The Liberal Backlash Is Coming

(AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)

Demonstrators protest against the Trump administration's immigration policies on June 30, 2018, in New York.

Among the many privileges certain Americans enjoy—along with the presumption of competence and driving without being pulled over unless they actually commit a moving violation—is the right to cry out in rage at the sight of political and societal change, to demand that things revert back to how they were before, and to find this demand greeted with understanding and consideration.

Indeed, the angry demand for a reversion to the prior order—what we can call the politics of backlash—has been the basis of Republican electoral success for decades. They have held up one social or political development after another and told have voters, "These changes are the symptom and cause of what you have lost." Your standard of living, your hopes for the future, the vibrancy of your community, your security, your place in a society ordered as you would like it, or just the feeling that people like you are on top, where they should be—whenever any of it is threatened, the GOP is there to say, "Yes, you should be angry. You should be even angrier than you are, because these things have been stolen from you. And we can help you get them back."

But right now we're seeing something extraordinary: a liberal backlash, potentially equal in potency to what we're used to seeing from the right. The left is already mad because of their own sense of loss, and it's about to get much worse.

As the recent argument over "civility" has shown, we tend to treat conservative anger as something to be analyzed, understood, even empathized with, while liberal anger is greeted with stern lectures about proper behavior—and little or no attempt to plumb its depths. But more than ever before, liberal anger is something the political system is going to have to deal with.

On November 8, 2016, liberals lost the country they thought America was in the long process of becoming. But with the Supreme Court about to be placed in the hands of a firm and unwavering conservative majority, the effects of Donald Trump's election will be felt not just as a worry about what might happen or a shock at what's happening to other people, but as very specific things being taken away from all of us.

But before we get to that, it's important to appreciate just how central the politics of backlash have been to conservatives, and why it's so unusual to see the same thing happening to liberals. As political theorist Corey Robin wrote in his book The Reactionary Mind (originally published in 2011 and recently updated), conservatism is at its heart about "the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back." Robin argued that from its roots with Edmund Burke in 18th-century England, conservatism has always been a reaction to any attempt by any disenfranchised group to demand or seize some measure of power and the benefits that come with it.

That applied to peasants in the French Revolution, to slaves seeking freedom, to workers seeking better employment conditions, to women seeking the vote, or to African Americans and LGBT people seeking civil rights. Conservatives bitterly opposed them all, in the belief that any expansion of rights, resources, and influence granted to supposedly lower and less-deserving groups would mean something was being taken away from those whose rightful place was at the top of society's hierarchy.

The shrewd deployment of the politics of backlash is how Republicans manage to win so many elections while representing the economic interests of a small elite. Though the GOP may have no higher goal than cutting taxes for the wealthy, they can still win over enough of the non-rich by telling them that only Republicans can give them back what they believe they've lost. That narrative of loss was seldom more clear than in the Obama years, where the mere presence of an African American in the nation's highest office was to many a kind of theft.

It's no accident that Donald Trump transformed himself from a buffoonish celebrity into a political figure by leading an effort to prove that it was all a mistake, that Obama wasn't even a real American. Then he won the White House with a campaign that put the restoration of whites' cultural, political, and economic hegemony at its center. The most important word in Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan wasn't "America" or "Great," it was "Again." We'll be respected again. You'll get to say "Merry Christmas" again. We'll be free of immigrants and Muslims and anyone else who makes you feel like things aren't how they used to be. And it worked.

We're seeing the results every day, and we've seen liberal anger steadily rising. While we may only think about it as anger when we see a Trump administration official asked to leave a restaurant, anger is what's driving so much liberal activism, just as it always did for conservatives. That's especially true for the people whom Trump holds in the most contempt, among them racial minorities and women. As Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times recently wrote: "Polls can't capture the way gut-churning revulsion toward Trump is changing some women's whole way of being in the world. You see it in the large number of women running for political office and winning. But you also see it in the women, many of them suburban, middle-aged and not particularly radical, who are making political activism the center of their lives."

The new Supreme Court will almost certainly create a wave of angry liberal activists, because it's almost impossible to overstate the changes to American government and society it is likely to bring about. The only constraint on their enormous ambition will be the occasional misgivings of Chief Justice John Roberts, who will now sit at the court's ideological center. To his right will be four intensely partisan conservative ideologues, relentlessly pushing not just to find in favor of whatever position the Trump administration is arguing, but to bring about a genuine revolution in American life.

Overturning Roe v. Wade will be just the beginning. They're likely to outlaw affirmative action, validate every means of suppressing votes and rigging the electoral system Republicans can devise, and perhaps return us to the days when having a pre-existing condition meant you couldn't get health insurance. More than that, they may well launch an attack on the entire structure of government regulation. Environmental laws, labor laws, civil rights laws—any and all could be the target of sweeping court decisions restricting the ability of the government to do anything to stop the powerful from preying on the rest of us.

Does that make you angry? It should. Much of that anger will be focused in a productive direction, into organizing and activism that takes power away from the Republican officeholders at all levels who have brought us to this point. But it will also be visible in ways that are spontaneous, emotional, and even uncivil. Those matter too, because they show us how Americans are reacting to the damage the GOP is doing to their country and their lives. And they'll only have more to be angry about. 

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