Nothing works, it seems. The economy, politics, the media, government, higher education—everything is broken. Those essential elements of society no longer work, and we don’t expect them to work. Brokenness is the new normal. The only thing that works—the only thing that’s rewarded—is cynicism.
Everyone has a theory about where the cynicism comes from. The Left blames big corporations, racist cops, Fox News—everyone and everything that it associates with privilege and abuse of power. The system is corrupt, they say; tear it down and start over. Build a progressive paradise atop the rubble of this failed experiment called America. It’s a philosophy rooted in suspicion about the Founding and expressing doubt about the meaning and validity of the Constitution.
The Right blames the liberal media, the radicals in the academy, the censors at Facebook, and President Obama—the forces of so-called “progress.” The system is corrupt, they say; let’s turn back the clock and start over. Correct the mistakes. Bring back the jobs. Bring back the culture. Make America great again. It’s a political stance skeptical of change, hostile to cultural relativism and ill-defined notions of justice, pessimistic about the abilities of experts and professionals to solve tough problems.
The dominant and disorienting attribute of America in 2016 is that nothing is what it seems or, more accurately, what it actually is. On the campuses, intolerance is tolerance and censorship is free speech. In our public bathrooms, boys are girls and men are women. In our cities, the forces of protection are the forces of aggression. Stagnation is recovery; poverty is prosperity; war is peace.
Media cynicism has lately devolved into “don’t believe your lyin’ eyes” absurdity. In Orlando, according to the New York Times, an Islamist terrorist attack is somehow the product of Christian intolerance. In a bold display of cynicism about what its readers are willing to believe, the Times published an editorial pinning blame for the murder of 49 people in a nightclub not on the man who pulled the trigger—and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—but on GOP lawmakers “who have actively championed discriminatory laws and policies.” Omar Mateen’s victims, the Times said, were not the latest casualties of Islamism’s long war on the West but rather “casualties of a society where hate has deep roots.”
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was built on cynicism. Trump has made a virtue out of ignorance, convincing many Americans that the president doesn’t need to know what he’s doing in order to govern effectively. Our leaders claim to know what they’re doing, he says. And look at the hash they’re making of the country. Why not hand it over to me? It couldn’t get any worse.
Trump’s supporters call him a truth-teller, an antidote to those who deny that the country has become a hollowed-out ruin. They defend his every graceless, corrosive expression. Cynicism about America’s future has distorted their ability to make distinctions. Frustrated by the brokenness, they have abandoned faith in the things that are supposed to last—especially the institutions.
Trump may be the most cynical politician this country has ever produced, yet Trumpism is not a surprising response to Barack Obama’s presidency, the most cynical in recent memory. Obama sold his health-care plan on a broken promise—“if you like your health-care plan, you can keep it.” His deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, bragged about how the administration manipulated media coverage of the Iran nuclear deal. Obama called ISIS a “jayvee” team. He sent his deputies out to spin Fast and Furious, Benghazi, and the IRS targeting of conservative nonprofits.
Cynicism about politics and its uses explains the administration’s decision to release the transcript of Mateen’s 9-11 calls with all the incriminating references to the Islamic State removed. The transcripts were redacted, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said, so as not to promote the terrorist cause or “re-victimize” the victims. This time, though, the administration was too cynical by half, and a backlash erupted against the obvious political correctness of the move. Criticized from all sides, the administration caved, and the Justice Department agreed to release the full transcript.
Maybe our cynicism hasn’t progressed so far that we’re not able to push back against such a transparent attempt at manipulation. That’s a hopeful sign. One thing’s for sure: if we’re ever going to get back to a society that works, we’ll need to reclaim some of the idealism that once animated both Left and Right. Progress was never gained through suspicion and distrust; greatness was never built on pessimism and doubt.
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