits and politicians are distinguishable from Reagan-era Republicans only in that they don’t hate queers quite as much. They keep getting votes because the actual Republicans have taken off the brakes on their slide to open fascism.

Comments are closed.