"US liberals’ hysteria outlives Trump"
Triumph of the Professional Class
by Thomas Frank
Le Monde diplomatique (August, 2021)
Donald Trump may be gone, for now, but an unanswered question remains. Why exactly did the 45th president of the United States induce such fear and loathing among the nation’s highly educated elite?
Zach Gibson · AFP · Getty
Just how bad a president was Donald Trump? The question is important for assessing the extraordinary wave of hysterical rhetoric that came to dominate American culture over the last five years.
He was a terrible leader: prejudiced, self-absorbed, incapable of empathy, in love with his own image, clueless about what the job entailed. He lied constantly, even in easily checked public statements. He was a demagogue who only pretended to care about working people. He used the nation’s highest office to enrich himself and his supporters. He allowed private industries to rewrite regulatory rules however they chose. He regarded as illegitimate any election that did not result in a clear victory for him.
With the exception of the last item, each of these statements would also describe traits Trump shared with many other politicians over the last 50 years — including presidents who went far beyond him in their destructive use of the office’s power. Ronald Reagan deregulated the financial system, permitted monopolies to return, smashed the power of organised labour and even tried to privatise US foreign policy; George W Bush started a major war on false pretences and began a programme of domestic surveillance that is still expanding. Richard Nixon: well, you can look that one up yourself.
These were capable men, advancing on long-sought party objectives by coldly rational means. Trump, by contrast, was incompetent almost beyond belief, a fool raging at forces he did not understand. Yes, he got a big tax cut through Congress and was able to appoint a lot of judges, but other than that, he achieved little of consequence in the traditional sense. A supposed strongman awaiting his opportunity to seize control, he basically did nothing when a real national emergency arrived with the Covid pandemic, and instead turned matters over to the states and private sector. When protests erupted in city after city in summer 2020, he complained about the media. A supposed menace to free speech, he was himself censored when Twitter and Facebook shut his account down.
Given all that, what are we to make of the political culture of the last five years? From 2016 until early this year, American thinkers came together in a handful of leading publications, radio outlets and TV channels to describe Trump as authoritarian, a tyrant, a nuke-crazy warmonger, a fascist, a Nazi, the worst leader of any nation since Hitler. Their hysteria was universal, hegemonic. To be on the left and hold some other interpretation of events was not only impermissible; it was a career-limiting gesture. To refuse hysteria was to silence yourself.
Let’s start with the news story that stood as the essential article of faith in panic-world: the theory that Trump had not only won the presidency thanks to Russian interference but that he himself was effectively the agent of a hostile foreign power. Liberal commentator Keith Olbermann summed up the prevailing fear after the 2016 election when he began his online programme with these frightening words: ‘We are at war with Russia. Or, perhaps more correctly, we have lost a war with Russia without a battle. We are no longer a sovereign nation, we are no longer a democracy, we are no longer a free people. We are the victims of a bloodless coup, so far a bloodless coup, engineered by Russia with at best the traitorous indifference of the Republican Party and Donald John Trump...’ Olbermann was not alone: nearly every prestigious American news outlet once agreed upon this terrifying ‘Manchurian Candidate’ accusation.
Critical elements of the conspiracy-with-Russia hypothesis were never proven; other elements were shown definitely to be wrong. Other examples of gravely inaccurate anti-Trump reporting came by the dozen. Indeed, there were so many of these that Matt Taibbi suggested that the high-speed succession of ‘bombshell’ Trump-outrage news stories — each of them accelerating the audience’s Trump-hysteria, each of them turning out to be misleading in some way, and each of them instantly forgotten when the next bombshell appeared — became the business model for the news industry.
Downpour of denunciation
Last August, the New York Times reported that there were some 1,200 books published about Trump during his time in office: a tropical downpour of denunciation. He was the focus of nearly every major news story; the cable news channels covered his outrageous doings so single-mindedly they often had no time for what was happening in other lands, or even in less exalted reaches of the US. His arrival on the national scene was, for them, as gratifying as for the most committed MAGA (‘Make America Great Again’) fan. Resisting him gave their lives purpose: as the popular Trump-era Internet meme put it, ‘If you ever wondered what you’d do during slavery, the holocaust or the civil rights movement, you’re doing it right now.’
