Donald Trump’s presidency is the latest consequence of a conservative campaign, launched at least five decades ago, to punish liberals for systematically discrediting the idea that Christian morality is American morality, for discrediting what many considered America’s spoken and unspoken consensus on moral values and norms. In response to this encroachment on the social and political status of white Christian “values,” conservatives have systematically attacked the people and ideas they hold responsible for the degradation of their moral authority.
Liberal ideas that contributed to weakened moral authority, such as tolerance, diversity, and multiculturalism, as well as policies that have weakened familial and faith-based organizational ties among working class and poor Americans, have been vigorously discredited and ultimately rendered anathema for Americans who felt (or could be persuaded to feel) most acutely the sting of diminished status due to America’s collapsing social and moral consensus. Progressive ideas were thrown into a trash can marked “Politically Correct,” which has become an effective rhetorical devise for transmitting politically conservative, anti-intellectual rage and frustration over the democratization or dilution (depends in your perspective) of moral authority in American life.
Liberal intellectuals and academics had to be discredited and displaced. As the beneficiaries of cultural liberalization, women, minorities, gays and lesbians, immigrants, secularists, and atheists, among others, became suspects for conservative detectives investigating the theft of their moral authority and social dominance. The so-called “white working class voters” who are credited with helping Trump win the presidency are not very subtle about their contempt for liberals and liberalism. They feel (or have been persuaded to feel) that the progress of others has been achieved by dragging them down. Having not recognized their prior privileged status, these folks see “reverse” racism, bigotry, and intolerance all around them, besieging them. Like children, they have been primed by conservative political strategists to simply and stubbornly accuse liberal accusers of illiberalism. At least two generations of conservatives have now been socialized to abandon reasoned political discourse and advocacy and instead to embrace a tact and tactic best described as “trolling.”
The conservative response to Hillary Clinton’s now infamous “basket of deplorables” comment is an excellent and illustrative example of this phenomenon. It was not a rebuttal so much as a childish rebuff the nature of which has become standard operating procedure for politicos right and left. Ironically, Clinton was trying to invoke universal moral values, but to her critics she is a false prophet of virtue simply because she is a liberal. “Identity politics” goes both ways. Conservatives condemn it when it is used by the left to mobilized marginalized groups, but employ it with aplomb against liberals. Clinton is a “liberal” so her arguments (regardless of merit) and her factual claims (regardless of accuracy) must be demonized and rejected as a show of political loyalty and power. “Attack the messenger” is now an iron rule of politics for the far right (and left). If you call me deplorable then I pretend it is a compliment from the likes of you. For visual confirmation of this point, google “deplorables” and “nasty women,” each of which will turn up pictures of folks proudly sporting T-shirts that advertise their pride in the labels. We now make competing political statements instead of political arguments and counter-arguments. Logic, facts, and reason-based claims are no longer privileged in American politics. They are nothing more than expressions of team or tribal preferences, value judgments the value of which is confined to those sharing in-group loyalties. To the rest, they are just barbs to be deflected and returned.
Ultimately, Americans may be mired in a “post-truth” political world because in order to discredit the liberals and the liberalism that discredited America’s imagined moral consensus, conservatives have sought to discredit intellectual consensus in America. Liberals ignore the authority of faith, so conservatives have come to deny the authority of reason. If clerics no longer have moral authority in America, then neither should scientists and scholars have intellectual authority. If liberals can relegate moral truths to the status of mere “value judgments,” then conservatives can do the same with facts, reason-based claims, and science. Liberals have to either tolerate the subjectivity of facts or confess that “they started it” and that their use of moral relativism as a political cudgel was equally irrational, destructive, and uncivil.
When Kelly Ann Conway introduced the term “alternative facts” into our political vernacular recently, I couldn’t help but wonder if somewhere deep down she was thinking, if liberals get to have “alternative lifestyles,” then we get to have “alternative facts.”