Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: April 2017

Trump Diary 9: Black Blocs and U-locks

In the previous diary I wrote about the pseudonormalization of Trump over the last month. What I gave was only half of the story.  I didn’t explore the sheer significance of the administration’s marginalization of Steve Bannon. Bannon’s demotion and marginalization is indeed a key part of what allows the pseudonormalization of Trump. But the reasons are not what they may seem to be. It’s not because of Bannon’s nastiness or even his views. While Bannon fancied himself a radical, there are plenty of precedents for Bannon’s politics in Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. Bannon took these attitudes further, but what killed him was that he was an anti-establishment outsider.  He was the Trump administration’s point of contact with the underculture of America, by which I mean everything that stands outside the NYC-DC coastal circuit of corporate-sponsored discourse.

Our overculture, of which I have occasionally been a part, consists of what Robert Wiebe termed the “national elites,” the class of people geared toward national (and, more recently, international) affairs rather than local and regional matters. My last diary was concerned with the overculture’s pseudonormalization of Donald Trump. I talked about the mainstream media, pundits, DC culture, billionaire donors, the administration itself, and the politics of Republicans and Democrats. What I talked about were the elite, upscale city-dwellers.

What I didn’t talk about in the last diary was social media, conspiracy theories, “fake news,” the “alt-right” (whatever that is), Bernie Sanders, /pol/, social justice, Antifa, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Breitbart. All of these things fall under the rubric of what I called “American underculture” in the very first diary.

The underculture is the heterogeneous set of local, non-elite, non-corporate institutions and social groupings that went unnoticed before the dawn of social media, which allowed its members to network nationally and globally on a scale that had never before been realized, producing a number of echo chambers that were not moderated by elite influence. The underculture exists in rural America, as well as in non-elite, mostly non-white areas of cities and suburbs. It is not an economic divide per se, but a cultural one. Some of its groups are still invisible online, but the internet has enabled some groups of the underculture to speak loudly enough to be heard nationally.

Hillary Clinton easily won the vote of the overculture, while doing far worse than Obama among rural underculture groups. (African-Americans are the one underculture demographic on which the Democratics maintain a hold…for now.) Donald Trump did awful in the overculture, while winning enough of the underculture, particularly in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, to prevail.  So what I am discussing is not exactly an economic divide, not exactly a racial divide, and not exactly a class divide either, because the underculture in particular is composed of many wildly disparate groups who are unified only by their lack of national voice. If you opposed the Iraq War in 2003, you were part of the underculture. If you supported Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders in 2016, you were part of the underculture.

If you went on 4chan in 2016, you were part of the underculture. If you read about 4chan in the news and believed what you read, you were part of the overculture.

I’m oversimplifying, but my point is that the elite overculture by its nature is one culture that speaks with select controlled and constrained voices. That which falls outside its boundaries constitutes the underculture, whatever it may be. Patricia Crone, in her 2003 edition of Pre-Industrial Societies, wrote of the globalization of the overculture’s national class:

The blocks of people sharing the same language, culture and political status are being eroded by globalization, the constant and practically instantaneous movement of information, capital and human beings around the earth. A new, worldwide elite is forming. Creamed off from the national blocks, communicating in the same high cultural language (international English), and sharing what will eventually be a single high culture (still under formation), this global elite is reducing the nation states from which its members hail to the same status as that of the tribes and village societies from which the elites of pre-industrial times were recruited.

I believe this is an accurate description of 2003. What subsequently happened, however, was that some of the tribes and village societies outside the elite found ways to make themselves heard, loudly, on the national and global level. It’s those tribes of the underculture that are relevant to this piece: specifically, those which are politically mobilized on either the left or the right. Less politically mobilized segments, such as the extremely poor or the disenfranchised (southern minorities, for example), remain of less concern. Gamergate, likewise, is so politically conflicted and muddled that it lacks any real voice, despite being held up anachronistically as some supposed alt-right progenitor.

The two most vocal and significant underculture groupings of 2016 were those supporting Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both were able to coordinate and speak independently of overculture mechanisms, thanks to social media. They are what allowed Trump (with a major assist from CNN) to gain the Republican nomination and Sanders to almost gain the Democratic nomination despite a barrage of negative press on both of them.

