Visiting New York a few weeks after Trump’s victory in the presidential election, I found myself immersed in a mass psychosis. The city’s intelligentsia was possessed by visions of conspiracy. No one showed any interest in the reasons Trump supporters may have had for voting as they did. Quite a few cited the low intelligence, poor education and retrograde values of the nearly 63 million Americans who voted for him. What was most striking was how many of those with whom I talked flatly rejected the result. The election, they were convinced, had been engineered by a hostile power. It was this malignant influence, not any default of American society, that had upended the political order.
Conspiracy theory has long been associated with the irrational extremes of politics. The notion that political events can be explained by the workings of hidden forces has always been seen by liberals as a sign of delusional thinking. A celebrated study by the political scientist Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964), linked the idea with the far Right. Yet in New York in December 2016, many of the brightest liberal minds exhibited the same derangement. Nearly two years later, they continue to reach to conspiracy theory as an explanation for their defeat.
The former lead book reviewer at the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, devotes several pages to Hofsfadter’s work in her short polemic, The Death of Truth. Citing him approvingly, she notes that “the modern right wing” has “tended to be mobilised by a sense of grievance and dispossession”. As Hofstadter put it, they feel that “America has been largely taken away from them.” The charm of this citation is the lack of self-awareness it reveals. It would be difficult to find a better description of the anguish of liberals such as Kakutani, who feel they have been robbed of their historically appointed role as the moral and intellectual leaders of society.
For those who embrace it, a paranoid style of liberalism has some advantages. Relieved from any responsibility for the debacles they have presided over, the liberal elites that have been in power in many western countries for much of the past 30 years can enjoy the sensation of being victims of forces beyond their control. Conspiracy theory implies there is nothing fundamentally wrong with liberal societies, and places the causes of their disorder outside them. No one can reasonably doubt that the Russian state has been intervening in western politics. Yet only minds unhinged from reality can imagine that the decline of liberalism is being masterminded by Vladimir Putin. The principal causes of disorder in liberal societies are in those societies themselves.
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Kakutani says little on this subject. The Death of Truth makes only passing mention of the financial crisis and the growing numbers excluded from any productive role in society. Fake news is rightly identified as a major problem, but only in the context of the Trump administration, Russia and authoritarian regimes such as Viktor Orbán’s in Hungary. The corruption of language is discussed as if it were a practice unknown among liberals. She tells the reader that soon after taking power in China, Mao launched “a plan of linguistic engineering”, creating “a new political vocabulary in which some words were suppressed; others were injected with new meanings … People were to understand that there were ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ ways of speaking.”
She omits to note that a similar type of linguistic engineering is underway in America (and western countries) in which deviations from “correct” ways of speaking are severely punished. Nothing is more authentically of our time than the spectacle of people being banished from public discourse for the crime of using forbidden words, and pleading for rehabilitation in humiliating Mao-style internet struggle sessions with their liberal accusers.
Along with many other rattled liberals, Kakutani laments the decline of “Enlightenment values” and the ascendancy of “post-modern relativism”. She passes over the metamorphosis of liberalism in which a philosophy of tolerance has morphed into a persecutory orthodoxy. Few of the liberals who direct universities, media organisations and large corporations are distinguished by any sense of the complexities and contradictions of ethics and politics. For many, the human world is composed of simple moral facts. Western colonialism was an unmitigated evil; historic national identities are intrinsically racist; religions are no more than structures of oppression. Anyone who questions these supposed facts is in need of political re-education or summary dismissal.
The singularity of the present time lies in the fact that the geopolitical retreat of the West has coincided with the advance of a hyperbolic liberal ideology in western societies. The fall of communism was celebrated as the endpoint of political development. In future, the only legitimate mode of government would consist of replicas of liberal democracy. But rather than a victory for liberalism, the Soviet collapse was the defeat of an illiberal Enlightenment project originating with the Jacobins and implemented by Lenin. Far from embracing another western ideology – the cult of the free market – post-communist Russia has become a Eurasian power defining itself against the West as a separate civilisation founded in Eastern Orthodox religion. Similarly, when China rejected Maoism it was not in order to embrace a western-style market economy. Instead a neo-Confucian variant of state capitalism has been developed, on whose continuing success western economies now heavily depend.
