Why I Write, Continued

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

When Ulysses S. Grant sat down to write his memoirs in 1884, he needed the cash. Rather, his wife needed the cash. Grant was sick and destitute, and he knew Julia Boggs Grant would be a widow soon. He did not want her to live in penury after he was gone.

Grant had no idea he was a gifted writer. The prose that came from his pen during the last year of his life was natural and engaging–a real surprise. When Grant’s editors received his drafts, Edmund Wilson relates, they were amazed at how little work his copy needed.

For anyone like me, who has spent years struggling to write, Grant’s off-the-cuff performance inspires a little envy along with grace. It’s like a story of a man who, in his sixties, takes up the fiddle to squawk out some Bluegrass and discovers the thing is actually a violin and he can play Beethoven on it. Some people just have it.

In one of my first posts to this blog, I praised Orwell’s four reasons for writing, which he lays out with admirable clarity in the essay “Why I Write.” Scaled down, they are the same reasons I write–for notoriety, pleasure, to record events, and to advocate a political point of view.

Writing, it turns out, is a deeply satisfying, because deeply subversive, act. If you use it to discover your own mind, you can never be bought by the established powers. They cannot buy you with TV. They cannot buy you with flavor-engineered food. They cannot buy you with religion. You don’t have to be the prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow was to make the same life-affirming discovery he did–that we are eligible to be noble.

Writing, I believe, cannot fail to lead you to your better self.

Recall Huck Finn. He only decided not to give Jim up to the authorities after he had written a letter saying he would. When he saw his own words on paper, he tore them  up, determined that he would rather go to hell than do the right thing and return Jim to his Christian enslavers. Jim would not be tortured, and Huck would not be bought by the establishment.

If you try hard enough to set down what is in your mind, you can actually defy mass culture, which is the Big Brother of 21st America. You can make the humane choice that Erich Fromm invites us to make in his landmark book To Have Or To Be?–living your own life, defined, not by your possessions, but by your thoughts and relationships. You need not accept the counterfeit life shaped for you by product designers, ad men, focus groups and SUPERPACs.

This call to high-minded rebellion may sound pathetically comical coming from a hillbilly-bureaucrat-failed-philosopher like myself, but it is not. Writing, like any creative act, awakens and recognizes the human eligibility to be noble. Recall Winston Smith, the hero of Orwell’s 1984, as his rebellion is just taking root. He is nothing but a cowed, isolated automaton made callous by Big Brother’s propaganda machine. What is his seminal act of defiance that saves him from inhumanity, from fake life? What is the sin that brings on his inquisition, torture and death? Writing. He has been secretly keeping a journal. The journal is what he is trying to hide from the surveillance cameras the first time we encounter him in his apartment in 1984.

What do Huck Finn’s letter and Winston Smith’s journal have to do with Ulysses Grant and his unexpected writing prowess? The saving power of writing–its ability to elevate human decency above crass materialism, egoism, or blind conformity.

Writing is inextricably linked to one’s motives, which I believe are always part of the essential project of discovering and creating oneself. In his preface to his memoirs, Grant lays out his reasons for writing, with touching understatement. For such a long book, about such an eventful life, Grant’s memoirs are introduced with a bare minimum of throat clearing, only about a page. And yet Grant reveals so much. His preface in full:

“Man proposes and God disposes.” There are but few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice.

Although frequently urged by friends to write my memoirs I had determined never to do so, nor to write anything for publication. At the age of nearly sixty-two I received an injury from a fall, which confined me closely to the house while it did not apparently affect my general health. This made study a pleasant pastime. Shortly after, the rascality of a business partner developed itself by the announcement of a failure. This was followed soon after by universal depression of all securities, which seemed to threaten the extinction of a good part of the income still retained, and for which I am indebted to the kindly act of friends. At this juncture the editor of the Century Magazine asked me to write a few articles for him. I consented for the money it gave me; for at that moment I was living upon borrowed money. The work I found congenial, and I determined to continue it. The event is an important one for me, for good or evil; I hope for the former.

