Joe Biden wants to unite Americans, but that won’t be easy when disgust at Trump’s actions matches disbelief at liberal attempts to censor opponents via Silicon Valley. Can there be any return to real liberal values and a sense of normality?
BY THOMAS FRANK
It is the ‘duty’ of American citizens, President Joe Biden announced in his inaugural address last week, to ‘defend the truth and to defeat the lies’. Much of Biden’s speech was an unremarkable stringing-together of patriotic platitudes, but this call for a great truth crusade stood out for its audacity. America is, after all, the homeland of the public relations industry, of televangelism, of Madison Avenue, of PT Barnum. Our leading scholars worship at the shrine of post-structuralism; our brightest college graduates go on to work for the CIA; our best newspapers dynamite the barrier between reporting and opinion; our greatest political practitioners are consultants who ‘spin’ the facts this way or that.
In declaring a national quest for truth, of course, Biden was referring to none of these things. His target was a single man: Donald Trump, the most energetic shit-shoveler ever to occupy the Oval Office.
Consider the events of just the last few months. After losing the election of 3 November, Trump refused to acknowledge what happened and instead filed lawsuit after preposterous lawsuit charging that the election had been stolen from him by some unspecified method. Ambitious young Republican politicians pushed the nonsense along, trying to agree as conspicuously as possible with the president’s vain theorising. The last straw came on 6 January, when Trump addressed a throng of hardcore true believers and urged them to take their protest to the Capitol itself, where the final electoral formalities were then taking place.
Mob shamed Trump’s own party
As the entire world now knows, the result was the mob attack on the US Capitol in which certain of its leading personalities showed up in costume, buffalo horns, face paint and tri-cornered hats. Members of the mob filmed themselves as they ran down the marble halls; they waved the Confederate flag, the snake flag, references to favourite Bible verses; they talked of murdering politicians and beat a policeman to death.
It is always shocking when people who believe idiotic things commit monstrosities on the basis of those stupid views, but in this case the people who stormed the Capitol may finally have accomplished what no one has been able to do for years: they shamed Donald Trump’s Republican Party.
One after another, Republicans in Congress turned against the president and colleagues who were still questioning the election results. Twitter banned its most famous customer, Donald J Trump. Congress impeached him — again. And then came the cruellest blow, as America’s gigantic banks cut off campaign donations to members of a party whose prime goal has always been to put those giant banks above the law.
These are enormous changes. But what do they signify? For the last decade, pundits have been announcing the imminent demise of conservatism, of the Reagan era, of the Republican Party. At the same time, they have celebrated the coming triumph of multicultural liberalism, the awakening of a generation. Will Trumpism’s collapse into madness and violence finally turn their predictions into reality?
To answer this question requires more than getting angry about the latest Republican outrage. If we are truly dedicated to truth, as Biden calls on us to be, we must consider the entire sweep of the Trump era and in particular the sort of voters who, over the last few decades, have been shifting from the Republican to the Democratic Party. As it happens, these are Americans I know well: people of taste and education, for whom modern life is a succession of splendours and pleasantries. I mean the residents of the nation’s richest white-collar suburbs.
In America’s 100 best-educated counties, the Wall Street Journal tells us, the Democrat Biden won 84% of the vote on 3 November. In the 100 counties with the highest median income, Biden won 57% (1). Thirty years ago, Republicans won overwhelmingly in both of these categories.
An intelligence officer’s goal is to get as close to the truth as possible. Something I believe we have in common with the pressMichael Hayden
A popular way of looking at this shift is to sum up the economic output of the regions supporting the two parties. Hillary Clinton once boasted that, though she lost the election of 2016, she represented the country’s most ‘dynamic’ areas, places that between them ‘represent two thirds of America’s gross domestic product’. Well, Joe Biden did even better than that. The counties won by the Democrats account for 71% of ‘America’s economic activity’, Trump country just 29% (2).
Rich, white and Republican
I grew up in one of the places this data describes: Johnson County, Kansas, the sprawling suburban home of Kansas City’s white-flight suburbs. Although my family was not particularly well-to-do, the suburban county that surrounded us was by far the richest in the state of Kansas, a place of lawyers and doctors and architects whose children attended excellent public schools. Its residents worked in tidy office parks; they shopped in vast, glittering malls; they played on sumptuous golf courses; they ate at world-class restaurants; they lived in brand new, mansionised developments that extended for miles out onto the prairie. When I was younger and punk rock played constantly in my car, my friends and I would drive down Johnson County’s six-lane boulevards and its dainty cul-de-sacs, laughing at the bourgeois pretentiousness of it all.
