Trump Made People Feel Brave Again
His supporters made him a general in the culture wars. But that’s not a job for the president.
|Paul Miller||Nov 19, 2020|| 102||204|
In March 2014, Brendan Eich was appointed CEO of the Mozilla Corporation. Eich was well-qualified for the position—he had co-founded the company and served as its chief technical officer. Yet his tenure lasted less than two weeks.
Eich was forced to resign not for any corporate malfeasance or personal scandal. Instead, he was targeted by progressives for prior political activity. In 2008, Eich had donated money to support California’s Proposition 8, a proposed law to define marriage as heterosexual union. LGTBQ activists advertised his opposition to same-sex marriage, created a petition to demand his resignation, and urged users to boycott Mozilla’s web browser. They succeeded.
I remember Eich’s cancellation clearly because it was the moment I internalized fear for my job security, when I understood that my ability to raise children, send them to a decent school, and pay my bills was contingent on not offending progressive orthodoxies. It was less about the specifics of gay marriage and more that I understood it was not safe, economically, to express conservative political or religious views. Adherence to progressive ideology—ideas that go far beyond the now-settled issue of gay marriage—was becoming a basic prerequisite for employment and economic mobility.
I’ve come back to this incident again and again as a key to understanding the right’s embrace of Donald Trump.
Eich’s case was not an aberration. Progressive cancel culture around a wide range of issues—not just gay marriage—became so pervasive that, like all revolutions, it began to eat its own. Conservatives were not the only ones targeted: progressive activists themselves were harassed, ostracized, humiliated, or fired for not being progressive enough.
This movement became so illiberal and authoritarian that scores of public intellectuals—mostly left-leaning—signed an open letter in Harper’s Magazine in the summer of 2020. They warned against the increasing prevalence of “censoriousness [that] is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” Predictably, many of the signatories were harassed, criticized, and shamed.
This kind of activism amounts to economic terrorism. When you engage in this sort of activism, you are not trying to persuade: you are trying to intimidate, bully, and harass. You are threatening someone’s livelihood for the sin of believing different things. It is simply astonishing how many people believe the right response to encountering different views is to conclude, “I must get this person fired from his job.”
The impulse behind this kind of activism is fundamentally illiberal. It is a kind of intellectual authoritarianism, a rejection of pluralism, a demand for conformity without consent. It is, at root, un-American.
I opposed Donald Trump’s candidacy. I didn’t vote for him; I warned he had fascistic tendencies; I signed one of the open letters against him from Republican national security leaders; and I called for his impeachment and conviction for his administration’s demonstrable criminality. Trump’s presidency mostly vindicated my concerns and I would do it all again if given the chance.
But I have tried to understand why so many of my erstwhile friends, colleagues, and fellow right-wingers embraced the man, and embraced him so uncritically and enthusiastically. After years of conversation and study, I’ve concluded that he had an intuitive, emotional, visceral appeal to many Americans.
Trump made people feel brave again.
Trump railed against political correctness. He ignored progressive orthodoxies. Not only did he not care, he positively delighted in trolling the libs with offensive speech. He didn’t care when people called him racist. He turned the tables and called them racist. He called out critical race theory for what he claimed was its reverse racism, rejected diversity seminars as a form of progressive indoctrination, and called for patriotic education.
In his July 3 speech at Mount Rushmore, he said, “In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished.” To many Americans, it was cathartic and liberating to hear someone courageous enough to say this out loud.
In my conversations with friends, family, and perfect strangers about Trump over the years, some refrains popped up over and over again: “He fights for us,” and, “He tells it like it is.” I think when they say, “He fights for us,” they mean, “Trump spoke his mind and got away with it, so we can too.” They mean, “I feel the grip of progressive ideology over our culture has been broken.” They mean, “The tide has been turned. The culture is changing. I feel brave again.”
Is Trump-inspired bravery a good thing?
Let’s dismiss one criticism right away. Yes, the right has its own version of political correctness and has practiced its own cancel culture. Try expressing dissenting views on guns, immigration, or even just Trump himself and you’ll find yourself ostracized from the right. That is true, but immaterial to the point I am making.
Simply pointing out the right’s hypocrisy does not mean the left is innocent or that we should ignore its problems. The left’s illiberality is probably worse because it commands the heights of culture. When the media, academia, Hollywood, and corporate America team up to enforce progressive orthodoxy, they can ostracize people from the mainstream and deny them employment in powerful and prestigious positions. Red America cannot reciprocate proportionately.
But there are three other valid criticisms of the right’s new-found bravery that I want to suggest.
