I have a lot of thoughts on the coup attempt of 1/6 and the ongoing fallout, but many of them aren’t developed enough to write a full-length post about yet. So here’s some of what I’ve been thinking about over the past few days, as along with the rest of America I’ve tried to process what went down last Wednesday. Also, I’ll add my weekly Bloomberg Opinion roundup below.
Maybe we think too hard about Trumpism
Since Trump’s election in 2016, and even now after his coup attempt, people have thought very hard about how to explain Trumpism. Proponents of competing theories of “racial resentment”, “demographic threat”, “economic anxiety”, “toxic masculinity”, “authoritarian personality”, etc. duked it out on academic Twitter and in the newspapers. The New York Times sent reporters out to small-town America to chat with Nazis. Now, following Trump’s attempt to deny the results of the 2020 election, attention has focused on the conspiracy-theory element of the Trumpist ideology. And of course, the fact that lawyers, CEOs, and other well-to-do folks were among the insurrectionists on 1/6 has prompted many to conclude that Trumpism is a response to the threat of the loss of privilege.
Now, I don’t think this sort of theorizing about the deep roots of Trumpism is bad. But I’m starting to think maybe it’s overdone. At least, right now.
If you read people in the mid-20th century talking about Nazism or communism, they do sometimes try to theorize why these movements arose. But they tend to treat them as autonomous social objects, instead of merely veils for something deeper and more underlying. Nazism was treated as an ontological thing unto itself — we could ask why it arose, but there seemed little doubt that it was a cohesive ideological movement rather than a manifestation of something truer or more real. People theorized that the economic hardships of interwar Germany helped give rise to Nazism, but there was little appetite for equating Nazism with economic anxiety.
Maybe we should treat Trumpism similarly. Instead of asking whether it’s really just this or that, maybe we should accept that whatever its origin story, as of now it’s really just Trumpism. It’s a canon of beliefs (“Antifa is taking over America”, “the 2020 election was stolen”, and so on), with a set of believers who embrace a set of tactics for seizing power. It’s an ideological movement, and maybe it needs to be confronted and defeated as an ideological movement instead of psychoanalyzed. There will be plenty of time for theorizing about its deep roots after it no longer poses a clear and present danger to the Republic.
Revenge of the nerds
Way back in 2014, Marc Andreessen tweeted: “Silicon Valley is nerd culture, and we are the bro's natural enemy.” That line has stuck with me. It was in my mind again as I witnessed basically the entire Silicon Valley establishment rear up to smash Donald Trump’s social media presence out of existence in the wake of the coup of 1/6. Facebook was first to ban Trump, and the other big companies quickly followed:
The ultimate blow came when Amazon Web Services booted Parler off of its servers entirely, effectively destroying the right-wing Twitter clone. As a friend noted, this was “god-tier banhammering.” When a tech company annihilates another tech company, you know the nerds are pissed.
Much of the discussion around these moves has focused on the idea of fairness, and of tech platforms as public spaces. I’ll write about this soon. But for now, I’m just thinking about what these moves say about the political culture of the tech industry.
Some people think of Silicon Valley as a haven of right-wing thought. This is probably because A) businesses are businesses, which are always suspected of being right-wing, B) there are a few prominent right-wing tech people, and C) the industry tends to be pretty White and male (or White and Asian and male) overall.
But the stereotype is wrong. Silicon Valley people, like most educated Americans, tend to be liberal Democrats. They tend to be a bit more libertarian on economic issues than most Americans, which is unsurprising given the economic interests of their industry. And bosses tend to be less liberal than regular workers, which is also to be expected. But anyone who knows people in tech (or just reads the news) knows that the surveys are not wrong — tech is pretty culturally liberal, and increasingly concerned about economic inequality too.
Overall, tech people are just normie Democrats, and tech leaders are just normie Democrats who have recently found reasons not to like high taxes and regulation. But the idea of Silicon Valley as being populated with toxic right-wing bros is, frankly, nuts. Over the last few years, tech industry nerds have watched with horror as various right-wingers have tried to claim nerd-dom as their own.
But entryism by a handful of right-wing channer bros was one thing. The coup of 1/6 was entirely another matter. As normie Democrats, tech nerds have an innate respect for freedom, democracy, and the idea of America — they don’t like seeing some crazy-ass bros smashing up Congress. As successful Americans, they respect the country that has allowed them to earn their fortunes. And as nerds, they have an innate desire for order and the primacy of peaceful institutions over violent mobs.
Thus, 1/6 represents the moment when the bros finally pushed the nerds too far, and the nerds struck back.
