There are economic tensions in the United States, insufficient to explain the election of a petulant egomaniac to the highest office in the land, and there’s an all-out culture war that does explain it.
Donald Trump will become president next week because a sufficient number of Americans have had it with the confining, tiptoeing, politically correct form of speech and interaction favored by liberal elites on the coasts who believe they hold a monopoly on wisdom and the only key to progress.
It’s the culture, stupid.
The issues that afflict the economy — rising inequality, stagnant middle-class incomes, marginalization — are not enough to explain Americans’ decision to leap off a cliff and entrust their fate to a collection of billionaires and ex-generals under the diktat of a thin-skinned showman of conspicuous “cruelty and ignorance,” in the words of Garrison Keillor.
Meryl Streep, in a speech at the Golden Globes awards ceremony, waded into this culture war. She was Hollywood lambasting the people’s choice. Without naming the president-elect, she singled out his cruelty, as expressed in Trump’s mocking imitation during the campaign of a reporter with a disability. They did that in the Middle Ages, you know.
Trump, goaded, is like a child whose candy has been taken away. He throws a fit. His version of a scream is a tweet (or in this case several) calling Streep “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood,” and a “Hillary flunky,” and claiming — grotesquely — that he never mocked the reporter, my colleague Serge Kovaleski. Trump finished up with his usual jibe at the “very dishonest media.”
Trump’s psyche is no great riddle. He’s a study in neediness. Adulation is what he craves; admonishment he cannot abide. Trafficking in untruths and conspiracies, he calls the press that he secretly venerates dishonest for pointing this out. That’s called transference. Soon he will have at his disposal far more potent weapons than Twitter to assuage his irascibility and channel his cruelty. It is doubtful that he will resist them over time. There is rational cause for serious alarm. If the world was anchored by America, it is about to be unmoored.
Streep did an important thing in pointing to how Trump’s bullying allows open season for everyone’s inner bigot. A time of violence is upon us. She did another important thing in saying that, “We need the principled press to hold power to account.” If Trump sees himself as America’s “voice,” every countervoice is needed, loud and clear and persistent.
But will Streep’s words have any impact with Trump’s tens of millions of supporters, or will they redouble these people’s anger toward elites in Hollywood and other centers of dogmatic liberalism?
Meghan McCain, a conservative commentator and daughter of Senator John McCain, tweeted that, “This Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won. And if people in Hollywood don’t start recognizing why and how — you will get him re-elected.” She has a point. Trump lost the popular vote in November by 2.8 million. But outside California and New York, he won by 3 million. That’s America’s story in a nutshell.
Getting America out of its mess begins with the acknowledgment that New York and California do not have a stranglehold on truth, any more than Kansas and Missouri do. Out there in God-fearing gun country there are plenty of smart, upstanding Americans who, as Mark Lilla of Columbia University put it, paraphrasing Bernie Sanders, are “sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.”
Lilla, in the same important piece, identified the “moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message” as a principal cause of the Democrats’ defeat; and he also called out a “generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups” — specifically the working-class whites who voted overwhelmingly for Trump.
For this, of course, Lilla was widely vilified by the thought police of identity politics. His colleague at Columbia University, Katherine Franke, suggested he was doing the “nefarious background work of making white supremacy respectable. Again.” That’s an outrageous allegation but not one untypical of our times.
It’s not only the alt-right that wants to silence dissenting views. The alt-left is in full mobilization. Trump is a travesty. But just denouncing him without understanding him leads nowhere. As Michael Wolff pointed out in Newsweek, where liberals see an attack on free speech, Trump supporters see the media stifling “real speech.”
The weeks since Nov. 8 have demonstrated Trump’s contempt for his supporters. He wants to “drain the swamp” through nepotism, empower the marginalized through the coddling of the superrich, and toss the ethics of hard-working heartland Americans out the window of that gold-daubed apartment atop his tower. It’s been a stomach-turning display.
With time, more Americans will side with Streep. They will see that a mean, shallow actor has duped them. But to finish with Trump, liberals will also have to reckon with how they lost sight of their country.