The bigger story, then, is that over the last decade, the overculture attempted to coopt these new underculture groups for political gain and profit. In 2016, the additional voice given to the underculture groupings led to too much political control slipping out of the elite’s hands, as symbolized by Brexit and Trump. It yielded the defining headline of 2016:

It's time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses

How did that work out?

For “ignorant masses,” read “the underculture” or “everybody else.” It is a blunt statement that too much control and too much voice has devolved to certain non-overculture groups. Yet this could not have happened without the tacit permission of the overculture. They did not know what they were getting into.

My thesis in this diary is that elite institutions, having tried to coopt and exploit the newly-vocal underculture, with disastrous results, have turned tail and are now quickly shutting them out. We are now seeing a separation process as the elites exert greater control over those cultural areas over which they have authority, and shut out “pollutants” that were previously seen as groups to exploit either through cooptation or stigmatization. Now the underculture is to be ignored.

The right and the left elites had very different relationships with their respective underculture groups. In short, the right politically enfranchised its underculture allies, while the left culturally enfranchised its underculture allies. On the right, this led to the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus. On the left, this led to anti-oppression movements (“social justice” for short) and Black Lives Matter. Both, however, got out of hand and drew too much attention to themselves, though this chaos was ultimately of far greater consequence to the right than to the left.

The right-wing underculture is by now known to all of us, primarily because Hillary Clinton unsuccessfully attempted to use it as an electoral strategy. As I wrote in the first diary:

The seedier site of internet underculture came to most people’s attention last year as part of a concerted effort by the Clinton campaign to associate Trump with racist internet trolls and the amorphous “alt-right” movement, which was defined as much by the media as by the “alt-right”‘s actual members. The mainstream narrative around these internet cultures is confused, ignorant, and alarmist, partly because the Clinton campaign was happy to exaggerate and distort the reality in pursuit of an effective campaign strategy (it didn’t work), and partly because the people writing about it did very little first-hand research and have no familiarity with the workings of the internet underculture…Excluded from the national conversation, Trump’s supporters are mostly able to express themselves through the underculture. They do not constitute the majority or even a significant plurality of the underculture, but they are unified in their goals (evangelizing Trump, hating on the media, attacking Trump’s opponents) in a way that most underculture groups are not, and they are far more prone to express themselves outside the underculture so that the mainstream takes notice of them.

(Angela Nagle has written incisively about the far-right underculture.)

Republicans have long spoken to their underculture denizens through right-wing talk radio and television, and over the last decade have mobilized them quite effectively through the Tea Party and subsequent know-nothing agitation. A great deal of what tore Fox apart over the last year or two has been its increasingly difficult mission of bridging Republican overculture and the underculture, which is why Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly have been fired and Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage have not. Like many of Rupert Murdoch’s properties including the Wall Street Journal, Fox retains significant allegiance to the overculture, serving as a gateway drug as well as a mildly moderating force.

The Trump administration had exactly one point of contact with the underculture, and that point was Steve Bannon. Trump may miss his worshipful crowds, but no one else around him does, because as I said in the previous diary, underculture residents are not capable of functioning in the DC federal government–not even Steve Bannon. Republicans are already so beholden to their underculture support (because of geographic and demographic factors) that they won’t be able to shut them out any time soon, but they are trying. You will not be seeing, however, much in the way of Trump support from elite media, even on the right. And you will see underculture avatars who get too big for their britches, such as Milo Yiannopoulos, getting the boot from the Republican establishment. They are not welcome.

The elite overculture is, as a totality, trying to shore up its weakest point. That weak spot is not on the left, but on the right. It is where the underculture made a genuine breach by getting Trump elected (as well as, in previous years, electing Dave Brat and other Freedom Caucus members). Since Trump is stuck in the overculture’s presence for at least the next few years, there will be an attempted process of normalization, which I’ve already discussed. But there is also a concerted (if perhaps unconscious) attempt to repair the breach. The evidence I’ll point to here is the New York Times’ hiring of Bret Stephens as an op-ed columnist. Stephens is a right-wing neoconservative climate change denier, but more significantly, he is very anti-Trump and impeccably patrician. One might think the spot should have gone to, for example, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who seems a better match for the Times’  readership. Stephens’ appointment hasn’t been met with a great deal of enthusiasm in my circles. But this is to miss the real purpose, which is not to make nice with the right–certainly not with the right as it actually exists in America today. The purpose is to shore up the weakest part of the establishment: the Noonan-Frum-Brooks anti-Trump, pro-Bush, Republican axis. That is vastly more important than catering to progressive indulgences. The overculture cares about its own: you do not see mainstream media defending press freedom for threatened underculture outlets, whether Techdirt, the Center for Investigative Reporting, or Wikileaks.

