But this latest manufactured controversy is also proof of something that would disturb conservatives if it were spoken aloud: Donald Trump’s presidency, for all they might have celebrated it, was a failure. It broke its fundamental promise to them, and now all the right can do is wallow in its defeat.
It may not be a coincidence that this spectacularly inane culture war outburst is happening at a moment when Democrats are about to pass a covid relief bill that looks to be one of the most popular pieces of major legislation in history. In this poll from Morning Consult, for instance, 77 percent of Americans say they support it, as do 59 percent of Republicans.
That’s extraordinary, given that it got zero Republican votes in the House and will likely get zero in the Senate. Ordinarily, partisans follow the lead of their elites — but not on this issue.
So if the conservative base won’t get mad about President Biden’s first legislative initiative, what can they get worked up about? Dr. Seuss.
To be clear: There have been no anti-Seuss laws passed, no public campaigns to denounce Dr. Seuss, no boycotts, no books burned or banned, no “canceling,” and no one saying that everyone should stop reading the many Dr. Seuss books that don’t contain racist imagery. It was the decision of a publisher to no longer publish a few books that most people had never heard of, the kind of decision publishers make every day.
But it set off an explosion in the conservative media, egged on by political leaders who have been consumed with the terrifying threat posed by “cancel culture.”
So rather than seeing this as an interesting example of how the portrayal of racial minorities has changed for the better in recent decades, conservatives again rushed to proclaim themselves victims. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said that Democrats want to “outlaw Dr. Seuss” as part of a broader campaign to “tell us what to say.” Glenn Beck told his listeners that we’re seeing “the end of freedom in America.”
To repeat, no books have been banned or outlawed. But on Fox News, they treated the Dr. Seuss controversy like it was the most newsworthy event since the moon landing. Matthew Gertz of Media Matters for America counted 139 mentions of Dr. Seuss on the network on Tuesday alone, including a blazing rant from Tucker Carlson.
“When the people in charge cancel Dr. Seuss,” Carlson proclaimed, “what they’re really trying to eliminate is a very specific kind of mid-century American culture, a culture that championed meritocracy and color blindness and the superiority of individual achievement over tribal identity.”
That Carlson didn’t burst out laughing while he presented that pile of manure to viewers he plainly views as half-witted rubes is a tribute to his professionalism as a performer. On Wednesday the wall-to-wall Seuss coverage on Fox has continued.
So why do I say this is proof that the Trump presidency failed? Because Trumpism was based on the idea that the trends and developments in American society its supporters find disturbing and disorienting could be reversed. America could be Made Great Again — in other words, made like it was when you were younger and people like you were on top, their cultural, political and economic hegemony unchallenged.
We already know that contemporary conservatism is built on proclaiming and feeling victimized. But what’s so striking about the latest brand of culture war controversy is that it cultivates a sense of fundamentally unsolvable victimhood. There is no way out of it; all you can do is get angry and stay angry.
There are plenty of conservative identity issues for which that’s not the case. If I tell you Biden is coming for your guns, for instance, what can you do? You can work to elect Republicans who will protect and expand gun rights. There’s a plausible path to both empowerment and defeating the threat, through the political system.
But what are you supposed to do about a culture that has rejected you and your values? There’s not much you can do, other than complain about it and marinate in your alienation.
And it goes beyond books you imagine are being banned (even if they aren’t). Trump was in office for four years, and all the immigrants were not banished; America continues to grow more diverse by the day. More Confederate monuments were taken down in 2020 than ever before. Women and minorities keep getting more positions of leadership. Kids still listen to music their parents hate. Liberals still control popular culture. Trump couldn’t change any of that.
That doesn’t mean the Republican Party is in a bad position, or that it won’t win more victories in the future. But conservatives have immersed themselves in a cultural lost cause, defined by a defeat that cannot be undone.