HYSTERIA IN SUBURBIA
Joe Biden also owes his election victory to a majority in wealthy U.S. counties with the best colleges. Their electorate, which long ago defected from the Republicans to the Democrats, is now crying out in shrill tones for censorship to be exercised by Facebook and Twitter.
By Thomas Frank
[This article published on Feb 11, 2021 is translated from the German on the Internet, Hysterie in Suburbia (monde-diplomatique.de).]
The duty of every U.S. citizen, President Joe Biden proclaimed at his swearing-in ceremony, is to "defend the truth and fight the lies." Much of Biden's speech was a stodgy collection of patriotic platitudes anyway, but this call for a great crusade for truth was of unparalleled audacity.
It is no accident that the traveling circus, the PR industry, and televangelism were invented in the United States. Our leading scholars are disciples of post-structuralism; our best college graduates are recruited by the CIA; our best newspapers blur the line between reporting and opinion; our most influential political actors are the spin doctors whose job is to bend the facts this way and that.
Biden, of course, had none of this in mind when he called for a great national search for truth. He was concerned with only one person, Donald Trump, who has said more crap than any of his predecessors in the Oval Office. Let's just look at his record over the past few months: After losing the Nov. 3 election, he refused to acknowledge his defeat and instead launched one absurd lawsuit after another, accusing people of stealing his reelection - using methods that were never specified. Ambitious young Republicans went along with this nonsense and demonstratively encouraged Trump in his outlandish theories.
The barrel overflowed when, on Jan. 6, the president-elect called on his core supporters to march to the Capitol, where final election formalities were underway. The whole thing ended, as the world now knows, with a mob attacking the U.S. Congress, in the halls of which some of the attackers posed with buffalo horns, painted faces and tricorns.
Call for a national search for truth
Quite a few filmed themselves in the marble halls and corridors, others waved the Confederate flag of the Southern states and the Gadsden flag of the American Revolution era, popular today especially among right-wingers, or held up posters they had painted themselves with Bible verses. They talked about assassinating politicians and beat a police officer to death. It's always shocking when people with idiotic ideas of radical right-wing provenance do nasty things. But in this case, those who stormed the Capitol succeeded in something no one has done in a long time: they awakened a sense of shame in the Republican Party. Republican members of Congress turned on the president and party colleagues by the dozen, still questioning the election results. Twitter suspended its most prominent customer, Donald J. Trump, and Congress opened a second impeachment trial against him. And then came the most brutal blow: the New York banking giants announced they would suspend their campaign contributions to representatives of a party whose main goal had always been to make law and order subservient to those very same big banks.
These are huge changes. But what do they mean? For the past decade, political pundits have been proclaiming that the end of conservatism, Reaganism, and the Republican Party was imminent.
The question now is whether these predictions will come true after the violence of January 6 and Trumpism will dissolve into madness.
To answer that question, it is not enough to be upset about the Republicans' recent outrages. If we are truly committed to the truth, as Biden urges, we must look at the Trump era as a whole, and in particular at those voters who have defected from the Republican to the Democratic Party in recent decades. I happen to know this sort of my fellow countrymen very well: they are cultured and well
educated people who live in the wealthiest suburbs in the country, and for whom modern life consists only of glitzy events and amenities.
In the hundred counties with the highest average education level, 84 percent voted for Biden on Nov. 3, according to the Wall Street Journal. In the hundred counties with the highest median income, 57 percent did.1 In these constituencies, both educated and affluent, Republicans won overwhelmingly 30 years ago.
This shift is often tied to the economic data of regions that vote predominantly Democratic or Republican. Hillary Clinton did the math in 2016, boasting that despite losing the presidential election, she nevertheless represented the "most dynamic" regions of the U.S., which collectively "account for two-thirds of the gross domestic product." Joe Biden even topped Clinton. In the constituencies won by Democrats in November 2020, 71 percent of the nation's economic activity takes place, compared to only 29 percent in Trump country.2
I myself grew up in one of these affluent areas. Johnson County borders Kansas City to the east, and its large-scale suburban developments are a desirable residential area for the white middle class. Although my family didn't have a lot of money, we lived in what was by far the wealthiest county in Kansas, home to mostly lawyers, doctors, and architects who sent their children to excellent public schools.
