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Right Fragility
The right often accuses the left of exaggerating victimhood, turning a blind eye to reality, and distorting language to do so. The left, it’s often said, harbors “snowflakes” and the like who are beset by a victim complex. Lately, however, this frame of mind knows no party or political affiliation. Especially since the Capitol riot, assorted conservative figures have embodied a fragility of the right.A conflict certainly exists between the rhetoric often used about society on the hard left and reality on the ground. Many on the left seem convinced that university campuses—some of the most studiously antiracist locations on the entire planet—are hotbeds of pitiless racism. The idea that America’s trajectory since the early 17th century has been founded on, flowed from, and been defined by oppression of Black people, and today implacably “functions to” reinforce system inequality, strikes many as a useful conversation starter, but is almost curiously simplistic as actual sociohistorical analysis.If the right likes to call out these theatrical exaggerations, it has also learned from them and in the last weeks has emulated them. Fox’s Jeanine Pirro, for instance, compared the act of tech companies de-platforming Parler for harboring unfiltered right-wing terrorist propaganda to “Kristallnacht.” Jews tormented on Kristallnacht would have interesting words for Pirro’s view, especially since her ideological compatriots had just stormed the Capitol and left five people dead.Fox’s Tucker Carlson is also pushing right-wing victimization. He claimed that the insurrection was rooted in something as blunt as “the population” asking, “Listen to us!” with their leaders merely yelling, “Shut up and do as you’re told.” He ignored the clear-cut denialism about the vote count, and the fact that leaders are listening to that denialism and encouraging it. The notion that the insurrections represent the neglected and unheard is especially odd since the mob at the Capitol was not comprised entirely of impecunious people worried about their bank accounts, but included a great many financially stable, educated people.Another exemplar of right fragility is Senator Josh Hawley, who recruited the term Orwellian to describe the cancellation of the publication of his upcoming critique of Big Tech. George Orwell’s 1984 described a dystopia where the state refashioned language to make it impossible to harbor unwelcome thoughts. Simon & Schuster (a private company) canceled Hawley’s book in a world where views of Hawley’s kind are and will continue to be widely disseminated.Although obviously lacking the censoring power of the state, the woke left can court the Orwellian. The left flings around the term cisheteropatriarchal to dismiss seemingly anything most Americans find familiar, pleasurable, and even progressive, and in one notable case to praise looting—evidence of a desire to shunt thought into forbiddingly constricted channels.However, the right’s use of Orwellian to refer to certain bodies choosing not to broadcast their views represents a sloppy dilution of what the author meant. Orwell would have had choice words for the notion that the response to an invasion of the Capitol and a subversion of the election process, not the invasion and subversion themselves, ought to make us heed the warnings in 1984.This transformation of the term Orwellian parallels, as it happens, what the right complains about in the left’s transformation of “racism” from referring to prejudice and discrimination to referring to their results; that is, disparities indicate a “racist” society. To consider this post-1960s usage of racism manipulative and dismissible is interesting coming from people who would pretend that 1984 was about reasoned censorship as opposed to a radical reprogramming of all human thought.The right parallels the excesses of wokeness also in denying sheer logic when it’s inconvenient to a larger ideology.Some on the hard left believe that it is wrong to generalize about groups, but quite readily delineate “whites” and “whiteness” as unitary categories. Some leftist education reformers justify racial-preference policies on a quest for diverse views in classrooms, even as they consider it racist if Black students are expected to represent their “diversity” in classroom discussions. This tension is not considered inconvenient as long as both phenomena are processed as countering racism: fostering diverse views to decenter whiteness, and countering white supremacy by pushing back at unfair expectations. To question any of this is to not “get it,” because the overriding principle of battling white privilege is sacrosanct even in the face of logic.Anyone who takes issue with these logical failings should attend to the more extreme anti-empiricism—and with a violent streak added on—of the Trump supporters who believe that the election was stolen from the president, but nevertheless affirm the validity of the House and Senate elections on the same ballots. They will not accept the reality, apparent to anyone who can put common sense before politics, that Trump lost. These supporters fiercely and implacably resist logic in the name of a greater good: battling the left.On both the left and the right, this brand of exaggeration and anti-empiricism seems rooted not in politics but in the alienation of modern life. Humans were minted in small bands of people nested in lifelong intimate relationships of kin and marriage. The ideal of atomic individualism remains alien to perhaps most persons on Earth. Mass movements offer a sense of belonging that modern life often does not provide, as well as the delicious feeling of having it all figured out.Small indigenous tribes like the Matsigenka in Peru live in groups so close-knit that rather than go by names, people use family terms—one is Sister, Father, or Aunt, not Maria, Fred, or Pauline. Americans are stuck with their names. But membership in a Trump-right or woke-left movement lets people be Sister, Father, or Aunt of a kind, a part of a whole united by a sense of eternal battle against a menacing “other.”The upshot is that the right has no grounds for supposing itself immune from the contemporary pathologies of the left. At this moment, the right must also reckon with the fact that while the left’s victimhood complex gets people fired and creates a lot of social grief, the right’s victimhood complex can end in members of Congress huddling under their desks as five citizens lose their lives.
