Complaints About "Virtue Signaling" Amount to Claims that There Is No Such Thing as Virtue
by Neil H. Buchanan
One of the most obvious strategies that Donald Trump uses is to accuse other people of doing or being exactly what he is doing or being. He tries to cheat people, so he accuses everyone of trying to cheat him. He will stop at nothing, so he claims that his opponents will stop at nothing. He is a racist, so he calls Democrats -- even (especially) non-White Democrats -- racists. He peddles hatred of all kinds, so he says that everyone else hates him and his supporters.
As in so much else, however, this too is a matter in which Trump is merely acting like Republicans have always acted -- only more shamelessly. That is, this is yet another way in which Trump is not a break from the Republican Party but merely its most noxious logical next step. He lacks almost all of the restraints and minimal niceties that have characterized the rest of his party in the post-Civil Rights era, because he does not bother with cover stories, whereas Republicans spent decades perfecting their feints, nods, and winks with terms like "urban" and "thugs" and "strapping young buck" (turning "welfare" into code for "giveaway to lazy minorities"), and so on.
Republicans (especially as the former Southern reactionary
Democrats moved en masse to become Republicans in the 1980's and
1990's) have very much been in the business of projection as a political
strategy. In my Dorf on Law column on Tuesday of this week, I referred to their adolescent tendency to say, in essence, "I know you are, but what am I?!" This is more than merely trying to get ahead of their opponents, however. They seem simply incapable of believing that anyone can be a good person, so rather than trying to be less bad, they puff up their chests and say, "What, you think you're better than me?" Despite its toxic effects, thinking about this can be somewhat amusing.
Tuesday's column included, among other things, a discussion of whether men who decry other men's toxic masculinity are merely being opportunistic and trying to gain social approval by saying, "Look at me, I'm a different kind of man!" One way in which I have heard that accusation made, which did not come up in the course of that column, is some conservative men's suspicion that liberal men have simply landed upon a sneaky strategy for getting women to have sex with them.
I need not repeat the uglier language that one often hears in such conversations, because this "clean" assertion/accusation captures the essence of it: "Man, you guys have it figured out! If I could fake sincerity like you can, I'd be getting it more than ever. Smart move, if you can stomach pretending to believe that sensitive-guy crap." Again, this reflects the toxic male's refusal to change, combined with an insistence that no one else is truly any different from the worst of their ilk. Anyone who is not doing exactly what toxic males do is supposedly engaged in a long con, a dishonest act of the most cynical kind.
Having spent my life as a straight, cis man who identifies as a feminist and who often spends time with people of all identities who espouse similar views, I can say that toxic masculinists are hardly the only people who have noticed that it might be possible to "fake it" for such self-motivated purposes. Certainly, women are plenty aware of that threat. (Some women claim that men cannot truly be feminists at all, but that is a different matter and has nothing to do with the version of sexual predation at issue here.) Indeed, one of my daughters told me that she and her friends in college referred to a specific type of college dude: "the Nice Guy T M" (as in TradeMark), or what my generation referred to more bluntly as the f*ck-me-I'm-so-sensitive type.
So no one is being fooled. If toxic masculinists think that faking sincerity is a uniquely effective path to the bedroom, they are showing yet again that they do not understand any of this. In short, they think that women are simpletons, and they think that every other man thinks that women are simpletons, too. When toxic masculinists' lives do not go as they would prefer, they lash out and say that everyone else is being performative and getting something unfairly -- in this case, casual sex.
Which brings us to the relatively recent pejorative coinage known as "virtue signaling." Like its close cousins "political correctness," "cancel culture," and most recently "woke," this is a vague concept that would only have an identifiable meaning if applied in a nonpartisan, non-ideological fashion. Conservatives send out signals to show that they have the correct views all the time. Think: red baseball hats with white letters emblazoned across the front. When it is no longer possible for Republican senators to disagree with the false claim that regressive tax cuts pay for themselves, we have conservative political correctness driving policy. When extremely conservative politicians are "primaried" for daring to condemn Trump's lawlessness, we have conservative cancel culture. When Republicans tell each other that they have to stop sleeping on their responsibility to stop the "weaponization of the federal government," we have conservative wokeness. Indeed, that particular mindset is much broader, as in: Wake up, sheeple!!
And virtue signaling? As above, liberal men are supposedly merely trying to look good to a target audience by mouthing the right phrases. Meanwhile, every conservative feels the need to say something like, "My pronouns are lab/leak/conspiracy." Nothing being signaled to a target audience there!
