Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
“Fear Society” is Natan Sharansky’s term for a socio-political order that flunks the “town square” test: People are too frightened to speak their mind in public spaces because they fear retribution. A victim of Soviet tyranny before emigrating to Israel, for Sharansky the consequences of free expression could be arrest, imprisonment, torture, and death. For us, the regime of political correctness, “cancel culture,” “microaggressions,” and “woke” commissars reinforces a similar repression, a “softer” one, as Tocqueville called it, but effective nonetheless in silencing dissent and promoting an illiberal progressive ideology.
Sharansky goes on to describe the consequences of living in a fear society, which typically comprises three groups: “true believers,” those who sincerely believe in the regime’s ideology; “dissidents,” those who oppose the regime and speak out against it; and “doublethinkers,” the majority who oppose the regime yet do not publicly express their opposition, particularly to outsiders.
Donald Trump’s political success has emboldened the conservative and Republican “doublethinkers” to express their opinions in the “town square” and challenge the domination that for several decades the progressives have enjoyed over political speech.
In Europe, hate speech laws and the absence of the legally recognized natural right to free speech that we enjoy allow the state to legally sanction or punish speech the EU doesn’t like. In contrast, here in the U.S. indirect methods of enforcement are more typically used. One method is to discredit and ostracize any alternative to progressive doctrine: “The most successful tyranny,” Harold Bloom wrote, “is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable.”
That is the point of political correctness: to demonize alternatives to the dominant ideology by attributing them to mental disorders like racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and “white privilege.” Violence will sometimes be used, as in the mobs shouting down conservative speakers, or the Antifa goons physically attacking opponents. But more effective is the self-censorship of the “doublethinkers” who know that political correctness is illiberal and compromises political freedom, but will not publicly challenge its doctrines. Over time, the assumptions and vocabulary of political correctness become reflexive positions people express in public spaces.
We have seen this process at work in establishment Republicans who accept the Left’s degradation of language. “Racism” in particular has been a powerful verbal weapon for bludgeoning opponents into conformity. These “doublethinking” Republicans seldom contest the Left’s Orwellian distortion of the word “racism,” whose only legitimate meaning is the belief that all members of one group are by nature inferior to all members of another. Instead, these so-called conservatives accept the ideologically loaded meaning that “racism” denotes any speech that disagrees with or challenges dubious progressive shibboleths like “white privilege,” endemic “white racism,” “implicit bias,” “disparate impact,” or even the mentioning of established facts, such as police killings of unarmed black males are rare, while 90% of black deaths come at the hands of other blacks. Indeed, mere criticism, no matter how justified or unrelated to race, of a “person of color” is prima facie racism.
Moreover, this progressive revision of language has now become joined to notions of decorum, civility, “principles,” or manners, which always have been instruments of social-class identification and elite gate-keeping. Now ideologically skewed terms like “racism” or “homophobia” define public decorum. The “right” people––those with university credentials and a self-proclaimed superiority of intellect, taste, and knowledge––distance themselves from the semiliterate rubes and “bitter clingers to guns and religion” by conspicuously condemning and decrying “racism” and other thought-crimes. Self-censorship has evolved into good manners that sacrifice truth and coherence of argument to one’s class identity.
Donald Trump has challenged this whole regime of doublethink, and encouraged the “dissidents” who for decades now have been frustrated by alleged conservatives ceding so much moral and linguistic high-ground to the illiberal Left. Trump’s blunt, sometimes crude manner and style relentlessly attack the tyrannical regime of political correctness, and its abettors among NeverTrump Republicans who mask their irrational bitterness and wounded professional and personal self-love in cries of violated “principles” and “decorum.” Most important, he has exposed the hypocrisy of both cohorts: The affluent progressives who compensate for their privilege by endorsing the illiberal tenets of identity politics and political correctness, and the NeverTrump careerists and elitists angry that their political country club has been crashed by a brash vulgarian.
