Trumpism, Identity, and The Death of Debate: Making Sense of Things with Natalie Wynn

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            Our collective experience of 2020 feels akin to being swept up in a hurricane of chaos, with ceaseless torrents of anxiety and a generally unshakable sense of impending doom. Luckily, for nail-biting leftists and folks of all political stripes, YouTube user ContraPoints has cemented her place as a trusted voice of reason in these turbulent times. ContraPoints (also known as Natalie Wynn) first rose to prominence through her thoughtful examinations of the far right, though the rapid cultural evolution of the far left has captured her imagination in recent months. Her video essays, each a self-contained cinematic experience in their own right, are gleeful and irreverent displays of decadence, playfully blending elements of drag and camp to cultivate a visual that is as bold and unapologetic as their content itself, as Natalie gamely tackles complex sociological issues with gusto. And with over 1.1 million subscribers, it’s clear that folks are listening.
            Like many of us, Natalie has been observing the election fallout with clenched teeth. “The first two weeks after the election, I was definitely spiraling into the gospel panic about June apocalypse. I mean, that week after the election was brutal to me. I don’t think I slept more than hour or two on election day itself,” she admits. “I was imagining all kinds of scenarios where he’d find a way not to leave. It looks like it’s not going to work, so I’m calming down a little bit.” Still, the President’s continued reluctance to endorse or participate in a peaceful transfer of power – irrefutably the marrow of any healthy democratic society – has done little to calm frayed nerves. “I definitely will not exhale until January 20th. I think that I will believe he’s gone when he’s gone and until then, I still feel like it’s President Trump in charge. Well, it is. But yeah, I just hope that we can all agree to unfollow him on Twitter and I hope the media decides to just not pay any attention to him now, if he’s no longer president.”  But the media’s self-engorging fetish for Trump is a definite cause for concern, making vigilance and self-reflection from outlets more imperative than ever, as Natalie points out. “I really hope that the press has learned in the last four years that they’re helping him. And the best thing to do when he is out of office is… because he’s going to continue tweeting his same thing. It’s just to see if we can, as a society, find a way to ignore this because if not, I worry. It’s like he’s going to be still president. You know what I mean? With people paying more attention to him than they are to Biden.”
            Trump leaves in his wake the bleeding shards of an intensely fractured body politic. “A lot of the problems don’t all go away when he leaves. It’s a great relief, I think, to have him leave, but it’s true that there’s 60, 70 who knows. I don’t know, a million people who believe that… They will believe anything this man says, and it’s a huge amount of power that he still wields, and I think the underlying problems, right? That sort of lead people to support Trump in the first place, these are problems that… A lot of them go back to the founding of this country. I mean back to civil war. This is a kind of deep dug division in this country that I feel like it seems to only be getting worse lately,” Natalie laments. Of course, the broad overarching question remains: how do we move forward in a country where people are not only fed separate realities, but where one side conceives of the other as cartoonish super villains satiated only by baby blood? Natalie is at a loss: “Rational argument assumes that there’s some kind of shared presuppositions between the two sides. And if one side thinks that the world is run by Kabbalist satanist pedophile pizza enthusiasts or whatever, it’s just… I don’t know how to argue with someone who thinks those things. I don’t share enough in common with them in terms of beliefs for me to build any kind of argument or to have… There’s no place to go to dialogue from when you live in such totally walled off realities.” She can’t shake the worry that Trump’s destabilizing effect could have reverberations in future elections. “It is frightening to think, absolutely, the way that… The kind of rationality that Trump has employed to justify ignoring an election, basically, you could probably deploy to not have an election at all. And I think that there’s probably a significant portion of this country that would be happy to go along with that.”
