Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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David Auerbach’s Books of the Year 2017

While the world went mad this year, I retreated a bit and did more reading than I had in some time. I have seen the pendulum of public sentiment cycle from complacency to hysteria and back twice now, and I am more fatalistic than ever about such cycles having to take their course. (My description of Thomas Pynchon’s “decoherence events” applies just as well to the Trump presidency as it does to September 11, 2001.) Being part of the collective public discourse this year was unhealthier than in any time I have ever seen.

I believe all the titles below deserve attention. The top books have been chosen based on personal significance and relevance. Appiah’s As If is a plea for a cosmopolitan pluralism (of provisional viewpoints, not of truths) based on a reading of the great Hans Vaihinger. It is a theoretical work that has far more relevance to technology than it first appears, as I try to explain in my forthcoming Bitwise: A Life in Code. Földényi’s Melancholy is a Burton-inspired chronicle that bests a thousand other intellectual histories of its kind. It spoke to me of what it is to be the sort of person who feels the need and drive to read all these books in the first place, and of the intangible benefits I gain from them. And the purportedly final version of Tom Phillips’ A Humument is a thing of beauty, drastically different from its previous editions in many regards, and one of the deepest texts of our time, fifty years after its first publication.

The greatest novel I read this year was Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, the right novel for the right moment, but not one published in 2017.

In an attempt to provide a bit more apparent order, I have created a few subcategories for nonfiction. These are quite approximate; some books could have easily gone under a different heading. They are there to break the lists down into more manageable chunks.

When it comes to books, my eyes are bigger than my…eyes. Books under “Of Interest” are there either because (1) they are too out of my areas of knowledge for me to feel comfortable recommending them, (2) I have sufficient reservations about their content but feel they are too significant to ignore, or (3) I just haven’t read enough of them. I would feel terrible not noting Slezkine’s The House of Government, but I did not have time to read most of its 1100 pages.

Be well, read much, take care.

BOOKS OF MY YEAR

As If: Idealization and Ideals
Kwame Anthony Appiah Harvard University Press

Melancholy (The Margellos World Republic of Letters)
Laszlo F. Foldenyi Yale University Press


 

LITERATURE

Into the Cyclorama
Annie Kim Southern Indiana Review Press


Symphony for Human Transport
Lisa Samuels Shearsman Books


The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings
Juan Rulfo Deep Vellum Publishing


Homesick for Another World: Stories
Ottessa Moshfegh Penguin Press


The World Goes On
László Krasznahorkai New Directions


The Manhattan Project
László Krasznahorkai Sylph Editions


So Much Blue: A Novel
Percival Everett Graywolf Press




Blackass: A Novel
A. Igoni Barrett Graywolf Press


The Essential Fictions
Isaac Babel Northwestern University Press

Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr
John Crowley Gallery / Saga Press

Gap Gardening: Selected Poems
Rosmarie Waldrop New Directions


Judgment: A Novel (Northwestern World Classics)
David Bergelson, Sasha Senderovich, Harriet Murav Northwestern University Press




Nest in the Bones: Stories by Antonio Benedetto
Antonio Di Benedetto Archipelago


Newcomers: Book One
Lojze Kovacic Archipelago




Sisters of the Cross (Russian Library)
Alexei Remizov Columbia University Press


Frontier
Can Xue Open Letter


The Construction of the Tower of Babel
Juan Benet Wakefield Press


The War Nerd Iliad
Feral House





Go, Went, Gone
Jenny Erpenbeck New Directions



The Collected Poems of Li He (Calligrams)
Li He New York Review Books


Chinese Poetic Writing (Calligrams)
Francois Cheng New York Review Books



The Book of Disquiet: The Complete Edition
Fernando Pessoa New Directions

 

HUMANITIES

Melancholic Habits: Burton's Anatomy & the Mind Sciences
Jennifer Radden Oxford University Press



Dystopia: A Natural History
Gregory Claeys Oxford University Press


The Rift in The Lute: Attuning Poetry and Philosophy
Maximilian de Gaynesford Oxford University Press


David Jones
T Dilworth Jonathan Cape

The Messages We Send: Social Signals and Storytelling
G. R. F. Ferrari Oxford University Press

The Mind of the Book: Pictorial Title-Pages
Alastair Fowler Oxford University Press


Changing the Subject: Philosophy from Socrates to Adorno
Raymond Geuss Harvard University Press



Res Publica and the Roman Republic: 'Without Body or Form'
Louise Hodgson Oxford University Press


The Epic Distilled: Studies in the Composition of the Aeneid
Nicholas Horsfall Oxford University Press