In preparing these volumes for the public, I have entered upon the task with the sincere desire to avoid doing injustice to any one, whether on the National or Confederate side, other than the unavoidable injustice of not making mention often where special mention is due. There must be many errors of omission in this work, because the subject is too large to be treated of in two volumes in such way as to do justice to all the officers and men engaged. There were thousands of instances, during the rebellion, of individual, company, regimental and brigade deeds of heroism which deserve special mention and are not here alluded to. The troops engaged in them will have to look to the detailed reports of their individual commanders for the full history of those deeds.

The first volume, as well as a portion of the second, was written before I had reason to suppose I was in a critical condition of health. Later I was reduced almost to the point of death, and it became impossible for me to attend to anything for weeks. I have, however, somewhat regained my strength, and am able, often, to devote as many hours a day as a person should devote to such work. I would have more hope of satisfying the expectation of the public if I could have allowed myself more time. I have used my best efforts, with the aid of my eldest son, F. D. Grant, assisted by his brothers, to verify from the records every statement of fact given. The comments are my own, and show how I saw the matters treated of whether others saw them in the same light or not.

With these remarks I present these volumes to the public, asking no favor but hoping they will meet the approval of the reader.

U. S. GRANT.

MOUNT MACGREGOR, NEW YORK, July 1, 1885.

Grant’s modesty is enough to make one cheer his good luck at being such a natural writer. Why did he write? For the reasons he says–for the money. To wrap things up before he died. To put his perspective on the record.

In his opening sentence Grant implies a whole philosophy of history, and it happens to be the humble one Tolstoy propounds in War and Peace–that life is too fluid and complex to take shape according to our individual choices. Compare, if you will, the narcissistic, unthinking bluster of George W. Bush’s political memoirs, Decision Points. Grant stands, well, not so much like a giant, but like an adult to Bush’s childish mind.

US_Grant_in_1885
Grant writing on his front porch in 1885

And if that’s not impressive enough, Grant claims no special power inherent in his perspective as General of the Union Army and President of the United States. His memoirs are just one version of history, which may clash with or do injustice to others’s recollections of the same events. He casts the writer’s die and hopes his book ends up doing some good. He admits it might not. All he can claim in the end is that it seemed important to him to write it.

Grant thanks his friends, and he recalls with fondness the help his family gave him. Although he is writing on a deadline imposed by his own approaching death (so was Orwell, as he typed out 1984), Grant unleashes no Sturm und Drang, only quiet decency.

His work done, Grant died one week after finishing his memoirs. He was a great writer.

Advertisements

Socialism for Dummies

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

A professor of mine used to say, don’t bother debating your opponents over terminology. Let them have the terms they want; get to the heart of the dispute.

Apt advice for discussing “socialism,” at least here in America. The average American’s understanding of the term has been so warped by ignorance, mass culture, and the collective guile of several presidential administrations that it is safe to say almost no one here actually knows what it means. Many Americans do, of course, know what they mean by “socialism”–perhaps a meme about not being able to choose one’s doctor in Canada, or anything that goes on in Venezuela. Americans’ cartoon ideas of socialism are so lively it would feel unkind to dissect them. And so I won’t.

The purpose of my essay is not to try to help anyone understand what “socialism” really means. It is rather to demonstrate that our country already has socialism as it is popularly understood, and the version we have is for dummies. Time and again, our government’s interventions in the free market serve to award political power and economic advantages to the numerically tiny class that already has those commodities in great abundance, and it fools us dummies into feeling, not just good about the whole arrangement, but patriotic and self righteous. There goes America, we say, pride swelling in our hearts, rewarding the intrepid few who fight their way to the top of the heap.

In other words, I am here today to illustrate the truth of Gore Vidal’s 1972 quip that in America, we have socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor. Vidal was exactly right.

How can this be? Well, consider first the one thing that really steams us when we start thinking about “socialist” practices–tax-and-spend handouts that remove economic risk and therefore incentivize economic dependency and other kinds of bad behavior by the poor.

