It’s been two weeks and counting since the larbord side of the country lost a can’t-lose election to the worst presidential nominee in American history. Since then, in between the cry-ins and riots, liberals have paused to catch their breath and ask how it could have happened. The answers they are coming up with are not encouraging.
One school of thought insists that the left needs to understand what Trump voters think and what they want. But so far there doesn’t seem to be much chance of that happening. Even those who ascribe to this thesis approach the subject with the mindset of an anthropologist, or perhaps an exobiologist: “Who are these alien creatures? What do they want?” (Not to be viewed as a strange and repulsive species of semi-intelligent bug, would be one guess.)
To aid with the anthropological project, The New York Times recently was kind enough to provide befuddled liberals with a reading list to explain the trumpenproletariat.
The list begins with “The Unwinding,” in which the New Yorker‘s “George Packer took a wide-angled look at this country’s institutions and mores and was appalled by what he found. The book begins like a horror novel, which to some extent it is.” Yes, that’s just the thing to build empathy and rapport with the folks in flyover country: “America: The Hellhole.”
The reading list also includes works by Thomas Frank, John B. Judis and other liberal stalwarts. Hmmmm. Say you want to understand the mind of the liberal academic. Whom do you ask for insight? If you answered “an Iowa beet farmer,” you have a bright future as reading-list editor of The New York Times.
Then there’s a second school of thought, which holds that liberals don’t need to learn to understand the typical Trump voter—they already do. As the New Yorker put it, “The unexpected election of Trump is suspected to owe debts to both niche extremism and rampant misinformation.” This is the effete way to call someone a brain-dead bigot.
“Niche extremism” means the alt-right, which conveniently held a convention in Washington last weekend and about which the media have been telling an endless series of ghost stories. The alt-right is a neo-fascist, white-identity movement whose members like to throw around Nazi-era terms like lugenpresse when they aren’t menacing Jews, Muslims, Latinos, and other minorities.
The movement is dangerous and needs watching; as C.S. Lewis put it in The Chronicles of Narnia, when there’s a wasp in the room you want to know where it is. But attributing Trump’s election to the alt-right is like giving credit for Barack Obama’s re-election to Rhode Island: Yes, it helped—but much bigger forces were in play.
The “misinformation” meme is just plain funny. Real journalists are suddenly fascinated by the ostensible problem of fake news—writing front-page profiles of its purveyors, “view-with-alarm” editorials and self-important condemnations and whatnot. But as explained at greater length in this column on Wednesday, fake news is not a sudden epidemic and it is not at all new. Only the direction it comes from is.
For the liberal establishment, however, the fake-news meme is a dangerous self-deception. Behind the notion that “misinformation” elected Donald Trump lies this assumption: People wouldn’t have voted against Hillary Clinton if they knew the truth.
This is a seductive delusion not unlike the one conservatives tell themselves when they lose elections. A candidate could stand to the right of Attila the Hun and a certain segment of the American right would insist that he lost because he just wasn’t conservative enough. Conservatism is never at fault, in this reading—only the inadequate application of it is. (Ideologues are all alike: Somewhere out there is the world’s last Communist true believer, plaintively insisting that real Communism never actually failed because it was never actually tried.)
Six months of fake news stories about Hillary Clinton didn’t doom her election chances; two decades of real news stories did. But the fake-news meme provides Democrats with an excuse to avoid self-reflection; it clears Clinton (and them) of any responsibility for the loss.
Unfortunately for Democrats, assuming there are no lessons to be learned only increases the odds that Democrats will nominate another flawed candidate next time.
In a splendid review of a work by Norman Podhoretz some years ago, Leon Wielseltier wrote, “this is a dreary book. Its author has a completely axiomatic mind that is quite content to maintain itself in a permanent condition of apocalyptic excitation. His perspective is so settled, so confirmed, that it is a wonder he is not too bored to write. The veracity of everything he believes is so overwhelmingly obvious to him that he no longer troubles to argue for it. Instead there is only bewilderment that others do not see it, too. … (T)he refusal of others to assent to his beliefs is portrayed by Podhoretz not as a principled disagreement that is worthy of respect, but as a human failing. … He has a philosophy. They have a psychology.”
That passage describes vast swaths of the American electorate, of every persuasion. (You might have noticed that Trump voters do not exactly relish having their own biases challenged, either.)
The prescription for the ailment is the “Ideological Turing Test,” invented by Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University. It’s simple enough: If you truly understand your political adversary, then you should be able to write an essay explicating his or her point of view well enough that a neutral judge cannot tell the difference.
How many of us, do you think, could pass it?
This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.