We laughed at these people because they were the ruling class. Johnson County was rich, it was white, it was in charge, and it was one of the most Republican places in America. When I was growing up there, Republicans seemed to control virtually every office; they seemed to win virtually every election; and it seemed it had always been that way. Johnson County had not voted for a Democrat for president since 1916, when Woodrow Wilson was in the White House. It had sneered at Franklin Roosevelt and John F Kennedy, but it loved men like Barry Goldwater, the ferocious anti-communist who led the GOP to a crushing defeat in 1964.
But in November 2020, Johnson County finally gave it up and voted for Democrat Joe Biden, one of only five counties in Kansas to do so. Driving around my old neighbourhood before election day, I saw countless BLM (Black Lives Matter) signs in people’s yards and, in a lot across the street from the former home of President Eisenhower’s brother, a home-made piece of yard art in which a Statue of Liberty, covered with a scary-looking net, bore a sign reading ‘Please, SAVE ME! Save Democracy’.
The essential relationships here have not changed in any substantial way. Johnson County is still overwhelmingly white, intensely corporate and very affluent. The kids still go to good colleges, the real estate values are high and the pseudo-baronial palaces still stand. Johnson County still lords it over the region’s Republican masses, but it does so now from the left, as that term is used in America. You may still laugh at the pretentious homes of the ruling class, but these days you’ll often see a yard sign informing you that the affluents in residence are sensitive people who know that ‘Women’s Rights Are Human Rights’, ‘Science is Real’ and ‘Love is Love’.
Biden outspent Trump
An interesting political showdown last November pitted a Johnson County Democrat against a Republican from western Kansas for one of the state’s seats in the US Senate. The Democrat spent four times as much as the Republican — $28m versus $7m. She lost, but the essential truth of the matter remains: such lopsided spending would have been unthinkable a short time ago. Business support for the Republican Party was the monumental fact of the American political landscape. Any effort to understand our system began with this piece of information: this was why Republicans ruled as they did, why they professed their faith in markets and why their leaders retired to become lobbyists, and (of course) this was why Republicans spent so much more than Democrats on campaigns.
Not this time. Donald Trump followed the Republican playbook to the letter. He did amazing favours for business during his time in the White House, cutting taxes and making life easier for polluters. But it wasn’t enough.
In the 2020 race, the lifelong politician Joe Biden outraised and outspent the real-estate magnate Trump by $1.6bn to $1.1bn. Wall Street and Silicon Valley appear to have largely taken the Democrats’ side, with all five GAFAM companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) showing up in Biden’s list of top contributors. Trump seems to have done best in sectors of the old, industrial economy, including agribusiness, coal and Big Oil.
Among the industries that define American culture, the anti-Trump ‘resistance’ was virtually airtight: the media and entertainment industries hated him, the tech industry hated him, academia hated him. The foreign policy community hated him, the NatSec community hated him, Iraq war Republicans hated him, the little world of the DC commentariat hated him, and the broader world of the press hated him too.
The mind-blowing detail about this Coalition of the Aghast was that it also included the Central Intelligence Agency. Not long ago, the CIA was the great bête noire for peace-minded liberals: as everyone knew, it was the government agency that overthrew foreign governments, deceived and misled people in distant lands and fought for dictatorship around the world. Its list of crimes against democracy was long and disturbing.
But over the last four years this picture changed completely. Now liberals were supposed to shed tears for the agency — because the poor CIA had been maligned and disrespected by Trump, who (among other things) claimed it exaggerated the role played by Russia in the 2016 election. Indeed, the affinity between liberalism and the spy agency eventually became so obvious to ‘resistance’ people that it didn’t have to be explained.
The culture wars are with us all day, every day, because outrage and divisiveness build an audience, allow the media to sell candy bars and adult diapers.
