Why Does the American Left Want to Blame Itself for Donald Trump?

One of the more pernicious narratives that’s arisen around the continuing success of Donald Trump of late is that, somehow, it’s all the left’s fault. Over the past couple of months, there’s been a steady stream of articles arguing that Trump only emerged as a serious presidential candidate (as in, a presidential candidate with a serious chance of being elected) because liberals these days are just so damn PC and sensitive about everything.

Look at this. I mean, seriously, just look at it:

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Some of this rhetoric, obviously, is coming from the right. The top search result is conservative comedy outlet The Federalist, where one Paul David Miller (“the author advises Marco Rubio’s campaign for president”) argues that “progressivism is a fundamentalist religion” and wrings his hands at how progressives are “unanimous in affirming that you can literally choose whether you are a man or a woman.” He even quotes Hegel!

But it’s not just the right; there’s always been a surprising sympathy on the left for these sorts of arguments, too. This time last year, New York‘s Jonathan Chait wrote a lengthy tirade cover story on the idea that political correctness is stifling debate in left-wing circles, rehashing an argument that’s been wheeled out time and time again. Ever since the term “political correctness” entered the lexicon in the 1970s, there’s been a section of the left that’s railed against perceived oversensitivity and self-victimization, either because they’ve been gaslighted into thinking that the left really is too sensitive about this stuff, or because they feel that perception undermines leftist political objectives.

Ellen Willis wrote about this a decade ago in “Escape from Freedom,” her essay on Tom Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter With Kansas? Willis makes the key point that, in the context of leftist politics, this is essentially a point of disagreement between radicals and moderates:

There is widespread agreement that the left must concentrate its energies on promoting a populist economic program, and that the Democrats, if they want to win elections, must stop being identified as the party of “upper middle class” feminists, gays, and secularists… many writers directly attack the cultural movements: they demand that feminists, gay rights activists, cultural left academics, and other inflammatory marginals cease and desist from waving red flags at the right by pressuring Democrats to stand firm on abortion and other social issues… Libs to cultural rads: shut up.

Radicals, so the argument goes, want to push extremist ideas onto the public, and moderates want radicals to shut up and fall in line so that the public sees the left as an appealing, united front, preventing a backlash against radical ideas from undermining the left in general. It’s along these lines that there’s been a reemergence of such articles of late in generally moderate, left-leaning publications like The Daily Beast and Mother Jones. The former’s Tom Nichols argued earlier this week, for example, that “the Trump campaign is the result of a conglomeration of political, academic, media, and cultural elites who for decades have tried to act as the arbiters of acceptable public debate and shut down any political expression from Americans with whom they disagree.”

There are arguments to be made against “PC culture,” such as it is, although in the taxonomy of things that the left should be worrying about, it’s a fair way down the list. But to argue that it’s the left’s oversensitivity that has created the extreme right is nonsensical — as if Donald Trump’s success in particular could have been avoided if only liberals had been a bit more understanding towards everyone who disagreed with gay marriage. You can certainly see how it’s expedient for the right to make this argument, though — the alternative is looking at the particularly gruesome cancer that’s spreading throughout the Republican Party.

There’s a lot of soul-searching in America at the moment about the rise of Donald Trump as a serious presidential candidate. And rightly so — it’s certainly a cause for concern that a significant portion of Americans would even consider voting for a bouffanted narcissist whose political ideas are are hodgepodge of xenophobia, unreconstructed capitalism, and cynical self-interest. Though the Trump campaign started as a joke, it’s long since become serious enough to make everyone thoroughly uncomfortable.

But history has shown that the extreme right, and demagogues like Donald Trump, flourish in very specific conditions, and for very specific reasons. These reasons do not include: “political correctness gone maaaaaaaaad!” If Trump’s rise can be blamed on any one development over the last 30 years or so, it’s the fact that the ideas he espouses have been normalized by decades of right-wing pandering to extremism. The center has been creeping rightward steadily since the early 1980s — not coincidentally, about the time “political correctness” became a buzzword — and it’s not the left pushing it that way. We can blame that on the fact that the center-right establishment has been courting extremists with a dog whistle that becomes more audible with every passing year. Trump is the end result of that process — and once you invite the devil in, it’s not so easy to get him to leave again.

So why is the left so eager to blame itself? In part, it’s because the very nature of leftist politics encourages this sort of self-reflection, while right-wing politics actively discourages it. The result is that right-wingers are rarely prone to the sort of sort of self-flagellation that the left is displaying here. (Similarly, no one on the right seems to be worrying about whether their habit of throwing around insults and unpleasant rhetoric willy-nilly has somehow created Bernie Sanders out of thin air.) Guilt, sadly, is not something that the American right ever really concerns itself with, although one suspects its members are in for a rude awakening if they ever do meet the omnipotent creator they’re so fond of evoking.

But there’s also an element of narcissism about it. For the right, PC culture is a convenient scapegoat. For the left, the ideological conflict between radicals and moderates is a very real one, but it’s of interest only to… the left. Sure, conservatives will gleefully accept the opportunity to cast blame for their own lunatic fringe onto the left’s most extreme wing, but that doesn’t change the fact that Donald Trump and his ilk are products of the right. His wealth and entitlement come directly from neoliberal economics; his rhetoric from the most intolerant of right-wing populists.

Refusing to acknowledge that, or arguing that the left has more power over the GOP’s base than the GOP itself, perhaps makes those involved in such an argument feel important, but it also lets those truly responsible for the existence of Donald Trump off the hook. That’s an immeasurably larger problem than an ideological difference between radical and moderate leftists, because if Trump ultimately becomes president, whichever faction of the left triumphs in the PC wars will have won the most pyrrhic of victories.