2004’s Presidential election was all about terror and the military. Deep in the throes of an Iraq War that was already supposed to be over, the first post-9/11 Presidential election turned on strategy, patriotism, war details; John Kerry entered the Democratic convention “reporting for duty” while Republicans asked why Bush’s 1960s military record, or lack of, was suddenly an issue again. Not a word about ceilings or feelings.
Twelve years later, the entire election is about ceilings and feelings. Hillary Clinton signaled both in her June 6, 2008 concession speech to newly minted Democratic nominee Barack Obama, when she said,
Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before.
Ms. Clinton mentioned the ceiling again at the Democratic convention. Other than those two moments, she almost never referred to gender in her 2008 campaign. Her advisers later said they considered that a mistake. If so, one can see why they made it. The revived PC era was only just getting going at the time. The biggest pop stars refused the label “feminist.” Campus rapes weren’t anyone’s issue. Congressman Todd Akin hadn’t excused “legitimate rape.” No one had heard of Lena Dunham or Sheryl Sandberg.
Eight years later, Hillary Clinton is all about breaking through ceilings. She made the “woman card” a central part of her campaign (she sells Women Cards on her website). Campaign staff keeps chiding millennials to remind them that a first woman President would be a big deal. Her introductory video at the Democratic Convention ran through a quick montage of our first 44 male Presidents, with a big old “shattering” screen into Hillary’s live, smiling face. Ceiling shattered, yo.
The recurrent analysis dogging Donald Trump for the last twelve months was that his floor of support was high enough to secure pluralities in most Republican primaries, but that support’s ceiling would keep Trump from becoming President if and when he secured the nomination. One way to see this October, then, is the battle of the ceilings: either one will rise or the other will break, as a nation breathlessly shouts from its rooftops.
But the Hillary and Donald ceilings are very directly related to what we, in the last eight years, began to call the “feels.” In the revived PC era, the recurrent formula is Hurt Feelings + Historical Discrimination = Values (HF + HD = V). If one person says that they FEEL offended by some kind of problematic language or symbols, game over. I could give you 100 examples, but here are 10: black people and not blacks, disabled and not handicapped, “everyone” and not “you guys,” Brie Larson petting a dolphin in 2004, protests over the Woodrow Wilson buildings at Princeton, Yale censoring Halloween costumes, disinvited graduation speakers, trigger warnings for Harry Potter books, the Dukes of Hazzard scrubbing clean its imagery, and identifying as other than your birth gender but never daring to identify as other than your birth race (call it the Rachel Dolezal problem).
I happen to agree with most social justice warriors who brought us the revived PC era. But I recognize how it looks from the outside – not just from, say, Middle America, but also Middle Europe and Middle Asia and the Middle East. It looks like someone, anyone, “feels bad” that George Washington owned slaves, and the next thing you know, the state of Washington has to rename itself. It looks like constantly changing standards and mores. How’s anyone supposed to keep up?
Instead of keeping up, the rest of the country merely responds in kind…with its own feels. They feel The New York Times doesn’t tell the truth. They feel Barack Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii. They feel Muslims are terrorists. They feel paranoid about CFL light bulbs and Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden. You can’t talk them out of this. It’s feelings! Why should their feelings matter less than the feelings of the Twitterers who yelled at Brie Larson?
How about my feels? Well, I feel my good friends still misunderstand why Donald Trump can say anything at all – well over a hundred statements, any one of which would have doomed any previous candidate for the Presidency – and only see his support ceiling rise. It’s because Trump’s candidacy is specifically, not merely tangentially (like his GOP opponents), against political correctness. Obviously, he takes it way too far when he inveighs against Mexicans, Muslims, and women, and I’m not defending that. But the fact that he can get away with those statements should tell you how far Middle America, ahem, feels the pendulum has swung. For them, they “feel” Trump saying: our streets should be policed but our language shouldn’t. So when the media tries to police him, that just plays into his argument and pushes the ceiling a little higher.
Ross Douthat at the Times was one of those pundits who told us again and again that Trump’s ceiling couldn’t rise high enough for the nomination, never mind the White House. I called Douthat wrong then, so let me give him some credit for being right now, in his column published two days ago. He wrote “areas once considered relatively apolitical now have (or are being pushed to have) an overtly left-wing party line.” And:
Among millennials, especially, there’s a growing constituency for whom right-wing ideas are so alien or triggering, left-wing orthodoxy so pervasive and unquestioned, that supporting a candidate like Hillary Clinton looks like a needless form of compromise….The feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion — which may be one reason the Obama years, so good for liberalism in the culture, have seen sharp G.O.P. gains at every level of the country’s government.
I don’t agree with Douthat’s conservatism, but he’s not wrong here. The left is winning a culture war right now. And as it runs up the score, the middle turns slightly rightward.
It’s kind of amazing to think that Russia will invade the Baltics, South Korea and Japan will be told to (and will) develop nukes, Iran’s peace treaty will be shredded and it will have nukes by 2020, Mexico will stop helping us catch terrorists, our economy will take a Brexit-like plunge, our civil liberties and police state impunity will return to 2002 levels…all because the left couldn’t stop trans-friendly bathrooms going from a non-issue in 2015 to a life-or-death issue in 2016. (Of course I agree that anyone should use any bathroom. I just think that shouldn’t have been the Democrats’ only original idea this year.)
Or, more likely, we’ll dodge that bullet by a few whiskers in a few key swing states. Either way, the Ceiling-Feeling Election of 2016 is nothing if not a cautionary tale.