            So how did we get here? White anxiety, and more specifically white people’s ambition to cling to authority in the face of an inexorably changing demographic tide, appears to be the central catalyst. “I think that part of the reason why this is happening now in the first place is that white people are losing our grip on the majority. When people can no longer win just by appealing to the power of whiteness then politics will have to change, and I’m hoping that what we’re watching is a last dying gasp rather than the new dawn of some awful authoritarian future.” Natalie has observed that a sense of mainstream alienation can create a sort of pride in angering liberals in particular, compelling them to flock to a bully like Trump. “There’s a lot of white people who just kind of feel like the mainstream of politicians and media just… It does not represent them. And instead of finding an alternative that does represent them, they’ve coalesced around this figure who they like simply because he irritates the people they don’t like, right? There’s this kind of troll tendency that I’ve noticed in some Trump supporters. Not even just necessarily on the internet, but even Trump supporters of an older generation… What do they like about Trump? They like that he makes the people on CNN angry. And it’s like it’s hard for me to understand voting for that reason. But I think that to some people, there’s this pretty nihilistic streak to it.” As a nation, we continue to grapple with America’s formational identity conflicts that have endured for centuries. “These issues are rooted in some very old debates in this country. Is this a country for property owning white men or is this a country for everyone? Is this a country? Is this a one nation or is this a loose union, a confederacy of States that each are their own ruler? I mean, it’s like these debates go back to the 18th century and I feel like both of them are kind of present in the current moment and they’re both sort of… One side is, I think, represented by Trumpism.”
            Without a doubt, one of the most consequential byproducts of Trumpism is the fundamental distortion of truth, a concept that endlessly bewilders Natalie as she witnesses society become increasingly unmoored in real time. “True is not just some kind of a glossy philosophical goal. The truth is a pragmatic thing a lot of the time. Right? And if you are truly not in touch with it, there’s going to be a point where that keeps you from being able to accomplish basic things, right? And I think that that’s something that this is going to run up against at some point, right? When at some point, I don’t know, are people going to demand accountability from their Congresspeople like, ‘Well, why are you getting rid of the deep state? When are you getting rid of the deep state reptilians?’ Or whatever, and it’s like, oh, there aren’t any. What do you do about this?” Tragically, the corruption of truth has impacted how many perceive the threat of the pandemic, in that they refuse to acknowledge the virus is real, even as they teeter on the brink of succumbing to COVID. “There was a viral tweet going around a couple of weeks ago of a nurse. It was a nurse talking about patients in, I think, South Dakota who were basically dying of COVID and on, essentially, their deathbeds, filled with spite and anger, and in denial. Basically, ‘This can’t be happening. This disease… No, this is a media hoax.’ And it’s like they should be calling their families, instead. They’re literally sitting here dying, in anger and denial. And that is really an extreme. I mean, you would think that once you get this disease… It reminded me of the HBO Chernobyl series, where it’s so inconvenient that the nuclear reactor core has exploded that no one involved can accept it until it’s been dumping radiation in the air for 24 hours straight. And the top people are literally… their hands are burning off from radiation poisoning. It’s frightening to think that humans are capable of this level of self-delusion. Because usually people… the survival instinct kicks in at some point, and people drop their fealty to the party line when it concerns their own survival. To watch people not even do that is something I didn’t ever think I’d see,”  she  marvels. And the pandemic has seemingly only further entrenched this commitment to callous individualism. “There’s almost a sense of pride in refusing to get to the empathy, as if empathy itself is some kind of politically correct bullshit. Empathy being… I understand. Being asked to empathize, they feel that they’re being… condescended to or lectured at, but to truly have so little curiosity about other people’s existence? It’s a failure of the human soul. God, it’s sad to watch.”