The left is a different story. Historically, unions performed Democratic underculture outreach for the left, but the power of unions has greatly diminished. It still persists in some areas, such as in Harry Reid’s Nevada machine, which genuinely neutralized Sanders’ threat and got a win for the party’s candidate, Hillary Clinton. But while DC Republicans have suffered internal strife from letting too much of the underculture seep into their party (see: Sarah Palin, Dave Brat, Steve King, the Freedom Caucus), DC Democrats have suffered a collapse in power due to ignoring the underculture and drawing almost exclusively on the national overculture (and its special interest groups) to make their case. The overculture is not large enough on its own, and the Democrats’ pretenses  toward underculture groups have evidently not been convincing, despite the reliable African-American vote.

Here is an example from an undernoticed story. DeRay Mckesson, avatar of the Black Lives Matter movement and former leftist media darling, ran for mayor of Baltimore in April of 2016, after coming to prominence during the Ferguson protests. Mckesson was the only candidate I had ever heard of, and I doubt I’m alone in that. Despite a large social media following and a great deal of positive coverage, he finished with 2 percent of the vote, versus winner Catherine Pugh’s 37 percent. Baltimore is not an overculture city. It is overwhelmingly Democratic, but it is not composed of elites. Unlike in New York and Calfornia, the overculture presence is not strong enough to prevent the election of a Republican governor like Larry Hogan. And the overculture’s coverage and attention was absolutely meaningless in terms of drawing Baltimore voters to vote for Mckesson.

The Maryland and Baltimore Democratic party apparatus likewise had no use for Mckesson, which hints at another ugly detail. The national Democratic party apparatus, and indeed the overculture itself, had no use for Mckesson either beyond PR. Mckesson supported Sanders in the primary, and Mckesson started getting a lot less media attention once the Clinton machine started up in earnest. The Democrats wanted Mckesson to parrot the party line, not advocate for his own issues. This is a perennial error of elites, who assume that outsiders will always be appreciative and obedient once welcomed into the culture. (How could they not be?)

The problem was that the progressive overculture’s radical chic of 2014-2015 did not sit well at all with the centrist Democratic candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Consequently, much mainstream and progressive media of 2016 became an odd mix of social justice rhetoric and neoliberal policy. In early 2016, I remarked on this tension in my valedictory Slate column:

Slate: Even a site like Vox, with its wonkish Beltway origins, now frequently tilts hard to the left, with headlines and sentences like: “Bombing a hospital in Afghanistan is the modern American way of war”; “If you’re not one of 65 million Americans with a criminal record … then accept the possibility that actually, you may not know what’s going on, and you may be part of the problem”; and “Riots are destructive, dangerous, and scary — but can lead to serious social reforms.” This kind of systemic critique butts against Vox writers’ more pragmatic praise for Clinton’s candidacy, for her knowledge of “the painful trade-offs of governing” and her “audacity of political realism.” Judging by retweet counts, such lukewarm endorsements are far less compelling than the righteous excoriations of injustice with which Vox also fills our news feeds.

Lukewarm has since won out. For much of this decade, elites of the left and right sought to exploit and mobilize their underculture supporters, primarily via online campaigns and social media. For both sides, it backfired, because social media allowed the ideological policing and monothink to become runaway trains. The increasingly militant tone of leftist clickbait outlets, imitating the longstanding militancy of right-wing media paranoia generators, helped to solidify a movement that viewed Clinton as an out-of-touch dinosaur who knew nothing of the leftist underculture. From my Slate column:

Online social networking has allowed Sanders supporters to reinforce one another’s beliefs, so that the general shutout of Sanders by the mainstream media—and even a good deal of the leftist media—allowed Sanders to survive where he would have suffocated even in 2008. The Internet made it much, much easier for Sanders supporters to organize, with a core of young voters far more native to the Web than even Obama’s base eight years ago.

Just as the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus got out of hand, Sanders supporters got out of hand. And Democrats are now quite worried that what happened to the Republicans with Trump and Labour with Jeremy Corbyn will happen to them. And so radical chic is also being killed quickly.

