Brad R. Torgersen

Pseudo-liberalism, the Club of Cool, and Donald Trump


Spotted this in my news feed yesterday. I thought it was both interesting, and timely. Because it spoke about the same things this earlier piece also dealt with. Namely, the dumbing down of American liberalism to the point that being liberal — in the United States, in 2016 — isn’t about compassion, or critical thinking, or finding solutions to societal problems, as much as it’s about self image. The perception of cool. Possessing the intellectual trappings of knowingness — TED talks! Neil deGrasse Tyson! National Public Radio! The Daily Show! — without actually knowing anything in-depth. A kind of quasi or neo-liberalism that treats The Poor™ as both a receptable for endless governmental uplift, and a target for sniping and jibes; provided we’re talking about the conservative poor. You know, the ones who stupidly “Vote against their own interests.” Which is just code for unedumacated, Southern-drawlin’, gun-shootin’, red-neckin’, Trump-votin’, tobacky-chewin’ inbred yocal hick racist Bible-thumpin’ white-sheet Klan scum.

Or so the Jon Stewart pseudo-liberals like to believe. Because if you’re not laughing as part of the joke, you’re the butt of the joke. You’re uncool. Point and sneer, boys. Point and sneer. Everybody’s doing it. Gotta make sure you’re doing it too. Cleverness has replaced wisdom, as the hallmark of “smartness” in today’s pseudo-liberal social media sign language. I mean, thirteen million shares on a Louis CK video cannot possibly be wrong, can they?

I personally first encountered the Smug Style of pseudo-liberalism, when I lived and worked in Seattle at the tail end of the 1990s. You will find few cities in America more dedicated to the idea that Liberalism (caps f) is the default intellectual state of the enlightened human being.

In Seattle, the real problem with the Democratic Party, is that it’s way too conservative. In Seattle, you signal your allegiance to the flag by keeping the latest copy of The Stranger perched on the corner of your office desk — just slightly askew, as if you’ve recently been leafing through it. In Seattle, you know exactly what Dan Savage said in his latest sex and relationships advice column. In Seattle, you listen to All Things Considered — on public radio KPLU-FM — like it’s the holy call to prayer. In other words, in Seattle, “Did you read it?” is a way of life. A daily set of Starbucks-fueled rituals, all conducted in the name of being “up” on the latest expectations and dispensations — from various fonts of progressive intellectual haute couture.

But — philosophical differences aside — I found there just wasn’t much “there” there. Questioning the pseudo-liberal conventional wisdom, was like trying to explain to a fish that water is wet. The fish merely looks at you goggle-eyed and exclaims, “But sir, that is the very nature of the universe! How could it be otherwise?” Indeed. How could it be otherwise? When all the smart people, with their brilliant smartness, are mutually engaged in displaying all the signs and symbols of smart — listening to the smart music, congregating in the smart coffee houses, the smart bars, reading all the smart literature, listening to the smart talk radio, discussing smart stuff with smart people over smart lunches where smartness flows in rivers — what sane person raises a hand to object? That’s just crazy talk. What’s wrong with you? Are you stupid? Malicious? Evil? Or some combination thereof?

Of course socialism is awesome! We need more of it, dammit! I read it in The Nation! I mean, they talk about it on the BBC! And there’s Scandinavia! Because Europe is always and forever better than America, on all things.

Speaking of which, let’s make sure we’re wearing our Scarlet Letter P today — p is for privilege, naturally — because nothing makes a difference in the lives of working underclass blacks and latinos like a bunch of properly and correctly concerned college-bred white DINKs sitting around talking to other properly and correctly concerned college-bred white DINKs about the awful scourges of modern racism and oppression. Yes, yes, it’s so terrible. Yes. Of course. Yes. But not us. We’re not part of the problem, we’re part of the solution. Just look at us! We’re hanging out and talking about it, like we’re supposed to! We’re acknowledging our privilege, like we were told! (A roach may or may not be lit, and passed. Depends on if we’re at the office, or at somebody’s super-expensive high-rise apartment.)

But wait, it’s not all self-flagelation and hairshirts. Quick, give us a joke. Jokes about Mormons are awesome! But oh, wait, no bro. Jokes about Muslims? Not awesome. That’s Islamophobic, doncha know. Yes, yes, don’t wanna be Islamophobic, now, do we? We’re not going to allow ourselves to be accused of being insensitive to a minority. But Mormons, hah! So hilarious! Utah too. Never been there. Wouldn’t want to. They’re uncool in Utah. Totally uncool. Not like us. We’re cool, and we know it.

All of this might be amusing — every region of the country having its quaint and sometimes annoying peculiarities — except I saw that same empty self-important, self-referential pseudo-liberalism being exported across the country. Over the nine years since I left the Pacific Northwest, I’ve seen pseudo-liberalism go mainstream. Two successive Presidential elections have been dominated by it. My chosen tertiary profession — science fiction writing — is positively drenched in it. A cult of Knowing (caps k) that revolves around the image in the mirror: do you make the street signs and speak the gang language of cutting edge progressivism? Yes, or no? Or are you (gasp) un-Knowing? Oh God, you are un-Knowing!