But again, there is nothing new here among conservatives. They have been virtue signaling forever, not because they hold objectionable views (or not only because of that) but because social interactions are always a matter of communicating through signals. What makes them different is that they want to convince other people (and themselves) that their views are not objectionable at all -- not because they can claim with a straight face that, say, allowing marital rape is "no less enlightened" than opposing marital rape but by asserting that those who oppose it are simply full of crap.
The difference with Trump is in the timing, with his provocations used in advance to neutralize claims that will surely be leveled against him. Before his opponents are able to say a word, he has degraded their forthcoming criticisms. That is not to say that Republicans and conservatives before Trump's rise had never done anything similar, only that Trump does it nearly constantly. It is a highly effective way to muddy the waters. If Trump calls people radicals, fascists, and so on, what can his opponents do? "No, you're radical. You're a fascist!" At worst, it becomes a matter of turning the discussion into playground taunts, but at its most effective, it takes away Trump's opponents ability even to level honest charges.
Trump's reactions to the various prosecutions that are bearing down on him provide the most recent examples of this. He calls Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg a radical and a racist. He also, however, calls Bragg an "animal," which is not a matter of anticipating what his opponents might say about him but is instead part of his own racism, where he leans into some of the ugliest efforts to dehumanize Black people. I should hasten to add that Professor Sherry Colb would have been the first to say that Trump should only wish that he (or any other person) is more like a non-human animal, because it is in our differences from other animals that humans are at their worst.
Indeed, Trump would take it as a compliment,
but it might be the most profound insult to him to say that he exhibits
everything that is wrong with being too little like an animal -- no
loyalty, no caring, no selflessness. We sometimes mistakenly conflate
"monsters" and "animals," but the best way to think of monsters is as
the mythical beings that embody all of the negative traits that we
wrongly attribute to non-humans. Except that Trump is
non-mythical. As he might say: sad.
For what it might be worth, my prediction is that at some point soon, either an old recording will emerge in which Trump is heard using the n-word, or he will actually say that word live on a hot mic (or maybe even in full voice at a rally). At that point, he will insist that there is nothing wrong with that slur (because he never admits to being wrong about anything), and his supporters will -- after a few days of looking around nervously to see what is happening -- breathe a huge sigh of relief and start saying it (in public) again themselves.
In any event, it is worth remembering that it was long, long before Election Day in 2020 that Trump started to lay the groundwork to steal the election. All the while, he said that his opponents were trying to steal the election. Even if many people did not believe that Trump was innocent, the idea was to get people to say that "they're all the same." What, you think you're better than me? You're no better than me! And when Republicans say, for example, that Democrats are hypocrites who engage in gerrymandering even as they condemn Republicans for gerrymandering, they try to win either way: Democrats can either unilaterally disarm or agree that gerrymandering is not a bad thing. Everything else is empty virtue signaling.
Interestingly, it is American conservatives who have been most exercised over the years about moral relativism, claiming that the left has no moral absolutes and that there truly are standards to determine what is right and wrong. Laws are there to express those views, and they should be enforced. Yet when it comes to laws that they do not like, they claim that the law cannot be used to change what people do. If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns; so one imagines that if murder is outlawed, only murderers will kill people ... which is somehow a reason not to outlaw murder?
But the claims from the right about virtue signaling and the rest are a concession that their own views are unpopular and indefensible. They have nothing to say about solving real problems in people's lives, so they target vulnerable people for even harsher treatment. Then, they call people who oppose Republicans' anti-trans legislation "groomers." When Black people finally started to say out loud that the US seems to treat black lives as expendable and insisted that Black lives do in fact matter, the right responded by saying that all lives matter or that Blue lives matter. It is all a strategy of distractions and claiming that dominant groups are being unfairly treated.
Certainly, the longstanding cries from the right about reverse racism fit this pattern. Any change in White privilege is not a matter of undoing injustice but attacking innocents. A young conservative father, pointing to his toddler son, looked at me recently and said with great sincerity: "He's going to have a tougher time in life than anyone, because he's a White male, and society is making life for us impossible." Any attempt to present simple facts about racial and ethnic differences in the US regarding life expectancy, childhood mortality, access to education, lifetime earnings, and so on is just "woke nonsense." Unearned privilege knows where its power comes from, and it defends itself by pretending that any change in the world is a matter of giving unearned privilege to others.
Question: Why change one's views when it is so much easier to claim that everyone else is just as bad as you are? American conservatives' response to that question is: Why indeed!