It’s difficult, lately, for any given week’s news cycle to stand out as having been particularly grotesque. In fact I’m not even sure that this week’s news was that far above the grotesquery baseline. But it caught my attention. Not because it revealed anything terribly new about the state of the modern world, but because it shed a bit of much-needed light on the absurdity, in the existential sense, of my own position. More specifically, it illuminated the patent absurdity of my politics. Politics which I am in no way about to abandon. Let me try to explain.
My intellectual idol is a man I’ve never met. His name is Joshua Foa Dienstag, he’s a current professor of political science at UCLA, and his book, simply entitled Pessimism, is a kind of personal bible for me. I could (and undoubtedly will) talk about it at length, but in the simplest possible terms he provides a gorgeous definition and defense of philosophical pessimism. You get your usual suspects – your Schopenhauer, your Nietzsche – but also quite a bit on lesser-known guys (Giacomo Leopardi will never be the household name that he ought to be), as well as a long, fascinating section on Cervantes. Dienstag unpacks Don Quixote as a thoroughly pessimistic exploration of the doomed collision between romantic idealism and the actual world of human beings (a premise that I’m probably oversimplifying horribly). It’s worth your time, all of it, but it’s the man from La Mancha that I’m feeling lately. I’m starting to wonder, seriously, whether I don’t need to go get a chamber pot for a helmet and start looking for a windmill. Get it over with, as it were.
What I’m talking about is the goddamn American culture war, which is a historic feat of monumental idiocy to rival any that has come before, and I am absolutely including the First World War in that evaluative formula. One of the world’s truly great (if wildly imperfect) empires is in the process of devouring itself from the inside out, and it’s far too late to stop it. I’ll state that straight off: this post won’t end with any hopeful prescription, so don’t expect it. We’re pretty much fucked on this one, guys. What follows, rather, will be a short and bitter tirade on the contours of the disaster, nothing more.
So what was in the news? There were three items, each of which is familiar enough as to require little explanation from me. First, of course, was the arrest of Jeffrey Epstein. Now, you may argue, and you’d have a point, that this is actually a hopeful sign. Epstein, after all, was arrested eleven years ago on similar charges and basically skated. And I do salute, earnestly, the prosecutors of the Southern District of New York for reeling the asshole back in. That was brave, and necessary, and nothing about the case looks good for him or any of the people in his depraved orbit. But the fervent hope of so many, the hope that Epstein’s obvious and well-documented tie-ins to President Trump will somehow blow back meaningfully on the current administration, will almost certainly be dashed. The very real possibility of our president being a child rapist has aroused not even a murmur among the party faithful. It is, in fact, assumed. It’s been priced in, and everyone’s basically cool with it.
Okay, that’s probably a little bit of an exaggeration. Nobody’s cool with it per se. It’s just that for Trump’s base, it isn’t very important next to the thing that really matters, which is Trump’s ability to torment the liberal enemy. Nothing Trump can possibly do is more important than that. In fact, it’s the other way around. Trump’s various depravities may be icky in the abstract, but you’ve got to admit, they get the job done (the job, of course, being the arousal of liberal ire). There’s no question, at this point, of whether Trump will ever finally land on a transgression that offends his base. His transgressions have become the point.
Which goes to the second item: the continuing, heartrending accounts of misery emerging from immigrant detention centers along our Southern border. It’s more or less the same thing going on. I’m sure that here and there you can find a diehard racist vile enough to viscerally enjoy the suffering of non-white children. I don’t doubt that a handful of those guys exist. But I don’t believe (and it’s not necessary to believe) that this is half the American electorate. It’s just that this is war. There is collateral damage in war. You don’t, goes the thinking, have to enjoy children suffering in a detention center anymore than you enjoy children being accidentally incinerated in a drone strike somewhere. But through that lens, it’s more or less the same thing. It’s worth it if it gets the other side (that’s you, by the way, most of my dear readers; the other side is you) upset, which it does. It’s a grim tactic, but it’s a tactic. And in that sense, it’s just more of the same old thing.
No, the interesting item is the third one, which is Trump administration’s most recent court challenge to the Affordable Care Act. I won’t dig into the technicalities of the latest go-round but suffice to say that the current challenge doesn’t even have that much support in conservative circles. A fair number of politicians on the right have come to the realization that actually unwinding the ACA would be far more pain than it’s worth. Far better to have it there, complain about it, run against it symbolically, but never actually repeal it. It’s a tried and true formula after all – it’s worked for most federal programs, for decades. It’s a comfortable detente that everyone should be able to get behind, right?
Wrong. Trump, somehow, gets the deeper gestalt, and there’s a cynical fringe around him that gets it too. They perceive the same thing that those other guys do: they’re perfectly aware that repealing the ACA would have the same net effect that refusing to expand Medicare has had in deep-red states like Tennessee. Namely, they’re aware that the people most deeply hurt will be the lower end of the middle class, and the aging, working poor. In other words, the Republican base.
And that’s the point.
I know, right? Why would they deliberately devastate their own base? Surely this is political suicide! Except that it’ll totally work. It already has.
Simple question: who switched political sides in Tennessee when poor, diabetic meemaw lost her last foot? Simple answer: nobody. We return to our theme from the the Bojo post. The base doesn’t understand what the fuck is going on. All you have to do is tell them it was the bad guys (remember, that’s you). They don’t know. They don’t have the cognitive equipment. You don’t even have to make an argument, because they can’t process arguments. That was dealt with years ago, by depriving their communities of appropriate education and keeping enough of them in poverty that just keeping their heads above water was guaranteed to keep them out of the library. It makes perfect sense for the right to hurt their own base. It’s easier than hurting the left wing base. Those kids get angry, they protest and make noise. The base on the right cheers, and the ones who don’t die make the cause that much stronger.
See, that’s the power of a good culture war. You don’t have to prove a goddamn thing, not with that powerful combination of ignorance and confirmation bias on your side. You can do anything you want, so long as you feed the narrative. And the narrative gets stronger every day.
It does for you too, dear reader. Because admit it, the deplorables are only getting that much more deplorable. I mean, look at them – cheering over child abuse, gleefully voting for their own degeneration. What’s left to relate to? What common ground? There is none. You just get more frightened, more disgusted. As do they.
So back to me and my windmill. What am I gonna do? What force am I supposed to martial against that kind of tide? Sitting around with my heavyweight book citations and my words. I stand by what I said a few posts back, that the culture war can’t be won. It can be lost, though, gradually, and by both sides. Which isn’t exactly a hope. It’s just the only conceivable denouement, somewhere down a long and bitter road. And a guy who uses words like “denouement” isn’t going to change that one bit.