If you're into European art history, you know that Realism was one of the earlier 'isms' (on the heels of Romanticism) and that it was displaced by Symbolism. Well, before Realism there was also Neoclassicism, and afterwards there were also Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism, and so on. Afterwards, some of the 'ism's' reek of marketing hype, but undeniably the time line, the waves of ism's, gets a bit confused. Candidly, I'm not sure how useful the groupings are, particularly when you have artists who over themselves won't stay put--this guy goes from his Blue Period to Cubism, that one from Dada to Neue Sachlichkeit. All that said, and keeping in mind that even the most realistic of realists worked to convey a message or a meaning, and that even the most symbolic of symbolist paintings had some moorings in a shared language of reality, it's meaningful to say that realism gave way to symbolism. Enough about art.
I'll cheerfully confess that I did not anticipate Donald Trump. A year before the 2016 presidential election, when Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush were the respective Democratic and Republican frontrunners for their respective party's presidential nominations, I told someone that the party that did not nominate the legacy would win the presidency. The public's accumulating bile and desire to reject the political status quo was pretty easy to sense. But I never dreamed that observation would hold with a candidate like Trump as the nominee of one of the major parties. The fact that he is now the American president says more (bad) about the United States than I would ever have been willing to concede before it happened. And now that it has happened, there is no going back, no putting the pieces back together, no do over. The way forward may be salvageable, but, make no mistake, there is no turning the clock back, no Making America Great Again as in some past period, for the Trumpistas, and no return to the status quo ante Trump, for the rest of the country. Whatever comes will be new.
So, I've got this little problem. Even with the daily unraveling of the federal government for diversion, I feel a need to figure out why I was wrong about how we got here. No matter how right I may be about where we are and no matter how good my premonitions about where this is heading.
I think the key to the answer may lie in the transition from realism to symbolism. After the end of the Second World War the survivors (winners and losers) were, by and large, realistic, cautious and pragmatic. Sure, the Americans might fear the global spread of communism and the Soviets might dream 'we will bury you,' but at the end of the day, everyone is a position of power or authority or even influence had lived through one, or possibly two world wars. The Americans might have Joe McCarthy, the French might have their Algerian (and Indochina) problem, the Soviets might fabricate a Doctor's Plot, the British were standing down from Empire, and the entire world was stunned to find itself in a world order underpinned by mutually assured destruction. But nobody was prattling on about a global war on terrorism, or Islamo-fascism, or terrorist attacks that killed by the dozens or hundreds. The stakes were a bit more serious. The casualties were more terrible. And the potential casualties were unimaginable.
Well, the guys who were present at the creation (to use Dean Acheson's phrase) are long gone. The following generation, modestly calling itself the Greatest Generation, are checking out. Even the boomers are giving way to nextgen. I guess it's time for a new ism. Caution, Realism and Pragmatism are a bit shopworn. So what do we morph to? Symbolism, of course.
In the United States, the Culture Wars have been a training ground for a transition in politics from realism to symbolism. What kind of limp dick idiot gets excited about Gun Rights, for God's sake? Funerals for aborted foetuses, anyone? Let's deal with the problem of where effeminate teenage boys can go pee without getting beat up in the john by invoking the spectre of a rapist in every women's restroom in the country. And that's just in the last twelve month (well, the Second Amendment hot button has been around for longer, but foetus funerals and transgender bathroom policies were among the 2016 issues de jour).
You cannot pander to creationists, for instance, without descending in a symbolic quagmire and spitting on science, basically. You cannot propose to build a wall between your country and a neighbor without triggering an equal and opposite reaction from the neighbor you are insulting. And once you commence trafficking in symbolism instead of policy, the step to alternative facts is pretty easy. And once you start creating alternative facts, to the extent your propaganda operation gains traction, you are in some pretty bad 20th century company. Not to mention becoming unmoored yourself.
The symbolism assumes a life of its own, and the sloganeering (which tends to be extreme and divisive) displaces the policy making (which tends to require compromise and coming together). And the dialectic of politics tends to become self-fulfilling. Who in their right mind would attempt to negotiate with the Freedom Caucus? It's their way or the highway. They are locked into a mindset that means you can't 'do business' with them.
Not to be too even-handed here, but it's worth remembering that the granddaddy of all the post WW2 American single issue movements was the civil rights movements. And that environmentalists, advocates of gay rights, feminists, etc., can be just as focused on a single issue as the gun nuts and right-to-lifers. The issues of Culture Liberalism for the last two generations have lent themselves to slogans and symbolism just as much as any right wing crusade for national redemption and Christian purity. What I'm talking about in the tenor of the times, generally.
That said, there is a huge difference. Feminists haven't burned any synagogues, that I'm aware of (or fraternity houses, for that matter). Environmentalists don't run around killing people to limit population growth. Global warming activists are generally accepting of the science of the issue (though they can get prissy about 'climate change deniers'--viz. abusing Freeman Dyson a decade ago). In a nutshell, symbolic tendency can be expressed within and coexist with, an overall realistic world view. The issue is what happens when the slogans and symbolism themselves displace policies and realism.
Even beyond the domestic consequences of the move into the politics of symbolism, a huge problem with such a transition is that, in something like the global order, the sovereign state players tend to share a common set of physical facts. Not so much ideology and culture. But the oil is there. The manufacturing muscle is there. The demographics of the population are such and such. The Armed Forces of Nation X have the following known capacities. And so on. This is not, of course, entirely the case, and all the different players have different pressure points, priorities, ideologies, and so on but if there is a common focus on what might be called objective reality, there is an opportunity for give and take, communication, compromise, trading (the art of the deal? Ugh.).
But when the symbolism of the situation becomes paramount, when matters are distilled to their essence, become absolutes, and assume a symbolic importance far beyond any rational weight that can be assigned to them, well, you are setting yourself up for a clash of civilizations.