Nearly 20 years ago, Radiohead released “Karma Police,” the second single on their groundbreaking album “OK Computer.” The song is an anthem for an illiberal age. It opens with a demand, “Karma police / Arrest this man,” and the refrain sounds a warning, “This is what you’ll get / When you mess with us.”
Given his left-wing politics, Thom Yorke no doubt feared conformity of thought and suppression of speech and dissent would come from the political Right, and from the homogenizing effects of capitalism and consumer culture.
He was right that we were entering an era of intolerance, but wrong to think it would come from conservatives. Our illiberal moment, and the popular culture that creates and sustains it, is almost wholly a creation of the Left.
Every passing day since the presidential election bears this out. The spasms of outrage and protest that have rocked the country since Donald Trump’s election have revealed what should have been plain to see for a long time: progressives are through debating; they are interested only in enforcing their views.
They believe they have won the culture wars, that there is no room left for dissent on matters like gay marriage, abortion, and transgender entitlements. They believe, too, that questions of public policy, from health care to entitlements and welfare, have been settled once and for all. Any remaining dissenters should feel the full weight of the administrative state, with all its powerful mechanisms.
Don’t want to bake a cake for a gay wedding? We’ll put you out of business. Donate to the wrong political cause? You’ll lose your job. Don’t want to pay for government-mandated birth control for your employees? We’ll haul you before the Supreme Court, even if you’re a group of septuagenarian Catholic nuns. This is what you’ll get when you mess with us.
You Don’t Reason With Nazis, Do You?
What a shock, then, when half the country rejected the reigning consensus. Many of those who voted for Trump didn’t agree with any of his policies and disliked him personally. But they were tired of being told what they could say and think by progressive elites, who after eight years of the Obama administration have become comfortable treating with disdain anyone who disagrees with them.
So the Left has been lashing out, in the streets and on college campuses, but also on stage. On Friday, the cast of Broadway show “Hamilton” lectured Vice President-elect Mike Pence, reading a statement from the stage proclaiming they are, “alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights.”
Set aside that people who really feel threatened by a powerful government do not behave this way in the presence of that government’s leaders. Set aside, too, the irony of celebrity actors lecturing the VP-elect after an election in which the losing side leaned heavily on the endorsements of celebrity actors.
The cast of “Hamilton” weren’t just broadcasting their faux alarm and anxiety; they were signaling that they reject the new administration and will not be seen colluding with it—or even entertaining its leaders without protest. Imagine how a Trump voter in the audience must have felt Friday night.
But, the Left will reply, who cares about the Trump voter? There’s no such thing as a good Trump voter. If Trump is a racist and a bigot, then those who supported him are complicit in his racism and bigotry, and they will be partly responsible for all the bad things that happen in Trump’s America. “To insist Trump’s backers are good people is to treat their inner lives with more weight than the actual lives on the line under a Trump administration,” writes Slate’s Jamelle Bouie. “At best, it’s myopic and solipsistic. At worst, it’s morally grotesque.”
Got that? It’s morally grotesque to insist Trump voters are good people. If that’s true, and Trump’s supporters really are, in Hillary Clinton’s phrase, just a big “basket of deplorables,” then who cares what they think? Why bother trying to persuade these wicked people? Better to shout them down, mock them, muzzle them by force, if possible. You don’t reason with Nazis, do you?
The Rise of the ‘Dirtbag Left’
The fullest expression of this posture doesn’t come from Bouie but from a cohort of young progressives styled the “Dirtbag Left” in a recent profile in The New Yorker. Felix Biederman, Matt Christman, and Will Menaker are the trio behind “Chapo Trap House,” a comedy and politics podcast dedicated to “vulgar leftist commentary,” which prior to the election had stood out mostly for its withering critique of the Democratic Party and its erstwhile nominee.
It also stood out for its shit-talking, “Bernie bros” tone. Christman told one interviewer that members of the dirtbag left aren’t afraid “to offend the sensibilities of ‘leftist’ language police whose only goal is sabotaging social solidarity in order to maintain their brands as arbiters of good taste and acceptable speech.” The hosts, all thirty-something white guys, don’t worry about offending anyone, even other progressives. They’re as foul-mouthed as they please, even when they’re being interviewed by The New Yorker:
Menaker, who is thirty-three, told me that fans are drawn to the podcast because the hosts have ‘no special obligation to be nice to anyone, or get a pat on the head, or’—and here he briefly affected the voice of an aristocrat—‘have a fine debate with mon conservative frère.’ He rolled his eyes and mimed masturbation. ‘My reaction to that is a jack-off motion so hard it opens a portal into another dimension.’
But the vulgarity isn’t just for entertainment. It’s also a way of being honest—telling it like it really is. Many on the Left called Trump a (short-fingered) vulgarian for doing the exact same thing. He wasn’t afraid of offending. But it’s the dirtbag left’s honesty that’s so instructive: these guys want you to know what they really think.
That makes it easy to see their intolerance; they wear it like a badge of honor. Asked if part of the blame for Clinton’s defeat should go to voters who chose Trump despite his supposed racism and sexism, the “Chapo” guys scoffed. “Even if you do blame the electorate, where do you go from there?” Biederman asked. “Do we shame these people into liking us?”
Clearly not. You just ignore them, or make fun of them. The dirtbag left isn’t interested in persuading Midwestern Democrats who voted for Trump that the redistributive policies of Bernie Sanders would benefit them more than whatever Trump is going to do. That’s not the conversation they want to have. Before the election, much of their humor sprung from mocking the insufficient progressivism of the Democratic Party. They were counting on a Clinton victory so they could spend their time and energy pulling the Democrats further left, not morphing into a podcast version of “The Daily Show.”
The Left Is Impatient for Its Revolution
Now, they’re not interested in soul-searching about how to forge a post-identity liberalism that focuses more on how to help out white people in the Rust Belt and reach out to religious voters. For the “Chapo” set, so much is already settled. Capitalism is dying, conservatism is bankrupt, and quaint constitutional ideas about free speech and “religious liberty” deserve a vanishingly small place in America’s future. Why bother trying to persuade those who don’t agree with you? Anyone who doesn’t agree is an ignorant rube on the wrong side of history—including, even especially, Democrats.
This was the prevalent mindset among Sanders protestors at the Democratic National Convention back in July. They were outraged that Clinton would be the nominee, not because they thought she would lose to Trump but because they wanted to be done with her less-than-full-socialism brand of liberal politics. One got the sense they felt they had defeated the GOP once and for all, that Republicans were nothing but a laughingstock now and could be safely cast aside. They were impatient to complete the revolution on the Left, and furious they would have to wait for Clinton to have her turn in the White House.
But such a mindset betrays a deep provincialism endemic to the modern Left, especially the dirtbag left, which must be one of the most provincial demographics in the country. If you think, like the “Chapo” vulgarians do, that the “consequences of capitalism” for a lot of middle-class white dudes is that they feel bored and aimless because they don’t fit into the economy as producers or consumers, then you’ve probably had almost no contact with poor people or anyone outside your immediate peer group. Likewise, if you think the only reason Trump won is because Clinton was a bad candidate who ran a lazy campaign, then you’re not trying very hard to understand America.
But then, that’s the conceit at the heart of the Left: if you’re on the right side of history, what is there to understand?