Republicans Will Try to Pretend Like Trump Never Happened
As Donald Trump lurches through the disastrous final days of his presidency, Republicans are just beginning to survey the wreckage of his reign. Their party has been gutted, their leader is reviled, and after four years of excusing every presidential affront to “conservative values,” their credibility is shot. How will the GOP recover from the complicity and corruption of the Trump era? To many Republicans, the answer is simple: Pretend it never happened.“We’re about to see a whole political party do a large-scale version of ‘New phone, who dis?’” says Sarah Isgur, a former top spokesperson for the Trump Justice Department. “It will be like that boyfriend you should never have dated—the mistake that shall not be mentioned.”The plan might seem implausible, but I’ve heard it floated repeatedly in recent days by Republican strategists who are counting down the minutes of the Trump presidency. The hardcore MAGA crowd will stay loyal, of course, and those few who have consistently opposed Trump will escape with their reputations intact. But for the majority of GOP officials, apparatchiks, and commentators who sacrificed their dignity at the altar of Trump, a collective case of amnesia seems destined to set in the moment he leaves office.[Read: The bitter reality of the post-Trump GOP]People who spent years coddling the president will recast themselves as voices of conscience, or whitewash their relationship with Trump altogether. Policy makers who abandoned their dedication to “fiscal responsibility” and “limited government” will rediscover a passion for these timeless conservative principles. Some may dress up their revisionism in the rhetoric of “healing” and “moving forward,” but the strategy will be clear—to escape accountability by taking advantage of America’s notoriously short political memory.When I asked Doug Heye, a longtime GOP strategist, how his party will remember the Trump years, he responded with a litany of episodes to memory-hole. “Republicans will want to forget the constant chaos, the lies, the double-dealing, the hiring of family, and the escalating rhetoric that incited hate for four years [and] directly led to what happened at the Capitol,” he told me. “Basically, any of those things that we never would have let an Obama or Clinton get away with, but constantly justified to ourselves in the name of judges.”But while some Republicans might be eager to “walk away from Trump,” Heye added, “many will continue talking about the things in the administration they supported”—from tax cuts and deregulation to flooding the judiciary with conservatives.Indeed, the narrative now forming in some GOP circles presents Trump as a secondary figure who presided over an array of important accomplishments thanks to the wisdom and guidance of the Republicans in his orbit. In these accounts, Trump’s race-baiting, corruption, and cruel immigration policies—not to mention his attempts to overturn an election—are treated as minor subplots, rather than defining features.Alyssa Farah, who worked for more than three years in the Trump White House as a communications adviser, resigned last month after the president refused to concede the election. She’s spent the past couple of weeks condemning Trump’s conspiracy theories and distancing herself from the havoc they’ve wrought. Still, when we spoke, Farah was eager to highlight America’s booming pre-coronavirus economy as proof of concept for traditional conservative policies. She lamented that Trump’s legacy might be defined by “the final days of it”—that is, the violent insurrection he incited and the re-impeachment it provoked—but she told me that Republicans shouldn’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”Hoping to provoke a slightly more introspective assessment of the president she served, I asked Farah how she thought the Trump era would be written about in history books. After thinking for a moment, she suggested that this period might not be remembered for Trump at all, but rather for the “once-in-a-hundred-years pandemic” that happened to occur on his watch.Other Trump allies hoping to reclaim the mantle of “respectable Republican” might choose to follow the Lindsey Graham model. The senator’s turn from truth-telling Trump critic to loyal acolyte—timed for his reelection bid last year in South Carolina—earned him a rash of savage headlines in the political press. But he’s already begun his post-Trump rebrand, starting with a speech on the Senate floor after the Capitol riot earlier this month.