What Can Happen Here


This will be short, I promise.

In 1998 the University of Virginia philosopher Richard Rorty predicted the rise of the current nationalist-populist mob in America. He wrote about it succinctly in his book Achieving Our Country.

This is what he wrote:

Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

The first point I would like to make about about this passage is not an obvious one. It has to do with Rorty’s use of the word jocular, which doesn’t seem like a big deal, but actually is. Whenever Trump or his trolls are caught calling for violence against the press or using racist or sexist stereotypes, their go-to defense is, “just kidding.” This is a clever move. It deflects guilt for what looks like bigotry and puts it on the offended party for being overly sensitive or “politically correct.” And it stakes out a broad scope for bringing back insults and retribution out against people who look or think differently than I do and are getting uppity.

Humor, even if disingenuous, is a powerful thing to have on your side. The mob knows this, or at least senses it, and advances its points accordingly–with funny memes. Nothing brings down a logical argument like a good derisive laugh.

Richard Rorty

The second thing is that, even though Rorty was startlingly accurate his description of  the way nationalist-populism has arisen, he was wrong about the way nationalist-populists would use political power. They have not fomented a revolution, at least for now. Rather they are simply using all the ordinary political mechanisms that empowered formerly alienated minorites from the 1960s onward.

Much of what we gained in terms of civil rights, broadly construed, can be reversed simply by rolling back the same processes that led to them in the first place. Trump’s opportunity to appoint another Supreme Court justice is a clear indicator of this. I am not saying we’re headed for a reversal of, say the 13th Amendment, or that it will be easy to impose a robustly reactionary agenda on the state. But I am say that all the necessary tools are there, even without a revolution. Maybe dictatorship can’t happen here, but too much of the reactionary sadism that goes with it can.


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