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A Tragedy of Manners

Trump and the new age of anti-PC transgression

As the seismic shock of Donald Trump’s election convulsed the American scene, commentators took to the first wave of post-election polls for solid evidence of what had motivated people to vote for him. In one major voter survey, economic concerns ranked high, while the signature Trump issue of immigration drew lower-than-expected numbers—proof to some that the out-of-touch media had settled for branding Trump supporters as racist while ignoring the powerful salience of economic concerns, particularly for the white working class. Other polls suggested that cultural anxiety and change prompted many Trump supporters to line up behind him—renewed confirmation for many observers that Trump and his supporters were principally motivated by racism.

Amid this ping-pong style search for the prime cause of Trump’s ascendancy, one factor continued to rank extremely high in the postmortem round of election polls: the appeal of Trump’s “tell it like it is” penchant for plain speaking and his corresponding rejection of our current definition of manners. Why would people regard candidate Trump’s comportment in the sphere of polite conduct, propriety, and etiquette—his style of speaking and self-presentation—as something just as important as the core economic elements of his platform? Again, our pundit-seers labored to read this finding as either coded racism or coded anti-elitism. But what if it really was just about manners?

Comments on the bad manners of Donald Trump have come from a wide array of sources, all along the political spectrum. British Burkean conservative Peter Hitchens called him “an oaf and a yahoo who has gravely damaged the standards of public life.” The editors of National Review found themselves fielding the indefatigable rage of Trump’s online army when they contended, in high Buckleyite fashion, that Trump’s own trollish incivility was a first-order threat to the health of our civilization. Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek said of the new wave of Trumpian rightists that

They represent the decay of common morality and decency. And I use here the very precise term, Hegel calls it Sittlichkeit. It’s not simple morality, it’s a set of thick unwritten rules which makes our social life bearable. And, paradoxically, I think that progressives should become the voice of common decency, politeness, good manners, and so on.

Of course Žižek was, as is his wont, knowingly using language that would generally make leftists cringe. Beyond the playful counter-intuitive style of Žižek and the more conventional pleas for cultural decency from Hitchens and National Review, most would recoil from using the outmoded, prissy-sounding language of manners today. Such talk seems either hopelessly uptight or ridiculously trivial in a period of such grave political turmoil and upheaval.

Yet the question of manners, if not the naming of it, actually claims unusual pride of place in American political and cultural debate—usually via the debased rhetoric plotting out the battle over “political correctness.” In the ongoing war over speech on college campuses, for example—which now increasingly erupts into cruelty, bullying, mob behavior, cursing and screaming, and even riots—the conversation is typically understood through the lens of liberal free speech rights or strategic considerations. Yet in the free speech wars there are usually no rights under attack from the state. In a nation with constitutional free speech protections, such a framework never seems to quite fit the debate. Tactical interpretations of either side’s incremental gains in this or that campus confrontation also feel too instrumental and shallow.

The same basic paradox assails all spheres of political and cultural confrontation in the Trump era: we instinctively abjure reckoning directly with the subject of manners—and yet it goes to the heart of everything that is happening. There’s a culture-wide unease with the discussion of manners—which in turn conceals a larger and far more momentous breakdown in a viable understanding of manners in today’s America.

The Decivilizing Process

Trump gleefully presided over a mass rejection of a liberal sense of good manners and etiquette—for what else is political correctness but a renegotiation of propriety in a pluralist multi-ethnic modern society accommodating both men and women in the workplace? And this was precisely what spurred his followers on into cultish admiration, from the online troll army who relish his every transgression, to popular polls that showed consistent high marks among the electorate for Trump’s straight-talking style.

Trump campaign operatives and pundits likewise made a great show of celebrating their candidate’s insensitivity and taboo-breaking public demeanor. This vision of Trumpism as an unlicensed brand of right-wing cultural subversion inevitably cast those making a fuss about manners as repressed snobs and pearl-clutchers. Indeed, simply to utter the word manners would be to fulfill the stereotyped view of Trump’s detractors as elitist cultural authoritarians—the storm troopers of the liberal language police. And yet right now we are renegotiating the very profound question of manners even as we studiously recoil from naming it as such.

In 1939, the German sociologist Norbert Elias published the first volume of his magnum opus, The Civilizing Process—a work whose title alone would make a modern audience uncomfortable. Still, Elias’s small but hardy coterie of academic defenders say his use of the term civilizing doesn’t carry with it quite the value judgment that his critics assume. Elias was really studying manners as a process of interconnected collective socialization that accompanied the transition into modernity. The study traces the development of manners in European history from approximately 800 AD to 1900 AD and it begins with people learning some basic lessons—such as how not to soil oneself, fart, spit, or visibly or audibly transgress from any orifice while at the dinner table. For Elias, manners were something more than a nicety. They were a complex, collectively negotiated network of self-constraints that socialized people into repudiating the governance of public life by impulse and violence.