This is the moral hazard argument. We reason thus: If the maternal state steps in to stay the hand of the child reaching for the hot stove, the young sprout will never learn what the real danger is and therefore won’t be able to navigate a world fraught with risk. Excessive mothering produces poor pragmatic reasoners. A better society is attained if the state keeps a cool paternal distance and allows hand-burning to occur at its natural rate.

Our thought leaders often bring this idea to life with a cast of despicable stereotypes, such as the “welfare queen.” If we taxpayers keep unstintingly laying out lavish cash benefits for the welfare queen, where will her lifestyle of merry procreation stop? With us propping up her signature bad habit, it is no wonder she gathers so many other unsavory behaviors around her–drug use, absentee fathering, urban grammar.

Our elected officials’ most common way to frame moral hazard is the perennial topic of “entitlements reform.” The state, they say, must stop abetting the bad behavior of poor people through handouts. Our war-strapped budget simply cannot keep doling out food stamps and WIC peanut butter to anyone holding out their hands to receive these riches. Sooner or later, such profligacy will sink even our great ship of state.

But guess what kind of handouts we can afford? Much larger ones that keep the rich afloat as they do the necessary and heroic work of growing the economy. The kind of work Ayn Rand thinks we should be doing. The great bank bailout of 2008 was one such instance of massive corporate welfare. Rather than letting giant banks taste the consequences of the subprime mortgage crisis they created, our government urgently rushed cash to them, on the argument they were too big to fail. Thanks to the $700 billion authorized by the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, many bank presidents who had been facing ruin in 2008 kept their jobs and were even able to restore their multi-million dollar bonuses in 2009. Emergency stabilized!

What else makes us think of socialism? Why, federal jobs programs, of course–big, bloated organizations of make-work day laborers who in fact accomplish nothing. If we just avoid tinkering with the labor market by creating fake jobs, real jobs would arise naturally from a rational demand for them. Market conditions will of course produce a bit of see-sawing in the employment rate, but that’s life in a dynamic, highly developed economy. Workers who are both disciplined and flexible will prosper even on the choppy sea of technological change and supply-and-demand variability.

What we don’t want is anything like FDR’s New Deal, which created jobs and whole new employment agencies out of thin air. Like cash handouts, this kind of market intervention invites moral hazard, conditioning workers to believe they deserve jobs and they can plan a future. But free-market orthodoxy says workers should not learn to kneel and sup at the trough of public funds. They must roll up their sleeves and make themselves useful to America’s private wealth creators in whatever way the market demands.

It’s  nice thought, but it ignores the fact that our government in fact runs a massive jobs program, for gentlemen only, in defense and security. This program is worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year. In 2013, according to the Washington Post, our government payed out $100 billion for intelligence (just one sector of defense), 70 percent of which went to private companies, which are supposed to be the avatars of capitalism.

While I admit such companies may cultivate impressively skilled work forces and even develop significant capacity to innovate, the point to bear in mind about them is that they exist because they do precisely what we rugged capitalists say should never be done–they find a richly-endowed a teat of public expenditure and fix their mouth firmly to it. Scale seems to make a difference in how we view this behavior. The “welfare queen” who pulls in a few thousand dollars a year from the public trough is a parasite, but the CEO of a large defense firm who strikes a vein of billions is a good man doing good things for the country.

Just bear this in mind the next time you hear a rich old senator like Mitch McConnell go on about the need to reduce entitlements. He’s talking about the welfare queen’s entitlements, not the defense contractor’s. (Still less those of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whos won a $2.5 billion entitlement last week through corporate tax relief.) And he’s taking money from ad men who are paid to make sure we taxpayers never draw a parallel between the two.

20130410-mcconnell-pointing
Mitch McConnell, American socialist

Which brings me to the next feature of socialism for dummies–pointless, undisciplined government spending. The histories of socialist countries offer numerous object lessons in the inefficiency of ideologically driven spending. These range from the silly to the tragic. As socialist governments created “industrial cities” throughout eastern Europe in the 1940s and -50s, they spent much more on building theaters and “literary halls” than venues of low entertainment. This in deference to Marx’s doctrine that happy, fulfilled workers would naturally wish to exercise their minds at the end of the day by writing literary criticism. What the workers wanted, but didn’t get (at first), was bars. They did get them, eventually, but only after socialist governments had wasted millions on theaters that went unused and eventually sprouted with weeds.

