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Why Contempt Feeds Trump


As Donald Trump rolls on, we analysts lag behind. While we still struggle to come to grips with who he is and how he could be, to say nothing of our relationship to the Trump phenomenon and Trump supporters, the man himself seems free to slap around the political moment as he pleases. Even when some type of pushback briefly abounds, Trump’s comebacks, in word and deed, superabound. In his most striking similarity with the bad old authoritarians of the twentieth century, he has—he is—the initiative, the rest of us stuck looking, somehow, like the “real” reactionaries.

The time is long overdue to pin down Trump as a symptom of our political culture. He ought to have sharpened our awareness of the problem. Certainly we have no shortage of takes. But Trump has deranged our senses. Time and again this campaign season, the recent past has been a bad guide to what’s around the corner.

It’s always worth consulting the wisdom of the ages to feel our way forward. Closer to hand, we might recur to a handful of thinkers who hit their prime the last time authoritarianism had elites in fits: the late 1960s and early 1970s. Importantly, they worked through the issue when Trump was not a public figure. So when their diagnosis calls him so quickly to mind, we can see more clearly the damning context that surrounds him—and implicates us all.

A Billionaire, Just Like Ordinary Folk

Let’s first dispense with what we now all know. Of all people, Sarah Palin made it plain enough. “He’s a billionaire,” she conceded (or claimed) in her early endorsement of Trump. “But we’re rooting for him because he roots for us.” Despite the unrefined intensity of populist feeling today, it’s striking how wholly our populists have abandoned what Palin herself fulfilled—the primal, powerful wish for one of our own to represent us.

At the national level, at least, identity politics has shifted far away from the ‘90s era, when Bill Clinton promised a cabinet that “looked like America.” Today even Hillary Clinton’s support is rooted in the longing for an elite champion to do the representing. It’s not quite a vindication of Thomas Hobbes, for whom only the overawing Sovereign could truly represent the All, but it’s getting there. Whether it’s a left-leaning figure like Bloomberg or Sanders, whether right-leaning in Cruz’s style or Rubio’s, the vogue is for whichever sponsor-cum-gladiator has the perceived goods to “root for us” inside the arena and not just from the stands. Our warring pseudo-tribes will settle for nothing less.

The vogue is for whichever sponsor-cum-gladiator has the perceived goods to ‘root for us’ inside the arena and not just from the stands.

These mechanics of our acutely ugly politics are now familiar enough to brush past. In fact, we’ve seen it all before, at least in intimations: think of the cowboy boots Dubya favored, the family scion, or the folksy common touch of Hollywood alumnus Reagan; or, further still, Mr. Top-hat-and-tails himself, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, riding to victory again and again as the hero of the downtrodden.

So what makes this time different? On closer inspection—on the ground plowed by the sharpest culture critics of our last great political crisis—it’s plain to see there’s more at work than another round of dueling sponsors. What’s more, per usual, every faction has its designated foes.

But less remarked upon is just how those enemies now are seen, by all of our respective factions. Today each battling pseudo-tribe looks downward on a detested scapegoat class—a group singled out not merely as bad and wrong, but as contemptible losers, people who must be deprived of political power to say the least, and if possible, eventually all but effaced.

Losing Our Respect for the Enemy

This is the source of a deeper ugliness than simple tribalism or “othering” can create. Even in our global wars against mortal German, Japanese, and Soviet enemies, the fear and loathing was hardened with a measure of respect—in some instances, closet admiration. Today’s designated domestic scapegoats are all but subhuman.

Strangely enough, although radically different, every scapegoat is ascribed similar characteristics. “Establishment elites,” no less than “the black underclass” and “the white underclass,” are portrayed by their enemy factions as bloated, pampered, vulgar, vain, dangerous, self-entitled monsters. Recall the following aria of contempt:

Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of [insert scapegoat class here]…. The truth about these dysfunctional [scapegoat] communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible.

