What’s Driving Trump’s Derangement Of Democratic Discourse?

What’s Driving Trump’s Derangement Of Democratic Discourse?

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

To understand why Lyin’ Donald is perpetrating such an unprecedented crisis upon the American republic, let’s consider the difference between what children say and do on playgrounds, where they rough out rules for cooperation and competition, and what grownups learn and uphold in order to make a society work.

As the columnist Walter Lippmann put it almost a century ago, adults learn to practice “social control, not by authority from above… but by a common law which defines the reciprocal rights and duties of persons. Thus in a free society the state… administers justice among men who conduct their own affairs.”

Trump’s notions of freedom and control—so childish, so thuggish, so corrosive of an adult freedom that sustains freedom itself—aren’t merely a personal, clinical problem; they reflect what’s happened to a broad swath of the American people and political culture. Deposing Trump is an urgent necessity, but it won’t save the democratic way of life we’ve relied on more than we seem to have realized. We may have to jump-start that way of life in order to depose him.

Adults understand that what a Constitution rightly protects in our freedoms of speech, a strong civil society rightly moderates in its everyday life: Not every insult and vulgarity may be uttered just because it’s legally protected. Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau explained this in 2015 when he criticized (instead of canonizing) the slain writers for Charlie Hebdo, who, he rightly noted, had repeatedly “punched down” poor, pious Muslim immigrants by lampooning their prophet, thereby handing their terrorist murderers a gratuitous provocation and excuse.

What does a strong society need instead of a verbal free-for-all that collapses into a free-for-none?

“It’s not self-censorship, it’s emotional intelligence. Society has to decide collectively what’s untouchable,” as Trudeau put it. Neither law nor autocratic diktats can substitute for that spirit of deliberative decision-making in daily life. Conservatives once understood this, and indeed, insisted on it. So did most Americans and liberals. There were times to break taboos, of course, and there were times to exercise restraint. Free-marketeering has corrupted that understanding.

Trump’s cooptation of the Republican Party and much of the conservative movement is Exhibit A of that corruption. By lowering adult public conversation to the level of a playground he’s dragged us all down to the often-juvenile Hebdo of yore.

When Trump boasted that he could shoot someone without losing public support, and that “Second Amendment people” should go after Hillary Clinton, he excited a roiling horde of “militia” members, authoritarian police, “Stand your ground” and “concealed carry” enthusiasts, and so on. By now he has alarmed even the decorously well-organized, conservative rich and their more “liberal minded” counterparts.

We need to understand why a ranter like Trump “cares nothing for reproaches that he is a criminal or a guttersnipe…. Where [he] knifes his opponents is by disarming them with a cynicism and stabbing them with a morality, [H]e twists and turns, flatters and gibes, lulls and murders. ….He raves about ‘the brutal and rude unscrupulousness of the parliamentary panders.’ He calls them job-hunters, scoundrels, villains, rascals, and criminals. He screams that ‘in comparison with these traitors to the nation, every pimp is a gentleman.” We need to understand why “he boasts of his tricks: ‘Take me or leave me, my object, the resurrection of the … people, is so much more superb than any contrary principle that to bridle me with morals or sentiment is to lose…”

This plausible elaboration of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” wasn’t written by George Will or Tom Friedman, but by a literary editor of the New Republic, Francis Hackett, in April 1941, in his now-forgotten book, What Mein Kampf Means to America.

When Hackett wrote this, many Americans were still excusing der Fuhrer’s demagogic vitality, vulgarity, and brutality. American as well as German businessmen still thought they could make deals with him. After all, Herr Hitler was shaking up the corrupt conceits and arrangements that had survived even after causing the Great War and the Great Depression. Not only that, he was keeping bolshevism at bay.

If Trump were more grandiloquent, he might justify his own demagoguery by adding that “all great movements are movements of the people, are volcanic eruptions of human passions and spiritual sensations, stirred [by] the torch of the word thrown into the masses, and are not the lemonade-like outpourings of aestheticizing literati and drawing room heroes.”

Those words were written by Adolf Hitler himself, in Mein Kampf, in 1926. When Trump commingles racist nationalism with what sounds like socialism by promising both a wall to keep out Mexican rapists and a cornucopia of “jobs, jobs, jobs” and full healthcare for Americans, we might recall that “Nazi” was an acronym for National Socialism.

Nightmares of the Elites

Stunned by the sheer audacity of hopelessness in Trump’s insults and boasts, political and business leaders became alarmed on the eve of the election. Fashionable though it was to disparage his early victories by remarking that no one had ever gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people, Republican and Democratic elites went broke by underestimating the angry, embittered intelligence of millions of Americans who were backing Trump. Millions of them have been deserting both parties’ establishments and the airless ideologies of the think tanks and their journals.

But Trump’s detractors, from Tea Partiers such as Ted Cruz and neoconservatives such as David Frum and Robert Kagan to neoliberal Democrats such as Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, can’t face their own long complicity in the omnivorous marketing and other modulations of greed that have made his demagoguery alluring by pumping so much distress and heartbreak into American life.

Trump has shredded the credibility of not only conservatives who’ve fantasized about restoring the capitalism of William McKinley and even John Locke, but also leftists who’ve fantasized that a precariat-proletariat will rise again. But he’s no Hamilton or Madison, struggling to devise an order capable of balancing conservative wealth-making with republican power-wielding and democratic, pluralist truth-seeking. He’s no Lincoln, envisioning a new birth of freedom; no Teddy Roosevelt birthing a “new nationalism” more ecumenical and progressive than Europe’s at the time; no FDR, cobbling together a New Deal.

None of today’s claimants to any of these legacies seems prepared to dive into the abyss Trump has opened. Like Czarist generals desperately flogging serfs to war against the Kaiser in 1917, today’s would-be champions of American democracy are pirouetting at the edge of the abyss their own policies have opened, shrieking and waving their arms while admonishing a bereft, bedraggled citizenry to rise to its duties.

Instead they’re confronting the popular rage against all would-be Good Shepherds and their consultants and scribbling minions.

“Right before our eyes, like something on the screen, the vast social fabric [of the republic] has crumbled…. On its ruins, with the speed of a world’s fair, [he] and his confederates have run up a political front of startling and provocative modernity… [His movement’s] hand has been so much quicker than the democratic eye, and for his violence we have so little precedent.”

Again, this is Hackett in 1941, but today’s elites have been unwittingly clearing the ground for Trump’s great encampment, as Mitt Romney revealed by calling millions of Americans “takers” in 2012 and as Hillary Clinton did by calling others “deplorables.” Takers and deplorables they may be, but some of them are also shrewd, angry, bitter, and desperate. Although Romney was right enough to call Trump a fraud, he and his cohort would have to be a lot less fraudulent themselves to discredit him.

Trump is only the match lighting the tinder that others have prepared—the Clintons and the Schumers among us as much as the Bushes and Mitch McConnells, the “lemonade literati” of the prestige magazines and the David Frums, Robert Kagans, David Brookses, William Kristols, and Pat Buchanans. They’re part of the reason why so many of millions of citizens are willing to gamble so pathetically that Trump will deflect the aggressively marketed civic mindlessness and malevolence that, with these people’s encouragement, have been groping us, goosing us, intimidating us, bamboozling us, indebting us, tracking us, and in so doing, imprisoning us.

Trump’s Troops

The armed racist goons and drooling fools (some in uniform) circling America’s proverbial town meeting democracy weren’t born to do what they’re doing. Nor were they all disposed to do it back on the playground. The quiet little stabs of heartbreak and self-doubt that accumulated in tiny increments in their young lives as their parents lost jobs, pensions, homes, mutual respect, and public moral standing have blossomed into open resentment seeking the right target.

Their losses had many causes. One is that too many of us writers (and some of you who are reading this now) have ignored or dismissed or disdained Trump’s supporters, compounding their distress with turns of a phrase, clicks of our brokers’ mouses, arching our eyebrows in faint disdain, or simple civic inattention that we excuse with genteel stereotypes and solicitous sighs over depictions of Bubba’s distress. Hedge-fund wunderkinds who’ve turned to philanthropy haven’t yet faced the truth that the legal premises, protocols, and practices under which they grew wealthy have done far more damage to the citizenry than their philanthropic ventures can offset or repair.