Anyone who has read Orwell’s Animal Farm can recall the animals’ (really just the pigs’) decision to build a large windmill to power their barn, reduce their labor and ease their lives. They spend the better part of a year putting their excess labor power into building the windmill only to have it collapse in a storm because it is poorly designed. Badly demoralized but still undaunted, they pick up the pieces and try again, still without a plan, oblivious to the fact that they’re throwing good money (or its equivalent in labor) after bad. Why do they do it? Their ruling class has determined they must. For the animals to carry their socialist project of liberation through, they must build this technological marvel. It is a sacred priority, declared by the pigs.

We also do this in America. Our defense and security jobs program is permitted by the people to grab lavish amounts of cash to spend on contract cost overruns and even projects that go nowhere. To take just the latest and most glaring example, in June 2017 the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, built by Lockheed, had reached cost overruns of $406 billion despite having met none of its development targets. It was originally scheduled to be fielded in 2008. It is still fumbling toward partial capability in late 2018–ten years overdue and counting.

Why do we allow so much of our tax revenue (and, let’s face it, borrowed sovereign wealth) to sluice into the coffers of Lockheed and other defense giants to no good purpose? There are the usual grubby political reasons, of course, most of which have to do with pork. No politician  in his right mind will vote to defund a Lockheed contract if he has constituents who benefit from it.

But the overarching, unassailable reason we allow such profane waste is an ideological one. The defense of our country is a sacred value, and we cannot put a dollar figure on it. This is what Ronald Reagan meant in 1983 when he said that “defense is not a budget item.” There is no amount of money we won’t spend on defense, even if it means slopping billions over the side of the public trough, to be supped up by billionaire CEOs and their millionaire minor coteries–American heroes all.

Often I think most Americans believe socialism is nothing but tax-and-spend government. Taxing and spending is actually what governments are for. But whatever. I’m not going to try to argue. (If you’re at all curious about this line of thought, read Stephen Holmes’ and Cass Sunstein’s excellent 2000 book The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes.)

What I have tried to argue today is that our government does tax and spend, pretty lavishly on some things. The vast majority of what gets spent, though, goes to the rich, those who have learned how to feast on the state’s largess while insisting to us of the 99 percent that they’re just smarter and harder working than us and therefore deserve to be at the top of the capitalist heap. This is a lie. You should not believe it. Our capitalist masters live on socialist entitlements, but they have convinced us we should worship them as heroes of rugged individualism. This is socialism for dummies indeed.

 

Misogyny Is the Core of Trumpism

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

You’ve probably never heard of the early 20th-century Indian nationalist Vinayak Savarkar. I know I hadn’t before I read Pankaj Mishra’s 2017 book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present. But you’ve heard of Hitler; you’ve heard of Mussolini.

Like those famous despots, Savarkar believed in a strong sense of national identity based in racial purity, traditional values, military strength, and the redemptive power of violence. This is the usual laundry list of nationalist creeds. But there’s one more thing. Scan the beliefs of Savarkar and the better-known militant nationalists of the 20th century, and you invariably find misogyny too. Fascists, from Hitler to Savarkar, hate, fear and scorn women.

One way or another, they all picked up on Nietzsche’s charming advice to men: “You go to women? Do not forget the whip!”

Savarkar went to England in 1902 to study under Herbert Spencer. Under Spencer, Savarkar wrote that when he reflected on the restrained way Indian nationalism had developed, he lamented how limp-wristed his countrymen had been. In particular, they had given in to “‘suicidal ideas about chivalry to women’ that prevented Hindu warriors from raping Muslim women.”

Unsurprisingly, Savarkar believed more broadly in the emancipatory power of violence, not just for bringing women in line. Every humiliating curtailment of Indian power, he believed, could be redeemed through an act of violent coercion. “In his world view,” Mishra writes, “revenge and retribution were essential to establishing racial and national parity and dignity.”

