Want to Understand Trump Supporters? Think “Reaction”

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By Walter Donway

January 14, 2019



Want to know why some Trump supporters seem to oppose every “progressive” social reform?

Want to know why some Trump supporters seem to oppose every “progressive” social reform? Why what is reported with satisfaction from progressivism’s front lines becomes the scoffing headline on Fox TV or Breitbart News?

If explanations such as “because they’re a**holes” or “because they’re haters” come to mind—and they satisfy you—stop reading. Those are the same names Trump supporters call bearers of progressive “good news” that they find inexplicably perverse.

For a closer scan, I refer you to a hoary political concept: reactionary. “Reaction,” like “Right” and “conservative,” stems from the French Revolution. The Thermidorian Reaction, July 27, 1794, brought Robespierre’s “Terror” to an end, reasserting the authority of the French National Convention over the Committee of Public Safety. The Jacobins, the most violent faction, associated with Robespierre and responsible for the Terror, were brutally suppressed, more than 100 Robespierre supporters guillotined. The Thermidorian Reaction ended use of the guillotine against accused “counterrevolutionaries.”

But it became one of history’s surest lessons that reaction eventually went as far as had revolution.

There was palpable relief that the feast of the guillotine was over. At first, reactionaries sought to save the “true” revolution with a middle way between the monarchists and the radicals who started it all for “the rights of man.” But it became one of history’s surest lessons that reaction eventually went as far as had revolution—to the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, ultra-royalists, and aristocratic privilege.

What is my contemporary analog of Revolution? I will limit myself to three examples. Progressives should prepare to become exasperated, reactionaries to cheer.

Equal treatment of black Americans. From Reconstruction through the 1960s, black Americans lived with interminable “progress” from emancipation toward full citizenship. It was progress, but honest observers had to agree with Martin Luther King. Nothing justified second-class citizenship for black Americans. The ideal, which he called a dream, was that every black person in America be treated—he said “judged”—not by the color of his skin but the content of his character. And so, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I need not rehearse, here, the course of the “revolution” that went from the principle of equality before the law, in particular voting rights, to demand for “affirmative action” by employers and all major institutions, to the reality, today, of de facto quotas. Published late last year, The Diversity Delusion, by Manhattan Institute senior scholar Heather Mac Donald, reports the distance major universities go to justify blatantly unequal admissions and academic standards because of their imperative to admit and graduate the races “equally.”

Harvard University leads a group defending a lawsuit by Asians contending gross discrimination against Asian students. And my own alma mater, Brown University, this fall put a happy face on its announcement of a “black alumni reunion.”

Universities nationwide with thousands of administrators in “diversity” roles are justifying—and extending—such practices daily. But, we are told, now, that this is no more than the continued battle for the “equal treatment of black Americans” (just as the Jacobins alleged that theirs was the same revolution for the rights of man, just carried forward by the Terror).

Tolerance of sexual diversity. I recall from high school how my art teacher, very much in the closet, was tormented by a clique of students who could get away with anything in his class because “they knew” and would “tell.” In the 1950s, it was, and still is today in many parts of America, risky to your career to “come out.” Laws making sodomy a serious crime lasted into this decade. Life for gays and lesbians, however, has been transformed, today. The intelligence and conscience of America opposes abuse and, when recognized, discrimination against same-sex lifestyles.

Meanwhile, the united voice of “progressivism” demands to know when Americans are going to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide. In human history in recorded times, worldwide, whatever the culture or religion, applying the concept of “marriage” to two men or two women has been unknown until at least the beginning of the 21st Century. Now, it is a non-negotiable demand, the minimal tolerance and open-mindedness expected of Americans.

Simultaneously, another “progressive” reform, new in history, is that men or women who report feeling that they are of the opposite sex should not be questioned, counseled by a psychiatrist, nor in any way discouraged on their path to sex re-assignment surgery. If you are inclined to question same-sex marriage or sex re-assignment surgery, then you oppose “tolerance of sexual diversity” (just as those who questioned the Terror were considered “opposed” to the revolution for the rights of man).

Protecting the environment. In the early 1970s, in New York City, if you ran your finger along a window ledge, it picked up a coat of black soot. Soot—called “particulates”—coated the city. Or again, walking past a traffic jam at an intersection made your eyes sting. And the air stunk. It was perilous to fall into the city’s East or Hudson Rivers; a few gulps might be deadly. America had used the air and water as convenient disposal systems during our national drive for unprecedented prosperity.

No less a reactionary than Richard Nixon ushered in the Environmental Protection Act, creating standards for clean air and water and an Environmental Protection Agency. By one estimate, in the Seventies, America spent an amount equal to the total retained earnings of American corporations to comply with clean air and clean water standards. Progress unfolded over decades, with astonishing gains against real pollution of virtually every kind. Where I grew up, the Blackstone River, flowing from Worcester south to Narragansett Bay, was among the most polluted in America; today, it is a magnet for water recreation.

