Politics & Policy

Why Things Have Gotten So Weird

(Photo: Dreamstime)
Our collapsed institutions have been supplanted by virtual communities.

Ever since Donald Trump touched the Orb, praise be upon it, I’ve been making “This is what you get when you touch the Orb” jokes.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll tell you: On his trip to the Middle East in May, President Trump, along with the Saudi king and the president of Egypt, laid his hands on a glowing white orb for two minutes (which strikes me as a long time to touch an orb).

The image was like a mix of J.R.R. Tolkien and 1970s low-budget Canadian sci-fi. It looked like they were calling forth powerful eldritch energies from the chthonic depths or perhaps the forbidden zone.

Ever since then, when things have gotten weird, I’ve credited the Orb. For instance, when the Guardian reported that sex between Japanese snow monkeys and Sika deer may now constitute a new “behavioral tradition,” I tweeted, “the Orb has game, you can’t deny it.” When Roy Moore, the GOP Alabama Senate candidate, was plausibly accused of preying on teenagers and many Evangelical leaders rallied to his defense, invoking biblical justifications for groping young girls, I admired the Orb’s cunning. And when the bunkered Moore decided to give one of his only interviews to a twelve-year-old girl, I sat back and marveled at the Orb’s dark sense of humor.

But I know in my heart that it’s not the Orb’s fault things have gotten so weird, for the simple reason that rampant weirdness predates the Orb-touching by years.

I have a partial theory as to why, and it doesn’t begin with Trump. It begins with a failure of elites and the institutions they run.

Nearly three-fourths of Americans cannot identify all three branches of the federal government, according to an Annenberg Public Policy Center poll taken earlier this year. One in three Americans can’t name a single branch of government. More than a third of Americans can’t name any of their rights under the First Amendment. Multiple surveys find that Americans, particularly younger Americans, are increasingly ambivalent, or downright hostile, to free speech and democracy.

Even as knowledge of, and commitment to, our system of government has been eroding, partisan loyalty has radically intensified. Some studies find that partisan identification is now at least as predictive of behavior and attitudes as race or gender. As we lose our old meaningful attachments, we find new ones in shallow tribalism.

These trends have been in the pipeline for a long time, and while one can point a curmudgeonly finger of blame at the people, particularly these kids today, that wouldn’t be fair. Many older Americans haven’t exactly been model citizens either. Dismayed with the direction of American politics, they often grew as angry at the system as the young radicals. The real blame falls to elites of all stripes and ages — political, journalistic, economic, and educational. Every generation has a responsibility to instruct the next on what is important. As an empirical matter, they — we — failed.

The failure runs deeper, though. Throughout American history, institutions outside of the government — Alexis de Tocqueville called them “associations” — have played a vital role in binding people together and giving them a sense of meaning and rootedness. Our politics, both national and local, were always downstream of these institutions.

That intricate ecosystem has been supplanted by virtual communities, which serve not so much to educate and civilize but to reinforce pre-established beliefs. Elites who once guided media outlets, universities, and even rotary clubs to temper and channel anger have been replaced by leaders who are more like followers, chasing the online mobs wherever they want to go. And all eyes are on Washington to solve our problems. Our politics, in other words, are upstream now.

The norms we’ve come to rely on no longer match the landscape. Like Japanese snow monkeys, we’re creating new “behavioral traditions.”

In this, Trump is less an aberration than a leader for his time. In his rhetorical contempt for free speech, his ignorance of basic constitutional facts, his addiction to drama and ratings, his personalization of every political question and conflict, and his uncanny ability to bring out the same qualities in his biggest detractors, he breathes new life into H. L. Mencken’s definition of democracy as “the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”

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