Easy Chair — From the August 2018 issue

Illiberal Values

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Coming of age in the Seventies as a Midwesterner, a Mormon, and a resident of a town of about five hundred people, I didn’t get to meet a lot of outspoken liberals, but those I did meet made strong impressions on me. I was too young to understand the intricacies of their politics, but I liked how they approached the world. Compared with the dry, judgmental people at church who feared a communist plot against America, worshipped the military and law enforcement, and seemed obsessed with hygiene, health, and thrift, the liberals I knew were a refreshing change of pace: open, adventurous, questioning, and fun.

Take my family’s dentist, a gentle, curly-haired outdoorsman I’ll call Carey, who lived on a little farm at the edge of town. It wasn’t anything I heard him say that convinced me he was a liberal; it was his furniture. In his living room was an egg-shaped chair of white plastic, lined with black cushions and equipped with a radio and built-in speakers. I sat in it once with one of Carey’s daughters, my sixth-grade crush. When she turned on the FM station from Minneapolis, I shut my eyes, breathed in, and imagined I was floating through the cosmos in a bubble of pure consciousness. The sensation was almost too heady to endure, but for Carey it was old hat, apparently, since he sat in the chair all the time, his daughter told me. I couldn’t have admired him more. In the very center of his home, where most adult men I knew sat and watched TV, he had installed a portal to the far reaches of the universe.

Paula was our town librarian. She used Ms. in front of her name and held opinions—on Nixon, the Vietnam War, and civil rights—that I’d heard on the news, from protest leaders and such, but hadn’t experienced up close. Since the library was on the first floor of the town hall, an old wooden building with a bell on top and an air of venerable officialdom, I wondered whether she was endangering herself by sharing her views while on the job. To demonstrate my own courageous spirit and win her respect, I picked out books that struck me as controversial or sophisticated from the adult shelves, then plunked myself down to read them in an armchair that was visible from her desk. Though I was just eleven, I read Slaughterhouse-Five and Future Shock this way. Sometimes we ended up talking about the books. Through gentle questioning, she would elicit from me opinions I wouldn’t have dared to share with others, such as my hope that humans would die out as punishment for harming whales and dolphins.

The most influential of these nonconformists was my high school En­glish teacher, whom I’ll call Mr. Ferry. He looked like Mick Jagger, skinny, with a big Adam’s apple, and he lived in a shacklike house out in the country, where he smoked dope and played records and read novels. I also liked Mr. Ferry’s irreverent positions on current events, especially when they involved government and big business. The world, he taught me, was full of tricks and tricksters, and even the news could not fully be relied on, since it was funded by advertisers. Could anything be trusted? Art and literature. The poems of Robert Bly would never lie to you, nor would the comic novels of Richard Brautigan, which Mr. Ferry insisted I try to read. I couldn’t make sense of them, and I told him so, but he said that it was less important to understand them than to let their sentences wash over my brain. Only liberals ever said such things, and it made me want to be one when I grew up: kind, encouraging, and a little weird.

That was the best thing about them, I decided. Liberals were a little weird.

I  recently took a road trip across the Western and Southern states in order to reconnect with the real world and break an emerging internet addiction that was numbing my wrists and fingers. In Surf City, North Carolina, I had dinner with a woman who’d read on Twitter that I was in the area and asked whether I might want to meet her and hear her story. I did a little research on her first, and my interest was piqued. I learned that she wrote a blog on relationships and sex, and that she was a single mother in her forties. I learned that she was a Christian, a Free Will Baptist who went by the pen name Kitten Holiday. And I learned that she was a fan of Donald Trump.

