In the last three weeks, I have been viciously attacked by some Bernie Sanders supporters and some Progressive extremists who claim I blame Sanders for Hillary Clinton’s loss. The fury, obscenity, and distortions unleashed by two articles I wrote for reveal to me, sadly, that what Hillary Clinton called the “Trump Effect,” blaming Donald Trump for “bullying and harassment … on the rise,” reversed cause and effect. As reprehensible as his campaign rhetoric was, Donald Trump did not cause this problem. His campaign was an unfortunate symptom – and the kind of demagoguery he indulges is not limited to the right side of the political spectrum.  Political discourse in America today – which as an historian I know has never been pretty – has turned particularly ugly at the extremes, left and right. They need not be the same to be equally bad – rotten goldfish and catfish both stink.

It all started with that mystery political junkies frequently ponder – what is the impact of a primary fight on the general election? Sometimes, it strengthens the eventual nominee. Most historians believe that in 1960, Hubert Humphrey’s fight against John Kennedy made JFK a better candidate, and a better human being. In West Virginia, Kennedy mastered the Catholic bigotry issue while his exposure to Appalachian poverty motivated him to try fighting poverty as president. At the same time, most historians believe that Ted Kennedy’s insurgency hurt Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Pat Buchanan’s rebellion hurt George H.W. Bush in 1992 – both challengers pulled the incumbent to the party’s extreme, making it difficult to find the center during the general election.

My first article mentioned various explanations for Hillary Clinton’s failure, calling her 2016 campaign “as rigid and empty as it was when she lost in 2008.” I labeled her “a doughnut candidate, sprinkling sweets to particular groups but lacking any core.” Still, I argued that Bernie Sanders’ surprise candidacy pulled Hillary Clinton so far to the left “to prevent an effective re-centering in the fall, while goading her into wooing different constituencies rather than uniting the nation.”

This is what historians do. We look for explanations. It’s not about “blaming,” but if we were playing a blame-game, the fault lies with Hillary Clinton for failing to cope, not Bernie Sanders for daring to challenge. I believed Sanders’ success psyched her out and was ONE reason why she alienated working class whites. That’s not Sanders’ fault, especially after she won the nomination. She, as the winner, need to move on and recalibrate.

Of course, all my nuances didn’t matter. Most of the angry responses that weren’t obscene and insulting treated me like an idiot and a shill, who overlooked Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses and put the entire onus on Bernie Sanders. Rather than considering how this one factor fit into the mix, these pro-Sanders extremists just vented, with me as their target.

Two weeks later, I wrote a response, detailing the abuse, which included some gratuitous anti-Semitic attacks (yes, in defense of a Jewish candidate).  Despite the self-righteous claim that all the vitriol in America is coming from Donald Trump and the supporters he inflamed, I was struck by how virulent these particular zealots on the left were. Applying Hillary Clinton’s definition of the alt-right as rejecting “mainstream” conservatism and trafficking in “prejudice and paranoia,” I suggested we were seeing an alt-left emerging in response to Trump’s election, rejecting “mainstream” liberalism and also descending into demagoguery. I carefully added that: “condemning them equally doesn’t mean they’re equally dangerous, with the alt-right’s Hitlerism and hooliganism spiking since Trump’s election.”  Once again, the subtleties didn’t matter. The bile – and attacks — have mounted.

I no longer call this “cyberbullying” – because to be bullied, I would have to succumb – and I’m more defiant than ever. My critics call me a “crybaby” for complaining – I’m trying to hold up a mirror to this gooniverse, and strip members of their self-righteousness. If I were a dirty Trump trickster, trying to undermine claims that Trump’s bullying is poisonous and contagious by proving that liberals can be abusive too, I couldn’t have done a better job of outing these laptop hooligans. (And please, if you quote this sentence, start with the “if” – it’s a speculation and a challenge, not a confession!)

One popularly re-tweeted response said “You need to log off twitter if name calling hurts you.” I’m not hurt – I’m disgusted. I love political give and take. I am appalled that these character assassins are so quick to mischaracterize, and libel. Beyond my concerns for the delicate tissue of civility which unites a democracy and keeps citizens talking to one another, I worry that other historians will hesitate to offer any unconventional explanations because they will fear being targeted. I am sure that untenured academics are learning to keep quiet and parrot the party line, lest they trigger some career-damaging social media storm. And I regret that the Internet’s anonymity has encouraged this kind of drive-by tweeting and messaging – rather than the substantive exchanges its founders envisioned.

