Commentary Magazine

The Delusions of the Politicized Life

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

On paper, Republicans are well positioned to withstand the headwinds that accompany their party’s first midterm election—an election to be held while the GOP is in total control of the federal government. Voters increasingly favor the direction in which the country is headed. The unemployment rate is below 4 percent and at or near record lows for minorities. Voters appreciate the president’s engagement with North Korea, the reservations of diplomatic professionals and experts notwithstanding. What Democrats have going for them is that Donald Trump and the party over which he presides have sacrificed the virtues associated with responsible American civics. Trump’s disdain for traditional standards of decency and even the Constitution itself provides Democrats with an opportunity to exploit a contrast. Inexplicably, they want to squander that potential advantage.

In the parochial hothouse that is Twitter, a mass delusion has found a dreadfully large number of adherents. It is the idea that civility is a luxury that we cannot afford; not with the stakes as high as they are. This self-serving hallucination is a bipartisan affliction, but the left seems most affected.

Over the weekend, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders took to Twitter to publicize the fact that she was asked to remove herself from a restaurant because she works for the President of the United States. Few seemed to dwell on how the White House might view that as a politically useful event. For a president who has leaned into every culture war and nursed a persecution complex among his supporters, the assaults on his people suit him just fine. Obeservers willfully herded themselves into predictable camps; Republicans are incensed over the assault on basic comity, while Democrats are either welcoming it as an appropriate response to extraordinary circumstances or encouraging more and worse assaults on Americans who serve their country in the White House.

Representative Maxine Waters’s call for mobs to make life outside the White House gates miserable for presidential appointees is the logical extension of an ethos that has captured the liberal imagination. Liberals have convinced themselves that Trumpism is an ugly set of prejudices and not a philosophy that merits substantive engagement. But that self-flattering construct allows those ideas to flourish without a responsible and thorough rebuttal. Even the courtesy of a rebuttal is, for some, an unearned concession to their illegitimate opponents. Some progressives have assured themselves that the conduct of conventional politics in the Trump era is a half-measure in the face of outright fascism. This is the ultimate logic of “The Resistance,” which pays nominal homage to a militant insurgency—not a loyal political opposition.

And so, a contemptible and short-lived policy of separating illegal immigrant families at the border generates the same response from the left as did the FCC’s decision to terminate a mundane Obama-era regulatory mechanism: the harassment of Republican officeholders, Trump officials, and anonymous public sector employees and their families. This is the product of a particular kind of narcissism. As a political strategy, it is so tactically incompetent, tone-deaf, and self-defeating that it can only have incubated in a bubble.

The right, too, has steeped itself in some deeply unhealthy fantasies about the extraordinary nature of this moment. The symptom most indicative of this delirium is the civil-war fan fiction that populates certain conservative blogs.

The Federalist’s Jesse Kelly is the author of some notable additions to this sordid genre; his latest is a daydream in which he plays the role of Lakota warrior violently resisting his liberal oppressors. TownHall’s Kurt Schlichter, too, pens fictional accounts of a second civil war, an unamicable divorce between red and blue America, and anti-Trump military coups. The common thematic thread in these accounts is that—despite Republicans’ political dominance at the moment—conservatives are helpless, persecuted, and have no control over their own destiny.

The hyper-politicized life is immiserating. It leads observers to absurdly rash conclusions about the nation’s viability as a stable and united country. It convinces otherwise rational people to reckon that the country is not worth saving, or that irrational assaults on America’s foundational civic compacts are a justifiable response to objectionable—not existential—turns of events. And, occasionally, the politicized life leads people to commit violence. There is no objective assessment of the current American political condition that justifies this kind of outlandish fatalism.

The worst impulses of the Trump administration are routinely thwarted by both the checks on the presidency in the Constitution and by public engagement. The nation is nowhere near the levels of political instability to which Americans were privy in 1932, when an insurgent army overran Washington, or 1968, when riotous violence and political assassinations were commonplace. The biggest threat to the nation’s civic culture is not, in fact, intensity but disillusionment, apathy, and disengagement. You’d not know that from surveying the daily hyperventilation on Twitter.

Rarely in the past has the dialogue among professional political observers been so out of step with the daily lived experiences of average Americans. The conversation on politicized social media forums is, in particular, an insular experience without parallel. It punishes civil conduct and rewards hyperbole, posturing, and rhetorical excesses. These tiny, self-selecting communities would be of little note if it were not for the fact that the arbiters of American political taste are addicted to observing them as a feedback mechanism. But they are unhealthy, unrepresentative, and unreliable. They induce paranoia and delirium.

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