Fainting Couches for Conservatives

by Neil H. Buchanan

Along with the lovely derisive terms that right-wingers hurl at their opponents -- snowflakes and libtards being only the tip of that iceberg -- is the idea that non-conservatives are merely pretending to be morally superior to conservatives.  A relatively recent snide term along these lines is "virtue signaling," by which aggrieved conservatives say that other people are not truly committed to the ideals that they tout but are merely gaining social status by showing other liberals how upright they are.

The problem is that so-called virtue signaling is rampant on the right, making them rank hypocrites.  It is worth taking a moment to see how this works, because it is a technique of distraction that non-conservatives have failed to confront with any effectiveness.

The idea that liberals are merely peacocks of virtue is now, of course, one of the go-to accusations against people supporting protests against police brutality and systemic racism.  Apparently, privileged white people cannot possibly actually believe that there is injustice in the world but are merely going along with the liberal trend du jour (although using a French term is probably verboten among the conservatives who make this accusation).

There are many problems with that claim.  For one thing, it reveals that these conservatives are simply incapable of believing that people can be selfless and can act based on a sense of broader justice.  Back in 2014, when Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century was creating a furor about income and wealth inequality, the conservative pundit Ross Douthat wrote a column dismissing the idea that the left-leaning professionals who support Democrats would ever truly allow reforms that might ... gasp ... involve somewhat higher taxes on themselves.  Sure, he sneered, these liberals talk a good game about fairness, but in the end they are just as selfish as the rest of us.

What made that particular assertion especially absurd was that liberals have consistently fought for, and voted in favor of, progressive tax policy changes.  Blue states include large groups of well paid professionals who politically (and financially) support much better safety nets than red states do, and even the economically center-right Obama Administration made significant -- if inadequate -- changes in the tax system that disadvantaged the salary-earning professionals who supposedly will not tolerate putting money where their mouths are.

Of course, the broader strategy there was to revive the unsupportable idea that "there is not enough money" among the truly rich to support liberals' policy goals, so a Piketty-esque wealth tax is supposedly pointless and will result in the merely comfortable being taxed, too.  But even setting that aside, the premise of the claim is that liberalism is mere performance art, the "virtue signaling" that I mentioned above.

This claim -- the idea that statements of selfless values are insincere and ultimately selfish in redounding to the reputational benefit of liberals -- is not merely wrong as a descriptive matter.  It is also another example of the kind of psychological projection that Donald Trump constantly displays, in this case accusing others of doing things merely for reputational benefit.  Accusing others of one's own sins is a cheap move, and it gets cheaper by the day in Trump's America.

But before we get to the most recent examples, it is worth taking a moment to remember that public preening of moral virtue is the bedrock of the modern conservative movement.  "America, love it or leave it" and "Why do you hate America?" are virtue signals, telegraphing the idea that only conservatives are patriotic.

How do you prove your patriotism?  Maybe by standing up for the rights of people with whom you disagree to protest and speak?  No, by wearing flag pins, holding prayer breakfasts with cowed politicians, beginning political events with the Pledge of Allegiance (and, because this is an old trope, using the Pledge as culture war issue in the 1988 presidential campaign against the Democratic nominee), hugging the flag (literally as well as figuratively), and on and on.

Being modest about one's patriotism -- holding it in one's heart without having to perform it for others -- is not what the conservative movement is about.  And this is where the secular and religious sides of the conservative movement meet, because very public displays of religiosity are also required on the right -- and again, even among non-conservative politicians like Barack Obama who nonetheless try to inoculate themselves against charges of being insufficiently pious.

I have mentioned a few times on this blog that my father was a Presbyterian minister, raised in a family with a long line of Presbyterian ministers (from his namesake uncle and back to previous generations).  Unsurprisingly, he married a woman from a similar religious background.  My father had died before the Christian Right's rise, but my father's elderly mother and my mother were both horrified by the garish public displays of supposed piety by people like Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Pat Robertson -- and of course then by Ronald Reagan.

These men and others like them continuously showed that they were not the paragons of virtue that they pretended to be (Swaggart and Jim Bakker being especially operatic when exposed as hypocrites), but boy-oh-boy could they virtue signal!  Saturday Night Live's Church Lady captured this perfectly, lampooning with her "superiority dance" the performative nature of conservative virtue signaling.