These people worked in fancy office buildings; they went shopping in gigantic glitzy shopping malls and spent their leisure time on manicured golf courses; they dined in luxury restaurants and lived in super-modern mansion estates that stretched for miles into the prairie. As a teenager, I would drive my car down six-lane boulevards to punk rock at maximum volume and make fun of the bourgeois swagger with my friends.
We mocked these people because they were the ruling class. Johnson County was rich, white, dominant - and one of the strongest Republican strongholds in the entire United States. In my youth, Republicans literally seemed to control every office, win every election, and call the shots everywhere.
The county had not voted for a Democrat since 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson was elected to the White House the second time. Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were despised here, but the Communist-eater Barry Goldwater, with whom Republicans suffered a resounding defeat to Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 presidential election, was beloved.
But in November 2020, the winds finally shifted again in Johnson County, and 53 percent of eligible voters cast ballots for Democrat Joe Biden, who, however, only won against Trump in 5 of 105 counties across Kansas. Driving around my old neighborhood before Election Day, I saw numerous "Black Lives Matter" signs in front yards and even a homemade Statue of Liberty holding a placard, "Please Save Me! Save Democracy!"
Not that much has changed here. Johnson County is still predominantly white, distinctly business-friendly and very wealthy. Young people still attend good colleges, real estate prices are high, and the pseudo-manorial palaces still stand. Their well-heeled owners alone today identify themselves as empathetic contemporaries who greet passers-by with slogans such as "Women's rights are human rights," "Science is real" or "Love is love" on their front yard signs.
In the race for one of Kansas' two Senate seats last November, a Johnson County woman ran for the Democrats against a Republican from the western part of the state. Barbara Bollier spent million on her campaign, four times more than her rival Roger Marshall's million. Bollier lost, but the crucial fact remains that such asymmetrical campaign spending would have been unthinkable not long ago.
Coalition of the appalled
Business support for Republicans has always been one of the immovable landmarks of the U.S. party landscape. This is the only way to understand our entire system. This fact also explains why Republicans have governed this way and not another, why they believe fervently in markets, why their representatives leave politics to become lobbyists. And it explains, of course, why Republicans have always been able to spend so much more money than Democrats in election campaigns.
But just not this time. Donald Trump has followed the Republican script to the letter. During his time in office, he gave fantastic gifts to business leaders, from tax cuts to favors for environmental sins. But it wasn't enough.
Career politician Joe Biden was able to collect and spend .6 billion in donations, while the real estate tycoon was able to collect and spend only .1 billion. Large parts of Wall Street and Silicon Vally also apparently sided with the Democrats: all five GAFAM companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) appear in the top group of Biden's donation list. Trump, on the other hand, found the most supporters among legacy industries agribusiness, the coal industry, and oil and gas companies.
The ranks against Trump were nearly closed in the industries that stand for culture and education: The entertainment industry hated him, the high-tech industry and academia hated him. Moreover, he was hated by foreign policy experts, by intelligence officials, by Republicans who had supported the Iraq war, and in the small world of capital correspondents as well as in the wide world of the media.
The biggest joke in this coalition of the horrified was that the CIA was also part of it. Not so long ago, the secret service was the big bogeyman for all peace-loving progressives. All the world knows the long and disturbing list of crimes against democracy committed by the CIA: that it overthrew foreign governments, that it deceived and defrauded people in far-flung regions of the world, and that it worked for all manner of dictatorships.