In 2015, the columnist Thomas Edsall wrote in a column titled, “Why Trump Now,” that “the share of the gross national product going to labor as opposed to… capital fell from 68.8 percent in 1970 to 60.7 percent by 2013” and that the number of manufacturing jobs dropped by 36 percent, from 19.3 million in 1979 to 12.3 million in 2015, while the population increased by 43 percent, from 225 million to 321 million.

“In other words, the economic basis for voter anger has been building over forty years,” including the stagnation of net upward mobility after 2000 and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, which has “imposed far larger costs on American workers than most economists anticipated.”

Then came the financial collapse of 2008, “which many people left and right felt was caused by reckless financial engineering on Wall Street” and which left those who’d not “benefited from the previous boom years” to become “easy pickings for populist rhetoric” because “trust in government was destroyed” by a “widespread sense that all the elites in Washington and New York conspired to bail out the miscreants who caused the disaster and then gave them bonuses.”

In 2010, the Citizens United ruling invited the miscreants to inundate public decision-making processes and institutions through which citizens are supposed to decide how to license and regulate and channel the very forces that are enslaving us. The excuse for Citizens United was that, as Romney would put it in 2012, “Corporations are people, too,” entitled to the same freedoms of speech that citizens enjoy. “If dancing nude and burning the flag are protected by the First Amendment, why would it not protect robust speech about the people who are running for office?’’ asked Theodore Olson, counsel for Citizens United, the corporation that produced the movie to swift-boat Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

The subtext: Let people rant, as long as we can drown them out with expensive megaphones and words that titillate or intimidate while they get laryngitis from straining to be heard, and while we buy off or intimidate their public officials at election time.

No wonder that, by September 2015, as Edsall noted, a survey “asked voters if they agreed or disagreed with the statement that ‘More and more, I don’t identify with what America has become.’ 72 percent of surveyed Republicans concurred, compared to 58 percent of independents and 45 percent of Democrats.’”

The Volcano Rumbles

Some of us saw this coming in 2004, when George W. Bush defeated John Kerry. What worried us wasn’t only that, in the name of fighting terrorism and advancing democracy around the world, Bush and his neoconservative operatives and Vulcan advisers were spending the country into crushing debt that would drive the social compact back to the 1890s.

Nor were we wrought up only because the Republican ticket, led by two draft-dodgers (as defined by every conservative Republican since the late 1960s, when both Bush and Dick Cheney did their dodging), was now “swift-boating” Vietnam veterans such as senators John McCain, Max Cleland and Kerry himself. The republic had survived excesses like that before, if barely.

What really worried some of us in 2004 was a foreboding that the republic couldn’t outlast the eerily disembodied swooning and cheering we were seeing at Bush’s election rallies, where the candidate sometimes campaigned in a baseball cap, the kind of guy other guys thought they’d like to have a beer with.

Two veteran conservative diplomats, Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, assessed these scary developments in America Alone: The Neoconservatives and the Global Order, in which they compared the American people to “a frog placed in a bowl of cool water as it is slowly heated over a fire. At the point the frog realizes the danger it is in, it is already too weakened to get out. It is boiled alive. Americans today find themselves in water with the temperature rising. To date, the political discourse, impregnated as it is with neoconservative formulations, has led them to acquiesce in the demands of those who are stoking the fire.”

The analogy wasn’t wholly accurate. Frogs are more acutely sensitive than humans are to encroaching danger. But by 2008, some people were jumping around as the water approached full boil on the floor of the Republican National Convention.

Although the party was nominating a decent if limited man (whom Trump would mock eight years later for having been captured in Vietnam), John McCain found himself facing an unnervingly large contingent of young white men whose repertoire of political expression on the floor consisted solely of shouting “USA USA USA!”

They dominated the convention’s reactions as McCain delivered his nomination acceptance speech, bellowing “USA!” even when the nominee was trying to say something thoughtful or poignant. These guys were desperately seeking moral clarity in the fog of ongoing, unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

They hadn’t all curdled into fascists or even racists. A thwarted decency and clueless love in them, a yearning for something slipping away, was struggling to find some political defense against the affronts and distortions their love had suffered. Countless encroachments on their freedom and dignity had generated not only family breakdown and drug abuse but also stresses and humiliations that erupted in road rage, lethal rampages at store openings on sale days; extreme fighting or cage fighting, the gladiatorialization of college and professional sports, and escapist, demoralizing entertainments, including reality TV and Trump’s own The Apprentice. Americans who still think that he’ll avenge them are headed for a let-down too wrenching and violent for the American republic to bear.

How Resentment Politics Works

“Trump’s brand of resentment politics,” as New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns called it during the campaign, rides ressentiment (pronounced ruh-sohn-tee-mohn), a public psychopathology in which gnawing insecurities, envy, and hatreds nursed by many people in private converge in public in scary social eruptions that present themselves as noble crusades but that diminish their participants even in seeming to make them big.

In ressentiment, the little-big man seeks enemies on whom to wreak vengeance for frustrations that are only half-acknowledged because they come from his sense of exploitation by powers he’s afraid to challenge head on. Ressentiment warps the little-big man’s assessments of his hardships and opportunities. It stokes and misdirects his frustrations.

Whether ressentiment erupts in a medieval inquisition, a Puritan or McCarthyite witch hunt, a Maoist Cultural Revolution, nihilist extremes of “people’s liberation movements” such as the Khmer Rouge, or a strain of political correctness that grips a particular community, ressentiment’s most telling symptoms are always paranoia, scapegoating, and bursts of hysteria and violence.

That syndrome was described more recently by George Soros in an assessment of “the power of Orwell’s Newspeak” and “the aversion of the public to facing harsh realities” in America today.

“On the one hand,” Soros writes, “Newspeak is extremely difficult to contradict because it incorporates and thereby preempts its own contradiction, as when Fox News calls itself fair and balanced. Another trick is to accuse your opponent of the behavior of which you are guilty, like Fox News accusing me of being the puppet master of a media empire. Skillful practitioners always attack the strongest point of their opponent, like the Swiftboat ads attacking John Kerry’s Vietnam War record. Facts do not provide any protection, and rejecting an accusation may serve to have it repeated; but ignoring it can be very costly, as John Kerry discovered in the 2004 election.”

“On the other hand,” Soros notes, “the pursuit of truth has lost much of its appeal.”

But why? In 1941, Hackett noted that people who are stressed, humiliated, and dispossessed become easy prey for demagogic orchestrations of “the casual fact, the creative imagination, the will to believe, and out of these three elements, a counterfeit reality to which there was a violent, instinctive response. For it is clear enough that under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fiction as they do to realities, and that in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond. The fiction is taken for truth because the fiction is badly needed.”

Ressentiment’s gusts of collective passion touch raw nerves under the ministrations of demagogues and an increasingly surreal, Murdoch-inflected journalism that prepares the way for them by brutalizing public discourse. In the 1976 movie Network, which depicts the profit-driven derangement of television news reporting, manager Diana Christiansen tells her staff, “I want angry shows” because Americans want “a mad prophet, denouncing the hypocrisies of our time.” A demagogic network anchor rouses his viewers to shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” even as he herds them like sheep.

When ressentiment is only starting to gather strength, it assumes disguises of civility at first, so as not to incur decisive reproach from a public that isn’t yet too weakened to ward off the disease. Soros cites Fox News’ winking assurance, in ads it posted 10 years ago, that it was “fair and balanced”—a dog-whistle to the little-big man that, “Together we’re going to crush those pious, hypocritical liberal journalists who prattle on about objectivity and fairness.”

Drip, drip, drip: Story after story teaches viewers and readers to fear and mistrust one another, souring the spirit of trust and curiosity that sustain democratic dialogue into the cynicism and defensiveness that clear the way for the strongman. Ressentiment’s gloves really come off once there are enough angry little-big men (and little-big women) to step out together en masse, with a Sarah Palin or a Glenn Beck. Now Trump is leading little-big men across the Rubicon, declaring that he’ll mow down anyone and anything in his way.

Until this moment in American history, the legitimate grievances that fuel ressentiment have sometimes driven its eruptions to a fleeting brilliance, as when Sarah Palin tapped deeply into currents of thwarted love and hope in her speech to the shouters at the 2008 Republican convention. Like her public persona, such gestures always curdled and collapsed, tragicomically or catastrophically, into their own cowardice, ignorance, and lies.