An earlier version of the attempt by conservatives to attack liberals' sincerity is the attacks on "political correctness," a concept that still lacks a definition beyond "things that liberals believe that conservatives want to mock."  Yet there is a rigidly enforced -- especially in the Trump era -- set of rules that amount to "conservative political correctness," going back to Ronald Reagan's acolytes wearing Adam Smith neckties and Republicans to this day prominently carrying around dog-eared copies of Ayn Rand's novels.

These conservative performances of religious and secular virtue have become so common that we often do not even think about them anymore.  Why was Trump able to use NFL players' kneeling during the national anthem as a wedge issue?  As a threshold matter, there first had to be a tradition of playing the national anthem prior to each game.  Where did that come from, and why did it continue?  Because conservatives saw it as a way to enforce conformity -- virtue signaling -- and liberals were afraid to oppose it or to say that the moment had passed for such Cold War-era group rituals.

Once some players did begin to kneel, it did not matter that they had chosen kneeling over sitting specifically in order to be respectful in the form of their protests.  Trump and his minions said that they were lacking in virtue, because they wanted to express their view that America has a serious problem with police violence against minorities.  And because the specific men who were protesting were well paid professional athletes, they were also derided as merely signaling their virtue when the violence in question was supposedly not a danger to them.  (Of course, it very much is a danger to all black men, unless they wear their full uniforms at all times.  And even that might not do the trick.)

The other big tragedy of the moment is the ongoing pandemic, and once again we see conservatives mocking the wearing of masks as mere virtue signaling.  (That Trump not long ago derided a White House reporter for being politically correct in wearing his mask demonstrates that political correctness and virtue signaling are the same insult in different words.)

What is especially galling about the snide dismissal of those who wear masks is that this is actually as close to pure selfless virtue as one might ever be able to find.  Public health agencies have made it very clear that mask-wearing is in the first instance about stopping the spread of the coronavirus to other people, whereas any benefit to the user is marginal at best (especially for cloth masks) and is certainly not emphasized when asking people to wear masks.

So the attacks by right-wingers on people who wear masks amounts to attacking someone else for being thoughtful and safe.  "You think you're so virtuous, just because you're stopping yourself from possibly infecting me and my family?  FU, libtard!"

In early 2017, I wrote "Trump's Snowflake Voters" here on Dorf on Law.  There, I noted that the very conservatives who say that liberals are constantly looking for reasons to have their feelings hurt are in fact the most fragile people out there.  Oh, you called my state "flyover country," and I feel disrespected!  Clinton called some Trump supporters "deplorable," so I'm offended and refuse to even recognize that she was reaching out to those who are not deplorable.  Reporters all went to fancy colleges, so they don't know what a Real American believes in his virtuous heart.  I'm deeply hurt when someone looks at my support for racist politicians and policies and thinks that I'm a racist, when I don't have a racist bone in my body.

The people who claim that others are fragile are fragile.  The people who claim that others are virtue-signaling are the one who are virtue signaling.  Some police officers are so offended by the idea that people want to hold them accountable for bad actions that they are organizing sick-outs.  That'll show those goody-two-shoes types!

Consider the inconsistent outrage from conservatives over the years.  College students protesting against the Vietnam War (where much of the violence was actually incited by undercover officers)?  Bad.  College students violently protesting that their football coach was fired for doing nothing to stop a pedophile?  Not a peep from culture warriors.  Liberals taking over part of Seattle to set up a peaceful encampment?  Bad.  Heavily armed right-wing radicals taking over a national wildlife refuge station?  Freedom!

The tough talk from people like Barr and Trump is scary, because they are willing to act on their macho fantasies.  That does not, however, change the fact that they are the ones whose entire political personas are based on performative virtue signaling, nor does it change the fact that they are the ones who take to their fainting couches when someone says something that they dislike.

It would be bad enough if it were merely that conservatives were fragile hypocrites.  But the worst part of it is that the substance of what they stand for is so awful.  They are all in for venerating Confederate statues, making excuses for putting children in cages, inviting the country's enemies to interfere in our elections, and on and on.  But at least they wear flag pins on their lapels.