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DANIEL VAUGHAN: ‘Normalcy’ is not coming back
There’s a common belief held among some elite circles of the left and right that if Donald Trump could only be removed from the White House, things would return to “normal.” This view permeates campaigns, fueling their disdain for Trump and directing their fever-dreams of magically seeing him forced out of office.
But “normal” isn’t coming back — the cultural forces driving the Trump phenomenon aren’t specific to him, and, more importantly, they’ll outlast him.
In the uproar around Trump’s tweets attacking the so-called “Squad,” our elite intelligentsia is rocking themselves in a corner telling themselves, “It’s just a dream.” David Frum claims: “When this is all over, nobody will admit to ever having supported it.”
Ezra Klein describes Joe Biden’s campaign theme as a “return to normalcy.” Adam Serwer hyperventilates in The Atlantic that how we react now to Trump’s tweets and political attacks will “define America forever.”
The drumbeat goes on and on. Trump is a unique threat to our form of government, he’s ruining institutions, and he’s the cause of our fallen culture — the orange man is bad.
I get that. I even share some of those concerns. But these problems predate Trump and will outlast him.
The forces driving our cultural polarization are moving forward largely unaffected by anyone in the White House. Donald Trump might like to think he’s the main driving cultural force out time, but in truth, he merely reflects our culture — as most presidents do. Those elected tend to reflect those who elect them.
We live in a reactionary age. As Andrew Sullivan so aptly sums up, “Reactionary thought begins, usually, with acute despair at the present moment and a memory of a previous golden age. It then posits a moment in the past when everything went to hell and proposes to turn things back to what they once were.”
MAGA, Make America Great Again, is reactionary politics summed up in four potent words. It posits that America was once great, and wants to get us back to that golden age of greatness.
Liberal elites are telling themselves that getting rid of Trump will achieve their own golden age. They believe they can return to the magically “serene” Barack Obama years and whitewash the Trump project from their minds as nothing more than a bad dream.
Here’s the thing: There is no golden age of the past to return to — and “normalcy,” whatever that means, is not coming back.
Reactionary politics exists on both sides of the aisle, though it takes different forms. What makes our current moment different than the past is that we’ve managed to commodify reactionary politics and shorten the time it takes one side to react to the other. There isn’t one main issue swinging our reactionaryism; it’s several small points.
In the past, it took significant events and continuous news coverage to create a sufficient reactionary moment. The Catholic Counter-Reformation answered the Protestant Reformation, the Great Recession prompted numerous groups to arise in response, and Richard Nixon got elected as a reaction against the excesses of the 1960s cultural left. These were major events that affected many people.
The internet information age has changed everything. All news, all outrages, are at your fingertips 24/7. And more importantly, stories that create a visceral reaction are the only way media makes money. Outrage culture, where everyone is always looking for something to be mad at, is the ultimate reactionary politics put on steroids and given an infinite lifespan.
Past reactionary moments cooled once there was nothing that required their feedback. The internet — and more specifically, the constant outrage culture on social media — continually pumps more fuel to the reactionary outrage fires.
The reactionary pendulum swings back and forth faster because it has a nonstop fuel and momentum. We are, quite literally, at risk of running off the rails on a crazy train, Ozzy Osbourne biting bats and all.
Trump didn’t cause reactionaryism — he just stepped up to the plate at the most opportune time. Removing Trump only takes one man off the top of the pedestal. There is more than enough outrage fuel to keep the cycle alive well beyond Trump.
In fact, you can test this, as Paul Waldman has done in describing an alternate reality where Hillary Clinton won in 2016:
Across the country we’d probably be seeing a renewed spirit of activism on the right — mass protests, the creation of new grassroots organizations, local Republican Party chapters overrun with volunteers, ordinary citizens getting involved for the first time — in what would amount to a Tea Party II. Analysts would be predicting a huge Republican wave in the 2018 midterm elections, enabling the GOP to solidify its stranglehold on Congress and statehouses. Publications would be filled with think pieces asking, “Will Clinton’s election destroy the Democratic Party?”
We have a pendulum, swinging faster and harder, fed by outrage, running the cycles of our politics. Breaking that sequence ultimately requires destroying reactionary politics and the outrage cycle.
Is this possible? Or will people tire of the entire thing and start tuning out the constant outrage? Only time will tell.
But one thing is for sure: There’s no going back. Normalcy, if it ever existed, is a thing of the past.
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