But now? “The kind of self-education which a self-governing people must obtain can be had only through its daily experience,” wrote Walter Lippmann, who was Francis Hackett’s colleague at the New Republic. “In other words, a democracy must have a way of life which educates the people for the democratic way of life.” Is there any way to re-weave such a way of life? In America it has always involved a rickety balancing of wealth-making, power-wielding and truth-seeking. What new balance might achieve a liberal-democratic revival?

The late Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World recounts how ordinary, unarmed people and inspired leaders have made it happen time and again, against terribly daunting odds, in British India, apartheid South Africa, Soviet Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union itself. But that revival hasn’t always lasted, and it has always needed rediscovery and rejuvenation, often at some individuals’ heroic sacrifice.

You can read a lot about its twists, turns and demands in the face of demagogues even worse than Trump, in Politics in Dark Times: Encounters With Hannah Arendt, a collection of essays by Schell, Arendt, and others. Every year I tell my undergraduates that liberal democracy often seems implausible but that it equally often proves irrepressible. Part of the reason lies ineradicably in the human heart, which is always divided against itself and the world in ways that a good liberal education illuminates but can’t eliminate.

One thing it teaches is that neoliberal claims that the world is flat can’t be reconciled with the deeper claims of America’s founders, both Puritan and Constitutional, that the world has abysses that open unpredictably beneath our feet and in our hearts. A good society needs coordinates and commandments strong enough to plumb those abysses, confront the demons in them and in ourselves, and affirm our capacity to live in truth and love against our tendency to worship the self and the Golden Calf.

Trump is at once the embodiment and a parody of a society that’s lost that balance. Removing him will require re-weaving and affirming civic myths and coordinates “that people cannot help but love,” as Schell puts it. Who can summon the courage and talent for that? All of us and each of us, some by inspiring and leading others, as Schell and Arendt have described. That won’t happen without some elites’ agreement to reconfigure a Trumpian, soulless capitalism so thoroughly that Adam Smith, who wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments as well as The Wealth of Nations, could recognize it.

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale.

IMAGE: U.S. President Donald Trump signs an executive order rolling back regulations from the 2010 Dodd-Frank law on Wall Street reform at the White House in Washington February 3, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The Founding Fathers Warned Us About Men Like Donald Trump

The Founding Fathers Warned Us About Men Like Donald Trump

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

As an aged Benjamin Franklin rose at the Philadelphia convention in 1787 to cast his vote for the Constitution, he also cast a warning that conservative devotees of the document’s “original intent,” including members of the Federalist Society and of such business-corporation funded entities as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Conservative Political Action Committee, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the William F. Buckley Program at Yale, the Tea Party, and dozens of conservative think-tank and “popular front” organizations should heed now more urgently than ever before:

“I agree to this Constitution with all its faults. It can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.… Much of the strength and efficiency of any government, in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends… on the general opinion of the goodness of that government, as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its governors.”

The rest of Franklin’s remarks make clear just how worried he was, and he was far from alone. As I showed recently, the founders were reading Edward Gibbon’s account of how the ancient Roman republic had slipped into tyranny as its powerful men titillated and intimidated citizens into becoming bread-and-circus mobs.

“History does not more clearly point out any fact than this, that nations which have lapsed from liberty, to a state of slavish subjection, have been brought to this unhappy condition, by gradual paces,” wrote founder Richard Henry Lee. It could happen not with a bloody coup but with a smile and a friendly swagger, if the people had grown tired of self-government and could be jollied along or scared into servitude.

Even Alexander Hamilton, whose bold innovations we’re hearing so much about, saw the enormity of the gamble the founders were taking. Campaigning for the new Constitution, he wrote that history seemed to have destined Americans, “by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” He was skeptical enough about that to have considered calling for an American monarchy.

Today’s conservatives may be equally worried about freedom’s prospects, but they tend to blame the overbearing state and its pensioners and pandering politicians, not the rapacity of the rich and their other investors and managers. John Adams was wise enough to blame both predators and prey:

“Obsta principiis, nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people. When the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American constitution is such, as to grow every day more and more encroaching. Like a cancer, it eats faster and faster every hour. The revenue creates pensioners, and the pensioners urge for more revenue. The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependents and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality, become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society.”

So here we are. It has come to this. And please think carefully about who Adams had in mind when he wrote “seekers.” He didn’t mean the pensioners, whom he’d already mentioned.

True enough, were he alive today, Adams might denigrate Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bernie Sanders as the people’s “deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers.” But it wasn’t only big, corrupt government that was challenged by the original Boston Tea Party (led partly by John Adams’ cousin, Samuel Adams). To John’s oft-expressed delight, the Tea Party acted directly against the multi-national corporation, The East India Company, that the rebels insisted had corrupted government. They seized that corporation’s property, something they’ve yet to do with Pfizer’s drugs, for example. When they break into that company’s headquarters on 42nd Street in Manhattan and its warehouses around the country, I’ll cheer, too.

The founders honored the Tea Party and denigrated corporations whose practices had driven small business-people and consumers to desperation worse than that of today’s Tea Partiers, who don’t want anyone tampering with their government-provided Social Security and Medicaid.

Yet Donald Trump, who holds today’s Tea Partiers and many other conservatives in his thrall, has criticized the overbearing state but not the omnivorous markets that corrupt it. In in his inaugural address, he proclaimed that, “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left, and the factories closed.”

He didn’t say that those politicians prospered because they were paid off to pass laws that permit others to prosper in ways whose costs the people are bearing, trapped like flies in a spider’s web of 800-numbered, sticky-fingered, pick-pocketing, and surveillance machines.

A few years ago, a propane deliveryman installing a new tank to replace an old rusted one told me that the new one was “really junk” because the government had written substandard regulations on its size and composition. “Who do you think really wrote those regulations?” I asked. “Your own employer wrote them, through a national association of propane dealers.” A fleeting look of surprise and then understanding crossed his face. He’d probably been watching too much Fox News and needed to be reminded of realities like the conservative, corporate American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes such bills for dozens of state legislatures controlled by Republicans.

But what have neoliberal Democrats done to prevent such corruption? Not enough to have given Hillary Clinton credibility with the people who are bearing the costs. If breaking a corrupt structure’s glass ceilings doesn’t also involve breaking up its walls and foundations, it will produce too many glass-ceiling breakers such as Theresa May (Trump’s new friend) and Elaine Chao (Mitch McConnell’s wife and Trump’s transportation secretary), not to mention the late Margaret Thatcher, Carly Fiorina, Linda McMahon, Sarah Palin, Sheryl Sandberg, and on and on.

So much for the raiment of “diversity” that liberal Democrats have been guilty of draping over structures of inequality that they’ve done little to challenge. Trump’s promises to restore jobs that, even if they do come, won’t come with the kinds of overtime pay, health benefits, workplace safety protections, and unions that ensure the protection of the middle class. Instead he’ll give his supporters more of the scapegoating and Trumpian “bread and circus” hate-fests and spectacles that drew so many to him in the first place. That kind of politics has a history no honorable conservative wants to repeat.

You might answer that Americans have been here before and that the republic has recovered, as it did when the Civil War sparked what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom,” or when the roaring nationalist capitalism drove World War I. How about when rampant consumerism of the Roaring ‘20s met its inevitable implosion in 1929 and sparked the suffrage movement? Today’s Tea Party conservatives are so named because they’ve vowed to revive and defend the original, small-“r” republican faith of the Revolution and Constitution against what they think have been the hollowness of the post-Civil War Reconstruction and the New Deal, which they blame for inducing the dependency and weakness that Adams lamented.

But if they really want to recover the spirit of liberty that Adams cheered, why aren’t they taking on Pfizer and the Goldman-Sachs billionaires in Trump’s cabinet? Why is their William F. Buckley Program at Yale putting 20-year-old students into to tuxedos and ferrying them to dinners at posh hotels such as the Pierre in New York, where over filet mignon and seven-layered chocolate cake they dine out on the follies of elites whom the program’s director Lauren Noble holds responsible for the “disconnect between elite institutions like Yale and the American people.”

Isn’t there a less-than-faint irony in staging these lavish affairs to call out anyone for disconnecting from their fellow citizens? Why aren’t more conservatives disowning the grim reaper of civil discourse, Donald Trump, and shedding their black ties for the dress and posture of Nathan Hale, a 1773 Yale graduate and hero of the American Revolution, who stood up against the established but corrupted British monarchy of his time on behalf of a nascent republic and was hanged for it after saying, “My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country.”