The war against Trump simplified the world, repainted everything in simple, urgent, moral tones. It made the news media into heroes, ‘fighting on the front lines in President Trump’s war on truth’ (as Amazon’s description of one account puts it). It made instant successes out of all manner of political entrepreneurs. And it sold books and newspapers and TV commercials like nobody’s business.
Trump’s administration must be, in words per month in office, the most scrutinised in the nation’s history. However, the corresponding phenomenon of liberal hysteria has largely gone without serious analysis. Yet it was as much a part of the cultural history of the Trump years as Trump himself. In fact, it was arguably more important than the New York loudmouth, since it represented the thoughts and fears of America’s dominant social group, by which I mean its millions of affluent, highly educated professionals — a slice of the population that has done extremely well over the last few decades. And while Trump himself has left the national stage (for now), the white-collar class who so despised him continue on in triumph; their worldview is enshrined today in the all-powerful institutions of Silicon Valley — the financial system, the universities, the media, the nonprofits, the woke corporations and so on.
Leaders of the country's journalistic, financial and scholarly establishments screamed that America was now face to face with ‘anarchy' and ‘repudiation', in the form of a man they depicted as a devil, as a demagogue leading the hayseeds in a movement indistinguishable from a mental illness
The significance of liberal hysteria goes beyond this, however. The Trump era began with outrage at ‘populists’ who didn’t listen to the highly educated and were bringing authoritarianism to America. It has ended in a resounding professional-class triumph in which powerful corporations constantly tell the world what noble antiracists they are... in which the news media is not only post-objective but actively on a crusade to suppress the ideological Other... and in which tiny political missteps not only get people fired but sometimes bring them under a crushing hailstorm of public humiliation.
In the supreme irony of our times, many of the same liberals who were so concerned about Trumpist authoritarianism four years ago have enthusiastically accepted a system of social media censorship in which ideas that contradict the findings of established authorities are in certain cases banished from the public sphere. And they are slowly but clearly coming round to the administration’s proposal to turn the government’s surveillance powers on what is called ‘domestic extremism’. It was fears of Trumpist authoritarianism that made this new, liberal authoritarianism possible.
‘This is how democracy ends’
A remarkable early example of Trump-fear was the work of Amy Siskind, a former Wall Street executive who became an enthusiastic Hillary Clinton fan and then descended into a kind of bottomless horror after Trump won the presidency in November of 2016. Siskind decided to respond to this unthinkable event by writing a sort of comprehensive catalogue of everything Trump did that was shocking or new or, as she put it, ‘not normal’. Why embark upon such a project? Because, Siskind would explain in a statement she repeated each week, ‘Experts in authoritarianism advise [you] to keep a list of things subtly changing around you, so you’ll remember.’ The purpose of such a list, she asserted, was a sort of instruction book for national redemption, charting ‘a trail map for us to follow back to normalcy and democracy’. Alternatively, it was simply to document our downfall: ‘This is how democracy ends’, as a subtitle on her web page puts it.
The method was to compile a stream-of-consciousness chronicle of Trump’s repugnancy, his every attack on ‘norms’. And so, every Sunday, Siskind would publish an index of alarming news items that caught her eye; as she warmed to her project, she noticed more and more alarming headlines, causing her list to swell from a mere nine items in its first instalment (November 2016) to an encyclopaedic accounting of 370 distinct outrages in one week in December 2020. Siskind’s project grew so popular that it was issued as a book, The List: A Week-by-Week Reckoning of Trump’s First Year.
Along the way, preserving ‘norms’ came to be the central concern of the liberal mind. And just look at the ‘changes’ Siskind objected to! In addition to the usual items (Trump’s vulgarity, his supposed collusion with Russia), they include the unremarkable (officials resigning) and the politically retrograde (criticising the Senate filibuster rule was outrageous because it was a ‘long-time norm’).
