Well I’ve done it already. I’m already going to write about Trump. No surprise there, he’s unavoidable.
Recently, I came across an article on the site “Everyday Feminism” that provoked a lot of questions for me. The article is titled “5 Gaslighting Phrases Donald Trump Used That Remind Me a Lot of My Abusive Ex”. Now I know what some of you are going to say. “But Stephen, why deliberately pick such easy targets of criticism?” As with any article from Salon or Buzzfeed, there’s more here than meets the eye in terms of the current zeitgeist.
This particular site has been a hub of popular Feminist writers, who pen articles on currently salient topics, often from an interesting range of perspectives. Sure, some of the writers may be amateur, but most of them have degrees and write for other magazines (this article in particular was written by Suzannah Weiss, “She is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more.”).
Nevertheless, the site, while aimed at a younger audience, often tries to tackle subjects such as sexism, racism, homophobia and trans issues, often with political undertones, but written from a “self-help” kind of perspective. Some article titles include “How to Compliment Women without Objectifying Them”, “5 Gender Neutral Alternatives to “Boyfriend” and “Girlfriend”, and “But Seriously, Let’s Talk about Millenial Poverty”. Two things strike me about these articles when I read them- they are at once personal, and from a “social justice” perspective. They attempt to integrate lifestyle choices with a liberal/social justice mentality. Many people (critics of political correctness) will immediately dismiss these sites and communities as “social justice warriors” and be done with it. However, there is an emerging identity/community of people like this, many of them LGBT, people of color, or women in the US, who take this kind of thing very seriously. People are trying to apply concepts originally drawn from sociology like “intersectionality” and apply it to their lives. What’s the harm in that, my inner lib says?
The problems I see with these “social justice pop articles” that have recently been ubiquitous on the internet are multiple.
First, it perpetuates a certain standard liberal narrative without any introspection. In terms of this article about Trump, it focuses on the racism/sexism angle of Trump’s candidacy. While these are undeniable aspects of Trump’s candidacy, and the article provides provides effective counterarguments to Trump’s own arguments about why it wasn’t important to focus “pussygate”, several things in this article are very telling.
First of all, when addressing anticipated and real criticisms in the article, Weiss makes the following argument about political correctness. “Political correctness is just being considerate”, and denied accusations of being the “PC police”. This not only represents a heightened sense of awareness of exactly what type of discourse is being presented in these articles, it is interesting to see a defense of political correctness in and of itself (I’d be the first to guess that it would come from this site).
Is she right? To an extent. Critics of political correctness fail to remember that there are moral standards which we should hold people to in public discourse, most of all people in positions of power. Advocates of this PC culture also are correct in saying that sexism and misogyny have been so thoroughly internalized by the populace that they shut down any attempt to be considerate as being “politically correct”. I would go so far as to say every time Donald Trump has mentioned PC culture, he has used it as an excuse to target some minority group. This is hateful and frightfully alarming rhetoric.
But PC advocates also fail to recognize the complex political valences around the “political correctness” debate. This article is shoddy in its attempt to address current politics, first of all because it doesn’t attempt to be analytical, and was written from a personalistic perspective. The metaphor of gaslighting is supposed to carry over seamlessly into politics. She starts the article talking about how people are “traumatized” by this election. This is standard liberal waffling. Have hate crimes against Muslims gone up? Of course! I’m not attempting to delegitimize people’s feelings about this election. I too am VERY concerned about the direction this country is heading. But the sheer psychological impact of this election is reduced in this metaphor to a personalistic metaphor about an abusive relationship. First of all, let’s ignore the fact that a politician can’t “gaslight” in the normal sense of the word. Sure he can attempt to silence his critics (like every politician).
But how did Trump manage to pull out of his nosedive in the polls after “pussygate”? One reason may be that he controlled the policy narrative afterwards, while Clinton focused on Trump’s personal scandals. Just like Bill Clinton was able to get through his impeachment scandal and his poll numbers even went up, Trump was able to refocus the debate and appeal to voters on the basis of his ideas, not his character. Trump said “I’m not proud of my locker room talk. But this world has serious problems”. This resonated with many voters, working class people in Michigan and Wisconsin for example, who have been left behind by neoliberal policies. It sends the message- “I have my human failings, but I will be your defender in the halls of power”. Clinton could not have done more damage to herself by focusing on Trump’s scandals. Aside from quote “normalizing racism and sexism”, what impact could Trump’s words and actions those many years ago on a tour bus possibly have for a family of 5 in rural Kansas?
It is interesting that despite their apparent ideological difference, the writer of this article and Clintonites appeal to the same moral conservatism as Christian conservatives to discredit Trump. Whether this moral critique is true or not (and it certainly is true- Trump is a cancer to the state of decency in political speech), it is the populism of Trump’s message that is completely ignored in this article. Conservative voters or Trump voters will read the first line and think “oh the poor libs went crying to the hotlines after their candidate lost. They’ll get over it”. Simply put- this rhetorical strategy isn’t working. More talk about sexism and racism, mainstream media friendly topics (if it’s about a dirty word a politician said or a picture Anthony Weiner sent, it will make front page) will only serve to make Trump appear like the arbiter of common sense in politics who takes on out-of-control political correctness in public debate.
I do think liberals have to reclaim the side of morality and decency, and fight against sexism and racism. But taking such a complex political issue and reducing it to a metaphor about your relationship only serves to muddy the waters, and represents the problems with today’s mainstream liberal Left.
I’ll also say a quick word (and try not to be too harsh) about today’s “activist blogosphere”. Too often the articles seem to be aimed at an audience which already believes what they are saying. The debate around Trump in particular in social media has become hyperbolic, emotional, and lacks clarity or any attempt to be analytical. Forget comparisons of Trump’s win to Brexit- Trump is obviously winning because of my ex-boyfriend, racists, and other baddies.