We’re days away from Congress failing to block a deal that will exponentially increase the chances of a nuclear flash over Tel Aviv or New York, and all conservatives could talk about for the past 72 hours was Donald Trump’s insult of Megyn Kelly, an insult that caused firebrand pundit Erick Erickson to lapse into Dean of Students mode to ensure that his Red State Gathering was a Safe Space — safe from the current GOP frontrunner.
And we wonder why people are deeply alienated from politics? First, let’s just tell the truth: Approximately 98 percent of the professional politicians, pundits, and consultants embroiled in the conversation over Trump’s comments about Kelly, in which he may or may not have said that her tough questions at Thursday’s GOP debate were due to menstruation, are most assuredly not “offended” or “outraged” by his words. Quite the opposite: In the political world, there is something like an electric shock of glee that passes through the community when someone says something “outrageous.” Controversy is energizing. Consultants, candidates, and pundits immediately begin working the angles — how can they exploit the latest gaffe, the latest misstatement, the latest offense against decency to advance their candidate or their cause? Outrage is a tool, the means to accomplish the ends of personal and political advancement.
Does anyone seriously think that Erick Erickson — a blunt-speaking radio host and pundit last seen urging his supporters to mail fake testicles to John Boehner and fake dog poop to Democrat Earl Pomeroy, and saying all manner of vile things about political opponents (he’s apologized for some of his worst statements, including calling Supreme Court Justice David Souter a “goat-f**king child molester.”) — is offended by Trump’s statements? Does anyone seriously think that Megyn Kelly, one of television’s most talented and powerful personalities and one of the most feared and respected interviewers in the news business, has been emotionally wounded by Trump?
Yet here we are, spending days talking about Trump’s statement, contributing to this frivolous era of American politics and this destructive era of American life — and here I am, doing it also. The culture of free speech is brutalized by an online mob hopping from outrage to outrage until, at long last, humanity is cleansed of all but the most polished and precise speech. For now, words matter infinitely more than actions, and the even the best of people can be cast into the darkness if they say the wrong thing at the wrong time.
I say “for now” because, eventually, reality will intrude, and people will once again be reminded that life isn’t defined by spin or verbal polish but rather by consequential, real-world actions. Don’t like Donald Trump? Fine. Take on his his business record or his policy positions. It’s certainly fair enough to inquire whether his communication style would help or hurt his general election prospects or his ability to build the necessary governing consensus. It’s also fair to ask whether his communication style betrays a toughness that will make him impervious to mainstream media pressure in office. But it’s more than a little sad to see conservatives acting like a collection of college students — hopping mad with faux outrage, exploiting that outrage in ways that just so happen to come to the aid of a powerful person with a huge prime-time news audience.
While the GOP bickers over a journalist’s reproductive system, the mullahs build their bomb.
One of the worst aspects of the outrage cycle is the way in which those who occupy the self-defined moral high ground then proceed to hurl invective far worse than the original offense at those who oppose them. And so it was with Erickson, who proclaimed, “At this point there is not a lot of difference between Planned Parenthood supporters who think the tapes were edited and Donald Trump supporters who think he did not say what he said on live television.” Right. Not much difference at all. Except the little bit about willful blindness in the face of actual dismembered limbs versus taking Trump at his word that he did not mean what he appeared to say.
There is no good solution for the politics of outrage. We’re in the grips of a social trend that is impacting all aspects of American politics and culture. It will burn itself out. All trends eventually do. There will, however, be consequences and casualties. While Trump, Erickson, and Kelly will certainly survive and likely even prosper in the face of their own controversies, what of the anonymous victims of American hysteria? The professors, the bakers, and the students who have the misfortunate of ticking off the wrong person at the wrong time? They’re often left picking up the pieces — careers and reputations destroyed — while the online mob moves to its next victim.
In the meantime, however, I’d like to apologize to my friends on the Left. For years I’ve been lamenting your tendency to banish dissenting or “insensitive” voices from the places that you deem to be your communities, the educational and cultural institutions you’ve long dominated. It looks like that same virus has infected at least part of the Right, where some ears are too delicate to hear the words of the current GOP frontrunner. As a strictly legal matter, everyone gets to do what they want with the private institutions they control. As a cultural matter, we — Left and Right — will come to regret the use of that power to declare even mainstream voices (and a GOP frontrunner is by definition “mainstream”) not worth hearing.
#related#At the end of their excellent recent book about the Left’s outrage industry, End of Discussion, Mary Katharine Ham and Guy Benson call for the creation of a new American “Coalition to Chill the Hell Out.” They’re asking Americans to take a deep breath, place things in perspective, and not sweat the so-called outrages. It’s good counsel, and I need to take it myself. After all, right now I find myself excessively outraged by the culture of outrage.
In the meantime, we cannot — we must not — permit the social media battles to distract us from what truly matters. While the GOP bickers over a journalist’s reproductive system, the mullahs build their bomb. The weekend is over, it’s time to get back to business, and “business” includes stopping the worst international agreement since Munich. If we don’t, we may one day look back at the frivolous summer of 2015 and wonder at all the talent — all the energy — diverted into the most meaningless of disputes. Frivolity has its time and place. Now is not the time, and the GOP primary is not the place. There’s an apocalypse to stop.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.