By Monday evening, the New Yorker had canceled Bannon’s appearance and released a long statement by Remnick. After paragraphs of justifying the decision to offer the invitation in the first place, with phrases like “to interview Bannon is not to endorse him” and “we are hardly pulling him out of obscurity,” Remnick said he had nonetheless changed his mind. His explanation for the reversal amounted to: Many of my staffers and the other speakers were outraged, so I gave into them.
Which is, of course, Remnick’s prerogative. He runs a magazine, not a crusade for the values of open liberal inquiry. But how much good did his capitulation do? Critics, who wanted a groveling apology, not a grudging concession to public taste, are unappeased. And now conservatives are also livid.
A still more important question is how much good any of it does. What is the point of warring against “normalizing” Trump? Were the sort of people who pony up hundreds of dollars to watch Remnick interview Zadie Smith really in danger of becoming MAGAheads?
The question answers itself: A Venn diagram showing New Yorker readers and Trump fans would contain two circles miles apart. The folks in the New Yorker circle are far more likely to believe that Trump is a nascent despot than to believe that he is anything like a normal president. Nor are they likely to change their minds simply by spending an hour in the physical presence of Bannon.
It’s not the prospect of being in Bannon’s presence that bothers the anti-normalizers. They worry that putting Bannon on the program normalizes him to people who won’t attend but might see that Bannon was there, and infer that the Trump White House is a normal sort of White House with normal sorts of staffers and former staffers who get invited to do reasonably normal interviews with magazine editors.
The fretting is sincere, and on some level I share it, having spent plenty of time trying to communicate the grotesque abnormality, not to mention obscene incompetence, of the current administration. And yet the utter failure of my labors to convince Trump supporters also makes this effort seem quaintly touching, as if the Vatican’s Swiss Guard had charged an armored brigade with their halberds.
Institutions such as the New Yorker may once have wielded great cultural power outside their well-educated and well-heeled demographic. Today, their role is more akin to that of a ceremonial guard. They provide a focal point for enforcing social consensus within their enclaves, without much ability to project force beyond the borders.
Like the Swiss Guard, the cultural enforcers have been overtaken by technology that has made their weapons — in this case, the hegemonic control the left exerts over key cultural institutions — much less useful than they used to be. But there the analogy breaks down, because unlike the Swiss Guard, the left is also to a large extent the victim of its own success.
Left-leaning cultural arbiters became too skillful with their weapon of choice, mastering those institutions so completely that certain kinds of progressivism became not merely normal, but mandatory. But by leaving less and less room for dissenters, the hegemons created a counter-tribe of outsiders who reject their authority as vehemently as they exert it. And thus, for the same reasons that the beliefs of New Yorker readers are in no danger from Steve Bannon, the views of Trump fans are entirely safe from David Remnick.
What’s left is a kind of ceremonial cleansing of the sacred city, a mighty labor to make sure that the two circles on the Venn diagram never, ever come into contact. There’s something admirable about uncompromising ethical purity, but also something rather dangerous. For it means that outside your circle, there’s an entirely different normal. And if you abdicate any influence over that alternate normality, while rigorously expelling your own heretics, you may one day awake to find that your impeccably maintained ring of truth has been swamped by that other normal, now grown entirely beyond your control.