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Disagree with NeverTrumper Pedro Gonzalez, but interesting piece: Two Nations, Talking Past Each Other

Two Nations, Talking Past Each Other

Two irreconcilable visions of America’s future came face-to-face during a November debate hosted by Fox News. In the right corner: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. In the left corner: California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Back in September, Newsom bragged that he “baited” DeSantis into the Nov. 30 event. Many people seemed to think DeSantis would be overmatched. Newsom, after all, is a peerless deceiver. Horror film director John Carpenter in Prince of Darkness conceived the son of Satan as a swirling, sentient green liquid. If that ooze were to coalesce into human form, I imagine it would bear a striking resemblance to California’s governor.

But DeSantis defied expectations, and not only held his own, but landed haymakers. He even brought a map. It showed that San Francisco, where Newsom previously served as mayor, is a minefield of human excrement. DeSantis also noted how the city underwent a remarkable temporary beautification ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, when Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping were coming to town. 

In a snap, homeless encampments vanished. Derelict plazas were resurrected with clean and cozy amenities. Broken sidewalks were made new. Open-air fentanyl markets disappeared. Buildings covered in grime and graffiti were scrubbed. Then the summit ended, and the drug dealers and “unhoused” returned. “They cleared what needed to be cleared and cleared what was going to be seen,” a local man complained to NBC News. “Yeah, they cleaned up the people, they cleaned up the street to make the city look good, and look impressive for the foreigners, for the politicians,” another told CBS.

DeSantis slammed Newsom as his San Francisco clean up lasted only as long as China’s president was in town. And shortly after that, Newsom’s wife intervened to end the debate when the moderator, Sean Hannity, offered to take it into overtime. It seemed she felt her husband had been bloodied enough.

Decline really is a choice, and Newsom is an exemplar of the ruling class that has chosen the downward slide called “progress.” About half the country disagrees, though, and that is one of the key takeaways from the event: there is a widening gulf down the middle of the territory known as the United States, and it is hard to see it being bridged in the near future.

That is why it is almost a moot point to bring up “winners” and “losers” in debates these days. Newsom’s wife throwing in the towel is a pretty good indicator of how she felt, for what that’s worth. More to the point, though, for debate to be truly meaningful, we must have a shared culture—and the fact we all eat at McDonald’s doesn’t count. 

When Ernst Cassirer debated Martin Heidegger at Davos in 1929, the latter was widely perceived to have emerged as the victor of their philosophical disputation. Even Leo Strauss, who received his doctorate under Cassirer’s supervision, said Heidegger walked away the winner. Then, there was still some level of objectivity left, even among partisans for one side or the other. Today, that kind of honest debate is unfathomable because the two sides of American society have so little in common intellectually and culturally. You can hear it in the language we use, as Fox News contributor Ari Fleischer pointed out post-debate.

“I think watching this, you realize Democrats are from Mars, and Republicans are from Venus. They speak totally different languages,” Fleischer said. “Ron DeSantis’ language was one of economics, the lockdowns in California, it was very practical, very focused on people’s daily lives, the rise in cost of living.” Newsom, on the other hand, spoke Martian.

“If you listen to Gavin Newsom, his whole message was identity politics, which is the language of the Democrats,” Fleischer continued. “I don’t like the way you talk about migrants. We have to fight for women. Everything he says is about an ethnic group, a chunk of Americans. It is not about America. And that is the language the Democrats respond to.”

The gulf became even more evident when the two sparred over culture war issues. Newsom falsely accused DeSantis of going on a “book-banning binge.” DeSantis replied by holding up a page from Gender Queer, a graphic novel in some public school libraries that depicts LGBTQ sexual relations between minors. Although a private person can, unfortunately, still purchase it, Florida has yanked it and similar materials from classrooms and campus libraries. But Newsom was unphased by being confronted with the graphic images and unashamed of getting caught in a lie. The same thing happened when transgenderism reared its head. 

Newsom called DeSantis a “bully” for policies like his ban on “gender-affirming care” for minors; DeSantis shot back by arguing that the LGBTQ movement has placed itself in a confrontation with traditional families and parental rights. On abortion, Newsom framed DeSantis as sexist; DeSantis replied by pointing out that Democrats cannot accept any restrictions at any point in a pregnancy. Newsom did not budge—he doubled down.

Americans do not speak the same cultural language anymore because the threads of meaning that bind a people into a coherent whole have dissolved. To make matters even more confusing, the debate also showed how useless “right” and “left” have become as categories, though we are compelled to continue using them. We need words to describe things, of course, but the words increasingly fail to correspond to the things as we have understood them. For example, Newsom was said to have attacked DeSantis from the “left” by citing Donald Trump during their debate. As of this writing, the former president is the Republican primary frontrunner—and the Democratic Party’s Prince of Darkness used him against DeSantis, to the applause of Trump’s most loyal supporters, who, to one degree or another, sided with Newsom simply because he stood opposite of DeSantis, Trump’s main GOP rival. 

Indeed, around the time of the debate, Trump boasted about having received the endorsement of Mark Fisher, who served as director of community outreach at something called Black Lives Matter Militia in Rhode Island. The day before Newsom and DeSantis faced-off on stage, Trump heaped praise on Fisher. “Very honored to have his and BLM’s support,” Trump said in a Truth Social post before claiming to have “done more for Black people than any other President (Lincoln?).”

Trump has forgotten, apparently, the riots of 2020, which cost billions in damage and scores of lives, because one man flattered him. Trump’s spell over his supporters is such that they unflinchingly rationalize and justify his embrace of BLM. Fisher was actually denounced by his fellow activists in the movement after he endorsed Trump, but that did not stop the former president from presenting Fisher’s approval as representative of the movement at large.

The reality of the American political situation is almost too insane to believe: The Republican frontrunner, who is regularly caricatured as a fascist by liberals, is, in reality, doing more than anyone else to move the “right” closer to the “left” in its outlook on key issues.

After the DeSantis-Newsom debate, Michael Podhorzer, a progressive political strategist and a former political director for the AFL-CIO, told The Atlantic that it seemed to him it “was something like watching an argument over whether the liberal government in France or the conservative government in England produces better outcomes for its people.” He said each side represented “fundamentally different nations.” 

I agree. But I think it’s worse than that, given that it is impossible to neatly divide the whole into two clean sections, due to the divisions mentioned above within the GOP. What the night revealed is a crisis of meaning, that the common ground on which we stand has deteriorated—and I do not just mean between “Republicans” and “Democrats.” 

In the search for meaning, we are scrambling in a hundred different directions, ending up on a hundred different islands, each with its own version of reality. On one island, men can be women. On the next, they cannot. And on another still, the answer is whatever the leader says on any given day. The only thing that is certain is that these islands of meaning will continue to coalesce and clash in the struggle for dominance. The lingua franca now is power, and meaning will be determined by the side that uses it most effectively. ◆

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