This last detail intrigued but didn’t surprise me. A lot of the “freethinkers” I know—people who either voted for the president or don’t mind hanging out with people who did—are remarkably lively, far-out folks. They resemble, in some ways, the liberals of my youth. Take my friend Curtis, a specialist in the futuristic field of predictive policing. When he wasn’t running software programs, he played fuzz rock on his guitar or fraternized at his local Masonic lodge, and he once wrote, directed, and edited a short film about a shoot-out in a dive bar. He liked to hike and take psychedelic drugs, including the resurgent ayahuasca. A couple of years ago, having grown dubious of America’s high-tech utopianism, Curtis left Los Angeles and bought a small house in the Arizona desert, where he felt he could be self-sufficient. Inspired by Trump’s postmodern populism, he now spends a lot of time in Kekistan, the joking-not-joking, anarchic web-world symbolically governed by Pepe the Frog. Is Curtis perhaps a member of the “alt-right”? Maybe. I’m still not sure what the term means. What’s certain, however, is that he enjoys himself in ways the old right never did.

I accepted Kitten Holiday’s invitation and met her for dinner at a fish shack with high wooden tables and an air of beachy minimalism. As she cracked crab legs, Holiday told me her story, which, like the best American stories, obeyed its own logic and fit no mold. “I used to be a real lefty,” she began. She grew up in a large Northeastern city, a child of the upper middle class who often found herself clashing with the authorities at her stuffy private school. She reveled in Dada art, beat poetry, and absurdist theater, writing plays in the manner of Pinter and Beckett. She continued her education in Portland, Oregon, at the famously liberal Reed College. When she married, she chose a suitable young fellow with whom she soon discovered she was incompatible, temperamentally and sexually. She couldn’t talk to him, and began to worry that her soul was dying. She finally sought help from a man named David Shade, the author of a news­letter on sex, who assured her that her experience was common. She started writing short pieces on female sexuality for his newsletter while attempting to rewire her sensual self through experimentation, even undergoing hypnosis to widen her orgasmic range. A couple of years later, in 2014, she launched her own blog, kittenholiday.com. She filled it with short erotic fiction that she hoped would enlighten and entertain.

Holiday works in accounting, not a colorful field, which is why she originally assumed her pen name. Soon she had another reason: politics. Though Holiday considered herself a liberal (“I was on the ‘coexist’ team”) and held impassioned environmental views that she’d promoted on an earlier blog (“I crusaded against plastic bags and all things plastic and taught how to pack a perfect lunch for kids that wouldn’t cause any waste”), certain readers began to attack her as a reactionary. She hadn’t expected this treatment.

“I started getting trolled from the left. They didn’t like that my stories only had one female and one male. But the even bigger objection was that I didn’t write about ­BDSM and kink. They were accusing me of not representing diverse relationships, but my thought was that I’m not the person to represent those things, since I don’t know anything about them. They also were treating me like I was betraying women because I had female characters respecting and appreciating strong men.”

Holiday was shocked. “I’d thought that I was protected as a feminist, but then I started to realize feminism wasn’t what I’d always thought. It wasn’t about lifting women. It was about lifting certain women.”

When Trump appeared on the political scene, Holiday was immediately drawn to him. She liked his defiant, outsized individuality, his bluntness, his sarcasm, and his preposterous hair. Though a Democrat, she saw in Trump the unconventionality that she’d cherished in her young self but now felt she was paying a price for, thanks to scolding liberals whom she’d once assumed were her natural allies. When she socialized with Trump folks, though, she felt accepted and welcomed unconditionally. Her ideas about starchy, stiff Republicans quickly disappeared. She loved this movement. She loved its energy, its raucousness, and what she saw as its optimistic message of self-improvement and opportunity. Just before the election, following a rally where everyone felt like a new best friend, she outed herself on Facebook as a Trump fan. Old pals and acquaintances promptly went berserk. They called Holiday a fascist and a racist and told her to fuck off. One commenter wrote that she was a “NAZI.” Holiday realized that the situation was serious. She might be assaulted for wearing Trump gear. Her minivan with its campaign bumper sticker might be vandalized. She might lose her job.

These days, Holiday has all new friends, she told me; the old ones wanted nothing more to do with her. She tried to sound chipper about it, but I could tell she was still hurt. “Everything my liberal friends used to claim to love about me—my curiosity, my openness, my willingness to associate with all kinds of people, they started shaming me for. One lady came to me accusingly and said that I was so closed-minded and if I’d only talk to other kinds of people, I’d see how wrong I was. But I said, I already did that—that’s why I switched.”

