Do you believe that a single person can steer history? Credit: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

January 22, 2021   5 mins

There’s a moment in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight when the Joker, played by Heath Ledger, has a sudden change of heart. For some 90-plus minutes of screen time, he’s been dead set on murdering Gotham’s caped crusader — only now, he realises that getting what he wanted would ruin everything. The battle isn’t a battle at all, but a precious symbiosis, a reason to keep getting out of bed in the morning. If he wins and he kills his nemesis, he loses.

“I had a vision of a world without Batman,” he muses. “And it was soooo…. boring.”

Today, the American Left is faced with a similar crisis. Donald Trump is, perhaps needless to say, not Batman. (Much as he might like to think otherwise.) But he is interesting, and for quite some time he’s played an essential role in motivating his opponents to action. After all, there’s no Resistance without a powerful force to throw one’s weight against.

For four years, Democrats and a handful of Republicans have looked forward to Trump’s defeat, and with it, an end to the fight. Only now, with the war won and a new president in office, it seems that nobody wants to let go. Not Donald Trump, who spent the last months of his presidency claiming to have been robbed, fomenting insurrection, and getting himself banned from every social media platform — but not his opponents either.

Trump, with his trashy aesthetics, vulgar xenophobia and thin-skinned arrogance, was the perfect villain. We couldn’t have invented a better one if we’d tried (although we occasionally did anyway, embellishing his idiocy until it became the stuff of legend). And while a free and fair election evicted him from the White House, all evidence indicates that he’s still living rent-free in our heads. We’re not done; we’re still so angry. Where is all that pent-up emotion supposed to go?

A look at the cultural landscape suggests a transference is taking place, with the loathing rippling outward to land on anyone Trump-adjacent. The society pages have taken up jeering at the President’s various progeny, particularly Ivanka and Jared, whose impending social death amongst the New York elite is the stuff schadenfreude is made of. “Ivanka Trump apparently thinks she’s going to ride this insurrection out and be president one day,” reads one Vanity Fair headline. At the same time, political activists are intent on hounding Trump’s enablers out of public life; in publishing, a petition to bar anyone in the administration from receiving book contracts is currently amassing signatures.

But more than Trump’s friends and family, it’s the still-active MAGA masses who will bear the brunt of our displaced rage. Imagine Trump being toppled from his presidential pedestal and shattering into a thousand sentient pieces, a scurrying horde of mini-Trumps, all with targets on their backs. The several hundred idiots who stormed the Capitol may have failed to overturn the election, but they’ve given new purpose to a cadre of online progressives who want to play Poirot. An entire community has sprung up, devoted to identifying the rioters foolish enough to attempt a coup unmasked and on camera. The pink-hatted women who marched en masse against Trump in January 2016 have found a new calling this year, honey-trapping the rioters on dating apps and reporting them to the FBI.

Meanwhile, the Left’s calls to defund the police have fallen abruptly silent; instead, we fantasise about more laws, more cops, more ways to wield our newfound authority against these Trumpist transgressors.The protest movement that defined us last year, the mass national outcry against police impunity and unbridled authoritarianism? As it turns out, these things are only a problem if you’re not the person in power. “I hope he can hear the sirens approaching at this very moment,” tweets a self-described advocate for democracy and social justice after one rioter is identified. Another replies, “I hope he hears nothing; a black SUV pulls up along side him at the grocery parking lot, a bag over his head, and they speed off to an undisclosed location.”

Is this Donald Trump’s legacy? Have those of us who thought we were fighting a monster become one ourselves? Six months ago, progressives marched against police overreach and scolded their fellow citizens for calling the cops on looters. Today, these same people fantasise openly about seeing the MAGA rioters behind bars. Activists who used the public sphere of social media to transform a hashtag campaign into a global movement for justice now celebrate the silencing of their political opponents.

And journalists, who have spent four years proclaiming their commitment to boldly speaking truth to power, seem to have forgotten that this is still their job, even when that power has been transferred into the hands of someone they prefer. This shift was already apparent in the lead-up to the election: compare the breathless coverage of Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct, from the Access Hollywood tape to the Stormy Daniels scandal, to the general scepticism that greeted Tara Reade’s allegations of sexual assault by Joe Biden; or the gleeful speculation surrounding Trump’s Russia collusion to the poo-pooing of the peculiar contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop.

But the contrast has been even starker in the months following the election, as some journalists reversed course and decided that they were true patriots after all. Questioning the validity of the election, a favourite pastime back in late 2016, became taboo verging on treason. Faithless electors, once hailed as the great hope for an against-all-odds Hilary Clinton presidency, were now scrutinised as seditionists.

When Trump’s supporters rushed the Capitol, some reporters not only compared it to September 11, but cheered the notion of a Patriot Act-style crackdown on the so-called “domestic terrorists”. Granted, these “terrorists” did not topple any buildings that day, but they did throw an unprecedented tantrum that frightened our lawmakers and got several people killed. Washington Post columnist Max Boot was one of many journalists who called on on our new government overlords to urgently step in: “Biden needs to reinvigorate the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] to slow the lies and sedition from Fox and other right-wing broadcasters,” he tweeted. “Or else the terrorism we saw on Jan. 6 may be only the beginning, rather than the end, of the plot against America.”

The fact that this “terrorism” looked less like an organised movement, and more like a group of dogs who unexpectedly, improbably caught the car they were chasing, is irrelevant. In fact, it’s an American tradition: if no genuine plot against the country exists, we can always invent one, cobbled together from scraps to look like something real. A secret Iraqi bunker full of weapons of mass destruction; a secret coup being plotted deep in the bowels of QAnon and Parler.

We have spent four years in a state of energising, symbiotic hatred; we can’t just let it go. Battling Trump gave us a sense of purpose, and in some cases, even a sense of self. Winning, on the other hand, is a dull affair with boring prizes — so much so that many of us are would rather stay where we are, unwilling to declare victory, grinding our defeated opponents into smaller and smaller pieces until there’s nothing left to punish. We are chasing the dragon of outrage just to feel alive again. The fight was what united and defined us. What’s a Resistance warrior to do?

Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.