I, Me, Mine: Back to Kant, and Back Again
Béatrice Longuenesse Oxford University Press


Art and Myth of the Ancient Maya
Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos Yale University Press

The Subject of Experience
Galen Strawson OUP Oxford


 

SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY



After Digital: Computation as Done by Brains and Machines
James A. Anderson Oxford University Press


The Lazy Universe: An Introduction to the Principle of Least Action
Jennifer Coopersmith Oxford University Press



 

THE SOCIAL SCIENCES

Prisoners of Reason
S. M. Amadae Cambridge University Press





The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett Princeton University Press


Marx's Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital
William Clare Roberts Princeton University Press


A Brief History of Economic Thought
Alessandro Roncaglia Cambridge University Press


Paths to Fulfillment: Women's Search for Meaning and Identity
Ruthellen Josselson Oxford University Press


The Timeliness of George Herbert Mead
University of Chicago Press


The Enigma of Reason
Hugo Mercier, Dan Sperber Harvard University Press


Shame: A Brief History (History of Emotions)
Peter N. Stearns University of Illinois Press


The Truth about Language: What It Is and Where It Came From
Michael C. Corballis University of Chicago Press


 

HISTORY AND POLITICS


Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A.
Danielle S. Allen Liveright


The Water Kingdom
Philip Ball Vintage




The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America
Frances Fitzgerald Simon & Schuster



A History of Judaism
Martin Goodman Penguin Press



One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps
Andrea Pitzer Little, Brown and Company


The Habsburg Empire
Pieter M. Judson Harvard University Press


The Transformation of American Liberalism
George Klosko Oxford University Press


Politics in the Roman Republic (Key Themes in Ancient History)
Henrik Mouritsen Cambridge University Press



Sold People: Traffickers and Family Life in North China
Johanna S. Ransmeier Harvard University Press




Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History
Matthew Simonton Princeton University Press



The Cold War: A World History
Odd Arne Westad Basic Books

 

COMICS

Poppies of Iraq
Brigitte Findakly, Lewis Trondheim Drawn and Quarterly


Satania
Fabien Vehlmann NBM Publishing


It Don't Come Easy
Philippe Dupuy, Charles Berberian Drawn and Quarterly


The Green Hand and Other Stories
Nicole Claveloux New York Review Comics


Voices in the Dark
Ulli Lust New York Review Comics


My Favorite Thing Is Monsters
Emil Ferris Fantagraphics Books

Pascin
Joann Sfar Uncivilized Books


Beanworld Volume 4: Hoka Hoka Burb'l Burb'l
Larry Marder Dark Horse Books


The Interview
Manuele Fior Fantagraphics Books


Yvain: The Knight of the Lion
M.T. Anderson Candlewick




The Customer is Always Wrong
Mimi Pond Drawn and Quarterly


 

OF INTEREST








Herder's Hermeneutics: History, Poetry, Enlightenment
Kristin Gjesdal Cambridge University Press





Capitalism without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy
Jonathan Haskel, Stian Westlake Princeton University Press


The Quantum Revolution in Philosophy
Richard Healey Oxford University Press


Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941
Stephen Kotkin Penguin Press


Pompey, Cato, and the Governance of the Roman Empire
Kit Morrell Oxford University Press






The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution
Yuri Slezkine Princeton University Press




No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture, 1976-1984
Matthew Worley Cambridge University Press



Trump Diary 13: Kill the Poor

Which Congressional representative is scariest?

  1. The Hack: votes to cut health insurance for millions in order to please donors, party elders, and constituents.
  2. The True Believer: votes to cut health insurance for millions on the belief that deregulation and the free market will lower prices so that all will be insured for even less.
  3. The Paranoid Patriot: votes to cut health insurance for millions to stop America from turning into a socialist dystopia.
  4. The Character Builder:  votes to cut health insurance for millions because entitlements encourage laziness and unemployment.
  5. The Pruning Hook: votes to cut health insurance for millions because the uninsured are a drag on America and should be discouraged from reproducing or living.

I don’t have an answer, but on a gut level I fear the Hack the least. The Hack does not terrify me because a self-interested politician with flexible principles stands the greatest chance of bending to public and private pressures and making compromises. A politician who acts out of iron dogma, paranoid fear, or moral puritanism is likely to stick to their guns well past the point of self-interest.

(There is room for a sixth sort of politician, the Rational Guardian, who considers the evidence and votes out of well-considered, disinterested rationales, but such creatures do not exist.)

Much of the GOP’s stress over the last year stem from its representatives being strewn across all five types. Even in the absence of Trump, the varying motivations would have caused trouble for any attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act, even as political pressure from various sides demands that a repeal be passed. The same sort of stress is plaguing the tax bill currently, but the looser political requirements around such a bill (“cut lots of taxes” vs. “repeal a specific bill”) make passage in some form far more likely.

