The Liberal Illusion

Nothing focuses the mind like losing, and in this election the Democrats lost not just the presidency but both houses of Congress and the governments of most of the states. That latter fact is important, because even if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, she would have faced the same obstacles as Obama did during his eight years in the White House. One might wonder, then, if it isn’t better to have a Republican government that at least might do something rather than a split government that can do virtually nothing.

But it is not my purpose here to parse the minutiae of the power plays likely to erupt in Washington nor to dissect the flawed strategies of the Democratic establishment during the campaign. That’s what the media pundits are paid to do. I am more interested in what the triumph of Trump reveals about the true nature of our country (and perhaps of human nature itself) and the illusions with which liberals have been living for the last half century.
As a teenager in the 1960’s, I was enamored of the Kennedys and the whole Camelot thing. JFK’s eloquent calls to “ask what you can do for your country” and his declaration that his election signaled the rise of a new generation ready to sweep away the cobwebs of the past were appealing to youthful idealism. So too was Johnson’s Great Society. I’m sure many of my contemporaries shared this attitude of hope for a better present as well as future, and we carried that hope forward to the election of Barack Obama, which was presented to us as symbolic of a post-racial America. In so many ways, Obama (or at least his rhetoric) was the apotheosis of the liberal myth, that not only the old attitudes to race but also to gender and the environment, war and tribalism had finally expired.

But as this election has showed, all the old prejudices and worldviews have not disappeared; in fact, around the world they seem to be rearing up again, like weeds once chopped down spring forth again from the roots. Or perhaps the weeds were never chopped down in the first place, but simply obscured from view by the colorful flowers of liberalism, for if we look back at those last fifty years or so, when we all believed that we were progressing to a better world, we see not only all the good fruits but the continued proliferation of the bad seeds. Johnson fought for the great society while bombing Vietnam; Nixon succeeded Johnson; Carter was driven from Washington by Reagan; Clinton abandoned the liberal agenda for a more “centrist” politics (“the end of welfare as we know it”); Bush mired us in Iraq and the Middle East and presided over the worst financial disaster since the depression; and Obama, despite his audacity of hope, proved to be an ineffective president, perhaps as Ta-Nahesi Coates has observed, too cerebral and naïve in his hopes, and what he did accomplish may be rolled back within the first 100 days of the Trump administration.

Trump’s appeal is not entirely to the old prejudices. The economic factor, the many blue-collar workers who have seen their jobs and their hopes plowed under by globalization, automation, and the greed of CEO’s, financiers and shareholders, played an enormous role in his victory. But old prejudices tend to emerge when people feel most vulnerable and displaced from their accustomed worlds. People whose jobs are about to be shipped to Mexico are not as inclined to view Mexican immigrants with favor as those whose jobs are secure and unaffected by outsourcing. The virtues of multiculturalism and diversity are luxuries that the abandoned worker may not feel that he can afford—or she; the vote count did not break down into the obvious gender disparities because it is, after all, the economy stupid that trumps cultural and social issues. (Frankly, no one has accounted to my satisfaction for the large number of women who, for example, are pro-life—I do not buy the notion that they are acting in bad faith or have internalized male oppression, etc.)

It is forbidden to make comparisons to Germany in the years leading up to Hitler’s rise to power, but I am going to make the comparison anyway—with the caveat that the comparison is not deeply incised; we are not Germany, of course, and the world situation today is quite different from that of the two world wars, but there is enough consistency in human nature that some lessons can be drawn from a comparison. During the years since the unification of Germany, Germans had in many ways prospered, and had constructed at least the semblance of a modern and in many ways cosmopolitan culture (much the same can be said of Austria, by the way). One of the effects of this flowering was the assimilation of German Jews. Yet after the defeat of Germany at the end of WWI “Germans” looked around for scapegoats and focused on the Jews as the avatar of their defeat and humiliation. It mattered nothing that Jews had contributed so much to the culture of Germany; in fact, those contributions were held against them, as indicative of the extent to which true German (Aryan) culture had been mongrelized by “foreign” and “cosmopolitan” elements. As the economic situation worsened, the polemics against Jews coarsened, culminating in the Holocaust.

Relevant to my thesis is the extent to which the Bildungsburgertum, the educated classes, both Gentile and Jewish, failed to recognize what was happening to their precious culture and would soon happen more brutally to them. After all, they reasoned, how could the Germany of die Aufklarung (the Enlightenment), of “Schiller, Lessing, Goethe, Kant and Herder” (Bolkosky 8), succumb to the crude blandishments of such a man as Hitler? What they failed to see was that most Germans were unacquainted with all this Kultur, that their apartments and cottages were not lined with books and sheets of classical music. Likewise, I’m afraid that American liberals have mistaken their own culture for the culture of the whole, that the books they treasure are treasured by everyone, that their ideas are obvious to everyone and that everyone reveres literature and higher education as much as they do—and thus that they have been blind to the real culture of the majority of their fellow citizens. They have not seen that their universal values are not universally shared.

Fermenting alongside the progress that we thought was being made were they old prejudices and world views that have haunted our history since the very beginning. This is the same country that displaced and slaughtered the Indians, whose economy was founded on the enslavement of millions of Africans, and which has exploited the white working class for, as Nancy Isenberg shows, 400 years. Over the last fifty years we have lurched from left to right, from one pole to the other, from progress to regression—indeed, we have often traveled both rails at the same time. But we liberals seem to have ignored the continued strength of the regressive strain in our politics and culture, dismissing it as inevitably doomed. We have thought that the combination of globalization and technology would erase the differences among people and bring about universal peace, reason, and tolerance. At the same time we have forgotten about the bottom line and that people without jobs or economic hope will care little for, or will be hostile to, peace, reason, and tolerance.

Bolkosky, Sidney. The Distorted Image: German Jewish Perceptions of Germany, 1918-1935. Elsevier, 1975.

Isenberg, Nancy. White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America. Viking, 2016.

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