Thursday, February 25, 2016

Trump on Campus

The news from Rutgers:
Surely, there's no place less likely to become the site of an impromptu Trump rally than a college campus. And yet, at a recent Rutgers University event, throngs of students erupted into cheers of "Trump! Trump! Trump!"

Would many of them cast a vote for Trump in a GOP primary? Probably not. For these students, Trump is not the leader of a political movement, but rather, a countercultural icon. To chant his name is to strike a blow against the ruling class on campus—the czars of political correctness—who are every bit as imperious and loathsome to them as the D.C.-GOP establishment is to the working class folks who see Trump as their champion.

That might not be much comfort for the numerous people on the right and left—myself and most of my colleagues included—who consider Trump a narcissistic, fearmongering authoritarian peddling a destructive, fascistic policy agenda. But what if his supporters aren't actually applauding his agenda: what if they're merely applauding the audaciousness of his performance?
The focal point of this little tempest at Rutgers was an appearance by British writer and Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, whose speeches are a sort of performance art aimed at violating every liberal norm and offending as many groups as possible. Yiannopoulos is gay, but he takes particular delight in mocking gay men; he calls this year's American swing his "Dangerous Faggot Tour."

My sons are into similar comedians; they find nothing funnier than somebody who dares to insult everyone and violate as many taboos as possible. I find my eldest son particularly interesting in this regard, since he doesn't seem to have a prejudiced bone in his body. Once when his mother questioned some complaint he made about trans people, he sort of sighed and said, "Mom, I have a close trans friend," which is true. But he absolutely cannot stand to be told that there are things he shouldn't say or jokes he shouldn't tell; this is quite literally the only thing that I have ever seen him get really angry about.

I think that the answer to "for whom does Trump speak?" is not people who are economic victims; Trump draws support from all economic categories. Trump speaks for people who feel silenced by the dominant discourse and unable to say what they think about Muslims, blacks, Mexicans, gays, and preachy liberals. I don't think they are close to a majority of Americans, but they are clearly a large minority.

Obviously this has something to do with racism and sexism, but I don't think that is the whole story. It also represents what I can only call two different personality types, or maybe two different ideas about society. We saw in the college protests this year many young people demanding that the world be made safer for them, especially safer from offensive jokes and ethnic slurs. Then there are people like my sons, who feel that freedom means little if it doesn't mean the freedom to laugh at things you find funny and especially to puncture whatever pieties are held up for you by the social powers.

In our post-modern world, some of our brightest political flash points don't concern the distribution of resources, but what it is permissible to say.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

As Mark Twain noted over a century ago, one of the defining characteristics of Americans has always been their irreverence. Nothing is sacred in America, and there's an aspect to the culture which actually celebrates and encourages being disrespectful towards whatever one perceives as "the establishment".

To be fair, I think most of us can understand the appeal of irreverence in various lights. We've all heard awful, dirty jokes that we couldn't help but laugh at. There's something hysterical about making outrageous jokes - the core of all humor is absurdity and the unexpected, and what could be more absurd than calling out a particular elephant in the room in as colorful and vulgar a way as possible?

And this can be healthy in the right circumstances - if nothing is sacred, ostensibly that means even your own values and principles are fair game for ridicule. In theory, this should promote a culture which doesn't stand on ceremony or place anything on pedestals, but rather which is willing to question freely and therefor assign value based on empirically observable merit instead of deference to mere tradition or authority.

The trouble ends up being that a lot of Americans simply aren't very good at laughing at themselves. Everything is funny until they personally end up being the butt of the joke. So while Americans love things like mocking minorities and foreigners, they get incredibly offended when the tables are turned against them. Calling the French "surrender monkeys" or the Arabs "towel-heads" is hysterical to many Americans, but when the rest of the world mocks Americans as fat gun-toting Rednecks, that's not funny - that's a deathly serious insult.

And these are the people who support Trump - the sort of people who enjoy mean-spiritedness and utter irreverence when it is directed at others, but who will become violently offended when on the receiving end of the same treatment. They idolize Trump for both his willingnes to offend everyone else, and for his raising the biggest possible stink in response whenever the shoe ends up on the other foot.