So while the off-year elections constituted a vague repudiation of Trump, they haven’t changed the calculus for the Republicans terribly much. The Democrats won governorships that they absolutely needed to win, which was more cause for existential relief than celebration, and they made huge gains in the Virginia legislature, though the ramifications of those gains are uncertain, as Virginia has been turning decisively “blue” for some time thanks to suburban DC spillover. The real story resides in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin, and it has yet to be told.

The Republicans, in turn, have set about trying to accomplish exactly what they would have tried to accomplish had any non-Trump Republican been elected. Assuming that Trump doesn’t start a war or blow up the world, the party’s projects will have far more lasting political impact than Trump will. (Trump’s lasting impact will likely be psychological and agonistic—traumatically so.)

The two most important projects, which are attracting far less attention than Trump’s most comically useless moves, are the tax bill and the Federalist Society’s plan to pack the federal courts with conservative apparatchiks. If Republicans can get even part of the court-packing scheme through, they will be in a position to rout non-Republican/non-Federalist governance on a far greater level than has been seen to date.  And judges, more than any other sort of politician, tend not to be Hacks. A great many Federalist Society sorts are indeed True Believers.

But at the moment, the tax bill looms far larger, as potentially the most consequential piece of legislation since the Affordable Care Act, which it easily dwarfs in impact. And there, it’s the Pruning Hooks that may win the day. They may be smaller in number, but they are attuned more closely to real trends rather than imaginary dogma. The tax bill marries all five types of representatives, but its ultimate effects will, I suspect, be those that the Pruning Hooks wish for.

II.

Our world functions on commerce. Many call it “capitalist,” either to praise it or deride it, but the term is so wide that it says little about how the global economic system actually sustains itself. The word “neoliberal,” aside from suffering from chronic misuse, is too narrow, as there is much about our current world system that Keynes or Hirschman would support. So I will just call it the global economy.

There are two requirements for the global economy to continue to function, broadly speaking, as it has since the Industrial Revolution.

  1. There must be modest growth, on average, in the medium term.
  2. The average net contribution of a human life to a national economy must be non-negligible.

If the concept of investment is based around robbing future Peter to pay present-day Peter, there’s little trouble around the temporal redistribution of funds as long as future Peter is far richer.  That is, as long as growth continues. (“Capitalism: it’s temporal socialism!”) When you start having second- and third-order financial products around such expectations, there’s still no problem as long as everyone continues to believe that future Peter is wealthy beyond belief.

If our collective faith in future Peter falls, our present economy declines. This is, in part, what makes nativist movements dangerous: they appeal not to any sort of economic progress but to resentment and zero-sum games. They accelerate contradictions, in other words.

Economic hawks take a more atomistic view to these issues. They look not just at countries, but at individuals. Rather than seeing economic progress as a gradually rising tide, they see a contest between those individuals who raise the tide and those who drag it down. The apportionment of these responsibilities is something of a subjective measure, since it’s as much a function of money you have as work you do, and you are judged not on the proportion of your money you spend but on sheer total. Regardless, the hawks fixate on those whose GDP contribution is negligible, which would be the poor.

There have been two infamous formulations of hawkish dogma. One was Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment in 2012, referring to the number of Americans who pay no federal income tax (though many are still subject to payroll and state taxes), and are thus seen as being a drag on the progress of the nation. It still baffles me how anyone could have though that Donald Trump possessed an iota more compassion for that 47 percent (much less compassion for anyone who is not him), but a sucker is born every minute.

The second was the Wall Street Journal’s  “lucky duckies” editorial of 2002, arguing against tax relief for the poor.

The most recent data from the IRS, in 2000, show that the top 5% coughed up more than half of total tax revenue. Specifically, we are talking about folks with adjusted gross incomes of $128,336 and higher being responsible for 56% of the tax take. Eyebrows raised? There’s more. The top 50% of taxpayers accounted for almost all income tax revenue — 96% of the total take.

Almost 13% of all workers have no tax liability and so are indifferent to income tax rates. And that doesn’t include another 16.5 million who have some income but don’t file at all.

Who are these lucky duckies? They are the beneficiaries of tax policies that have expanded the personal exemption and standard deduction and targeted certain voter groups by introducing a welter of tax credits for things like child care and education.

This complicated system of progressivity and targeted rewards is creating a nation of two different tax-paying classes: those who pay a lot and those who pay very little. And as fewer and fewer people are responsible for paying more and more of all taxes, the constituency for tax cutting, much less for tax reform, is eroding. Workers who pay little or no taxes can hardly be expected to care about tax relief for everybody else. They are also that much more detached from recognizing the costs of government.

