But it’s not only racists who reduce people to a single identity. These days it’s the anti-racists, too. To raise money and mobilize people, advocates play up ethnic categories to an extreme degree.David Brooks is writing this the very same week that Trump is introducing us to a National Security Adviser who says "fear of Muslims is rational," an Attorney General who once referred to the NAACP and SCLC as "un-Amercian" and a CIA Director who believes every prominent Islamic leader in America is "potentially complicit" in acts of terrorism. But, whoah, hey, David Brooks finds it unseemly that anyone would "mobilize people" to fight this stuff.
And so we're all set to turn the ratchet one more time. Far be it for me to minimalize the crisis here with a bit of context. Unlike Brooks, I am horrified by the situation we find ourselves in. But it's worth thinking about how Trump is less an aberration than part of the longer continuum we've seen throughout the last half century.
Reagan was the first postmodern president; it was under his administration that all depth metaphors finally collapsed, and image and reality first became politically indistinguishable. In other words, he was a moron, brainless and bellicose, something barely sentient. He was fond of telling people—Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, for instance, or Simon Weisenthal—that he had personally been among the first group of U.S. soldiers to enter Buchenwald. He had not: he spent the war in Culver City, processing footage from the camps as part of the USAAF’s First motion Picture Unit. It didn’t matter; even the Holocaust couldn’t resist being blanketed in mediation. Giving testimony during the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan read out the stage directions instructing him to lie, picking up his flash cards and announcing that “if the question comes up at the Tower Board meeting, you might want to say that you were surprised.”You might recall the Democratic Convention this year was littered with Reagan hagiography in a calculated (and we now know failed) attempt by the Clinton campaign to appeal to suburban Republican voters. That's where we were in 2016. Yesterday's unthinkable monster is today's paragon of nostalgic virtue. It's a familiar script to anyone who has been paying attention.
When he first entered the White House, Reagan’s advisers presented him with lengthy policy documents. He simply couldn’t understand them, so they started getting him to make decisions (including the decision to procure new intercontinental ballistic missiles) by showing him four-panel cartoons. And it all made perfect sense. In a society where the President is experienced most often as a character on TV, why shouldn’t he be played by a TV personality? There are differences: Reagan was an actor, whose job was to read his lines, while Trump comes out of reality programs—he expects to improvise, and trusts that the editors will snip and splice everything together so that he comes out in the best possible light. The format changes, but the show’s the same.
This is not to say that everything will be fine. That’s another line that liberals are now taking to console themselves: yes, we raised a lot of panic during the election, but there was a similar panic back in 1980, and it wasn’t the end of the world. Maybe Trump will surprise us, maybe he’ll be like Reagan, maybe it’ll be okay. Except that for many people it wasn’t okay, and the world really did end.
The pattern is this. A radical authoritarian Republican regime pushes the old "Overton window" rightward. A succeeding Democrat "reaches across the aisle" to adopt what we used to think of as "moderate" positions and that gets redefined as the leftmost boundary. Then the next Republican is even more radically right wing and the cycle continues.
All the while the mainstream political press adopts and "normalizes" the new reality. Which is why David Brooks is here to tell us all that the real problem with white supremacists ascending to the highest offices in the land is that your indignant reaction might upset the fragility of The Discourse.
Sucks that this finally got as far as actual fascism but what are you gonna do? Reacting, or I guess, caring at all would be "not a good look."