Pop culture can normalize radicalism with astonishing speed. Conservatives have long known and lamented the truth of Scottish politician Andrew Fletcher’s famous declaration: “Let me write the songs of a nation — I don’t care who writes its laws.” Artists and the media shape our cultural environment so profoundly that their progressivism has become the default, the air we breathe. Wherever the progressive current flows, the people will drift.
Since its birth, the modern conservative movement has fought bravely to create its own counterculture, in hopes that at least some people could drift the right way, and eventually the current would be reversed.
But it’s impossible in one generation to either replace or match liberal-dominated institutions that have existed, in some instances, since before the founding of the nation. One doesn’t simply create a conservative Harvard out of thin air. Hollywood is the product of generations of artistic effort. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the major broadcast media are collectively immense institutions, governed by a set of shared assumptions and located in geographic regions where dissent is rarely heard.
The Right, by contrast, hasn’t truly had time to build institutions, so it has built celebrities. It’s easier to make one man famous than it is to make Harvard, so conservative culture is dominated mainly by a series of personalities, and those personalities are often defined and exalted not so much by the quality of their distinct ideas but by personal charisma, with particular emphasis on anger and “fearlessness.”
And that brings us to the political radicalism of Bernie Sanders and the personal radicalism of Donald Trump. In their own way, they each represent the triumph of culture over politics. They are both men of their cultural moment.
Sanders came along at just the time when the Left’s triumph over the academy and pop culture was so complete that there no longer exists a meaningful moderating force. Radicalism reigns. Ta-Nehisi Coates declares that the police who died on 9/11 were “not human” to him but rather “menaces of nature” and wins the National Book Award for nonfiction. Beyonce dresses her dancers as Black Panthers and her fan base on the pop-culture left only grows. On college campuses, even far-left administrators are losing their jobs if they refuse to push their institutions even closer to the radical abyss.
And so Sanders has met his moment. Hillary Clinton is scrambling to get to his left, and her only real hope to stop him is to claim that her radical politics of race are more potent than his radical politics of class. Sanders proposes the largest tax increase and biggest expansion of government power in the history of the United States, and Clinton’s main critique is that it is too impractical to make it through Congress. Revolutionaries care not about such mundane details.
#share#On the right, the angry man has met his angry moment. Many — but certainly not all — celebrity conservatives have been trying to build something besides a personal empire. Their famous political incorrectness is deployed in the service of a larger purpose: the creation of institutions where dissent can flourish. But those institutions are weak in their infancy compared with the GOP, the Right’s biggest organizing apparatus, and also its least trusted. So the conservative culture we do have is still a celebrity culture, and Donald Trump has taken it by storm.
All manner of cruelty and lies can be justified by fury at the Left, by rage at the “GOPe,” or by the cry of “the other side does it.”
The secret of his continued dominance is that he does anger bigger and better than anyone else, and his fans are willing to forgive or even cheer any transgression against conservative principle or simple good taste as a result. All manner of cruelty and lies can be justified by fury at the Left, by rage at the “GOPe,” or by the cry of “the other side does it.” Conservative leaders who were used to being the angriest and least politically correct people in the room now find themselves in the uncomfortable position of saying “no” — of saying that some things shouldn’t be said and some ideas are genuinely offensive. Yet in a movement with few institutions but many personalities, they, too, find themselves swept aside by the largest personality of them all.
At a time when our nation so desperately needs a steady hand to write its laws, the radicals have been writing its songs. Sanders and Trump are merely sailing the cultural currents the radicals created, perfecting the message that they’ve prepared the nation to receive. As William Butler Yeats wrote at another time of existential crisis, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” We’re left with a world where “the best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
When a culture breaks, so does a nation.
— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.