All of which suggests that the last thing the White House should do now is come up with more exemptions, deductions and credits that will shrink the tax-paying population even further.

To me, the explanation for the shifting tax burden is that the rich got a lot richer and inequality has skyrocketed, not that the income tax system unfairly privileges the poor. If you own 50 percent of the country, you probably should pay 50 percent of the tax. Romney and the WSJ ignore those arguments, instead fixating on how people should have “skin in the game.” They argue, with perfect cynicism, that if the Republicans raise taxes on the poor, the poor will be more likely to vote Republican.

The Republicans may be about to put that to the test. The GOP tax bill looks to be “Requiem for the Lucky Ducky,” fixating on a huge corporate tax cut at the expense of deductions, exemptions, health insurance subsidies, and quite a bit else. If it passes, the Republicans may not need total control of Congress or the presidency after 2018, since the bill will be terribly difficult to undo.

But why? I think it is ultimately the Pruning Hook.

III.

The National Review‘s Kevin Williamson was brutally honest last year when he excoriated poor white working class communities. (Excoriating poor non-white communities is mostly superfluous in such circles.) For all the GOP’s supposed evangelism of white working-class values (and Trump’s pandering to them), the GOP’s ongoing relationship to them is better captured by the Never-Trumper Williamson in Chaos in the Family, Chaos in the State: The White Working Class’s Dysfunction, taking Garbutt, New York as his whipping boy:

The Washington Post’s “Wonkbook” newsletter compared the counties Trump won in the so-called Super Tuesday primaries with the demographic data and found trends that will surprise no one who has been paying attention (and certainly no one, I hope, who has been reading this magazine). The life expectancies among non-college-educated white Americans have been plummeting in an almost unprecedented fashion, a trend not seen on such a large scale since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the social anarchy that prevailed in Russia afterward. Trump counties had proportionally fewer people with college degrees. Trump counties had fewer people working. And the white people in Trump counties were likely to die younger. The causes of death were “increased rates of disease and ill health, increased drug overdose and abuse, and suicide,” the Post’s Wonkblog website reported.

The white middle class [sic] may like the idea of Trump as a giant pulsing humanoid middle finger held up in the face of the Cathedral, they may sing hymns to Trump the destroyer and whisper darkly about “globalists” and — odious, stupid term — “the Establishment,” but nobody did this to them. They failed themselves.

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 poor white America.

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible…The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

If you want to live, get out of Garbutt.

I think this deserves to stand alongside the Lucky Ducky editorial as a statement of purpose among Republican elites (e.g., Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell,  House Republican leadership, the majority of Republican senators, the Federalist Society, the Kochs).  The two messages Williamson delivers to Trump’s base are, “You contribute nothing,” and “You’re going to die.” In other words, they are a drag on America. They’ve had their chance, and they blew it. (Williamson does not really expect them to move.) Social Darwinism must take its course, just as it should take its course on the urban poor. Prune the tree of prosperity.

IV.

Ironically, the left increasingly agrees. When it comes to poor white Trump-voting areas, the right wants these communities to die out because they’re economically worthless and unproductive. The left wants them to die out because they’re racist, sexist, and morally backwards.

For both Republican and Democratic elites, a vote for Trump has come to be seen as a civic disqualifier. Two political contentions—(1) Trump voters were motivated not by economics but by racism; and (2) there is no such thing as a “good” Trump voter—have become articles of faith among the intelligentsia on both sides.

These contentions echo Williamson’s argument: nothing happened to them. What’s unusual, however, is that the left rejects superstructural Marxist arguments that view individual beliefs as a consequence of macrohistorical currents (racial, economic, or otherwise). Rather, both right and left have embraced a Protestant individualism, seeing the 2016 election as a test of one’s soul.

This shift, from a structural to an ethical view of human agency, is one of the most important shifts in leftist discourse in recent decades, shifting away from theories of radical change and toward the policing of individual human souls. I analyzed it in depth in #JeNeSuisPasLiberal: Entering the Quagmire of Online Leftism:

Leftism’s Embrace of Moralism

 

V.

The right, however, is prepared to give up on a lot more people as well, since their criteria is broader. I was struck, when I interviewed Newt Gingrich, by both his wild optimism as well as his indifference to individuals. He conceives of a future for the United States, but one that does not give much consideration to many of today’s (or tomorrow’s) Americans, who will be relegated to the dustbin of history. Like the tax bill, this attitude unnerves me. It utilizes Protestant moralism as a vehicle for anti-humanist socio-political engineering.