But in the last four years, the picture has changed completely. Today, progressive U.S. Americans are inclined to pity the intelligence agency because the poor CIA has been slandered and insulted by Trump: The 45th U.S. president had claimed, among other things, that the intelligence agency had exaggerated Russia's influence on the 2016 election. By the end of the Trump era, the affinity between the progressive camp and the intelligence community had become so self-evident that it no longer needed any explanation at all.
Protests against a politician insulting the CIA are a remarkable novelty for practicing leftists. It is surpassed only by the comment ex-CIA chief Michael Hayden made about the conflict between Trump and the intelligence community. "Intelligence is for the truth," Hayden told The Washington Post, "the goal of an intelligence officer is to get as close to the truth as possible. I think we have that in common with the press."
While that's completely silly, it's not entirely wrong. For in the Trump era, the media has indeed increasingly aligned itself with the "intelligence community," as it is called in Washington. Hayden himself hired on as a CNN security "analyst" in 2017, as did former National Intelligence Director James Clapper.
John Brennan, another ex-CIA chief, now works for the NBC TV network. Many former spies followed suit, speculating aloud on TV about "disinformation" and the secret power that Vladimir Putin wielded over Donald Trump.
This brings us to the subject of Russiagate. What was once the most exciting horror story of the Trump years is now just a convoluted story whose details no one cares about anymore. Still, if we are serious about our national search for truth, we need to take another look back.
At the heart of the scandal were the alleged "collusion" allegations, that is, that Trump somehow colluded with the Russian government when it tried to interfere in the 2016 election - or that he was pressured by Moscow. According to this, Donald Trump was not only incompetent or corrupt, but also the agent of a hostile foreign power.
This was the hottest news story of the entire Trump era. It dominated the headlines with the same old shtick: We are on the verge of the most damning revelations - which then somehow never came. Special counsel Robert Mueller, while accusing several Republican officials of other crimes, did not charge any of them with coordinating or conspiring with the Russian government. His March 2019 report concluded, "Ultimately, the investigation did not find that the campaign staff colluded with the Russian government in its activities to influence the election or that there was collusion in that regard. "3
And so Russiagate, the Trump scandal most widely covered by the media, became the ultimate journalism scandal. In their overzealousness to bring down a president they despised, the press had abandoned any pretense of fair and balanced reporting.
But like so many scandals, this one was inconsequential. Hardly any of those who had misreported or distorted the issue were punished for their mistakes. Trump was, after all, objectively speaking, a dumbass. And yet it is disconcerting that, at the moment of their most egregious professional failure, some journalists cast themselves as superheroes, bravely standing up to foreign disinformation scoundrels and to the ideological stranger in the White House.
The most popular historical parallel invoked in the Trump era was the Cold War, that era when democracy was threatened by the sinister power of Russia and upright reporting had to stand up to foreign propaganda. How can we win this new and even worse cold war, this war against truth itself? A hidden clue is provided by the much-discussed New York Times video series entitled: "Operation InfeKtion. Russian Disinformation: From Cold War to Kanye. "4 It seems that in our age of universal surveillance and universal horror, a classic weapon from the Cold War arsenal is becoming hopeful again: censorship.
The flirtation with censorship is ubiquitous in progressive circles these days. In a recent interview, Ira Glasser, the legendary president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), recounted what he witnessed at a law school panel discussion. The view that "social justice for blacks, for women, and generally for all minorities is incompatible with free speech" clearly dominated the ensuing debate contributions from the ethnically diverse audience. Free speech as an adversary?
Indeed, Glasser's anecdote is more than indicative of the current political climate. What certain progressive circles in the U.S. dream of doing these days is not speaking for the common people, but lecturing them. Such "liberals" believe the correct thinkers, the rightfully empowered, the bona fide experts need only join forces with the tech industry to stamp out "disinformation" and false thinking to which the public may be exposed. That is, counterfactual statements, such as Trump's idiotic post-election tweets, would have to be flagged with an appropriate warning label by relevant authorities. Similarly, podcasts conveying fabricated claims or claims that have been exposed as false would have to be thoroughly vetted and, if necessary, deleted from the websites in question.
