I have a 15-minute walk from my subway stop to my office. One Monday, as I started my trundle, a young man threw me this question: What is the
The question certainly made me stop. Stare. Hard. He didn’t appear crazy: gray sweatshirt, scrubby facial hair, one of those
backward-brimmed Kangol hats, smoking a cigarette. And expecting an answer. I answered: “There’s no such thing.”
He looked vexed by the answer, and before I could ask “why” about his asking, he turned and crossed the street and evaporated. I
made my way to work.
Of course, this question stuck with me, built as I am. We’d just been through a political exercise of people honing their serrated angers
and now seem destined to suffer four years of institutionalized fury, such as cabinet secretaries pledged to wreck their agencies and an economy geared to inflict pain on everyone
except its owners and non-whiteness punished by deportation and insult.
The young man’s question seemed the next step, a move into metaphysics: how can all this profane anger be triple-distilled into a perfect
spirit? SÃ¶ren Kierkegaard may have meant his sermon, “Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing,” to teach us how to will the good, but “purity” is not limited
to “the good”: purity is much more accommodating than that, and everything is invited to use its lexicon.
So, my answer, the proper sensitive liberal one, is wrong. His question is the prelude to a fundamentalism, and as we have seen, many humans
seem to like the comforts of designed answers to our messy existence on this planet, especially if those answers can be documented by referring to a book, no matter how
error-ridden or fantastical.
But let’s bring this man’s question down a few notches from the abstract and re-cast it by looking for an answer to “What is
the perfect hate?” by looking at “Who is the perfect hater in the age of Trump?” And that would have to be, hands-down, Tomi Lahren of The Blaze, dubbed the
“alt-right princess” by commentator Jesse Dollemore.
Watch one of her diatribes (that is, technically, what they are) in order to be schooled in the rhetoric of anger. I don’t use
“rhetoric” loosely, since she deploys a platoon of bad rhetorical devices against her subjects: red herring, logical fallacy, faulty cause and effect, and so on, with
an occasional nod to truth and evidence to keep the flow sounding legit.
Take, for instance, her insistence during her interview with Trevor Noah on the November 30 The Daily Show that Black Lives Matter is the new KKK. Noah did his best to demolish the argument through rational discourse and civility, but he was doomed from the start because the game in town is not about using logic to overcome illogic but to enrage and mobilize rather than convince and persuade. As Justin Charity wrote on The Ringer on December 7:
[Noah has positioned himself as a civilized man] doing everyone, including Lahren and the people whom she disparages, a favor by hearing her
out and then stumping her with a steady handful of counterarguments. But that’s not how Lahren works, nor is it really how democratic politics work. Lahren doesn’t
persuade people. Lahren engages people. She enrages people. She mobilizes people. And, in this case, Lahren has exploited the difference between conviction—which liberal pundits fetishize—and mobilization—which conservative pundits just straight-up do—to
enrich herself and amplify her nonsense at the expense of the many glorified fact-checkers who will lose ground to her in the long run….In a post-fact world, neither
Sorkinese eloquence nor reflexive triangulation will save you from people like her. Like [Glenn] Beck and Rush Limbaugh before her, Tomi Lahren lies dramatically to get
attention;… the liberal instinct to engage with the lies of firebrands like her will repeatedly backfire.
So, what is the perfect hate? It’s not a topic or a people but a mode of presenting that hoovers up information, turns it into a slurry,
hoses down the world, and demolishes any opposition by incantation, disparagement, bullshit – in fact, by anything except reason, patience and knowledge, since these were
never in play to begin with.
There is no rebuttal to a Tomi Lahren because there is nothing there to rebut. Many online faulted Noah for not being Jon Stewart, whom they
believe would have put Lahren in her place, but that’s not true. Stewart had his bizarro friendship with Bill O’Reilly, an earlier incarnation of Lahren, and was
never able to knock O’Reilly off any of O’Reilly’s hobbyhorses. And, really, what “place” could Noah have put Lahren “in” (assuming he
could have dodged the messy optics in this country of a black man dissing a white woman)? Being all screed and no argument makes her impregnable.
Clearly, Noah’s audience (as well as the audiences of Samantha Bee and John Oliver) has some atavistic attachment to a notion of
democracy where reasonable people argue reasonably about policy and tactics and the best arguments win out by virtue of their substance and “rightness.”
But the framers had a reasonable fear of the democratic mob doing exactly what was done on November 8 because they knew, from their study of
ancient history and law, that reason and argument have no defense against the barbarians at the gate: thus the Electoral College, thus the arterial clog called the Senate, anything
to slow down the power of Lahren’s voice to mobilize the angels of our worser, not our better, natures.
James Madison was especially conscious of this. He spoke out about the destructiveness of factions (what we today would call parties) and
pushed for ways to buffer the workings of the government and its governors from them. But he also knew that he was building a weak dam against a rising tide, and even in his
lifetime he saw the coarsening effect of faction in action.
Faction and divisiveness have always been the congenital weakness of American democracy, so the rise of Trump and Lahren signals, to me, the
exhaustion of this phase of the national experiment. Just as capitalism seems to be struggling against its own exhaustion (see recent work by Paul Mason and Wolfgang Streeck), this
current iteration of democracy (including all forms where it is practiced) seems to have run out of ideas about how to make the world over in its image. (Interestingly, both
systems have had concurrent lifespans of about two-and-a-half centuries.)
There are, of course, antidotes to the exhaustion in this country, many experiments going on with cooperatives, local currencies, sustainable
energy, and so on. Currently, there are no resources and institutions to aggregate them and scale them up, but they are there despite our national slow-motion train wreck.
This is where our energies should go.
Let’s simply stipulate that Trump’s reign signals the end of the first phase of the American experiment. While we need to continue
resisting all of Trump’s incursions in order to keep people as safe and secure as they can be in these retrograde times, let’s also see what we can do to design the
next phase of the experiment. Let’s just assume that Trump and Lahren and their ilk are already in the dustbin of history and not waste our energy on them. Let’s evolve
a replacement that can sweep away the barbarians after they’ve been consumed by their own decadence and dissolve into dust.