Exhibit A is the Washington Post’s ‘oral history’ of the opposition to Trump, published on 8 November (3). The long story is divided into chapters, each consisting of important people’s recollections of how outraged they were by Trumpian misbehaviour and how they came to participate in the ‘resistance’. The reader learns how bad these people felt on ‘The Day After’ Trump was elected in 2016 and how they got involved in the Women’s March of January 2017. Then we come to the ‘CIA Memorial Wall Speech’ when President Trump visited CIA headquarters in 2017, stood before a memorial to CIA agents who died in the field and, at ‘this revered place’, gave a stupid, self-absorbed talk.
‘A really dark moment’
The Post quotes Tammy Duckworth, a Democratic senator from Illinois, who says the speech was ‘beyond shameful’. Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s choice for transportation secretary, describes Trump’s disrespect for the CIA as ‘a really dark moment’, and Juli Briskman, a local politician, says she was moved to make a protest sign and picket Trump’s CIA appearance.
Protesting against a politician who insults the CIA is a notable innovation in left praxis. But its novelty is dwarfed by this remark on the Trump-CIA incident, made to the Post by former CIA director Michael Hayden: ‘Intelligence is about truth. The goal of an intelligence officer is to get as close to the truth as possible. Something I believe we have in common with the press.’
This is utterly fatuous and yet it is not wrong. In the Trump era, the press did indeed come to resemble what Washington calls the ‘intelligence community’. Hayden himself became an ‘analyst’ for CNN in 2017, as did James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence. Former CIA chief John Brennan became one for NBC. Countless other former spies made similar moves, speculating on TV about ‘disinformation’ and the occult power Vladimir Putin had over Donald Trump.
This brings us to Russiagate, once the all-absorbing nightmare of the Trump years, but today a labyrinthine story whose particular hysterical details no one cares to remember. Still, if we are to pursue our national quest for truth, we must revisit it one more time.
The basic element of the scandal was ‘collusion’: that Trump had in some way conspired with or been compromised by the Russian government as it tried to intervene in the 2016 election. Which was to say that Trump was not merely incompetent or crooked but the agent of a hostile foreign power.
There were hundreds of accusations along those lines, ranging from gullibility to treason. Future historians will get to sort out which pundit pushed which particular details of the story, how journalism’s rules got suspended, and how cable news used Russia-fear to build its audience. Here, let us stick to the essential matter: this was the singular news story of the Trump years, the subject that dominated the headlines, and always in the same way — revelations of the most shattering sort were just around the corner. But somehow never quite revealed. Special Counsel Robert Mueller brought several Republican officials to book for other offenses, but he prosecuted no one for coordination or conspiracy with the Russian government. His report concluded in March 2019: ‘Ultimately, the investigation did not establish that the campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election-interference activities’ (4).
‘This generation’s WMD’
And so the most widely covered Trump scandal morphed into the ultimate journalism scandal. In their zeal to bring down a president they despised, the people of the press had given up any pretence of fairness or balance. They did not try to conceal this change, but rather spoke of it as a kind of breakthrough innovation made necessary by Trump’s constant lying. Journalism critic Matt Taibbi calls Russiagate ‘this generation’s WMD’ but on a grander level: ‘The sheer scale of the errors and exaggerations this time around dwarfs the last mess. We’ve become sides-choosers, obliterating the concept of the press as an independent institution whose primary role is sorting fact and fiction’ (5).
Yet as scandals go, this one had few consequences. Not many of the commentators who got Russiagate wrong were punished for it. After all, Trump was a jerk, objectively speaking. And also, the journalists pursuing the story were merely doing what everyone else in journalism was doing, a circumstance in which professional practitioners are rarely held accountable.
It is strange but true that, at this moment of colossal journalistic failure, journalists began to think of themselves as superheroes fighting gallantly against information villains from overseas and the ideological alien in the White House. As the melodramatic slogan adopted by the Washington Post in 2017 puts it, ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’.
The favourite historical parallel during the Trump years was the cold war, another time when Russian darkness threatened democracy and when legitimate news reporting had to grapple with foreign propaganda. It was all happening again, journalists announced. From Black Lives Matter to the gun lobby, the 2018 New York Times video series ‘Operation Infektion’ (6) tells us, ‘wherever there has been a division in society, Russia has used disinformation to pry it open, sowing chaos across the political spectrum.’ And now we have Donald Trump, both a product and a source of disinformation, whose love of bullshit makes him a ‘useful idiot’ right out of the KGB’s dreams. The video shows Trump telling some sinister fibs as the narrator concludes, ‘It’s weird but this is somehow worse than the cold war.’