Before we allow ourselves to be enlisted in the fight to save democracy from the dark machinations of Vladimir Putin, we would do well to recall some basic facts from the early days of the Cold War. In the U.S. at the time, the invention of the "Red Menace" was primarily intended to discredit the Truman administration, which was allegedly riddled with communists, and to shift the political establishment to the right.
The Cold War also changed U.S. society, and not for the better. Back then, professional "redhunters" tracked down so-called subversive elements who then lost their jobs or offices. In this way, the lives of many innocent people were destroyed. Suspicions and accusations could hit practically anyone and everyone in those hysterical times.
The political culture wars of our days are clearly heading in the direction of a similar permanent hysteria. And the mob attack on the Capitol on January 6 only reinforced the climate of fear and suspicion. But how are the roles distributed? Who are the subversive forces today who are allegedly spreading false information and who must be tracked down and eliminated in the name of the nation? Who are the Edgar Hoovers of today, spreading panic and intensifying suppression like the FBI chief of the day?
If Russian disinformation is designed to exploit the "cracks in society," as the New York Times tells us,5 the same could be said of the Times' guest commentary page. So could Twitter and Facebook or CNN and all the other media houses. That's just how the current mass media business model works. That's why they present us with culture wars, day after day, around the clock. Because anger and strife create an audience to which they can sell candy bars and adult diapers.6
This cantankerous mood is not, of course, due solely to disinformation. At the New York Times, they certainly view the culture wars the paper engages in as a mission to enlightenment and sanity. And no doubt conservatives also believe they should have the power to silence the other side, as they did in times past. But at present, the conservative camp does not have the weapons. Cultural legitimacy rests entirely with the Coalition of the Terrified.
The Edgar Hoovers of today
What makes a declaration of cultural war "legitimate," however, is not actually its truth content, for that is sometimes difficult to determine. Rather, legitimacy depends on the reputation of the individual within his or her professional group. Thus, a statement becomes "misinformation" when it comes from an ordinary person without any notable aura, from some crank who criticizes professional luminaries on Twitter and spreads his theories on Reddit.
The problem of misinformation thus becomes another aspect within the general crisis of authority among elites that has preoccupied the progressive camp since Trump's rise. These circles have been whining for five years that the country has lost faith in its designated elites. In that terrible summer of 2016, Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution wrote, "Today, our most pressing political problem is that the country is refusing allegiance to the establishment, not the other way around. "7
What is currently troubling the progressive camp in the United States is concern about the crisis of authority. About earlier concerns such as the economic problems of the white working class, some liberals can only mock. Their morally urgent issue is now the proper hierarchy of designated experts. Many liberals, for example, wear stickers that say "Respect science." And by that they mean respect the experts - and the hierarchy.
Foreign policy, too, is again to be reserved for the foreign policy "expert community." Central bank policy is to be protected from the influence of farmers. When a professional group agrees on a common position, no dissenting opinion should be formulated, at least not publicly. Doubt is a cardinal virtue in the sciences, the Washington Post recently wrote, but doubt could have disastrous consequences when it comes to public health issues "where lives depend on whether people trust scientific experts." Therefore, he said, doubt must be suppressed or silenced. This amounts to thought-suppressing logic that can be extended to any field of knowledge.
Lest we misunderstand each other: This essay is not a plea for absolute freedom of speech that attempts to declare conspiracy theories rational or that seeks to attack the scientific enterprise. Rather, I am concerned with the future of the Democratic Party, the future of the Left. On this subject, my clear opinion is this: the kind of progressive politics described here is thoroughly despicable. A democratic society is muzzled when it is told over and over again - in ways both subtle and crude - that the nation's great problem is a lack of respect for the authority of our traditional elites.