Every member of the Buckley Program has passed Hale’s statue outside Yale’s Connecticut Hall, where he stands, hands and feet bound, above an engraving of his last words. In 1967, I watched Ronald Reagan pay homage to that statue in person as I looked out from the second floor room in Connecticut Hall where I was attending a seminar on the Constitution taught by Wilson Carey McWilliams. That same year, I watched living Nathan Hales who were Yale students in my own time resist the government in the name of the republic, risking their future fortunes and public honor by refusing conscription into the Vietnam War.

Why don’t conservatives stop dining out so lavishly on the follies of liberals that they’ve abandon the kitchen to Donald Trump? The reason is that, by trading on hatred and fear, he has swept the Republican Party to power in ways that will enact enough of its anti-government agenda to roll back the New Deal (and possibly even Reconstruction) even more than Reagan was able to do, and enough to neuter their readiness to defend the Constitution against him. They’ll owe him. They’ll fear him. They’ll bow to him, as the Roman Senate did to Augustus. (If John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and a few others find the courage and principle to prove me wrong, I’ll gladly say so.)

Conservatives who recently and loudly championed “free speech” against “cry-bullies” of campus political correctness will melt like snowflakes before Trump’s encroachments on the First Amendment. Touting the liberation of a “market economy,” they’ll remain silent about the original Tea Party’s assaults on crony-capitalist corruption of government. They’ll keep on seducing and rewarding legions of young students who seek to prosper, not to emulate the courage and citizen-leadership of Nathan Hale.

Ben Franklin, Richard Henry Lee, Alexander Hamilton, and the Adamses are writhing in agony.

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale.

IMAGE: Flickr / DonkeyHotey

The Unholy Crusade Against Political Correctness Was All The Cover Trump Needed

The Unholy Crusade Against Political Correctness Was All The Cover Trump Needed

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

From the autumn of 2015 through the end of Donald Trump’s vulgar, violence-invoking, free-speech-threatening ascent to the presidency, a broad swath of America’s chattering classes and upscale college alumni consumed itself in denouncing something different. Instead of taking alarm at Trump’s many breathtaking threats to quash freedoms of dissent, the chorus of conventional wisdom panicked about the “creeping totalitarianism” that former Harvard President Lawrence Summers warned was being insinuated into American life by (drum roll…) sanctimonious liberal college students and campus elders and by recent graduates in the media and government.

It was a massive, almost desperately determined avoidance of facing what was actually threatening our freedoms.

The year-long public paroxysm over the scourge of racial and sexual political correctness was ignited in September, 2015 by “The Coddling of the American Mind,” a widely read essay with a scarifying subtitle: “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.”

The public psychodrama climaxed 14 months later with Mark Lilla’s “The End of Identity Liberalism,”  which blamed Trump’s “repugnant” victory primarily on a condescending, censorious liberalism that privileges racial and sexual identities which many Trump supporters viewed as marginal, deviant, and worse. Liberals had forced “diversity” down Americans’ throats; now, “real” Americans would vomit it back out.

The “Coddling” and “Identity Liberalism” articles became book ends for what Greg Lukianoff, co-author of the former and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—an organization supported by right-wing funders, as I reported here in AlterNet, celebrated as “an epic year” for their brilliantly orchestrated crusade to blame politically correct parenting and pedagogy for asphyxiating free speech and other rights in education and, by extension, in public life. That crusade was reinforced by some breast-beating liberals, and it was hijacked by opportunists such as Trump himself.

To be sure, liberal “identity politics” has sometimes thwarted the open inquiry and expression that liberal education and democracy should defend, and it has sometimes diverted effective responses to the serious threats to freedom that are now upon us; As the author of Liberal RacismI’ve long warned against such political correctness.

But during the campus free-speech crusade’s “epic year,” Lukianoff and his co-author, the business psychologist Jonathan Haidt, scurried like itinerant preachers from campuses to green rooms and lecture halls across the country, brandishing First Amendment claims and professions of academic heterodoxy while casting college students and deans as the most dire threats to open inquiry and expression.

Many journalists joined the crusaders in prowling campuses with video-cams and open notebooks to construct what Yale President Peter Salovey, in an address to freshmen this September, assailed as “false narratives” about threats to freedom of speech on campuses. Although Salovey didn’t mention anyone by name, he surely had in mind some of the tall tales about brave students and professors being silenced and martyred on altars of free speech by politically correct hordes.

Even as growing public awareness of murders of unarmed black men (by police, vigilantes, other black men, (and, in my view, by National Rifle Association lobbyists against reasonable gun-control) spurred the Black Lives Matter movement and introduced justified racial activism into the supposed self-indulgence of campus protests, millions of Americans remained fixated on a video Lukianoff had shot of a 20-year old black student hurling imprecations at a professor and on others’ characterizations of black college students as “privileged.”

By the time Trump joined in denouncing political correctness – even while abusing his own freedoms of speech to humiliate and silence others and encouraging supporters to do likewise — the crusade against identity politics was all-too obviously diverting effective public responses from the real danger at hand.

Now the unfolding horror show of Trump’s transition to the presidency is revealing political correctness to have been only one symptom,  among others far more virulent, of the wide-ranging corruption of American public discourse and politics. Those who are still gloating over liberals’ comeuppance and who think Trump has expanded their freedoms of speech by speaking his mind about smug liberals will soon find themselves gulping instead of speaking their own minds about, say, Trump’s collaborations with cronies on Wall Street or with Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime, or about his promised crack-downs on freedoms of the press and of speech, and his likely moves to roll back public and private-workplace rights and benefits and to abrogate judicial and congressional checks and balances.

In the cold light of 2017’s dawn, the passing year’s “free speech” crusade looks a lot like other paroxysms that have gripped American upper-middle classes whenever civil society has been under great stress. At such times, self-appointed keepers of conventional wisdom have ginned up public paroxysms of alarm and rage at selected internal enemies whom they blame for the crisis.

In the 1690s, it was witches, hysterical women and girls whom Puritans said had been taken by Satan. From the 1840s, it was Catholic immigrants, whom a spokesman for Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine in 1884 said were besotted with “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” In the 1920s, it was anarchists, Reds, and unwashed immigrants, including pushy Hebrews. In the 1950s, it was American Communist spies for Stalin, the Satan of that time. In the 1960s, it was hippies and traitorous opponents of the Vietnam War. Since 2001, it has been American Muslims and, in 2003, critics of the Iraq War. And, of course, in every decade before and since, it has been feral, riotous blacks.

This sorry progression of scapegoating should have warned otherwise-intelligent people against the “free speech on campus” crusade and other recent stampedes against scapegoats. Yet many of the same pundits and propagandists who’ve crusaded for “free speech” this year also sneered at Ned Lamont’s campaign of 2006 against Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, a champion of the Iraq War; they also lambasted the political psychologist Drew Westen for wondering, “What Happened to Obama’s Passion?,” in his column accusing the president, quite fairly I think, of deferring too much to government shut-down artists during the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis.

Some of the same critics disparaged Occupy Wall Street protestors who forced a public reckoning with this country’s increasingly illegitimate and unsustainable inequalities. Even as these same critics bewailed political correctness this year, they found time and reasons to assail Bernie Sanders’ campaign against those illegitimate inequalities.

No matter whether such spasms against internal dissent are orchestrated impulsively and demagogically or coolly and strategically, they always egg on many who are fretting that the society they’ve made their peace with is unravelling and who want someone “safe” to blame.

Always, these crusades also draw some support from breast-beating, finger-wagging liberals (Mark Lilla now prominent among them) who hope to stave off the worst by condemning whatever’s most noxious on their own side of the spectrum. Twice this year, professors at small, leafy, upscale undergraduate residential colleges told me that political correctness is much worse than I’d reported. No doubt, they were right about their colleges. But they let their local grievances eclipse the larger dangers gathering force beyond their campus gates. And some journalists let their own ambivalences about college skew their assignations of blame.

Now, though, with Trump’s inauguration impending, the conventional-wisdom keepers’ “epic year” may have been their last hurrah. No longer is there much seductive, thrilling relief in assailing “cry-bullies,” teenaged “snowflakes,” and “smug liberals.”