The trend that the more visionary Pruners see, I believe, is that both requirements for the functioning global economy may be put under pressure. Low growth and increasing automation will result in many, many more human lives becoming economically negligible. The long-term goal of Pruner Republican tactics is to “discourage” the propagation of “negative [human] assets” and ease these existing negative assets into death—by cutting their benefits and lifelines.

This, however, does set the stage for populist demagogues to appeal to pure resentment (racial or otherwise). Trump is a false prophet in this regard, as he is happy to go along with the Pruners’ plans, but also serves as a troubling augur—specifically, that Republican voters may continue to vote the wrong way in primaries. Which is yet another reason why the more visionary Pruner elites see it as increasingly urgent, via mechanisms such as the tax bill and court-packing, to kill the poor.


Appendix: The Hawk Calculus

One of the main themes of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century (my review here) is that there is a widespread belief in there being an ongoing, average 4% annual GDP growth. Piketty believes that the optimistic expectation of 4%, as opposed to the historical average of 2% over the last 200 years, is unwarranted, because the 4% average in the last half of the 20th century stemmed not from integral changes but from the massive asset destruction of World War II, which allowed subsequent reclamation in the post-war decades. He predicts a reversion to a 2% average and harsh adjustments relating to the reconfiguring of expectations: in particular a ballooning of inequality as investment return chronically exceeds real growth (his r > g formulation).

But even the calculation of GDP numbers is laden with uncertainty. The IMF claimed 3.2% global GDP growth in 2016. The World Bank claimed 2.4%. That’s a significant disparity, mostly owing to unreliable data from developing countries. But both put the United States and other developed countries as hovering around the 2% growth rate for the near term.  These days, China contributes about 15% of global GDP (for comparison, the United States contributes around 23%), but China contributes a far larger proportion of global GDP hopes and expectations.

IMF: Real GDP Growth (%)

 

World Bank: Real GDP Growth (%)

 

One of the underlying causes in the shift in economic rhetoric over the last 25 years has been the declining contribution of US workers to global GDP. Initially, it fueled the push for globalization. Now, it fuels increasingly angry rhetoric on all sides. By itself, the proportion is not damning; GDP is always positive, after all. What gets economic hawks up in arms is when these numbers are weighed against government spending.

Ironically, the uptake from Piketty’s critique on the right has been to devalue lives. This makes sense given the hawkish tendency to see lives in terms of “human capital.” A graph like this, from Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth, would appear to both Schumpeter and Karl Polanyi as an indicator of the limits of the growth-driven dynamo. But to the hawk, it only speaks to the need to streamline capitalism further. And “streamline” is a polite word.

from Robert J. Gordon's The Rise and Fall of American Growth

Annual Growth Rate of Alternative Real Income Concepts, Actual Outcomes 1920–2014 and Projected Values 2015–2040 (Gordon)

 

Williamson’s attack on Garbutt, NY is based on the numbers showing that its residents consume more government money than they produce. Combined with the marginal and dwindling GDP contributions that left-leaning sorts like Piketty and Gordon anticipate, communities like Garbutt in Williamson’s view threaten the United States economically (by consuming resources better used toward growth) and electorally (by voting the wrong way). Their GDP contribution was the leavening ingredient that made them palatable to the hawks. As their productivity dwindles, they become increasingly malignant.

Trump Diary 12: Postponement of Reality

Four months on, I’m surprised by how little seems to have changed. There have been a number of news cycles, yet the patterns that were set in place by April or May have played out without too much alteration in the underlying dynamics. For the news, this means alternating cycles of “Trump has done something newly awful and unthinkable” and “Trump is for the moment behaving and merely being his usual bad self” (palace intrigue, governmental incompetence,  For the administration, it means alternating between the creeping whiff of Muller’s detectives and ham-fisted attempts to accomplish anything whatsoever. For the country, it appears to be a slowly increasing sense of detachment, as the promises of revival or totalitarianism fail to be realized.

Even when an escalating event occurs, such as with Charlottesville or North Korea, there is no longer a sense that any tipping point has been reached. And with Puerto Rico, even Trump’s callous indifference to the devastation wasn’t enough to raise the outrage to a fever pitch. Unlike with New Orleans, Puerto Rico is not considered part of the United States.

What it all amounts to is a sustained exercise in what America does uniquely well, which is postponing acknowledgment of the underlying reality. Depending on which group a person belongs to, the reality which they’re avoiding varies.