How are we to win this new and even worse cold war, this war on truth itself? It’s hard to miss what the New York Times videos hinted at, because talk about it was in the air nearly every day during the Trump years. It is censorship, a cold war weapon that is clearly becoming fashionable again in this age of universal surveillance and universal aghastitude.
‘Incompatible with free speech’
The allure of censorship is everywhere in the liberal air these days. In a recent interview, the legendary American Civil Liberties Union leader Ira Glasser, a liberal of the old school, tells of speaking at a prestigious law school and noting with satisfaction that his audience was multi-racial. But then… ‘So I’m looking at this audience and I am feeling wonderful about it. And then after the panel discussion, person after person got up, including some of the younger professors, to assert that their goals of social justice for blacks, for women, for minorities of all kinds, were incompatible with free speech and that free speech was an antagonist.’
It is impossible to understand American politics without grasping what Glasser is suggesting. The dream of a certain kind of liberal today is not so much to represent ordinary people as to police them. The right-thinking, the correctly credentialed, the bona fide expert, such liberals believe, must come together with the tech industry to stamp out ‘disinformation’ or wrongful thinking to which the public might be exposed. Unwholesome voices must be de-platformed or ‘cancelled’. Counterfactual viewpoints, like Trump’s foolish post-election tweets, must be tagged by relevant authorities with appropriate warning labels. Podcasts which traffic in ‘fake, bogus and debunked claims’ must be scrutinised and, if necessary, cleansed from the relevant websites.
Before we enlist in the struggle to save democracy from Putinesque darkness, however, Americans would do well to recall a few baseline details about how the cold war actually unfolded. The Red Scare of the late 1940s was trumped up in large part to discredit the Truman administration (it was supposedly riddled with communists) and to push US policymakers to the right. The cold war also changed the face of American society, and not for the better. Professional red-hunters tracked down subversives and got them cancelled or fired — ruining the lives of plenty of innocent people along the way. It was a time of moral hysteria, during which suspicion and hence guilt could alight on virtually anyone.
Today’s political culture wars are clearly carrying us toward a similar kind of sustained hysteria, and the mob attack on the Capitol has only heightened the climate of fear and suspicion. But which side is which? Who are the disinformation-spreading subversives the nation is going to track down and suppress, and who are the J Edgar Hoovers who are going to inflame the panic and do the suppressing?
The New York Times videos I mentioned earlier tell us that Russian disinformation works by exploiting ‘division[s] in society’ — but those words might also describe the op-ed page of the Times. Twitter works the same way. So does CNN. So does Facebook, so does every other outlet. As Matt Taibbi shows in his book, this is the mass-media business model of our time: the culture wars are with us all day, every day, because outrage and divisiveness build an audience, allow the media to sell candy bars and adult diapers. Start up your car and there’s a voice on the radio criticising an actor for playing an inappropriate part in a movie. Turn on the TV and there’s antifa out of control, throwing stuff at the cops and defacing a statue. Open up the Times itself and there’s a startling reinterpretation of the entirety of US history.
Coalition of the Aghast knows
Obviously not all of this divisiveness is disinformation. The Times clearly feels that the culture wars it chooses to prosecute are crusades for health and light. And no doubt conservatives also believe they should have the power to silence the other side, as they did at other times in our history. But this time around the conservatives don’t control the weapons. Cultural legitimacy lies entirely with the Coalition of the Aghast, and the answer they provide to the above question is simple: experts know. It is they who should administer society’s mute button.
What makes one culture-war pronouncement ‘legitimate’ is not really its truthfulness, since that’s sometimes hard to determine: instead, it’s the pronouncer’s standing within his or her professional community. What makes another pronouncement ‘misinformation’ is that it is made by just some ordinary person with no standing to speak of, some crank who criticises pundits on Twitter and spreads theories on Reddit.
The misinformation problem thus becomes another chapter in the broader crisis of elite authority that has haunted the liberal mind since Trump’s rise began. For five years now, they have moaned that the country has lost its faith in its credentialed elites. As Jonathan Rauch of Brookings wrote in The Atlantic in the awful summer of 2016, ‘Our most pressing political problem today is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around.’