“Trump and I, we’ve had a hell of a journey,” Graham said in the characteristically cheerful drawl that scans to so many inside the Beltway as candor. “I hate it to end this way. Oh my God, I hate it. From my point of view, he’s been a consequential president. But today … all I can say is, count me out. Enough is enough. I’ve tried to be helpful.”[Peter Wehner: Some Republicans have finally found a line they won’t cross]Graham’s implication was that he’d cozied up to Trump only to advise him on issues of grave national import—and that he was now breaking with the outgoing president on moral grounds. This version of events conveniently ignores the senator’s hyper-partisan defenses of Trump (he called the first impeachment a “lynching in every sense”), or his sycophantic sucking up (“He beat me like a dog” in 2016), or any number of dignity-sapping acrobatics he’s performed to stay on the president’s good side. By deciding to denounce Trump after the riot, Graham—like many of his colleagues—could try to claim that he put country before party (even if it wasn’t until the final days of Trump’s term).Terry Sullivan, who ran Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign in 2016, told me he was unimpressed by this sudden rush to righteous indignation. “The newfound outrage from former Trump supporters rings a bit hollow, given how quiet most were during Charlottesville and countless other escapades,” he said. “Forty-seven months of blind loyalty followed by one month of conscience doesn’t earn you much more than the Mick Mulvaney profile-in-courage award.”Sullivan was less certain, though, about whether the revisionism would work. “I don’t expect the voters will treat them any more kindly than the historians—but I’ve been wrong before.” After all, some predicted that the Republicans who worked for George W. Bush, especially the architects of the Iraq War, would be shunned once he left office. Instead, many of them have settled into respectable—and lucrative—perches as commentators, lobbyists, and elder statesmen. As long as the cable-news bookers keep calling, redemption is always available. Like many of the more high-profile figures who worked for the Trump administration, Isgur, the former Justice Department spokesperson, has spent the years since she resigned publicly repenting. She regularly criticizes the president on CNN and in The Dispatch, a publication founded by Never Trump conservatives. Last month, she published an essay in The Washington Post grappling with how she and her colleagues had “obscured the reality of a Trump presidency from the public.”But Isgur also recognizes that these avenues aren’t available to every Republican tainted by the Trump era. Indeed, those with the least power may end up being the ones who find it hardest to recover.“I’m thinking about those 22-year-old kids who took a very junior job for very little money to answer phones in the White House press shop,” Isgur told me. “They leave with that on their resume but without the ability to explain themselves. They don’t get to write an op-ed in The Washington Post, or go on cable news every day to stake out new territory.“I think,” she added, “it’s yet to be seen where those folks land.”
A Word on Statistics
In “On Statistics,” Wisława Szymborska takes the language of data, with its air of easy certainty, and uses it to measure some of the messiest, most complex aspects of human nature. The result is absurd, and it underscores how ill-equipped those quantitative measurements are for answering the biggest questions in life.When Szymborska won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996, she took the occasion to praise uncertainty—and the ability of poetry to linger in it, allowing the unanswerable. “Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating ‘I don’t know,’” she said in her acceptance speech. Szymborska died in 2012, leaving an oeuvre that tackles weighty subjects with wit and curiosity, and never presumes to have figured things out.— Faith Hill
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