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The Anatomy of Liberal Melancholy

Dissecting the collective sorrows of a social class

Donald Trump’s victory has been traumatically seared into the collective psyche of the liberal class, where it still remains as an unprocessed, unaccepted nonfact. Before November 8, 2016, the possibility of losing to the most unpopular presidential candidate in history simply had not been countenanced by the bien pensants of the political and media elite.

No sooner did what many had dismissed as an unimaginable nightmare scenario become monstrously real than a new, gripping narrative emerged, to offer the promise of redemption: Russia, the Evil Empire, America’s greatest, most powerful and sinister foe, was behind it all. For almost five full months now, in a weird pastiche-simulation that is equal parts Cold War intrigue, Watergate high drama, and addled, patriotic self-parody that would give Alex Jones a run for his money, the Democratic elite has struggled to heroically uncover the truth, connect the dots, and unravel the conspiracy that could topple a presidency. And it’s still going strong.

As others have well documented, the dauntless pursuit of this crusade, despite a distinct lack of credible evidence, serves multiple purposes. It deflects blame for a historic, humiliating failure; since that failure is conveniently blamed squarely on foreign meddling, it provides a rationale to continue ignoring criticism from the political left; it sustains the meritocratic worldview of the professional-managerial class under the pressure of heavy cognitive dissonance; and it fuels the opportunistic boosterism of Twitter-based media hucksters. Most importantly, though, it provides that one weird trick that could restore the old, enlightened order: If Trump could only be removed through an impeachment for treason, then maybe America can be good again. Never mind the fact that this would just replace the Donald with Mike Pence, or that the Democrats have been so thoroughly crushed politically that they hold no power in Congress or most of the state governments.

But there is something else at work, here, that is more than the sum of these parts. The Trump-Putin obsession is the death rattle of an entire epoch, and the fever dream of a social class whose self-understanding utterly depended upon that era’s basic historical assumptions.

The real purpose of the Trump-Russia scandal is indeed to “save the world,” but not in the sense liberals think. For it allows liberals to sustain the illusion that their worldview still corresponds to reality, to avoid confronting the disquieting truth that the world as they knew it no longer exists, and that Trump himself is the bloviating, pumpkin-hued harbinger of its death.

In a historical moment that cries out for new approaches to economics and politics, liberalism regresses to a simpler time.

The age of Third-Way liberalism, of technocratically managed economic growth through the promotion of interconnected markets, the free flow of financial capital, and deepening international trade—in a word, of neoliberalism—is vanishing. Numerous observers among the left, right, and center have identified the sharp slowdown in global growth and productivity since the crash and ensuing slump of 2008-2009. While a variety of explanations are offered to account for it, all but perhaps the most crackpot fringe of the far right acknowledge that at least some of the old doctrines will have to be discarded, and that there will be no simple return to the status quo ante. Likewise, realizing that their future is mortgaged to a system optimized for the upward redistribution of wealth, a rising tide of people are returning to the moral and economic vision of the socialist tradition. Yet in a historical moment that cries out for new approaches to economics and politics, liberalism regresses to a simpler time when a complicated, confusing historical reality was easily seen through the lens of a Manichean skirmish with the menace of the Great Enemy.

To clarify: it is perfectly possible that some collusion between Trump’s agents and Russian hackers did indeed occur. But at this point, the empirical question of whether or not it happened is secondary to the deeper psychological need for media pundits, policy wonks, and the professional-managerial strata to maintain their sense of self when the objective historical conditions in which they flourished are being actively dissolved. For liberals, the continued libidinal investment in the drama of the as-yet invisible Trump-Russia scandal actively blocks any realization that the neoliberal order they are trying to restore is already dead on its feet, and that Trump is the uniquely bizarre American expression of a visible worldwide trend: the virulent, deepening nationalist backlash against a financially-integrated global economy based on the relatively free movement of commodities and people. His ascent is a death knell for an entire era and the basic assumptions about economic and political life that shape the worldview of contemporary liberals.

The forces of the reactionary right have had no problem stepping into the political vacuum created by the creeping collapse of this system. This is, in part, because they have no trouble identifying it as a system, as an articulated structure of beliefs, policies and institutions that work together in complementary unity.

Each plank of Steve Bannon’s platform—national sovereignty, economic nationalism, and the “deconstruction of the administrative state” —revolves around the narrative that the current global economic order enriches coastal elites, venal bureaucrats, and foreigners at the expense of “ordinary” (white, Christian) Americans. As an atavistic, ethno-nationalist mythology, that narrative effectively identifies a larger system that is allegedly stacked against his favored demographic. However deranged Bannon’s assumptions, this willingness to call the system into question goes a long way toward explaining Trump’s political success.

The liberal class work through this loss via an imago of figures drawn from the febrile anxiety dreams of a terminal social order.

Liberals see no such system. Instead, they see more or less qualified individuals who either have the right ideas or not, in government or business: cultural diversity, a fervent belief in incremental rather than structural change, and a firm commitment to meritocratic success. Rather than thinking historically—and preferring to avoid the whole idea of neoliberalism—they profess an ethos. And since they cannot recognize neoliberalism as a system, they cannot acknowledge its political and economic dissolution, its steady descent into incoherence. They cannot acknowledge the loss of the historical soil of their selfhood.

Freud named this condition melancholia, in which the lost object is submerged in the unconscious, where its loss remains unknown but not without adverse effects on the subject. In their reveries of heroic agency and frenzies of conspiratorial speculation, the urban cadres of the liberal class work through this loss via an imago of figures drawn from the febrile anxiety dreams of a terminal social order. Blending together a scrambled cocktail of good old Russophobia, Bob Woodward, and a particularly suspenseful episode of Homeland, liberals in the United States have seemingly regressed into a decalescent state of collective melancholia.

Someone may indeed one day soon find the kompromat that definitively proves the Trump-Russia connection, thus vindicating liberals and proving the skeptics wrong. But I doubt it. In its very inconclusiveness, the scandal retroactively projects the fantasy of a return to the old order. Its closure either way would prompt the immediate realization that any true return is impossible, thus the scandal must go on indefinitely.