Sunday, November 27, 2016

Personal Responsibility and the Infantilization of the American Right

If there was a single day that characterized the conservative movement's relationship to the Obama administration, it was September 28, 2016. That day, Congress overrode President Obama's veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. Congress had passed the law earlier that month, ignoring the President's warnings that it opened up a massive foreign relations can of worms and placed American servicemembers and diplomats at risk of being haled into hostile foreign courts. President Obama followed through on his promised veto on September 23rd, and Congress promptly overrode the veto.

Both the initial vote and the override were bipartisan affairs (the Senate and the House votes on both were overwhelming). But in the aftermath, once the issues President Obama identified now were encoded in law and presented a real and immediate threat, congressional Republicans took a very distinctive stance. They recognized the law had grave problems. But it wasn't their fault for voting for it. It wasn't their responsibility in drafting it. If anyone was to blame, it was none other than President Obama, who, they told us, was not sufficiently emphatic in communicating the bill's problems.

It would have been astonishing if it wasn't so sad. A Republican Congress passes a bill over the President's warnings, then overrides his public veto of the same bill, and then has the chutzpah to blame the President for not doing enough to stop them.

In reality, it was part of a pattern. The American right is fundamentally incapable of taking personal responsibility for its own decisions. Everything is someone else's fault. Everything can be blamed on someone else, usually Democrats or Democrat-leaning constituencies. It's never on them.

Consider the ever-popular parlor game of "who's responsible for Trump's victory?" The left is indulging in its own form of this game, with the predictable factions deciding between "it's the fault of Bernie Bros and Jill Stein for undermining Hillary Clinton", "it's the fault of the neoliberal hacks at the DNC for rigging the game for Hillary Clinton," and "it's the fault of everyone who cares what non-White, non-male, and non-straight people think." To that debate, my contribution has been simple: the people responsible for the election of Donald Trump are the people who voted for him. Full stop.

On the right side of the spectrum, though, this debate has taken a different hue. Much of the conservative movement has spent the last two years slowly transitioning from "it's an outrageous slander to say that a racist cartoon character like Donald Trump represents the conservative movement" to "it's an outrageous slander to say that the American conservative movement is 'racist' or 'cartoonish' just because it adopted Donald Trump as its representative." In between, the conservative movement treated Donald Trump as if he was some sort of inexplicable act of God, a deus ex machina whose surge to dominance in the conservative political movement defied all logic or rationality. He's a cipher, he's a reaction to Obama's own extremism, he's ... [hiss] really a Democrat. Whatever Donald Trump was, he wasn't their fault.

And so when conservatives talk about why Trump won, they play the game quite differently. Why did Trump win? It's because of safe spaces and trigger warnings, Katherine Timpf declares in the National Review; Trump was "a long-awaiting contrast to the infantilization and absurd demands for 'safe spaces' sweeping our society." Nay, says George Will, it was academia as a whole -- their books are full of "pretentious jargon" like "interrogated" and "problematized" and their courses have silly titles like "Jews in American Entertainment." Jonah Goldberg attributes Trump's rise to the media "crying wolf" -- how could anyone have known that Trump really was that terrible, given how untrustworthy our newspapers have been? None of these persons, from what I can tell, is a Donald Trump fan, which makes their commentary all the more striking. They recognize what a terrible choice Donald Trump is, but whirl about seeking to blame everyone but those who chose him.

This is pathological. Even if every critique the right had about, for example, liberal academia was entirely on target, is it really the case that a middle-income suburbanite in Dubuque decided to vote Trump because of how Wesleyan students want their classroom syllabi structured? It's implausible that it is true, and it'd be deeply pathetic if it was true. And to the extent that -- abstracted out to a broader commentary on "kids these days" and coastal elitism -- it is even part of the explanation, it's more pathetic still. "Just because the media says Donald Trump represents an unprecedented threat to American civic values doesn't mean he is one; and I don't feel the need to figure that out myself when I could be sending a message to those snot-nosed Ivy League teenagers who think they're so much better than me!" Who is patronizing who here?