No longer can this year’s paroxysm help the crusaders to shrug off their earlier paroxysms during the run-up to the Iraq War, whose opponents they harassed in 2003; or during the 2008 financial meltdown, whose most-powerful perpetrators they excused in a frenzy to blame public-sector accomplices; or the government shutdown efforts of 2011 that they contrived to blame on those like Westen who were pleading with Obama to rouse the public against a do-nothing Congress.

They won’t be able to keep on blaming such scapegoats for the casino-like financing, predatory lending, and intrusive, degrading consumer marketing that are really causing our crises.

“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a’prey, when wealth accumulates and men decay,” wrote Oliver Goldsmith in 1777. “You can’t build a clear conservatism out of capitalism, because capitalism disrupts culture,” Sam Tanenhaus, the biographer of the conservative icon Whittaker Chambers and, soon, of William F. Buckley, told a less-than-receptive audience the conservative American Enterprise Institute in 2007.

True, today’s turbo-capitalism isn’t the only danger. Greed, the lust for power, tyrannical empires, and technological upheavals were part of human history long before there was capitalism. One might argue that there has always been a festering hole in every civilization’s soul.

But today’s capital is deepening the hole because it’s less entrepreneurial than it is ensnaring, trapping us like flies in a spider’s web of 800-numbered, sticky-fingered pick-pocketing and surveillance machines.

Why not direct the next crusade against those creeping threats to our liberties? The dispiriting answer lies in stampedes like the one for campus “free speech” that abetted Trump’s triumph instead of advancing Americans’ freedoms.

Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of “Liberal Racism” (1997) and “The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York” (1990).

IMAGE: Supporters of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump rally through Times Square, Manhattan, New York, U.S. November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Bria Webb

What The Campus ‘Free Speech’ Crusade Won’t Say

What The Campus ‘Free Speech’ Crusade Won’t Say

Published with permission from AlterNet.

Whenever American civil society has been under great stress, if not, indeed, falling apart, self-appointed champions of the conventional wisdom and traditional values have ginned up public paroxysms of alarm and rage at selected internal enemies to blame for the crisis.

In the 1690s, it was the witches, hysterical women and girls whom Puritans said had been taken by Satan. In the 1840s, it was Catholic immigrants, who were said by a presidential candidate to be besotted with “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” In every decade before and since then, it has been feral Negroes. In the 1920s, it was anarchists, Reds, and pushy Hebrews. In the 1950s, it was American Communist spies for Stalin, the Satan of that time. In the 1960sm, it was hippies, riotous blacks, and traitorous opponents of the Vietnam War. Since 2001, it has been American Muslims and, in 2003, it was critics of the Iraq War.

Now a new cohort of crusaders has found a new internal enemy: coddled, petulant college students and some of their professors, who, we’re being told, are forcing university administrators to silence and punish others who exercise freedoms of inquiry and expression in ways that offend and hurt the complainers.

We’re also being told that these “cry-bullies” of “political correctness” are winning such protections by perpetrating what one of their supposed, much-ballyhooed, victims, former Harvard President Lawrence Summers, calls a “creeping totalitarianism” on our nation’s campuses. They’re destroying the freedoms of expression and open inquiry that a liberal education should cultivate in students, not protect them against.

If this new paroxysm has a manifesto, it’s “The Coddling of the American Mind,” with a scarifying subtitle: “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.”

It was written by Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (the FIRE), and Jonathan Haidt, a business psychologist at New York University and, like Lukianoff, an itinerant preacher of their jeremiad against over-protective parenting and pedagogy that, although neither man likes to say it explicitly, is “liberal” in the colloquial and pejorative sense of that term.

Literally millions of American college alumni have fallen for this account of where the threat to liberal education is coming from. The Atlantic rode the tidal wave of the 500k-plus shares that “The Coddling” yielded, following up with a videotaped conversation between Lukianoff and the magazine’s then-editor James Bennet (now the New York Times’ editorial-page editor); with brief accounts by Lukianoff and Haidt of how they’d come to write the essay; with an essay by Yale Child Psychologist Erika Christakis, who had become one of the FIRE’s supposed martyrs, silenced by rampaging hordes of the politically correct on the altar of free speech.

The more closely I’ve looked at this new “enemy” of free speech on campus, the more I’ve been drawn — and invite you to come along with me – to look at the self-professed defenders of individual rights in education who’ve been warning us about this scourge. Lukianoff has been a tactically brilliant point man for a larger, conservative campus campaign of which the FIRE is decidedly a part by virtue of its funding, many of its personnel, and, most importantly, its strategy and tactics.

I’ve began this examination Saturday in the New York Times, but there’s only so much one can report in 900 words. So, here goes.

Lukianoff has been indefatigable, almost manic, rushing from the foundation’s lavishly appointed suites on Walnut Street in Philadelphia to campuses and green rooms across the country. Piously he brandishes First Amendment arguments to portray politically correct students and the administrators who indulge them as serious threats to open inquiry and expression.

But I, on the other hand, having witnessed the discrepancy between what the FIRE chose to highlight at one of those campuses, Yale, fall and what was actually going on there in a huge, college-wide reckoning with race and other matters, found Lukianoff to be more a propagandist and provocateur than a tribune of individual rights in education.

How Paroxysms Work

Let me say first that the more I’ve looked at crusades of this kind, the more I’ve been struck by similarities between this one and the earlier paroxysms I’ve mentioned:

● Always — and no matter whether the orchestrators of public spasms against internal traitors sound their alarms impulsively and demagogically or coolly and strategically, they get tons of support from less-talented and fortunate people who are frightened, too, by a sense that their society is unravelling. Witch-hunters, lynch-mobs, McCarthyite anti-Communists, white supremacist “militia” members, and cheerleaders and apologists in the media emerge in great numbers, out of nowhere, as the paroxysms approach their peaks.

● Always, these spasms of fear and loathing grip the public precisely when the conventional wisdom is unraveling on its own account, not because of any serious damage done to it by the groups being targeted. The scapegoating works because it diverts an increasingly nervous public’s attention from deeper, broader dangers that most people fear to face head-on – dangers inherent the blunders and deceits of the conventional wisdom’s own champions, who most of us have a stake in believing and following at least some of the time.

So the crusaders and their followers find an almost seductive, even thrilling relief and release in assailing the more-vulnerable targets being presented to them. Some even find the prospect of naming, sighting, and punishing the enemy so thrilling that they go right out and join the hunt for prey that can be held up plausibly as proof of the disloyalty and danger: Sacco and Vanzetti as anarchists, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as Jewish Communist spies, Willie Horton and O.J. Simpson as feral blacks, and so on. It works in the tawdry, predictable ways that leaders of these rituals understand only too well.

● Once a public paroxysm has been exposed to sunlight and has begun to subside, many people begin to regard its chief witch-hunters, commie hunters, and prurient scourges of decadent youth as more hysterical, sinister, and destructive of their own society than their scapegoated prey ever were.

That new clarity can prompt regret and even penitence among the scapegoaters. One Sunday in 1697, seven years the last execution of a witch in Salem, Massachusetts, Judge Samuel Sewall, who’d presided over the trials, stood silently, head bowed, in Boston’s Old South Meeting House as the pastor, Samuel Willard, read aloud a note from him confessing his “guilt contracted… at Salem” and desired “to take the blame and shame of it, asking… that God… would powerfully defend him against all temptations for Sin for the future….”

Senator Joe McCarthy never asked forgiveness for brandishing his largely fictitious lists of “Communists” in government and universities and for ruining so many lives and striking terror into many others, but he fell apart under scrutiny. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, hard-driving architect of a war in Vietnam that began with the largely fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident and continued with fraudulent warnings of danger to the Free World, confessed tearfully in “The Fog of War” that the war was undertaken with deceit and delusion. Republican political operative Lee Atwater, whose television ads hyping feral blacks helped cost Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis the 1988 election, begged forgiveness from African-Americans on his deathbed.

My reading of Greg Lukianoff, the new paroxysm’s ring-master, is that he’ll end up giving us a sad demonstration of the same. In the course of this essay, I’ll suggest several reasons why, and why the paroxysm about political correctness is doomed.

