Many commentators, including me, have raised objections to the overzealous “cancel culture” of progressive politics. The moral certainty, the rejection of dialogue or debate, and the language of reckoning and revolution which characterize today’s wokeness advocacy are rightly seen as affronts to the freedom of speech and thought fundamental in a healthy pluralism. Yet the twilight of the Donald Trump presidency has revealed an equivalent cancel culture on the right wing, no less illiberal in its implications and perhaps even more dangerous in its potential. Denialism – of nuance, of fact, of whatever undermines a cherished conceit – is occurring across an ideological spectrum.
While Trump’s winks at white racism and the multiple accusations of sexual assault leveled at him have been much discussed, his term of office did not revert the US to a nonfiction Republic of Gilead or a nationwide Jim Crow; indeed, he seemed to have gained support from Hispanic and Black male voters in the 2020 election. But throughout his administration, and now at the merciful end of it, he inspired a perverse loyalty among his followers – both ordinary people and elected legislators – that was as impervious to reason and argument as any of the dogma spouted by Black Lives Matter and #Me Too. Despite Trump’s brazen mendacity, incompetence, and narcissism, despite his blatant ignorance of civic principles or his crude violations of civic protocol, despite his obvious sense of the presidency as a private prerogative rather than a public responsibility, his backers insisted he had done nothing wrong. Such is the cult of personality arisen around Trump that fans have stubbornly sought to discredit every institution which called him on his corruption and unfitness: the independent press, the Democratic party, the national intelligence apparatus, military leadership, former presidents and presidential candidates, nonpartisan federal departments, and finally the American electorate itself. To demonstrate their allegiance to the cause of Donald Trump, his MAGA-hatted minions want to cancel democracy.
Though this impulse to orthodoxy has many roots, it’s my contention that a prime factor in the devotional delusions of both right and left is the debasement of intellect brought on by contemporary media. The siloing of opinion, afforded by customized news feeds; the political import attached to entertainers and entertainment, nurtured by the attention economy; the disproportionate amplification of minority views, promoted by viral electronic posts; the dissemination of falsehood and conspiracy theory, encouraged by clickbait; the instant reduction of complex ideas to catchy memes, accelerated by social networking; the devaluation of earned authority and attempted objectivity, steepened by the anarchy of the entire internet – all these have helped create the polarization in America today. Even the ubiquitous, constant distraction of phones and cameras, no matter the messages they relay, has led to societies of mis- and uninformed across the western world. Political structures originally built around the educated citizen and the printed word erode under the mob, the tweet, and the troll.
In September 2016 the Canadian columnist Andrew Coyne cited a roster of trends which might explain the improbable rise of Donald Trump from reality-TV buffoon to presidential contender:
…the celebrification of everything, the degradation of knowledge or civility in the age of social media, when everyone with access to a computer thinks he knows all there is to know about anything…the intellectual chaos of the times, the easy cynicism that claims all truth is relative, the nihilist pose that choices are without risk, that nothing matters because it’s all a joke anyway…the excesses of identity politics, the obsession with racial and sexual differences to the exclusion of individual rights or common human values, the assertion that society is a zero-sum conflict between ceaselessy warring groups…
Over four years later, warring groups are now conflicting over which brand of denialism ought to prevail. One would override a range of legitimate expressions on matters of race, gender, and justice, and one would override the legitimate expression of popular will at the polling station. Donald Trump has lost, but Trumpism may have won. We are all reality-TV buffoons now.