Siskind’s innovation was to stand before this succession of heart-pounding end-of-the-world news dispatches and to writhe in agony at every single one — as though the news outlets, Twitter accounts and TV shows that were her sources could not possibly have any agenda other than transparent truth-telling. Her total cynicism toward Donald Trump, in other words, was made possible by an attitude of almost total credulity toward the news media — and as the shocking items pile up, we the readers follow her up this Everest of panic and horror.
At every step in this frantic unfurling, liberal hysteria went hand-in-hand with expertise. Making such a list, you will recall, was an exercise supposedly prescribed by ‘experts in authoritarianism’, and as Siskind surveys our landscape of tragically shattered norms, she encounters such experts everywhere: experts being outrageously flouted by Trump, experts attesting to Trump’s outrageousness, and so on. They are the frontline soldiers in this modern war against dictatorship. Even medical practitioners are supposed to know tyranny when they see it. When Siskind goes to see an endodontist about a cracked tooth, the specialist immediately tells her, ‘This is what happens in dictatorships. You’re screaming in your sleep!’
Alex Wong · Getty
Fight with whatever means
Siskind was not wrong to associate experts with hysteria. For them, the rise of Trump represented the repudiation of their class, and he was to be fought as one fights the class enemy — desperately, and with whatever means are at hand.
Curiously enough, one group of experts who emerged as leaders of the hysteria were experts on Eastern Europe, where authoritarianism has a long history and Russian nefariousness is a known quantity. The Yale historian Timothy Snyder, an expert on Nazis and Soviets, wrote a mega-bestseller in 2017 called On Tyranny, in which he repeatedly compared Trump’s rhetoric to Hitler’s: the Nazi leader liked the word ‘struggles’, Snyder tells us, while Trump likes the word ‘winning’. Also, Nazis hated the press and Trump loves to denounce ‘fake news’ (unfortunately, Snyder himself uses the phrase a mere six pages after making this argument). Then there is this tasteful passage linking Trump to the holocaust. ‘When exactly was the “again” in the president’s slogan Make America Great Again?’ the eminent scholar asks, apparently unaware that Trump swiped the slogan from Ronald Reagan. ‘Hint: it is the same “again” that we find in “Never again”.’
Snyder may be a high-ranking academic, but On Tyranny was actually part of a low and familiar American genre: a how-to handbook for hard times, drawn from history’s most heroic episodes. Each short chapter offers the reader tips on what to do as Trump’s iron grip tightens: stand up to bad guys like Winston Churchill did. Make friends like people did in Communist Poland. Honour and trust journalists (except when they print the emails of Democratic Party officials, in which case Snyder sees them as proto-totalitarians).
My intention here is not to ding Snyder for resorting to the cheapest of political slurs — equating his adversaries with Nazis. Everyone did those things in the Trump years, and besides, his book was perceptive in some remarkable ways. When Snyder warned in 2017 that we may be entering a ‘culture of denunciation’, he was completely right — except it was liberals on the Internet, not Donald Trump, who would soon be furiously demanding the defenestration of the unrighteous. When Snyder foresaw ‘the suspension of freedom of expression’, it was another bullseye — except that the censors who accomplished his prophecy were the friendly social media monopolies, not the Trump regime.
‘A certain kind of power’
At one point in his handbook for resisting the coming dictatorship, Snyder addresses himself to professionals, imploring them to start thinking of themselves as a class, which he suggests would allow them to wield ‘a certain kind of power’.
This kind of invocation is actually a persistent theme in the hysteria corpus: the only way to stop what was called ‘authoritarianism’ was to reinforce the power of society’s traditional authorities — its authorised authorities, if you will — by which I mean the highly educated cohort who make up our commentary class, our professors, journalistic elite, financiers, doctors, our law school deans, tech geniuses and so on. In the hysteria school, there is nothing to be feared from the exercise of power by this group of authorities; indeed, even if we have to use censorship and surveillance to force people to accept authorised authority, it will be a fair and tolerant course of action.
