A cutting critique of the Democratic Party, and by extension mainstream liberals, came in the form of a recent tweet from an account parodying Press Secretary Sean Spicer. “The President is hard at work making America great again. If Hillary had won we’d be on day 6 of non-stop Katy Perry & Beyoncé concerts,” the tweet read. It’s not entirely off base. One of the most crippling tendencies of modern liberals is their obsession with being seen, whether it be at a protest wearing a fuzzy pink hat alongside Madonna or in viral tweets totally owning the president. This preoccupation with optics is more often than not frighteningly self-centered. With each new horror of the Trump Administration, for example, there’s a rush to tweet from a cabal of “influencers” whose primary goal is to say something snippy that generates a gush of retweets. Worse, there’s a growing tendency for people to write ninth-grade-level viral essays on Medium about why Trump is Bad that offer no perspective on what, if anything, should be seen as Good.
Devoid of any actual ideology, the left risks becoming a large-scale exercise in branding. And a number of companies are already cashing in. Take the postmodern fashion purveyors Opening Ceremony. On Sunday the company announced its “Action Capsule” collection, comprising shirts, tank tops, and hooded sweatshirts featuring defiant vocabulary — “DEFY,” reads a cropped sweatshirt — ranging in price from $65 to $95. An email announcing the line stated: “Together, we can send a message of strength against a rising tide of uncertainty.” The email then encouraged readers to shop, providing a link to the collection.
The response from commenters on the brand's Instagram post announcing the collection was rapid and critical. Originally announced with no mention of donations or support for actual causes, the line seemed like opportunism on Opening Ceremony's part. Today the company updated its messaging and says it will now donate 100 percent of its profit on the shirts to the ACLU. The second hit of PR has been breathlessly sprayed across fashion blogs, ignoring the fact that the “Action Capsule” seems to have begun life as a crass example of the worst of capitalism: when companies hump social movements to increase their brand's cachet, and sometimes more cynically, their bottom line. It’s part of a discernible trend emerging online in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. From “performative” activism to a fixation on clever protest signs, modern liberals know better than anyone else how to cash in on a political movement, but they know very little about how to harness the power of one.
The left has become rather comfortable signifying its values with symbols of solidarity via the free markets. Whereas radicals in a previous era traveled alongside African-Americans to the South, sometimes at their own peril, in displays of solidarity, many of today’s liberals are content to buy safety pins on Etsy to show support for the groups sure to be affected by Trump. Even during the Obama years, when stories of violence against Muslims regularly made the news, and when the number of missing black women ballooned to frightening heights, at over 64,000, solidarity seldom meant anything more than a purchasing decision. A t-shirt, a bracelet, or a hat, anything to signal to the outside world that yes, your opinions are Good.
Modern liberals know better than anyone else how to cash in on a political movement, but they know very little about how to harness the power of one.
Over the past four decades, the left has equipped itself with a distinctive sense of self-righteousness — a sense that, unlike Republicans, its members believe in values of social justice and equality, and their politics will prevail because of that. This was the bluff that Steve Bannon and his band of far-right ideologues called liberals on with masterful precision. How can a population of people largely unwilling to acknowledge the need for intersectional politics, for example, actually call themselves champions of equality? How can a siloed community of Ivy League graduates with little contact with anyone who looks different from them actually call for racial justice?
The overwhelming turnout at marches and protests all over the country the past few weeks has certainly been astonishing. But those of us opposed to Trump must be careful not to do the easy thing in a situation like this, to huddle in a mass of people where things feel less bad, where the horribleness of the world can’t reach you through ACLU-supporting wristbands. There has to be room to acknowledge that many on the left might not see the suffering that has always been around them. The idea that “America is better than Trump” doesn’t resonate with people for whom America has never been better than unrelenting hatred. The mythology of liberals — especially the wealthy, overwhelmingly white class of liberals who have been dubbed “coastal elites” by the right — suggests that all it takes to be a good person is to believe the right things. But if you aren’t putting those beliefs into practice, it means very little, especially in a society built on the disenfranchisement of others.
It is not meaningful in and of itself to buy a Black Lives Matter bracelet or to adorn yourself in a pink pussy hat. The reason there hasn’t been a broad, political coalition on the left in years is that many of us have forgotten what it feels like to do the work — the difficult, frustrating, sometimes demoralizing work of meeting people where they are, and understanding the unique challenges they face. It’s easy to feel like you’re doing something — buying a t-shirt — when you’re not doing anything at all. And companies will always take advantage of that.
None of this is to say that buying a $65 “fight” t-shirt from Opening Ceremony makes you a bad person. They look cool, and I will probably purchase one. And protests are good! There is seldom not a good reason to disrupt the mechanisms of society, even if for a moment. But there needs to be a follow-through, a discernible message that isn’t sold on a hoodie. Imagine if the millions of people who marched this month galvanized around defunding a portion of the military to fund a basic income, or around a truly single-payer health system. Imagine if the only people with bold ideas in Washington weren’t a bunch of insecure men with wet dreams about the psychopath Ayn Rand. If there’s any major takeaway from the extraordinary crowds that have assembled in recent weeks, it’s that the impossible isn’t always as hard as it seems. To defeat the right-wing ideology infecting the world, that belief has to extend to the ideas we present and not just our reactions to the horrifying ideas of others.