But the united voice of “progressivism,” today, decries as intellectually embarrassing and a sign of stunted conscience any doubt that we must revolutionize the economy, on a crash basis, and at any cost, to save life on earth from catastrophic climate change over the next some say 20, some say 50, some say 100 years. The sun shines through clear air, we fish with confidence in the Blackstone River, but the environment is a catastrophe and the problem is composition of the Earth’s atmosphere. The solution as proposed by environmentalist Bill McKibben in an article in The New Republic is a government-enforced economic “mobilization,” analogous to mobilization for World War II. Shutter our vast carbon-based energy industries and build new industries based on sun and wind. This would require government economic regimentation amounting to fascist-style socialism (not literal public ownership but de facto ownership via command and control).

But “deny” the imperative of radical economic reconstruction to avert the alleged (and unsubstantiated) catastrophic climate change—as purported to be predicted by computer “general models” of climate dynamics—and you oppose “protecting the environment.”

Some three decades ago it was argued that reactionaries were rather subdued because progressivism, whatever its agenda, at that time held the high moral ground.

Some three decades ago it was argued (Albert O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction, Harvard University Press, 1991) that reactionaries were rather subdued because progressivism, whatever its agenda, at that time held the high moral ground. Prof. Hirschman, at Harvard and the Institute for Advanced Study, wrote: “Because of the stubbornly progressive temper of the modern era, ‘reactionaries’ live in a hostile world. They are up against an intellectual climate in which a positive value attaches to whatever lofty objective is placed on the social agenda by self-proclaimed ‘progressives.’”

Since the election of President Trump, but actually well before that, or he would not have been elected, it has been far less certain that, as Prof. Hirschman wrote, intimidated “reactionaries are not likely to launch an all-out attack” on the progressive agenda.

Because much has changed while “progressives” surged forward confidently. With their compelling causes—such as equal treatment of black Americans, tolerance for diverse sexual lifestyles, and protecting the environment—they kept any potential reactionaries fairly well-behaved. Their “revolutions” made rapid progress. The moral balance of the country swung toward the progressive case. You cannot get any momentum going for racism, gay-bashing, or polluting.

But you can ignite reactionary opposition to systemic special treatment of blacks, same-sex marriage, and economic regimentation to control the long-term temperature of the atmosphere. Doubtless, progressives will say: Tough! All progress goes step by step. We aren’t going to soft-pedal reform to cater to timidity of the status quo. Change is contentious!

But the “progressive” positions today on the three issues I raised (and there are many more) are not extensions of the solid principles, the revolutions, with which progressives began. The push for equality for blacks has become a demand for special treatment, widespread lowering of standards, and for racialist measures toward other groups. Arguably, the revolution has snuffed out its own founding principle: Reverend King’s dream of color-blind treatment.

The push for tolerance of differences in sexual orientation has become a demand that marriage, universal in all human societies, through all history, with its logic rooted in reproductive biology, be rendered meaningless. Arguably, the revolution has lost its tolerance for different sexual lifestyles such as legal gay domestic partnerships and marriage. Such difference now is intolerable.

The push to reverse the degradation of air and water has become a demand to sanctify a mere hypothesis as beyond debate and justifying drastic economic transformation worldwide. Arguably, demand that the industrial revolution pause for spring cleaning has become a demand for reversal of the industrial revolution.

These points are made repeatedly, in protean variations, by reactionaries. Not extremes of the same principles, but unacknowledged reversals of the principles of key progressive “revolutions” called forth a national reaction that coalesced and found its voice in the 2016 Presidential election. But the reaction is broader than Presidential politics, as anyone can observe in new media voices, especially perhaps online—including populist social media voices.

Daily, “progressives” lament that reaction has swept beyond protest against the latest “extremes” to become frankly racist, anti-gay, and anti-environment. I cannot agree that, as yet, this has occurred to any significant extent. There are exceptions, but the masses of Americans are resolutely anti-racist, pro-tolerance for gays, and supportive of protecting the environment.

This is the nature of reaction. Initially scorned, it becomes a demand to go back to a place anterior to initial reforms—the ugliness of white nationalism.

Nevertheless, Facebook and Twitter posts, and thousands of daily entries in “comment” sections of online publications, express indignation and aggression that do portend extremes of reaction: comments that fling contempt at the progressive agenda as such (metaphorically, at the revolution itself for the rights of man). This is the nature of reaction. Initially scorned, it becomes a demand to go back to a place anterior to initial reforms—the ugliness of white nationalism, denunciations of the “gay lobby” per se, and calls to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency.

Prof. Hirschman’s thesis is that the rhetoric of reaction itself, first on the “anti-progressive” side, then on the side of “progressive” counter-reactionaries, explains the seeming inability of major parties to political disagreement even to “hear” each other. The “rhetoric of reaction” fosters public–but also psychological–insularity, exasperation captured in the cry “how can people even think like that?”

Or, of course, in the cry “they’re just a**holes!”



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