This idea was elaborated in countless ways during the Trump era. Trump is what you get when you doubt authorities, authorities would write. The variations on the theme were endless, and all of them came together on the essential point: respect your betters. Or else.
One thing that happens when the rightful elite is displaced is the Twilight of Democracy, as the title of a 2020 book by the writer Anne Applebaum would have it. What had brought the world to the awful state of which Trump was the symbol, Applebaum declared, was a sort of Big Chill among society’s rightful ruling elite. She fondly remembered the days when the intellectuals were all together, when her friends agreed on the benevolence of globalisation and the market and everyone was high on the ecstasy of neoliberal unanimity. Ah, but nowadays certain ‘members of the intellectual and educated elite’, including sadly some of Applebaum’s friends, are arguing against ‘the rest of the intellectual and educated elite’.
The problem of a wrong-thinking or illegitimate elite is a tricky one, and two of the words Applebaum toys with when describing its rise are ‘treason’ and ‘betrayal’, both of which she draws from a famous book from 1927 (1). I’m still not entirely clear on why it is so awful or even remarkable that educated people don’t agree with one another, but apparently it has to do with the sacred doctrine of ‘meritocracy’, which is the right way for a society to choose its elite, and which gives you an elite that believes everything that Applebaum believes — meaning straight-up Washington Post editorial-page boilerplate. Applebaum means that when intellectuals believe things other than 1999-style market euphoria, they are doing nothing less than betraying meritocracy, betraying their calling as intellectuals.
Narcissism, not calculations
None of the hysteria-mongers I have described here takes seriously the issues or social forces that actually convinced people to make Donald Trump president. Then again, these writers hardly needed to bother. The literature on the MAGA movement was enormous, and among well-educated people its conclusions were universally known: Trump voters were white working-class people motivated by racist fears about their declining status. Everyone who could turn on a TV set in the Trump years knew this. The thoughts and fears of Trump voters were not something a well-educated person needed seriously to consider.
But what about the well educated themselves? What propelled the anti-Trump hysteria I have described here? It wasn’t that hysteria reflected reality. The characteristic liberal fears of the Trump years — that Russian domination, censorship and dictatorship were on the way — all turned out to be fantasies. The overriding characteristics of Trump’s presidency were narcissism and incompetence, not wily calculation. He missed several golden opportunities for strongman power-grabs that other presidents would have jumped at. Meanwhile, the nation’s handful of strong newspapers grew even stronger during his reign. The mainstream press proudly abandoned objectivity in news stories so that enhanced truths might be told instead. Liberals embraced the leaders of the surveillance state and decided they supported cracking down on fringe political views.
Democratic Party leaders, for their part, clearly never took the hysteria among their supporters as anything more than rhetoric. Democrats in Congress had no problem voting for grotesque military budgets when Trump was president — as some pointed out at the time, this would be a suicidal move if you sincerely thought the man was plotting another Holocaust. Apart from putting up a fence around the Capitol Building and beefing up the Capitol police, Democrats have taken no real action to prevent possible outbreaks of authoritarianism in the future.
(Compare this to the aftermath of Richard Nixon’s administration, when members of both parties voted in a far-reaching set of reforms designed to restrict the power of the presidency and to get corporate money out of politics.)
So what is the social function of hysterical episodes like the one from which we are just emerging? Why does America love to get hysterical from time to time?
There are easy answers, of course. Hysteria is fun. People feel heroic when they’re told they’re the last, lone hope of civilisation, or that they’re part of the ‘resistance’, or that they’re helping to rescue democracy itself from a fate worse than Hitler. Hysteria sells. Books become bestsellers. Political groups grow enormously wealthy. People stare at the TV set all day long, getting radicalised by CNN or by Fox News. Hysteria confuses. It disorients people. It makes critical thinking impossible as a nation of individualists learns to move with the herd. Most importantly, hysteria motivates. With both sides preaching the end of the world, the 2020 election saw the highest voter turnout since 1900.