Principles vs. Provocations

In November, 2015, Lukianoff was invited to Yale by Roger Kimball, chair of the board of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program there and a member of the board of the Sarah Scaife Foundation, one of the substantial funders of Lukianoff’s FIRE. Also inviting Lukianoff to Yale that day were Professor Nicholas Christakis and his wife Erika Christakis, “free speech” crusaders who’d already hosted Lukianoff at Harvard when they’d taught there in 2013, when the FIRE named Harvard one of the ten worst colleges for free speech in America.

At Yale last November, Erika Christakis had just ignited a free-speech controversy with a public letter to students in which she criticized the university’s council of cultural-center advisors for cautioning against wearing culturally offensive Halloween costumes, such as those involving wearing blackface or feathered Native American headdresses. To Christakis, this was bureaucratic overreach, but hundreds of students signed an open letter condemning her for underestimating the sensitivities of those who might be offended.

I’ve described this controversy at some length here in AlterNet, but it’s worth noting that all of these open letters affirmed everyone’s rights to free expression. As Matthew Frye Jacobson, a professor of American studies, history and African-American studies at Yale,toldThe New York Times, the FIRE’s spin, and the subsequent storm of media coverage, was “a complete misconstruction of what happened. The cultural affairs committee made its statement about Halloween costumes, The Christakises critiqued that; the students critiqued them. Then everyone in the world criticized the students. From beginning to end, it was never a matter of [suppressing] free speech.”

No one at Yale was censured or punished by any government agency or by any administrator, faculty committee or, as far as I know, any individual faculty member.

No one, at any time, demanded or even suggested that Erika Christakis stop teaching her popular course on early childhood education. At one point in the controversy, though, an angry, black-led student group, Next Yale, posted a list of demands on President Salovey’s door at midnight, among them a demand that the Christakises be dismissed as heads of one of Yale’s residential colleges. That demand was echoed vituperatively by an immature student who yelled it right into Nicholas Christakis’ face in an open confrontation in the residential courtyard.

Salovey promptly reaffirmed his faith in the Christakises’ “deep dedication to undergraduates,” and the demand that they be dismissed as heads of their residential college died. But they took leaves of absence and cancelled their spring courses as their friend Lukianoff and the FIRE constructed and dramatized a false narrative, peddled by many in the media, casting Erika Christakis as a martyr to political correctness on the altar of free speech.

I’ve told the truth about that narrative here at AlterNet and won’t do it again in this essay. (In an address to Yale’s freshmen this year, President Peter Salovey, too, assailed what he called “false narratives” about freedom of speech at Yale and other colleges, although he didn’t mention any one by name.) Since then I’ve learned more about Lukianoff’s involvement in generating such narratives, and now is the time to share and assess it, the better to help today’s paroxysm wind down.

At the Buckley Program’s free-speech conference, Lukianoff delighted a pre-registered audience by quipping that, to hear recent student denunciations of Erika Christakis’ defense of the right to wear blackface and Native American headdresses on Halloween, “you would have thought someone wiped out an entire Indian village.”

According to a student who’d registered for the conference because he was interested in freedoms of speech but had no conservative preconceptions, the tone for the audience’s response had already been set by its mostly older, conservative Yale alumni members – decent, angry, somewhat clueless men whom the speakers engaged by preaching to the choir, their implicit message being that “We all know what we all know has happened to this college.”

By making “what has happened” explicit, Lukianoff’s quip prompted a burst of laughter that released a pent-up anger because his listeners were relieved to hear someone say what they, hemmed in by habitual decency or inhibition, had been afraid to say themselves.

But then a student who’d slipped into the audience without registering got up and demanded to know what was so funny about genocide. He put up some posters he’d been carrying around campus urging students to “stand with women of color.”

As he was escorted out by security, the other student I’ve mentioned posted Lukianoff’s remark about wiping out an Indian village on Facebook’s “Overheard at Yale” page, where it was read by some Native American students meeting elsewhere on campus. They and some others converged outside the conference, shouting, “Genocide is not a joke” and brandishing signs.

Apparently eager to face them was one of the alumni in the Buckley audience, Scott C. Johnston, Yale ’82, a self-described “conservative, data geek, blogger, adjunct professor, prediction-market maven.” With the air of a man finding what he’d come looking for, he’d leaned over to another alumnus as the lone student protester was leaving and said, “This isn’t over.”

Now, as the other protesters converged outside, Johnston leaned over again and said, “They’re here.” Who “they” were is explained on his blog, The Naked Dollar: “Out of curiosity,” he writes disingenuously (clearly, it was more than curiosity), “I went out to look. There were perhaps twenty students, in high dudgeon, trying to get in to disrupt the conference (did I mention it was about free speech?). I engaged them, which was probably silly. ‘Why are you here?’

“’We are Native Americans and you are talking about burning down Native American villages.’ (They looked about as Native American as Elizabeth Warren – were they appropriating a culture?)

“’You realize, right, that no one in there is advocating burning down villages, Native American or otherwise? That it was merely an analogy to describe something bad?’

“Apparently they did, but that didn’t matter. We said the words, and that ‘trivialized’ genocide, and that was the offense. I said, ‘You do realize that you don’t have the right not to be offended, right?’

“How wrong I was about that, I later reflected. That may be true,Constitutionally, but I was in a ‘safe space’ where the these delicate orchids are protected from hearing unpleasant things. The right not to be offended now always trumps the right to free speech.”

Johnston’s observations so far are reasonable, or at least arguable. But soon they become the conservative “free speech” campaign’s oft-repeated talking points. As Johnston’s ideology and rhetoric got the best of him, he began to soar:

“Teachers are now widely afraid of their own liberal students, because the slightest slip – the absence of a trigger warning, for instance – can result in accusations of micro-aggressions, racism, sexism, cisgenderism, whateverism, and that can result in getting tossed from tenure track. The administrators who make these decisions are afraid of the students, too, because fundamentally, the left has become a mob, and mobs are dangerous. These are the bullies of our time.”

Johnston wasn’t soaring alone. His post went viral on conservative sites under headlines like “Regressive Liberalism,” and when Lukianoff appeared on Washington, DC’s Diane Rehm show, a listener posted this comment:

“Professors should tell these sensitive darlings to go pound sand if they don’t like what they are hearing. What do they expect when they graduate and enter the real world of work, and find out their boss and co-workers don’t give a darn about their “feelings”? Or if they are discussing politics or sports around the coffee pot? And God forbid these babies ever read, or engage people on, this comment board. Microagressions galore! Their heads will explode!”

This is the language of white men who are nostalgic for youths they don’t clearly remember – they might wince to recall some of the things they did and said at 19. Some of them may be feeling marginal in their own country and are determined to do something about it – or to have somebody else do something about it. In“The Authoritarian Personality Revisited,” Peter F. Gordon recalls Thedor Adorno’s and colleagues’ construction of “a distinctive attitudinal structure, called ‘authoritarianism,’ which consisted of nine characteristics,” including a “tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values.”

Whatever the merits of categorizing personalities that way (Gordon questions them), Johnston displayed that tendency energetically, and Lukianoff soon gratified it even more when he and Nicholas Christakis, with whom he was staying while visiting Yale, walked out into the courtyard of Christakis’ residential college to meet a group of black and Latino students who were returning from a wrenching confrontation with Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway.

It was then that one of the students, a 20-year old black woman, flushed with the anguish and excitement of the campus upheavals, instantiated anyone’s fantasy of a “cry-bully” by hurling imprecations into Christakis’s face, accusing him of failing “to create a place of comfort and home” and, in practically the same breath, shouting, “Who the fuck hired you?”

Video-cam at the ready, Lukianoff caught the outburst, which was posted quickly by Tucker Carlson’s conservative “The Daily Caller” website under a headline, “Meet the Privileged Yale Student Who Shrieked at Her Professor,” with photos of her and her parents’ suburban Connecticut home and a note about its $700,000-plus assessed value. Needless to say, the video went viral, bringing the student death threats that drove her to seek police protection and go into hiding.

The conservative free-speech campaign has drawn many other prurient scourges of the decadent young to prowl campuses seeking the thrill of sighting a specimen of the enemy who has become so vivid, so haunting, in their imaginations.

Chasing the specter, they can forget about the Iraq war, the 2008 financial meltdown, the mass killings, the road rage, the gladitorialization of sports, the degrading, ever-more intrusive marketing, and Donald Trump’s stampede through conventional herd of sacred political cows, all of these horrors discrediting the neo-liberal paradigm within which the hunters have lived and moved and had their beings. Finally, they can find a target.