Point and sneer, boys. Point and sneer. Totally uncool!

It is the smug style’s first premise: a politics defined by a command of the Correct Facts and signaled by an allegiance to the Correct Culture. A politics that is just the politics of smart people in command of Good Facts. A politics that insists it has no ideology at all, only facts. No moral convictions, only charts, the kind that keep them from “imposing their morals” like the bad guys do.

Knowing is the shibboleth into the smug style’s culture, a cultural that celebrates hip commitments and valorizes hip taste [see: “It’s over!“], that loves nothing more than hate-reading anyone who doesn’t get them. A culture that has come to replace politics itself.

The knowing know that police reform, that abortion rights, that labor unions are important, but go no further: What is important, after all, is to signal that you know these things. What is important is to launch links and mockery at those who don’t. The Good Facts are enough: Anybody who fails to capitulate to them is part of the Problem, is terminally uncool. No persuasion, only retweets. Eye roll, crying emoji, forward to John Oliver for sick burns.

I’m glad somebody is noticing this. I am glad to see media outlets outside of the usual conservative venues, posting or printing articles that take pseudo-liberalism to task. For being the shallow Club of Cool that it is. For accelerating our political race to the bottom — where one of the two most pathetic, worthless, indeed most irresponsible Presidential choices in my lifetime, stands on the brink of claiming the most powerful office in the world. For speaking the words “compassion” and “caring” while wasting no time deriding, mocking, name-calling, ridiculing, and otherwise bully-shaming anyone and everyone found guilty of being uncool. It’s not even about the issues at all anymore. It’s the uncoolness proper, that gets the lion’s share of ad hominem invective. The Club of Cool wouldn’t be the Club of Cool, if it didn’t look down its nose at everyone not in the club — and make a cutting remark.

Ridicule is the most effective political tactic.

Ridicule is especially effective when it’s personal and about expressing open disdain for stupid, bad people.

Political legitimacy is granted by the respect of elite liberals.

You can’t be legitimate if you’re the butt of our jokes.

If you don’t agree, we can’t work together politically.

We can’t even be friends, because politics is social.

Because politics is performative — if we don’t mock together, we aren’t on the same side.

I have occasionally seen progressive laymen and even commentators blame the rise of pseudo-liberalsm on people like Rush Limbaugh. As if Rush — all by his blustering self — somehow dumbed down political discourse in the United States, such that American liberals simply had to out-dumb Rush. As if the response to a toxic coarsening of dialogue can only be to match and amplify that toxic coarsening. Thus it’s all Rush’s fault. Or it’s all FOX NEWS’s fault. Or it’s all Glenn Beck’s fault. And so on, and so forth. A legion of conservative yackety-bogeymen, inflicting an impossible mode of political and social exchange on a hapless nation.

I suspect this (weak and unsupportable) defense arises from a strong instict to preserve self image — having become infatuated with the mirror, America’s 21st century progressives see themselves as the most morally and intellectually perfect people to have ever lived.

For the Club of Cool, self image is paramount. No part of the toxic coarsening must be traced back to another strong instinct: the desire (felt by humans, in any era, across thousands of years of history) to feel superior. To self-perceive as better than the other guy. Mentally better. Morally better. Ideologically better. The Club of Cool cannot remain Cool without keeping its gates shut against the masses of Uncool who dwell beyond the borders. Everything bad is automatically evicted to the Uncool side of the fence. Thus our cheap and easy Club of Cool conversation can continue, as long as the sins of the Club of Cool are forever assigned to people beyond the glimmering halls of the Club.

Which (not coincidentally) precisely describes how (and why) the past three years in the science fiction publishing world, proceeded as they did. With the key aspect being: the Club of Cool experienced pushback from the Club of Uncool, and all hell broke loose.

The Club of Uncool ‘aint never, ever supposed to push back. Ever.

Which takes me back to the national scene:

The smug style resists empathy for the unknowing. It denies the possibility of a politics whereby those who do not share knowing culture, who do not like the right things or know the Good Facts or recognize the intellectual bankruptcy of their own ideas can be worked with, in spite of these differences, toward a common goal.

It is this attitude that has driven the dispossessed into the arms of a candidate who shares their fury. It is this attitude that may deliver him the White House, a “serious” threat, a threat to be mocked and called out and hated, but not to be taken seriously.

The wages of smug is Trump.

I’ve said here before that I think Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are two sides of the same, rancid coin. Trump voters seem to be voting for Trump out of fear and hatred of Hillary, and Clinton voters seem to be voting for Clinton out of fear and hatred of Donald. Each of them has become an avatar — for the opposite side — of all that is heinous and terrible about The Other Guys. And they (voters, both Trumpist and Hillaryists) will support Their Man (or Their Woman) at all costs — to ensure that The Other Guys cannot prevail. The Club of Cool and the Club of Uncool, in a cage match where nobody wins.