Maybe, for these reasons, hysteria is simply how elections are fought nowadays, and perhaps it’s a good thing that liberals have now figured it out as well. After all, the boring and elderly centrist who led the Democratic ticket in 2020 was hardly able to generate enthusiasm on his own. It took hysteria to put Joe Biden in the White House — and yet Biden is, by any standard, a far better president than Trump. So: perhaps I should be thankful to a culture that deals in constant hyperbole and fascism-fears.
But the hysteria I have described here is something highly specific. It is a phenomenon not merely of TV propaganda organs but of serious thinkers. And consider the actual elements of the nightmare: the fear that ignorance is on the march; that ordinary Americans have lost their respect for norms, institutions, and elites; that civilisation itself is menaced by the authoritarian urges of the lower orders. As it happens, this exact set of fears has swept over us before, stoked by financiers, newspaper barons, academics and the white-collar elite into a roaring bonfire of hysteria. In neither case do we need to study Nazi Germany in order to understand this dynamic; instead we need merely to look at the two such seasons of hysteria I describe in my book The People, No when the country yielded to a paroxysm of panic over working-class insolence, which is to say, over ‘populism’.
The war against Trump simplified the world, repainted everything in clear, urgent, moral tones. It made the news media into heroes, and instant successes of all manner of political entrepreneurs. And it sold books and newspapers and TV commercials like nobody's business
The first of these came in the summer of 1896, when the labour-oriented political party called the Populists nominated for the presidency a denouncer of elites named William Jennings Bryan, who had also been nominated by the Democrats. With these two parties united behind a vaguely leftwing candidate, the chances seemed good that Bryan would win and fulfil his campaign promise to smash the norm that underpinned everything else — to take America off the gold standard. Gasp. Hysteria reigned. Leaders of the country’s journalistic, financial, and scholarly establishments screamed that America was now face to face with ‘Anarchy’ and ‘Repudiation’, in the form of a man they depicted as a devil, as a revolutionary, as a Jacobin, as a demagogue leading the hayseeds in a movement that was indistinguishable from a mental illness. Prominent members of Bryan’s own Democratic Party joined the fight against him. The hatred of Bryan among eastern elites was almost unanimous, because they despised what they thought he represented: the rejection of financial orthodoxy and with it their own towering status as the nation’s owners.
It happened all over again in the mid-1930s, as America’s experiment with social democracy gathered speed. President Franklin Roosevelt, elected in the depths of the Great Depression in 1932, had given jobs to the jobless, regulated Wall Street, legitimised labour unions, and had actually taken the country off the gold standard. For the nation’s establishment, Roosevelt was a nightmare come true. Hysteria reigned again as the nation’s journalistic, financial, business, legal and economic elites came together to spread the most incredible accusations against the president. He was a dictator, a communist, a fascist, a madman, a demagogue. He was destroying liberty and razing the greatest norm of them all, the American system of free enterprise. Prominent former leaders of Roosevelt’s own party came together against him. The Chicago Tribune, shrieking panic against the president, counted down the days to the 1936 election with page-one announcements reading ‘Only X days remain in which to save your country.’
Donald Trump is obviously no Franklin Roosevelt, and it’s hard to believe he even speaks the same language as William Jennings Bryan, a deeply religious man who despised vulgarity and held a very low opinion of New York real-estate barons. But the opposition to all three of them seems to fit a permanent American pattern, right down to the smallest details: the unanimity among certain high-ranking classes, the concern for ‘norms’ and unwritten traditions, the fears of foreign powers, the endless hyperbole, the embrace of dissenting members of the bad guy’s party.