Given its First Amendment absolutism, FIRE’s engagement with Yale was even more ironic, because no government official, university administrator, faculty committee, or, as far as I know, individual faculty member ever threatened or effectively chilled the Christakises’ or anyone else’s opportunity to speak and teach freely.

The only “threats” that the FIRE could cite — and did cite loudly and vividly enough to provoke more of them — came from the angry black students who posted their demands on Salovey’s door confronted Nicholas Christakis in the courtyard. But should it really be so hard for Lukianoff and Johnston to imagine that a 19-year-old black woman, seeing an upsurge of racist violence and racist disenfranchisement tactics off campus, might cry out for the refuge, caring, and resources to reckon with injustice that her college’s own marketing promised her?

Of course, she shouldn’t be coddled but challenged to reconcile her overwrought perceptions with complex realities. But if any of her critics could pause to imagine how he might feel as a white student in a 93% non-white student body, on a campus most of whose custodial and dining hall staff were white and where most street crimes near campus were committed by whites, mightn’t he assess a few black students’ histrionic student reactions with a little more nuance and, frankly, a little more heart?

Instead, the calculated, viral distribution of the video of a confused and belligerent student made it hard to avoid the impression that sick system is eating its young. Like Inspector Clousseau in the movieCasablanca, the “free speech” campaign wants us to be “shocked, shocked” that some students are as intemperate as the Republican presidential nominee and that some colleges accommodate them. True, that isn’t your Daddy’s liberalism. But what the provocateurs of paroxysm are promoting isn’t his conservatism, either.

If Lukianoff’s video was meant to correct the politically correct, it had the contradictory effect of chilling the freedoms of expression that the FIRE and Scott Johnston claim to defend even in highly offensive speech. (“You do realize that you don’t have the right not to be offended, right?”, Johnston had said to the Native American students. And Erika Christakis, in her open letter on Halloween costumes, had asked, “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”)

No, universities haven’t become places of censure and prohibition, at least not before Lukianoff took out his video-cam and used his own rights to shut down someone else’s, a good example of what the conservative “free speech” campaign is doing. That video and the angry Native American students were enough to make Johnston, like alumni of other colleges that have had similar demonstrations, some led by black and Latino students, decide to stop funding what they see as coddled undergraduates and weak-kneed administrators.

“This is not your Daddy’s liberalism,” Johnston told The New York Times. “I don’t think anything has damaged Yale’s brand quite like that” video of the black student shouting at the professor.

A college has more than a brand. It has a mission to teach the young the arts and disciplines of open inquiry and democratic deliberation. That mission is sometimes compromised by immature students who disrupt civil discourse and violate other students’ rights, even while demonstrating against racism or sexual assault. Some professors do peddle propaganda and impose orthodoxies instead of stimulating free inquiry. Some deans do “guide” social life with rules that infantilize and tribunals that short-circuit due process. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights has bureaucratized such “guidance” in ways, beyond my scope here, that only make it easier to deny due process in order to advance feminist strictures. Political correctness can be dangerous if it dominates students’ politically and intellectually formative experiences.

But I, too, was at Yale last fall, teaching a political science seminar on “Journalism, Liberalism, and Democracy,” and although I saw “that video,” little else that I saw would have damaged Yale’s “brand” or liberal education’s mission had it not been so badly, willfully misrepresented. Hundreds of white students had their first intimate conversations about race with classmates of color. A thousand, of all colors, joined a vibrant campus “March of Resilience.” Another thousand convened in the chapel, where I saw them hear classmates and professors speak from their deepest humanity, without malevolence or duplicity. As the author of Liberal Racism and a journalist who lived among and wrote about angry black New Yorkers for years, I know gratuitous racial “theater” when I see it. I didn’t see much of it at Yale.

“I was disturbed by the discrepancies between what was actually happening on campus and how it was being portrayed in the media,” said one of my students, a young white man of classically “establishment” bearing. “It wasn’t exactly a protest. It was a moment of education. The entire campus was confronting collective emotions and challenges in a way I’d never experienced. It was beautiful. And it needed to be emotional– so it was.”

Yet what many Americans know about such “moments of education” is what they’re being shown by a campaign that’s peddling antipathy and an ideology that condemns earnest, even if immature, students and protective administrators but that touts “free markets” as better guarantors of individual rights. Are they?

Morals and Dollars

“Our colleges and universities, though lavishly funded and granted every perquisite which a dynamic capitalist economy can offer, have become factories for the manufacture of intellectual and moral conformity,” thundered Roger Kimball,board chairman of the Yale Buckley Program, board member of the Sarah Scaife Foundation (one of the FIRE’s important funders), and author of“Re-taking the University – A Battle Plan” at a black-tie dinner the Buckley Program sponsored last year in New York’s Hotel Pierre.

But videotaping protesting students and putting others into tuxedos in elegant hotels can’t disguise the truth that the more market-driven a college, the more anxious it is to restrict free speech. Most deans and trustees serve not politically correct pieties but pressures to satisfy student “customers” and to avoid negative publicity, liability, and losses in “brand” or “market share.”

The campaign to deflect this reality began in 1951, when William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale urged alumni to roll back professors’ godless socialism. In 1953, Buckley helped found the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which trains students to counter “liberal” betrayalsof “our nation’s founding principles — limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, market economy,… ideas that are rarely taught in your classroom.”

Again, though, universities are among the few places where “founding principles” are discussed often and rigorously enough to show that, in practice, some principles subvert others. For example, Lukianoff speaks often and everywhere of reinvigorating “the marketplace of ideas,”but ideas in a university (and a healthy democracy) emerge from a culture of open inquiry and expression based in mutual respect, not market exchange values.

“You can’t build a clear conservatism out of capitalism, because capitalism disrupts culture,” said Sam Tanenhaus, biographer of the American conservative icon Whittaker Chambers, now writing a biography of William F. Buckley, Jr., in a lecture in 2007 at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Tanenhaus’ observation about the tension between today’s capitalism and democratic or republican culture is anathema to the ultra-conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Scaife Family foundations, the Earhart, John Templeton, Koch-Brothers’ DonorsTrust (a conduit for donors for grants not made under their own names), and other foundations that sustain conservative think tanks like the AEI and a myriad of campus-targeting organizations — including FIRE, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, The David Horowitz Freedom Center (whose “Academic Bill of Rights” that would mandate more hiring of conservative faculty and would monitor professors’ syllabi for “balance”) and Campus Watch (which tracks and condemns liberal professors’ comments on the Middle East). These organizations stoke public anger against political correctness as a threat to academic freedom and to the free market economy that they keep insisting enhances it.

Their “free speech” campaign is really a culture war and a class war carried out on several fronts by a much larger network of organizations that are also funded by the very same foundations. The word “right wing” is thrown around so often that I was surprised to learn just how “right-wing” the funders of the FIRE and the other groups really are.

Harry Bradley was one of the original charter members of the far right-wingJohn Birch Society, along with another Birch Society board member, Fred Koch, the father of Koch Industries‘ billionaire brothers and owners, Charles and David Koch.

Richard Mellon Scaife, progenitor of the Scaife Family foundations, attended Deerfield Academy as a boy and got thrown out of Yale after a year and developed a passion for advancing a conservative agenda and an avid funder of efforts to impeach Bill Clinton. He wrote a check to FIRE for $150,000 in 2013, having donated similar amounts in 2012 and 2011, according to tax documents posted on the foundation’s website.  (He died in 2014, but the Sarah Scaife Foundation, with Roger Kimball on its board, continues his work, as do the other Scaife family foundations.)

The Bradley Foundation is one of the most aggressively, unapologetically racist grant-makers of any great substance in America. Not only did it help Charles Murray (with a $100,000 grant) to finish writing The Bell Curve when even conservative groups were distancing themselves from that project; in 2010 Bradley contributed $10,000 toward putting up “voter suppression billboards in black neighborhoods of Milwaukee that depicted a black man behind bars above the message, “Voting Fraud is a Felony.”

