My Facebook feed is a rolling brook of book-lover memes, indie rock videos and links to liberal media, but occasionally the stream eddies around a post from a conservative friend. Yes, I have a few.
One such post distracted me recently, as it was from Vox. “The smug style in American liberalism,” the headline blared. In a long essay studded with links, Deputy First Person Editor Emmett Rensin acknowledged riffing on Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 Harper’s essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” which, Rensin says, “drips with disdain for rubes who regard themselves as victimized by economics and history.”
Hofstadter’s target was “the Goldwater movement,” which he saw rooted in Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the Populist Party and mid-19th-century anti-Catholic bigotry. Rensin’s targets are those who find themselves facing the descendants of Goldwater supporters and who shrug them off as dolts.
He cites examples ranging from liberals’ dismissal of former President George W. Bush – who might have cleverly cultivated disdain, Rensin suggests – to Thomas Frank asking in his 2004 book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” He says progressives congratulate one another for fact-y “knowing” and alienate the working class they once championed. And the payback? “The wages of smug is Trump.”
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Ah, so it’s my fault.
I am tempted to counter, as many have already pointed out, that “establishment” conservatives are being paid in Trump for long cultivating the votes of disaffected white workers without doing them much good. That over the last 20 years, a boisterous right-wing media machine has supplanted traditional gatekeeper media, supplying a different kind of “knowing” in the form of context-free facts and outright falsehoods. Thus Trump. And thus a defensive smugness has settled over some quarters of the right. In the National Review in March, Kevin Williamson disputed that the “white middle class” has taken up for Trump because everyone has neglected them. “Nobody did this to them,” Williamson asserted. “They failed themselves.”
Rensin argues, though, that white middle and working-class voters might be angry for reasons worth considering. And Frank, cited as a negative example in Rensin’s essay, just published “Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People,” in which he argues that Democrats have forsaken the working class while cozying up to financial and academic elites.
Abandonment and contempt
Then comes conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan, returned from semi-, or at least blogging, retirement, to warn us in New York magazine that “Trump is an extinction-level event,” brought about by job-robbing free trade, gateless media and – you guessed it – liberal smugness. “These working-class communities, already alienated, hear – how can they not? – the glib and easy dismissals of ‘white straight men’ as the ultimate source of all our woes,” Sullivan asserts.
If abandonment has been salted with contempt, it has not been one-sided. Most of the right-wing memes I see fester with cruel and unsupported condescension. It’s hard to check disdain of the smugly wrong. Keep in mind, too, that data-drillers at FiveThirtyEight found Trump supporters’ median income is higher than those of Clinton and Sanders supporters. They are angry for other reasons, and liberals being more empathetic will not mollify them.
Let’s concede that some on the left are part of the problem, particularly the “safe space” enforcers who are as inimical to nuance as many on the right. But Sullivan is correct about democracy being in danger. Voter suppression and gerrymandering are two of the biggest threats. But so is the cheap smugness of negative advertising, which will target the millions who might be convinced that Trump is not all that bad. Perhaps stressing facts over emotion – sure, without arrogance – is worth a shot.
Chuck Twardy of Ayden is an instructor in the School of Communication at East Carolina University.