Republicans are postponing recognition of the fundamental inability of their majority to govern beyond appointing right-wing judges and depending on the capricious whims of their still-popular President. True-blue right-winger Bob Corker’s condemnation of Trump as an incompetent madman reflects one serious breach of the denial of the extent to which Trump threatens the Republican party as it currently exists, but it is just one breach, and complacency still rules.

This was most on display in the time-consuming and pointless efforts to pass an ACA repeal bill–any bill.  Even after the failure of the main “skinny” effort, there were several attempts at resurrecting a bill from the dead. I don’t think it was pure pageantry. I think Republicans are scared of not delivering on their repeal promise, they need the money from repeal to fund regressive tax cuts, and the initiators really thought that Republicans would see the light. They didn’t. Too many Republican politicians and Republican voters want the ACA to stay, although some of them may not fully realize it. So when it comes to the ACA football, the Republicans are Lucy and Charlie Brown at the same time. Trump’s cancellation of ACA subsidies will cause a lot of trouble and probably kill a number of people, but it’s still not repeal, though perhaps Trump will be able to sell it as such.

Democrats are playing ostrich with their descent into being a regional party with an unenthusiastic and fractured base. While the Republicans elected their crazies, Democrats pander to theirs while not actually doing anything for them, which is all the much easier given that they’re out of federal power and short on state power outside of California and New York. They rely on the great unifying principle of their voters’ hatred of Trump, but it’s unclear to what extent this will make up for their structural and strategic deficits. There has been little reckoning with the massive failures of the 2016 campaigns; in its place there has been a lot of empty moral posturing, which has gotten more desperate in recent months but is still the same old song.

The populist moves of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have made a lot of noise and boosted the more noisily left Democrats, but the persistence of tired Democratic leadership and the heavy promotion of status quo Democrats like Kamala Harris, Andrew Cuomo, and Terry McAuliffe (as well as perverse nostalgic looks at Hillary Clinton herself) signal that the existing Democratic establishment is clinging very hard to its sinecures and will not yield easily. This contrast isn’t as stark as I suggest, because the party overall has moved left, but there is still a huge gap even between Sanders and Warren, and an aggressive freeze-out of the Sanders contingent is still to be seen at every level. This is exacerbated by a lack of up-and-coming stars.

The Establishment Media are persisting in the belief that they are acting as gatekeepers of information and creators of narrative, when these powers only exert control over a narrowing subset of the citizenry. I’ve shrunk my news consumption down to the Washington Post’s Daily 202, which attempts to strip out all the chaff and provide news ostensibly relevant to those who care about the actual state of the world. It’s pretty good, yet it is still myopically attuned to DC. Perhaps that is all that really matters in the short-term, but it’s useless for detecting germinating trends.

The Alternative Media are being devastated by the outflood of money from their publications and the online shift to video, but are mostly still writing as though it were 2015, only with increased defensiveness and poorer quality control. Establishment media is paying less attention to them, understanding that they are hurting the establishment’s credibility rather badly. Google and Facebook’s crackdown on “fake news” is devastating here as well, for less-established media outlets, many of them indeed unreliable, are being crushed by Google’s new deranking. First prize for the denial of reality, I’m afraid, goes to the leftist outlets who thought only right-wing sources would be penalized.

Right-wing Media persists in Trump worship but the sell-by date is approaching. It remains a cottage industry, enough to cause major headaches for the Republican party and keep up hatred of the Democrats, but it is not a growth industry as it was during the Obama years.

Trump Himself remains supreme in his denial of any reality outside of his need for love and worship. His facade is taking a beating, however, with one story in particular being of serious note: Trump’s failed endorsement of Luther Strange in the Alabama primary. When Strange lost out to long-time Bible-thumper Roy Moore, Trump took it very hard.

Vanity Fair: In recent days, I spoke with a half dozen prominent Republicans and Trump advisers, and they all describe a White House in crisis as advisers struggle to contain a president who seems to be increasingly unfocused and consumed by dark moods. Trump’s ire is being fueled by his stalled legislative agenda and, to a surprising degree, by his decision last month to back the losing candidate Luther Strange in the Alabama Republican primary. “Alabama was a huge blow to his psyche,” a person close to Trump said. “He saw the cult of personality was broken.”

There is not a lot in Trump that is raveled, but this source’s point deserves much more attention. Trump’s mental health hangs in large part on his belief that he has a core, unshakable group of fanatical supporters who will love him no matter what he does (which is good because he hasn’t done much that they had hoped for). Having been talked into endorsing Strange by his advisers (against the advice of the recently-departed Steve Bannon, who supported Moore), Trump was shown in stark terms that his popularity was insufficient to cause his base of supporters to do what he said. Trump remains popular among Republicans, so there’s been little explicit evidence showing that Trump’s more or less constant approval ratings didn’t necessarily equate to the sort of wild enthusiasm Trump eagerly devoured during the campaign. His staff have been managing this loss of enthusiasm as best they can, but this single failed endorsement was incontrovertible evidence that something (Bible-thumping revivalist politics, specifically) could triumph over unwavering devotion to Trump when it came to political action.

