The Personal Weblog of Edward W. Farrell   
 
The End of Civil Discussion Tuesday, November 10, 2020
 
Thanks to Torgeir Fjeld on the Lit-Ideas listserve for passing on this article by Yanis Varoufakis from the November 8 issue of The Guardian. A brief snip:

When Trump contracted Covid-19, his opponents feared he might benefit from a sympathy vote. But Trump is not a normal president seeking voters' sympathy. He doesn't do sympathy. He neither needs nor banks on it. Trump trades on anger, weaponises hatred and meticulously cultivates the dread with which the majority of Americans have been living after the financial bubble burst in 2008. Obscenities and contempt for the rules of polite society were his means of connecting with a large section of American society.

Varoufakis gives an fairly objective appraisal of Trump as far as it goes--but it does not go far enough. Varoufakis doesn't address a more articulate segment of Americans, mostly conservative intellectuals outside the predominantly left-wing academy, who support Trump for more complex reasons. This "segment" does not have spokesmen per se nor a unified ideology, but the people I am thinking of are Michael Anton, William Voegeli, Heather McDonald, Victor Hansen, Angelo Codevilla, and others.

While these authors may approve of certain aspects of Trump's immigration, trade, education, and foreign policies, they more generally approve of Trump as a stop-gap in a larger and more troublesome culture war. In this they are not so much for Trump as against globalization and our latest incarnation of progressivism, in which Trump plays a unique role. Although he came to office under the Republican party, Trump significantly stands outside both political parties and menaces their proprieties. Largely because of these proprieties, for the last 30 years it really didn't matter which party you voted for--the inevitable result was more free trade, globalization, a look-the-other-way approach to illegal immigration, the slow erosion of the middle class, and an increasingly doctrinaire left-wing presence in the universities and corporate HR departments. Many people, especially middle class people, didn't like these developments but since no major political candidate rose to resist them with more than lip service, they began to seem inevitable. Trump changed that, and in the process so enraged progressives with his MAGA initiatives that they aggressively took to showing the world their usually well-hidden hind end. I'm referring here to the New York Times' odious 1619 project, the recent eruption into the general public of critical race theory, intersectionality, and related identity politics, and the push to make public schools, corporate offices, and government bureaucracies promulgate these views under fear of cancel-culture henchmen. These henchmen have inspired a veritable orgy of groveling among university and corporate administrators, media talking heads, and anyone who happens to float into their cross hairs and gets tarred with such voodoo words as racist, sexist, or the various ---phobe suffixed labels. This is frightening to the normal American because it says: you've got no place to hide, so mind what you say or we'll rat you out to your superiors and they'll throw you under the bus. Whatever Americans may understand freedom to mean, this is distinctly oppressive, and since it is premised on words or behavior that anyone can rightly or wrongly construe to be racist, sexist, etc. and for which there is no defense, you can quickly get separated out from the herd and deprived of career and reputation with no means of appeal. Trump stood in the way of this and actively fought it, both in policy and in everyday speech. So it's no surprise that in this environment to simply say that you support Trump can brand you as a racist.

This all conspired to quietly drive centrists and moderates away from the progressive left and towards the populist Trump. Nevertheless Trump's constant bullshitting, crude epithets, and obnoxious personality were his own undoing among this crowd because even if they agreed with his policies and were sympathetic to his check on progressivism, they detested the man. I don't know how much this played into him losing the election or even if it did. But it seems possible that with Trump out of the picture and without fear of association with him, the opposition to progressivism and its left-wing excesses, now sharpened under Trump, may actually increase during the Biden administration instead of go away. This is because of some of the lessons Trump sympathizers  learned during the last four years. They learned that neither the Democrats nor Republicans have shown any understanding or even interest in the deeper issues that allowed someone like Trump to be elected in the first place (or alternatively, they do know the issues but will not give dissenters ammunition by acknowledging them). On top of this, they've seen many progressives relentlessly stereotype and demonize Trumpers as sub-persons with no right to the respect or concern shown to normal people, and the manner of this demonization has a distinctly Bolshevik stench. In the brief time since Biden's election, this demonization has expanded to proposals to compile hit lists of Trump supporters so that they can be ostracized and cast out from future public life (a brief synopsis of this from Breitbart; follow the Twitter feeds for more depth). These tactics are thoroughly incompatible with civil society but very similar to the ways totalitarian regimes operate. This makes Biden's appeals to unity sound unctuous and false. Things are not likely to return to a now-mythical normalcy. Progressives will never compromise with populists whom they view as their moral and intellectual inferiors at best, and the populists know it and will do battle as best they can. We've seen the last of civil discussion.

Addendum, December 2020

Torgeir Fjeld mentioned an article by John Corvino and wondered if his views on civility might be relevant here. Here's a brief snip from Corvino's essay:

One might also object [in the pursuit of civility] that some ideas and practices--and by extension, some people-really are beyond the pale: one does not civil polite discourse with Nazis, for example. I agree. Even Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers.

But this approach ought to be used sparingly, for both principled and pragmatic reasons. When outrage becomes our go-to stance, we often lose opportunities for working together to effect needed social change.


Corvino's views are certainly relevant, so long as we keep in mind that civility can't be an end in itself. On the one hand, you could make the case that anything can and should be dealt with in a civil, respectful manner. But, as Corvino points out, this is not likely to happen if either side in a discussion or dispute suspects that their opponent is merely using civility as a strategy in a zero sum game. Also, discussion is not an appropriate term when applied to political opponents who do not intend to compromise, but are rather intent on scoring points in the short term and vanquishing in the long term. I would argue that civility is only manifested in those willing to compromise as a matter of principle, which implies a shared conviction that pluralism is the inevitable and desirable consequence of a free society given the diversity of aims and views among free people, and therefore a mutual flourishing of competing and even conflicting interests must be accommodated as much as possible. But obviously, a pluralistic society cannot accommodate totalitarianism, which attempts to destroy pluralism. And this is a major issue in the current US political climate.  


 
 
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