The sorry spectacle of Mitt Romney’s moral preening last week during the Senate impeachment vote is a good example. Romney voted to convict Trump of the fantasy crime of “abuse of power,” the first time in history that a Senator has voted against a president from his own party without any proven “high crimes or misdemeanors.” Romney’s rationale was typical NeverTrump bluster about “principle” seasoned with Pharasaism: “I swore an oath before God to exercise impartial justice,” he said. “I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am.” The president was “grievously wrong” and “guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust.”
This is the same Mitt Romney who solicited and received Trump’s endorsement when he ran for president in 2012, a time when Trump’s personality and demeanor were well known. Yet when Trump began his presidential run in 2015, Romney called him “childish” and later a “phony, a fraud” who is “playing members of the American public for suckers.” He then claimed that if “Trump had said what he said about “the KKK, Muslims, Mexicans, disabled,” he would “NOT have accepted his endorsement” in 2012. There’s the typical Republican NeverTrumper’s validation of the Left’s question-begging smears about Trump’s “racism” and affinity for “white supremacists” and other forms of intolerance. Yet despite all this sanctimonious dudgeon, Romney trekked to the White House in a failed, and humiliating, bid to become Trump’s Secretary of State.
After that, in 2017 Romney joined the duplicitous chorus of Dems and Donk NeverTrumpers who claimed that Trump said that the marginal white supremacists protesting at Charlottesville were “fine people,” a canard exploded numerous times. Yet he continued to speak with the president occasionally, and in 2018 secured Trump’s endorsement for his Senate bid. Despite Trump’s kind remarks at that time, Romney continued to snipe at Trump, once again parroting the bipartisan NeverTrumpers in saying of Trump’s comments about Russian interference in the election––which we now know has been overblown by the same intelligence agencies that would go on to undermine Trump’s administration––“President Trump’s decision to side with Putin over American intelligence agencies is disgraceful and detrimental to our democratic principles.”
No, Senator, what’s “disgraceful” is that our intelligence agencies did not examine the DNC server Russia allegedly hacked, but took the word of a private enterprise bought and paid for by the DNC. We still don’t know the truth about the origins of the hack, which hasn’t kept Trump’s enemies from continually asserting a suspicion as a fact.
You can read here more of Romney’s attacks on Trump, such as his response to the Mueller report that he was “sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection” of Trump and his administration. How about the “dishonesty and misdirection” of the intelligence agency functionaries who violated the Constitution by weaponizing the surveillance and enforcement powers of the FBI, DOJ, CIA, and State Department in order to advance their political and professional interests?
Given Romney’s self-interested behavior, can we blame people for seeing all this principled dudgeon as instead sour grapes over a political tyro doing what Romney, with his gilt-edged political curriculum vitae, couldn’t do? And doesn’t it suggest elastic principles in the service of careerism that Romney, despite his estimation of Trump as a “threat to democracy,” would offer himself up as a candidate for Secretary of State, and then solicit Trump’s endorsement when he ran for the Senate? And isn’t he embarrassed by the effusive encomia he has received from MSNBC, CNN, and other progressive mouthpieces? Romney should heed the wisdom of the philosopher Antisthenes: When bad men praise you, you should be horribly afraid that you’ve done something wrong.
We don’t know if Romney, or any NeverTrumper, is a “doublethinker,” or if he is conscious of his hypocrisy and careerism. Many NeverTrumpers might be like Holly Golightly, a “real phony” who “really believes all the crap” they claim to believe. The main point is that by endorsing the Orwellian lexicon of politically correct abuse, and taking their stand on “principles” they are willing to violate or selectively apply, they give aid and comfort to the progressive “true believers” whose long hegemony over our political life and culture that Trump has challenged.
By emboldening the “dissidents” against the illiberal regime, Trump has struck a blow against an aggressive progressivism that seeks to dismantle our Constitutional safeguards against tyranny, and has begun to dismantle their “fear society,” and return us to what America was created to be: a free society where anyone can “bawl out his freedom,” as Aeschylus put it, in the town square.