The underculture left never got traction within the Democratic party; Sanders had to be a long-time independent in order to get to where he did in the Democratic primary. And so the underculture left remained a diffuse array of some varied and incompatible groupings, including hardcore Marxists, anti-oppression activists, Chomskyan anarchists, hapless students, and assorted combinations of such. The mainstream overculture elevated the social justice rhetoric of the anti-oppression activists because it was most amenable to existing Democratic politics, being primarily focused on cultural rather than political matters.

But now things have changed. Social justice clickbait has died off, persisting mostly in lower-grade blogging outlets. We no longer hear from the DC establishment that “Riots are destructive, dangerous, and scary — but can lead to serious social reforms.” The more respectable outlets have returned to gentler “diversity” stories of the sort that were popular 10 years ago, rather than excoriations of privilege and structural prejudice. Jay Caspian Kang predicted exactly this sort of retrenchment in December, though for somewhat different economic reasons than those I’m giving here:

I think it’s important that minority writers be honest with ourselves. Many of us were hired in the last two years and almost every single one of us reports to a white editor who will kowtow to the panic of his or her publisher. Too many of us were brought into media as part of a cynical push to turn “race writing,” especially race writing about pop culture, into a click factory.

Wei Tchou remarked similarly in The Nation on the commodification of social justice as a clickbait strategy:

The Nation: Moreover, as the wall between writers and audiences (and, thus, traffic numbers and advertising rates) has all but collapsed, inevitably, so has the wall between what is personal and what is commodified. As soon as a person performs his or her opinions to a mass audience, those politics are also for sale…What’s most pernicious about diversity’s commodification is that the model, on its surface, appears progressive: more women of color on mastheads, more open-minded coverage of social and political causes. So long as the staff at MTV News is considered to be diverse, does it matter that the pieces are mostly superficial riffs on identity politics?

Yet as the clickbait model dies (as I predicted back in 2015), the overculture establishment is furiously building that wall between writers and audiences back up.  Comments sections are shut down, paywalls are erected, discourse is more tightly controlled. One of the few recent features on Black Lives Matter has been by the Atlantic’s non-progressive libertarian-ish Conor Friedersdorf. Vox, as far as I can tell, has done no features on Black Lives Matter this year. This is a more general manifestation of the trend symbolized by Bret Stephens’ appointment. The more extreme manifestations of social justice politics are quickly disappearing from outlets of consequence, replaced by politer rhetoric. Even though harsh social justice indictments were marshaled against Sanders, this was obviously not a manifestation of any new radical attitudes within the Democratic party. Even progressive loudmouths who were strident Clinton supporters may find themselves shut out.

Yet these attitudes will persist in subcultures. Even as I see the tides of social justice recede in mainstream media, they remain strong in assorted cul-de-sacs, particularly nerd culture: tech/hacking, comics, animation, science fiction, video games, alternative comedy, Cracked Magazine, etc. The etiology of the social justice presence in these subcultures deserves an entire book, but the relevant point here is that these are politically anodyne subcultures that are unlikely to mobilize in any significant way outside of their niches. (However progressive Google’s employees may be, Google’s PAC donated more to Republicans than Democrats in 2016.) And that’s part of the reason why people in those subcultures haven’t noticed the larger shift away from social justice rhetoric, and why its denizens still practice and/or excoriate it with a passion that now feels anachronistic.

The most visible struggles will take place on college campuses, which are more heterogeneous than any of these other subcultures and don’t permit the same level of ideological policing.  Universities will continue to lean left, but incidents like Joy Karega’s antisemitic conspiracy theorizing at Oberlin and George Ciccariello-Maher’s inflammatory tweets at Drexel are posing serious financial threats to colleges, and administrations are taking measures to protect their institutions. “Safety” is a ready-made excuse for policing faculty speech.

Berkeley (the city as much at the school) has turned into a flashpoint, hosting a clash of right-wing Trump supporters and far-left Antifa activists. Both these groups are firmly underculture. The overculture wants nothing to do with either of them. Progressive media outlets have been remarkably silent on the Berkeley riots, even as the right-wing media has made hay. I’ve seen no mention of Louise Rosealma, who got punched out by a white supremacist, outside of the New York Daily News. Even the more alternative leftist outlets that celebrated Richard Spencer getting punched have gone awfully silent on the “U-lock justice” meted out by a black bloc member during last Saturday’s Berkeley riots. An Antifa attacker emerged suddenly out of a crowd and smashed a Trump supporter over the head with a bike lock, leaving him bleeding and seemingly concussed. 4chan’s hard-right /pol/ boards quickly identified a person as the assailant via “weaponized autism,” combing through all available footage and social media evidence. Whether or not he’s the right man, he’s gone into hiding and his employers are dissociating themselves from him.