            As the relative relief of the Biden administration hovers on the horizon, it remains apparent that we must demand more than a passive return to the Obama-era status quo. “The problems that we have seen in this country since 2008 are going to be very much present. And Ferguson happened under Obama. Black Lives Matter started under Obama. And it’s continued under Trump, and it’s going to continue under Biden. And I’m hoping, I’m really hoping, that a Biden administration takes it seriously and listens to the demands that are being made and listens to the problems that are being highlighted and doesn’t just kind of retreat into, ‘Well, we’ll add a second body camera,’  or whatever.” Biden and Harris will be walking a political tightrope with respect to policing, exacerbated by each of their respective complicated histories with (or, some would assert, their naked fealty to) mass incarceration. Still, it’s a contradiction mirrored by society at large. “I saw a recent study showing that… I think it was a majority of people said that they supported reducing funding for the police and redirecting it towards other community-building things. But a vast majority of people are against ‘defunding the police.’  That’s just a linguistic difference,” Natalie says. “So I guess people have mixed sentiments about this, and it’s hard because you’re trying to balance all these things at once [along with] the justified rage of the people who have seen their families murdered by the cops in this country, essentially. And then, on the other hand, you have a populace that’s very terrified of riots and very terrified of crime and wants to be secure and wants to be protected. And it’s not easy to kind of politically navigate these conflicting demands. And I think, in fact, they are not conflicting. So that’s kind of what needs to be shown, is that there’s alternative ways of dealing with the problems of crime than more brutal policing.” While the full picture of potential (much less attainable) policy won’t come into focus until the critical Georgia runoff elections of January 5th, the path to demanding concrete change will depend, as it always has, on the dedication of the people to hold those in power accountable.
            Beyond politics, Natalie is a celebrated anthropologist of online spaces, devoting untold hours to delving into the bowels of Reddit or sussing out subcultures on twitter. The significance of this vantage point in history is not lost on her. “It’s probably something that the implications will not be understood… There’ll be historians talking about this in 500 years, still. We are in those first couple of decades of it. And there’s not a person alive who really understands what’s going on. I think, on some level, we don’t know. There’s no theory here. There’s no plan. There’s no blueprint for the way that knowledge and community functions in this completely different world that we’ve created over the last two decades.” And she warns that the ramifications of a perpetually accelerating social media galaxy could be far more lasting than we realize: “This is definitely a big influence on the sort of disintegration of the sense of stability, right, is that information is not anchored in the way that it was. When you had three big news stations or whatever, and you always have racism. You always have the crackpot cults in this country. Some of it is just the American spirit. There’s a strong train of prophetic, mad mania in this country, that leads people into these weird, little, cultish kind of movements. But I think that, online, it’s kind of everyone, now. Everyone is in a sect. And a lot of the sects are incredibly destructive, not just to other people, but also to the people who are within them.” Such an ideological mitosis has been most prominent in the communities where Natalie originally solidified her identity just a few short years ago. “Watching the way things have changed with trans people is the most shocking to me as I’ve seen these communities go from basically total lack of trans acceptance to this sudden wave of awareness and debate about it. Over the last five years, basically a drastic change of what it even is to be trans. The terminology has proliferated beyond where anyone could imagine 10 years ago. I feel exhausted in the middle of this as I’m finding myself this outdated creature among this community that’s kind of conceptually moved past me at a rate that I cannot keep up with. I’m trying to get a grip on it… I’ve not been here for more than a few years and already it’s like I’ve lost sense of where here is. I’m burdened with this sense of shame that originates in a stigma that’s no longer even intelligible under the present ideological framework. It’s a weird situation to be in.” Despite feeling admittedly fossilized at times, she has a growing sense of respect and awe for the rising LGBTQIA+ generation. “The queer identity discourse of 19 year olds today, it really is medieval to me in terms of the level… when I say medieval, I mean scholastic. The amount of categories that they have created is… the philosophical sophistication that it is hard to conceive of generating from the minds of 19 year olds, but there it is. You have to admire it, right? It’s this incredible creativity that has led to this drastic shift in the way that young people are thinking about something that so recently seemed this fixed, eternal structure as gender. Now the amount of imagination [behind] transforming that structure. It is cultural.”
