Harriet: I don't even know what the sides are in the culture wars. Matt: Well, your side hates my side because you think we think you're stupid. And my side hates your side because we think you're stupid. – Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
This brief interchange between Matthew Parry and Sarah Paulson’s characters on Aaron Sorkin's short-running Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip captures, better than anything else I have ever seen, the state of the current culture war. There are two sides (let’s call them “liberals” and “conservatives,” keeping in mind how unstable these terms can be) who resent each other deeply. But they don’t resent each other for quite the same reasons.
Liberals resent—often with a sneering, smug sense of superiority—what they see as the intellectual unseriousness of conservative positions; conservatives resent liberals’ sneering, smug sense of superiority.
Such an unhealthy political dynamic can lead to many things, most of them undesirable. In the current political season, it has lead to the ascendency and very possible Republican nomination of Donald Trump—a candidate who, even two months ago, was not even considered serious by the elite establishment of either major party.
As far as I can tell, both liberals and establishment conservatives have adopted a strategy that I will call “Trump shaming” in response to his candidacy. Trump shaming includes (but is not limited to) the following political arguments:
- Snide comments about Donald Trump’s hair;
- Sneering references to his failed marriages, his reality TV show, and his ownership of the Miss Universe Pageant;
- Repeated references to Hitler;
- Constant insistence that he is not a serious candidate; and/or
- Frequent suggestions that anyone who would consider voting for Trump is an uneducated yokel who can barely claim to be potty trained.
But here’s the problem. Trump shaming is not working. It is backfiring badly because the bulk of Trump’s supporters have been on the receiving end of these kinds of sneering, sarcastic, superior comments for much of their lives. When liberals (and in culture-war terms, this includes Democrats, media outlets, and establishment Republicans) make sneering and disparaging remarks about Donald Trump, the people in his core audience feel even more affinity with him; the same liberals have been making disparaging remarks about them for years.
Shame and sarcasm are not going to defeat Trump because shame and sarcasm created him. Those who do not want to see a Trump presidency (and I include myself in this number) need to change tactics quickly. Mockery and derision have been complete failures.Ironically, I would suggest, the best chance to defeat Trump lies in calm and civil engagement with the ideas he has advanced so far in his candidacy. I do not believe that Trump’s candidacy could survive a serious debate about his platform, which has been designed more to appeal to the resentments of disaffected voters than to govern the country. Once you get into the weeds, there isn’t a lot to base coherent policies upon.
Trump is an anti-establishment candidate, which, during this election season, is playing very well with a wide swath of voters. But he is also asking to be considered for the ultimate position within the establishment. People need to understand how he would govern. And the great irony of the race so far is that most of the establishment has given him a free pass on policy issues in order to focus their fire on his bad hair and his colorful character.
To put it another way: Trump has become a serious candidate for the presidency precisely because most of the establishment has not treated him as a serious candidate for the presidency. With his big win yesterday in New Hampshire, this is no longer an option. He is now a very serious candidate indeed. And the best way for liberals to prevent him from being a successful candidate is to stop trying to defeat him with shame and start trying to do it with arguments.