The message from the overculture: “When we told you we were at war with the right, we didn’t mean that literally.” “When we told you that riots can lead to serious social change, we didn’t mean you should actually do it.”

Given all the fuss about social media, political violence, and divided America, one would expect such violent clashes to be a major story, yet like the shooting at the Milo Yiannopoulos Seattle event in January, it has gone almost unnoticed. In Seattle, a man was shot on a university campus at a charged political event, but the overculture press ignored it and instead talked about fake news, Facebook, and Chelsea Clinton. Now the underculture’s left and right are starting to take to online and offline combat, but there is less coverage of these clashes than there was of far smaller incidents at Trump rallies last year. Instead of documentation of Berkeley violence, we get vague thoughtpieces about free speech and political correctness. I attribute this to the rebuilding of those elite walls. In all likelihood, neither the assailants nor the victims had much in the way of connections to the natural elite overculture, and their utility to the overculture is far lower than it was two years ago. Our national overculture wants all of these people to go away. Inclusivity is no longer an ideal. The overculture will shut out that which it never understood in the first place.

Trump Diary 8: Pseudonormalization Prevails

How far we are from a month ago. One of the reasons I started writing these entries, and probably the main reason, was because I was certain the high emotions and crisis mentality of the election and inauguration would not endure in the same form for long and would quickly turn into something else. Some aspects of the dominant narrative (on all sides) would fade into the background, while others would be decay into more stable forms like radioisotopes. I wasn’t sure which, but I wanted to take my own snapshots of the world in its highly unstable form.

Sure enough, I look back at the early Trump Diaries and they read like missives from a different world. The seething paranoia bred by the travel ban has died down. There have been no mass mobilizations like the one spurred by the initial travel ban, which was the moment the shoe dropped and Trump had to make a decision on whether or not to flinch. Trump flinched.

Fewer people are concocting conspiracy theories about Trump consolidating power in a “coup,” especially with Steve Bannon’s apparent marginalization. Bannon was reduced to allying with his sworn enemy Reince Priebus in order to retain influence, after Trump’s other advisers became disgusted with the Priebus House Republican faction (over the health care bill disaster) and Bannon (over all the other disasters). The supposed Bannon quote, “I love a gunfight” looks like embarrassing posturing now. I assume the people who leaked the quote knew it would, just like leaking that Bannon called Jared Kushner a “globalist cuck” signals that Bannon is no smarter than the idiots who thought Trump would give them a white ethno-state.

In money terms, Robert and Rebekah Mercer (Bannon’s biggest backers) are out, and the Koch Brothers (who back Bush/Romney-style corporatist Republicans) are back in.

Trump is tweeting a lot less, having given up on the inauguration crowd size and mass voter fraud windmills. Putin and Trump are no longer BFFs. (The Syria strike put a definitive end to that.) Trump now likes NATO. Trump has either abandoned or sidelined his most radical anti-establishment stances, to the open dismay of his core. The narrative of narcissistic megalomania has been replaced with the narrative of incompetent failure, at all levels.

I said in February that Trump would not want to give the establishment the satisfaction of admitting they were right:

To stop the flood of leaks and trash talk, all Trump would have to do is to give in and agree to do things their way (that is, the way they’ve been done since Eisenhower, loosely speaking), but because he believes he’s suffered injury at the hands of the CIA, the State Department, the news media, the Democrats, most Republicans, and more or less anyone who’s ever had to deal with him, he doesn’t want to give them the satisfaction.

I also said in February that Trump was doomed to lose his battle against the establishment, because he could not amass allies for that battle. He lost. So the flood has stopped. With the sidelining of Bannon, at the urging of nearly everyone else in the administration, the number of stories about White House dysfunction has severely dried up.

I am certain that there is still great dissent within the ranks. You can’t get rid of sentiments like these so quickly:

Politico: “The various warring fiefdoms and camps within the White House are constantly changing and are so vast and complicated in their nature,” said one former Trump campaign aide, “that there is no amount of reporting that could accurately describe the subterfuge, animosity and finger-pointing that is currently happening within the ranks of the senior staff.”

