Hank Minor: Liberal psychosis
Stop talking about special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation. To close a few loopholes of this request, I’d also add Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos and any of the other bit players in Trump’s orbit to that list. It’s rarely more substantial than media spectacle and offers only an illusory sense of resistance to those dissatisfied with the current government.
President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 unleashed a particular kind of liberal psychosis that wasn’t triggered when they lost the Senate in 2014, or when they lost the House of Representatives in 2010, or when they lost the Supreme Court with Justice Antonin Scalia’s nomination in 1971, or when they lost 910 statehouse seats during Barack Obama’s presidency. As we began to see with President George W. Bush, and as we’re seeing fully now with Trump, the Democratic spirit is extremely lethargic. Unless there’s a single monster to mobilize against, American liberals tend toward complacency.
This isn’t entirely surprising. Conservatism rests on the idea that there must be perpetual struggle toward a prior state of society; liberalism rests on the idea that marginal improvements are enough to keep the arc of history bending toward justice. It takes something dramatic — a reality TV star, a billionaire without bourgeois values, a man called incompetent by enemies and allies alike — to break the patient faith of liberals.
Mueller’s special counsel investigation, which began May 17, 2017, has soothed the anxiety of many people whose trust in American institutions was shaken in 2016. A narrative emerged from the chaotic horror of November that year: the noble underclass of the Midwest was tricked into electing this man by Russians, but the Americans who aided and abetted them will be brought to justice. Every news story that comes out of Mueller’s investigation — like former Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort’s guilty plea last Friday — is another nail being pounded methodically into Trump’s coffin.
The way this spectacle unfolds — CNN and the New York Times publish stories, a hashtag starts to trend on Twitter, #Resistance grifters like the Krassenstein brothers start making bad jokes — is similar to the way we react to prestige TV. A “Game of Thrones” episode airs, people turn to Twitter, celebrities start weighing in. Rinse and repeat.
However, this isn’t — as dozens of other columnists have said before — reality TV. American politics has given over entirely to what’s most entertaining, and we wait with anticipation for the next episode. This isn’t inherently wrong — I’m not particularly interested in parsing whether or not the net benefit from increased (but low quality) engagement with politics is good or not. What’s much more discomfiting for me is the unironic, self-serious way people participate in what isn’t much more than D.C. media drama.
Superficial victories presented like plot twists in a novel or television show, such as Manafort and Flynn’s plea deals and that anonymous Op-Ed from within the administration, have become acceptable substitutes for actual victories. Manafort is a self-interested, morally bankrupt leech — one of thousands in Washington, D.C. I don’t really care whether he goes to prison or not because he doesn’t control policy or legislation; the Republican House, Republican Senate, Republican presidency, Republican Supreme Court and (in a plurality of states) Republican state governments do.
Even if the “blue wave” arrives as forecasted, Democrats — the kind who attack the president on Twitter and glorify a man who opposed them at nearly every stage of his career — will only control one of five battlegrounds. Maybe in 2020, California Sen. Kamala Harris or former Vice President Joe Biden will beat Trump by sufficiently scolding Americans about civility, and then they’ll control two out of five.
The fundamental problem with recovering political ground for the left isn’t that Republicans are a party of Machiavellian, ice-chewing maniacs assisted by the Russian government — they routinely elect some of America’s most embarrassing citizens — it’s that the Democratic base and founding principles (i.e., liberals and liberalism) are unequipped to deal with radicalizing conservatism. The right wing’s presentation of a Manichean battle between everything you love and everything you hate is a lot more mobilizing than patient Democratic centrism or the ostensibly apolitical Mueller investigation.
The powerful should be brought to justice when they break the law — few people find that controversial. When that process is turned into a comforting spectacle offered in lieu of economic, material progress, though, it should be ignored. Focus on moving the Overton window, pursue direct action and stop following the Mueller story — it’s not going to solve any of our actual problems.
Hank Minor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.