That was National Review’s Kevin Williamson browbeating “poor white America,” but it could just as easily be your identity or affinity group, or that of your worst enemy. To be sure, none of us quite escape blame for the roles we have played in contributing to our great national shame show. The unhinged vitriol fueling our pseudo-tribal hatreds masks the scandalous fact that contempt for one another is rational. 

But instead of recognizing that the burdens of politics cannot be borne by reason alone, in the absence of forbearance and comity, we have strained to shove all of our sins inside a single community fit for the pyre—a dog to kick in the strange hope that the rest of us will be purified in the kicking. Without punishing the scapegoat class, we’ve allowed ourselves to believe, justice for all cannot be achieved. In the face of this monumental crisis manufactured in our souls, only the most monumental punisher will do. Enter, transformed, our gladiatorial sponsors.

How Our Therapeutic Culture Stokes Authoritarianism

Enter, perhaps, what was known in the ‘60s and ‘70s as the authoritarian personality. As Christopher Lasch noted in 1974, American research into authoritarianism under Frankfurt school majordomo Theodor Adorno failed to account for the way modern society flexed its muscle by offering “the illusion of individuality without its substance.”

A ‘culture organized by contempt and rancor, rather than reverence and justice, must view inhibition, the delay of gratification…as the main enemy.’

But if Erich Fromm and his followers grasped this point, Lasch explained, they missed out on its psychological nature. They could not see how authoritarianism was growing even though the supposedly authoritarian structure of the patriarchal family was collapsing. For that, wagered Lasch, you needed a social theorist of therapy—like Philip Rieff, who referred to what Lasch called “the decline of conscience and the spread of cynicism” as “the democratization of contempt.”

Ah. Now we’re on to something. For Rieff—writing in the Year of Fear and Loathing itself, 1972—the triumph of therapeutic culture was not announced by an avalanche of warm and fuzzy self-esteem experiences, but by the rise to dominance of “a new voice, an anarchic comical voice pitched to encourage popular contempt[.]” He saw Trump coming an epoch away. Whether superficially “authoritarian” or “anti-authoritarian,” Rieff added, the “release of transgressive behavior” was “a teaching of universal contempt” with an “old name”—nihilism. “Right or Left,” our nihilist contempt-leaders were “followers of the basest instinct, for sheer possibility.”

But if Rieff is at all correct about this, we gravely err to make a scapegoat of Trump himself. A “culture organized by contempt and rancor, rather than reverence and justice, must view inhibition, the delay of gratification, all those disciplines by which self and society can be held in mutual check, as the main enemy.”

Without doubt, Trump has distinguished himself as America’s most anarchic and comical fomenter of violent contempt. He has not, as truth be told, we all also know, created our culture of democratized contempt. We have. We may not deserve forgiveness for this great transgression against ourselves and one another, but God knows we need it.

Democratizing Contempt

To grasp our full responsibility for Trump, one final quote is in order. Rieff references Edmund Burke, on a topic more closely associated with Trump than with his conservative critics:

Dogs are indeed the most social, affectionate, and amiable animals of the whole brute creation; but love approaches much nearer to contempt than is commonly imagined; and accordingly, though we caress dogs, we borrow from them an appellation of the most despicable kind, when we employ terms of reproach; and this appellation is the common mark of the last vileness and contempt in every language.

Shuddering with recognition at one of Trump’s favorite insults? Read on.

Wolves have not more strength than several species of dogs; but, on account of their unmanageable fierceness, the idea of a wolf is not despicable […]. Thus we are affected by strength, which is natural power. The power which arises from institution in kings and commanders, has the same connexion with terror.

If Rieff and Burke are right, there is a dark, secret link between Trump’s bald-faced praise of strength and his canine cut-downs—a connection that runs to the heart of our culture and its bad moral habits. The more we make lapdogs of our own identity tribe, pampering and spoiling our team, the more prone we seem to be to make scapedogs of another. Our failure to love justice has led us to celebrate injustice. Trump may come and Trump may go; left unfought, the democratization of contempt will dog us forever.