Trump has comforted himself with knowledge of how sheerly reviled Congressional Republicans are by their own voters, and how Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell especially have taken the blame for Republican dysfunction this year. Next to them, Trump looks pretty good to the Republican base (a fact which nonetheless has many implications going forward). But Trump took that as carte blanche, which it wasn’t. People are falling out of love with Trump. It may not be enough for the Democrats to make enough gains to take back Congress next year (it’s too soon to tell), but it is enough for Trump to be emotionally devastated. I’ve written several times about how tightly Trump’s reactions are tied to others’ views of him. Usually, when he bottoms out and loses support in a particular environment, he walks away and says he didn’t care about it anyway. He can’t do this here (not easily anyway). Ironically, the main force of change in the upcoming months may be Trump’s own declining self-image.

America is, bizarrely, not so different from where it was a year ago. Trump’s election had a seismic effect on people’s psyches, but the George W. Bush administration effected more actual policy in the month after September 11, 2001 than Trump has managed in his entire presidency so far. That’s not to discount the draconian executive orders he has made and the quiet gutting of various executive branch entities, but when you look back at the apocalyptic predictions that were being made, the overwhelming horror of the Trump administration so far has been the sheer fact of Donald Trump being president, rather than the death-by-1000-cuts of his diplomatic, policy, and PR actions.  The rational portion of the fear comes from knowing that the status quo could change at any minute should Trump get it into his head to do something far more drastic and crazy than anything he has done so far. Yet few steps are being taken to address that rational fear, and instead we have impotent hysteria against offenses both grievous and trivial, as well as the persistence of old habits with the hope that they still mean what they used to. Neither will be of much use if the deluge truly comes.

We are seeing the disheartening spectacle of politics as usual even in the age of Trump. That too is a postponement of reality.

Trump Diary 10: Everybody Hates Trump

It’s safe to say the pseudonormalization of Trump has stopped, at least for a while.  The moment Trump fired Comey, DC immediately returned to the frantic hysteria of the first month of the administration.  Trump, who thought that Comey’s firing would be welcomed by even the Democrats, shattered the illusion that he might be able to behave himself. Trump made the letter to Comey look as suspicious as humanly possible by thanking Comey for telling him he wasn’t under investigation:

Politico: Two people familiar with White House discussions said Trump was determined to write a line in the letter firing Comey saying that the FBI director had given him three assurances he wasn’t under investigation. The words, said one White House adviser, “probably will cause him more heartbreak than anything else.” The line, this person said, had worried White House officials after it was printed – but few people saw the letter before it went out.

The result was a nightmare for any Trump staffer and a veritable binge for the media. Consequently, I believe what we are witnessing is the resurgence of an intra-executive war between Trump and the executive bureaucracy. A month ago I observed that the leaks about White House dysfunction had dried up:

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.

With Comey’s firing, this immediately ceased to be operative. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria switched from “I think Donald Trump became President of the United States last night” to “President Trump poses a danger to American democracy.” The leaks started up again with a vengeance. Impeachment was on the table.

It’s curious that the media should be seen as such an enemy when their main role in damaging the Trump administration remains that of stenographers for anonymous sources, rather than investigators per se. The investigations into conflicts of interests and shady business deals don’t look good, but don’t move the needle much in terms of the administration’s ability to function. But leaks about Trump’s blabbermouth to the Russians and Trump’s demand for Comey’s loyalty pledge definitely do–and the leakers know this full well. You can’t look at this record of events and not think that there is some coordination going on in terms of what is being leaked and when:

I’m not suggesting any conspiracy. When you antagonize and frighten a great number of people, those people tend to react together. If those people have damning material on you, they tend to release it. What I’m suggesting is that the executive branch, and the intelligence community in particular, are not just leaking these stories to damage Trump but also to send the signal that a lot of people are going to make Trump and his administration’s lives a living hell, and that they are capable of doing so for quite a while.

Daily Beast: One veteran agent in the FBI’s criminal division responded to a message from The Daily Beast this way: “Who cares, nothing matters, no one knows anything, everything sucks.” A senior-level FBI source was more candid. If Trump has declared war on the bureau’s leadership, the source said, then the president should expect “nothing less in return.”

