To say that the past two weeks — past two months, and perhaps two years — have been punishing for America’s women and people of color is surely an understatement.
During the presidential campaign, many Americans, notably those most likely to have voted for Hillary Clinton, were on the receiving end of torrents of vitriol coming from Donald Trump and his supporters: They were caricatured as rapists and criminals, bimbos, dogs, and pigs, and subjected to the humiliation of watching a man repeatedly accused of sexual assault run for president, advised by a cadre of racists adorably referred to as members of the “alt-right,” all while our first black president and first woman nominee were regularly called crooks and threatened with imprisonment and execution.
That man won the presidency, beating the candidate whom the vast majority of black voters, Latino voters, Asian-American voters, and women (if not white women, who voted for Trump by 53 percent) supported.
Those voters watched as Trump promptly appointed white nationalist Steve Bannon as a senior White House adviser and proposed Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a man once deemed too racist to serve as a judge, to succeed Loretta Lynch as attorney general. They have shuddered as, across America, hateful expressions of white-nationalist victory have proliferated: “You can kiss your visa good-bye, scumbag; they’ll deport you soon, don’t worry, you fucking terrorist,” screamed one man in Queens at a Muslim Uber driver. A dugout wall in upstate New York was decorated with swastikas alongside the words “Make America White Again.” In Ann Arbor, a man threatened to set a Muslim student on fire with his lighter unless she removed her hijab. At Canisius College in New York, students posted photos of a black doll hung from a curtain rod. The nation’s white supremacists have been rolling in their own affirmations of power, while those proven again to have less of it stand witness.
And now, the women and people of color who made up Clinton’s base and were the most enthusiastic supporters of her campaign, the ones who have the most to lose under the Trump administration, have found themselves on the receiving end of the lion’s share of the blame for our recent national cataclysm.
There was Mark Lilla’s recent New York Times column, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” in which the writer noted that Clinton’s tendency to “slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, LGBT and women voters at every stop” was “a strategic error.” Lilla praised Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as political exemplars, capable of communicating “commonality” and “captur[ing] Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny.” He did not describe the ways in which these men cemented their appeal to some of the voters Hillary failed to inspire: Reagan ran on the vilification of “Welfare Queens,” and Bill Clinton interrupted his 1992 presidential campaign to preside over the execution of a cognitively disabled black man named Ricky Ray Rector.*
Lilla argued that where Hillary Clinton — who did not repeat her husband’s Sister Souljah strategy and instead emphasized themes of feminism and racial equality throughout her campaign — went wrong was in not catering enough to white Americans. Citing the Ku Klux Klan as “the first identity movement in American politics” (yet failing to point out that it has flourished in response to gains made by nonwhites and non-Protestants), Lilla warned, “Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.” As if the centuries’-long push toward enfranchisement, civil rights, equal pay, and reproductive autonomy, and against domestic, sexual, and police violence were a game, and as though those who dared to play it were virtually asking for the punishing reprisals they received for their trouble.
It is unconscionable, this know-better recrimination, directed at the very people who just put the most work and energy into defeating Trumpism, coming from those who will be made least vulnerable by Trump’s ascension.
Clinton’s erstwhile primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, seemed to amplify Lilla’s message on his book tour this week by recommending that Democrats embrace the working class and “Ditch Identity Politics,” according to one headline. In fact, the headline was overblown: Sanders did not say we should dump identity politics, and affirmatively noted that “we should bring more and more women into the political process” and that “we need 50 women in the Senate!”
But Sanders did say something telling. Asked by a young woman who described herself as wanting to become “the second Latina senator in U.S. history” for tips, Sanders offered not advice, or even acknowledgment of the particular roadblocks — sexism, racism, fundraising, party support — she might encounter. What he offered instead was an insulting reaction to what he assumed must motivate her ambition: an argument based purely on identity. Noting that she “would not like” what he was about to say, he scolded her that it was “not enough” to say, “Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me”; that it was “not good enough for somebody to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’ No, that’s not good enough.” Never mind that nobody has ever made that argument for a female or minority candidate except in the fevered imaginations of Hillary haters. It is clear that this is what Sanders hears when someone describes a desire to overcome representational inequality in politics: an infantile, politically unsophisticated, feather-brained appeal to narcissistic self-advancement.
