Watching Donald Trump and Lena Dunham slug it out in the media — she promises to flounce off to Canada if he becomes president; he says good riddance — I am struck by how similar they are. They’re basically the same awful person. Both peddle the politics of fear: Dunham’s a keen promoter of the “rape culture” panic, claiming there’s a “sexual-assault epidemic” on campus, while Trump frets about the rape culture being imported by Mexicans, whom he wants to keep out of the U.S. with his wall.
Both have a censorious urge to make the Internet a safe space: Dunham wants a “code of conduct” on Twitter to silence the gruff and disagreeable, while Trump has said he would shut down the Internet to work out how to stop Islamists from using it. “You talk of freedom of speech,” he said to his critics, with the same liberty-mocking sneer deployed by the likes of Dunham whenever anyone suggests that Internet freedom might be more important than their feelings.
Both Trump and Dunham deal in the politics of recognition: Trump offers to feel the pain of the white working classes, while Dunham seeks to embody the hurt of Millennial women. Both are essentially in the therapy game. “I feel you,” is their creepy cry. There’s a touch of demagoguery to the pair of them.
Both are essentially in the therapy game. “I feel you,” is their creepy cry. There’s a touch of demagoguery to the pair of them.
And you know what? That sums up the entire war over PC right now. What is presented to us as a historic standoff over the decline of Western values, pitting self-consciously un-PC Trumpites against super-sensitive radicals, is in fact a battle of the snowflakes. It’s a showdown between different versions of the politics of victimhood, a catfight among self-pitiers, a war for recognition. That’s why it’s so deranged, especially on campus, where there are now frequent screaming matches between Trump-loving rude boys and literally wailing feminists: because this is the narcissism of small differences, the fury speaking not to profoundly clashing worldviews but to a desperate scramble to inhabit the same narrow ground of victimology.
Where the PC demand safe spaces to save them from what they see as rapacious men, hurtful words, and twisted ideologies, the alt-right wants walls around the U.S. and mass expulsions from the Internet, as guarantees of protection against marauding foreigners, dangerous ideologies, and other crazy threats. Alt-right handwringing over “feminist bullies,” immoral agendas, and other things that it believes threaten its standing and demean its culture is a hall-of-mirrors version of PC weeping over the threat posed by misogynist bullies and microaggressions.
For all the Trumpites’ claim to be standing up to 21st-century whiners, their lingo is riddled with the same mentality.
This competitive snowflakeism is most clear when one looks at the virtual tribes lining up behind Trump and pathetically praying that he, “Daddy,” will save them from PC bullies. There are men’s-rights activists, whose capacity for self-pity and conviction that every aspect of the world is designed against them outweighs that of even the most grating victim feminist. There are the angry tweeters behind Gamergate, which started life as a fairly interesting call for freedom of imagination in videogame development but swiftly morphed into yet another identitarian tribe, making an art form of vulnerability, lashing out with libels at its imagined oppressors in a way similar way to that of campus radicals who defame and silence their presumed haters.
And there are the white-identity folks, who hope that Trump will resuscitate white pride. These guys hate nothing more than Black Lives Matter, yet they’re a mirror image of it. Trump’s white-identity followers and BLM share an overblown feeling of racial siege, and both demand recognition for their pain: BLM wants officialdom to “hear its voice,” its favorite Oprahite cry, while the white-identity brigade wants Trump to register its hurt and to massage it.
The intense hostility and occasional violence between Trump agitators and BLM activists once more speaks to the narcissism of small differences: Their clash is not over economics or morality, stuff of substance, but over which side is the greatest victim and therefore in most urgent need of recognition. It’s not a race war; it’s a recognition war.
The alt-right outlook — ugly, frazzled — is now even skewing the incredibly important debate about free speech on campus. What ought to be a deep, liberal reckoning with the rise of leftish intolerance in the academy risks becoming a showdown between braggarts in Trump caps and safe-spacers having nervous breakdowns: all heat and zero light. And for all their furious exchanges — with the alt-right boys using misogynistic slurs against feminist censors, and the feminist censors protesting that such language is an act of violence — again the similarities are striking: Witness how alt-right critics of campus censorship now speak of “SJW bullies” and “PC invasions,” an ironically PC language designed to accentuate their own feelings of psychic insecurity rather than positively assert the value of free speech.The narcissism of small differences is degrading political life. Fifty years ago, when the Right and the Left had epoch-quaking differences of opinion, political debate tended to be cool, sensible. Now, in the war of the alt-right and the victim left, the debate is sick and shallow, even though, or rather because, there is so little at stake. Indeed, far from being seriously opposed, these two sides, the Trumpites and the PC, are locked in a danse macabre; they need each other.
Both sets of identitarians rely on the other as a moral foil. Trumpites need PC extremists as proof of the rot in America, which Trump the demagogue must cure; and the PC extremists point to Trumpites as proof of the continued existence of their favorite bugbears, white supremacy and patriarchal entitlement.
Serious-minded people on both the right and the left must opt out of this battle of the snowflakes. And instead make the grown-up case for freedom and sensibleness.
— Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and a writer for The Spectator.