What has happened, I believe, is that White House staffers now have an incentive to keep their mouths shut and not talk to reporters. And I think that’s because there is no longer quite the constant stress of random chaos imposed by (a) Trump’s going off message on Twitter and elsewhere, and (b) Steve Bannon. They now feel they have a chance of survival, and they are more willing to bury hatchets and stick together. They’re still miserable but they are engaging in less friendly fire.

In the place of civil war is a very familiar combination of (a) corporatism and (b) the military-industrial complex, one which has been with us since Reagan and to a lesser extent since Truman. The military-industrial complex side is represented by National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, who replaced Michael Flynn. McMaster consolidated power quickly. Though Trump promised Flynn deputy K. T. McFarland that she could stay on with McMaster, it wasn’t long before McMaster got her fired and replaced her with the ultra-establishment Dina Powell. McMaster also kicked Bannon off of the National Security Council, instigating Bannon’s subsequent fall.

The corporate side is represented by Gary Cohn (Goldman Sachs), Dina Powell (Goldman Sachs), Steve Mnuchin (Goldman Sachs), and Jared Kushner (Goldman Sachs) himself. Cohn, Mnuchin, and Kushner are Jewish, while Powell (née Dina Habib) is an Egyptian Coptic. Predictably (well, I predicted it), Trump’s white nationalist fans are complaining of a “Jewish coup.” Sorry, racists: if you wanted to dislodge Goldman Sachs, you should have found a brighter revolutionary than Steve Bannon and a more loyal demagogue than Trump. Trump ultimately had to side with the people who were nominally capable of doing their jobs. Bannon brought nothing but losses.

Just as I feared excess paranoia in the early days of Trump, I now fear excess normalization. I think we are going to see an increasing number of “Trump has been tamed” editorials from the right, which will be tacitly accepted by the mainstream. Trump will still be awful, just as George W. Bush was awful, but he won’t be the walking constitutional crisis he’s been portrayed as for the last year. Too many people are looking to escape that narrative, because it’s exhausting and unsustainable. When we heard this after Trump bombed Syria–

Fareed Zakaria, CNN: I think Donald Trump became President of the United States last night.

It was an exercise in wish fulfillment. It was because Zakaria wanted Trump to become President of the United States. It was because Zakaria wanted things to return to normal and to sanity.

So expect a lot more of this:

Ed Rogers, WaPo: Yet, a lot of left-wing commentators are saying don’t try to normalize Trump, he is not normal, and there must be resistance to his presidency and anyone working in his administration. Well, bad news for them: The normalization of Trump’s presidency may be happening on its own as reality and a sense of responsibility seeps into the Oval Office and those around it.

Rogers is an old-school Republican politico, but on the very same day (April 13), we have this from two of the Post’s own reporters:

WaPo: Donald Trump campaigned as an outsider who would upend years of Washington orthodoxy in matters of both war and peace — an approach that helped him assemble the unconventional coalition that ultimately won him the presidency. But in recent days, the president has done an about-face and embraced many of the policy positions he once scorned as the trappings of a foolhardy establishment. Trump voiced support for NATO, which he called “obsolete” during the campaign. He walked back his pledge to label China a currency manipulator and ­endorsed the Export-Import Bank, which he had opposed. These and other recent flip-flops have soothed the nerves of many Republicans who worried he was looking to upend too much of the status quo. “I would say this is looking more now like a more conventional Republican administration,” said Elliott Abrams, who served as a foreign policy adviser in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. “To me, that’s a very good thing.”

The reason for this normalization is that much of the anti-Trump narrative, from the right as well as from the center-left, was less about Trump’s actual policies than about his anti-establishment tone, boorish personality, and agonistic tactics–as well as the constant chaos emanating from such. What was ideologically permissible from Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Mitch McConnell, and Dick Cheney was not permissible from Donald Trump. Ultra-establishment Republican Peggy Noonan (who just won the Pulitzer Prize) made a telling point at the end of March, after Trump lost his showdown with the Freedom Caucus over the healthcare bill:

WaPo: Once you use the stick, it is hard to start handing out carrots again. If the Freedom Caucus caves at this point, they will look weak. Trump has become the boy who cries wolf. If he doesn’t follow through after drawing this red line, his words will seem hollow. Bluster works better in business than politics. Peggy Noonan argues artfully in her column for Saturday’s Wall Street Journal that Trump’s mishandling of this Obamacare fight, including the latest attacks on the Freedom Caucus, shows that he really doesn’t understand who makes up his base or how to pass legislation. “Whenever I used to have disagreements with passionate pro-Trump people, I’d hear their arguments, weigh their logic and grievances. I realized after a while that in every conversation we always brought different experiences to the table,” Noonan writes. “I had worked in a White House. I had personally observed its deeper realities and requirements. Their sense of how a White House works came from … TV shows such as ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Scandal.’ Those are dark, cynical shows that more or less suggest anyone can be president. I don’t mean that in the nice way. Those programs don’t convey how a White House is an organism demanding of true depth, of serious people, real professionals. A president has to be a serious person too, and not only an amusing or stimulating talker, or the object of a dream.”

Noonan’s implicit point here is that The West Wing is the standard, not House of Cards. And indeed, no administration could survive the level of melodrama portrayed on television. But not being House of Cards does not make you The West Wing, just as not being Chicken Little doesn’t make you Pollyanna. Anyone who lived through Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld should realize that. When it comes to gravitas, It’s not professionalism, or seriousness, or depth that matters, but having the right connections and speaking the right language. FEMA, the CDC, and the EPA may have turned into a joke under Bush, but Bush could not be dislodged from being “serious.” Noonan, without realizing it, is making the classic elite argument: Donald Trump cannot be president, but George W. Bush can. I do not find this especially reassuring. There is a similar irony in the fact that David Frum, the coiner of the “Axis of Evil,” is now being elevated by The Atlantic as the principled conservative warning of Trumpian autocracy. (In fact, he called it the “axis of hatred” and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson dubbed it the “Axis of Evil,” but I think my point stands.)

So we have the Trump administration going through a false normalization. Jeff Sessions will still quietly be rounding up more immigrants; the EPA will still be gutted; neocon hawkishness is re-ascendant (with bipartisan backing). The administration, if not Trump himself, is speaking the language of DC better. 39 out of 47 major newspaper editorials supported the Syria strike. (See the breakdown here. Was it a good idea? I, like the authors of these editorials and like Trump himself, do not know.)

So these dismaying trends will not seem egregious in the way that the travel ban did, which makes them that much more likely to succeed and endure. There will probably be few legislative atrocities due to internecine Republican warfare; Trump’s largest impact will be through the executive branch.

Two major differences remain, however.

First, the administration is wildly understaffed and non-functional, with only 22 political appointees confirmed, another 60 in the pipeline, and nearly 500 positions without even a nomination. (Trump is not behind most presidents in confirmations, but he is way behind on finding actual candidates.) HUD, Interior, State, Agriculture, Labor, Interior, Energy, Education, and of course the EPA all look to be running ghost crews for some time. It’s hard to measure the effect this is having, and whether it’s resulting in Obama-era continuity or actual stasis. Either way, though, the overall effect will be entropic. In the absence of leadership or direction, things will stop getting done. They will be little things, but they will add up. It will be hard to assess the consequences directly, unless mid-level staffers leak, but I believe the overall result will be a notable decrease in government functionality and efficiency, without any decline in its cost. With it looking less likely that Trump will get his major government funding cuts, the federal government may just become sclerotic for the next few years. The difference will be most noticeable in times of crisis: FEMA, for example. A repeat or two of Michael Brown’s performance during Hurricane Katrina seems inevitable. But I think the overall damage will be far greater than under Bush.

Second, there is Trump himself, hobbled, humbled, and humiliated, but still defective and unpredictable. For now he seems to be guided by Jared Kushner above all in his desperate turn toward Goldman Sachs and McMaster, but when this turn fails to yield him love and success, as it will, it’s difficult to predict what will come next. At the center of the Trump administration remains the void himself, reluctantly allowing himself to be remade in the establishment mold, but still fundamentally incompetent and narcissistic and stuck in the midst of a party at war with itself. If he goes with the flow, the elites may begin to ignore this fact, especially with his tweets seemingly drying up. But what if he changes his mind?