Order vs. authoritarianism
In my post on America’s Cold Civil War, I argued that liberals should start acting as if they’re The Institution now, and work on safeguarding public order instead of imagining themselves as The Rebellion and trying to abolish the police. Curtis Yarvin (formerly known as Mencius Moldbug) writes that this makes me “Darth Vader”:
Noah, can we agree that the Resistance is a winner and the Insurrection a loser? In that case—why are you so scared of these losers?…Of course, Noah isn’t actually scared. He knows a winner when he sees one—he has never picked a losing horse…Noah is more successful than me for many reasons—mainly because I have some kind of birth defect, and always like the weak horse.
Noah will never be able to put down that red lightsaber. You have to admit that he’s good with it. I wonder what would happen if I went full Yoda on him…
Once the direct nature of the conflict is visible, once Noah and I see just the same reality from different sides (come over to the Rebellion, Noah! We have cookies), there are only two clear sides: the overdog and the underdog. You are either with Admiral Ackbar, or Grand Moff Tarkin…Can we picture Noah Smith, in an Imperial uniform?
It’s true that I’m not scared — if Trump wants to bring civil war to America, then in the words of William Sherman, “we accept the issue”. And it’s true that Trumpism lacks the basic competence and broad moral appeal to win a protracted struggle. But he’s the one who’s mistaken about a great many things.
First of all, I don’t back the United States of America against the mob who stormed the Capitol Building and put Congress to flight because the mob is weak. I’m not surfing the tides of political fortune, trying to bet on who will come out on top. Instead I’m just standing up for the normie stuff I believe in — the United States of America, liberal democracy, and blah blah.
Second, it’s pretty ridiculous to see the world in terms of strong and weak rather than in terms of good and bad. If we believe there are such things as Good and Bad, and if we ever want Good to win, we’re going to have to accept the possibility that Good will, after its victory, be strong. Would Moldbug support the Nazis and the Japanese Empire in World War 2 simply because they were outgunned? Would he support the USSR in the 1980s simply because they were economically outmatched? Would he support al Qaeda in 2002 simply because they weren’t much of a match for the wrath of a united world? Does he think 9/11 was an act of rebellious heroism?
See, I’m not Darth Vader. I’m Dwight D. Eisenhower. Liberal democracy is good and worth defending, even against attackers who might look like “underdogs”. That goes for Nazis, terrorists, and commies too if they want to have another go at it. Liberal democracy is not authoritarian just because its opponents lack competence.
Anyway, in thinking about Dwight D. Eisenhower, I would encourage Yarvin to contemplate this historical photograph.
Anyway, now that that’s out of the way, let’s shift gears and talk about economics a little.
America produces a LOT of PhDs, but academic jobs are drying up, due to limited undergrad demand, the end of the 20th century university building boom, reduced state funding after the financial crisis, and now to COVID. This means lots of PhDs are trapped in Adjunct Hell. For some fields we can employ large numbers by pumping up research spending, but this is unlikely to happen in all fields. So in the humanities and social sciences, for the good of both PhD students and the fields themselves, we should mint fewer PhDs, at least for now.
This condemns many would-be scholars to a bleak existence of low-wage, contingent work. Like waiters hanging around Hollywood hoping for their big break, many stick around year after year, forgoing health insurance or living in shabby apartments while their qualifications for jobs outside academia decay…
A handful of angry, downwardly mobile English Ph.D.s aren’t by themselves enough to overthrow the institutions of society, but they can make hugely outsized contributions to unrest and discord if they are so inclined. Remember, these are very smart people who are very good at writing things, and well-schooled in any number of dissident ideas. Those are the kind of people who tend to lead revolutions.
Another economic crisis, another panic that inflation is being hidden from us by government statistics. People are receptive to this idea, because many people don’t understand what inflation really is, or why it’s calculated the way it is. Once you understand why inflation doesn’t include asset prices or local costs of living, it’s easier to understand why the government numbers are right. Also, the alternative inflation indices that pop up in every economic crisis always contain some very janky stuff.
Every so often, concerns crop up that inflation is much higher than official government numbers report. Sometimes people claim that rises in asset prices, or relative changes in living costs for some subgroups of Americans, represent hidden inflation. Others may cite an alternative inflation index that shows much higher price increases. But there's no reason to panic. Official government numbers do a good job of measuring the rate of inflation…
If you want an alternative inflation measure, a good one exists. It’s called the Billion Prices Project, run by some professors from MIT. The BPP gets data from online retailers in order to measure the prices of as many goods as they can, then combines them in a manner that represents how much people actually spend on each. For some countries, like Argentina, they find that official government inflation numbers are indeed quite understated. But for the U.S., the numbers match up quite nicely.
Anyway, that’s it for this week. More fun next week, as our country rockets toward the exciting conclusion of the Trump Era…
By the way, remember that if you like this blog, you can subscribe here! There’s a free email list and a paid subscription too!