This is the politics of a temper tantrum. There's certainly no notion of personal responsibility, that conservatives have duties to cause and country that exist independently of what media figures say or liberal youths do. Instead, conservatives are treated as creatures of instincts; minor children who are scarcely capable of independent reason. They lashed out, and now blame liberals for being inadequate babysitters. Republican voters, we're told, are helpless in the face of the grave insults they face from ... 19-year old bloggers living across the country. Minorities in cities they never visit. Professors at schools they don't attend. Nobody who has any real power over the conditions of their lives, mind you. No matter: they just had to respond. The backlash was inevitable. Certainly, they can't be expected to have independently come to the conclusion that Donald Trump is a menace. In these circumstances, nobody can reasonably hold them accountable for the decision they made in the ballot box.

The ur-form of this must be the very favorite explanation for why Trump won: That White Americans were sick of being criticized for racism, for sexism, for xenophobia, for not being perfect little egalitarians. Liberals insisted on holding Americans to account for these sins, and Americans deeply resented them for it. Eric Holder called us a "nation of cowards" around the subject of race, and White people railed against him even in the course of proving him absolutely right. And so, under this story, Trump won because he offered an alternative where Americans didn't have to feel guilty about any of these things: They could mock minorities, swap stories about assaulting women, demand an American free of non-Christians, and they'd be okay, even justified, in doing so.

There is a very literal form of emotional regression at work here. I was a pretty well-behaved kid growing up, but like anyone else I sometimes misbehaved. Sometimes I was inconsiderate or hurtful, or mocked or insulted people. And when I did do those things, my parents made me own up to it and apologize. I didn't get a ton of "this is what it means to be a man" type parenting, but if ever I got it, this was the context. Part of being a man means manning up and taking responsibility when what you're doing hurts other people.

Of course, as anyone who's gone through this knows, it's not fun. It made me feel bad, and the actual act of apologizing felt even worse. As a kid, just learning these lessons, you're very susceptible to being in denial about the whole thing. It wasn't really your fault, the other guy had it coming, they deserved it, I was right, they were wrong, my friends got away with it -- anything to avoid owning up to the mistake. How easy it would be to fall in with a pied piper who endorsed that entire line? The reason we have to teach children to take responsibility for their actions is because the alternative is very, very tempting.

We expect adults to know better. To the extent our nation has and continues to commit wrongs along the axis of race, of gender, of religion, of disability -- and we have, and we continue to -- we should have the maturity to look it in the eye and take responsibility for it. That doesn't mean always accepting blame. It does mean fairly taking one's share of it and -- more importantly, in the case of complex political issues -- being open to the difficult conversation such issues provoke.

Donald Trump's appeal was precisely in offering the opportunity to circumvent all of that. He held out a choice that would be understandably appealing to spoiled children, but should have been beneath the dignity of a mature democracy. Turns out, it wasn't (or turns out, we weren't one). And it's hard not to think that part of the reason why is the legion of commentators who have been eager to explain why those persons who did choose to align themselves with Trump -- a notorious racist, a flagrant misogynist, a man whose only qualification to lead our nation was that he was openly in contempt of half it -- could be excused for it. It's not their fault. It's not their responsibility.

You want to talk about infantilization in American culture, this is the place to start. American conservatives have gleefully regressed to a state of childhood. They spent years acting out and then wonder why someone else didn't protect them from the consequences of their own actions. At some point, America cannot move forward unless we collectively grow up. Part of that will involve conservatives -- especially conservatives who have recognized the perils of the Trump movement -- accepting responsibility for the choices their faction has made, and holding their colleagues to account.

Is that day coming? Now, of course, conservatives control both houses of Congress and the President-elect. They hold the levers of American government. And -- just as we saw over the last two years -- there are right-wing voices who do recognize serious fissures in our democratic fabric. Noah Rothman in Commentary frets about "the normalization of intemperance or even fanaticism" we have recently begun to witness. So, now that their fruit has fully bloomed, will conservatives finally take responsibility for it? What does Rothman say?

Alas: "[D]on’t blame Donald Trump or his voters for this condition. Blame the left."

Old habits die hard.

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