The return of honor politics

When we look out on the political landscape in the Trump era with these concepts in mind, we begin to see that we’re living through the revival of honor politics after more than a century of its eclipse. That should trouble liberals and conservatives alike, because honor politics can be risky, dangerous, volatile, violent. A world in which honor politics returns to the center of our public life will be a world of much greater instability and unpredictability than we’ve grown used to over much of the past century in the United States. It will be a world in which clashing factions compete for more than the right to pursue clashing policy agendas. They will also, and perhaps primarily, compete for the sheer glory of winning and the unrivaled joy of humiliating their opponents…

Various technologies are reawakening the taste for glory, giving everyone — from the already rich and famous reality TV star inhabiting the White House on down to run-of-the-mill activists and ordinary citizens — enormous public platforms on which to seek honor and recognition, in part by lashing out at rivals and opponents, seeking to humiliate them, multiple times a day. It can be intoxicating to fling insults at rivals and opponents on Twitter, winning the adulation of thousands in the process. Media outfits, breaking from the high-minded, dispassionate liberalism that dominated journalism in the middle decades of the 20th century, earn enormous profits by whipping millions of viewers into a frenzy of furious anger at perceived slights and condescension. Political campaigns and even whole social movements are motivated by the perception of disrespect.

When people liken politics in the Trump era to pro-wrestling or gladiatorial contests, this is really what they mean: People are both spectators of and participants in competitions over honor — with wounded pride and the search to avenge it motivating each successive round of conflict. What I described as “gonzo politics” in a recent column, with Republican politicians play-acting indignation before television cameras in the defense of President Trump’s damaged reputation, is honor politics all the way down — or at least a mass-media simulacrum of it.