Throughout Age of Anger, Mishra makes a powerful case that violent nationalists–right up to the sadistic loyalists of ISIS’s caliphate–take their ideas from a surprising source–Europe’s intellectual history. I have much praise for this aspect of Mishra, to be delivered in a separate book review.

What riveted me to his pages, though, was not Mishra’s main argument, powerful as it is. What held me was the uniformity with which he depicts all recent fascists espousing the hatred of women. By the middle of the book, misogyny no longer seemed to me like the spare change of fascism. From Hitler to Mussolini to their lesser known forbear  Gabriele D’Annunzio, strong men evince a need to subjugate women, to take revenge on them for achieving parity with men.

Here is one of D’Annunzio’s main expositors trumpeting the ideas their movement tried to implement when D’Annunzio took over and briefly ruled the Adriatic city of Fiume in 1919 (my italics):

We want to glorify war–the world’s only hygiene–militarism, patriotism, the destructive acts of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas for which one dies, and contempt for women.

Upon reading that sentence, I started to get the tingling sense that misogyny was no mere appendage to fascism. Could it be an organic part of the whole setup? To set the right tone for his brave new city state, D’Annunzio invented the goosestep, the sleek black party uniform and the stiff-armed fascist salute. All that and woman hatred. Sounds like a merry place.

Now fast forward to today’s reactionaries. Few of them are so bold as to keep up the full trappings of 20th century fascism. (Although some do echo it. Check out GQ`s analysis of the “Fashy” look at Charlottesville’s 2017 white nationalist rallies.) But what they do keep up is the besetting sense of having been victimized by weaker parties, and, boy, is there a list of them. This is what marks fascists off, from Europe’s obscure nationalist ideologues right up to Charlottesville’s tiki torch bearers of 2017–the feeling that their natural prerogatives as the master sex have somehow been undone.

More broadly, the defining sentiment of today’s pro-Trump, pro-Brexit populists is the feeling of being put upon, of having been disadvantaged by alien ideas that lack popular legitimacy. Effete bureaucracies, such reactionaries believe, have constructed a system of airy-fairy political fictions that unfairly constrain the individual’s scope of action and deplete his identity. Meanwhile, one’s competitors outside the liberal order run rampant, their natural “rights” untrammeled by polite society.

Since the French Revolution, the liberal project has had as its centerpiece the idea that all humans are equal and therefore equally deserving of political rights and freedoms. Fascists, though, are quick (and correct) to sense the frailty of this creed. It only stands up if the masses believe it.

Like the Indian nationalist Savarkar, today’s outraged reactionary awakes one sordid morning, surveys the dirty tricks used by pathetic schoolmasters trying to run his life, and says, “I didn’t vote for this. And furthermore, what I’m being taught is patently false.” The world speaks a different, harder language to the brave few who have ears to hear it.

Vissarion Belinsky, a 19th-century Russian writer, probes the simmering rage the born-again nationalist feels when he sees how the elites have hoodwinked him into a life of unmanly submission. Once you’ve been red-pilled, you cannot fail to see that all your schooling was really just an emasculating sham, a war against basic facts:

Our education deprived us of religion; the circumstances of our lives gave us no solid education and deprived us of any chance of mastering knowledge; we are at odds with reality and are justified in hating and despising it, . . . .

Nothing is so frustrating as dealing with someone who cannot accept reality. We feel such a person denies mankind’s very hope for survival. Live with your illusions if you must, we feel, but don’t try to foist them off on the rest of us. We’ll take good, hard reality, as unwelcome as it might be. This is more or less what Belinsky is saying. He hated the fictions that polite society had imposed on him.

As I read Mishra, I kept coming back to a disturbing, almost radioactive realization. The clearest, hardest reality of the communal human experience is the male’s brute physical superiority. It is undeniable that males seek access to sex above all else, and they are fitted by nature to be able to win it by force. This is a plain biological fact. Only a statistically insignificant number of females can fend off males who are determined to rape them.

