Right-wing demagoguery is the inevitable consequence of a monolithic political culture that refuses to tolerate dissent.
Last week was National Police Week. To honor law enforcement officers, Dartmouth students created a display with the heading “Blue Lives Matter.” Within a day, protesters from Black Lives Matter had torn down the tribute, replaced it with their own posters, and accused the Dartmouth students of “memorializ[ing] the perpetrators” of “state violence”.
This incident is, of course, only the latest example of interminable anti-right rallies that take place on college campuses. Certainly, at Dartmouth or Stanford, one is vastly more likely to find a Marxist than someone willing openly to support the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
Trump is the ultimate embodiment of what these groups detest. Yet his candidacy has been aided and abetted directly by these same groups’ militant behavior.
The rise of a national leftist cultural movement (commonly referred to as the regressive left), exemplified on college campuses, is well documented by the Review and national news sources. It is hostile to many traditional aspects of American culture – from pivotal historical figures, to deeply-held religious convictions, to even, arguably, free speech.
Any “incorrect” position, expression of an opinion, challenge to this orthodoxy, or even just a slip of the tongue can lead to public ostracism or the loss of a job. Just a few notable examples are a Facebook group at Oxford dedicated to rooting out and shaming students they deem insufficiently feminist; Yale University students who coerced an administrator into resignation when she did not endorse a wholesale ban of Halloween costumes that might be deemed “culturally appropriative”; and accusations that the Review must be promoting violence and oppression against women for articles questioning due process protections in Title IX.
The ideological purity demanded by student groups on almost every issue – from abortion, to race, to religion – is closer to Maoism during the Cultural Revolution than any recognizable form of recent political liberalism. Just as Red Guards mobilized at Mao Zedong’s exhortation to purge and reprimand anyone they deemed “capitalist” or “rightist”, the activist wing of the regressive left has taken it upon itself to do the same (albeit in a less horrifically violent manner) to all those identified to be “racist”, “appropriative”, “colonialist”, or “privileged” – unless they confess their sins and repent. Compromise is impossible. Who’s Teaching Us considered a formal response from Stanford’s administration woefully inadequate, and continues to refuse negotiation on its demands despite over a third of campus disapproving of them. One Stanford student deemed America so thoroughly racist that it lacked even the right to exist.
Though arguably some conservative groups also strive for ideological purity, none coerce compliance with ideological standards on this scale. It is empirically true that there is no fixed list of conservative preferences – liberal preferences are far more set in stone. The National Review opposes Donald Trump, despite the inevitable advantage this will bring Hillary Clinton in November. The Stanford Review has taken multiple stances on topics such as Western Civilization, SAL studentgroup policy, and the alleged actions of the Students of Color Coalition during elections last year.
Trump has capitalized on the reaction against this movement. Trumpism is not rooted in a fight for any particular political outcome. Rather, supporters are reacting against a leftist cultural movement they see as attempting to erode American society. Many elite college campuses are in lock step with this movement. Whether or not the activist groups at the helm of this movement are supported by a majority of liberals and college students, the result is the same: an illiberal cultural orthodoxy that terrorizes liberals and conservatives alike.
These suppressive tendencies – not a shared innate value system, or strong opinions on any particular issue – radicalized many centrist Americans toward Trump. It is well-documented that Trump’s voter base spans a broad ideological spectrum, from blue-collar workers to evangelical Christians. At least 43 percent of registered Democrats who identify as Republicans and a plurality of independent voters support him.
Indeed, the reason that so many revile Trump is the same that so many have embraced him. He is the reactionary par excellence, the perfect outlet to stand against the perceived leftist cultural onslaught. The “silent majority” (or plurality) increasingly feels itself to be a silenced majority: Trump is their response. Voters who agree with the statement “people like me don’t have any say” have an 86% chance of supporting the presumptive Republican nominee.
The truth of these claims is immaterial. Visceral reactions are inevitable when blue-collar workers losing their livelihoods to globalization hear that they should be ashamed because they benefit from some inherent ‘white privilege’. Or when voters are told that the symbols and people they see as the bedrock of American culture should be stricken from the history record. Or when the regressive left proclaims that the American project is just equal parts ‘colonialism’ and ‘racism’. Until Trump, there was no national political platform to channel these sentiments into a political movement.
Some who read this article will likely retort that Trumpism is not about representation and countercultural backlash at all, but rather a naked display of racism and chauvinism. Trump supporters, they argue, are are blue-collar, xenophobic white men angry that they no longer dominate American society. (These blanket demonizations of Trump supporters are of course ironic – such behavior is the reason that many support him in the first place.)
There may be some truth to this statement, but it ignores key aspects of Trump’s support base. First, there is clearly something broadly appealing about Trump. His demographic support is much wider than the “angry white men” thesis suggests. Trump has won a plurality of women voters in the GOP primaries. Forty-three percent of his supporters are college graduates and post-graduates, and 34 percent earn over $100,000 per year. In West Virginia, 50 percent of those who voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary would vote for Trump over Hillary (the “Bernie or Bust” coalition is widespread across states in which Sanders draws significant support). This broad pro-Trump coalition is united by a desire to protect themselves against what they perceive as an alarming leftist cultural onslaught.
Second, Trump’s overwhelming appeal among blue-collar, uneducated white men is rooted in causes much more complex than racist anger. While white men lacking a college education have not suffered the same historical discrimination as women or blacks, the hardships they face are real. The employment rate of men without a bachelor’s degree has fallen from 76 percent in 1990 to 68 percent in 2013. Moreover, although real wages have grown for college graduate or postgraduate men and women of all races who in the last 25 years, they have fallen to a striking degree for non-college men. More than harboring horribly racist sentiments, these individuals’ support of Trump is in large part rooted a reaction against the status quo. To them, Trump is the first candidate to meaningfully challenge that status quo.
The cultural attitudes in part cultivatedat elite institutions like Stanford drove a wide coalition of voters to the point of desperation, fearing that they and the America they knew had been silenced and threatened. When a problem of this magnitude festers for so long, the result is bound to be spectacular. Voters demanded a profoundly reactionary candidate to express the full extent of their rage and fear. When Trump filled this void, they coalesced around the idea of his candidacy, not its substance: hence, his comment that he “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and […] wouldn’t lose voters”.
In decrying Trump’s brash statements, many of Trump’s more extreme critics argue that he has crossed a red line in American politics. But when those critics stopped debating ideas – and instead categorically censured everything that ran against their vision of American culture – they crossed that line themselves.