Freud also understood self-restraint, applied to bodily functions and the repression of sexual and violent impulses, as the very fabric of civilization. The conservative critique of the liberationist ethos of the sixties New Left suggested that the movement spelled a total breakdown of manners and self-restraint in a “permissive society.”

And as that critique gained force, wider declensionist narratives about the course and character of civilization were common.

Comments on the bad manners of Donald Trump have come from a wide array of sources, all along the political spectrum.

The neoconservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, for instance, drew upon her studies of Victorian England to contend that the post-sixties West would be unable to withstand the chaotic force of modernity without the strict set of manners and social rules that had governed public conduct until then. Western civilization, she argued, was on the brink of nothing less than total “demoralization.” Neocon polemicists—together with a few dour and cultured leftists like Lewis Lapham—also read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a sign of things to come.

Lately the youthful adherents of the Trumpian right have returned to an allied preoccupation with civilizational collapse as a product of the permissive society—even as they enthusiastically championed Trump for ripping up other forms of self-restraint. Curiously, younger quasi-Trumpian supporters of the anti-PC resistance have rediscovered and revived Camille Paglia’s neo-Freudian 1990 tome Sexual Personae. The formidable Paglia herself has never identified as right-wing, but all of her strongest arguments about the sexual character of civilizational decline have proven more useful to the right. Her most ambivalent and qualified arguments have been the left-leaning ones, like her celebration of decadent culture and her claims that its key exponents, such as Oscar Wilde, had rescued aesthetic insights in the face of largely self-administered cultural collapse. In a related critical register, the recent revival of degeneration theory associated with Max Nordau and Oswald Spengler has helped shape the tone and content of a whole new wave of right-wing alternative media.

Part and parcel of this declensionist revival on the right is a challenge to the idea of progress. The urgency of Trump’s appeal for the online right seems to stem from the mounting conviction that the West is rapidly degenerating, usually under the rubric of progress as administered and championed by cultural liberals. Around 2015, 4chan’s /pol/ board popularized a meme using the phrase “Come on it’s (the current year)” to mock naïve progressives like satirist John Oliver. The meme questioned the arbitrary insistence that moving forward in time must necessarily mean having superior values. More recently, a widely shared meme read something like, “1970: ‘I can’t wait for flying cars/space colonies/a cure for cancer’” followed by the year 2017 and some absurd visual representation of contemporary identity politics—like an image of a man who identifies as a dog or an adult baby. The political message is clear: either progress itself is a myth, or we have stopped progressing and started regressing as a civilization and are now intractably sinking into a decivilizing process.

You Call That Art?

A looser right-leaning online audience has widely shared another critique-of-progress meme that depicts art then and now—a comparison in which the “now” invariably comes off as preposterously feeble and misguided. A grand cathedral or a Renaissance sculpture appears on the left of the screen, and an ugly piece of contemporary art on the right, sarcastically captioned with something like “progress” or “art then . . . art now.” The contemporary art depicted would either be absurdly simplistic—a young woman in a gallery staring pensively at a single artless blob on a canvas or a black square. Articles about artist Casey Jenkins knitting with wool from her vagina were shared in much the same spirit, as a sign of our decline.

The theme of vastly overrated modern art has long been a preoccupation, almost a cliché, of the declension narratives of the right. (Indeed, one of the founding texts of the American religious right, Francis Schaeffer’s 1976 book How Should We Then Live? was largely a polemic work of art history.) The right-leaning suspicion of contemporary art has long relied on some variant of the faux-populist refrain “my three-year-old could do that,” but has also been fleshed out by more erudite conservative critics like Roger Scruton who described contemporary aesthetics as a “cult of ugliness.” The young subcultural online right likewise mourns the death of the ideal of beauty as an extension of its critique of progress.

But unlike Scruton, the hordes of online left-baiters never hesitate to move this critique to judgments of personal beauty—particularly when their targets are women. A more pointed brand of before-and-after cultural documentation favored by the online right concerns the purported transition from nice, well-adjusted-looking young women to disheveled, miserable-looking creatures who’ve been destroyed by feminism and the ravages of studying the social sciences. Lena Dunham, born into a New York art family, is to them a hated exemplar of this modern cult of ugliness, channeling the latter avant-garde aesthetic sensibilities of shock and transgression. This is especially the case with Dunham’s confrontationally corpulent nudity—a kind of outsider art now made by insiders.

The Nazis waged war on “degenerate art” produced in the vibrant Weimar avant-garde—a crusade that marked the culmination of years of reactionary writing against modern art as ugly, Jewish, and destructive to European traditions.

The political message is clear: either progress itself is a myth, or we have stopped progressing and started regressing as a civilization and are now intractably sinking into a decivilizing process.