This hard, unwelcome fact sits at the very basis of human relations. Getting over it is the first step of setting up a rule-bound society.

There are very few things we can say humankind has done to its credit. The social contract, though, is one of them. By alienating our natural prerogative to use violence, and by transferring that prerogative to a state ruled by law, we make possible a safe, sane community of citizens. Rape need not rule our procreative relationships, just as extortion, theft and murder need not rule agriculture and commerce.

But make no mistake about the foundation of the social contract: it is a fiction. It only holds up if almost all of us agree to abide by it and treat it as an unquestionable article of faith. Strip away the trumped-up consensus behind it and we are back to the hard truths of the natural world, a world red in tooth and claw.

America has reached a point today where our reactionaries ache for a return to hard realities. America is white. It has borders. Its military is supreme. Money is our goal. We are a meritocracy, not a welfare agency. We carry guns and Stand Our Ground. If you feel threatened by these realities, buck up. The world is what it is. Believing in a rights-based utopia inevitably cedes advantages to the unfit. Mercy, charity, indeed all of morality, is a fool’s game.

America’s reactionaries today feel deeply put upon by all the advantage-ceding we’ve been doing in recent decades. We let the UN push us around. The Paris Climate Accord tries to tell us what to do with our smokestacks.

Animating this resentment is the feeling that the liberal order has emboldened an army of free riders, ranged insolently against us and laughing at our weakness. Chinese industrialists out-produce us by polluting at will. Petro-states ridicule us as they drill without restraint. The President of the Philippines just kills drug dealers, smirking at our enslavement to courts and due process. Iran captures and humiliates our sailors because they know how desperately we want(ed) the nuke deal to work. The list goes on. The whole world is laughing at us.

The reactionary wonders, where did we begin to buckle under to the effete madness of the liberal order? If you trace the constraints imposed by rule-bound society all the way back to their theoretical origins, you find the culprit.

The original, and arch free rider is the woman. Note bene: all the 20th century’s fascist strong men have thirsted to re-subjugate women and drive them back toward the state of nature, where they depend for their safety and well-being on the man’s willingness to restrain his natural prerogatives. Is this simply because fascists are unpleasant people? Let’s look at a good example of one and try to work it out.

Hitler outlined the first step back toward better, more natural times in these terms:

In the really good times of German life, the German woman had no need to emancipate herself. She possessed exactly what nature had given her to administer and preserve; just as the man in his good times had no need to fear that he would be ousted from his position in relation to the woman. If the man’s world is said to be the State, his struggle, his readiness to devote his powers to the service of the community, then it may perhaps be said that the woman’s is a smaller world. For her world is her husband, her family, her children, and her home.

Hitler cribbed this idea from Nietzsche, who (disingenuously) said that the main purpose of women was to produce warriors. The man’s happiness is “I will;” he rhapsodized; the woman’s, “He wills.”

When Belinsky raged against polite values that were “at odds with reality,” he was attacking, among other things, the “artificiality” of the idea that men must hold themselves back from assaulting and subduing women. Look around you: the animal kingdom shows us plainly that males are patriarchs and predators. Why pretend otherwise?

Male supremacy is the natural endpoint of the reactionary’s longing for a return to the good old days. Today’s MAGA nostalgist is no less defined by men’s resentment at their loss of original power than were Hitler, Mussolini, D’Annunzio, Belinsky, and Savarkan.

Until I read Mishra, I had always considered Donald Trump’s contempt for women to be an accidental side effect of his predominant cloddishness. The fact that he told Howard Stern his ideal date was “a great piece of ass” was a crass but honest admission of casual misogyny–merely the least savory part of his unlovely personality.

But through Mishra’s expose and the political genius of Steve Bannon, I learned that Trump’s attitude toward women is much more than that. It is a broad, deep indicator of national mood here in America. It is part of a wave of resentment among ordinary Americans who feel put upon and disadvantaged by polite society.

Bannon revealed this part of us to ourselves in July 2016. When the grab-them-by-the-pussy tape surfaced, Donald Trump’s closest advisors counseled him that his political run was over and he should quit the presidential race. Trump’s smirking boast of sexual assault, they calculated, was beyond the pale.