Why Social Construction Is True

The term “social construction” and its cousin “cultural construction” get casually tossed around a lot these days. Sometimes it’s used negatively, as a pejorative way of referring to those damn relativistic lefties. Sometimes it’s used approvingly, as a potted rejection of someone else’s position by saying, “Oh, that’s just your truth.” Either way, there’s almost always a sloppiness that tends to equate belief in social construction with relativism–especially the dreaded moral relativism. And that’s simply not the case. What follows are cribnotes on why truth is indeed socially constructed, but why relativism does not follow from it.

The real meaning of social construction is linguistic. What it means, in a nutshell, is that we could all agree tomorrow to call the sky red instead of blue, and that would not cause any problem for us. Now, this wouldn’t change in isolation. Lots of other adjustments would have to be made in order to start calling blue things red and red things blue (or some third color, in which case lather rinse repeat). So while this would be a logistical nightmare, it is still potentially possible. Adjust language in the right way by shifting enough terms, and we can go on as we did before without anyone being the wiser. By consensus, we have now changed the truth from “The sky is blue” to “The sky is red.” That is social construction.

But, you may say, the real truth hasn’t changed at all! What real truth? “The sky is still blue!” you say. No, it’s not. The sky was blue yesterday, and today it isn’t. Truths can only be expressed in mutually intelligible terms, and if you want to be left behind still calling the sky blue, you can, but now it’s you who is wrong. Social construction is not about reality, it’s about words. We don’t choose our reality, but we do choose our words–collectively.

The tricky part comes when people don’t agree on the truth. If some people say the sky is blue and some people say the sky is red, now you have to do the work of figuring out why they disagree. Maybe they just have different words for the same color. Maybe one group of people has different cones in their eyes that actually make the sky look like a different color. All of these things can be experimentally tested, because truths have to fit together with one another. If both groups agree that the wavelength of blue/red light is 475nm, then clearly it’s the same color, and there’s just terminological confusion (unless they don’t agree on numbers either, but you get the idea). If one group says the sky is blue and 475nm, and the other group says the sky is red and 730nm, then science has got some work to do in order to decide which of them is totally wrong. Naturally, the two groups have to agree to the rules of science and agree to abide by the results and agree on what abiding by the results means…but at the end of the day, cultural construction is not some free-for-all. It’s just the contract we make in order to be able to agree on anything.

On the other hand, it also means that there’s very little meaning in being right by yourself. If you think the sky’s wavelength is about 475nm (which it is), and everyone else thinks it’s 730nm (which it isn’t), you have two options. You can try to convince people that you’re right, marshaling the evidence and arguments to do so, or you can sit quietly and wait for vindication beyond the grave when someone else figures out how wrong everyone has been. But what if they never do? I’m afraid you’re stuck. You can’t be said to have been right because no one will be around to say it. Truth is linguistic, which means that unless there later comes to be a consensus that you were right, you weren’t. That’s not relativism, that’s just how the game is played.

Contrariwise, even if the entire world believes that the sky’s wavelength is about 475nm, there’s nothing to say that at some point in the distant future we won’t be proven oh so wrong and people will look back on us and say, “What fools they were!” In exchange for the pain of truth requiring some kind of social consensus, you get the pleasure of being able to doubt anything anyone says due to the possibility, however distant, of it being overturned in the future. And so the lumbering human process of truthseeking rolls along.

I began with the most objective and “scientific” examples because things get far muddier when it comes to morality and valuation in general. If there is no scientific fact to discover, as people generally assume when it comes to ethics, does that mean that morality really is relativistic? You don’t really need to answer that question, because it comes out in the wash. Social practices will inevitably spit out moral systems, which will argue with one another and end up settling on some set of values. We don’t know for sure whether a particular moral system is correct–but how is this different from science? Because, you might say, the methodology is totally different! You don’t conduct experiments to test moral hypotheses! (Unless you’re one of those analytic philosophers, that is.) That’s true. But just because there’s a different adjudication process doesn’t mean that it’s somehow more relativistic. Rather, it means that morality is only as morally relativistic as we say it is. If everyone in the world were to agree that morality is absolute, then it might as well be, because who’s going to disagree?

Admittedly, that’s not a very satisfying answer when it comes to morality, but it gives some hint of how empty absolute relativism is. At the bottom, you have to agree on some purported absolutes just to get along in the world. Most of them won’t be moral laws, but there’s no intrinsic prohibition on them being absolutes–at least, not according to social construction. All social construction dictates, rather, is that the limits of what we term the “absolute” stop at what we collectively agree to be true, because how could we possibly get more absolute than that?

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