Hence the list of damning leak-driven stories above. That list doesn’t even include the “Republicans said Trump was on Russia’s payroll” story. Whether McCarthy was joking or not when he said it, that story is exactly the sort of thing to raise Trump’s paranoia and make him increasingly convinced that the Republican party is against him, thus causing him to degenerate even further. If Trump has turned against his own son-in-law (who apparently thought firing Comey was a super idea and wanted to fight back against the special counsel appointment), how long will it be until Trump starts firing staffers at random and publicly ranting about his own party and administration?

NYT: Mr. Trump’s appetite for chaos, coupled with his disregard for the self-protective conventions of the presidency, have left his staff confused and squabbling. And his own mood, according to two advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has become sour and dark, turning against most of his aides — even his son-in-law, Jared Kushner — and describing them in a fury as “incompetent,” according to one of those advisers.

Trump only knows escalation and confrontation (and petulance), so the only remaining options to him are going to become increasingly crazy and irrational:

Axios: Trump is also irritated with several Cabinet members, the sources said.  “He’s frustrated, and angry at everyone,” said one of the confidants. Trump’s friends are telling him that many of his top aides don’t know how to work with him, and point out that his approval ratings aren’t rising, but the leaks are. “The advice he’s getting is to go big — that he has nothing to lose,” the confidant said.

Trump probably does have nothing to lose, unlike the rest of us. The incessant flow of damaging stories suggests that the intelligence community is trying to push things to a crisis point now rather than later–possibly out of the fear that Trump will do even worse things than he has done so far. Even the accompanying leaks from his own administration continue to paint him as an infantile bully who literally cannot understand the requirements of his job and requires constant ego inflation.

Politico: Top White House officials learned of the looming New York Times story about a memo Comey wrote memorializing Trump’s request two hours before it went online. Aides rushed to ask Trump what he had actually told Comey. But the White House had no memos or tapes of the meeting to rebut the claims, several officials said. Trump didn’t even give an entire readout of his conversation, leaving staffers “actually unaware of what happened,” one official said. “It’s not like we were in on the meeting,” this person said. “We had no idea. We still don’t really know what was said.” Another official laughed when asked if Trump had really “taped” the meeting, as he’s suggested on Twitter: “If so, none of us have heard the tape.” Trump was furious about the story, one of the officials said, but retreated to the White House residence within 75 minutes of it going online – leaving aides to “figure out how bad the fallout was.”

WFB: “No one in the White House likes or respects Trump.” Those are the words of a source with very close ties to a number of officials in the White House explaining the views of key personnel advising the president.

These staffers are, again, making sure everyone knows that Trump is the problem, not them. Who can blame them? Trump makes their own lives a living hell already. The “adult” of the administration, NSC head H. R. McMaster, just threw away his credibility weaseling around Trump’s disclosure of classified info to the Russians. McMaster’s book Dereliction of Duty is about how the Joint Chiefs failed to speak truth to power during Vietnam: “The president was lying, and he expected the Chiefs to lie as well,” McMaster wrote. God’s Department of Irony has been working overtime on McMaster. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein managed to salvage a bit of his reputation by appointing Mueller as special counsel. McMaster surely knows the time for him to do so is running out rapidly. But Trump won’t listen to anyone, so his “loyal soldier” options are minimal if not nonexistent.

Other anonymous sources reinforce the total impossibility of speaking truth to Trump’s power:

NYT: After four months of interactions between Mr. Trump and his counterparts, foreign officials and their Washington consultants say certain rules have emerged: Keep it short — no 30-minute monologue for a 30-second attention span. Do not assume he knows the history of the country or its major points of contention. Compliment him on his Electoral College victory. Contrast him favorably with President Barack Obama. Do not get hung up on whatever was said during the campaign. Stay in regular touch. Do not go in with a shopping list but bring some sort of deal he can call a victory.

All of this is sure to fuel the “Everybody hates Trump” narrative that is building in Trump’s head. Strangely, he still blames the media, not seeming to realize that they’re primarily fueled by the enemies in his own organization.

Trump: Look at the way I have been treated lately, especially by the media. No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.

Yet despite Trump’s engorged persecution complex and the sclerotic executive branch, I’m skeptical that we’ll reach the crisis point soon. Things could still calm down and we could return to another pseudonormalization period. It may depend on just how many damaging stories the intelligence community has stored up. It’s possible they have a lot. But it may primarily depend on the most chaotic factor of all, Trump himself.

Postscript: Within an hour of posting this, two more stories leaked out just in time for the weekend news cycle. First, a senior White House adviser, likely Kushner, has been deemed a person of interest in the Russia collusion investigation. Second, Trump bragged to the Russians about firing Comey: “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” Looks like the leaks won’t stop any time soon.

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.

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