But not Bannon. He knew better. He alone saw the winning strategy, which was: Ignore the tape. It doesn’t matter. And he was right.

Donald Trump held a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa on January 31, 2016.
(Image: Time)

What did Bannon know about the American people that no one else knew? For starters, that we were sick and tired of twisting ourselves into pretzels over political correctness. The college boys telling us what was right and wrong were the same class that produced Bill Clinton. Fair enough, but still, how could Bannon have gauged how far we had gone, that we were actually ready for an outspoken enthusiast of sexual assault to helm the nation? This insight was a real, almost Nietzschean, flash of brilliance.

It all comes down to Trump’s fear of being laughed at, which turns out to be our fear of being laughed at. Take any issue you like on which Trump has made a strong stand–border security, immigration, trade, corporate taxation. His policy ideas on all these issues reduce to the idea that America, the strongest country on earth, has given away its power and ceded a crucial advantage to some weaker party who is now in a position to laugh at our self-handicap.

Well, in a way, Trump is right. The advance of liberal humanism over the last 300 years is largely a history of powerful parties agreeing to limit their own ability to coerce and subjugate weaker parties. That’s the whole point of the social contract, which I just mentioned.

Generally speaking, liberalism is not a static idea, but a form of political activism that seeks to empower disadvantaged communities with new rights. The ending of slavery, to take one example, actively limited the coercive power of southern planters, producing a more just and prosperous society, which no decent person would reject today.

But Trump’s natural reflex is to view the liberal surrender of power in microeconomic terms–from the enslaver’s point of view, so to speak. Forget the long view of macroeconomics, or the mamby-pamby talk of history arcing toward justice. If I’m competing against someone in my line of business, and he has not alienated certain advantage-giving powers which I have alienated, that person has an undeniable edge over me, at least in the short run.

This kind of thinking is Trump’s entry point into every collective political cause from environmental protection to gay marriage to, yes, women’s rights. Every time we dream up some new law to advance the rights of a hitherto weaker party, we shoot ourselves in the foot. That is, we shoot ourselves in the big male, straight, white, Christian, capitalist foot. Meanwhile, what of our more tribal competitors who have not given in to such self-handicap? They’re laughing at us.

What does this have to do with the provocative claim in the title of my essay? This: If you trace the liberal project of advantage-ceding back to its theoretical origin, you arrive at the deeply discomfiting fact I mentioned in connection with the social contract. As beasts, we are a male-dominant species. The man’s resort to physical superiority is the ultimate guarantee of access to sex, the thing he is biologically determined to value above all else.

As social beings, though, we pursue what Thomas Hobbes, the discoverer of the social contract, termed a more “commodious life” than the one afforded by rape, murder and pillage. The paradox of this better life, though, is that we really do have to twist ourselves into pretzels to accommodate new rights-giving moral norms. That’s the price of morality. Someone really does pay a price for the spread of fairness and decency, and in a species that must have begun with males according all the original advantages to themselves, it is the predatory, patriarchal male who will inevitably witness his power flowing to others as civilization expands.

So, I am not saying that all Trumpists are (necessarily) misogynists. But I am saying they’re playing with fire. Roll back the liberal assault on “traditional” values too far, and you will return to the brute male supremacy of the jungle. If you doubt this warning, take note of how many nostalgic, authoritarian strongmen hated women, as I’ve tried to indicate here. It’s no accident. Read Mishra, and this conclusion will stare you full in the face.

Every time Trump mocks, insults, demeans or otherwise objectifies a woman, he is voicing a sadistic reminder that women’s equality is a fragile civilizational fiction, which can be violently revoked at any time by any sufficiently pissed off man. This is the meaning of sexual assault. Men may have lost the war for gender supremacy, but the true Trumpist believes an endless rearguard action to demoralize and immiserate uppity women is nonetheless a desirable state of affairs. If we were to recognize that women are truly, irrevocably equal with men, the next thing you know, they’d be laughing at us.