First, Trump did not solve the problem, and it was foolish for anyone to think he would or could. The problem exists in culture, not law, but the presidency is primarily a creature of law. The nationalist right looked to Trump as a general in the culture wars—the first “wartime president” of the culture wars, as some claimed—as if he could defeat wokism if he postured and tweeted hard enough. But while Trump tweeted, COVID burned. Trump’s administrative incompetence proved more consequential than his culture-warrior posturing.
Culture is a broad, deep, mysterious thing. We don’t create a culture by fiat; it does not spring fully formed from the head of the president like Athena from Zeus. It is not the product of government engineering. Culture doesn’t just happen because the government says so. We don’t recuse, redeem, or reclaim the culture by voting for the right team. The president has only a minor and fleeting impact on the shape of our culture. Looking to Trump to win the culture war betrays a shallow, juvenile, insipid understanding of cultural formation.
That is why cancel culture and progressive fundamentalism are just as real today at the end of Trump’s term as they were four years ago. At most, Trump nudged the Overton window of permissible discourse to make it marginally more comfortable for conservatives and nationalists (and racists) to speak their minds. If the extremes of the left are any weaker, it is because of the left’s own pushback against their excesses—which was the point of the Harper’s letter—not because of anything Trump has done.
Second, and relatedly, bravery is just rashness if not matched with prudence. Trump made people feel braver, but bravery is not a virtue in itself. Bravery is good if put to a good cause. Pushing back on political correctness is a good cause. Refusing to wear masks during a pandemic to feel manly is rash, selfish, dangerous, and stupid. Trump made people feel braver, and sometimes they used that bravery to do and say really dumb, offensive things.
Trump himself is the prime example. He pushed back on political correctness by saying racist things. He pushed back on political correctness by bullying, demeaning, and insulting others. He did it with cruelty and spite. He lied and lied and lied, acting the demagogue to construct an alternate reality with alternate facts all so he could damn the liberal media for reporting—accurately—about his criminality, deceit, and incompetence. He demeaned himself and the office of the presidency—all for the sake of owning the libs.
It is true that Trump widened the boundaries of permissible discourse, but the main effect has been to let in a wide swath of crude, cruel, and bigoted speech. The right essentially decided that racism was more acceptable than political correctness.
I loathe political correctness and cancel culture. But you will have a hard time convincing me Trump’s cure was not worse than the disease.
Finally, there is something unsettling about looking to an elected public official to validate your feelings. To be blunt, needing a president to make you feel brave is infantile. Our sense of bravery and self-worth should come from family, church, work, community, and above all from God. Learning to navigate the world and cope with its challenges is a basic part of growing up. When we look to the president for validation, we are treating him as a father figure, a cultural totem, and a religious symbol. This is ridiculous and demeaning. It is, literally, childish.
Mind you, leftists do this all the time, from Wilson to Obama, which is why they demand ritual lip service to their various orthodoxies from all their aspiring candidates. But just because the left does it doesn’t make it right.
I understand that the presidency is a natural focal point of national attention. We almost instinctively expect the president to reflect our image of national identity. This can be a good thing in times of crisis and war, and good presidents can rally patriotism, service, and sacrifice.
Notably, Trump failed to do that when confronted with the greatest national crisis in generations. And I think part of his failure to deal with the pandemic is precisely because he was too fixated on being a symbol of one side in the culture war. When we make the president a combatant in the culture war, we undermine his or her ability to act as a unifying symbol when we really need one.
When we vest the office with the responsibility to validate our feelings, reflect our vision of nationhood, and make us feel brave and proud, we cripple its ability to do all the other things presidents should do. We perpetuate the never-ending war to capture the government and make it a tool of cultural engineering.
And, worst of all, we demean ourselves by making our emotional well-being, our sense of self-worth, and our felt permission to say what we really believe depend on the whims of popularity and power. No wonder America is struggling with epidemics of loneliness, depression, and anxiety.
I shared earlier that I internalized a sense of cultural fear after Eich’s resignation—which means that, in a real sense, I am part of the problem. I am ashamed that, for years, I censored myself out of fear of the angry Twitter mob—not because my fear was irrational (the Twitter mob is real and does real damage), but because we should have a greater source of hope, courage, and resilience.
It should not have taken Trump to make people feel brave again.
Unplug, rediscover your inner anchor—probably on your knees, in prayer—and care less about whatever new shibboleths the cultural elite is uttering. We may find that, when the time comes, we do not need to be brave in the face of some new cultural crisis, because our newfound center prevents it from happening in the first place.
Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University.
Photograph by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.