            In February 2020, Natalie uploaded a deeply personal video in which she came out as a lesbian, having struggled to reconcile her gender identity with her sexuality. Performing heterosexuality and heteronormative desire, she thought, would be the linchpin to at last securing total legitimacy as a trans woman and enjoying assimilation into broader (cis) society. But ultimately she could no longer deny that her assumed attraction to men was just that – an elaborate performance. What followed was nothing short of an existential crisis that prompted her to examine why she was so loath to acknowledge her attraction to women, specifically her initial revulsion at the mere concept of identifying as a trans lesbian. “Now there’s, I feel like sort of double revelation,” she explains. “Okay, it’s not so bad being a trans woman. I don’t know if it’s that, but when I then also start to explain that I’m attracted to women, it’s like that’s admitting to being a crazy monster. It’s just a multiplying stigma. It’s hard to articulate exactly because it’s a situation that there’s not really… no one really has any awareness of this as a thing, so no one really has any awareness of the stigma. I feel like I have to invent the language to describe my own situation. Not that I invented trans lesbianism… it’s just not something that’s on most people’s radar. That’s another difficulty to explain.  At least I’m done having to explain it to myself. That part is over.” It’s a heavy internalized bias that unfortunately has strong historical roots, through multiple marginalized lenses. “There’s a notion that trans women are predators, trans women are going to prey on women. There’s also an older notion that lesbians are those who prey on women. When you combine the two of them with the idea… the femaleness even of lesbians is historically often questioned, not to mention the femaleness of trans women is rarely granted. The combination of these things, I think that the average person just simply would laugh in your face if you said you’re a trans lesbian, right? It’s something that I feel can never really have a public existence for me, apart from me and my YouTube channel explaining it…I guess what I’m saying is that it’s just hard for me to imagine a time in my life when I’m not always on some level feeling like hiding who I am or allowing it to implicitly go unnoticed is the only reason that I’m not a joke to people, or a danger.” And while Natalie continues to strive to accept herself, self-criticism and self-policing still invade her thoughts on occasion, spurred on by the specter of social ridicule. At the end of the day, she recognizes that queerness has to go hand-in-hand with a certain degree of indifference to judgment if you’re going to live a happy, productive life. “If I was someone who said, ‘I don’t care what other people think about me,’ well, I do care that other people think about me and that’s not… If you’re going to be a queer person, you should learn to care less, very fast, or things are going to be hard. But at the same time, I find that in reality, that’s not an easy thing to shake. I think it’s pretty natural to care what other people think and it seems to me, almost inauthentic to suggest that you don’t care.”
            In that same vein of authenticity, Natalie has discovered ways to exist with flaws and forgiveness both as an artist and a person. Despite upwards of a million people scrutinizing her every move, she remains a pragmatic realist conscious of her own boundaries: “I cannot be a perfect human. I think that finding a private part of my life where I’m allowed to find a version of myself that’s real and flawed is definitely part of maintaining sanity, or doing what I do, I think that that’s a sort of personal problem, which I think that is something that I can eventually work out. Then there’s also the more professional problem, which is how do you make art when people expect moral perfection? I don’t know, maybe what I’m doing is not art, but I guess I want it to be. I guess I’m having this entertainer’s impulse, that I feel like I if I try to do more, if I try to be perfect, that precludes a whole lot of risk-taking, which I see as essential to being interesting. If you can’t be interesting, then why are you bothering?” Most content creators live in fear of cancel culture, but she stays even-keeled in the face of vitriol. “It’s necessary to take risks that will lead to you sometimes messing up and sometimes being flawed, and I guess I just need to find a way that I can find this balance between taking those risks and sometimes messing up, but also not letting myself get destroyed by, or not destroyed, but psychologically torn apart by these kind of backlashes… It’s a tension. I want to be successful, but I also want to be me.” Contemplating the endless philosophical badminton of social media discourse, she yearns for us to apply a more three-dimensional humanity to those we see online. “Sometimes there needs to be room for a more literary understanding of a human being. I mean literary as opposed to just the moral systems theory. We need to understand the human behavior, not just as problematic or permissible, but as passionate and filled with the same flaws and weaknesses that have filled human lives for thousands of years.” Until that moment arrives, Natalie will be here, making sense of the intricate social Jenga that comprises our world – and looking fabulous while doing it.

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Trumpism, Identity, and The Death of Debate: Making Sense of Things with Natalie Wynn. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Natalie Wynn.