Here’s what I have learned: You write something complex, it gets reduced to a soundbite:

I give various explanations for Hilary Clinton’s loss, including the impact of the Bernie Sanders candidacy — it’s diminished to “this idiot blames Bernie for Hillary’s failure.”

You write with a scalpel, they summarize with a sledgehammer: I say the extremism of some on the left shows a parallel “prejudice and paranoia” Clinton condemned, suddenly, the twitterverse erupts saying this *^#$%^ is comparing us to the Hitlerian right.

You make an argument, they go personal: I offer an analysis of the 2016 campaign and its reaction, the thought police just sees a blame game and questions my motives, my integrity, my intelligence, my religion, my looks.

All this vitriol goes way beyond argument by soundbite and 140-characters; its argument by insult. It actually demonstrates — I regret to conclude — why Trump’s method worked. He wasn’t creating the problem, he was exploiting it. Dinosaurs who live in the world of 700 word op-eds, 7000-word essays, 70,000-word books – and a rigorous commitment to truth– had no idea where this guy came from. I say – look left and right. Donald Trump emerged from the fetid swamp that characterizes too much political rhetoric today, wherein your identity counts more than your integrity or the integrity of your argument. If you are “with us” anything goes, you can do no wrong; if we deem you “against us,” you can do no right.

More clinically, as a political historian, all the ping-ponging over the last few weeks has highlighted some fascinating phenomena that should be tracked:

—  Clinton’s loss to Trump — following her victory over Sanders in the primaries with the Democratic establishment’s support — has triggered a fury against her on the Left, and an anger that has many using words like “centrist” and “neoliberal” as epithets.

— This backlash demonstrates a deep division in the Democratic party, with Bill Clinton’s legacy taking a beating.

— What I am calling the Anonymotry of the Internet — the anonymous-fueled bigotry of the online culture — has helped radicalize, polarize, and coarsen political culture.

— Many progressives are focusing on the economic divide in the nation – and pillorying Hillary for not going left enough, without seeing all the ways she identified with the left through identity politics, helping to trigger the “white nationalist” reaction, and the white working class defection from the Democrats.

My second piece ended with a call for civility, and an attempt at modeling the kind of dialogue I believe we need. I described reaching out to one of my critics and showed that when we treated each other civilly, we found we agreed more than we disagreed. Of course, most of my critics ignored that ending – or mocked that as well.

Some of the most polite reactions to my essay also disturbed me. “We are just not about endangering & disenfranchising people,” I was told. “We are for health care.” Those responses implied an ends-justify-the means rationalization of extreme tactics. Life is too messy and confusing for any one group of partisans to be too convinced of their virtues — and their rivals’ sheer evil.

Nevertheless, if my critics think they are on the side of the angels I say… prove it. I would love to be proven wrong. I would love to see partisans on the left stop being nasty, personal, vicious. I would love to see substantive debate and respectful tactics that match everyone’s version of their best selves, rather than petty attacks that reflect the worst within us and bring out the worst in us. The Founders believed that virtuous people acted virtuously; I abhor this post-modern doctrine that implies I can act abominably because I am so convinced of my own virtue.

Similarly, I appeal to my fellow academics to stop being agents of unreason. It’s easy to join the pile-on, harder to stick to substance and to our method. Our collective reputations have suffered because too many of us use the mantle of legitimacy we earned with our Ph.D.s and professorships to lower the debate rather than raise the debate. Aren’t there enough rabble-rousers out there, shouldn’t we rededicate ourselves to our particular mission to speak through our analysis, through our research, through our reason?

Finally, while I stand by every word in both articles, one critic made an interesting suggestion that “Control-Left” might be a more accurate characterization of the extremists than “Alt-Left” and would help avoid the anger stirred by claims of false equivalence.  I’ll accept that friendly amendment, and warn that the zealots of the Ctl-Left – meaning those who try bullying anyone who dares disagree with them – are also harming our country. It’s time for the Ctl-Left and the Alt-Right to calm down – and Shift-Center.

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