What is it that brings on these recurring bouts of hysteria? One common thread in each of these outbreaks of hysteria is extreme inequality. In each of the periods I have described, the most hysterical voices arise from some of society’s most privileged classes — in the past, press lords, business leaders, and corporation lawyers; now, the highly educated cohort that exerts hegemonic control over the nation’s media, financial and ‘knowledge’ industries.
A deadly challenge
This elite perceived what was happening in national politics as a deadly challenge to its own status. The threat posed by social democrats like Bryan and Roosevelt was obvious. With Trump, it is not so straightforward. After all, he is no enemy of the rich: on the contrary, he cut their taxes. But he also denounced, in his crass and self-infatuated way, the globalisation talk that has been the central pillar of the white-collar worldview since the 1990s. He said cruel things about Silicon Valley and Wall Street. He claimed to oppose ‘endless war’ and our system of military alliances. And, although he accomplished little on any of these matters, he aroused the fury of millions of white, working-class people, who have been the bane of the enlightened elite’s comfortable philosophy since the 1960s.
The anti-Trump thinkers I have quoted know that the society over which they and their friends preside is not a healthy one. They know that millions of ordinary Americans despise the well educated elite.
Why? Look at the opioid epidemic that raged through middle America in the years before 2016 — a gift of Big Pharma and the medical profession. Look at the deindustrialisation that afflicted the same geographic areas — a product of our brilliant free trade deals. Look at the global financial crisis and the bailouts — the deeds of America’s greatest maths and financial geniuses, who faced almost no consequences for their actions. Look at the Iraq War — the toast of the foreign policy establishment. Look at the incredible fact that American life expectancy was actually declining in the years before 2017 rather than increasing.
Trump did nothing to solve any of these problems. But everyone knows they exist. One side talks, lectures, scolds and instructs, and the other side — silent by definition these days — seethes with resentment. Everyone knows this awful dynamic had a role in elevating the racist demagogue Trump to the presidency. Everyone also knows this country is primed to explode. ‘Cultural symbols, produced and manufactured by coastal elites, are pumped out over the airwaves to Flyover Country,’ writes essayist Anusar Farooqui, who is known online as the Policy Tensor. ‘Since this is a one-way traffic, you have this deep structure where the working class watches, from its redoubts in the countryside and distant exurbs, its culture ridiculed in sullen, enforced silence. This is the constantly churning motor that has reliably reproduced, indeed enhanced, class resentment...’
There are two possible ways of dealing with this situation. On one hand, liberals can demand the obvious material actions that are necessary to heal this society. For starters we must reform America’s racist police forces and its racist criminal justice system. But we must go much further. Americans have to be able to form unions again, and start businesses, and go to college without fear of crippling debt, and also to make a good living even if they didn’t go to college at all. President Biden’s directive in July to begin enforcing antitrust laws again is a huge step in this direction.
Should we recoil in disgust?
The other alternative is to double down on what we might call liberal authoritarianism: to recoil in disgust at a country that doesn’t live up to our enlightened standards and dream up ways to require its people to accept authorised authority: to censor the utterances of these wicked Americans, to call down ostracism on them, to force them to accept our vision of the world.
Anti-Trump hysteria is often regarded as having been a progressive development, a rebirth of left politics, even. But it was also, potentially, the path to liberal authoritarianism. Four years of Trump hysteria have soured the liberals’ enchanted vision of the US. America, they tell us again and again these days, is a fundamentally wicked land. Economic reforms are a chump’s game. What America requires now, they say, is discipline.
Longing for the dictatorship of the expertariat is just a slightly more vivid expression of the authoritarian tendencies that now, post-Trump, make up more and more of the liberal faith. Look around at American politics today and you will see prominent lawyers expressing their disgust with free speech. You will find banks and defence contractors declaring their allyship with the oppressed, liberal legislators pushing for censorship on social media, and everywhere a belief in the essential villainy of the white, working-class population. These are the views of an elite that now regards as intolerable many of the millions over whom it presides. The only norms that matter, it now seems, are the ones that keep the right people on top.
Thomas Frank is a journalist and the author of The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2020.