But it’s hard to think of anything more “degenerate” in the American context than Trump’s own famous style, fanatically mimicked by his followers, and the image boards that developed the aesthetics we now associate with the alt-right. These right-wing culture-jammers have gained a certain avant-gardish notoriety for creating images so stomach-churning and morally repugnant they “can’t be unseen.”

The new youthful rightist movements are ambivalent about the modern aesthetics of shock and transgression; they oscillate between horrified critics and prolific producers of shock. Similarly, Trumpians celebrate their leader’s id-driven defiance of the harsh constraints imposed by strict liberal etiquette and sexual mores—evinced in their indifference to his coarse “pussy grabbing” comments—while also bemoaning the general conditions of cultural decline ushered in by the liberalism of the sixties. To them and to the rightist trolls, the shock of throwing off liberal etiquette is a pushback against the civilizational decline brought on by those Baby Boomers who threw off their own set of constraints.

Indeed, up until recently, when the culture of trolling and of style-defining spaces like 4chan could no longer be interpreted as anything other than a franchise of the far right, the fetishization of trolling as “counter-hegemonic” and taboo-breaking was common among leftish writers. They implicitly took the anti-Freudian sixties view, descended from Rousseau, that systems of personal constraints were the cause of society’s ills rather than the cure.

But amid all these confused, backswitching narratives of cultural decline, the legacy of Elias sheds an invaluable light. Scholars following up on Elias’s landmark research have produced a body of work about the “decivilizing process” that is something different from either the declension narratives of the right or the left—perhaps almost closer to a communitarian sense of society. Decline in this context meant shorter chains of social interdependence: the decline in shame and taming of aggressiveness, a decline in mutual identification, a shrinking of the gap between child and adult standards, and a consequent reliance on external constraints to curb violent and unruly impulses, the free expression of aggressiveness. Elias scholar Cas Wouters conceived of the post-sixties management of manners in a less morally constrained time as “a highly controlled decontrolling of emotional controls.”

The Shock Doctrine

Yet instead of insisting that the irony-drenched “come on, it’s the current year!” memes of the right are merely retrograde calls to reject modernity, the message in these memes and their resonance among a wider online audience should be taken seriously. The art critic Robert Hughes asked, “What has our culture lost in 1980 that the avant-garde had in 1890? Ebullience, idealism, confidence.” What Hughes diagnosed as the trademark culture-seizing ebullience of modern Western art—the “shock of the new”—once heralded the future. As such, it was also a central battleground for thrashing out the meaning of progress. And this was precisely where Hughes mourned the avant-garde’s descent into the nasty, negative, and nihilistic modes of expression that today also paradoxically repulses and characterizes the aesthetic sensibilities of the youthful online right, depending on subtler distinctions of whose rules it is transgressing.

Establishment conservatism saw hope in restoring the past, and the Trumpians preside over a ghost-dance revival of the very recent past in their mission to “Make America Great Again.” But the legions of the alt-right see an imminent nightmarish future, a civilization already dropped off the cliff. The centrist insistence that “America is already great!”—the stupendously ineffectual rejoinder to Trump trademarked by the Clinton campaign—has been an anemic and uninspiring alternative; a strange kind of end-of-history politics that holds GDP and the gradual liberalization of cultural attitudes as the incontrovertible measure of secular millennialism.

As generational living standards decline and the promise of the technological affluent future fails to deliver, the memes emerging from the alt-right will continue to have broader appeal.

We’re now in the midst of an extremely fraught renegotiation of the values expressed in our system of manners.

This is why you often see the left and the right sharing the same memes, like the one of the corporate slogan beneath the golden arches of McDonalds: “A modern and progressive burger company.” We shouldn’t expect younger people to be enthused by a celebration of the present or to be satisfied with the progress of cultural gestures in place of real material progress any longer.

Elias was also a German Jew who fled Nazi Germany and whose mother died in Auschwitz. He learned in his own lifetime that the complex restraint of violent impulses was something so fundamental to our fate that we should not be shy about calling it civilization. It is a delicate balance, but the moment it atrophies all is lost. We’re now in the midst of an extremely fraught renegotiation of the values expressed in our system of manners. Formerly those values stemmed from an understanding on both sides that manners form the fabric of anything we might call society—and that they may prove far more powerful in deciding the fate of a nation, or even a civilization, than any given economic policy or trade deal.

The problem in our current, unacknowledged controversy over manners is that while both sides seem to implicitly accept this premise, they have directly opposing views of what our system of manners should be doing and what values it should be normalizing. As a result, a chaos reigns on all sides; constraints are eagerly thrown off in a gesture of liberation but then elsewhere more harshly enforced than ever. The incoherent tumult of the present moment’s culture wars masks what is, at bottom, a battle over what this shared system of manners will be. And if Trumpism has taught us nothing else, it should be this: the prim-sounding process by which our public manners are defined and negotiated may well be the key to everything else.