One reason why ‘cosmopolitan’ is an unnerving term is that it was the key to an attempt by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to purge the culture of dissident voices. In a 1946 speech, he deplored works in which ‘the positive Soviet hero is derided and inferior before all things foreign and cosmopolitanism that we all fought against from the time of Lenin, characteristic of the political leftovers, is many times applauded.’ It was part of a yearslong [sic] campaigned aimed at writers, theater critics, scientists and others who were connected with ‘bourgeois Western influences.’ Not so incidentally, many of these ‘cosmopolitans’ were Jewish, and official Soviet propaganda for a time devoted significant energy into ‘unmasking’ the Jewish identities of writers who published under pseudonyms.
Something is rotten with liberalism’s reigning manifestation, its stench discernible to everyone but itself. A sterile managerialism – signposted as what Oscar Wilde decried as “the monstrous worship of facts” – distilled in the form of policy wonkery and modish Vox explainers, had the rug yanked from under it on Nov. 8. It was an unexpected stumble across the Rubicon – one in which the ruling consensus was forsaken, crestfallen, and discombobulated within a ruptured sociopolitical milieu that was no longer recognizable.
Donald Trump is the expression of the id, animated by libidinal whims, repressed desires, and resentments; the liberal establishment was the moralizing superego, directing commands toward appropriate conduct and policing discourse. Upon losing control of the id, the compulsion to fact-check and bellow “This is not normal!” into the post-truth abyss turned liberals, Rensin proclaims, into “the blathering superego at the end of history.”
In this political order, transgression and libertinism appeared as cathartic outlets. Irony was weaponized, and guileful wordplay camouflaged bigotry. Such was the transgressive thrill of Trumpism: the enjoyment of publicly stating what is not said openly, which tapped into what Jacques Lacan termed jouissance – the desire to go beyond the limits of publicly accepted discourse. Unsurprisingly, the shift toward social sadism is echoed in online culture, especially with trolling. The so-called alt-right embraced trolling, shrugging off accusations of racism and sexism by adopting a sardonic dispensation to wring its hands clean from charges of prejudice. “You just don’t get it,” went the customary rebuke. They know their liberal opponents well, homing in on their conscience and sanctimonious virtue-signaling. Witch-hunting and online harassment is employed as a popular strategy to hound feminists, social justice warriors, and other moralists. Equivalent disdain is reserved for establishment conservatives, branded “cuckservatives” for having stood as the positional gains of minorities emasculated White America.
There is an inclination to reduce the alt-right’s pranksterism to a pop-cultural spectacle, as opposed to a crucible of virulent ethno-nationalism that needs to be confronted and refuted. While the profusion of irony, memes, and in-jokes does not a movement make, it is important to eschew the revulsion that characterizes much of the response to this nebulous amalgam.
Conservatism, after all, can summon a radical undercurrent when necessary. Fundamentally reactionary as opposed to rigidly traditionalist, it is willing to absorb and redirect the potency of new revolutionary actors toward counter-revolution and new relations of domination. Political scientist Corey Robin identifies this tendency in “The Reactionary Mind_ Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin” where he points out that the right is more than happy to violently upend an anemic ruling class to install a more dynamic one in its place, even if it means using the tactics and rhetoric of their ideological rivals. As Robin notes, “While conservatives are hostile to the goals of the left . . . they often are the left’s best students.”