Which brings us to the week’s most diverting assault on the Clinton base: a New Yorker profile by Jia Tolentino of the men and woman behind Chapo Trap House, a popular leftist political podcast, unofficially led by Will Menaker, the son of a former publishing executive and New Yorker editor. Calling themselves “The Dirtbag Left,” Tolentino’s subjects say that their political mission is to take aim at the Democratic Party and “offend the sensibilities of the ‘leftist’ language police,” a set of goals that makes them not entirely distinguishable from many on the right. The story was funny and punishing, itself a New Yorker cartoon, bringing to vivid life some of the worst suspicions anyone has ever harbored about the young, well-heeled Hillary-haters who proclaim themselves the true left.
In the piece, Menaker’s colleague Felix Biederman described the podcast’s male listenership (70 to 80 percent) thusly: a guy who “goes downstairs at Thanksgiving, briefly mumbles, ‘Hi,’ everyone asks him how community college is going, he mumbles something about a 2.0 average, goes back upstairs with a loaf of bread and some peanut butter, and gets back to gaming and masturbating.” In perhaps the piece’s most startling example of self-reflexive commentary, Biederman said of Clinton’s Election Night celebration turned funeral at the Javits Center: “This entitled fucking slob … This fucking asshole brought all her donors to have a big party about how great they were. She’s never been a fucking leader, ever, in her life. She just has these fans who are psychologically weak, tormented, elite freaks.”
The peanut-butter gobblers are keen to unleash their righteous rightness, their furious convictions, on the Javits Center crowd — the wealthy donors, sure, but also Mothers of the Movement, the reproductive rights and women’s leaders, the thousands of supporters who had canvassed and phone-banked and gotten out the vote and driven souls to the polls. It could almost be Trump supporters talking, but it’s coming from the people who — though they don’t believe it — may agree with the “elite freaks” about many policy prescriptions and political goals.
Like Sanders, the Chapo guys acknowledge that better representation of women and people of color in the media sphere in which they work is crucial, but seem to exempt themselves from any personal responsibility. “We are literally just dudes who just do this,” Matt Christman told Tolentino, without seeming to have considered that the passive state of being just dudes who just do this — have a podcast, exult in their slackerdom and sloth, and say terrible things about people without fear of repercussion, of arrest, of violence — is predicated on their identities, as economically comfortable white men.
The world has never lacked for young, spoiled white people (perhaps mostly men), who grumble ungratefully at their parents (perhaps mostly moms), who’ve done the work of putting food on a Thanksgiving table, and instead return to their onanistic gaming aeries with loaves of bread (no roses) and an absolute assuredness that they know better than everyone else and that one of the great injustices of the world is the ban on them saying whatever vulgar thing they’d like to.
If history tells us anything, it is that some of these guys will grow into lovely human beings; some will successfully apply pressure to the Democrats that will force them to the left, for which I and other Hillary-supporting entitled fucking slobs will be deeply grateful; others will eventually find a more natural fit for their energies and animus in the Republican Party. In a way, I am grateful to them. They remind us, as Barack Obama did this month, that the sun still comes up every morning.
But what’s not funny about all this is that we are in a moment of national crisis, in which the developmental stage of the Dirtbag Left might be mistaken for a flash of political wisdom, when prioritization of the (yes, systemic) approaches to reducing racial, gender, and class inequality is most likely to be walked back in the name of distancing the party from the women and people of color who lost the election.
And that would be the greatest shame of this shameful election cycle. Because the objects of the vitriol from the left, dirtbag and otherwise, are the hardworking heart of the Democratic Party, now the resistance: the grandmothers who left their houses every morning to get out the vote; the people who took buses and carloads of volunteers to knock on doors and ring buzzers and make endless phone calls; the Black Lives Matter activists who protest the killing of their children and targeting of their communities; the women and men who provide reproductive-health access, even as the government works to roll back that access; the abortion rights and gay rights and criminal justice reform advocates who didn’t write off Hillary Clinton, but instead asked her to be better.
All of these people are facing very dark and scary days, and instead of blaming them, I want to thank them. I’ll also thank Clinton herself, now an old woman, who worked her ass off for decades to do something no woman has ever done before; and President Barack Obama, who for eight years showed us a different picture of what leadership could look like in America. Neither of their careers would have been possible without the struggles of generations of “identity politics” activists that came before them.
*An earlier version of this column incorrectly referred to Ricky Ray Rector as mentally ill. He had cognitive disabilities, not a mental illness. It also mistakenly attributed a quote that Felix Biederman gave to The New Yorker to Will Menaker. We regret the error.