Holiday has no regrets. She finds the new company she keeps surprisingly good-humored and relaxed, since Trump supporters needn’t keep up appearances; they’re seen as ridiculous even by themselves, she said. At the rallies and gatherings she attends, she’s always impressed by the movement’s diversity, contrary to what the media reports, and by the different paths and motives that bring people to Trump. For her, however, the best part is the laughter. It releases the stress caused by others’ condemnation. It reminds her that she’s an outsider among outsiders. It brings relief and strengthens bonds. She points to a recent exchange on Twitter with the cartoonist Scott Adams, who views the president as a master practitioner of sophisticated sales techniques, underestimated by his opponents. Adams hosts a popular daily video cast, which always begins with him leading his audience in a simultaneous sip of coffee, but one morning he teased them by raising his cup slowly, in tiny increments. Holiday tweeted that he was “edging” his viewers, a term that means to delay orgasm. Risqué banter ensued—evidence, Holiday felt, that this is not your father’s uptight right.

We finished our crab legs and Holiday proposed a drink. She seemed jazzed, effervescent, ready for more laughs. She told me of an astounding sex trick taught by an online hypnosis course: the achievement of a hands-free orgasm while giving oral sex. I didn’t press for details, though I did go with her to the bar. It was hard not to feel that the liberals who had denounced her—for her insufficiently progressive sex advice and then for her support of Trump—shared traits with the scolds and dullards of my youth. Puritanism, Mencken said, is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” But liberal puritanism is slightly different. It fears that the wrong sort of people might be happy, or that their happiness might be of the wrong kind. I’d seen examples of it on Twitter, in snarling remarks about Trump’s porn-star mistress, his age difference with his wife, his multiple marriages, his rumored romps with Russian prostitutes. The ostensible charge was Trump’s hypocrisy and that of his evangelical supporters for pardoning such lewdness in their leader, but sometimes I sensed disgust in the attacks not only with Trump, but also with sex, in all its messiness. When Jimmy Kimmel recently referred to Trump as Pumpkin ­McPornHumper, the hint of sniffy distaste was unmistakable.

If Trump’s presidency is a national emergency and opposing it the equivalent of war—though I prefer sticking with the political process—then there isn’t much room for liberals to be liberal in the ways I found so attractive as a boy. Indeed, I see evidence that certain liberal principles, the ones that impressed me in the Seventies, have eroded. Back then, for example, the CIA was understood to be a nest of liars and psychopaths who toppled democratically chosen leaders, lied to the public to start wars, and ran sick experiments on innocents using drugs and mind-control techniques. In Three Days of the Condor, a thriller from the period, Robert Redford plays a lowly CIA officer who discovers that the agency is nothing more than a crime ring. These days, however, with Trump playing the heavy, the CIA is revered by many liberals as a bulwark of integrity, its missions sacred, its conclusions unimpeachable, and its former director, John Brennan, worthy of a high-profile cable news job. The FBI draws similar adulation, never mind its history of spying on the likes of Ernest Hemingway, John Lennon, and Martin Luther King Jr.

This great liberal switch from skepticism to sanctimony about the most powerful arms of the Establishment is matched by a viral fear of Russia that reminds me of the John Birch Society pamphlets I’d come across now and then when I was young. Somehow, instinct told me then that they were crazy, exaggerating the cunning of the enemy, the depravity of the collaborators, and the vulnerability of America. The liberal comedians who lampooned such claims on shows such as Laugh-In were my idols. They dared to speak the most radical truth of all in a time of panic and paranoia: the sneakiest adversary is the mind. The Cold War was real, of course, and deadly serious, as are the tensions with Putin’s Russia, but my liberal heroes of the Seventies discerned other dangers that were closer to home. Rigidity. Stridency. Shrillness. Self-righteousness. One way they answered the period’s harsh conservatism was to hang loose, not get uptight. Love, not war. Remember?

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