But, even putting politically correct sensitivities aside in deference to First Amendment rights, there is something so thoughtless and clueless – or else subliminally provocative — in Lukianoff’s analogy to “wiping out an Indian village” quip and in the distribution of “that video” of the overwrought black student that one can’t help but wonder if he and his funders just slip opportunistically into targeting angry non-whites because that boosts their campaign’s appeal to people looking for scapegoats, or if they’re conscious racists themselves. You certainly don’t see many or any people of color holding any staff positions at the FIRE or in the other organizations in its network.

The foundation has won more than a million dollars from Bradley andhalf a million dollars  from DonorsTrust, It had $7 million in revenue and $6 million in assets in June of 2015. Yet, basing its tax exemption on its commitments to addressing “censorship, freedom of speech, and press issues,” it deflects liberal and leftist criticism of its agenda by fighting draconian campus speech codesand other constraints on freedoms of expression. It has even defended Israel-bashersagainst some colleges’ efforts to silence their protests as anti-Semitic hate speech, because, as FIRE reminds us, the First Amendment protects it, atleast in public universities.

Lukianoff has also gone somewhat out of his way topost appeals to “Stand Up for Global Academic Freedom,” saying that it’s “under threat across the world from Turkey to China to the USA.” With all due respect to slippery slopes, it’s more than a bit slippery to lump American university bureaucracies’ encroachments on academic freedom with draconian crackdowns by governments abroad.

Ironically, FIRE has been silent lately about David Horowitz’s efforts to get state legislatures to enact his “Academic Bill of Rights,” which would use government power to monitor and shape academic freedom, in clear violation of the First Amendment. Yet David French, Lukianoff’s predecessor as the FIRE’s president, supported Horowitz’s project in public testimony.

It’s characteristic of Lukianoff’s modus that he tells everyone he’s a liberal Democrat and that he worked at the American Civil Liberties Union. Never mind that he left the ACLU to lead the FIRE, whose grants come from the tightly linked conservative foundations I’ve mentioned. His boards of directors and advisors include well-known conservatives such as George Will and T. Kenneth Cribb, assistant for domestic affairs to President Ronald Reagan and a former president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. The Yale Buckley Program’s Roger Kimball is on the board of the Sarah Scaife Foundation, one of FIRE’s chief funders, according to tax documents posted on the foundation’s website.

Even Lukianoff’s big book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, was published in 2014 by the conservative Encounter Books and has published books by Kimball, William Kristol, which is funded at least $6 million by the Bradley Foundation.

What kind of liberal Democrat builds his work around accepting such grants, obligations, and associations?  This kind: Lukianoff, invited by The Atlantic to explain how he’d come to write “The Coddling of the American Mind,” chose to explain that “In the winter of 2007–08, I slipped into a deep depression. I had struggled with bouts of depression my entire life, many of them quite severe, but this was in a category by itself. I could not shake the feeling that any mistake I made in my professional life—anything short of complete success—would mean ruin; nightmare scenarios played continually in my head.

“In January 2008, after I moved from Philadelphia to New York City to be surrounded by family and friends, I started seeing a therapist who practiced cognitive behavioral therapy, and began to turn a corner. I eventually learned to question irrationally negative thoughts about myself, the people I encountered, the future. Since then, my battles with depression have become winnable skirmishes.

“As I was learning to identify distortions in my own thinking, I began to recognize them in the thinking of others.” Lukianoff then cites instances of distorted thinking in campus sensitivity exercises.

In his conversation with The Atlantic editor James Bennet about the “tidal wave” of public reaction to the “Coddling” essay, Lukianoff says that, “A response to the Atlantic that nearly brought me to tears because it was so beautiful” came from someone who’d lost a sister who’d jumped off a building. The survivor later took a class where a similar thing was described in a work of fiction. According to Lukianoff, she wrote him that because the professor had offered no “trigger warning” about the description of suicide, “It was the first time she had felt normal in years” for being “treated like everybody else.”

This brought Lukianoff to tears? Missing from FIRE’s campaign is candor not only about his motives and modus but about his claim that protests, however puerile, about matters such as trigger warnings and Halloween costumes constitute serious threats to open inquiry and expression.

Undoubtedly that’s true in some of the disputes FIRE has publicized and some of the very few legal cases it has actually taken up. But we need a distinction between, on the one hand, defending the First Amendment against all encroachments and, on the other hand, defending it selectively, as the FIRE does, for ideological, propagandistic, purposes that can only weaken a citizenry’s ability to be vigilant in protecting the First Amendment itself.

The creeping totalitarianism that the FIRE and its enthusiasts warn about is coming not from the kids but from the system they’ve grown up in –  neoliberal, corporatist dispensation, with its manifold and metastasizing encroachments on individual rights, on campus and off.

The Real Enemy of Free Speech

When the FIRE and the larger conservative “free speech” campaign assail university administrators from curbing individual rights, they often wind up exposing but then fudging an inexorable reality: The more market-driven a college, the more anxious it is to restrict free speech, because most deans and trustees serve not politically correct pieties but market pressures to satisfy student “customers” and to avoid negative publicity, liability, and losses in “brand” or “market share.”

The real enemy of open inquiry and expression is the over-financialized, corrupt investment that the FIRE and its funders never question and, indeed, are out to defend.

Today’s capitalism would appall Adam Smith, and it can no longer vindicate the old saying that “Free markets make free men.” What conservatives keep calling “free markets” don’t accomplish that any more. But their champions can’t let go of their determination to reconcile their commitment to ordered liberty with their knee-jerk obeisance to market riptides that are dissolving republican virtues and sovereignty before their eyes.

For example, the FIRE applauds the Citizens United ruling’s extension of First Amendment-protection of political speech to business and other corporations’ shifting whorls of anonymous investors. “If flag-burning and nude dancing, why can’t it protect robust speech?” asked Theodore Olsen, former solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration and counsel for the Citizens United plaintiffs.

His subtext: Let the lefties rant, as long as the fiduciaries of shifting whorls of anonymous corporate shareholders can drown them out with big, expensive megaphones while the lefties get laryngitis from straining to be heard. Money and speech are being equated here, both in the sense that money can buy hired speakers and blast them to millions and in the sense that money-making is permitted to “speak” in public deliberations about how to regulate money according to human, social standards that should transcend money itself.

Yet the Citizens United ruling says nothing about the speech rights of workers within the very corporations whose political “speech” the ruling protects. Irony of ironies, a lot of campus political correctness is only a dress rehearsal for conformity to what most business-corporate human-resources departments demand of employees these days Yet while the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education assails private universities for restricting students’ individual rights, it would never support the creation of a Foundation for Individual Rights in Employment in private businesses.

The campaign’s legalistic strategy to defend speech rights (and gun rights) on campuses can only provoke its own “progressive” targets to join it in accelerating the transformation of cultures of dialogue and collegial contention into rhetorical battlefields, using propaganda and provocations – a strategy that risks destroying the village in order to save it.

That leaves even the most fair-minded, savvy university administrators in a quandary: “I have never felt I had an adequate handle on how to reconcile the need to protect free speech and the desire to have a decent, caring community on the campus,” former Harvard president Derek Bok told me last week. “My worst fear was encountering both a body of hypersensitive students and another group determined to provoke and anger the vulnerable in any way they could. Fortunately, that situation never arose, at least in that extreme form.”

Conservatives are making it arise right now. It’s almost as if they’ve forgotten how to hear themselves think. If they really cared about individual rights in education, they’d have to start by recognizing that the right has been dining out on the follies of American “liberals” for so long that it has forgotten how to cook for itself and has abandoned the kitchen to Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, who’ve hi-jacked the “free speech” campaign with Trump’s own attacks on “political correctness” and with the Senate’s lockjaw against holding open hearings.

Shining the klieg lights of national media on hyper-sensitive students’ over-reactions to the collapse of public discourse and the bureaucratic coping strategies of their campus elders punishes not only the students themselves but also the “no strings-attached” alumni generosity that, like Scott Johnston’s past donations, shielded academic freedom from donors with narrower interests and ideological agendas.

Yet FIRE tells those alumni, “Your Alma Mater is Listening: What message are you sending?” and tells them horror stories about campus controversies. It even adds: “In addition to—or in lieu of— a gift to your school, consider a one-time or continuing gift to FIRE. Your contribution will go a long way toward fighting for the free speech rights and other civil liberties of all college students.” If that’s not a subversion of liberal education, what is?

Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of “Liberal Racism” (1997) and “The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York” (1990).

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.