When these traditional elites claim with singular unity that their social rank vouches for the correctness of their views and justifies their privileges, a society like ours will not let such hypocrisy pass. Moreover, an elite that constantly throws around moral judgments only achieves the opposite of what it intends. Bashing Trump supporters for four years in the tone of shrill moral hysteria may have been the perfect recipe to get these people to support their hero all the more, brimming with hubris and prejudice.
The strange thing is that the progressive camp could have known that this top-down nagging is insanely clumsy and strategically achieves nothing at all. In the 1936 U.S. presidential election, the entire social elite of the country was united in a kind of collective moral panic. They all wanted to prevent the re-election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt: the tycoons, the better-off, the economists, the corporate lawyers, and so on. Some 85 percent of the press wrote against FDR and covered him with a denunciatory vocabulary: He was a would-be dictator, a communist, a fascist, he was leaving power to crackpots, he was ignoring the advice of proven experts, and in general he was probably a tool of the Russians.
This campaign went spectacularly wrong. For his part, Roosevelt attacked the "economic royalists" and was re-elected with a landslide majority of 60.8 percent of the vote. Unlike Donald Trump, Roosevelt was a true populist and genuinely popular. And the upper-class united front that formed against him in 1936 made him even more popular.
In 30 years, historians will look back on these past four years with disgust and bewilderment. With disgust at the shrill, smug ignoramus who squatted in the White House, stuffing hamburgers down his throat and spouting conspiracy theories on Twitter as the corona pandemic devastated the country.
But when they look at the progressive camp, they'll shake their heads and wonder: how could these liberals think it wise to entrust the greatest economic and cultural powers of our time - the lords of Silicon Valley - with the task of censoring their opponents?
Veteran liberal Ira Glasser reports how progressive academic circles are lobbying for speech regulations because they assume "that the decisions about who to target will rest with themselves." Such well-meaning liberals, Glasser concludes, have failed to understand that restrictive speech rules are like poison gas: "When you have poison gas in your hand and a target in front of you, you think it's a great weapon; but the wind can change at any moment - especially in politics - and suddenly you get the poison gas itself in your face."
If one follows this metaphor, the story can really only end badly. The mob attack on the Capitol scared us all. But when Democrats see the solution to the problem as censorship - exercised by Silicon Valley monopolists - it's a shocking breach of faith. One can use many terms to characterize a party that for 30 years disregarded the concerns and preoccupations of the working class and instead respected and protected the authority of the establishment - but the word "liberal" in the sense of "progressive" is not one of them.
1 Aaron Zitner and Dante Chinni, "How the 2020 election deepened America's white-collar/blue-collar split," The Wall Street Journal, November 24, 2020.
2 According to a Brookings Institution analysis, November 10, 2020.
3 For more details, see Aaron Maté, "The Mueller Report: a Debacle for Democrats," LMd, May 2019.
4 "Operation InfeKtion. Russian Disinformation: From Cold War to Kanye," November 12, 2018.
5 See note 4.
6 See Matt Taibbi, "Hate Inc: Why Today's Media Makes Us Despise Another," New York (OR Books) 2019.
7 Jonathan Rauch, "How American Politics Went Insane," The Atlantic, July/August 2016.
Thomas Frank is a journalist and author of "The People, No. A Brief History of Anti-Populism," New York (St Martin's Press) 2020. His most recent publication in German translation was "Americanic. Reports from a Sinking Society," Munich (Kunstmann) 2019.
by Stephan Wohanka
[This article published on Feb 15, 2021 is translated from the German on the Internet, Rassismus – Das Blättchen (das-blaettchen.de).]
It's a touchy subject. So, it has to be talked about. Racism is a social reality in this country, too, and it must be fought with all possible means. Often still misogynously charged, it contradicts all genuinely humane norms and rules; the belief that ethnic majorities have privileges over minorities is like a parasite on the body of society; it ultimately destroys it because it divides it.