Taylor Swift’s latest single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” is awful, which makes it the perfect song for America right now. It even coincides nicely with Hillary Clinton’s book blaming everyone but herself for her loss. Swift’s atonal chanting about revenge and blaming others for what we do perfectly fits our current politics and culture.
Look what you made me do. It is an excuse as old as human wrongdoing. In the Bible, it is part of the first excuse for the first sin. In Eden, God confronts Adam for breaking the only commandment in the world, he blames his wife, and, implicitly, God, answering that he sinned because of “the woman whom you gave to be with me.” I sinned because of her and, God, she came from you, so look what you made me do.
Yet by its very language this rationale for injustice betrays a consciousness of guilt. Yes, what I did was wrong, but somehow it’s not my fault—it’s yours. Guilt is admitted, but then transferred. The words are those of an adulterer, or a wife-beater or an addict looking to blame those they hurt. It’s your fault I hit you/cheated on you/am using. Look what you made me do.
Our Society Has Turned Into One Big Blame Game
As bad as Swift’s song is, it captures the American zeitgeist. Our culture and politics are deteriorating, and as partisans of each side hit new lows, they blame each other for their bad behavior. Consider this Kurt Schlichter screed at Townhall, in which he urges conservatives to abandon the rule of law to eventually save it, or something.
His “plan” wasn’t very clear on how that works, except for his clichéd fantasies, “My plan is to cause the left so much pain by applying their new rules to them that they give up trying to grind their Birkenstocks into our faces forever.” This isn’t political hardball or a real plan for conservative success, it’s political revenge porn in which the main character grinds his Crocs into lefty faces while whispering “Look what you made me do.”
Trump’s core supporters are enthralled by this mantra of revenge, even (or especially) within the GOP. As he reneges on major campaign promises and capitulates to Senate Minority Leader Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, they’re still looking to blame someone else for their foolish choice to nominate him. It’s the fault of an establishment that had to be taught a lesson. It was because of Jeb Bush, or Paul Ryan, or Mitch McConnell. Even as President Trump looks to sell out his base on his signature issue of immigration, Sean Hannity is deploying this excuse for him and blaming the rest of the Republican Party for Trump’s perfidy. Look what you made me (or Trump) do.
Your Existence Justifies My Overreaction
If anything, the Left is even more enthusiastic in embracing this ethos of license and revenge as justified by their target’s wickedness. As Jack Goldsmith eventually notes in this Atlantic article, the anti-Trump elements within the media, courts, and federal bureaucracy are aggressively shredding norms and breaking rules in their fight against Trump. Intelligence agents leaking like they’ve never leaked before are no doubt convinced that it’s really Trump’s fault they’re using the awesome powers of our intelligence services for domestic political ends. Reporters, editors, and producers are justifying their biased and inaccurate journalism because of the threat Trump ostensibly represents. And so on. Look what you made me do.
As for the famously vindictive Mrs. Clinton, who constructed elaborate lists ranking her enemies after losing to Barack Obama in 2008, she’s been left to gnaw at the ends of her failed schemes and publish a blame-all campaign memoir. Her bitter spirit is shared by many on the Left, who see Trump as proof that America (or half of it at least) is irredeemably wicked, and needs to be punished and marginalized. No response is excessive in the time of Trump. Look what you made me do.
Examples large and small pour in from both sides of the political divide. Self-styled anti-fascists are declaring nearly everyone a fascist, assaulting them and shutting down free speech—and media leaders compare these thugs to the heroes who stormed the beaches at Normandy. The White House press secretary calls for the firing of an ESPN sportscaster who criticized the president, and people defend it because the network has been trading sports coverage for left-wing political agitation. People on both sides spend their days being horrible to strangers on the Internet, and feel righteous about it. If I’m becoming a monster, it’s because you made me one. Look what you made me do.
It is an alluring excuse. It allows one to be wicked and cruel while transferring the guilt to the victim, who is guilty for whatever he did and for whatever is done to him in response. The crueler our revenge is, the greater the target’s guilt is, thereby justifying even more vengeance from us. We may start by hating someone because he is guilty, but then we go on finding him guilty because we hate him. Vengeful cruelty becomes its own justification. Look what you made me do.
But revenge is not a plan for government, and rejecting it as a governing philosophy is not capitulation to the other side. Rather, abandoning these wicked and childish fantasies allows one to begin the difficult adult work of persuasion, policy, and, yes, some realistic political hardball (which is quite different from bloviating tough-guy poses and online outrage mobs).
A revenge-fantasy makeover may help a pop star sell albums and tickets (there’s no accounting for taste), but it’s toxic for our politics and culture. The psychodrama Swift presents in her latest song is rooted in a dark part of human nature. Taylor Swift has America’s number. She produced a bad song about it, but if we continue to give in to it, we’ll produce a bad country.