Somewhere around 2014 midterms, the intemperate drives of the Left and Right both reached a critical mass, and something broke loose.
2015: Videos surface showing Planned Parenthood sells human body parts. The Supreme Court redefines marriage to include homosexuals. A movie about sadomasochism makes half a billion dollars. A man dressed as a woman appears on the cover of TIME magazine.
2016: President Obama directs public schools nationwide to open lockers and restrooms to students of the opposite sex. The Supreme Court rules that abortion clinics don’t have to abide by the standards of other surgical centers. The Alternative Right takes hold of the Republican Party, championing an ideology of blood-and-soil over conservative philosophy. Leaders of the Christian Right pose with a thrice-married casino and strip club owner in front of a copy of Playboy Magazine and dismiss their candidate’s lewd comments about women as “locker room talk.” That candidate is elected president.
2017: The new president of the United States uses his Twitter account to carry on personal fights with celebrities, newscasters, and foreign leaders. National Geographic features a nine-year-old boy dressed as a girl on its cover. Reza Aslan eats human brains on CNN. Second movie about sadomasochism hits theaters. Cannibal erotica earns critical acclaim at Cannes, and is acquired by an American film studio.
If I had a time machine and could return to 2008, I suspect I would be laughed at like an idiot for describing the events of the last three years. Ascendant liberalism and a millennial voting bloc wracked with recession but basking in idealism and the glow of smart phone screens would doubtless assure me that the future belonged to Barack Obama’s new post-racial, post-partisan politics. The next eight years would see a revival of American optimism, an end to our various wars, a full economic recovery, the burial of the Religious Right, and a cautious extension of social recognition to gays and lesbians.It all seemed so reasonable, so sane, so gentle, so forward-facing, and so much better than the rancorous politics of the Bush years. Bleak prophecies of a “slippery slope”–of runaway liberalism that would uncage animalistic urges and trigger an ugly backlash were dismissed with laughter and eyerolls. It was the Left’s turn to hold the reins of power again, and they offered a vision of a more civilized, amicable, and thoughtful America.
But the Cro-Magnons on the Religious Right who warned that certain ideas inexorably cascade downhill got the last laugh. Something began to decay in the very tissue of our culture. It probably didn’t start then, but 2008 is when I remember it becoming most noticeable.
President Obama and those in his ideological wing spent the better part of a decade forcing a radical program down Americans’ throats, reopening old wounds, and trying ever harder to reform and recondition what they obviously felt was a retrograde society. In the process, they set things in motion that would coarsen our public life and bring out primitive urges on both sides of the aisle. They pushed, and pushed and pushed. Talk radio, alternative news websites in dark corners of the Internet, and self-made right-wing YouTube celebrities began pushing back. Something had to give. The center, as Yeats wrote, could not hold.
And that is how cannibal erotica and a resurgence of white nationalism made headlines in 2017. What, I shudder to ask, will this country look like in 2024?