Worrying about the crisis of authority is what liberals do these days in the United States. Older concerns, like the economic problems of blue-collar whites, have become a subject for liberal sneering, but restoring the rightful hierarchy of credentialed expertise has become a matter of real moral urgency. ‘Respect Science’ say the signs and stickers you see in liberal neighbourhoods. Respect expertise. Respect hierarchy. Know your place.
What place for doubt?
Foreign policy, it is said, must be reclaimed by the foreign policy ‘community’. Central bank policy must be protected from the influence of farmers. From the consensus views of the relevant professions there can be no dissent, at least not in public. ‘Doubt,’ I read recently in the Washington Post, ‘is a cardinal virtue in the sciences … But it can be disastrous in public health, where lives depend on people’s willingness to trust those same experts.’ Therefore it has to be kept quiet, if not removed from view altogether — a thought-suppressing logic that can be extended into any field of knowledge you care to mention.
This essay is not a brief for free speech absolutism or an effort to rationalise conspiracy theory or an attack on higher learning. It is about the future of the Democratic Party, the future of the left, and here is the suggestion I mean to make: the form of liberalism I have described here is inherently despicable. A democratic society is naturally going to gag when it is told again and again in countless ways, both subtle and gross, that our great national problem is our failure to heed the authority of traditional elites.
Worse, when those traditional elites come together with unprecedented unanimity to insist their high rank proves their correctness and justifies their privilege … when they say we are in a new cold war against falsehood … when the news media dumps its neutrality and likens itself to superheroes and declares it is mystically attuned to truth and legitimacy … when they do those things and then get the biggest news story of the decade fabulously wrong, a society like ours is going to spot the hypocrisy. And we are going to resent it.
Which is to say that the effect of all this moral judgmentalism has been the opposite of what was intended. To spend four years scolding people in the shrillest notes of moral hysteria was perhaps the perfect recipe for convincing Trump supporters to redouble their dedication to this deluded and prejudiced man. It is well known that shaming people for failing to live up to your personal high standards of Covid hygiene is not a good strategy for changing their behaviour. Multiply that dynamic by 300 million and you’ve got America in the age of Trump. Ten per cent of a nation energetically scolding the other 90%.
Politics of scolding doesn’t work
Oddly enough, liberals already knew this kind of top-down politics of scolding doesn’t work. In the presidential election year of 1936, the upper reaches of American society came together in a kind of moral panic against the re-election of President Franklin Roosevelt: tycoons, society types, economists, corporation attorneys and more. An estimated 85% of the newspapers of the nation were against FDR; they did their part in the struggle by denouncing him in the most vituperative terms: he was a would-be dictator, a communist, a fascist; he was empowering cranks, ignoring credentialed expertise, and probably the tool of the Russians to boot.
That campaign backfired in the most spectacular way. Roosevelt fought back against the ‘economic royalists’ and proceeded to win in a great landslide. Unlike Donald Trump, FDR was a genuine populist, and genuinely popular. But, as commentators noted at the time, the unified front that upper America presented against him in 1936 made him even more popular still.
If historians still exist in 30 years, they will look back upon these last four years with disgust and bewilderment. Disgust when they contemplate the loud, vain ignoramus who sat in the White House scarfing hamburgers and spinning conspiracy theories on Twitter while Covid burned through the nation.
But when they look at liberals, they will shake their heads with disbelief. How could they have thought it was wise to try to enlist the great economic and cultural powers of our time — the masters of Silicon Valley — to try to censor our opponents? Ira Glasser, the old ACLU chief, relates how liberal academics embraced speech codes because they ‘imagined themselves as controlling who the codes would be used against’. What these well-meaning liberals didn’t understand, he continued, was that ‘speech restrictions are like poison gas. It seems like it’s a great weapon to have when you’ve got the poison gas in your hands and a target in sight, but the wind has a way of shifting — especially politically — and suddenly that poison gas is being blown back on you.’
As Glasser’s metaphor suggests, this cannot end well. The mob attack on the Capitol frightened us all. But for Democrats to choose censorship (via the monopolists of Silicon Valley) as the solution to the problem is a shocking breach of faith. There are many words one might use to describe a party that, over the last 30 years, has shown itself contemptuous of working-class grievances while protective of the authority of the respected… but ‘liberal’ isn’t one of them.
Thomas Frank is a journalist and the author of The People, No. A Brief History of Anti-Populism, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2020.