Frankly, I think even if every last Libertarian voter (me, in this election; for example) were to switch to Trump, it still wouldn’t be enough. Hillary is Club of Cool, and Club of Cool put Obama in the White House for eight years. I was certain the Club of Cool didn’t have enough of a hold on the country, to put Obama back in office, after all that transpired from 2007 through 2011. But I was dead wrong. Obama beat Romney handily, just like one of the great prophets of the Club of Cool — FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver — said would happen. Rejoice, fellows! The prophet prophesied correctly! Club of Cool in the center square, with all the Smartness and stuffs, for the win!

I’m not sure how much more Smartness the country can endure, without serious deliterious consequences. Not that I think Trump is any better, nor has he a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. He doesn’t. He never did. In fact, he seems to be precisely the kind of repugnant, eratic, buffoonish opponent that Hillary needs to drive people into her camp — even people savvy to the fact that Hillary is an atrocious and uprincipled candidate. Because The Donald is worse, in their minds. He is not Club of Cool. He cannot offer the Club of Cool the irresistible chance to elect the first woman POTUS in American history. That this woman POTUS is a certified careerist crony-capitalist two-faced serial liar seems to not bother the Club of Cool. Because Trump is always worse. Always. Worse. Therefore, the Club of Cool is as the Club of Cool does. It’ll be Hillary for the W, and we’ll endure four to eight more years of Jon Stewart-style smuggitude from insufferable Hillary supporters, who will too proudly praise themselves (for having voted for a woman) and not once wonder whether or not their candidate is in fact a miserable, absolutely unworthy government officer.

Has the White House seen worse, than either The Donald or Hillary? Maybe. Plenty of incompetents and crooks have cycled through that chair. And each time, the fabric of the Constitution gets a little more tattered — our national body sickened just that much more, by the disease. Of freedoms curtailed and honest men and women burdened by still more regulation, and more taxation. In the name of growing a federal beast that spends money it doesn’t have, to ensure programs — which are ineptly run — continue in perpetuity, so as to guarantee jobs and to buy votes.

I have occasionally asked Hillary supporters if they will admit that there should be limits on government spending and government power. I’ve not been very satisfied with the answers, mostly because even asking such a question — and it is a reasonable, honest question that should not be off the table — immediately throws me into the Uncool Club. For the Club of Cool, asking the question raises a massive red flag. “Aha! He’s one of those people. He doesn’t Know like we Know, and we all know how you treat the not-Knowers, right gang? Pillory! Mocking! Derision! Accusation! The ignorant rube has bared his ass, we should make him pay for it!” This is done on-line, of course. Behind the safety of keyboards. And in the company of like-minded compatriots. Because the true path to diversity is to surround yourself with other pseudo-liberals who all show the markers of Knowing and make the correct signs and wear the correct gang garments, to demonstrate correct tribal affiliation.

Oh, sure, the cries of, “BUT THE RIGHT WINGERS DO THE SAME S*** ALL THE DAMNED TIME, SO F*** YOU!” can be heard, even before I push the PUBLISH button on this article. The misbehavior of the Right seems to be the only excuse pseudo-liberals need, to keep perpetrating on the Left. Which is another example of racing to the bottom. Because if the only “standard” you set for yourself is to always be just as crappy as the other people, nobody is going to stop and pause, to ask: could there possibly be a better way to approach our philosophical, societal, ideological, and especially emotional differences?

I know I’ve probably had far less patience — with pseudo-liberalism — than some people would prefer. I’ve lost a few friends over the fact that I am unrelentingly blunt in my (hard) appraisal of pseudo-liberalism’s vacuousness and obsessive attention to superficial identity politics. My wife occasionally asks me why I always laugh to the point of tears, any time we watch an episode of Portlandia, and my answer is always the same: the Club of Cool was in desperate need of savvy lampooning. To take the air out of its tires. To show that the emperor has no clothes. To poke a funny (and occasionally sharp) stick at the people who too often believe they must not, can not, should not be laughed at. Ever.

But lampooning just shines a spotlight on the problem. The problem isn’t addressed unless people on the Left side of the aisle begin to talk about and act on the problem. Us right-wingers can scream about the problem all day long, and the Club of Cool won’t give a damn. Anything coming from the Uncool Club is automatically mocked and derided out of hand, just because it’s Uncool in origin. But when the liberals themselves begin to see an uncomfortable or even alarming pattern, that’s when you know the issue has gotten serious. Because people who give a damn about hearts and minds are realizing that “Smug, self-important asshole” is a rotten way to sell liberalism — especially to the very classes of people liberalism desperately claims to want to help. The blue-collar workers. The middle and lower-middle class. The people who fix your plumbing and do your wiring and re-roof your house and maintain your car. Military folk. Police. Farmers. Firefighters. When so-called “compassionate” liberalism’s response — to being turned away from, by these demographics — is to mock, deride, shame, name-call, or worse, something has gone very, very wrong in liberalism. Thus, it’s not liberalism at all. It’s something else.