THE LEFT CAN'T AFFORD TO GO MAD
By Helen Lewis
The Trump years had a radicalizing effect on the American right. But, let's be honest, they also sent many on the left completely around the bend. Some liberals, particularly upper-middle-class white ones, cracked up because other people couldn't see what was obvious to them: that Trump was a bad candidate and an even worse president. At first, liberals tried established tactics such as sit ins and legal challenges; lawyers and activists rallied to protest the administration's Muslim travel ban, and courts successfully blocked its early versions. Soon, however, the sheer volume of outrages overwhelmed Trump's critics, and the self- styled resistance settled into a pattern of high-drama, low-impact indignation.
Rather than focusing on how to oppose Trump's policies, or how to expose the hollowness of his promises, the resistance simply wished Trump would disappear. Many on the left insisted that he wasn't a legitimate president, and that he was only in the White House because of Russian interference. Social media made everything worse, as it always does; the resistance became the #Resistance. Instead of concentrating on the hard work of door-knocking and community activism, its members tweeted to the choir, drawing no distinction between Trump's crackpot comments and his serious transgressions. They fantasized about a deus ex machina—impeachment, the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, the pee tape, outtakes from The Apprentice—leading to Trump's removal from office, and became ever more frustrated as each successive news cycle failed to make the scales fall from his supporters' eyes. The other side got wise to this trend, and coined a phrase to encapsulate it:"Orange Man Bad."
The Trump presidency was a failure of right-wing elites; the Republican Party underestimated his appeal to disaffected voters and failed to find a candidate who could defeat him in the primary. Once he became president, the party establishment was content to grumble in private and grovel in public. But the Trump years demonstrated a failure of the left, too. Trump created an enormous reservoir of political energy, but that energy was too often misdirected. Many liberals turned inward, taking comfort in self-help and purification rituals. They might have to share a country with people who would vote for the Orange Man, but they could purge their Facebook feeds, friendship circles, and perhaps even workplaces of conservatives, contrarians, and the insufficiently progressive. Feeling under intense threat, they wanted everyone
to pick a side on issues such as taking the Founding Fathers' names off school buildings and giving puberty blockers to minors—and they insisted that ambivalence was not an option. (Nor was sit- ting out a debate, because "silence is violence.") Any deviation from the pro- gressive consensus was seen as a moral failing rather than a political difference.
The cataclysms of 2020—the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd—might have snapped the left out of its reverie. Instead, the resisters buried their heads deeper in the sand. Health experts insisted that anyone who broke social-distancing rules was selfish, before deciding that attending protests (for causes they supported, at least) was more important than observing COVID restrictions. The summer of 2020 made a best seller out of a white woman's book about "white fragility," but negotiations around a comprehensive police-reform bill collapsed the following year. As conservative Supreme Court justices laid the ground for the repeal of Roe v. Wade, activist organizations became fixated on purifying their language. (By 2021, the ACLU was so far gone, it rewrote a famous Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote on abortion to remove the word woman.) Demoralized and disorganized, having given up hope of changing Trump supporters' minds, the left flexed its muscles in the few spaces in which it held power: liberal media, publishing, academia.
If you attempted to criticize these tendencies, the rejoinder was simple what- aboutism: Why not focus on Trump? The answer, of course, was that a bad government demands a strong opposition—one that seeks converts rather than hunting heretics. Many of the most interesting Democratic politicians to emerge during this time—the CIA veteran Abigail Spanberger, in Virginia; the Baptist pastor Raphael Warnock, in Georgia; Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who promised to "fix the damn roads"—were pragmatists who flipped red territories blue. When it came to the 2020 election, Democrats ultimately nominated the moderate candidate most likely to defeat Trump.
That Joe Biden would prevail as the party's candidate was hardly a given, however. He defeated his more progressive rivals for the Democratic nomination only after staging a comeback in the South Carolina primary. He was 44 points ahead of his closest rival, Bernie Sanders, among the state's Black voters, according to an exit poll. That is not a coincidence. These voters recognized that they had far more to gain from a candidate like Biden, who regularly talked about working with Republicans, than from the activist wing of the party. As Biden put it in August 2020, responding to civil unrest across American cities: "Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?"
Biden is older now, and a second victory is far from assured. If he loses, the challenges to American democratic norms will be enormous. The withering of Twitter may impede Trump's ability to hijack the news cycle as effectively as last time, but he'll only be more committed to enriching
himself and seeking revenge. I hope that the left has learned its lesson, and will look outward rather than inward: The battle is not for control of Bud Light's advertising strategy, or who gets published in The New York Times, but against gerrymandering and election interference, against women being locked up for having abortions, against transgender Americans losing access to health care, against domestic abusers being able to buy guns, against police violence going unpunished, against the empowerment of white nationalists, and against book bans.
The path back to sanity in the United States lies in persuasion—in defending freedom of speech and the rule of law, in clearly and calmly opposing Trump's abuses of power, and in offering an attractive alternative. The left cannot afford to go bonkers at the exact moment America needs it most.
Helen Lewis is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She is the author of Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights.
― Winston S. Churchill