Alt-america and the epistemic confusion of liberalism

In the conclusion to Alt-America, David Neiwert indites liberalism for its contribution to the circumstances within which Trumpism has emerged. These are circumstances within which, as he puts it on loc 5859, Trump “is simultaneously responding to and creating the conditions that could easily lead to the genuine growth of fascism”. From loc 5981-6001, he takes aim at the smugness of contemporary liberalism:

modern liberalism as a social force is weighed down by its most consistent flaw: an overweening belief in its own moral superiority, its heroism, as it were. (Not, of course, that conservatives are any better in this regard; if one factors in the religious right and the “moral values” vote, they are objectively worse.) This tendency becomes especially noticeable in urban liberal societies, which for all their enlightenment and love of tolerance are maddeningly smug, intolerant of the “ignorance” of their rural and “fly-over country” counterparts. It’s not an omnipresent attitude, but it is pervasive enough that others’ perceptions of it are certainly not without basis. There’s a similar stigma attached to religious beliefs as well, especially among more secular liberals, and that in turn has given birth to a predictable counterreaction that is only partially a result of misunderstanding.

We might add that this sense of superiority is entrenched by an epistemic confusion. Liberalism understands itself as uniquely tolerant because it offers equal freedom for the pursuit of different conceptions of the good. But it does so on the assumption these are mere conceptions, unlike liberal principles themselves which deserve to be treated as unquestioned rules of the game. The ‘right’ may indeed be prior to the ‘good’ but this is something argued for by liberals committed to a conception of the good. When they deny their own role within the political, it negates antagonism at a symbolic level while inscribing their own principles as hegemonic. This is the context within which the break-through of ‘alt-america’ can come to acquire such force.

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