At the same time the liberal endpoint on which all other societies were supposedly converging has been changing shape. A liberal way of life emerged as part of a search for toleration in the aftermath of early modern European wars of religion. Today, the predominant liberalism defines itself in opposition to that way of life. In an ironic reversal, post-Cold-War liberals who believed the West had finally triumphed have been supplanted by a new type for whom the West is the chief enemy. For these alt-liberals, toleration is the enemy of social justice.
A recent addition to the New York Times editorial board, the Harvard-educated Sarah Jeong, has a record of posting tweets about “dumbass fucking white people”, who – among many other sins and crimes – are “marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants”. What is notable about these comments is not their casual racism. It is that the sentiments they express are commonplace – the stock-in-trade of hundreds of thousands of graduates mass-produced in centres of higher learning every year.
Among those indoctrinated with alt-liberalism, older liberal values are inverted. Privileged products of elite universities rage against cultural appropriation, while the complaints of destitute and despairing proles are dismissed with contempt as expressions of white supremacy. Minority identities are actively embraced, but not all of them equally. The state of Israel is demonised as a colonial redoubt of the hated West, and racial slurs that would be furiously denounced if they were aimed at any other group are approved when their targets are Jews. When a Labour leader can defend describing “British Zionists” as lacking in “English irony”, the classical markers of anti-Semitism are evident in a potential prime minister.
There is a lesson here. The belief that liberal values are on “the right side of history” is a confession of faith, asserted against an accumulating body of evidence. Liberal societies are by-products of western monotheism, which underpinned the practice of toleration with the belief that it was mandated by God. Generations of secular thinkers have attempted to detach liberalism from its theistic base.
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But decoupling the universal claims of liberalism from monotheism is easier said than done. Secular liberals believe history is moving in the direction of their values. Yet without a guiding providence of the sort imagined by monotheists, history has no direction. With the referenda on same-sex marriage and abortion, tolerance and personal freedom have advanced in Ireland – a latecomer to the liberal West. But there is no reason for thinking this a chapter in a universal story in which humanity is slowly being converted to these values. Theories that posit a long-term historical movement towards a liberal future are religious myths recycled as ersatz social science.
Despite everything, liberals cannot help thinking of history as a story of redemption. That is why they cannot help seeing Putin and Xi Jinping, Orbán and Salvini as reverting to the past. A future that contains hyper-modern tsars, technocratic emperors and intelligent demagogues is unthinkable. So facts are ignored or denied, and truth sacrificed for the sake of securing a consoling meaning in events. While post-truth populism has become one of the clichés of the age, a more defining feature of our time is the rise of post-truth liberalism.
It would be foolish to expect liberals to admit that their faith has been falsified. They would have to accept that they do not understand the present—an impossible demand, when they have seen themselves for so long as the intellectual vanguard of humankind. Whether secular or religious, myths are not refuted. Instead they fade and vanish from the scene, together with the people who embody them.
This process can be seen at work in Europe. The illiberal forces marching across the continent have not come from nowhere. They are a reaction against the hyper-liberal project of a Europe without internal borders. When policies on immigration are removed from majority control, mass immigration and liberal democracy become rivals. Majorities in pretty well every European country resist the large-scale changes in their societies that rapid, large-scale immigration brings. With centre parties locked into a grandiose project of continent-wide free movement, illiberal democracy is the logic of events. Liberals cannot grasp this logic, for it means that their vision of Europe is delusive and self-defeating. If they are mistaken about Europe, they are mistaken in everything. Meanwhile the centre ground in politics continues to crumble away.
The collective derangement that I observed in New York was a symptom of acute cognitive dissonance. Believing they understood the course of history, enlightened liberal minds suddenly discovered they did not understand their own society. The paranoia into which they descended – and in many cases remain – was the result of the destruction of their view of the world and their place in it. The upshot is that they are intellectually and politically paralysed. If they have any programme of action, it is to return to the prelapsarian world of a decade ago – the world that produced the present crisis.
It is possible to cherish and defend values of tolerance and personal freedom without believing they are ordained by God or underwritten by history. It is enough that a liberal society is one of the more civilised ways humans have come up with in their struggle to live with one another. But accepting this modest view would undermine the self-image to which contemporary liberals anxiously cling, in which they are leading the world towards a future that they have shaped. So they prefer to think of themselves as victims, and allow what remains of a liberal way of life to recede into the past.